Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tragedy and the Sublime

In Poetics, Aristotle discusses the imitative art of poetry. Aristotle explains that the origin of poetry is due to two specific parts of human nature. Not only is imitation delightful to man, but it is also natural to man from birth. Although Aristotle defines epic poetry, comedy, and lyre-playing as modes of imitation, he largely focuses on the tragedy as his topic of discussion. Aristotle believes that tragedy is the formal perfection of art because it contains the six elements of art, including Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody (Hofstadter 103). Of these six features, the “life and soul” of the tragedy involves the plot and the characters. Aristotle explains the, when constructing the plot, the both of these elements must be consistent and probable in order for the audience to understand how the tragedy unfolds. In addition, the poet must make the character good, appropriate, and based on reality (Hofstadter 112). He also explains that the plot must also have a logical progression. A tragic work is only considered “beautiful,” if it “presents a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (Hofstadter 105).

Aristotle also defines the aim of the poet when constructing a tragedy and the conditions that are necessary for the tragic effect to occur. The reality of the plot and characters must “draw” the audience in and allow the audience the feel as if they could participate in the plot themselves. Once the tragedy has attracted the audience, the characters must imitate actions to arouse pity and fear within the audience. Aristotle explains that the “perfect” plot displays a good man’s fall from fortune to misery by an error in his own judgment. He states that “pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and the fear by that of one like ourselves” (Hofstadter 109). The success of the tragedy lies in the poet’s ability to make the audience feel a combination of these emotions; pity for the misfortune of the character and fear that the events in the tragedy can occur in their own lives. Invoking these feelings in the audience is a significant task the poet must accomplish for the fulfillment of the tragedy’s underlying purpose.

Although it is necessary for the audience to participate emotionally, there must a separation between the audience and the tragedy itself. Aristotle explains that the tragedy must also allow the audience to participate in “catharsis,” or a release of emotions. This detachment of feelings is the final cause of the tragic work. It involves having both a sympathy for and a distance from the tragedy. Aristotle explains that a discovery, or a “change from ignorance to knowledge,” is necessary in order for catharsis to take place (Hofstadter 108). Once the audience understands the character’s error in judgment, they are able to learn from his mistakes. Invoking the emotions of pity and fear and then allowing for the removal of these emotions are important aspects the tragedy must accomplish, but the end of the tragedy lies in the tragedy’s instruction. The poet must show not only incidents and how they are logically connected throughout the work, but also how the audience can avoid making the same tragic mistakes in their own lives.

Like the tragic work, the sublime invokes a feeling of attraction. In “the Critique of Judgment,” Immanuel Kant explains that the feeling of the sublime is a pleasure produced by the “feelings of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger” (Kant 98). The sublime, however, is simultaneously “contrapurposive for our power of judgment” and “violent to our imagination” (Kant 99). Kant describes the sublime as what is “absolutely large” and explains that its magnitude cannot be estimated by means of mathematical concepts (Kant 103). The sublime does not conform to any objective principles or forms and rarely occurs outside of nature. Kant also explains that the ideas of the sublime are aroused through chaotic situations where nature displays its devastation and might.

Kant discusses two ways for an individual to make an estimation of a magnitude. A mathematical estimation of a magnitude is accomplished by means of numerical concepts. An aesthetic estimation, on the other hand, is accomplished through intuition (Kant 107). Unlike the mathematical estimation of magnitude, Kant states that aesthetic “judgment” struggles to provide a measure that can be used to estimate a certain magnitude. Kant explains that aesthetic estimations can not always be made because the imagination is insufficient for comprehending a given object in a whole of intuition. The imagination “proves its own limits and inadequacy” by attempting to comprehend the magnitude of the sublime (Kant 114). Kant further explains that the sublime produces a feeling of displeasure the arises from the imagination’s inadequacy. At the same time, however, there is a pleasure that arises from the limits of the imagination because it is in agreement with rational ideas and the laws of reason. In addition to arousing these emotions, the sublime makes us realize our “physical impotence” while at the same time giving us the “ability to judge ourselves independent of nature” (Kant 121).

In the article Schopenhauer and the Sublime Pleasure of Tragedy, Dylan Trigg discusses the relationship between the tragedy and the sublime. Trigg defines the sublime as “the inability of the mind or the senses to grasp an object in its entirety” and explains that the sublime “leads to an affirmation of an experience that contains in itself a sense of both awe and terror” (Trigg 165). Trigg explains that Schopenhauer’s concept of the sublime involves the inability of the senses to understand the magnitude of a certain object. Schopenhauer explains that the sublime involves a “violent tearing away from the relations of the same object to the will which are recognized as unfavorable” (Trigg 172). Schopenhauer explains that tragedy elevates consciousness over the will to the point of opposition against the will. He believes that the tragic effect eliminates an individual’s ability to see the will as one’s own. Tragedy brings individuals into a state that allows them to view the general will or what Schopenhauer calls the “will-of-the-world” (Trigg 174). Individuality is negated in acceptance of the tragedy, which leads to a spiritual elevation similar to the pleasure invoked by the tragic effect. Schopenhauer further states that “tragedy mirrors a death of the subjective self from which an objective and sublime self is born” (Trigg 173).

Although Schopenhauer draws connections between tragedy and the sublime, Trigg questions their similarity. Trigg explains that individuals must believe that their own will is in no immediate danger for them to experience a feeling of sublimity. Because tragedy encourages an individual to have a strong emotional response to the tragic effect, Trigg states that the sublime must be excluded from a tragic work. The sublime must be a kind of “distant proximity” (Trigg 175). According to Kant’s concept of the sublime, the feeling of the sublime can only be aroused by a specific group of objects. Kant states that, because an individual must make an aesthetic judgment when estimating a magnitude, the sublime cannot be found in products of art because their form and magnitude are determined by human purpose. Kant further states that the sublime must be found in “crude” nature, rather than in natural things with a determinate purpose (Kant 109). Because a specific purpose underlies the creation of a tragic work, the lack of purpose associated with the sublime creates an even larger separation between the two concepts. Schopenhauer presents strong correlations between tragedy and the sublime. The distance necessary for an individual to experience the sublime, however, directly contrasts with the close proximity of the audience needed to experience a tragic work.

Works Cited

Hofstader, Albert and Richard Kuhns. “Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected

Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger.” New York: Modern Library, 1964.

Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Judgment: Including the First Introduction.” Indianapolis:

Hackett Company, 1987.

Trigg, Dylan. Schopenhauer and the Sublime Pleasure of Tragedy. Project Muse. Johns

Hopkins University, 2004. Web. 22 Nov. 2009.

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