Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.18


Belfiore on Scodel on Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion.

In her review of Tragic Pleasures (BMCR 4.1 [1993] pp. 1-2), Ruth Scodel makes a number of points with which I take issue. I argue that the katharsis clause of Poetics 6, DI' E)LE/OU KAI\ FO/BOU PERAI/NOUSA TH\N TW=N TOIOU/TWN PAQHMA/TWN KA/QARSIN, should be interpreted allopathically. Pity and fear, in my view, produce katharsis not of pity and fear, but of the opposite emotions: aggressive, antisocial passions. Scodel objects that my interpretation "requires that 'such emotions' not only go beyond pity and fear, but exclude them, and this seems to me impossible Greek." I reply that the homeopathic interpretation requires that "such emotions" not only include pity and fear, but be restricted to them, and this is impossible Greek. Tragic Pleasures frankly acknowledges the difficulty the Greek presents for either interpretation: Aristotle writes TOIOU/TWN, and neither TOU/TWN, as the homeopathic interpretation requires, nor E)NANTI/WN, as would be easiest for an allopathic interpretation (268-272; 354ff.) On the other hand, my interpretation, as Scodel admits, "has the great advantage that it does seem to work well within the broader Aristotelian context and it makes good, clear intuitive sense." I have argued that the same cannot be said for the homeopathic interpretation. No one, to my knowledge, has been able to point to a clear Aristotelian basis for homeopathic katharsis, to explain adequately how pity and fear can produce katharsis of pity and fear, or to show how, should this be possible, it could be beneficial (Tragic Pleasures, chapter 8). Katharsis of aggressive emotions, on the other hand, would be of obvious benefit, especially to a society deeply concerned with issues of honor. Scodel, however, misunderstands my views on the usefulness of allopathic katharsis. In discussing my example, Achilles' experience of katharsis of anger in Iliad 24, she writes that Achilles "is not really purged of his tendency to anger," and objects that "if catharsis is to be seriously useful, it must do more than calm immediate outbursts; people do not go into the theater in states of rage." I never claim that one, or even many experiences of tragic katharsis can purge or eliminate our tendencies to anger. On the contrary, I argue that we need to keep relearning the lessons given us by tragedy precisely because most of us cannot completely eliminate such tendencies in ourselves. By counteracting these tendencies, tragic pity and fear produce katharsis and thus help to moderate these tendencies, at least temporarily. In a similar way, fear of dishonor (aidos) helps to counteract the shameless desires young people have, and their tendencies to do shameless actions (Tragic Pleasures, 203-216, 236-53, 356-59).

Scodel asks "how the experience of the reader or spectator is related to that of the character," and what the desires are of which tragedy makes us aware. I have answered both of these questions. We have generally aggressive, anti-social desires, of the kind that lead, in their most extreme form, to such acts as parricide and incest. By showing us the terrible consequences of the most terrible kinds of aggression, and by leading us to experience them as pitiable and fearful, tragedy leads us to moderate our own aggressive desires that might lead us to do other, usually less dreadful, anti-social acts. I argue that tragedy gives us the same kind of lesson that the warnings against hubris do in sympotic lyric (Tragic Pleasures, chapters 1 and 12).

Scodel objects to my views on the role of shame in tragedy, writing that the emphasis in tragedy is more on the pollution caused by kin-murder than on the shame it brings. I agree that pollution is very important in tragedy. However, shame and pollution are inextricably linked in tragedy (e.g. OT 1408, 1424-28; Eur. Her. 1146-62) and in Greek thought generally. (See now the extensive discussion of Douglas Cairns, Aidos [Oxford, 1993], esp. 216-17, 291-95). It is true that Aristotle does not mention shame in the Poetics. I argue, however, that he does repeatedly stress the importance within the tragic plot of deeds such as kin-murder that are in fact shameful as well as painful and destructive, and that he denies that tragic pity and fear are aroused by acts, such as murder of enemy by enemy, that are merely painful and destructive. Thus, tragic fear cannot be merely fear of pain and death, but must be connected in an essential way with deeds that are in fact shameful as well as painful. (See Tragic Pleasures, chapters 6 and 7).

I am disappointed that Scodel did not give a more complete overview of the topics covered by my book, discussing only my views on tragic katharsis. My book also contains extensive discussions of such topics as the role of beneficial fear in Greek tragedy and society generally, Aristotle's theories of imitation and plot structure, and the importance of philia in Greek tragedy. Throughout, I give numerous examples and illustrations from the tragedies. I would have been especially interested in the reactions of a specialist in tragedy to these parts of my book.

In spite of her reservations, I am pleased that Scodel writes that "Belfiore ... certainly makes it impossible to believe that catharsis is a straightforward homeopathic process in which we are purged of pity and fear." The homeopathic view of katharsis has been accepted by nearly all scholars since Bernays, often without any consideration of alternative interpretations. If I have succeeded in convincing Scodel and other readers that this view has serious weaknesses I have accomplished one of my main goals.