Pity and fear without catharsis

May 18, 2014

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes bookworms lost in a labyrinthine fiction, “at last finding the error visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to clear themselves; .. as birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.”

Who knows how many times The Iliad has been translated, paraphrased and transcribed. A hall of mirrors would be needed to explore intertextuality across iterations of translations and adaptations of the epic.

The Alexandrian poet Cavafy rewrites the image of the horses of Achilles with elegant simplicity:

When they saw Patroklos killed,
who was so brave and strong and young,
Achilles’ horses began to cry,
their immortal nature outraged
to witness the work of death.
They tossed their heads and waved their long manes,
stamped their hooves on the ground, and they mourned
Patroklos, whom they felt was soulless – ruined –
flesh made lowly now – his spirit lost –
defenseless – without breath –
he had gone from life back to the big Nothing.

Zeus saw the immortal horses’ tears
and was sorry. He said, “I should not
have acted so mindlessly ..
it would have been better if we had not given you away,
.. What are you doing down there
with miserable human beings, fate’s playthings.
Neither death nor old age pursues you,
yet fleeting disasters torment you.”
But for the endless disaster of death,
the two noble animals shed their tears.

A revisionist Trojan war story like Troilus and Cressida rendering the story’s heroes as vulgar brutes and the epic duels as cowardly ambushes is reminiscent of the counternarrative to the Alexander Romance in Roman traditions painting Alexander the Great as a bloated drunk. It falls outside the story’s traditional genre, but not outside the classical repertoire of genres, having something more in common with Euripides or Menander than Sophocles or Aeschylus.

Northrop Frye wrote that “as tragedy moves over toward irony, the sense of inevitable event begins to fade out, and the sources of catastrophe come into view. .. Tragedy’s ‘this must be’ becomes irony’s ‘this at least is,’ a concentration of foreground facts and a rejection of mythical superstructures.”


Shakespeare takes the war at Troy into the territories of irony in his Troilus and Cressida, about two minor characters of legend, younger than the heroes, adolescent lovers trying to navigate the socially awkward long-siege polity within the city and the camp. Where Homer “is rapid, plain and direct in thought and expression, plain and direct in substance, and noble” the Shakespeare is cynical, witty and harsh.

There’s an interesting angle on the structure of zero-sum games in The Responsibility Virus (2003): the understanding of failure is governed by four values, “(1) To win and not lose in any interaction, (2) To always maintain control of the situation at hand, (3) To avoid embarrassment of any kind, (4) To stay rational throughout.” This is certainly a cookbook for bitter ironies, and Shakespeare’s war story is bitter to say the least.

Invoking concern about pain and suffering, especially in the context of alleged injustice, always invokes zero-sum game rules by implication. Shakespeare refutes the game and so gives a more merciless portrait of the war than Homer, stripped of ennobling respect for loss and life in favor of camp bawdiness and sneering skepticism of grand reputations for prowess or courage.

Richard Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad makes a glorious image out of the wounding of Menelaus:

“As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple
colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses;
it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider
longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king’s treasure,
.. to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman:
so, Menelaus, your shapely thighs were stained with the colour
of blood, and your legs also and the ankles beneath them.”

The vulgar feminine side of war in Troilus and Cressida is garish compared to this royal contest in arms. “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” is the real subject here, a stranger to honor and glory, merely a living, feeling creature grasping at words erringly but insistently, untrusting as a listener but cocksure in every utterance, sly and clumsy at the same time.

Freud posits that the creation of ritual scapegoats for purging collective guilt was pivotal in the birth of civilization, and that the transcendent arts harbor the secrets of redemption for civilization’s discontents. In this play ritual use of high emotion is set aside. Matter-of-factness robs the errors of hope of tragic significance, and only the foibles of conventional wisdom loom large in the disappointments of the point of view characters, their dreams devalued as well as deferred. Discontent is a problem for which the play offers no solutions whatever.

Aristotle was perhaps the first to argue that the cathartic energy in dramatic tragedies contributes to virtue in the experience of theater-goers, and that the literary arts are part of a moral education. But what do we say about “problem plays” like Troilus and Cressida, closer to a satire than a romantic comedy, boldly combining elements of tragedy and farce?


The contingencies of love and necessity fall out with remorseless logic in this story about thwarted romance and dishonorable deaths, and the darker side of psychology, the shadow play of Eros and Thanatos, deepens the conflict in ways that bring about guilt with or without room for redemption, allowing that redeeming moments can themselves be refused.

Troilus and Cressida dances around the option of withholding deus ex machina from a love story or a war story in ways that invite an analysis of intertextuality with Shakespeare’s Pericles or Cymbeline. Above all the play focuses on the regrets of partaking as a social animal in the vicissitudes of conscience, neither glamorizing violence nor validating love as anything other than a glue of convenience among fickle but appetite-driven beasts of nature.

Another translator of The Iliad, I. A. Richards, writes in a book on literary criticism that one can hardly run short of aphorisms about what makes art transcendent – he lists a series of “conjectures, a supply of admonitions, many acute isolated observations, some brilliant guesses, much oratory and applied dogma, inexhaustible confusion, a sufficiency of dogma, no small stock of prejudices, whimsies and crochets, a profusion of mysticism, a little genuine speculation, sundry stray inspirations, pregnant hints ..”

“Beautiful words are the very and peculiar light of the mind.”
“All men naturally receive pleasure from imitation.”
“Unity in variety.”
“The eye on the object.”
“Significant form.”
“The pleasures of Fancy are more conducive to health than those of the understanding.”
“The expression of impressions.”
“Empathy favorable to our existence.”
“Delight is the chief, if not the only end; instruction can be admitted but in the second place.”

He won’t have “mystery mongering” that pursues literary criticism argumentatively while glossing the “impasse” in musical theory, that chasm between technical details discernible in their combined effects, and the aesthetic outcomes that are more like “high inspiration” or “free play” than “shop mechanics” to the approving ear. Instead he expounds an ambitious cognitive theory of the way in which literary work is perceived and critically received.

Richards quotes Sir Walter Raleigh describing Christina Rossetti’s poetry: “Full of that beautiful redundance and that varied reiteration which are natural to all strong feeling and all spontaneous melody … the expression rising unsought, with incessant recurrence to the words or phrases given at first, with a delicate sense of pattern which prescribes the changes in the cadence.” I have an abiding ambition to describe drama or screen acting performances with compliments this articulate and apt.

Richards brings forward memorable analytical tropes like “mutations of regime” and “aesthetic or projectile adjectives,” “profane dissection” and “prudential speech,” “dictionary understanding” and “internal order,” “mnemonic irrelevances” and “stock responses,” “doctrinal adhesions” and “technical presuppositions,” “immaturity” and “construing,” “tied images” and “the fatal facility with which usual meanings reappear when they are not wanted,” and how “the importance of an impulse .. can be defined for our purposes as the extent of the disturbance of other impulses in the individual’s activities which the thwarting of the impulse involves.”

This last is nicely elaborated on: “The adjustment to one another of varied impulses – to go forward carefully, to lie down and grasp something with the hands, to go back, and so forth – and their co-ordination into useful behavior alters the whole character of his experience. These efforts point to promising ways of liberating associative logic from the reputation of non-logic, and bringing it more thoroughly under analysis.”

His study is poetry rather than drama, but a cognitive theory of the cathartic impulse in tragedy would be welcome at this level of detail, something treating the associative logic of thwarted expectations in problem plays that withhold this sublime satisfaction while they play on the pity and fears of the audience. I’ll see if I can come up with one myself, building on my notes from Richards’ work and Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism among other sources.

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