Saturday, December 22, 2012

Hume and Feagin on the tragic response

To: Sean K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Feagin on the tragic response
Date: 20th January 2009 12:47

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 6 January, with your essay entitled 'The Tragic Response' for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, on Ch 3 of 'Reading Philosophy' looking at David Hume 'Of Tragedy' and Susan Feagin 'The Pleasures of Tragedy'.

You have stirred a lot of things up here, without reaching any definite conclusion. Both Hume's and Feagin's arguments seem to fall short of an adequate explanation. You don't offer any alternative theory, but rather suggest not implausibly that both authors have failed to grapple with the complexity of the human response.

If you answered a question on this in the exam, I doubt whether there would be time for an excursion into Hume's theory of ideas and impressions, although it was worth making the attempt. The idea of 'conversion' fits some of the things that Hume says about the process of the association of ideas -- although one suspects that just about any theory could be made to fit.

I have received quite a number of essays on this subject and one thing that strikes me is that no-one has seriously raised the question -- which I think is at the heart of the paradox of tragedy -- concerning why human beings are moved at all by works of fiction.

Feagin, in her contribution tries to blur this point by considering the pleasure which we allegedly derive from news stories of disasters, atrocities etc. which also confirm the humanity of our responses. I think that this is just false. There is nothing to enjoy about bad news, if you care at all about those who are suffering. If, like the enthusiastic audience at an execution, you get a thrill out of seeing people suffer and die, that is of course different.

Then we have to consider the additional pleasure derived from 'seeing justice done'; it is at least arguable whether we ought to feel guilty about the latter. In the US where families and friends of a murder victim are invited to witness the execution, the assumption is that they have not come merely to 'enjoy' the spectacle, even though they are glad to see the murderer get his or her just deserts.

In the case of watching the news, it could also be argued that a sense of satisfaction can be derived from the fact that one 'knows the news'. It is painful to be ignorant, and even bad news eases this pain. If things are bad, one ought to know just how bad they are.

You spend much time on Hume's claims about the art of the tragic writer, and the general question of the relevance of the artist's or writer's intentions. In the case of Pasolini's 'Salo' (which I haven't seen) there is room for arguing over exactly what the artist was trying to achieve. But why can't the intention just be to thrill? Why does a work have to be 'Art' with a capital 'A'? The storytelling, characterization etc. has to be 'well done' otherwise we are not gripped. But a cheap paperback thriller, or a TV soap opera, can do this too.

The paradox remains: the hero or the heroine dies and we enjoy a good cry. Hume is right that at least some of the enjoyment comes from our appreciation of the art itself. Unfortunately, this also confuses the issue. It is axiomatic that we enjoy good art, insofar as we recognize its artistic merit. But in the case of tragedy -- or fiction generally -- this enjoyment is predicated upon something else, namely the capacity of human beings to interest themselves in fiction as such.

It could be said that the tragic writer uses their knowledge of the power of a well-told story to engage with the emotions of the reader or spectator. This is where the art lies (which in itself of course explains nothing). The real philosophical question concerns that very power, the power that fiction has to move us, to draw us into the world created by the writer, to identify with the characters and care about what happens to them.

Many years ago, as then President of the Birkbeck Philosophical Society, I invited Colin Radford to give a talk on, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?'. It was a memorable occasion, and there was an enthusiastic discussion afterwards. A version of that paper is included in Radford's book 'Driving to California'. It contains the best treatment I have seen of this question.

All the best,

Geoffrey