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Hume's Tragic Emotions Malcolm Budd Hume opens his essay "OfTragedy" with these remarks: It seems an unaccountable pleasure, which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions, that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy. The more they are touched and affected, the more are they delighted with the spectacle ... The whole art ofthe poet is employed, in rouzing and supporting the compassion and indignation, the anxiety and resentmentofhis audience. They are pleased in proportion as they are afflicted, and never are so happy as when they employ tears, sobs, and cries, to give vent to their sorrow, and relieve their heart, swoln with the tenderest sympathy and compassion.1 The task he sets himself is to explain this seemingly problematic pleasure. Hume'sproblemisnotmerelytoaccountforthepleasurablenature of the experience of a well-written tragedy or even for the pleasure a spectator of a well-written tragedy receives from passions that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy. His conception ofthe problem is more specific than this. The problem, as Hume understands it, is to explain a pleasure which still retains all the features and outward symptoms ofdistress and sorrow, for example, but which lacks any of the unpleasurableness intrinsic to the experience of these emotions when they are aroused by real, rather than artistically represented, tragic incidents. Soit wouldnotbe enough forHume toindicate a source of pleasure in the experience of a well-written tragedy, or a pleasure which stems from the arousal of passions that are in themselves disagreeable and which compensates for the pain or unpleasantness suffered in undergoing such passions. He must attempt to explain how a negative emotion is transformed into a positive emotion, rather than merely add a specified pleasure to the negative emotion. He thus acquiesced in the standard eighteenth century assumption that the experience is purely pleasurable, but correctly rejected the stock eighteenth century solution, provided by Du Bos, for example. However, Hume also intensified the problem, since the experience ofa well-written tragedy is, for Hume, not only one in which there is no unpleasantness, but one that is extraordinarily Volume XVII Number 2 93 MALCOLMBUDD pleasurable—extraordinarily pleasurable at the very moments at which the spectator experiences the negative emotions. He must therefore explain how an experience which involves the arousal of negative emotions can be as supremely pleasurable as he takes it tobe. The problem thatHume setshimselfisthereforethatofaccounting for the intense pleasure, unqualified by pain ("one uniform and strong enjoyment"), ofa spectator ofa well-written tragedy in whom negative emotions have been arousedin response to the tragic nature ofwhatis represented in the play. His solution is in fact perfectly fitted to the problem as he sees it, exploiting each feature ofthe experience that he construes as unqualifiedly pleasurable to explain the absence of unpleasantness and the intensity ofthe pleasure. Since the experience is ofa well-written tragedy, it is the experience of(i) a particular kind of artistic representation, an imitation, in Hume's language; (ii) a well-written representation; and (iii) a tragic representation. The first feature, according to Hume, ensures that the experience is pleasurable (in a certain respect), for "imitation is always of itself agreeable" (Essays, 220). The second feature not only adds to the pleasurable nature of the experience but, according to Hume, insofar as it swells the pleasure, it increases the likelihood that pleasure will be the "predominant" emotion in the experience, thus allowing it to capture the force or impulse of any contrary, subordinate emotion in the experience. And the third feature, according to Hume, ensures that the spectator experiences powerful negative emotions, so that the predominant emotion of pleasure is much greater than it would be in the case ofan equally well-written play with an uninteresting subject which does not engage the spectator's negative emotions. What exactly is Hume's solution? It turns upon assigning a crucial role to the way in which the painful events in a tragedy are represented. First, the manner ofrepresentation ofa painful scene in a well-written tragedy is highly agreeable. Second, the satisfaction derived from the manner of representation—the beauty of language, the selection and arrangement of incidents, and the fact and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 93-106
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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