February 18, 2020

Literature Versus Utopia

“IT WAS THE LAST DAY of fifth grade at St. Matthew’s School in Providence, Rhode Island, and my 11-year-old self was staring at the walls of the classroom feeling puzzled. For months, I had been confined by those walls five days a week, looking forward to my liberation from an angry, unhappy teacher. But that afternoon, gazing around for the last time, I was suddenly struck with sadness at the thought that I would never see these too familiar walls again. The unaccountable mixture of feelings left me with an indelible impression.

It happened a second time when I was a teenager reading the novels of Dickens. I felt exquisite, sympathetic pleasure in following the long-drawn-out sufferings of his good, simple characters as they were persecuted by supremely hateful villains, but as the fortunes of the victims inevitably rose, my sympathies waned. Apparently it was not the goodness of the victims that made me care for them but their sufferings, and to see those sufferings relieved, even as I longed for it to happen, produced more than a tinge of guilty regret, leading me to question my own hopes for the improvement of the world. Once again, getting my wish for an end to misery left me with a paradoxical melancholy.

Misery, evidently, has its pleasures and its claims, both in life and in art. This can hardly come as a surprise since the literature of the world, catering as it must to our dreams, dwells heavily upon doom, disaster, disorder, and pain. However the story ends, if it wants to keep our attention, its vital substance must be trouble. Aristotle tells us that tragedy engages us most fully and pleasurably when we see the worst possible things happening to people we admire; the mere outline of a tragic plot should give a thrill of horror, and that horror is the key to its appeal. In the optimally gratifying instances, he adds, horror comes from within the family because that is most dreadful. When Aristotle says that among tragedians Euripides understood this best, he was undoubtedly thinking of plays like The Bacchae, in which we watch the mother of the main character, having triumphantly torn him apart in a Dionysian frenzy, gradually recover her senses and try to piece him back together.”

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