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.
Department of Philosophy