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THE NATURE OF THE EMOTIONS OF THE
THAT psychologist who, writing on the prob
lems of dramatic art, called his brochure “ The Dispute over Tragedy,” gave the right name to a singular situation. Of all the riddles of æsthetic experience, none has been so early propounded, so indefatigably attempted, so variously and unsatisfactorily solved, as this. What is dramatic ? What constitutes a tragedy? How can we take pleasure in painful experiences ? These questions are like Banquo's ghost, and will not down.
The ingenious Bernays has said that it was all the fault of Aristotle. The last phrase of the famous definition in the “ Poetics,” which should relate the nature, end, and aim of tragedy, is left, in his works as we have them, probably through the suppression or loss of context, without elucidating commentary. And the writers on tragedy have ever since so striven to guess his meaning, and to make their answers square with contemporary drama, that they have given comparatively slight attention to the immediate, unbiased investigation of the phenomenon itself. Aristotle's definition is as follows: 1 “ Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude ; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play: in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” In what follows, he takes up and explains this definition, phrase by phrase, until the very last. What is meant by the Purgation (Katharsis) through pity and fear? It is at least what tragedy " effects,” and is thus evidently the function of tragedy. But a thing is determined, constructed, judged, according to its function; the function is, so to speak, its genetic formula. With a clear view of that, the rest of the definition could conceivably have been constructed without further explanation ; without it, the key to the whole fails. “Purgation of these emotions ;” did it mean purification of the emotions, or purgation of the soul from the emotions? And what emotions ? Pity and fear, or “ these and suchlike,” thus including all emotions that tragedy could bring to expression ?
Our knowledge of the severely moral bent of the explicit art criticism of the Greeks has inclined many to accept the first interpretation; and modern interests impel in the same direction. It is natural to think of the generally elevating and softening effects of great art as a kind of moral clarifying, and the question how this should be effected just by pity and fear was not pressed. So Lessing in the “ Hamburgische Dramaturgie" takes Katharsis as the conversion of the emotions in general into virtuous dispositions.
1 S. H. Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, 1895. 1 Zwei Adhandlungen uber d. Aristotelische Theorie d. Drama, 1880.
Before we ask ourselves seriously how far this represents our experience of the drama, we must question its fidelity to the thought of Aristotle ; and that question seems to have received a final answer in the exhaustive discussion of Bernays.1 Without going into his arguments, suffice it to say that Aristotle, scientist and physician's son as he was, had in mind in using this striking metaphor of the Katharsis of the emotions, a perfectly definite procedure, familiar in the treatment, by exciting music, of persons overcome by the ecstasy or “ enthusiasm ” characteristic of certain religious rites. Bernays quotes Milton's preface to “ Samson Agonistes : “ Tragedy is said by Aristotle to be of power, by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions ; that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred by reading or seeing those passions well imitated. Nor is Nature wanting in her own effects to make good his assertion ; for so in physic, things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour,