Because the perennial Platonic/Aristotelian dispute over art’s effect on the emotions stands at the center of contemporary political debates—such as the one over the National Endowment for the Arts—I approached A. D. Nuttall’s Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? with interest, and indeed I enjoyed it. But had I paid for my review copy, at the cost of two symphony tickets or a better meal than I am accustomed to eating, I would have been frustrated. The title implies, and the dust-jacket copy promises, that “A. D. Nuttall’s wide-ranging, lively, and engaging book offers a new answer to this perennial question.” Nuttall’s book is indeed wide-ranging, lively, and engaging, but it provides no new answer to the old question. Caveat emptor.
Nuttall’s brief book, which began as the 1992 Northcliffe Lectures at University College in London, consists of four chapters united by a preoccupation with Aristotle’s explanation of the oikeia hedone, the proper pleasure, we get from tragedy. Identifying “Aristotle’s decision to locate mimetic art in the hypothetical rather than the categorical mode” as “an act of genius” (p. 38), he defends Aristotle against the alleged misinterpretations of Nussbaum and other commentators, and then tweaks Aristotle on the basis of Freud, Nietzsche, and King Lear.
Nuttall is at his best when drawing out the details of a textual point, and when finding unexpected comparisons between books. An instance of the first strength occurs in the initial chapter, when he argues against Jonathan Lear’s [End Page 484] “attempt to see catharsis as a mode of education” and Martha Nussbaum’s “presentation of it as a kind of clarification” (p. 8). He points out against the former that in the Politics Aristotle “expressly contrasts” catharsis and mathesis. Against the latter, Nuttall argues that reading catharsis as clarification “is very like saying that pathemata means ‘events’: it can bear the meaning, in special contexts, but normally it does not” (p. 11).
A good example of Nuttall’s unexpected comparisons occurs when he juxtaposes the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with The Genealogy of Morals. Gibbon, he says, “is addressing a puzzle: how did the weak defeat the strong? How did this terrible thing happen? This is likewise the grand puzzle” of The Genealogy (p. 62). Through many such comparisons, Nuttall demonstrates admirably how each text can serve as an avenue into, and a corrective for the excesses of, the other. Still, he never quite gets to the big picture he promises.
Nuttall mentions or considers several explanations for tragedy’s giving pleasure: the hypothetical nature of tragedy, tragedy as a glimpse of Truth, delight in the formal elements of tragedy. His favorite explanation amends Aristotle by reading catharsis as if it were the active “exercise” instead of the passive “purgation” (p. 75), as if (to borrow from the Categories, though Nuttall does not) catharsis were what Aristotle would call an action instead of what he would call an affection. Many other possibilities, though, go unexamined. To cite a few of the alternatives Nuttall does not consider:
* Sorrow unmixed with pleasure is the aberration, and sorrow mixed with pleasure the norm. The possibility of nonpleasurable sorrow is what needs to be explained, and the explanation is self-interest. I am nonpleasurably sad not because my wife has died, but because I will never again kiss her eyelids or take ballroom dancing lessons with her or argue with her while we stand side-by-side doing the dishes. People die all the time, yet I have experienced nonpleasurable sadness at most a few dozen times. I do not suffer in grief as long as my self-interest does not suffer: my grief over Allen Ginsberg’s death much more closely resembled the pleasure/pain of watching a Greek tragedy than it did the pain/pain of a loved one’s death. But the absence of self-interest is precisely what distinguishes a stage tragedy from a family tragedy. I will never see my wife...