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Enjoying Negative Emotions in Fictions

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 9, Number 1, April 1985
pp. 95-103 | 10.1353/phl.1985.0118

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Notes and Fragments ENJOYING NEGATIVE EMOTIONS IN FICTIONS by John Morreall There is a puzzle going back to Aristotle and Augustine that has sometimes been called the "paradox of tragedy": how is it that nonmasochistic , nonsadistic people are able to enjoy watching or reading about fictional situations which are filled with suffering? The problem here actually extends beyond tragedy to our enjoyment of horror films and other fictional depictions of situations which we would not enjoy in real life. What is it about fiction that turns intensely unpleasant situations into situations we can enjoy? Ofthe many solutions proposed to this puzzle, I shall mentionjust four. Aristotle held that in viewing tragedy we experience negative emotions — pity and fear — but get pleasure from the experience nonetheless because we are thereby purged of excess pity and fear. For Aristotle, too, there is a pleasure which tragedy shares with fiction in general, the delight we take in representations.1 Hume put more weight on this latter delight. Our pleasure in tragedy, he said, is based on our appreciation of the skill with which the literary or other artist has depicted the unpleasant scenes.2 Susan Feagin has recently located the pleasure we take in tragic art not in our direct responses to the work, which are "unpleasant experiences," she says, but in our meta-response of moral self-congratulation at these responses.3 The fourth solution to our puzzle is really a dissolution: it consists of denying that we actually feel fear, pity, and other negative emotions in our experience of fiction. The guiding principle here is that in order to have some emotion toward a situation, we must believe that it is a real situation. This principle is articulated in an influential article by Kendall Walton, though he does not apply it to our puzzle.4 95 96Philosophy and Literature I believe that this last solution is no solution at all because we do in fact feel emotions in our appreciation of fiction (a point I will develop later). The other three solutions above address the puzzle, and the pleasures they appeal to all have some explanatory power. But these solutions seem to me to overlook perhaps the most basic pleasure we take in tragedy, horror films, and the like — the direct pleasure of feeling (ear, pity, and similar emotions. The idea of enjoying negative emotions seems counterintuitive at first; indeed it may seem analytically false. But let us look more closely at those emotions to see what there might be to enjoy in them. Because the idea that we experience real emotions in response to fiction is controversial, we will begin not with fiction but with real life. After seeing how negative emotions can be enjoyed in real life, we can then consider their enjoyment in response to fiction. Fear is perhaps the most basic negative emotion, and at first glance one of the least likely to be enjoyed. To feel fear, many have claimed, we have tojudge that we are in danger, and danger is disturbing to us. And so it is natural that in fear there is the motivation to eliminate the danger, by fleeing , protecting ourselves, or attacking. Changes in the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system equip us forjust such actions. They produce an increase in alertness and muscle tension, a faster and stronger heartbeat, a redistribution of the blood from the skin and internal organs to the voluntary muscles and brain, and a release of stored sugar from the liver into the bloodstream. Now although we may not be able to identify all these changes when we are in a state of fear, we can feel many of them directly, and we certainly feel the overall excitement which they produce. It is this excitement, I think, that makes fear potentially enjoyable. Especially for someone who leads a relatively dull life, the stimulation provided by fear can be pleasurable by contrast with the ordinary lack of stimulation. Many people, indeed, go to considerable trouble to put themselves into dangerous situations, in part, at least, for the thrill of fear that the danger will provide. Consider mountain climbers and skydivers, for instance. Now there are many sources...