Tragedy, Lunacy, and St. Augustine

Today, an interesting passage from Book III of St. Augustine’s Confessions.

“I developed a passion for stage plays, with the mirror they held up to my own miseries and the fuel they poured on my flame. How is it that a man wants to be made sad by the sight of tragic sufferings that he could not bear in his own person? Yet the spectator does want to feel sorrow, and it is actually his feeling of sorrow that he enjoys. Surely this is the most wretched lunacy? For the more a man feels such sufferings in himself, the more he is moved by the sight of them on the stage. Now when a man suffers himself, it is called misery; when he suffers in the sufferings of another, it is called pity. But how can the unreal sufferings of the stage possible move pity? The spectator is not moved to aid the sufferer but merely to be sorry for him; and the more the author of these fictions makes the audience grieve, the better they like him. If the tragic sorrows of characters–whether historical or entirely fictitious–be so poorly represented that the spectator is not moved to tears, he leaves the theatre unsatisfied and full of complaints; if he is moved to tears, he stays to the end, fascinated and reveling in it.”

Far be it from me to throw down rhetorically with a saint, but there is something here that doesn’t quite click for me.

It is true. I enjoy tragedy. Hamlet deeply moves me, and I enjoy this experience. I do not fully buy into katharsis as a raison d’etre for tragedy, and I do think St. Augustine depicts a truer dramatic experience. We do actually enjoy the experience of dramatic tragedy, and not simply because it purges us of negativity.

Admission #1: ‘enjoying’ sorrow seems ludicrous. But is the sorrow we experience via tragedy the same thing as the sorrow we experience in life? And if not, why does it move us so? And if so, how is it not insane to enjoy it?

Admission #2: My reason for wanting to disagree with St. Augustine above is rooted in a gut reaction. The sigh I give at the end of Hamlet does not feel like the sigh of the crazy. And while I know the truly crazy likely doesn’t feel crazy, my intuition tells me that what seems nuts — to enjoy the sorrow of Hamlet — only seems nuts.

So how do we crack this nut?

I think two ideas move us toward a clearer picture of the experience of sorrow in tragedy.

First: We do not pity the sorrow and tragedy of characters for whom we do not feel empathy. Successful tragedies put us in touch — put us powerfully in touch — with our faculty of empathy, a quintessential human faculty. We are created to be gifts one to another, and that means our faculties are made to point outward, so to speak, toward others. When we experience empathy in powerful ways, even the construed empathy of the stage, we flex a muscle made to be flexed, made to grow. We ‘enjoy the pain’ of tragedy in the same way we enjoy the burn of weightlifting. It activates an aspect of our personhood, and we become more keenly aware of the miracle of our self-giving selfhood.

Second: Because we are made for joy, sorrow can actually highlight the contours of the way life should be. Sorrow purely experienced, as it may be in life, can drown us. But on the stage or screen, sorrow is always within borders, between the curtains, within the frame. That means it is always something juxtaposed with its borders, necessarily asking if there’s something else outside the boundaries of the experience.

This second point may be a bit of a stretch for some, but in my own experience, Hamlet is the most heaven-pointing play I know. Because it is a play of profound questioning, it presupposes and suggests profound answering. Hamlet shows us how deep a hunger a man can have, and hunger implies food.

I suspect many today may be tempted to disagree, may be more apt to say that Hamlet and other deep tragedy is more a portrait of despair, that it only points to meaninglessness. Certainly 20th century writers such as Sartre and his ilk would take this tack on tragedy. But I also suspect that such people are being untrue to their own experience. If Hamlet, for example, were nothing more than a signpost to the void, certainly its power could only point its lovers to the ‘bare bodkin.’ In the world of existential despair, the only sane response to deep dramatic tragedy is suicide.

But when the play is over, we find it has not devoured us, but has, in fact, somehow enlarged us. Somewhere in the secret places of the soul, even in the souls of men like Sartre, there holds fast a sense that sorrow is not self-sustaining, that it depends on joy.

The world may be a vale of tears, but this doesn’t mean it is a vale of despair. In fact, in the primary world, sorrow once took on the paradoxical role of the way to joy.

So our enjoyment of tragedy is not, I think, a sign of insanity because I do not think the sorrow is the true subject of our enjoyment. Insofar as we feel sorrow deeply, I think we enjoy deeply feeling empathy, and insofar as the sorrow is the matter of our feeling, we enjoy its nature, a nature suggestive of what lies outside the borders of sorrow.


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