The ‘paradox of tragedy’ occurs when people experience a fictional story based on sorrowful or harrowing events – such as that depicted on the stage – but walk out of the theatre with a feeling of pleasure and enjoyment. This does appear to be a paradox. Why would otherwise well-adjusted people obtain a sense of pleasure from watching such disturbing events? If the events happened for real, the viewers would be horrified and greatly upset. So what it is about tragedy on the stage (or any other medium) that results in this ‘paradox’?
Both David Hume and Susan Feagin offered theories to explain why the paradox occurs. In both cases, once we apply the theory, we discover that the paradox actually disappears, as there is an underlying reason for our feelings of enjoyment. After discussing the two theories, I will also consider which is the more persuasive theory in regards to explaining the paradox.
Firstly, Hume’s theory is based around a process of ‘conversion’. When we watch a tragic performance, the feelings of pleasure we obtain are actually not from the harrowing story, but from an appreciation of the performance. We delight in the actors or the stage production or the quality of the writing. This gives us our predominant response of pleasure. However, at the same time, a process of ‘conversion’ occurs in terms of the negative emotions. If the predominant emotions are strong enough, the negative emotions are converted into that of the predominant emotion. So all of our sudden, our negative emotions become positive, which only helps to support our enjoyment of the tragedy.
Hume notes that the conversion only happens in certain circumstances. The drama must be realistic and appeal to the audiences sensibilities in terms of being a novel story, or one depicting great hardship to characters that attract a lot of sympathy (such as a young person, or parents with an ill child). If the stage performance is too gory or does not do enough to engage the audience’s interest, the predominant emotion does not rise to such a level that it ‘swallows’ that of the negative emotion. So the process of conversion does not always work.
To criticise Hume’s theory, we can actually refer to Feagin herself. Feagin starts her essay by raising two objections to Hume’s theory. Firstly, Hume does not do enough to explain why the conversion only happens in fictional cases but not in real life cases. Hume did attempt to respond to this point in his own essay, but Feagin believes that the arguments provided were insufficient. Secondly, Feagin believes that the ‘conversion’ process itself is vague. How exactly are the negative emotions converted into that of the predominant emotion? Feagin asserts that Hume has merely replaced one puzzle with another puzzle.
After criticising Hume’s position, Feagin then offers an alternative theory of her own. Feagin notes that in general we have an emotional response to an event. We might see a tearful scene on the stage and become sad. Or outside of the theatre, we might see a cake in front of us and decide to consume a large piece. However, following the primary response, we then have a meta-response, which is a response to our original response. In terms of the cake, we might be disappointed with ourselves for our lack of willpower. We were hoping to keep our diet under control. A meta-response is possible in all aspects of life, not just in the theatre.
In terms of the tragedy, we have the initial response of sadness or horror on seeing the events depicted on stage. However, our meta-response is a positive one. We are pleased to discover that we are not alone in the universe and that other characters go through similar struggles to our own. We are impressed with our moral capabilities in managing to feel sympathy with characters undergoing a stressful situation. In fact, Feagin highlights moral sympathy as a major component of her theory. Many people are seeking to validate their sense of morality, so witnessing a tragic performance helps in this process. We are therefore pleased that we took the effort to develop our moral sensibilities.
One question that remains is why tragedy elicits a feeling of pleasure, but this is absent for real-world events. Feagin accepts that for a real world tragedy, the pain is too real, so our meta-response can never be one of pleasure. Perhaps we might have a meta-response of pride (after helping out with a rescue and recovery operation), but the nature of the event is unlikely to cause pleasure. On the contrary, when a tragedy appears on the stage, we know that the characters are really just actors and nobody is hurt. This allows us to fully explore the issues involved, and feel a meta-response of satisfaction in having experienced the drama.
I believe Feagin offers the better explanation for the paradox of tragedy. I would agree that the ‘conversion’ process doesn’t really explain much. And why should ‘conversion’ be restricted to this one specific case? Could you not argue the conversion should work the other way round? So if we’re genuinely grief-stricken – perhaps from the death of a pet – but happen to experience a brief moment of pleasure within the turmoil, does this mean that the moment of pleasure gets converted into the predominant negative emotion, so we end up feeling more distress as a result? This does not sound like a rational state of affairs.
Feagin’s meta-response theory also has the benefit of being applicable to many cases, not just our responses to tragedy on the stage. Hume’s theory is quite limited in terms of ‘conversion’, whereas we can explain many of our reactions in life – such as feeling annoyed after eating unhealthy food – in terms of a meta-response.