How Are We Moved and Why Do We Like it?–with notes on the death of tragedy.

There’s a recent book, Why Humans Like to Cry/Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain, by Michael Trimble, that addresses exactly the matters I have outlined above from a combined scientific and humanistic viewpoint. Trimble is a highly credentialed behavioral neurologist and psychiatrist (“neuroaesthetics” is the field to which his book evidently belongs), who wins me over right on his dedication page by naming opera “the quintessential expression of what it means to be human.” His starting point is the counterintuitive phenomenon I took note of above, i.e., that the nominally “negative” emotions associated with Tragedy (he uses the upper-case initial to distinguish the artform from everyday experience) are pleasurable, and that we return to enactments of tragedy (whether in plays, operas, TV, or movies) in the hope of re-experiencing them. He takes from this that these emotions and their most overt expression, tears, must serve a biological purpose, and that while ” . . . this strange phenomenon . . . has received much comment from philosophers and social scientists . . . in this book I explore the underlying evolutionary neurobiology.” He observes, too, that the link between the everyday and the dramatized encounters with the tragic has usually been discussed from a litcrit p.o.v., rather than from that of its emotional impact and human import. It’s the latter that interests him, and me.

Fellow devotees: if this sounds too much like the classes you made a point of skipping, or like another effort to kidnap art and hold it hostage to science, be at ease. Of course biological exposition is necessary to Trimble’s study, and he doesn’t skimp on it. But he makes every effort to keep his book lay-reader-friendly, and the neuroanatomical chapters are kept in the context of artistic, philosophical, and psychological exploration. At the outset, he sets his search in the framework of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, with its polarity of Apollo’s “beauty . . . form, and order” vs. “Dionysian energy and sadness,” and its lament over the historical submergence (as Nietzsche saw it) of the latter in the former. From there, Trimble offers the evidence for emotional crying (as opposed to crying out of need, as with a baby seeking food or attention) as a uniquely human activity that in some way makes us feel better, and for music as the artform that “most readily captures the emotions, destroys composure, and binds listeners in communal rapture.” (I)His evidence is, I suppose, open to some question on the grounds that much of it is anecdotal (the attendees at his lectures, for instance, probably do not constitute a terribly representative population), based on self-reporting and/or relatively small studies, etc. But I was easily persuaded, especially by the order of finish among artforms in relation to the strength of emotional response: music first; poetry second but not terribly close; painting, sculpture, and architecture so far to the rear as to be out of sight. A little later, Trimble introduces the novel as an emotionally significant form. Yes: music, poetry, the novel—the artforms that are sounded, that are voiced (either aloud or internally) and received by the outer or inner ear, that involve the release and reception of human communicative energies, not just the aesthetic shaping of matter. Dance, oddly, seems to be missing from the neuroscientists’ lineup to date—a regrettable lacuna that needs filling. This subject is pursued at length in my own Opera as Opera.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. His evidence is, I suppose, open to some question on the grounds that much of it is anecdotal (the attendees at his lectures, for instance, probably do not constitute a terribly representative population), based on self-reporting and/or relatively small studies, etc. But I was easily persuaded, especially by the order of finish among artforms in relation to the strength of emotional response: music first; poetry second but not terribly close; painting, sculpture, and architecture so far to the rear as to be out of sight. A little later, Trimble introduces the novel as an emotionally significant form. Yes: music, poetry, the novel—the artforms that are sounded, that are voiced (either aloud or internally) and received by the outer or inner ear, that involve the release and reception of human communicative energies, not just the aesthetic shaping of matter. Dance, oddly, seems to be missing from the neuroscientists’ lineup to date—a regrettable lacuna that needs filling. This subject is pursued at length in my own Opera as Opera.