Tragic Pleasure

Why do negative emotions felt by characters in tragedies evoke positive emotions felt by the audience?

Consider of the most classical and famous tragic plays written by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, where two star-crossed lovers fought against all odds to protect their love from a family feud. They faced numerous obstacles, struggled immensely, and loved each other so much that they actually sacrificed themselves for this love…

Why do we enjoy the story despite all the suffering and negative emotions that Romeo and Juliet feel throughout the tragedy?

Scottish philosopher David Hume was particularly interested in this paradox: why do negative emotions felt by characters in tragedies evoke positive emotions felt by the audience?

Hume believes that the way a well-written tragedy presents events allows the audience to identify emotionally with the characters, whose suffering arouses the possibility of pleasure. Moreover, he believes that the stronger the negative emotions are, the greater the pleasure. This is evident in Romeo and Juliet, especially when Romeo felt helpless because he believed that fate was controlling his life and preventing him from being with his destined lover.

We enjoy tragic events because there’s a creative, adept way to present things to get the audience to feel engaged with the content displayed even if the content in itself may not be very pleasant. A tragic event is a misfortunate event that is brought about by a combination of the character’s actions, or other characters’ actions, or fate. When the suffering or loss of the main character is portrayed aesthetically, we don’t only emotionally identify with the feelings of the characters, but also derive pleasure from the beautiful portrayal of the story. We feel negative feelings from the tragic event coupled with positive feelings from the presentation of the tragic event, which convert negative feelings into one total experience of pleasure.

According to Humes’ theory, if there’s beautiful art, you can convert any negative feeling into a positive one. The more negative the story is, the more the negative feelings can be converted into good ones. A superficial story, no matter how sad it is, won’t have the same effect because it is not as relatable as a more realistic one that we may be familiar with. We generally take pleasure in the aesthetics of the story especially if we feel like we connect with the characters and we feel with them. It is worth noting that we’re not feeling happy about their sad feelings, rather, we’re happy about our sad feelings. When we cry during a movie, we usually feel what the character is feeling. If this tragic event happened in our real world, it will upset us and we won’t feel pleasure. But in a work of art, the event is in a form that the spectator derives pleasure from.

Indeed, suffering arouses the possibility of getting pleasure. Sometimes tragic events in films or art confront our greatest fears. In the case of “The Lion King”, this great fear is death and sorrow, especially to a little child having to witness a parent’s death. The worst fear a little child can have is having their parents taken away from them, mostly through this act of death and betrayal. This particular incident in the film confronts these fears, as it is the young character, Simba, who has to witness his father’s death and has to continue his life without him. And through this scene, the film exposes the suffering we inflict and the suffering we bear.

Approaches to Tragic Fiction

Hume’s approach is only one perspective. Philosophers Dubos and Fontenelle approach the problem of tragic fiction differently.

Dubos asserts that passion, or an intense feeling such as melancholy, always beats the bland state of not having anything to occupy the mind. To prevent a tedious state from taking place, one resorts to anything pleasurable, may it be poetry, paintings, or even gaming, to arouse feelings by imitating subjects that are moving. The sole aim of such art is to fill this unpleasant emptiness. In other words, we initially have an emptiness due to lack of occupation or passion, so we resort to things such as poetry or perhaps theatre performances, which would make us absorb the negative feelings, thus keeping us occupied, which in turn makes us feel pleasure because we no longer feel empty.

In response to Dubos, Hume acknowledges that art does serve as entertainment in some cases. He goes further by discussing everyday examples that confirm what he is saying, such as how it can relieve overthinking and fill up our time. However, he claims that tragedy cannot be explained according to Dubos’ theory because although real-life unpleasant events would indeed shift our attention and make us less bored or empty, it does not necessarily mean that we find pleasure in the presence of those events. In other words, the unpleasant events that usually give us pleasure in tragedies would make us feel distressed and uneasy if they occur in real life. For example, one would most likely feel anguish if one of his or her beloved ones passed away. There is no pleasure in that. But if that same person watches a play where this incident occurs to one of the main characters, he or she would feel pleasure in their suffering because of the way the events were aesthetically presented.

Fontenelle addresses this paradox by providing a way of distinguishing the reactions caused by fictional tragedies from the ones triggered by real-life unpleasant events. That is, the only reason we find what is unpleasant in reality, pleasurable in fiction, is because we are aware that is solely fiction. No matter how much our reason, senses, and imagination are affected, a certain glimpse of falsehood lies deep down beneath us. He also views that melancholy suits our heart, even when it’s very distressing if they are being softened by something. What we see in the theatre doesn’t have the same effect as reality, but it is very similar. Despite this effect being weak, it is enough to make us feel less afflicted and more pleased. When we sympathize with the characters in an artistic performance, we feel comfortable when we remind ourselves that it is merely fiction.

Hume responds to this approach by claiming that we do enjoy the narration of appalling events. Nonetheless, he thinks that if Fontenelle’s solution were valid, it should be impossible to find pleasure in narration unless our suffering was reduced by a belief that we think is false. Pain has to be diminished in some way for us to feel pleasure in narration. Distressing narratives do not have to be fiction for us to feel pleasure in them.

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