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The Poetry and the Pity: Hume's Account of Tragic Pleasure

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The Poetry and the Pity: Hume's Account of Tragic Pleasure
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  THE POETRY AND THE PITY: HUME’S ACCOUNT OF TRAGIC PLEASURE  Elisa Galgut The poetry is in the pity.(Wilfred Owen)  W  HEN  I watch a production of   King Lear  , I am moved—I pity Cordelia and think Lear a fool, but I also fear for him, given what I suspect about his two otherdaughters. That I engage emotionally with the characters seems a given (Radford-ian and Waltonian worries aside). But it  also  seems true that I respond to theformal features of the play—the beauty of the poetic language brings a tear to theeye; sensing a unification of theme, I marvel at the playwright’s ingenuity;detecting a guiding intellect in the ‘unity ’midst diversity’, I am given a god’s-eye view of the proceedings, which further complicates my feelings for thecharacters. Were I to be moved only by the events on the stage, I would notundergo that range of emotions I do feel when I attend to the formal elements of the play.Sometimes these different ways of experiencing the drama work together, butsometimes they come apart. My fear for the life of Cordelia can be mitigated by my sense that the unity of the play would be destroyed were she to be saved at theend. I do not want  her   to die, but I also do not want the play to end differently.There is something aesthetically ‘right’ about her death, just as there is something aesthetically ‘right’ about the blinding of Gloucester, however horrific it may befor us to watch it enacted before us. These ways of experiencing drama—andfiction in general—seem commonplace, and relevant discussions can be found inmany a high school textbook. And yet, as Hume noted, they give rise to a very particular kind of problem—that known as the paradox of tragic pleasure. For,even as I weep over the death of Cordelia, I take aesthetic pleasure in it. Thispuzzle, in one form or another, can be traced at least as far back to Aristotle, whose talk of ‘katharsis’ 1  was supposed to explain the pleasure taken in watching representations of actions that, in real life, would never be the object of  © British Society of Aesthetics 2001 411  British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 41, No. 4, October 2001 1 For an excellent discussion on Aristotelian katharsis, see Jonathan Lear’s paper ‘Katharsis’,  Phronesis , vol. 33, no. 3 (1988), pp. 297–326.  amusement. The puzzle was posed most explicitly by Hume, who turned hisattention to it in his paper ‘Of Tragedy’.In his essay, Hume attempts to explain how it is that we enjoy watching tragedies; his explanation is as follows: This extraordinary effect proceeds from that very eloquence, with which themelancholy scene is represented. The genius required to paint objects in a lively manner, the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances, the judgementdisplayed in disposing them: the exercise, I say, of these noble talents, together withthe force of expression, and beauty of oratorial numbers, diffuse the highestsatisfaction on the audience, and excite the most delightful movements. By this means,the uneasiness of the melancholy passions is not only overpowered and effaced by something stronger of an opposite kind; but the whole impulse of those passions isconverted into pleasure, and swells the delight which the eloquence raises in us. Thesame force of oratory, employed on an uninteresting subject, would not please half somuch, or rather would appear altogether ridiculous; and the mind, being left inabsolute calmness and indifference, would relish none of those beauties of imag-ination or expression, which, if joined to passion, give it such exquisite entertainment.The impulse or vehemence, arising from sorrow, compassion, indignation, receives anew direction from the sentiments of beauty. The latter, being the predominantemotion, seize the whole mind, and convert the former into themselves, or at leasttincture them so strongly as totally to alter their nature. And the soul, being, at thesame time, rouzed by passion, and charmed by eloquence, feels on the whole a strong movement, which is altogether delightful. 2 Hume’s analysis stresses the importance of the  formal  qualities of a work of art,and he argues that it is in virtue of these formal elements that we derive pleasurefrom the work as a whole. This rather plausible explanation has come under firefrom a number of places. Some critics think that the so-called ‘conversiontheory’, resting as it does on a false picture of the mind, is no more explanatory than is Newtonian physics in an Einsteinian universe. 3 Others are unhappy not somuch with the mechanics of Hume’s theory, but with the entire spirit of theenterprise, for they claim that the pleasure we take in tragedies occurs  because of  ,rather than  in spite of  , the pity and fear. In other words, Hume was simply wrong in thinking that what needed to be offered was a conversion theory at all. As acritic of the former school, Feagin remarks: . . . it is not clear how the ‘dominance’ of imagination and expression is to beachieved. . . . More puzzling, however, is the process of ‘conversion’ which 412 THE POETRY AND THE PITY  2 David Hume, ‘Of Tragedy’, in  Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary , ed. E. F. Miller (Indianapolis:Liberty, Classic, 1987), pp. 216–225, see pp. 219–220. 3  Alex Neill, for instance, writes that ‘the notion of affective conversion is grounded in the unhappy combination of an essentially Cartesian picture of the passions and an associationist picture of themind, both of which have been thoroughly discredited’ (‘Hume’s “Singular” Phænomenon’,  British Journal of Aesthetics , vol. 39, no. 2 [April 1999], pp. 112–125, see p. 114.  imagination performs on the unpleasant feelings (and which those feelings, whendominant, perform on the natural pleasantness of the imagination). Pains are notmerely mitigated by the pleasure, but converted or transformed into something different. The mechanics of this conversion are never explained . . . 4 Feagin is not dismissing Hume’s explanation as wrong-headed in intention—indeed, she acknowledges that Hume does present arguments which are ‘quiteinsightful’. It is the mechanics of the conversion theory that she feels needexplaining. Others, however, are inclined to think that Hume has somewhatmissed the point; Schier notes that: Hume is in general wrong to suppose that simultaneous, rather than alternating,ambivalence is impossible. But this immediately destroys the general mechanism thatHume invokes to explain the pleasure of tragedy. Hume was right to suggest thattragedy involves a duplex experience, as of attending to the tragic hero and to how theactor plays him; he was wrong, I think, in supposing that these two experiences mustbecome fused, the terror imparting its liveliness to aesthetic delight, the delightreturning the compliment when it imparts its hedonic charge to the feeling of terror. . . . [I]n the theatre we simultaneously feel emotions of distinct hedonic chargeand intensity and there is no need to suppose that these emotions lose their identitiesin the alchemy of association. 5 Certainly the first difficulty we encounter with Hume’s analysis of tragicpleasure is the strangeness of his conversion theory. Hume’s theory of theemotions imparts its legacy to his aesthetics. For Hume, an emotion is comprisedof three distinct entities: an ideational content (which consists of a propositionalattitude directed towards an intentional object), an affect, and a quantity of energy. These components are conceptually distinct, but together comprise aparticular emotion. So, in his discussion of pride, Hume says that the  intentionalobject  of that emotion is always the self—pride is an experience of pleasure that hasthe self as its intentional object. One takes pride in oneself or in those things thatare connected with oneself. So, for instance, a parent who loves a child is notproud of that child unless she sees him as connected to her in some way. The  affect of an emotion is the phenomenological experience of the emotion—which forHume is either pleasure or pain. Hume does not think that we are able todistinguish sufficiently clearly between different phenomenological experi-ences—jealousy and envy, or anxiety and excitement, are distinguishable not in virtue of their ‘feels’, but rather in virtue of the relationship between object andaffect, and the functional roles they occupy. The third component,  the quantity of emotional energy , dictates the degree or intensity of the emotion. One can be proudto a greater or a lesser extent; one can be livid with rage, or marginally angry;  ELISA GALGUT 413 4 Susan Feagin, ‘The Pleasures of Tragedy’,  American Philosophical Quarterly , vol. 20 (1983), p. 95. 5 Flint Schier, ‘The Claims of Tragedy’,  Philosophical Papers , vol. XVIII (1989), p 18.  exhilarated with joy, or calmly happy. It is this element of the emotion that seemsto be the most contingently related to an emotional state; a quantity of energy may be entirely absent without extinguishing the emotion. This is the case withdispositional emotions, for example, or with long-standing emotions like loveand anger. One may love one’s spouse of twenty-five years, even though one may not feel much intensity on a daily basis.Hume’s theory of the emotions is, then, a cognitive one. As much as Humefamously declares that ‘reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions’, hisaccount of the emotions places priority on propositional attitudes and theirobjects rather than upon feelings. Thus Adam’s love for Eve can be understood asfollows: Adam feels  pleasure  of a certain  degree  in relation to the  object  of hisaffection, that is, Eve. One might object that this analysis does not explicate theemotion of love fully enough; for instance, Adam’s love for Eve is not of the samekind as his love for sweet fruit, nor is it the same as his love for his children.Moreover, his love is characterized by features other than pleasure – because heloves Eve, he is prepared to suffer exile and torture, whereas his love for hisfamily pets will not inspire such resolutions. One can respond to this charge by making some distinctions. Hume would admit, I think, that an emotion ischaracterized in part by the functional role it plays  vis-à-vis  other beliefs, desires,and emotional states. But this is quite consistent with Hume’s account; indeed, itstrengthens it, for Hume can argue that it is precisely these functional roles thatdetermine an emotion, and  not  the affect alone. This is because emotions areconstituted, in part, by beliefs and other propositional attitudes, and propositionalattitudes play functional roles. Secondly, as Kivy notes, 6 there is nothing strangein classifying love in terms of its objects. How does one’s love for one’s spousediffer from one’s love for one’s pet, Snoopy? Well, the former is the kind of lovethat one feels in relation to a spouse, the latter the kind of love felt in relation toa dog. ‘To love an oboe is to love a musical instrument, to love a poodle is to lovea very responsive pet, to love the woman with whom you live is (frequently) tolove a sexual partner.  That’s  what the feeling of love is in each of these cases, and,unless one is a poet, that’s probably all that  can  be said’. 7 The phenomenologicalexperience of the two may be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish, but thatdoes not create any problems for a Humean analysis of the emotions.Given this analysis of the emotions, we can see how the disparate elements cancome apart in the following way: on discovering that Eve has betrayed him, Adam’s feelings change from pleasure to pain when he is with her, or when hethinks about her. The greater the love he once felt, the greater the pain he willfeel on being betrayed, and the more likely he is to feel intense anger towards her.There may, of course, be other reasons for his anger (feelings of insecurity, and 414 THE POETRY AND THE PITY  6 Peter Kivy, ‘Feeling the Musical Emotions’,  British Journal of Aesthetics , vol. 39 (1999), pp. 1–13. 7  Ibid. , p. 3.  so on) but these do not matter here. The less intense Adam’s love, the less intense will be his anger (or jealousy, or despair) at being betrayed. This, I think, is fairly intuitive, and strange as Hume’s ‘conversion’ theory might appear at first, it doesseem amenable to folk-psychological interpretation. Hume’s explanation for thechange in emotion goes as follows: due to changes in his beliefs regarding theobject of his affections, the emotional affect Adam feels alters from pleasure topain. In addition, the quantity of energy that characterized his previous emotionnow becomes attached to the pain that Adam feels; had he not been deeply in love with Eve, his feelings of betrayal would correspondingly not be intense. Whatdetermines that Adam feels  anger   instead of jealousy, or fear, is explained by thenature of Adam’s beliefs and intentions towards Eve, as well as his other beliefsand desires. Following Aristotle, we might say that Adam feels anger towards Eveif he desires vengeance, whereas he feels jealousy if he desires to kill Eve’s partnerin betrayal.Folk psychology seems to agree with Hume, for we can use his account of theemotions to make sense of other, everyday, experiences: for example, we can useHume to tell us why couples on a first date often go to a horror film, or to anamusement park. A Humean would explain the rationale behind this in thefollowing way: while on The Hurricane, or while watching   Psycho , the feelings of  your date are aroused—the quantity of emotional energy is increased. The hopeis that, once the ride or the film is over, the quantity of energy will now ‘attach’itself to your date’s feelings of pleasure at being in your delightful company. Your wish is that the  pleasure  will be increased by attaching to the quantity of energy, which, although roused by the feeling of fear or anxiety, is itself affect-less. Of course, the fear that is experienced on The Hurricane or from watching   Psycho must not be overwhelming, for this would prevent any subsequent feelings of pleasure from arising. One must not  really  believe that one will plunge to one’sdeath, or that Marion Crane  really  gets stabbed in a shower; in the words of  Walton, one engages in  make-believe . In the language of Hume, the ‘movements of the imagination’ must predominate ‘above those of the passion[s]’. Once the rideor the film is over, and the imagination no longer engaged, the feelings of feardissipate, and the quantity of energy becomes attached to feelings of pleasure. Your date is now free to turn his or her attentions on to you. A Humean account also informs psychoanalytic explanation of emotions,including seemingly irrational emotions, such as phobias. A phobia is a powerfulfear felt towards an inappropriate object—that is, fear felt towards an object thatthe subject believes is harmless. Psychoanalysis explains the phobia by arguing that the fear I feel in the presence of pigeons, say, is really a fear I feel towards orabout something else—my father, for instance. For some reason, this fear cannotbe acknowledged by me—that is, I cannot acknowledge that it is my   father   Ifear—and thus I transfer the affective component onto another object, which, viaa train of association, ‘stands for’ my father. The ideational content of my fear of   ELISA GALGUT 415
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