In Search of Proust's Philosophy

Sunday, November 13, 2022

What Is It

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time challenges us to think hard about what we can know, who we really are, why memory matters, and how we can find enchantment in a world without God. But some might wonder why we need a 3,000 page novel to do that. Are there things a novel can do that a philosophy book can’t? Does it take a great person to produce great art? And why read Proust in the twenty-first century? Ray and guest-host Blakey Vermeule find a spot on the guestlist for Josh and his new book, The World According to Proust.



Ray Briggs  
Could a novel change your life?

Blakey Vermeule  
Is art a way to re-enchant the world?

Ray Briggs  
What does Proust tell us about our true selves?

Comments (1)

Daniel's picture


Wednesday, November 9, 2022 -- 1:24 PM

Amongst the kinds of

Amongst the kinds of artifacts whose associated appropriate response is to leave it alone, it could be said that a specialty of fictional narratives involving people is the generation of a recipient's emotional reaction. And the specific emotive reaction which is thereby associated is constrained by its source in empathy. In an article* related to the topic, Professor Landy by my reading expels two prominent interpretations of Aristotle's characterization of Catharsis as such emotive response in the case of the genre of Tragedy, as producing the emotions of fear and pity in the spectator. The first is that they're undesirable emotions and are brought up in order to temporarily dispose of them. This works if one has too much of these emotions in reality, but then the empathy-ingredient drops out which is necessary for the emotion-production in the first place. The second is that they're desirable emotions only when produced by the appropriate things, so that the job of Tragedy is to make explicit the unique character of these emotions, resulting in increased facility for application to their proper objects. This is also rejected, continuing my paraphrase of Landy, on the basis of a claimed universal spectator-benefit which Catharsis has or can have, so that even those whose emotions are already appropriately adapted to the proper objects must receive a benefit which they don't need, which is a contradiction.

Although the article continues with a very interesting critique of a kind of response which the Professor calls "feeling nothing", a permit is requested here to limit my comments to the issue of Aristotle's notion of Catharsis, and its relation to the issue of Empathy in the context of narrative fictional representation. In my view the first interpretation is roughly accurate. The caveat lay in the question of "pity and fear for and of what?" Take the analogy of a well cooked side of beef, or better, a sacrificed bull after having been sufficiently roasted, as described in the Iliad at 2.422-429. Uncontroversially, consumption of the respective culinary product is described as pleasurable, but would be much less so if one had to dine adjacent to part of its uncooked carcass. Nevertheless, the appropriate response to any distinct representation of how the bull starts out on the path to one's dinner-plate, by being killed, is pity, a clear social function of ancient animal sacrifice.

This is supported by the references in Poetics XIV which preclude self-pity. But the issue of fear is broached only at 1453a5, largely interpreted as referring to the spectator's fear that something similar to what's represented could happen to them in reality, and at 1453b9, which in a more explicit statement argues that the fear response must be produced not by Spectacle but by a narrative structure of the represented incidents; or again, not by a mimicry of its appearance but by an enactment of its reasons. Beyond this no appropriate object of fear-stimulus for Tragedy is discussed in the Poetics, whereas the appropriate objects of pity are more clearly defined as the representation of undeserved misfortune. Upon the appropriate object which produces the fear-stimulus turns my interpretation of the Empathy-Catharsis connection in the Poetics as consistent with the translation of Catharsis as "purgation", a common medical remedy of the time, and therefore the grounds of my objection. The reading, which as Landy points out is a traditional one,** lacks a clear object where fear is concerned. For this reason the Rhetoric can assist, since it provides a clear description of a sufficient or effective object of fear-stimulus in an audience (1382a5.2): 'an audience will generally fear the same objects which excite pity if they happen to others'. And what kinds of objects those are must include, given detailed discussion in the section 1382b, those who have been wronged in the past who now have the ability to commit a similar wrong to those who have wronged them. Interesting is that the design in rhetoric is to scare the audience for the purpose of persuasion, whereas in Tragedy the object is a kind of pleasure, and therefore excludes the spectator's executant fearing. As this pleasure occurs as a result of Catharsis produced by the proper objects, my argument is the pleasure of a purged fear must be one which is constantly present as a background context of the society itself, imported into the theatre by the spectator as a kind of social baggage, the temporary release of which corresponds to the "appropriate pleasure" (oikeia hedone) of Tragedy. Then what's the object we're talking about here? It's not too bold to assert that Aristotle has in mind the slave economy, since in the Politics at 1255a25 he makes the point that although he thinks some people are "natural slaves", (an opinion shared by the Friedman school of economics), there's no reliable way to tell if one has been enslaved unjustly as a result of military conquest or justly according to a purported unfitness to choose one's own labor commitments, (as one might say of those who must be "retrained for the digital economy"). This arouses disgust in those who share in a sense of common decency, but due to its connection with economic necessity this disgust is for important political reasons suppressed or overridden by Catharsis as guilt-absolution for voluntary participation in a social system amongst whose essential components is injustice without conditions. What stimulates the coveted effect of Catharsis are highly dysfunctional collective goals successfully disguised as unavoidable circumstances. Contrary to the traditional notion that the effect derives from the representation of the tragic hero's action whose design causes an over-reach of pre-determined boundaries, (the catharsis from which is produced by a narrative representation of incidents which would produce genuine fear if occurring in reality, and is therefore itself a representation), it should be described rather as consisting in disgust-deferment for an unjust result of a collection of just and moral agents, or, perhaps more colorfully, as recyclable aesthetic sewage from an arbitrary consumption of coerced labor which, because it can not be rationally defended, is aided by Art in the alleviation of individual responsibility in the context of collective injustice.
* Joshua Landy, "Passion, Counter-Passion, Catharsis: Beckett and Flaubert on Feeling Nothing". 9781405141703_4_012.qxd 8/19/09 10:31, p.218.
** Ibid. p.223.

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