Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.5

A.D. Nuttall, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. $35.00. ISBN 0-19-818371-2.

Reviewed by Synnoeve des Bouvrie, University of Tromsoe.

This delightful little book not only attracts the reader with its enigmatic title, it ensnares her into following its argument like a detective story, whose solution is not disclosed before its final pages. In style more reminiscent of poetry than a philological treatise it deserves to be handled with care and not to be subjected to down to earth dissection. Its approach is philosophical of a phenomenological type, designed to analyse our response to tragedy. We are expected to follow its pages step by step in order fully to grasp its train of thought. It does not therefore seem useful to cite its conclusion, but instead to offer some comments upon the author's ideas and assumptions.

Through the "pleasure" in the title of his book the author is clearly hinting at Aristotle's theory of tragedy. Its implication, that tragedy gives pleasure, however, is not left without discussion and the subject of that feeling is "us". Likewise, the expression "tragedy" points to the author's interest in all drama that carries the qualification, notwithstanding the differences between its various manifestations. Being aware of differences, the author prefers to focus not on some common element, but, in Wittgenstein's expression, on "a network of connections", by reviewing the history of responses to tragedy. In order to do so the author not only follows the main development of the "genre", but he tracks down the Zeitgeist of the last centuries through the ideas of the French classicist theatre, the Enlightenment, the Romantic and Post-Romantic ages, through discussions of Gibbon, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche into our own Freud-haunted world.

The essay starts with a discussion of the disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, and their opposite views of the effect on the audience of disturbing action on the scene. The exact processes involved in the subject of the spectator are discussed in a review of early modern literary critics and poets, from Dr. Johnson onwards, Sidney, Milton and Hume.

The real impetus that prompted the author to work out this essay, in fact, was his disagreement with Martha Nussbaum's interpretation of the concept of tragic "catharsis". This disagreement, however, does not seem to be so serious, in the present reviewer's eyes, that the two cannot meet in their common interest in the individual's reaction to tragic theatre, their disagreements being more in degree than in kind. Both assume that something is to be learnt from the theatre, both seek to incorporate emotional elements into the process of cognition.

Nuttall supports Bernays' medical/religious interpretation of Aristotle's concept of "catharsis" as a kind of "purgation", against Nussbaum and, earlier, Golden's concept of "clarification". I would agree with him on this, since the passage in the Politics, while not exactly parallel to the definition of tragedy explicitly refers to the tragic emotions as well as to the Poetics. The author offers the explanation of an "active use of emotion". This emphasizing of the cathartic discharge, as is suggested by Aristotle in the Politics, is to be welcomed in a tradition where Greek tragedy often is subjected to a too intellectual approach. Arguing against Halliwell's view that emotion does not need to be morbid, the author asserts that at least to Aristotle it was something to get rid of. According to Nuttall the pleasure attained through "catharsis", has a flavour of Milton's "all passion spent", interpreted in a sexual sense.

Equally appropriate is the author's vigorous rejection of Else's theory of "catharsis" as a purifying of the dramatic situation, something operating in the world of the protagonists. He underscores that "pathemata" in Aristotle's definition of tragedy refers to the "emotions" of the audience. The author is right in this view, but in arguing, he loses sight of the specific emotions referred to in the definition of tragedy and elsewhere, "eleos" and "phobos" (most frequently translated as "pity and fear"). Following Golden and Nussbaum, who in this way arrive at their idea of "clarification", Nuttall embeds his interpretation of catharsis in a discussion of mimetic pleasure. He maintains that we recognize the mimetic image exactly because it is different form the signified (Aristotle's view: "the events must be unreal" 16), thereby creating a distance between drama and audience. Subsequently he argues that tragic pleasure is somehow similar to mimetic pleasure.

Nuttall's analysis of the pleasure of mimesis may well cover Aristotle's idea. However Aristotle is perfectly clear in distinguishing the pleasure of mimesis, a general experience of learning, from the narrower specific tragic pleasure. The author seems to forget that the ancient philosopher refers to the pleasure of tragedy, as resulting from "eleos" and "phobos", concepts which carry the meaning of immediate reflexes (cf. Schadewaldt's study in Hermes 83, 1955). These are aroused by shocking "pathe", objective "horrifying events". Aristotle heavily underscores the importance of mythos, the plot, and how a shocking, tragic, plot has to proceed, through "hamartia" (ch.13) and violation of "philia" (ch.14). The audience is exposed to scenes of some terrible action, not in order to understand characters deserving our understanding, but to experience the outrageous violation of basic norms. It is as a relief to these painful emotions the pleasure of tragedy and "catharsis" is to be understood while it is never mentioned within the context of mimesis and its pleasure. We have to distinguish clearly between the dramatic universe that is to be built up by mimesis, with its recognizable and psychologically well motivated presentation of events, and the tragic plot with its disruptive action, leading to an alleviation of the tragic emotions, when the real world order turns out not to be disrupted.

The general blindness to this distinction is due to our modern preoccupation with the fate of the protagonist, an interest the present author subscribes to. In focusing on the psychological reference of "pathemata" the author directs our understanding into a modern individualist understanding of Greek tragedy, with its result that we lose awareness of the cultural dimension of this kind of tragic drama. If we look more closely at Aristotle's chapter 14 we will be reminded of the fact that the tragic emotions in the Poetics are aroused through the intervention of cultural forces. Not any horrible deed (Aristotle uses here "pathos") on the scene will trigger off tragic emotions but murder among "philoi", that is, relations of kinship. Tragic emotions, according to this passage, are reactions to the violation of cultural norms and the sacrosanct institution of kinship, "philia".1

It would not be necessary to elaborate on these remarkable differences, had not the author wished to build his view of "our tragic pleasure" upon the ancient witnesses. While not following a philological method, he can of course study this "pleasure". After all ancient tragedy does "exist" in our time too, and our response to it is an other fact beside the ancient responses. But we might doubt whether it really makes sense to adduce Aristotle in an analysis of present tragic pleasure.

Comments on Aristotle seem, to the reviewer, relevant to ancient tragedy experience only, as opposed to (early) modern responses to tragic theatre. Within the modern perspective the author may well be right in pointing to an attitude of aesthetic distance in the spectator. He may also correctly claim that "the doctrine of mimesis is [Aristotle's] most famous theoretical bequest", precisely because our modern individualist culture has played down the cultural significance of ancient tragedy and therefore misunderstood the reactions in the mass audience of the ancient Attic theatre. Freud's theory is the clearest expression for this individualist perspective, where the individual is being intent upon accommodating all experiences into his personal life-story. The author's discussion of Freudian response to disturbing events underscores that perspective.

Ours is an attitude of the individual witnessing tragic events with a mind basically sympathetic with the personae. In addition it is reflective as well upon the situation and moral stance of the protagonists, as is expressed in Nuttall's idea of "imitation transferred from the poet to the reader". This attitude could be summed up in as an aesthetic response to tragic drama, with the subcurrent of "Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner". While we are suspicious of anything like poetic justice in high drama, we still follow the events at the level of dramatic action, motivation and morals. This is in contrast to Aristotle's being absorbed by the objective horror of the events, the level of fundamental world order in ancient drama. The tragedy about King Oidipous was horrifying, because of the objective violence done to the cosmic order, he is polluted and the audience reacted to that fact, more than it measured the shades of the king's responsibility. Nuttall's approach reveals a common unawareness of this collective effect of the ancient performances, which I would not hesitate to call ritual theatre.

The hidden aim of the book seems to be to contribute to the multifaceted question of tragic responses to Shakespearean tragedy, through an analysis of the "megethos" of King Lear. Remarks by a classical philologist could therefore be somewhat out of place. Had Nuttall's aim been to present a well-documented discussion of tragic pleasure, he would not have failed to include Elizabeth Belfiore's Tragic Pleasures.2 Her analysis of the meaning of tragic catharsis does not view the concept within the framework of collective response in the way the reviewer does, but with her conclusion on the "allopathic" effect of catharsis she is closer to the social meaning of ancient tragedy than most other interpreters.

Nuttall's attempt at finding a rationale for our fascination (a term perhaps more appropriate than "pleasure") with deeply disturbing events in the theatre is profound and thought-provoking, and as an analysis of (early) modern theatre well worth consideration. Maybe it explains some of the attraction of Greek tragedy in modern times as well, while it equally might explain why a number of Greek tragedies are bound to fail on a modern stage (How do we react to Aiskhylos' Danaid daughters, to Euripides' Alkestis, Hekabe, not to mention Helene?) As an attempt at finding a common denominator of responses to tragic drama Nuttall's essay does not fully convince, because of its failure to take into account the cultural distance between ancient Greece and our modern culture.


1. S. des Bouvrie 1988, "Aristotle's Poetics and the Subject of Tragedy", Arethusa 21, 1988, 47-73. S. des Bouvrie, Women in Tragedy. An anthropological Approach. Symbolae Osloenses Suppl. 27. Oslo 1990

2. E. Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures. Aristotle on Plot and Emotion. Princeton 1992.