Adversities and public tragedies

A central differentiation that discerning complexity enables, i.e. between events and the way these events are experienced, now needs to be enriched by the consideration of how the very events are presented in the first place. There is no single term that the majority of literature uses to refer to these events. For example, the expressions used, such as ‘pain of others’, ‘distant suffering', and even ‘traumatic events’, as well as ‘politics of pity’, ‘shock effect’, and ‘politics of compassion’, refer to the ways events are experienced, without identifying specifically what these events are. The first three indicate the manner in which the events are experienced by those who are directly implicated in them as sufferers, whereas the last three refer to the experiences of those who respond to the presentation of those events. These differentiations are crucial in order to avoid confusing complexity. The events that each one of these terms refers to cover a wide range of situations, including involuntary dislocation, incidents of violence, political oppression, military conflict, natural or human-made disasters, etc.

As emphasised above, the precision of language is crucial in avoiding epistemological traps, and it is therefore imperative that a term is identified that encompasses all these types of events, and I propose that adversity seems to incorporate all the key characteristics of such events. Adversity refers to anything that is considered negative, that happens contrary to an expected outcome. The OED defines adversity as ‘a state opposed to well-being or prosperity; misfortune, distress, difficulty, hardship’ but also ‘trial’. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin verb

verto, to change, to turn around but also to overthrow, destroy. Therefore, adversity would refer to any development of events and circumstances that takes the wrong turn, so to speak, away from an expected direction, with negative, if not calamitous, consequences. At the same time, the overtones of altering radically an existing order (for better or worse) are also present. This is a theme that the book will focus upon later. Adversity may occur in any context and at any level, e.g. personal or family relationships, political events, economic crisis, accidental bodily harm or illness, disaster, involuntary dislocation, etc.

It is important to have a generic term that refers to the events themselves, regardless of the impact they have on individuals and groups. Needless to say, according to the strictest logical rules, no description of an event can possibly be free from the way it is perceived by people, and characterising these events as 'adverse' inevitably carries elements of such perception and evaluation. Nevertheless, adversity seems to be the most widely accepted and least disputed term for this purpose.

Whenever adversities come to the attention of others, then the dynamics of the actual presentation also become relevant, and even if the adversity was of a personal nature, it then acquires a public dimension. Consequently, another term that accounts for this collective quality of the event needs also to be identified. ‘Collective adversity’ would not be an inaccurate term; however, I propose ‘public tragedy’ as a better one, for the following reasons.

Apart from the original meaning that the word tragedy has, i.e. the specific form of ancient Greek theatre, in its current, everyday use it is understood as referring to any ‘unhappy or fatal event or series of events in real life; a dreadful calamity or disaster’ (OED). This suggests that, to a degree, it is synonymous with adversity. Yet, by naming an adversity ‘tragedy', it introduces the additional indication that a group of spectators are engaged with that event, evoking reactions and feelings about it. Once an adversity is termed ‘tragedy’, wider vistas open up to appreciate its complexity in terms of additional relational subtleties. For example, it is then possible to discern in the event ‘tragic ironies’ (i.e. when the spectators are aware of the impending negative outcome of the protagonists’ actions while the protagonists themselves are not), ‘tragic vision’ (related, inter alia, to the inevitability of some catastrophic consequences, to redemptive suffering, to moral dilemmas, etc.), and other related themes. It is for these reasons that ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’ have been used in the field with increasing frequency (e.g. Gardner & Henry, 2002; Meilman & Hall, 2006; Woolfolk, 2002).

In effect, by introducing the term ‘public tragedies’, what is achieved is positioning individual predicaments in their wider social context. Using the terminology of the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the intention is to examine ‘personal troubles of milieu' as ‘public issues of social structure’ (Mills, 1963).

A tragedy becomes public when the adversity is disclosed outside the limits of its specific and discrete situational context, e.g. family, organisation, community, or any other closed group of people. There are no strict rules or conditions that make a private adversity into a public tragedy, although certain criteria have been proposed (Doka, 2003). The most succinct qualification is that ‘a traumatic event becomes a public tragedy when there is a collective definition of that event as a significant calamity’ (Doka, 2003, p. 11).

‘Public tragedy’ is preferred to other terms that are usually used such as ‘mass trauma’ (e.g. Hobfoil et al., 2007; Pfefferbaum et al., 2007), ‘collective trauma’ (e.g. Eriksson, 2016; Mucci, 2018; Saul, 2014; Updegraff et al., 2008), ‘cultural trauma’ (e.g. Alexander et al., 2004; Sztompka, 2000), or specific terms referring to particular forms of traumatising experiences, e.g. ‘war trauma’ (Kienzler, 2008; Somasundaram & Sivayokan, 1994), disaster trauma (Breslau, 2004; Fullerton & Ursano, 2009), etc. The preference for ‘public tragedy' is based on the intention to find a generic term that is not associated with specific approaches that conceptualise these phenomena from certain pre-defined perspectives, e.g. psychological, sociological, media and communication, etc. More specifically, the word ‘trauma’ is avoided in this specific context because it has an extremely defining way of determining the impact that events have on people.

The ancient Greek tragedy and Aristotle

Insofar as the presentation of involuntary dislocation in our world today constitutes a form of public tragedy, it is instructive to examine it in relation to the original form of tragedy, as it emerged in classical Greece during the 6th but mainly 5th century BC. This also fits with the overall intention of this book, which is to expand the traditional perspectives within which these phenomena have been studied, enabling refreshed conceptualisations of involuntary dislocation to emerge. The specific argument here is that the ancient Greek tragedy has several themes and insights that are of great relevance for us today, in terms of how we construe and present phenomena of public tragedies.

Venturing into such a vast subject such as the Greek tragedy seems imprudent when it forms only a small subsection of a wider project. Yet, I believe this risk is worthy because the Greek tragedy provides unique opportunities for seminal reflections.

At the outset, it needs to be emphasised that the position the tragedy had in Athenian society was unparalleled to anything that is possible today. The tragedy provided a remarkable mixture of public entertainment, religious ritualistic engagement, educational experience, expression of the Athenians' active participation in their practice of democracy as committed citizens, a means of moral edification, confirmation and maintenance of community links, transmission and commentary of current affairs, and a form of artistic creation, to name but a few (Barrett, 2002; Belfiore, 1983; Choi, 2013; DiLeo, 2013; Ferguson, 2013; Griffin, 1998; Griffin, 2000; Lawrence, 2013; Rabinowitz, 2008; Seaford, 2000). It is of note that even today in the Greek world, when referring to a public production of a Classical Greek tragedy, the expression used is ‘teaching' and not ‘performing’, e.g. ‘this evening, theatre group A "teaches”’ (not performs) Sophocles' tragedy Antigone'.

Aristotle was probably the person who studied more systematically than anybody else the finer workings of the ancient Greek theatre, especially the tragedy. To begin with, he claims that anyone exposed to the tragedy ‘thrills with fear and pity as a result of what occurs’ (Poetics, 1453b, 1-6). The word he used to describe the impact of this thrill was hedone (f|5ovf]). According to him, the audience gets involved with the tragedy precisely because they are gripped by this form of visceral pleasure, which we could call ‘hedonic thrill’. However, he warned that ‘we must not demand of tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it’ {Poetics 1453b 10-14). The Greek word that is translated as ‘proper to it’ was oikeian (oiicsiav, ecoean), derived from ecos (oko«;, house, home), a key word that has already been discussed in the previous chapter and will be discussed again in Chapters 5, 6 and 7. In effect, advocating against the evocation of any inappropriate types of thrills that would result in the tragedy degenerating into any other type of ineffective, vulgar, sentimental, or even harmful form of entertainment, he recommended that the ‘hedonic thrill' fit coherently within the reality of the tragedy, embedded in its appropriate contextual ecology, so to speak.

Today, perhaps the most used Aristotelian terms are fear and pity. It is important to note that he differentiated two distinct types of ‘fear’ (phobos), clarifying that the tragedy should generate a ‘fearful’ ((popspoc) and not a ‘monstrous’ (TsparcoSsg) response in the audience, as the latter would overpower the audience and prevent the beneficial effects of the tragedy from being activated. This differentiation helps us appreciate that a ‘monstrous’ fear would imply an experience that would be overwhelming and traumatising, whereas the ‘fearful’ fear would be more containable, metabolisable, and conducive to having a transformative effect.

Aristotle’s specific concern about the ‘monstrous’ fear was that it would not lead to the experience of pity. His term for ‘pity’ was eleos (sAeoc), and it did not have the condescending connotation that it has today, as in feeling pity for somebody or considering someone being pitiful. Eleos, for him, arises ‘from a perceived evil that is destructive or painful, in a person who does not deserve to meet with it - an evil that one may expect either to suffer oneself’ or that somebody else (friend or family) may suffer {Rhetoric, 2.8.2). Eleos implies a strong form of identification by the audience with the tragedy, suggesting an empathetic rather than a sympathetic attitude, to use current terminology. This involves the audience sensing parallels between their own situation and that of the tragedy’s characters, considering whether what had befallen the characters was deserved or not, and the likelihood of them (the audience) also experiencing similar misfortunes. Aristotle understood these ‘comparisons’ and deliberations not as cerebral calculations; instead, eleos is about genuine compassion with the human predicament and is characterised by an altruistic dimension as part of social virtue (Carr, 1999), an act of authentic concern by engaged and caring citizens.

The resolution {lysis) of the tragedy, for Aristotle, was closely connected with his term katharsis. Classicists have long been debating the meaning and function of this term (e.g. Belfiore, 1985; Christos, 2018; Golden, 1962, 1973; Janko, 1992; Kallendorf & Kallendorf, 2012; Kruse. 1979; Nanay, 2018; Stroud, 2019).

Katharsis as purgation was one of the proposed interpretations. Its first proponent was the philologist Jakob Bernays (1824-1881), who was the uncle of Sigmund Freud’s wife. According to Bernays, katharsis (as purgation) involved an abreacting process when one discharges built-up tension through an emotional release (Bernays, 1857; Bernays & Rudnytsky, 2004/1857). The cathartic function of abreaction was one of the early psychoanalytic methods that Freud developed and was the precursor of modem forms of psychotherapy, bringing Aristotle’s influence right up to our current times (e.g. Gobert, 2009; Macmillan, 1977; McCumber, 1988; Wells, 2002) Binstock, 1973; Gentile, 2013; Lawtoo, 2018; Porter, 2015; Vives, 2011).

Bernays insisted that katharsis in the Greek tragedy was of a ‘medical’ and ‘pathological’ nature, basing his argument on two claims: (a) that in Greek the word katharsis ‘means only two things: either an expiation of guilt. . ., or a lifting or alleviation of illness brought about by means of medical relief’ (Bernays & Rudnytsky, 1857, p. 326), and (b) that Aristotle used the term katharsis elsewhere (in his book Politics) referring to emotional excitement being purged through the use of ‘wild and passionate melodies’ (Golden, 1973, p. 474). Both claims have been disputed: the word katharsis also has other meanings, and the interpretation of the passage in Politics was taken out of context. Nevertheless, Bernays’ purgation theory has struck a chord with the professional establishment and has permeated our entire culture. In effect, it still forms the implicit epistemological framework of our ‘trauma culture’ today: i.e. medicalising and pathologising human suffering and suggesting that forms of purgation (various types of psychological therapies) can cleanse affected people from their ‘trauma’.

Katharsis has been understood as clarification, purification, cleansing, enlightenment, etc. and each of them has some merit. Aristotle was not interested in mere psychological, physiological, or emotional states, and definitely not in psy-chopathological conditions. For him, the function of the tragedy was to culminate in a resolution that brings about a substantial and transformative change in the audience. The experience of the Athenian citizens in engaging with the tragedy (not simply watching it) consisted of a remarkable combination of aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, ethical, social, religious, and many other inputs, aimed at making the existential realities of the human condition accessible to the audience, who would then depart, at the end, abundantly enriched and nourished by the entire event. The tragedy, for Aristotle, should develop the citizens' reflective contemplation about the human predicament, thus refining and ennobling them. In the context of the communal participation and committed engagement, the raw anguish that emanates from the tragedy is transmuted and dignified, not just purged.

In relation to the phenomena of public tragedies, the ancient Greek tragedy allowed the citizens to access painful and complex phenomena in a comprehensible way, i.e. in fictional and dramatic form, enabling them to get deeply engaged with existential human predicaments and share the characters’ suffering as well as to develop a reflective stance. Above all, it facilitated the transmutation of the intense entanglement with the tragedy into a transformative and enlightening experience.

Today, without the presence of anything comparable to the tragedy as it functioned in the ancient Greek world, most of these functions (not even all of them) are provided separately by specialist sendees in distinctly different settings, based on diverse and uncoordinated aims and systems of conceptualisation (epistemologies). Within this compartmentalisation, the mass media have taken up the unenviable task of conveying the information and commentary about public tragedies. Invariably, their presentation and representation are spiced up with entertaining ingredients, while endeavouring to be mindful of their social commitment and educational function.

Whereas the ancient Greek tragedy was unapologetically addressing timeless issues of the human predicament and fundamental questions about the meaning of life, the fragmented response to public tragedies that is available today seems to be absorbed by the minutiae of the ephemeral, often located within selectively constructed historical contexts.

The sophistication of the humanitarian, medical, technical, social, and therapeutic services that are available today is unparalleled in history. Nevertheless, their compartmentalised nature, limited scope and mostly unscrutinised epistemological foundations pose severe restrictions. It is for this reason that having in mind a model of a holistic approach, such as the one that the ancient Greek tragedy provides, can be most instructive. However, Belfiore (2000) warns that Aristotle’s ideas fit within a unique and particular historical time, with its highly specific societal beliefs, structure, and rituals. Accordingly, the Aristotelian model of tragedy cannot be replicated today. Nevertheless, it can provide inspiring and edifying insights into offering a refreshed perspective within which we can examine our assumptions and practices today.

Ultimately, although the ancient Greek tragedy was not a form of psychological therapy, as such, understood as the professional treatment of pathology, this does not mean that it did not have what we could call today a therapeutic function providing therapeutic effects for individuals and groups. It is, indeed, a tragedy that today, with the entrenchment of psychotherapy as a discipline and a profession, society seems to have lost the appreciation that therapeutic benefits can also be derived from many other forms of interactions and activities. Therefore, a vital distinction needs to be made between ‘offering psychotherapy’ and being therapeutic.

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