Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us (Part 2)

(In light of the tragedy that took place in Aurora, CO, this blog entry might not sit well with you. Although this blog tries to help us understand tragedy in the literary sense, it doesn't offer any consolation to tragedy in real life. It is unfortunate that we live in a world where tragedy is real, and I offer my sincere condolences to the citizens of Aurora, CO and all those dealing with the consequences of a crazed mad man.)

Hunger Games struck a cord with mainstream America in a way that was like plucking a hair out of a nostril. This was a painful story about an alternate world where kids killed other kids for the entertainment of others, and yet it was one of the highest grossing movies of 2012. Are we just sick, homicidal child-haters with a pension for cage fighting? Is the unstoppable force, that is America, slipping down that proverbial, never-ending Slip 'n Slide into nothingness? I don't believe so. For centuries humanoids have been entertained by a literary device called "catharsis".  Some appreciate it others don't, and still others would just as soon strip it naked and drop it off in front of a sketchy bus station.

"Catharsis" originates from the Greek word for "cleansing" and is defined on as "the purging of emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art as  tragedy or music." Basically, an enema for the soul. One can't have a good tragedy without the element of catharsis so let's explore. Classic Tragedies include Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus Rex, and La Boheme, to name a few. They loved their soul enemas back then, so much so that Leonardo Da Vinci had to fill the world with inventions and paintings of constipated people.

Modern tragedies are harder to come by and are more commonly referred to as horror movies, but once in a while a mainstream movie will embody the definition of a tragedy like, Into the Wild, The People vs. Larry Flint, or The Butterfly Effect. To get into a story and build up a fortress of emotion only to have your weakness exploited by a director who brings you into an unshakable state of depression for a few hours or even days, is one of the marvels of true artistic genius. A good cathartic moment can go a long way, like that moment when you realize the mountain oysters you've been eating were goat testicles.

Ultimately, the purpose of a tragedy is to bring healing to the audience. Even psychoanalysts praise catharsis as progress in emotional healing. Emotions are strong and can often lead to horrible decisions, like vengeful flatulation at work, sarcasm on the witness stand, or, God forbid, a tattoo near your nethers. Emotions that lead to these kinds of actions are viewed as excessive and unhealthy by some. A good catharsis can sooth the wild beast in most of us and make our passions slightly more manageable. Wikipedia informs us that particular Freudian psychoanalysts would use catharsis to help patients experience "the deep emotions often associated with events in the individual's past which had originally been repressed or ignored, and had never been adequately addressed or experienced."Some have even gone so far as to say that catharsis is pleasurable, because the audience might experience an ecstatic relief ensuing from an awareness that, compared with what they have just seen portrayed, their own life is less tragic.

However, there should be a warning label on overly tragic stories. A person suffering from extreme emotional derangement might careen off into the outer space of excitability and never be normal again. This is the downside of tragedy, and one of the reasons many will not appreciate its artistic quality.

Another reason is plain, old aesthetics. Just like some prefer not to suffer the woes of the mighty roller coaster, others are physically wired not to enjoy the thrills of a finely woven catharsis. I believe this is part of the reason there was such a strong reaction to the Hunger Games. Rightfully so, the thought of children brutally murdering each other for sport did not sit right with people, no matter what the back story was.

Therefore the redeeming value of such a tragic event is lost, just like the redeeming value of conquering your fears at the end of a roller coaster are lost just by looking at that first drop from your car in the parking lot.

I'm not a fan of roller coasters, because they give me vertigo and and a keen sense of impending disaster. On the other hand, I am a fan of tragedies because I love the catharsis that ensues after a good story. I still cringe and wince, but I like cringing and wincing.

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