ENG200.002 -- Introduction to Literary Study

Prof. Eileen Joy

Spring 2010

SHORT PAPER #1: What is a "Real" Tragedy?

Figure 1. Nikiphoros Lytras, Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices (1865)

According to Aristotle, a work is a tragedy when it arouses in us both pity and fear. The key is that both have to be present, and in certain degrees, for a work to be the kind of tragedy which we might all agree constitutes a "great work of art." A play or movie that only causes us to cry (induces pity but not also fear) might just be what some term a "sentimental tear-jerker": it feels good to cry but we haven't been changed or transformed as persons--as soon as we leave the theater, we've forgotten all about it. Conversely, a play or movie that only frightens us (induces fear but not pity) might just be what Joe Sachs refers to as the "horror" or "slasher" story, where "the thrill of fear is the primary object . . . and the story alternates between the build-up of apprehension and the shock of violence." The problem here, if we like this kind of drama, is that we're mainly just cultivating the "thrill of strong feeling" and we risk actually "coarsening" our ability to feel at all--in other words, we might de-sensitive ourselves by watching too many slasher-horror movies, like Saw or Hostel or Grindhouse, such that real violence, done to others, might not move us (as it should). There is also the genre of revenge drama (movies like Payback and Kill Bill), which also does not qualify as "tragedy" because, as Sachs writes,

"the satisfaction we feel in the vicarious infliction of pain or death is nothing but a thin veil over the very feelings we mean to be punishing. This is a successful dramatic formula, arousing in us destructive desires that are fun to feel, along with the self-righteous illusion that we are really superior to the character who displays them. The playwright who makes us feel that way will probably be popular, but he is a menace."

So, to sum up, tear-jerker, horror, and revenge dramas do not qualify as tragedies because, although they cause us to feel strong passions, those passions are not aroused in a way that makes us better persons--they just give us cheap thrill rides and allow us to indulge in feelings that, while they might be pleasurable in the short term, are not really "going anywhere."

Real tragedy, by contrast, through the combination of both pity and fear (which we feel on behalf of the characters, almost as if we are right there beside them, or as if: that person could be me BUT ALSO: whenever someone else is hurt, I am also hurt), helps us to see what it means to be human, which also means: by seeing what it is possible to lose (through what the characters have lost), we also re-discover what should really matter to us (love, justice, brother- and sisterhood, friendship, democracy, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, generosity, courage, loyalty, truth, etc.). A real tragedy, according to Aristotle, should also be beautiful (but how do we know what is "beautiful" as opposed to what is "low budget shlock"?--that is an open question that I myself do not know how to fully answer, but . . . just think about it a little).

So, here is the assignment: thinking of all the movies and/or plays you have seen, which one would you argue for as a "real tragedy," according to Aristotle? Give me 2, double-spaced & typed pages. Be as detailed as possible.