I listened to a reading of Sigrid Undset’s novel ‘Jenny’ recently.  It is one of her early novels, from before she became a Catholic and while she was still a Norwegian atheist.  I’d heard people praise her for ages, but until now I’d never made her acquaintance.

What a book!  I won’t give away the plot, but it perfectly fulfils the classic ideal of a tragedy, a noble character’s being ruined by a single flaw whose consequences unfold themselves in the course of the action (by the way, why is it that women excel in writing novels?  I would take any of Jane Austen’s books over any of Dickens’s, and Wuthering Heights may well be the greatest novel in the English language ever written.)

All that put me in mind of the Greek chap who said that tragedy was a matter of purifying or affording release to pity and fear and similar emotions.  There were certainly buckets of pity and fear to go round at the end of Jenny.  But what exactly does the phrase from the Poetics mean?

I imagine there is a long and rich commnentatorial tradition to draw on here, but I am entirely ignorant of it.  Nor, I’m afraid, did I ever study the Poetics.  But I shall still comment on it, and without compunction, since C. S. Lewis says somewhere that no one has ever been able to decide what Aristotle meant by the phrase.

The case seems to me this.  All the fundamental emotions – eleven, according to St Thomas, though with innumerable sub-species – have an organic basis in the human body, and so we will experience all of them from time to time.  Yet some of the basic emotions, though natural to fallen man, are also intrinsically harmful, not morally, but physically.  Here is St Thomas; and though the physiology is obviously primitive in the extreme, it sounds plausible:

Man’s life consists in a certain movement, which flows from the heart to the other parts of the body: and this movement is befitting to human nature according to a certain fixed measure. Consequently if this movement goes beyond the right measure, it will be repugnant to man’s life in respect of the measure of quantity; but not in respect of its specific character: whereas if this movement be hindered in its progress, it will be repugnant to life in respect of its species.

Now it must be noted that, in all the passions of the soul, the bodily transmutation which is their material element, is in conformity with and in proportion to the appetitive movement, which is the formal element: just as in everything matter is proportionate to form.

Consequently those passions that imply a movement of the appetite in pursuit of something, are not repugnant to the vital movement as regards its species, but they may be repugnant thereto as regards its measure: such are love, joy, desire and the like; wherefore these passions conduce to the well-being of the body; though, if they be excessive, they may be harmful to it.

On the other hand, those passions which denote in the appetite a movement of flight or contraction, are repugnant to the vital movement, not only as regards its measure, but also as regards its species; wherefore they are simply harmful: such are fear and despair, and above all sorrow which depresses the soul by reason of a present evil, which makes a stronger impression than future evil (Summa Theologiae, 1a 2ae 37, 4).

In other words, we need to flush out the sorrow and fear from our system, since they are physically bad for us.  Since emotion, having an organic basis, cannot remain at an intense level for a long time without a reaction setting it, one way to do this is to induce an unusually high degree of sorrow and fear. We don’t want to do this by using something in the real world (since this would involve bringing a real evil upon ourselves), and therefore we use something in the imaginary world.

There is a problem, however.  Our emotional life has not only physical consequences but also moral ones.  Virtue lies in being glad and sad about the right things.  If therefore I induce a pity and terror directed toward unworthy objects, I become worse. If I read sentimental novels, I grow sentimental; if I read brutal horror stories, I grow callous.

Tragedy, therefore, requires a noble hero or heroine.  To feel pity or fear for the woes of such a person is a noble outlet for these emotions.  Yet why must the person have one flaw?  Is it not nobler still to pity the sufferings of a sinless man or woman?  In itself, certainly.  Yet either because we perceive that such a person, however much they suffer, cannot be called wretched, or else because we are ourselves flawed, it appears that, by nature if not by grace, we pity the flawed hero or heroine more keenly.

What we have said already makes it further clear that a poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse — indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history, whether written in metre or not. The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and worthwhile than history (διὸ καὶ φιλοσοφώτερον καὶ σπουδαιότερον ποίησις ἱστορίας ἐστίν) because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts (Poetics, 1451).