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Literature will break your heart


Dr David Vella interviews Dr James Corby to find out how literature can help you face tragedy in your life. Illustrations by Sonya Hallett.

Literature, cinema, and television very often present us with scenes of extreme violence, pain, and death. Brutality on screen is becoming more frequent, gratuitous, and ever more graphic. What is puzzling and ironic is that while we tend to recoil from real-life footage of violence such as terrorist executions, many of us eagerly flock to watch a new episode of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Tragedy could be one of the main reasons why we enjoy watching these TV series so much.

There could be several reasons for this. Our fear of and repulsion toward tragedy in real life can provoke a certain fascination when it happens in a movie, experienced in the familiar comfort of our homes. Here, tragedy taking place in a fictional scenario can provide a guilty-pleasure peek at what otherwise makes us so anxious and horrified in the real world.

“The portrayal of tragedy can be therapeutic.”

For others, tragedy offers thrills and suspense. We love being jolted out of our seats by all the shocking imagery. We want to experience that nervous excitement, distracting us from our humdrum lives.

Perhaps, for some of us, tragedy is attractive because it feels somehow intimate. We believe that it holds certain insights into human nature. Maybe it can reveal something deep about ourselves and the world we live in.

Does this mean that scenes of violence and death can achieve more than a shock effect? If we believe there is worthwhile literature out there that deals with tragedy, are we to suppose that tragedy here is more than a sensational trick? If that is the case, what precisely are its values? How can we distinguish this more meaningful tragedy from gratuitous entertainment?

 Tragedy and catharsis


What does ‘tragedy’ mean? Its everyday usage can refer to a whole variety of situations. It can include school shootings, fatal car crashes, viral epidemics, suicides, and starvation in developing countries. The diversity of these situations is all too clear. There is one important quality, however, that they all have in common. They are all instances of some event which has to do with suffering and loss, and our recognition of it. When we say an occasion is tragic we are implying that its victims and/or their spectator (us perhaps?) are aware of the pain caused by the incident. A tragic event cannot be tragic if no one understands how tragic it is.

Tragedy in literature and film can go further than this. The portrayal of tragedy can be therapeutic. Experiencing representations of pain and loss can have a healing effect upon us. They can give us a new strength and enhance the way we see our lives. Tragedy can change us for the better. Many thinkers have often called this particular ‘treatment’ brought about by tragedy, ‘catharsis’.

The term ‘catharsis’ comes from the Greek katharsis, which means ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’. The philosopher Aristotle first used the term in relation to the arts in his Poetics (c. 335 bce). For him, catharsis is the effect that Ancient Greek tragedies (or comedies and quite possibly other art forms) can have on their audiences.  This kind of theatre purifies and purges certain strong emotions that we have suppressed, emotions that otherwise would be unbalancing and destructive. Once released, equilibrium is restored leading to a new sense of relief and calm.

Caring for the victim

Dr James Corby (Department of English, University of Malta) has offered his own ideas on the relationship of tragedy with literature and dramatic arts.  He points out that tragedy brings about catharsis only after we identify with the victim. For tragedy to have its effect, we have to care deeply for that person who will eventually meet their downfall. We almost feel responsible for their well-being.

Literature elicits these feelings well. Richard Kearney writes: ‘Literature inspires a sympathy that is more extensive and resonant than that experienced in ordinary life. And it does so […] because it amplifies the range of those we might empathise with—reaching beyond family, friends and familiars to all kinds of foreigners. If we read Oedipus Rex, we experience what it is like to be a Greek who murders his father and marries his mother. If we read Anna Karenina, we experience the tragic fate of a passionate woman in 19th-century Russia. If we read Scarlet and Black, we relive the life of an erratic, wilful youth in Napoleonic France.’

“Will they live or die? Will they overcome adversity or succumb to it? This response is very similar to the flight-or-fight reaction we feel when exposed to danger.

Literature can put us in another’s shoes by appealing to our imagination and empathy. If we feel close to a character in a story, we feel their misfortune. We can experience it almost as if it is ours. According to Aristotle, this reaction would involve two primary emotions. We respond by feeling pity (eleos) and fear (phobos) for the character we love. Their suffering can cause us sorrow and compassion. It can also compel us to be afraid for them as well as awed by the terrible things that are happening to them. In the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormacy McCarthy’s The Road, for example, we feel sympathy for the unnamed father and his son. The endless desolation and ruin that confronts them together with the ever-impending threat of the cannibalism and cruelty of the human survivors cannot but evoke a certain feeling of dread and fascination. In Edward Bond’s Lear, human cruelty goes hand in hand with a hunger for power. Lear’s torture at the hands of his daughters with a machine that sucks out his eyeballs is another source of pity, horror, and awe for the unfortunate protagonist.

As Corby explains, our emotional response to the persecuted character above all reveals our intense concern with the persecuted protagonist’s survival. Our concern about whether the character will get through their ordeal prompts an instinctive and almost visceral reaction. Will they live or die? Will they overcome adversity or succumb to it? This response is very similar to the flight-or-fight reaction we feel when exposed to danger. In moments like these, we are taken over by the impulse to run away or to defend ourselves from an imminent threat. Our response is determined solely by a desire for self-preservation. Similarly, when we identify with a threatened character our self-defensive instincts are triggered vicariously. Will I—will that character—endure or escape calamity?

Losing care; beyond caring

At some point, the character stops fighting against the odds. Recognising that pain and loss are inevitable, the victim gradually begins to accept their fate. Likewise, our distress for them reaches such an intensity that it cannot be endured any longer. We give up our urgent concerns for them as they give up theirs.

This surrender is not a pessimistic attitude. The character does not simply decide that everything is over now so they might as well dig a hole and die there. Theirs is an acknowledgement of the harsh truth, an acceptance of their tragedy. ‘Such acceptance,’ Corby comments, ‘is rarely complete, of course. It is more a recognition that the worst has happened, or is happening, and that our [and/or their] direct emotional response is at some level irrelevant’. Here one realises that nothing the character can do will save them. They cannot escape or resist what has come upon them. The consequences are inescapable, and with that recognition comes a certain release, a loosening of the bonds of care. This is precisely what Corby understands by ‘catharsis’. I would add that by reconciling ourselves with the character’s demise, our sorrow for them burns itself out. Acknowledging the fatality of the situation slowly exhausts our pity and fear for them. We tire ourselves of our emotions—we despair of them. Our emotional depletion also occurs in the victims once they too face their lot.

surfaceThis is experienced acutely in such novels as Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised and Possibility of an Island. Here, the pervading obsession with physical illness, ageing, and death builds up toward the decline and sad endings of many of the characters. It makes these endings feel inevitable, inescapable. We realise at some point that we cannot do anything about these people we have sympathised with over the course of the story.

For Corby, in reconciling ourselves with tragedy in literature, we are released from the anguish caused by our protective relationship with the fictional person. The question of their self-preservation, for what they have lost or what they are going to lose, does not affect us directly any longer. The burden of our possessive care for them is lifted away. The unhappiness that comes from personal loss therefore disappears. What follows is a certain state of calm. We reach a place that is uninvolved and detached from the emotional storm we have just been through. Freed from all attachments to any individual self, our being now feels unencumbered, light. There is a sense of liberation.

We see this mirrored in the characters as well.  In acceptance, they surrender all care for themselves. Corby illustrates this by referring to Maurice Blanchot’s short-story, The Instant of My Death. Here, the author recounts his close brush with death before a Nazi firing squad. At the moment of his execution, his own inescapable death is embraced and with this comes ‘a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however) – sovereign elation […]? He was perhaps invincible’.  Another instance can be seen in Act III of Shakespeare’s play, King Richard the Second. Here, the banished Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, has come back to challenge Richard for the crown as his army is deserting him. Further on, Richard also learns that his close friends Bushy, Bagot, and Green have been killed.  On hearing this news, his defiant front is broken.  With this final straw, he talks about rejecting anything that can bring comfort to a human being: hope, success, the satisfaction of desire, safety: ‘of comfort no man speak […]’. Instead, he announces the need to talk about death and loss, the need to give in to the insufferable distress that accompanies them. Corby insists on the solace that all this talk of misery gives the deposed King. In accepting what has happened to him, Richard has finally discovered tranquillity.   

Ethics comes from a calm place

Catharsis therefore purifies or purges us. It liberates us from a narrowed vision focused on our immediate concerns for an individual seen as an imaginary extension of ourselves. This does not mean that we stop caring about them. It simply means that our sense of care no longer comes from our raw self-centred emotions that accompany an anxiety over our own survival or that of the character we identify with. It comes from elsewhere. The fight-or-flight impulse does not get the better of us in our reaction to the events in the story. It no longer controls or influences us.

“The experience of suffering can be so overpowering that it can make us despair of ever finding happiness and hope again.”

Our perception now comes from a place that is not engaged directly with the person we have been relating to. We become detached from their world. Our mindset is now composed. It enables us to see things from a much broader and more sensible viewpoint. Doing so opens up new ways of responding to experiences. We find in ourselves the potential to see the story’s universe through other forms of understanding. For Corby, this is how ethical thought begins.

Tragedy in our lives

So is catharsis important for our lives?

Yes, if it can lead us towards a frame of mind that can help us handle our own tragedies and recover from them. When we are struck by misfortune, a loved one dies or our life projects fail, we need to do what may initially seem impossible: to face this reality and move on.

Intense grief is not pleasant to face. The experience of suffering can be so overpowering that it can make us despair of ever finding happiness and hope again. We might also seek to escape our pain by repressing it. In our darkest moments, anything would do, so long as we get away from the consciousness of what we have lost. In our denial, however, we can find ourselves consciously or unconsciously reliving the tragic event we are trying to forget. What happened in the past can keep haunting us time and again.

Catharsis, on the other hand, calls for the unconditional acceptance of our loss as ever present in our lives. It is the realisation that what we have lost will never come back and that the rest of our life must be lived with this fact one way or another.  We must work through it somehow. We can do so at this point because catharsis gives us the calm and disengagement required in order to decide and act intelligently when confronted with our troubles. Catharsis, Kearney writes, ‘turns passive lament into possibilities of active complaint […]. [It] transform[s] paralysis into protest […]. [It] invites the victim to resist the alienation of evil, that is, to move from a position of mute helplessness to acts of revolt and self-renewal [italics removed]’.

“Literature can influence the way we look at our misfortunes.”

The serene and clear-sighted mindset we acquire through this experience enables us to make choices that are more just, prudent, and moral. No longer blinded by our self-defensive instinct, we can now think more deeply and carefully on our attitude and behaviour. Perhaps we can now find out how to make the best of what we have in order to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. Our faith in ourselves is returned to us. We are reendowed with esteem and belief in what we can do.

This is where literature (together with film and other artforms) comes in. Literature can help us achieve this. Both Corby and Kearney believe that artistic representations of tragedy can effect a kind of catharsis in our actual lives. In other words, the mindset it inspires through its tales of woe can, in turn, bring about the same mindset in our response to real tragedies. Literature can influence the way we look at our misfortunes. Engaging with its stories is a training of sorts. It trains us in the art of seeing our world in a more effective and enlightened way.

Good literature is an initiation.

Further Reading
Corby, J. (2014) Of Comfort No Man Speak: Tragedy, Indifference, Consolation. Thinking through tragedy and comedy: Performance philosophy and the future of genre. Berlin. 4-5 December 2014. Germany: ICI Berlin.
Corby, J. (2015) Ratio Essendi: Tragedy and the Scalar Therapeutics of Loss. Scale. Valletta. 15-18 June 2015. Malta: European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSAeu).
Kearney, R. (2002) On Stories. London: Routledge.
Kearney, R. (2003) Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. London: Routledge.


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