The paradox of tragedy is a paradox of deriving pleasure from something that would only bring misery and sorrow if it happened to us in real life. We voluntarily make ourselves feel overwhelming negative emotions by engaging with tragic, pitiful, or appalling pieces of art. We would never willingly choose to experience the loss of our loved ones in real life, yet we choose to engage with tragedy and empathize with a character who went through this devastating experience.
Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae (?), Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums.
What makes tragic art so appealing? Why do we eagerly choose to go through pain and suffering caused by events portrayed in tragic plays, horror films, and sad novels? Does this suffering bring us any aesthetic pleasure, any kind of intellectual and emotional satisfaction, or any ethical benefits afterwards?
According to Aristotle in his famous work Poetics, tragedy, as all other forms of art, is imitation, but it does not simply imitate people; it imitates action and state of emotion. The characters of tragedy are represented through this action. Aristotle has an important condition for art to be considered tragic: it must simultaneously elicit in us both pity and fear. We can feel pity without any fear when engaging with a tear-jerking play and experience a pleasant relief afterwards or we can feel fear without any pity while engaging with a horror film. However, in Aristotle’s view, pity and fear felt at the same time is what defines tragedy as a form of art.
Tragedy also requires the presence of a tragic hero. To evoke the feelings of pity and fear, the hero's fate must suddenly shift from happiness to misery due to a fatal error. According to Aristotle, the hero must also possess several distinct qualities for us to be able to empathize with them and believe in their suffering: goodness, propriety, realism, and consistency. In the context of Poetics, goodness can entail both high moral standards and the hero’s noble origin. Propriety encompasses a range of traits appropriate for the tragic hero, such as valor and dignity. The hero must also be convincingly realistic and consistent in their behavior; all their actions must be justified by their personal traits or by the outward conditions.
Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix, c. 470 BC, from Vulci, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, Vatican Museums.
A tragedy consists of several parts that develop the storyline. For example, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex starts with a tragic flaw, also called hamartia, the fatal mistake introduced by the tragic character. The fatal mistake made by Oedipus was the murder of king Laius. Oedipus did not realize that the man he killed at the crossroads was his father and the ruler of Thebes.
In the following reversal of circumstances, perepeteia, the messenger arrives and tells Oedipus that he is not the son of Polybus and Merope, whom he believed to be his parents, and Oedipus slowly comes to realization that he might have been the murderer of his own father and married his mother. The shepherd in the palace confirms the words of the messenger, and Oedipus becomes aware of his fatal mistake.
When such a drastic reversal happens, we start to empathize with the hero and immerse ourselves into the feeling of pity and fear. The foreknowledge of the inevitability of tragic outcome makes these emotions even stronger. The perepeteia is usually entailed by the final part of the plot, which completes the tragic chain of events, a catastrophe. Jocasta, the wife and the mother of Oedipus, commits suicide, and Oedipus, horrified by the revealed truth and Jocasta’s death, cuts his eyes out. He then willingly goes into exile so nobody can see him ever again. After the resolution, the feeling of fear and pity is purged, which leads to catharsis, the state of emotional relief, purification, and restoration.
"Aristoteles" (1811) by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882).
The concept of catharsis is one of possible solutions to the paradox of tragedy, since it explains why we experience satisfaction after engaging with tragic art. When the pain goes away, and the feelings of pity and fear are purged, we feel purified and renewed. After this purification our consciousness is refreshed, and through suffering we might come to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Catharsis gives meaning and worth to aesthetic suffering. Engaging with tragic art allows us to reflect on our morality and experience powerful emotions without having to live with the consequences. This makes engaging with tragic art and catharsis a valuable ethical and aesthetic experience.
Aristotle (1996). Poetics. Penguin Books Ltd.
Reeves, C.H. (1952). Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero. The American Journal of Philology, 73(2), pp. 172-188.
Naar, H. Art and Emotion. Retrieved April 7th 2022: http://www.iep.utm.edu/art-emot/#H4
Image 1. Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae (?), Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums [Photograph]. https://flickr.com/photos/carolemage/23126501169/
Image 2. Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix, c. 470 BC, from Vulci, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, Vatican Museums [Photograph]. https://flickr.com/photos/carolemage/9665213064/
Image 3. "Aristoteles" (1811) by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882) [Photograph]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francesco_Hayez_001.jpg