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Liberated from liberty

Though the theatres remain closed, the galleries have started to open and I have booked to see the Titian Exhibition at the National Gallery today. The conversation with Richard about art really inspired me to make this pilgrimage. The National Gallery are also putting on some online talks and 'talk and draw' sessions. I attended one last week and sketched an almost plausible Christ. The cultural tradition in this country - as well as international aid! - gives me some cause for my-version-of-patriotism.



The talk was particularly interesting to me because Professor Oliver Taplin brought up a different view of what catharsis might be. Critchley analysed the concept in some detail, questioning whether it is purgation, purification, or transformation. He doesn't think that there is an aim toward moral education. I can accept that is not the 'aim' - for if it were we might have some simple morality tale, and that is far from what great tragedy is, nonetheless, it still achieves this, as I will explain. Some thinkers align it to an experience of the sublime, which as we have seen might lead one out of oneself and toward a recognition of one's essential insignificance in a vast, wondrous and awe-inspiring universe, that cannot be controlled or made to fit our wishes and desires. Some feel it cleanses us - by inspiring compassion for other flawed and frail humans, just like us, so that we let go of judgementalism, anger and vengeful fantasies. Or it purges, by allowing us to express and get rid of negative emotions. I think I probably adhere to the first suggestion. But Professor Taplin's suggestion was illuminating: he said maybe instead of 'taking something away' (as in purgation or purification) that is gives us something, a kind of inoculation. Not against suffering and death, of course, but as in giving us, as it were, antibodies to help us cope with life's struggles.


He was in conversation with the actor Fiona Shaw (whose work I now desperately want to see) and she suggested that what it gives us is a kind of knowledge. She said that it counters ignorance. Although she was putting forward the idea that it offers knowledge of how to think about familial conflict specifically, I would go further and suggest that what it can offer is knowledge about moral ambiguities, about the inevitability of answerless questions and dilemmas in which there is no single - if any - 'right' solution. It forces us to face contingency and uncertainty.


She also mentioned something that reminded me of a comment made by Martha Nussbaum when considering the role of the arts. It's that the audience is complicit, colluding in violence, vengeance and aggression. Nussbaum mentioned the scene in Psycho where we are looking from Bates' perspective at the woman in the shower. We have his eyes, we are granted his vision, we are predator while she is prey. Much of the fear, of course, resides in our concern for the victim - which may be for the character, for women in a society where these things can happen, for ourselves (especially if women) as the potential victims. But in addition there is the titillation and the urge to violence that we are granted by seeing from Bates' point of view. Shaw said that a similar experience occurs among theatre audiences.


I remember watching The Wild Duck at the Almeida - and I knew a shot would be fired, that the child would die. There was horror and fear, but at the same time a kind of expectation. It is off stage, but, even for those who don't know the play, the fact of drama leads to this anticipatory 'what's going to happen next' feeling. That is subtly combined with the desire for the storm of tension to break and for the bad thing to happen.


In a tragedy, where the force of fate is so strong and where we do have ambivalent feelings for the characters, we may even feel that frustration or distaste lead to unconscious or almost unconscious feelings of aggression. Where the character is more villainous, we may relish their downfall with the kind of liberation we do not have in 'real 'life'. In all these ways, and more, we are learning about our values, we are involved in self-exploration. And because it's live, visceral and communal, the emotional content has a more 'real' sensation about it that when watching television. Not that good TV and cinema - especially when seen with others - can't also be effective.


What makes great drama - or literature, TV or film - so powerful is that the plot and characterisation, combined with excellent direction, production and acting, make the issues resonant and profound, leaving room for thought. The absence of simple meaning, a 'moral of the story', forces us to engage intellectually as well as emotionally.


We are also, in a concrete way, forced to see with our own eyes, in real time, albeit as a dramatisation, crimes being committed, evil acts being done. We can be complicit just by virtue of witnessing.


Shaw went on to expand on this, saying that in a good performance, the audience are in an emotional synchronicity with the actor. I do recall reading some research that suggested that when someone reads a story to another person, their cortical activity aligns, and she appeared to have been told or to have read something along these lines.


This would add substance to claims that theatre makes us complicit, but also that it can have a profound effect in educating us in empathy. Surely the fact of bodily presence must play a part in this.


As i mentioned, I'm reading Nussbaum's Upheavals in Thought. She addresses the role of the arts, but focuses on music, her passion, and literature, rather more than drama. One can certainly have profound experiences when engaged in a good novel - as I have mentioned when discussing the Wolf Hall trilogy and as is recognised by those who teach bioethics, for example - and though I am ignorant about music, I am willing to accept her claims on that front. Here she makes an important point: the connection and understanding of emotional depth in music demands some knowledge and sensitivity. I think that is true - indeed, one could not expect people from different cultures with entirely different musical traditions to immediately tap into the emotional content of a Mahler symphony or an Indian sitar performance.


Theatre and literature may be rather more democratic or accessible, but even so, taking the decision to attend a Greek tragedy rather than Cats! and to read Proust rather than detective fiction (which I very much enjoy, actually) might require some initial encouragement, and the experience would surely benefit from some rudimentary prior understanding.


And this is why education is so important. The arts can provide an alluring and engaging path to self-understanding, empathy and ethical development. So societies need to ensure that all children are in a position to make the choice to step onto that path, with sufficient resources in their mental backpack (I am stretching the analogy) to appreciate what they find on the journey. As Mill said (yep, he's still on my mind) societies have only themselves to blame if the citizens they have brought up lack an ethical instinct.

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