One of the many inexplicable phenomena of human culture is the popularity of observing the suffering of other people through art. Since the ancient Greek, we have flocked the theatres and cinemas to watch strangers undergo unbearable pain and misery. But why? Why do we enjoy tragedies?
One answer to this question can be found in the very context where the tragedy was first popularised, in ancient Greek. Greek philosopher Aristotle explored the allure of the tragic drama in his work De Poetica, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory in the West, written at about 335 BCE.
In De Poetica, Aristotle examines and dissects the classical drama. He writes about all three of the main genres—the comedy, the satyr, and the tragedy—but most of the work is dedicated to the tragedy. Aristotle found that a good tragedy should contain these things: Hamartia, Anagnorisis, Peripeteia, Phobos, Eleos, and Katharsis.
So what does that mean?
Hamartia means flaw or mistake. According to Aristotle, the protagonist of a tragedy should have a fatal flaw or make a fatal mistake which in the end causes his or her downfall. If a tragical accident happens to a protagonist because of a mistake he/she makes, knowingly or unknowingly, the audience is more likely to be “moved” by it. The purpose of the tragedy is to evoke in the audience Phobos and Eleos, fear and pity. For a tragedy to arouse pity and fear, we must observe a protagonist who goes from happiness to misery as a result of an error on his/her part.
Moreover, a good tragedy should contain a moment of discovery, a so-called Anagnorisis, as well as a turning point, a Peripeteia. In the best tragedy, these two events coincide. Aristotle uses the classic play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles as an example of this. In Oedipus Rex, the Peripeteia and Anagnorisis occur when the protagonist, king Oedipus, realises he has killed his own father and married his mother. The best kind of plot contains surprises, but surprises that, in retrospect, fit logically into the sequence of events. Oedipus Rex is a powerful tragedy precisely because we can see the logical inevitability with which the events in the story fall together. Aristotle disliked the Deus ex machina – which was common in Greek plays – where a god or goddess intervenes in the last minute to change the course of the plot, often to save a catastrophic situation and create peace and order.
When a tragedy contains all of these parts, it should achieve Katharsis, which Aristotle identifies as the definitive experience of art and the reason why we enjoy tragedies. The Greek word Katharsis originally means purging or purification and also refers to the induction of vomiting by a doctor to rid the body of impurities. Aristotle uses the term metaphorically to refer to the release of the emotions of pity and fear built up in a dramatic performance. Because dramatic performances end, whereas life goes on, we can let go of the tension that builds during the performance in a way that we often cannot let go of the tension that builds up over the course of our lives. Because we can let go of it, the emotional intensity of art deepens us, whereas emotional intensity in life often just hardens us.
The process of Katharsis that allows us to experience powerful emotions and then let them go can be compared to therapy. If we define catharsis as the purpose of art, then the purpose of art is to be therapeutic. Art should give us a more profound capacity for feeling and compassion, a broader awareness of what our humanity consists of. A tragedy may be painful, but if done correctly, it can improve our lives, it can show us patterns in human experience that we can then use to make sense of our own experience.