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OF THE CAUSE OF THAT PLEASURE WHICH WE RECEIVE FROM
OBJECTS OR REPRESENTATIONS THAT EXCITE PITY AND OTHER PAINFUL FEELINGS.
It hath been observed already,* that without some gratification in hearing, the attention must inevitably flag. And it is manifest from experience, that nothing tends more effectually to prevent this consequence, and keep our attention alive and vigorous, than the pathetic, which consists chiefly in exhibitions of human misery. Yet that such exhibitions should so highly gratify us, appears somewhat mysterious. Everybody is sensible, that of all qualities in a work of genius, this is that which endears it most to the generality of readers. One would imagine, on the first mention of this, that it were impossible to account for it otherwise than from an innate principle of malice, which teacheth us to extract delight to ourselves from the sufferings of others, and as it were to enjoy their calamities. A very little reflection, however, would suffice for correcting this error; nay, without any reflection, we may truly say, that the common sense of mankind prevents them effectually from falling into it. Bad as we are, and prone as we are, to be hurried into the worst of passions by self-love, partiality, and pride ; malice is a disposition, which, either in the abstract, or as it discovers itself in the actions of an indifferent person, we never contemplate without feeling a just detestation and abhorrence, being ready to pronounce it the ugliest of objects. Yet this sentiment is not more universal, than is the approbation and even love that we bestow on the tender-hearted, or those who are most exquisitely susceptible of all the influence of the pathetic. Nor are there any two dispositions of which human nature is capable, that have ever been considered as farther removed from each other, than the malicious and the compassionate are. The fact itself, that the mind derives pleasure from representations of anguish, is undeniable; the question about the cause is curious, and hath a manifest relation to my subject.
I purposed indeed, at first, to discuss this point in that part of the sixth chapter which relates to the means of operating on the passions, with which the present inquiry is intimately connected. Finding afterwards that the discussion would prove rather too long an interruption, and that the other points which came naturally to be treated in that place, could be explained with sufficient clearness, independently of this, I judged it better to reserve this question for a separate chapter. Various hypotheses have been devised by the in
genious, in order to solve the difficulty. These I shall first briefly examine, and then lay before the reader what appears to me to be the true solution. Of all that have entered into the subject, those who seem most to merit our regard, are two French critics, and one of our own country.
THE DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS HITHERTO GIVEN BY PHILOSOPHERS,
Part I. — The first hypothesis.
Abbe du Bos begins his excellent reflections on poetry and painting, with that very question which is the subject of this chapter, and in answer to it supports at some length* a theory, the substance of which I shall endeavour to comprise in a few words. Few things, according to him, are more disagreeable to the mind than that listlessness into which it falls, when it has nothing to occupy it, or to awake the passions. In order to get rid of this most painful situation, it seeks with avidity every amusement and pursuit ; business, gaming, news, shows, public executions, romances; in short, whatever will rouse the passions, and take off the mind's attention from itself. It matters not what the emotion be, only the stronger it is, so much the better. And for this reason, those passions which, considered in themselves, are the most afflicting and disagreeable, are preferable to the pleasant, inasmuch as they most effecutually relieve the soul from that oppressive languor which preys upon it in a state of inactivity. They afford it ample occupation, and by giving play to its latent movements and springs of action, convey a pleasure which more than counterbalances the pain.
I admit, with Mr. Hument that there is some weight in these observations, which may sufficiently account for the pleasure taken in gaming, hunting, and several other diversions and sports. But they are not quite satisfactory, as they do not assign a sufficient reason why poets, painters, and orators, exercise themselves more in actuating the painful passions, than in exciting the pleasant. These, one would think, ought in every respect to have the advantage, because, at the same time that they preserve the mind from a state of inaction, they convey a feeling that is allowed to be agreeable. And though it were granted, that passions of the former kind are stronger than those of the latter, (which doth not hold invariably, there being perhaps more examples of persons who have been killed with joy,
* Reflexions critiques sur la Poesie et sur la Peinture, sect. i. ii. ïïi.
than of those who have died of grief,) strength alone will not account for the preference. It by no means holds here, that the stronger the emotion is, so much the fitter for this purpose. On the contrary, if you exceed but ever so little a certain measure, instead of that sympathetic delightful sorrow, which makes affliction itself wear a lovely aspect, and engages the mind to hug it, not only with tenderness, but with transport, you only excite horror and aversion. “ It is certain,” says the author last quoted, very justly,* " that the same object of distress which pleases in a tragedy, were it really set before us, would give the most unfeigned uneasiness, though it be then the most effectual cure of langour and indolence.” And it is more than barely possible even in the representations of the tragedian, or in the descriptions of the orator or the poet, to exceed that measure. I acknowledge, indeed, that this measure or degree is not the same to every temper. Some are much sooner shocked with mournful representations than others. Our mental, like our bodily appetites and capacities, are exceedingly various. It is, however, the business of both the speaker and the writer, to accommodate himself to what may be styled the common standard ; for there is a common standard in what regards the faculties of the mind, as well as in what concerns the powers of the body. Now if there be any quality in the afflictive passions, besides their strength, that renders them peculiarly adapted to rescue the mind from that torpid, but corrosive rest which is considered as the greatest of evils, that quality ought to have been pointed out: for till then, the phenomenon under examination is not accounted for. The most that can be concluded from the Abbé's premises, is the utility of exciting passion of some kind or other, but nothing that can evince the superior fitness of the distressful affections.
Part II. — The second Hypothesis.
The next hypothesis is Fontenelles. t Not having the original at hand at present, I shall give Mr. Hume's translation of the passage, in his Essay on Tragedy above quoted. “ Pleasure and pain, which are two sentiments so different in themselves, differ not so much in their cause. From the instance of tickling it appears, that the movement of pleasure, pushed a little too far, becomes pain; and that the movement of pain, a little moderated, becomes pleasure. Hence it proceeds, that there is such a thing as a sorrow, soft and agreeable. It is a pain weakened and diminished. The heart likes naturally to be moved and affected. Melancholy objects suit it, and even disastrous and sorrowful, provided they are softened by some circumstance. It is certain that, on the theatre, the representation has almost the effect of reality ; but yet it has not altogether that effect. However we may be hurried away by the spectacle, whatever dominion the senses and imagination may usurp over the reason, there still lurks at the bottom a certain idea of falsehood in the whole
*Essay on Tragedy.
| Reflexions sur la Poetique, sect. xxxvi.
of what we see. This idea, though weak and disguised, suffices to diminish the pain which we suffer from the misfortunes of those whom we love, and to reduce that affliction to such a pitch as converts it into a pleasure. We weep for the misfortunes of a hero to whom we are attached. In the same instant we comfort ourselves by reflecting, that it is nothing but a fiction; and it is precisely that mixture of sentiments, which composes an agreeable sorrow, and tears that delight us. But as that affliction which is caused by exterior and sensible objects, is stronger than the consolation which arises from an internal reflection, they are the effects and symptoms of sorrow, which ought to prevail in the composition.”
I cannot affirm that this solution appears to me so just and convincing, as it seems it did to Mr. Hume. If this English version, Jike a faithful mirror, reflect the true image of the French original, I think the author in some degree chargeable with what, in that language, is emphatically enough styled verbiage, a manner of writing very common with those of his nation, and with their imitators in ours. The only truth that I can discover in his hypothesis lies in one small circumstance, which is so far from being applicable to the whole case under consideration, that it can properly be applied but to a very few particular instances, and is therefore no solution at all. That there are at least many cases to which it cannot be applied, the author last mentioned declares himself to be perfectly sensible.
But let us examine the passage more narrowly. He begins with laying it down as a general principle, that however different the feelings of pleasure and of pain in themselves, they differ not much in their cause; that the movement of pleasure, pushed a little too far, becomes pain; and that the movement of pain a little moderated, becomes pleasure. For an illustration of this he gives an example in tickling. I will admit that there are several other similar instances, in which the observation to appearance holds. The warmth received from sitting near the fire, by one who hath been almost chilled with cold is very pleasing; yet you may increase this warmth, first to a disagreeable heat, and then to burning, which is one of the greatest torments. It is nevertheless extremely hazardous, on a few instances, and those not perfectly parallel to the case in hand, to found a general theory. Let us make the experiment, how the application of this doctrine to the passions of the mind will answer. And for our greater security against mistake, let us begin with the simplest cases in the direct, and not in the reflex or sympathetic passions, in which hardly ever any feeling or affection comes alone. A merchant loseth all his fortune by a shipwreck, and is reduced at one stroke from opulence to indigence. His grief, we may suppose, will be very violent. If he had lost half his stock only, it is natural to think he would have borne the loss more easily; though still he would have been affected : perhaps the loss of fifty pounds he would scarcely have felt : but I should be glad to know how much the movement or passion must be moderated; or, in other words, as the difference ariseth solely from the different degrees of the cause, how small the loss must be, when the sentiment or
feeling of it begins to be converted into a real pleasure : for to me it doth not appear natural that any the most trifling loss, were it of a single shilling, should be the subject of positive delight.
But to try another instance, a gross and public insult commonly provokes a very high degree of resentment, and gives a most pungent vexation to a person of sensibility. I would gladly know, whether a smaller affront, or some slight instance of neglect or contempt, gives such a person any pleasure. Try the experiment also on friendship and hatred, and you will find the same success. As the warmest friendship is highly agreeable to the mind, the slightest liking is also agreeable, though in a less degree. Perfect hatred is a kind of torture to the breast that harbours it, which will not be found capable of being mitigated into pleasure ; for there is no degree of ill-will without pain. The gradation in the cause and in the effect are entirely correspondent.
Nor can any just conclusion be drawn from the affections of the body, as in these the consequence is often solely imputable to a certain proportion of strength, in the cause that operates, to the present disposition of the organs. But though I cannot find that in any uncompounded passion the most remote degrees are productive of such contrary effects, I do not deny that when different passions are blended, some of them pleasing and some painful, the pleasure or the pain of those which predominate may, through the wonderful mechanism* of our mental frame, be considerably auginented by the mixture.
The only truth which, as I hinted already, I can discover in the preceding hypothesis, is, that the mind in certain cases avails itself of the notion of falsehood, in order to prevent the representation or narrative from producing too strong an effect upon the imagination, and consequently to relieve itself from such an excess of passion, as could not otherwise fail to be painful. But, let it be observed, that this notion is not a necessary concomitant of the pleasure that results from pity and other such affections, but is merely accidental. It was remarked above, that if the pathetic exceeds a certain measure, from being very pleasant it becomes very painful. Then the mind recurs to every expedient, and to disbelief amongst others, by which it may be enabled to disburden itself of what distresseth it. And, indeed, whenever this recourse is had by any, it is a sure indication that, with regard to such, the poet, orator, or historian, hath exceeded the proper measure.
But that this only holds when we are too deeply interested by the sympathetic sorrow, will appear from the following considerations : tirst, from the great pains often taken by writers (whose design is certainly not to shock, but to please their readers,) to make the most moving stories they relate be firmly believed: secondly, from the
* The word mechanism, applied to the mind, ought not reasonably to give offence to any. I only use the term metaphorically for those effects in the operation of the mental faculties, produced in consequence of such fixed laws as are independent of the will. It hath here therefore no reference to the doctrine of the materialists, a system which, in my opinion, is not only untenable, but absurd.