BMCR 1993.01.01

1993.01.01, Elizabeth S. Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion

, Tragic pleasures : Aristotle on plot and emotion. Princeton legacy library. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. 1 online resource (429 pages).. ISBN 1400862574.

1 Responses

First, it needs to be said that I was not a good choice to review this book. Readers of Aristotle’s Poetics generally fall into two categories (though some happily belong to both): those who care about tragedy and those who care about Aristotle. Belfiore belongs to the second. The strengths of her work lie in the links she makes between the Poetics and other works of Aristotle, and the section I found most convincing was the account of catharsis in the biological works. On the other hand, I was disappointed both by her own readings of tragedy and by those of her Aristotle.

She argues that Aristotle elsewhere treats catharsis as mainly an allopathic process, in which drugs, for instance, are able to remove unhealthy residues from the body because they are opposite in certain respects—cold rather than hot, for instance. So she claims that tragedy, through pity and fear, purifies the soul of antisocial emotions such as anger and pride, leaving it in a state of moderation and αἰδ. This has the great advantage that it does seem to work well within the broader Aristotelian context and it makes good, clear intuitive sense. Tragic catharsis in her view works (very roughly) as follows. There is a first stage in which tragedy brings shameful desires to consciousness and makes the audience aware that its shameful desires contradict its better feelings. Then it provides a shock of excessive fear as the spectators realize that the suffering they see could come to them, and this fear drives out all desires. This fear generates pity, while judgment impedes the usual response of flight or intervention. Then, through the recognition that the suffering represented is broadly characteristic of human experience and the resulting pleasure of imitation, these excessive responses are removed, and with them the shameless desires.

This account (like every other attempt to explain what Aristotle means by catharsis) presents a number of problems. Its opening stages are modeled on the Platonic elenchus and on her own understanding of tragic experience; I don’t see much basis in Aristotle for it, and it seems contrived in order to connect shameful desires with tragic fear.

However, I am fairly certain that this interpretation cannot be right simply on the Greek. I may have been prejudiced against the whole volume because right from the start I saw difficulties in an allopathic interpretation of the words δι’ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν, and then I had to wait until almost the end for her explanation. Belfiore points out that had Aristotle meant that it is pity and fear that tragedy removes, he would have used τούτων, and she acknowledges that the case for an allopathic understanding of the passage would have been much stronger had he said ἑτέρων. But she suggests that τοιούτων refers to all emotions on the scale to which pity and fear belong; all emotions involved in the tragic process. I don’t buy this. A Greek might use τοιούτων in contrasting one group of emotions which, whatever their differences among themselves, were being contrasted with another group. But if catharsis is an allopathic process the difference between hot and cold emotions, between pity and anger, is not being ignored in favor of a contrast with non-tragic emotions; it is central. Belfiore’s interpretation requires that “such emotions” not only go beyond pity and fear, but exclude them, and this seems to me impossible Greek.

She discusses Iliad 24 at some length as an example of catharsis, and although I find her account somewhat reductive, I am willing to accept it as partially accurate: Achilles is purged of his excessive anger and lack of shame through his pity and fear in response to Priam’s appeal. Still, he is not really purged of his tendency to anger; he himself warns Priam that if the old man annoys him he might kill him. Surely if catharsis is to be seriously useful, it must do more than calm immediate outbursts; people do not usually go into the theater in states of rage. So one needs to consider how the experience of the reader or spectator is related to that of the character. There is no doubt that in everyday life excessive anger can be reduced by pity, where that pity is directed at those against whom we have been angry. But in tragedy our pity is directed at characters with whom we have not been angry. Nor is Iliad 24, for all its tragic mood, in any way typical of a tragic plot.

In one respect she seems to me to misrepresent Aristotle, namely in her treatment of shame. For her, Aristotle’s insistence on the importance of φίλοι as those who inflict and suffer great harm has to do with the intense shame caused by such actions. Yet Aristotle actually never discusses shame in the Poetics, and Belfiore does not really look closely at how tragedies, especially Aristotle’s favorite tragedies, handle kin-murder. The emphasis, it seems to me, is more on the terrible pollution such killings cause than on the shame that they bring, and in any case a great deal of thought is needed about how a spectator is to connect the extravagant horrors of many tragedies with the ordinary excesses of life. If Aristotle’s views are to be interpreted in the light of conventional Greek morality, the relation between tragic experience and that morality has to be treated with more complexity than it is here. Belfiore brings up the element of voyeurism in tragic spectacle (it is the first stage, in which tragedy reveals our shameless desires), but doesn’t give it much attention. But what are the shameless desires of which tragedy makes us aware? Surely not a desire to commit incest—Oedipus himself had no such desire—but the desire to watch. How does this all fit?

Belfiore is strongest in reading the Poetics in the light of the rest of the corpus, especially the biological works. She certainly makes it impossible to believe that catharsis is a straightforward homeopathic process in which we are purged of excessive pity and fear. Though I was not convinced, and I doubt that others will be, this is a thoughtful and careful book which should render us all a good deal more thoughtful and careful in reading this extraordinarily difficult text.