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Paradoxical Tragedy Essay

718 words - 3 pages

Philosophers have sometimes felt that the satisfaction we take in tragedy presents a challenge to reflection, an explanatory challenge that other sources of aesthetic enjoyment--comedy or horror, for instance--also present.(1) The idea is that our satisfaction is ultimately paradoxical, that its elements are unstable on purely formal grounds, and so some special explanation of the satisfaction is called for. If we delight in watching the downfall of the illustrious, why do we? This type of question does not seem to arise, or arise with the same urgency, for many other kinds of aesthetic enjoyment. To take a simple example, our enjoyment of Matisse's The Dance does not ordinarily provoke bafflement about how it is that we are able to find graceful, expressive physical activity pleasing to contemplate.My own thought, however, is that there is nothing formally unstable in the elements that contribute to the unreflective enjoyment of tragedy, and thus no special explanations of the art are needed. What we rather do need to explain is the sense that tragedy is paradoxical, and I shall suggest that a submerged rationalist picture of the mind creates that sense.I We first need to get clearer about the specific elements that collectively generate the alleged paradox. A triad of elements would seem to be necessary.The first element is straightforwardly identifiable: we do enjoy tragedies--at least some well-wrought ones, some of the time. These qualifications are important because a great many tragedies, like many other kinds of art, are unsuccessfully or imperfectly realized. Although we might think that a failed work can still yield pleasure, and thereby help to yield a paradox, it is the acknowledged monuments that make the potential problem most interesting. Unless we are children or squeamish adults, we do not flee performances of Othello, or avoid reading The Mayor of Casterbridge; on the contrary, we commonly seek out such experiences as these works provide and think ourselves better for having had them.The second element is a little more difficult to state precisely, but only a little. We could begin with a minimal specification to the effect that there is something unpleasant...

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