What exactly does a literary work do for us? Is there a difference between art and entertainment in this regard?
Let us begin with Aristotle‘s classic definition of this function as catharsis or purgation, which reminds us of the sacrificial nature of culture. The negative emotions of pity and terror are purged by witnessing the simulation of the protagonist’s suffering and death. Instead of participating in a real sacrifice, one watches it on stage; but the literary text of the tragedy (or comedy) does not merely reproduce the implicit or explicit text of the rite. Athenian drama made the tragic action explicable by obliging us to identify with all the characters in turn. Identification is no mystery; it is a mode of mimesis. As we see and hear human beings dealing with a crisis, we imagine ourselves in their place. Ritual sacrifice, because it uses a real victim, does not permit of dramatic identification. Its horror–all the more so if the victim is human–precludes the spectator’s identifying with the circumstances of the myth that is being enacted. (Imagine how we would react to the verbal ironies of Oedipus rex in a performance where the actor would actually put his eyes out.)
Aristotle’s definition is a good starting point, but it suggests a purely cyclical operation. Purgation of negative emotion is followed by a new buildup of this emotion, which is followed in turn by another purgation. This ritual pattern is preserved in the sequence of weekly church services and annual feast days. Such a periodic activity contributes to our entertainment in the etymological sense of the term: it keeps us going, il nous entretient, but it leaves no permanent residue to build on.
Yet the term culture, which derives from agriculture, cultivation, suggests that the higher forms of art add to our experience something irreversible. Pedagogy is the art of cultivating the young so that they blossom into cultured adults. The uncultured person is like a field overrun with weeds; he will produce poor fruit. These botanical metaphors point to an irreversible process of creating social value.
This suggests the following model: A piece of entertainment leaves the spectator as sacrificially inclined as before, it purges or defers only temporarily his appetite for sacrifice. The work of high art, on the other hand, cultivates us in turning us away from the brutality of sacrifice. Having identified ourselves with the position of the tragic protagonist as well as with the social forces that require his downfall, we are less eager to rejoice in such downfalls in the future.
There is another class of literary works specifically designed to teach us a moral often given explicitly in the text: the fable or moral tale. Fables are a part of oral culture that survives in our own. In an earlier column, I dealt with the “sour grapes” fable (The Fox and the Grapes); another favorite, particularly for connoisseurs of the French fabulist La Fontaine, is that of The Fox and the Crow, where by flattering the crow into singing, the fox makes him drop the cheese he was carrying in his beak. We are invited to apply these lessons to our own lives. Because we like to be flattered, and tend to denigrate honors we cannot attain, fables are useful reminders of the likely unhappy consequences of giving in to these tendencies. Do we actually become less likely to succumb to them? A new element has been added to our self-reflection. But now that we have thematized it, we can resist it. Now that I know about sour grapes, I can deny its applicability. Or perhaps the fox’s praise was sincere appreciation rather than flattery. No proposition about human interaction can specify the effect of its enunciation on the interaction it describes.
But if fables once produced an irreversible progress in our self-understanding, it is an ancient one. There are many collections of fables, but they all repeat the same lessons; Æsop‘s is the oldest available in the West, but surely not the first. Fables remain always à propos, they are not a part of sacrificial history, because they express a non-sacrificial vision of society, or to put it another way, they are blind to their own sacrificial nature. If the protagonist suffers, it is not because the social order–or the reader–requires his suffering, but because he has failed to understand the mimetic symmetry of human relations. The crow’s enjoyment of the fox’s flattery prevents him from reflecting on the fox’s own self-interest. In a fable, the problems of human desire are foibles, weaknesses that can be pinpointed and resolved. The crow swears after losing the cheese that on ne l’y reprendra plus. But in tragedy, we are made to understand that the hubris that brings about the hero’s suffering is not a foible but the essence of the human. Tragedy has no moral other than the paradoxical necessity of its sacrificial structure.
What then does literature do for us?
Entertainment teaches us about the deferral of satisfaction. We want the villain to get his comeuppance and the hero and heroine live happily forever after, but the work teaches us that it’s more fun if we have to wait a bit.
High literature adds an additional lesson; that the roles of villain and hero are not so easily distinguished, that each has its ambiguities, so that the work’s deferral of the final decision teaches us that such decisions were best avoided. To say that tragedy or art in general makes us less sacrificial is to claim that there is a progressive revelation of ethical truth in history. In modern novels and plays, we identify with the sufferings of ordinary people who would have been fit only for comedy in the classical age. The decline of high art in the postmodern era is associated with the deconstruction of the sacrificial by victimary discourse: now that everyone knows it’s good to be the victim, everyone claims to be the victim. We no longer accept sacrifice because we each want to occupy the sacrificial center for fifteen minutes ourselves.
The great lesson of high culture was that however great its ambiguities, however intense our mourning for the tragic protagonist, sacrifice is an absolute necessity, the implicit foundation of the human order. Today we are no longer willing to accept this proposition. No doubt tragedy was more dignified than our incessant squabbling over who is the victim of whom, but such is the price of moral progress. High art has served its purpose; now we must find less dignified but less violent (dare I say less masculine?) means of deferring our resentment.