Sep 222010

There’s no shortage of pain and suffering on offer during a human lifetime. As a certain German philosopher was kind enough to emphasize:

Human existence must be a kind of error…it may be said of it, ‘it is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens’

Despite Arthur’s confidence, it isn’t all bad. Yes, we can all recall moments when the world seemed to have no joy left, moments where the only solution was suicide – which for most of us is no solution at all – and moments we cannot imagine reliving or retelling without breaking down all over again. But, for the most part, the moment passes, the clouds recede, we move on, we survive and, perhaps even more – we find ‘mirth and beauty and music light and gay’.

Whilst we move on, we do not forget. Our circuits and predispositions and fears have been altered by the experience (how could they not have been?). And we relive those moments. Not only do they haunt us, but we look for them. We watch depressing films, we read novels where the lovers don’t find one another again, we read poems moving enough to make a Vulcan cry. From a safe vantage point, the full spectrum of human emotion can be experienced and enjoyed. An ‘emotional rollercoaster’ is a better analogy than we might always realize – it’s about more than being thrown up and down and all around. It’s safe. If we were to experience the same ‘thrilling’ sensations in another context, like falling off a ladder, it’s no fun at all. Similarly, a broken heart is something we try and prevent at all costs, but we can readily enjoy one in a film or novel. We relate enough to be moved, but the experience is ‘safe’ and ‘controlled’ enough so as not to be overwhelming.

Our past pain, then, forms a reference of sorts, it creates the emotional milieu for future enjoyment – at a distance. The narratives that provide this experience come in many shapes – movies, novels, sport, music, poetry. They provide, to go back to Aristotle, catharsis. As Richard Kearney points out in his essay, Narrating Pain: The Power of Catharsis:

The recounting of experience through the formal medium of plot, fiction or spectacle permits us to repeat the past forward so to speak. And this very act of creative repetition allows for a certain kind of pleasure or release. In the play of narrative re-creation we are invited to revisit our lives — through the actions and personas of others — so as to live them otherwise. We discover a way to give a future to the past.

Later in the essay, Kearney quotes Schnell who, in a line that sums up the reason (in my opinion) for the preponderance of sad poems and songs, suggests that “the closest we get to answering the saddest questions life asks us, is to respond in the most beautiful language we can muster”.

This search for catharsis can however become an obsession. Distraught parents who become addicted to séances springs to mind. My favorite example, however, is Barney from Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, when he has taken Chew-Z. Barney ‘goes back’ to a time when he was still with his wife. In actual fact he is experiencing a figment-world created by a combination of Eldritch’s magic and his subconscious, but that hardly matters to Barney. He simply want catharsis, he wants peace, he wants to know that things could have happened differently. He’s willing to ‘go back’ a thousand times, because eventually, he believes, things will work out between them.

A more recent example can be found in Inception, which I won’t discuss in too much detail so as to not spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. Suffice to say, Dom’s own dreams illustrate the point that he wishes things were different, so much so that a different ‘lie’ might be better than the current ‘truth’. As Kearney points out, fiction takes “poetic license to tell things ‘as if they actually happened.’”

Such fiction also allows us to experience life from a more naive frame of mind. In one of my favorite passages in Consciousness Explained, Dennett struggles with the very real threat of devaluating consciousness by attempting to explain it. Hopefully, he writes, our views will change, something which might feel like a loss at first but, in time, will turn out to be nothing of the sort. Consider  our view of love:

While naive adults continue to raise gothic romances to the top of the best-seller list, we sophisticated readers have rendered ourselves quite immune to the intended effects of such books: they make us giggle, not cry. Or if they do make us cry – as they sometimes do, in spite of ourselves – we are embarrassed to discover that we are still susceptible to such cheap tricks; for we cannot readily share the mind-set of the heroine who wasted away worrying about whether she has found “true love” – as if this were some sort of distinct substance (emotional gold as opposed to emotional brass or copper).

 It is no longer possible for sophisticated people to “fall in love” in some of the ways that once were possible – simply because they cannot believe in those ways of pure teenaged crush – unless I “revert to adolescence” and in the process forget or abandon much of what I think I know. Fortunately, there are other kinds of love for me to believe in.

Lastly, we find catharsis in the narratives we tell others, where we take care not to let the truth get in the way of a good story. We weave the narrative to get the response we both want and need –  whether it be support, or shared disgust at another’s actions, or awe. If we have been wronged, we might share the story more readily, and in a way that is sure to be empowering. If, however, the trauma is of such an extent that we choose to remain quiet, catharsis becomes both more necessary and more difficult to attain. When Charlie breaks down in Reign Over Me, it’s difficult to imagine that anything can alleviate his suffering. But perhaps his story can, perhaps his own narrative can bring release. (I cannot begin to imagine what that scene must have been like for family members of 9/11 victims.)

To complete the circle, we can turn to another German philosopher for a more positive view of life’s sorrows:

What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other… you have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief… or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet. If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.


I should point out that, after I started writing this post, I read Brian’s essay on Pele as a Comedian, which is undoubtedly the best essay I have read in the past 2 years. Supriya’s follow-up on comedy and football, namely A Midsummer-Nights Dream Is A Little Like Soccer, was also exceptional, and deals more directly with the idea of catharsis.

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