Monday, July 21, 2014

Crying at the opera

The opera Madama Butterfly equals King Lear in the intensity and detail with which the story builds to its tragic outcome. Even the title gives a hint: “Mrs. Butterfly.” Cio-Cio San, forced into life as a geisha by the ruin of her family, believes that she is married to the handsome, callow American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton. He thinks he’s just renting her, much like the curious paper house (999-year lease with monthly opt-out clause), while he’s stationed in Japan.

Puccini presents the crushing of Cio-Cio San’s hopes with all the art he commands – and Puccini’s music is hardwired to the lacrimal glands. In Act III, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his American wife. The devastated Cio-Cio San presents Pinkerton with their son – and then expunges her dishonor as a samurai’s daughter must.

If you’re not helplessly snot-ugly blubbering by the end there’s something wrong with you.

Why do we cry?

Because the story and the music make us sad? That can’t be right. It’s a ‘sad’ story with ‘sad’ music, to be sure. But we have no reason to feel sad; nothing bad has happened to us. Nor are we sad for Cio-Cio San. There is no ‘Cio-Cio San.’ Rather than dying of a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart, the soprano hops right up, takes a curtain call, and goes out for drinks after the performance.

“But,” goes the usual reply, “art involves the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.” That is, in the experience of art we bracket the fact that the tragic events we observe are not really happening, though if they were they would make us sad. We watch the tragedy ‘as if’ it is really happening.

I’ve always thought this ‘willing suspension’ notion silly. First, we know all along, and never forget for a moment, that we are in a contemporary opera house, not 19th century Nagasaki. We know the whole time that we are not looking at a dashing young American sailor but a middle-aged, slightly tubby Italian tenor. The singers may be pretending; but we never do. The question of belief or disbelief just doesn’t seem to enter in.

Second, if we really did prescind from the unreality of the story the proper emotional response would not be sadness, but shock and alarm. We’d rush the stage to stop Cio-Cio San from committing hara kiri. But we are not even momentarily disposed to prevent her. Indeed, we feel that she ‘should’ do so; it’s somehow ‘necessary’ for her to do it. If the director decided to have Cio-Cio San survive and ‘move on’ from this bad relationship (perhaps with an empowering job at Mitsubishi) we’d be disposed to demand our money back.

Finally, are we really ‘sad’? That we would feel sadness, or that we are supposed to made sad, seems implausible as a phenomenology of going to this opera. What we are feeling at the end, especially if the performance is well done, is a particular kind of pleasure. After all, we don’t pay $125 a ticket to be bummed out.

So why do we cry and experience pleasure at the same time?

A key to this puzzle is figuring out what it is for a story, and for music, to be ‘sad’. Again, the explanation can’t involve the power to make us feel sad.

Let me propose a way of understanding what makes a piece of art ‘sad’ borrowing from two philosophers, Aristotle and Suzanne Langer.

A work of art is ‘sad’ (or ‘joyful,’ or whatever) if it somehow presents to us the form of something sad. In the case of a story, a series of events which would be sad-making. In the case of music, what is presented is the form of sadness. For another searing example of sadness, listen to the opening of Act III of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. (An even better example from Wagner is the motif of ressentiment in the Ring Cycle, which even shows us how resentment feels physically. It doesn’t, of course, make us resentful. We haven’t been robbed of our Precious by an arrogant god.) Mozart presents Donna Elvira’s despairing grief and shame with equal vividness in her aria “Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata,” in Don Giovanni.

That is, art presents us with the form of a sadness-producing event but not realized in the ‘matter’ which would make it really so. Music presents us with the form of an emotional state, permitting cognitive access to that state without our literally being in the state.

It seems to me that the explanation of what’s going on here, that covers this complex reality, appeals to the Aristotelian notions of matter and form, and then to the principle that in cognition the content of the cognitive state is formally identical with its object. That is, when we have cognitive knowledge of horses, what we know is the substantial form of horses, not representations of horses or ‘ideas’ of horses.

A sad-making series of events has a form. As actualizing its ordinary matter (real human beings) it would have its ordinary effect on us. As actualizing other, different matter (characters portrayed by performers) it wouldn’t. Our response in this latter case, the cognitive states we are in as a result of observing it, is not genuine sadness, but its form as the object of a particular kind of cognitive state different from the actual emotion. Being in this state makes us cry. But we’re not sad. Langer would say that we are ‘virtually’ sad.

However, to the extent that this virtual realization of the form captures its essence, it provides us the cognitive satisfaction that good realizations of form generally provide. That gives us pleasure.

And that’s why we go, even though we know it will make us cry.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Tom, I like this piece for various reasons. One is that it challenges people like me who are disinclined to grant any independent reality to forms. My own reason for this is the usual one: forms do not seem to me have any real explanatory value. There is no epistemically scrutable account of how a mind, which, of course, is, or is made by, a brain, can be in causal contact with an entity such as that. The intellectual grasping of immaterial forms, like the participation of matter in form, is, to my mind, incoherent. Hence, when someone like yourself actually provides what seems like a compelling explanation of a problematic phenomenon by reference to exactly these capacities, it forces me to rethink my position. Which gives me pleasure and distracts me from the task of painting the house.

    First, a quibble: You seem to me to characterize crying and feeling pleasure at the same time as a rather unique event, occasioned by experiences like this, and in particular need of explanation. However, I do not think this is correct. Crying is always a pleasurable response. Even when we are crying in response to truly sad material events, we are getting pleasure from crying, which is why it gives us some relief from our sadness. So, to the extent that you take yourself to be explaining why we go to the opera even though it will make us cry, the answer may be: What do you mean "even though?" Crying is a pleasurable activity, why wouldn't we go?

    Of course, it goes without saying that we cry at moments of great joy just as we cry at moments of great sorrow, so I think the focus on crying is not that important. The question you are really asking, I think, is why would we pay good money to feel sad? And your answer is that in fact we do not feel sad, but rather we are experiencing (knowing, grasping, not sure which word you would prefer here) the form of sadness. So we are paying good money for that.

    Now, I am not completely sure what your view is here. It seems to me that in the end of the post it is something close to this: Even though experiencing the form of sadness makes us cry, which is a net negative and something we would ordinarily prefer to avoid, it is still worth the money, because there is value in experiencing this particular form outside any material realization of it. I think, especially in consideration of the quibble above, I would like it better if you were saying something like this instead, and perhaps you are: Experiencing the form of sadness is deeply rewarding, and even though crying is often an expression of sadness, in this case it is actually, or perhaps also, an expression of joy at experiencing this form. Perhaps it is singularly pleasurable to cry from (virtual) sadness and (real?) joy at the same time (continued below).

  2. In any case, it is clear that you offer the pleasure of grasping or experiencing the form of sadness as a pleasure worth paying for. And, I take it that, in general, you regard the capacity of art, literature and music to help us more directly experience forms of various kinds is what makes them valuable to us.

    I think there are two parts to your theory. One is that the experience we are having is in fact best explained as the result of being connected to a form. The other is that this is a pleasurable experience worth money. But if I do not believe in forms, and therefore reject the first part, I can still allow that especially fine works of art provide us with a feeling that is so unique and powerful, that we find ourselves strongly inclined to explain it in this way. This, of course, is very common. Mathematicians will often describe their insights in this way. People who undergo epiphanic religious conversion will do so as well. So I think it is reasonable to suggest that the feeling that we are in contact with the forms is what we are paying for, and that we may not be in a position to know whether this feeling is veridical., and that who cares? it is great either way.

    Anyway, this is all great stuff to think about. But let me sketch an alternative account. You say that we do not feel real sadness at the culmination of Madama Butterfly. I agree with you in finding the suspension of disbelief idea not very compelling. I also think that 'sadness' is a sadly inadequate way of describing the amazing mixture or feelings we are experiencing when experiencing a performance like this. However, I think it is obvious that we are experiencing some mixture of emotions and one of them is what we would usually call sadness. You give some reasons for thinking it is not real sadness, chief among them being that we know all along that nothing sad has really happened. (Actually, I do not know if you are saying it is because we know this, or if it is because nothing sad has really happened, regardless whether we know this, but I won't go any further with that.) Well, ok. If you want to say that real sadness is necessarily the result of really believing or knowing that sad-making events have happened, why not just say that in this case we are simulating sadness? When we take a roller-coaster ride we simulate terror. When we play first-person shooter video games we simulate carnage. I do not think the forms are needed to explain our capacity to simulate. I do think it is interesting to try to explain why the simulation of events that would be unpleasant if they really occurred is worth paying for, though. In the case of opera, I think part of the answer is that simulating sadness makes us cry, which feels good.

  3. Randy,
    Thanks for the remarks.
    I should have concluded the post by going on to say that we go because it will make us cry.
    The kind of experience referred to in my post does seem to me to be a reason to accept a generally hylomorphic position in metaphysics. I also agree that such hylomorphism must do some work closer to core issues in philosophy. This just struck me as an interesting application to account for a phenomenon I'd long puzzled about.

    I'm also disposed to agree with you about the pleasure of a good emotional 'catharsis,' whether it's crying or shouting "F___ Yeah!" when the Bad Guy gets his at the end of the movie.

    We would both agree, I predict, that there is a cognitive component to emotional episodes like this. Suzanne Langer is very strong on that point. We can learn something about what humans are capable of feeling by listening to a piece of music, even though we are not brought to feel those things ourselves.

    The point of disagreement seems to come down to the final paragraph. We would need an account of 'simulation' that did not make appeal to the notion of form, or was at least as well explained by appeal to something else besides.