||Narrative play, I have argued, provides the
child with a ‘potential space’ in which to explore life’s
possibilities. Like the transitional objects – stuffed animals, blankets,
dolls – with which children learn to comfort themselves in the absence
of the mother, stories, rhymes, pictures and songs people the world of the
child with objects that she can manipulate as symbols of the objects in
real life that matter most to her. As Winnicott says, the transitional object
is itself a symbol, and the child’s play with it is an early example
of artistic creativity. Frequently the child acts out stories with her stuffed
animals – so there is a tight interweaving between the symbolic physical
object and the symbolic aesthetic object. Through symbolic activity, the
child cultivates her ability to imagine what others experience, and she
explores the possibilities of human life in a safe and pleasing manner.
At the same time, she cultivates her ability to be alone, and deepens her
own inner world.
[There is] a relationship between narrative play and the acquisition of
compassion. But we now need to open up several more general questions about
artistic activity and emotion. Literary works will be important to the normative
part of my account in Part III – along with one musical work. In the
chapter that concludes Part I, I have chosen to focus on music. There are
several reasons for this choice. The topic is of great intrinsic interest,
and is of particular interest to me. Furthermore, in focusing on music we
have an opportunity to display the merits of the account of emotion that
we have been developing, showing that it helps us solve some problems that
other accounts cannot solve. A focus on music will also assist us in making
some further refinements in the account. Finally, the topic of music and
emotion, though recently more often discussed than it was for some years,
remains a relatively neglected topic in aesthetic theory; I therefore need
to indicate what my approach to it is […].
At this point, however, I need to prepare the way for that analysis by saying
something more general about emotional expression and response in connection
with works of art. Some accounts of musical emotion get bogged down by not
thinking about how these issues arise, and are resolved, in the other arts.
Certain questions have sometimes been treated as insoluble, as putting an
end to discussion – questions such as: ‘How can we have real
emotions when listening to a musical work if there is no real-world object
for those emotions to be about? If the negative emotions of sadness, grief,
fear, and so forth that we experience in response to music are real emotions,
why ever would we seek them out deliberately?’ ‘If in grasping
the expressive content of music we are acquiring new cognitive content,
doesn’t this mean that we are just using the music as a tool of understanding?”
But these questions are less often regarded as discussion stoppers in the
analysis of literature; a long tradition, beginning from Aristotle, has
addressed them, and they have generated valuable constructive analyses.
It will be useful to place my account in this context.
The very form of a literary work of art can be rich in emotionally expressive
content. To focus on the example of ancient tragedy, the tragic genre contains,
in the very form of its plots and the actions of its characters, what Aristotle
calls ‘the pitiable’ and ‘the fearful’: that is,
material that is appropriately perceived (by an attentive and suitably educated
reader or spectator) with those emotions. For in its very structure it represents
good people coming to grief in important ways through no fault of their
own, and this is part of the content of pity, or, as I shall be calling
it, compas- sion. (Fear is felt both for the characters, as bad things are
impending, and for oneself, as one reflects on the possibilities they show
for human life in general.) The characters may also have and express various
emotions, and to the extent that spectators, in some local part of the work,
identify with one or another character, they will also experience those
emotions, sharing Philoctetes’ anger and desolation, or the devastation
of Oedipus when he discovers what he has done; to the extent that they are
encouraged to identify with a perspective that is detached from that of
a given character, they may have a range of reactive emotions towards the
character: compassion for Philoctetes’ suffering, anger at Odysseus’
manipulative use of him, fear for Oedipus’ impending downfall. But
the pitiable and the fearful are not simply local: they are embedded in
the overall structure of the form, through the particular type of identification
and sympathy with the hero that the form itself cultivates. We might, using
Wayne Booth’s valuable terminology, call this perspective that of
the implied author, the sense of life that animates the work taken
as a whole. That perspective is frequently modelled, in tragedies, by the
reactions of the tragic chorus, who encourage a certain range of reactions
towards the unfolding plot. The sense of life running through such works,
in other words, is that of someone who looks at the reversals and sufferings
of reasonably good people with both compassion and fear.
The perspective of the implied author typically operates on multiple levels,
from the concrete to the highly general. On one level, we see the sufferings
of Philoctetes with compassion for a world in which this good and admirable
man suffers unbearable pain. More generally, we think of acute physical
suffering and have compassion for those in its grip. On a still more general
level, however, we are encouraged to think of his sufferings as ‘things
such as might happen’, and thus to consider in a more general way
the vulnerability of human beings to reversals and sufferings. These more
general perspectives are, themselves, multiple; they permit of numerous
different spectatorial options. One spectator might focus on bodily pain,
another on deception, another on the general vulnerability of human life
to unexpected reversals.
This general perspective invites spectators, in turn, to have emotions of
various types towards the possibilities of their own lives. Seeing events
as general human possibilities, they naturally also see them as possibilities
for themselves. Thus, seeing Philoctetes’ plight they may experience
fear for their own pain, or for the possibility of manipulation and abuse;
grief at similar disasters that have overtaken people they love; anger at
people in their own world who use other people as tools. Again, these emotions
operate on multiple levels of generality and specificity: I might connect
Odysseus’s manipulation of Philoctetes to some bad political events
in my immediate environment, as Greek tragedies were often connected to
democratic decisionmaking. Or I might just think in a more general way about
the possibility that I or my loved ones might suffer manipulation and abuse.
I might think of the specific possibility of being afflicted with a very
painful illness; or I might just fear unexpected reversals and difficulties.
Finally, spectators may also have reactive emotions towards the sensibility
of the implied author, both concrete and general. Sometimes these reactions
betray the fact that the work is being rejected: thus, one might react with
anger, or boredom, or amusement to a tragedy, if one simply thought it badly
done, or expressive of trivial or wrongheaded sentiments. But insofar as
the work is accepted by the spectator, the reactive emotions will be sympathetic
responses: sympathy, for example, with states of fear and grief expressed
in the work as a whole – or, perhaps, a sympathetic anger against
a world in which such terrible things can be permitted to happen. In tragedy,
such sympathetic emotions are usually very difficult to distinguish from
the emotions felt in the perspective of the ‘implied author’,
given that the latter perspective is already one of compassion. But often
the two perspectives are distinct. If I follow Sappho’s excruciating
account of the pain of erotic jealousy, I may enter the perspective of the
implied author (which is identical to that of the speaker), and feel that
emotion; but, again, I may simply react with sympathy to the torments so
vividly recorded. These reactive emotions, again, operate on multiple levels:
I may have sympathy for the character Sappho; for women whose same-sex love
is thwarted by conventional courtship and marriage; for unhappy love in
general. And depending on how my own life is positioned toward these possibilities,
I will have a corresponding range of emotions towards my own erotic possibilities.
We have, then, the following levels and types of emotion:
Emotions toward characters: a) sharing the emotion of a character
by identification, b) reacting to the emotion of a character.
Emotions toward the ‘implied author’, the sense of life embodied
in the text as a whole: a) sharing that sense of life and its
emotions through empathy, b) reacting to it, either sympathetically
or critically. These emotions operate at multiple levels of specificity
Emotions toward one’s own possibilities. These, too, are multiple
and operate at multiple levels of specificity and generality.
All these emotional responses (with the exception of those that involve
a rejection of the work) are built into the work itself, into its literary
structures. Thus it involves no neglect of the literary form to conclude
that a work is rich in emotive content; indeed one cannot well describe
the form or structure of a tragic work without mentioning this.
What is the connection between these formal structures in tragedy and
the actual emotions of a spectator? A plausible claim is that the formal
structures are such as to arouse certain emotions in a spectator who is
such as the work demands, who watches with absorption, following the beckonings
of the form. Not all spectators at Sophocles’ Oedipus would
feel pity for Oedipus and fear for themselves. As Wayne Booth says, there
is frequently a gulf between the implied reader (or spectator) and the
read reader (or spectator). Real spectators are often distracted and inattentive.
As Aristophanes notes in Birds, many spectators of ancient tragedy,
‘bored with tragic choruses’, are really thinking about how
nice it would be to be able to fly away home like a bird, to enjoy food,
or sex, or excretion. But the implied spectator – who is also the
real spectator, when that person is sufficiently attuned to the work –
will feel a range of emotions connected to the presence of the ‘pitiable’
and the ‘fearful’ in the plot. As I have said, there are numerous
options for the spectator, particularly in negotiating levels of generality,
and connections between the work and one’s own lives; thus no single
‘correct’ experience is built into the form – rather,
it offers a range of possible experiences.
I have said that the ‘potential space’ of aesthetic activity
is a space with which we investigate and try out some of life’s
possibilities. In responding to a tragedy with pity and fear we are grasping
certain urgent claims, not only about the characters but also about the
world and about ourselves: not only that Oedipus is coming to grief through
no fault of his own, but also that it is possible for a good person to
come to grief in this way, and that it is possible for us to do so. In
this way, the reader or spectator of a literary work is reading or watching
the work, but at the same time reading the world, and reading her own
self. The work is, in that sense, as Proust put it, an ‘optical
instrument’ through which the reader may focus on certain personal
realities. The cognitive grasping is not produced by the emotional experience,
it is embedded in it. And the cognitions, while in a certain sense detachable
from the work – for one might realise certain things about one’s
life without seeing a tragedy, and one might preserve the knowledge tragedy
promotes after the experience is past – are still about the work
and are responses to the work. Even when they pertain to one’s own
life, they involve a grasp of the work’s specific literary structures.
Indeed, this is what makes tragedy so important in our lives, that its
forms are well suited for generating experiences that cut through the
dullness of everyday life and show us something deep about ourselves and
our actual situation.
In this way, as Aristotle stressed, poetry is ‘more philosophical’
than history. History tells us what has happened one time: but this may
not show us anything interesting about our own possibilities, if the event
is idiosyncratic. Literary works, by contrast, show us general plausible
patterns of action, ‘things such as might happen’ in human
life. When we grasp the patterns of salience offered by the work, we are
also grasping our own possibilities.
In what has been said, we have an answer to the question about negative
emotions. For we seek out painful literary experiences, as Aristotle argued,
for the understanding of self and world they offer. While the understanding
itself is painful in content – for it is always painful to recognise
that one is a needy and limited creature – it is, on the other hand,
a valuable and a pleasant thing to acquire understanding. The aesthetic
activity, which takes place in a safe and protected ‘potential space’
where our own safety is not immediately threatened, harnesses the pleasure
of exploring to the neediness and insufficiency that is its object, thus
making our limitations pleasing, and at least somewhat less threatening,
to ourselves. Exercising this sort of understanding preserves us from
a hard arrogant feeling of self-sufficiency that would in many ways mar
our dealings with others in life. Such experiences increase our understanding
of our own emotional geography; they also ‘allow us to partly reassure
ourselves in a non-destructive manner of the depth and breadth of our
ability to feel”, keeping our personality in an open and permeable
condition. As Aristotle remarks, if one has an ‘overweening disposition’,
a hubristikê diathesis, one will not feel pity. Tragedies
construct a spectator who does not have a hubristikê diathesis,
who is open to emotional experiences having to do with the sufferings
of others, and who is therefore (other things being equal) somewhat better
prepared to relate to fellow human beings on a basis of mutuality. We
thus have a fourth type of emotion to add to our list of spectatorial
emotions: joy or pleasant emotion at coming to understand something.
For this reason, Proust compares novels to experiences of grief or other
profound emotions in real life: ‘certain novels are like great but
temporary bereavements, abolishing habit, bringing us once more into contact
with the reality of life’ Our habits screen from us our real situation
– our neediness, our love for uncontrolled objects, our vulnerability.
A novel, like a bereavement, shows us the truth of our situation –
though only briefly, in a way that is quickly eclipsed by the ‘oblivion’
and the ‘gaiety’ of daily routine.
Are the spectator’s emotions real emotions? Obviously enough, they
do not all have a concrete real-world situation in our own lives as their
object, although some do. And this makes a difference to their intensity
and their duration. On the other hand, although we remain aware that Oedipus’s
story is a fiction, our emotions do in two ways address themselves to
the real world: by taking general objects as well as the concrete fictional
object, and by taking ourselves as objects. We are aware that the immediate
tragedy is that of a fictional character; and yet we are also aware that
these are possibilities for all human beings, hence the story of our own
situation in the world. Thus in having pity for Oedipus we also have pity
for all who suffer disaster in a relevantly similar way. In having fear
for his predicament, we have fear that we ourselves may possibly suffer
a similar reversal.
Putting things this way allows us to see how the emotions can be genuine
and not simply playacting, and also how they can have the cognitive content
of the real-life emotion. Pity has the content, ‘someone who is
(right now) important to me is suffering undeserved misfortune’.
This content is deployed at two levels: at a concrete level, these thoughts
take Philoctetes, the fictional character, as their intentional object;
to this extent, the spectator retains a simultaneous awareness that the
person exists in a fictional world and not in the real world. At a more
general level, however, pity takes as its intentional object the unjustified
suffering that is really in the world, the suffering that makes us attend
to Philoctetes’ story and see it as plausible. Similarly, at one
level we fear lest Oedipus come to grief; at another level, we fear for
things ‘such as may hap- pen in life’, to ourselves and to
those about whom we care. If the work were not held to life in this way,
by threads of plausibility, it could not engross us emotionally as it
does. We see this when we read a work that is unsuccessful: we don’t
have real emotions when we haven’t managed to care about the story
as ‘the sort of thing that might happen’.
Consider another genre built around negative emotions: the horror film.
It is tempting to think that our emotions at such films could not be real
terror or anxiety, or we would not seek out such experiences. But things
are more complex. Once again, I would argue that these films have power
and interest precisely to the extent that they are able to make us relate
to the events as ‘thing such as might happen’, constructing
real emotions that operate in the four ways I have identified. When I
watch Hitchcock’s Psycho, at one level (1) I fear for Janet
Leigh as she stands in the shower. I know well that danger stalks her
– or, if I know the film already, I know very concretely that she
will soon be bleeding into the drain. In fearing for her, I retain awareness
that she exists in fiction, and that no person in my real world is currently
so threatened. But of course the reason why this moment in the film has
such mythic power is that it is ‘a thing such as might happen’.
The female body is always vulnerable to rape and assault. While I fear
for Leigh, then, I am also aware of (2) the vulnerability of women to
such violations. (I may have these emotions on several different levels
of generality, thinking of all women, or of American women, and so on.)
If I am a woman, I will also (3) think of my own body and its possibilities.
If I am not, I will think of the bodies of women I care about.
On all these levels I have real fear. My fear for Leigh is concrete, but
leads to no action, since I am aware that she lives in a fictional world.
My fear for women in America is directed towards the real world; it leads
to no particular action right now, but it does prompt a type of concern
that might in principle lead to action.
My fear for myself is, again, directed toward the real world, and prompts
a type of concern that might in principle lead to action. The way Hitchcock
constructs the crucial episode plays on our own multiple attention, as
we both follow the plot and investigate our own bodily vulnerability.
We see the woman’s secure trusting demeanour, as she stands naked
in the shower. And we are able to see, as she does not, the threat that
approaches her. In a safe context, we allow ourselves to investigate a
fear that at some level accompanies us everywhere we go. What we want
from such works is the opportunity to explore these fears in a context
of immediate safety.
Because we are in a context of safety, we are also encouraged to have
a range of reactive emotions: (1) sympathy for Leigh and rage at the predator
who stalks her; (2) sympathy for women who are raped or assaulted and
rage at their attackers.
But things are still more complex, since the film actually constructs
for its viewer a disturbing double identification. Through his characteristically
voyeuristic and aggressive use of the camera, Hitchcock places the viewer
in the position of the danger that stalks the heroine. In this way he
also brings viewers into contact with their own sadism and persecutory
aggression. The camera itself makes us accomplices to aggression, as does
the structure of the genre itself: both awaken our desire for mayhem and
blood. One evident reason for Hitchcock’s power is his uncanny ability
to investigate the most uncomfortable aspects of infantile emotion. We
both wish Leigh well and want to see her slashed, both identify with her
and persecute her. In the process we become aware of our own aggression
towards cherished objects. These experiences would lack power if we were
not investigating our own psychology and the possibilities it contains.
Finally, in this case as in the case of tragedy, we have (4) the exhilaration
and delight of learning something about ourselves, depressing and disturbing
though this knowledge in some respects is.
Does such an approach to fictional works, as being about ourselves and
our inner world, lead to a neglect of their form? Not in the least. For
it is precisely in virtue of its formal features that such a work succeeds
in constructing emotions about one’s own possibilities; nor would
any account of the form of such a work be complete if it did not link
it to human possibilities. Aristotle’s Poetics is in a
sense a work about tragic form. But its account of the form involves discussing
pity and fear, because the structure of a tragic drama is built around
the evocation of these emotions.
The greater danger is that such an approach, focused as it is on general
human possibilities, might lead to a disregard of historical and cultural
context. One sometimes encounters the view that a tragedy, or a musical
work, expresses grief, or joy, timelessly and universally, in a way that
does not require the interpreter to be educated in the aesthetic and cultural
traditions in question. […] I argue against such an approach, claiming
that the expressive characteristics of a musical work cannot be decoded
without considerable knowledge of the musical tradition in question, and
the oeuvre of the composer. The same is evidently true of literary works,
although at a very general level their representations of common human
events may sometimes enable them to elicit emotion across wide divides
of space and time. Are we simply using the work as a tool of our own understanding,
if we attend to it as an exploration of ‘things such as might happen’?
I see no reason why this should follow. Any work that is sufficiently
rich in structure and content to elicit deep emotional responses will
also elicit admiration and wonder for its own complexity of design. I
have said that wonder and delight are crucial ingredients in the process
of aesthetic play; as elsewhere in life, they invest these processes with
a non-instrumental and even to some extent a non-eudaimonistic character.
And because the work is itself a symbol of cherished objects in our world,
it will to some extent, like any other transitional object, also elicit
the emotions of love and gratitude that we have for such objects.
Some works of art will elicit only wonder and delight, without tapping
our more eudaimonistic emotions. This is evidently true of some works
of visual art and of music, and of some literary works as well, those
that please primarily by sophistication of form and do not purport to
explore human concerns with time, death, love, or other eudaimonistic
issues. By contrast, there are some entire literary genres that could
not function at all without rich eudaimonistic connections to their audience:
tragedy, romance, melodrama, the realist novel, and some types of comedy.
This helps us to give a more general reply to the charge of neglect of
aesthetic value: we cannot explain how these genres function, without
mentioning the ways in which they relate to the audience’s concern
with the shape of human possibility.