Sunday, July 25, 2010

Examining James Joyce/Stephen Dedalus' Esthetic Philosophy (part 2)

"Aristotle has not defined pity and terror. I have."

Thus Stephen Dedalus boldly begins his discussion on esthetics. He is referring to Aristotle's Poetics in which the Greek philosopher says that tragedy evokes pity and terror to achieve catharsis. But since Aristotle did not define pity and terror, scholars have misinterpreted him for the last 2,300 years, interpreting catharsis as a purging of these emotions, getting rid of them by a large dose of the same. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his study of Greek drama The Birth of Tragedy, has written of this misinterpretation:
Now the serious events are supposed to prompt pity and terror to discharge themselves in a way that relieves us; now we are supposed to feel elevated and inspired by the triumph of good and noble principles, at the sacrifice of the hero in the interest of a moral vision of the universe. I am sure that for countless men precisely this, and only this, is the effect of tragedy, but it plainly follows that all these men, together with their interpreting aestheticians, have had no experience of tragedy as a supreme art.
The emphasis is Nietzsche's, not mine.

Let’s look at the usage of this word “catharsis,” a term which has led to some confusion among scholars unsure whether Aristotle had in mind a medical (his father was a physician) or moral significance. The word “catharsis” comes from the Greek katharsis derived from katharein, “to cleanse.” As Joseph Campbell tells us in Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, in Greek religious vocabulary the term referred to “a spiritual transformation brought about by participation in a rite. The mind, ‘cleansed’ of attachment to merely secular aims, desires and fears, is released to a spiritual rapture.” Campbell also notes that the Greek theater was associated with the shrines and festivals of Dionysus, in fact the tragedies were performed during the Great Dionysia at Athens, a yearly festival. Dionysus was the god of wine and ecstasy “but also, more fundamentally, of the generative power of all life, the will in nature."

In Nietzsche’s aforementioned book, he analyzes what he believes to be the main factors at work in Greek tragedy and calls these the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The Dionysian is essentially the ego-shattering, sublime experience of one-ness with all things.
Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man…Transform Beethoven’s ‘Hymn to Joy’ into a painting; let your imagination conceive the multitudes bowing to the dust, awestruck--then you will approach the Dionysian…Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of maya had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.
Now, let us go back for a moment to Stephen’s definitions of pity and terror. He says:
Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.
He uses the word arrest, that static emotion of complete rapture that we looked at in Part 1 of this post. The mind perceiving the “grave and constant” in the sufferings of man, the inevitability of death and pain, is risen beyond individuality to compassion and a recognition of shared humanity. The feeling of terror (something different than fear, mind you) shatters us in awe at the workings of the life-giving and life-consuming universe.
Suppose a human being has thus put his ear, as it were, to the heart chamber of the world will and felt the roaring desire for existence pouring from there into all the veins of the world, as a thundering current or as the gentlest brook, dissolving into a mist---how could he fail to break suddenly? How could he endure to perceive the echo of innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe in the ‘wide space of the world night,’ enclosed in the wretched glass capsule of the human individual, without inexorably fleeing toward his primordial home, as he hears this shepherd’s dance of metaphysics?
That’s Nietzsche describing the feeling of Dionysian rapture again. But, as I’ve said, there’s also the Apollonian factor in Greek tragedy. The Apollonian is the dream illusion, the veil placed in front of infinity to make us feel as though we’re individuals confined in bodies within space with its separate objects. While the Greek tragedy is eliciting that feeling of Dionysian one-ness, the Apollonian illusion brings us back to realize that this is all being enacted by characters in one single image of the world, a stage. (This is also, in Stephen’s view, the wholeness, harmony, and radiance of a beautiful self-contained image.) In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote:
Thus the Apollonian tears us out of the Dionysian universality and lets us find delight in individuals; it attaches our pity to them, and by means of them it satisfies our sense of beauty which longs for great and sublime forms; it presents images of life to us, and incites us to comprehend in thought the core of life they contain. With the immense impact of the image, the concept, the ethical teaching, and the sympathetic emotion, the Apollonian tears man form his orgiastic self-annihilation and blinds him to the universality of the Dionysian process…
And so Aristotle either had it wrong or was misinterpreted. The tragic emotions, pity and terror, are evoked so that the audience can come to a deep realization. I’ve already made such heavy usage of Nietzsche’s work that I’ll let him have the final word on the matter (this one from Twilight of the Idols):
Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility...that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to get rid of terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous emotion through its vehement discharge—Aristotle misunderstood it that way—but, beyond pity and terror, to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming.


  1. Enjoying your blog and very amused to come across another fan of Nietzsche, hockey, RZA, and classical philosophy.