Negative Emotions and the Arts
“It is sweet, when winds trouble the waters on the great sea, to behold from land the distress of others, not because it is a pleasure that any should be afflicted . . .”
- Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book II
Few of us deliberately seek out life situations to make us sad, anxious, or furious. Yet paintings, music, and poems that arouse those feelings keep us coming back for more. On a peaceful, contented evening at home, you’ll find me reading a murder mystery novel. Philosophers call this mismatch the paradox of tragedy.
If the arts have one overarching purpose, it’s to make us feel. To feel is to be deliciously alive. Within limits, what we dislike about a “negative emotion” is not the sensation so much as the situation behind it. When art lets us relish intense feeling without suffering the actual loss, hazard, or injustice, it offers the best of both worlds.
My father (who had a wry sense of humor but not a rowdy one) loved "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and explained he preferred comedy that made him laugh - real life was serious enough, he liked a show that didn't echo life but took him out of it. Some of my favorite poems are sad. On the other hand, I really don't like scary, even in something I know if make-believe. Some of my near and dear love horror. I prefer only enough suspense to keep me wondering what will happen.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.