Thursday, October 27, 2011

Catharsis: Why We Care What Happens To Frodo

Is there a point to any of this? Or was Macbeth right?
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing," (V.5.19-28)
There is no doubt that, as Kant says in the Critique of Judgment, life seems "purposive," it seems to have meaning. In the question on Divine Providence in the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Holy Scripture as evidence that the universe has meaning: "[Divine Wisdom] reacheth from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly," (Wis. 8:1).

He goes on to explain that, because all agents undertake actions for a reason, and God is the agent in the creating and sustaining of all the exists, all that exists does so for the reason he intended it to. To put it another way, when I do something, I do it for a reason. Everything that ends up happening as a result of my action (everything that's under my control), then, happened for that reason. But everything that exists, God caused to be; therefore, everything that exists exists for the reason God created it.

We can know, then, using reason alone, apart from faith, that everything has a purpose. Unfortunately, we can't know what that purpose is. Why not? Because we don't know everything. Gandalf said it right, "Even the very wise cannot see all ends," (The Fellowship of the Ring, 74). Because we can't know how everything is connected, and because we can't know how everything will end up, in our own lives or at the end of time, we can't know why things happen the way they do.

Say I built a machine that turned peanuts into peanut butter. Now say you were a sentient peanut. As you went through the machine you would be able to learn a little bit about how the machine worked, but not everything. Also, as you went through the machine, you would have no idea where you were going to end up. Only once you got turned into peanut butter would you realize what it was all about.

In the Poetics, Aristotle called Literature "cathartic," meaning that the reading of Literature (or watching of plays or movies, or listening of music, etc.) purges frustrations pent up as a result of conflict and tension in the narrative. He also says that art imitates life and reality (the Greek is mimesis, as in English "mimic"). In other words, the emotions that we live through in microcosm in works of art be they literary, musical, architectural, or what have you) are the same emotions we live through in real life.

Literature gives us the opportunity to live a second life, to put ourselves in the characters' shoes and do what they did and see what they saw. This is why, as Joseph Campbell points out, protagonists must be relatable. They must be down-to-earth and believable like Luke Skywalker or Frodo or Clark Kent. Or a peasant carpenter from Nazareth, for that matter. Either that or they must be champions, larger than life heroes that can fight on behalf of us little guys and do the things we never could, like Achilles or Superman. Or Christ, the King of the Jews and God Incarnate.

Literature is cathartic because it also allows us to see the ending, to see the meaning behind everything that happens in this second life, to learn lessons about life and reality from the people and events we encounter in art. It's like getting to regret bad decisions and glory in good ones without having to actually make them. This is not to say that the purpose of Literature is to teach us lessons; it is to say that it does, as a result of what it is, potential reality, imagined and given form by an artist.


  1. As I used to tell my architecture students, sometimes you have to write fiction in order to tell the whole truth.

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    Exactly, there is more to reality and truth that what we can see and experiment on. The visible, material world is indicative of a spiritual world full of just as much meaning as the material world. In fact, the spiritual world has more meaning and reality than the material world, for the material world only exists in and through it.

  3. "the spiritual world has more meaning and reality than the material world"


  4. As true as that statement is, I should have clarified it by adding that, while it is true that "the spiritual world has more meaning and reality than the material world," this does not mean the material world is of no value, or illusory. On the contrary, the material world is the manifestation, the incarnation (literally, "in-body-ing") of the spiritual reality.

    The material world is "less real" in the sense that it obtains its reality and being from the spiritual world as primary, but that is not to say that the material world can or should be ignored. As material beings, we have need of the material in order that we may come to know the spiritual--which is the whole point of the Incarnation--the fundamental Christian doctrine and, given sin, the only rational way to God.


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