Sunday, June 14, 2009

In Praise Of Melancholy : Can Tragedy Make You Happy?

Here’s a question that’s maybe better for the philosophy blogs, but I heard this phrase - “in praise of melancholy” – the other day, and it made me think of King Lear.

Now, nobody will say King Lear is a happy play.  Words thrown around tend to be more like “gutwrenching” and “agonizing”.  It is also heralded widely as one of greatest pieces of literature in the English language.

Nobody sees King Lear and comes out of it saying “Well, that was fun.”  But here’s my question – does it make you happy?  Do you, at some deep level, feel better about…things?  I’m not talking about the entertainment of seeing a good production.  I’m talking about watching the story of King Lear play out on the stage as if you were watching the lives of real people.

I’m trying to think of the best way to explain it.  I think it’s similar to when people say they enjoy a good cry, or enjoy scaring themselves near to death.  There is value in expanding the range of how you experience life – both the highs and the lows. 

Another analogy that comes to mind is going to the gym and waking up the next morning in pain.  The pain is really only at one level, and though it certainly hurts, your brain is able to go a level beyond and say, “Yes, but that’s good for me, I’m happy that I got the workout because it will ultimately improve my quality of life.”

Know what I’m talking about?  Who can say it better than I’m doing here?


Willshill said...

I don't think it can be said "better" than you've said it, Duane; said differently, maybe.

What's interesting to me, at first, is that your immediate thought at the mention of melancholy was Lear, not Hamlet. That's surprising to me, since two centuries of popular analytical criticism and thought have come to cement the idea of some sort of sick, dementia-like condition being intertwined with the "melancholic' state of mind of our Danish Prince, I disagree with that notion altogether, but that's another subject.

Immediately, I think of what might be considered contradictory to the last statement, and that is, that melancholy (or depression as we've come to know it; which is certainly a condition I believe Hamlet knows well) is more conducive to a serious pensiveness than is elation. Serious thought gravitates toward philosophical thought. Some of the greatest thoughts have arisen out of the most dire circumstances and conditions. I think of Victor Frankel searching for meaning and finding it even in the victimization of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany; Dostoevsky, writing Notes from the Underground, a political prisoner, not having the slightest idea what fate had in store for him; (I saw, in person, the cell he was in--not a pretty place). Socrates' finest hour, philosophically, was at the hour of his knowledge of certain, impending death. I think Philosophers, given a moment to "study on it" would have no argument with you, or in an act of praising melancholy for its sometime fruitfulness.
Lear philosophizes (finally, completely, sanely) at the darkest hour. Hamlet is Philosopher, his first word to his last.
You were right to mention philosophy--but here I'll disagree with you on a niggling point: philosophical discussion should have a home right here, as well as on a blog bearing its name. It's only fitting.

Duane said...

I'm not sure why, exactly, but whenever I think of particularly agonizing tragedy, I go to Lear rather than Hamlet. Hamlet is essentially a play about one person, and to what extent he is responsible for his own actions. The people around him are, discounting Ophelia, not great people. Is it a tragedy that Laertes dies, or Rosencrantz? Not really. What about Ophelia? I don't think tragedy is the word, there - more ... rats, what's the word my English teacher used to use.... pitiful? She was not destined for much in life, the way she's painted. She never even puts up a fight. (Just had a flash of comparison between Ophelia's death and Desdemona's, have to maybe come back to that later.) So basically the only real tragedy is the death of Hamlet himself, though he certainly had a clear hand in bringing about his own demise.

Compare Lear. Look at the character of Cordelia alone. Unjustly banished, she does not give up on her father - she brings an army and wages a war to rescue him. And even then, when she certainly could sneak in a "See? Told you I loved you" moment, she who certainly has cause to hate him, she hits him with "No cause." Shakespeare reunites them, gives Lear a moment of lucidity to understand that his daughter loves and forgives him, and then....Edmund. It's not even like Edmund has a personal vendetta against Lear or his daughter. He's Iago in this moment, I will destroy you because I want to. (Note to self, idea for script - Iago vs Edmund. Who do you want to win?)

I have to wrap it up (man I wish I could do this all day :)), but let me put it this way - perhaps it is the nature of their tragedy that is different. Isn't there supposed to be something in the definition that says the tragedy comes directly from the hero's flaw, and can thus be tied directly back to the hero's own action (or inaction)? In Hamlet this is fairly cut and dried, he knew he was surrounded by bad people, he chose not to act, his girlfriend and mother end up dead and eventually so does he.

But what about Lear? Sure his temper gets the best of him and he banishes the two people that love him the most -- but does he know that, you think? Does he have any idea that Regan and Goneril are at all capable of what happens next? And even if he did, could he have anticipated Edmund? On top of all that, how much of his action is he really responsible for?

Last thing, really. My use of "melancholy" in the title referred not to the mood of characters within the play, but rather to the feeling that we the audience are left with after watching. Perhaps I was a little too flip with it (like I said, heard it in another context and it caught my...ear?), but I was merely going for the "How can watching something so sad somehow make you happier?" angle.

Willshill said...

I know you weren't referring to the characters in particular, but when we participate, we become one big, melancholic...uh... family :)

Seriously, I think it's all tied together.
Because it "makes you think on things"... I think. And I believe--truly--that thoughts, and feelings that breed thoughts, are Things. We may not know it at the time, but in the depths of what we feel when we're affected to such an extreme; when "imagining the real", such as in the theatre or in any kind of art form to whatever certain degree, we're working on something, working something out--something very important in the scheme of...IT ALL. I won't begin to attempt to relegate importance to what those things might be in any kind of hierarchical sense. But because those things are always SO important, I think we can somehow feel a happy sigh of relief having dealt with difficult things; things we would rather avoid in "real life"; fulfilled a responsibility to consider them--willingly no less!
It's been proven, scientifically, that theatre and music activate areas of the brain like no other stimuli can.
Please excuse--these are only partial ideas, and not fleshed out (why is everything I'm writing a half-baked pun on what came before?--thoughts are things--an idea is a thought not quite "fleshed out??--it's unintentional I assure you).
But in some way relative to the above, I think the stimuli that makes us first feel the feeling along with the character's experience in their situation is what generates a need for that sense of relief. It gives us hope, somehow, I think. Maybe for some it's as simple as "There but for the grace of God, go I". That's part of it, I think. But I also think that's a little too simple an assessment overall. Anyway, this art stuff is too damned important to ignore--for lots of reasons--this, I think, being only one of them. It's "food for philosophy--and a lot more.
I have some thoughts on Hamlet and Lear --but they'll have to wait. Briefly, though, Ophelia has been "painted an inch thick" in interpretation and portrayal, as has Hamlet. And it's not always easy to sympathize with Lear because basically he's just so downright obtusely stubborn sometimes. But...later- (like anyone's waiting with bated breath...)

Anyway Duane, thanks for flagging and/or allowing yourself to be flagged by this topic. It's great stuff--and extremely relevant to the work of WS. For whatever it's worth, at least I think so.
"All the World's a Stage..." my Friend.

Anonymous said...

I think the concept you're going for is "Catharsis".

Willshill said...

What is "catharsis", actually? Is it an end to the exploration for an answer as to why it might or might not be needed? --Or even acceptably accurate in its definition? How many of the questions asked--just here--does it answer?

No, as a matter of fact, speaking only for myself, I wasn't "going for any 'concept' " at all. It's the 'concept' of easily defined and employed "correct concepts" that I would most like to see abandoned. I believe the conventional answers to be all too common, and their solutions and conclusions somewhat tainted by a habitual and cursory mouthing. Accepted definitions force the acceptance of a conclusion also, long before the discussion should end, when it comes to philosophy, the arts, Shakespeare's plays, and lots of other ...stuff.
But thanks for the timely interjection. What better way to illustrate how communication (quite possibly a most "cathartic" exercise in itself) can be easily murdered-- then, just as easily dismissed--with a single- psychoanalytical-common-book-defined "concept--of the...purgative variety" ? :))

"Ile lugge the Guts into the Neighbor roome,"/
Ham. III.iv