The Paradox of Tragedy: Aristotle, Facebook & Game of Thrones

Ravi Kumar's Bhopal Film

After months (or years?) of insistence by a fantasy fan friend, I agreed to watch Games of Thrones. I gave up watching drama TV series long time ago, mostly because after one or two seasons they become repetitive. My most recent attempts were true jewels, i.e. Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards. To no avail. They all ended for me after one or two seasons. And they ended in the saddest way possible, i.e. not by hating but feeling annoyed by them.

Perhaps the tediousness could be explained by the fact that I never watch them in real time. Mostly, I wait until one or two seasons are out there, available for free, and I gorge one episode after another until I stop, mentally bloated and physically drained. That possible explanation aside, though, the truth is that I cannot digest drama anymore. And it all started on Facebook, which I grudgingly got into solely in order to maintain contact with my geographically distant brother. After a few added “friends”, I stared in horror at my wall, plastered by a carrousel of heartbreaking images demanding that I give them a “like” in exchange for instant karma. Why were my own “friends” subjecting me to a horror spectacle of gore and pity? What have I done to deserve that buffet of tragedy? It got me thinking.

Tragedy is a form of drama, which is basically performing fiction, defined bluntly as the portrayal of human suffering from which the audience renders pleasure. The original Greek word for the latter (catharsis) is actually a metaphor coined by Aristotle to describe the effect of tragedy on the viewer –literally translated as “purification”, i.e. our purgation of emotions, when placed as audience, through art. Despite such authoritative voice, though, the debate continues to this day: how can we feel pleasure from something which is painful? A fistful of celebrated thinkers have meditated, written, and debated ad nauseam about this very question, so I would like to concentrate on the extremes and, then, on the most useful part for the purpose of this analysis.

On one side we can find, of course, the father of the concept itself, Aristotle, as laid down in his Poetics. On the other, we have the naysayers, whose figurehead could easily be Nietzsche. For the German, the pleasure found in tragedy is not because of the Aristotelian self-cleansing phenomenon through extreme exposition to pity and fear, but due to a particular joy experienced by the witnessing of destruction –the sensuous acceptance of the terror of existence itself. In the middle, though, and more mechanistic as to how the transition from pain to pleasure takes place, we find David Hume and, more importantly, Susan Feagin. For Hume, the explanation is simple: when in the presence of tragedy, we have both the horror of the scene presented married to the sheer beauty of how it is presented, and if the latter is more powerful than the former, the “miracle” happens and we are capable of experiencing pleasure, always against the backlash of the certainty that, after all, we are in the presence of mere fiction and no real suffering is being inflicted on anybody. This explanation, though, falls short of elucidating the transition itself. And that’s where Feagin’s work is extremely useful.

For the Temple University professor, the explanation lies in the duality of human responses to what we witness. On one side, there are the responses, which are the immediate, gut reactions which are not thought; while, on the other side, there are the meta-responses, i.e. the response to the response. This is illustrated, for example, by the laughter experienced when we see somebody clumsily stumbling on something and landing on the ground in an funny way (response), but then feeling shame for rendering amusement out of someone else’s unfortunate accident (meta-response). Almost infinite combinations can be found within this duality, e.g. surprise due to a cold reaction towards danger, amusement for blushing when we are introduced to a pretty girl, anger at our lack of compassion when stumbling upon a street beggar, etc.

Under this elegant solution to the paradox of tragedy, then, it can be theorized that, while knowing that the watched tragedy is fictional, the audience’s response of displeasure towards the suffering is met with a meta-response of pleasure. To what is that pleasure due? Well, the pleasure comes from recognizing, through our displeasure, that we’re compassionate in the presence of suffering, thus humanizing ourselves at emotionally becoming an empathizing member of the group. Here is where morality comes into play and where we find the most useful learning for the purposes of this commentary. The self-congratulatory meta-response as a solution to the paradox of tragedy works only to the extent that we are faced with tragedy, i.e. the fictional representation of human suffering. The mechanics of the meta-response solution as laid down by Feagin do not apply seamlessly to real life situations, for it is expected that a functioning, non-psychopathic human being identifies him or herself at a moral level with the suffering of the others and, henceforth, experiences compassion and solidarity –at least at the emotional level, whether a helping hand is extended or not.

Therefore, in the face of real human suffering, there are two possible meta-responses within the moral realm: either a morbid pleasure, in which case the most advisable next step is a psychiatric hospital or a primetime spot on the Crime Channel’s “Serial Killer Profile”, or a sense of complacency, as if it was a tragic play at the theater, in which case we’re in the presence of profound smugness. And smugness is defined as the annoying quality of some people who feel very pleased with themselves, and is a synonym of pompous, prideful, self-important, and vain. So, what is the extraordinary phenomenon taking place in the minds of individuals who click “Like” or “Share” on Facebook’s horrific pictures and stories? It is plausible to think that, by doing so, they pat themselves on the back for being pious and empathic towards the suffering of others, without performing anything else than moving a finger to click, and then move on, happy about themselves, giggling at the next LOLCAT or checking Lolita trannies dot com.

So, beyond Facebook, at this stage of my life I have discovered that the wonderful acting and storytelling of some TV series simply does not compensate for the gut churn caused by the misery portrayed therein. Not for me at least. It aches me to say but my share of tragedy is already “satisfied” with the horrendous existence of humanity in this heaven forsaken world in decay. After going through my daily morning dose of world news, overflowing with corruption, beheadings, disasters and thievery, the last thing I can stomach for entertainment purposes is a masterful portrayal of a cancer patient forced into meth cooking, for example. Am I less compassionate for frowning upon a form of art? I prefer to ask myself, instead: do I really need to watch fictional suffering in order to continuously confirm that I still have a heart?