Tragedy, take two: doing it right

Featuring spoilers for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; I’m mentioning this because you really should see it and I don’t want to spoil your fun.

We often talk about ‘catharsis’ today. It’s a word that has changed meaning a lot: today, we tend to describe something as ‘cathartic’ when it involves doing wild things, smashing things up, getting crazy and purging every bad emotion out of your system. Initially, it did not quite work that way, although it did imply purging your emotions. Tragedy, according to Aristotles, made you vicariously experience the results of an excess of passions, as well as the resulting sadness, and that was supposed to make you feel better and become a better person. Catharsis was not about smashing everything up and getting it out of your system, but about watching other people make a mess of things and get rid of the corresponding passions in the process.

Times have changed, and it’s not particularly popular today to believe that misery is the result of an excess of passion–I personally don’t feel that way at all (if we can’t have passions, what are we here for?). But the ending of Princess Kaguya truly made me feel what catharsis could be, even today, and realise that this is what I’ve been missing from the recent orgy of grimdark.

Princess Kaguya is about a magical little girl who was found inside a bamboo stalk by an old bamboo cutter. Over the course of the story, her adoptive father decides that she deserves the best kind of life and brings her to the capital to make her live in a palace, educate her in the ways of the court and find her a wealthy husband. But she really wants none of it: all she yearns for is the moutain village where she grew up, the friends she made there and the simple life she enjoyed. In the end, she becomes so miserable that she prays for release, and the mystery of her origins is uncovered: she came in fact from the moon, and the moon people have heard her prayers and are coming to take her away–something she doesn’t want either.

Upon hearing this, her parents are distraught. But her father can’t understand how he’s failed to make her happy. Instead of trying to bring her back to the village to make it right at last, he spends even more money, builds even higher walls around her, hires a whole army to keep her locked up and safe, which of course fails. She is taken back to the moon, her childhood friends go on living their lives without her and she forgets everything that ever happened. End of story.

All of this happens in the last ten minutes or so of the film. It took me another ten to stop staring at the screen. Everything about this ending was heartbreaking: her childhood friend and first love having a dream about her and then shrugging it off and going back to his wife and child, her sudden departure, her blank face as she forgets her life on earth right in front of her parents, her father’s ultimate failure to understand how his attempt to make her happy only caused her to be miserable, his making things worse when he (perhaps) had one last chance to set things right. And yet no one died, except symbolically. No blood was shed, the only arrows fired turned into clouds. But there was no little bit of hope left, nothing remotely uplifting. It was entirely tragic. And after that I needed to take time, not to cheer myself up, but to process the tangled bundle of emotions I was feeling.

If I had to define catharsis today, I would say it’s something exactly like this: a moment of complete tragedy, something you cannot dismiss (‘she’ll come back’, ‘she’s learned something’: nope, everything is ended for god), that forces you to sit down and sort through so many unresolved feelings of your own. A moment to discover emotions you didn’t even know you had, to let them pass over and through you (as the Bene Gesserit would put it), and to be made whole again, and better for it. I’m not just talking about having a good cry–that’s easy enough to do, just have someone die with an emotional music and anybody with a little empathy will feel wetness in their eyes–or being shocked or depressed–even easier, just write about a sympathetic character with a big uplifting quest and kill them off at a random moment. I’m talking about diving deep into parts of your emotional brain you don’t pay attention to, facing the monsters and making a truce with them. True tragedy may be incredibly difficult to write, perhaps, but who said it was supposed to be easy?

That is what art should do–and why artists should be more worried about getting guts than spilling them.

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