St Augustine, Ricky Schroder, and Tear-Jerking Drama

Author's Note: I hope you'll forgive my absence the last week or two. I've been getting ready to teach in the fall, for the first time in many years, and the preparation--along with a few other commitments--has pushed the blog in the direction of the back burner. But I've missed you. It's good to be back. This morning I was reading St. Augustine's Confessions. I must not have been ready for Augustine last time I read him, because I don't remember him having a huge impact on me. But his insights, his understanding of the gospel as it played out in his own life, is just astonishing. I didn't realize how much he has influenced the way I think about the world--mostly indirectly, I suppose. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, once boasted, "The things I was doing twenty years ago, other people be doing today." I thought of James Brown as I read Augustine. The things Augustine was saying 1500 years ago, other people be saying today.

I was a little surprised, however, to see how little Augustine valued drama. He considered it mostly to be a waste of time. He was especially down on the tragedies that he loved in his youth:

I was much attracted by the theatre, because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire. Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage, although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet when he suffers himself, we call it misery: when he suffers out of sympaty with others, we call it pity. But what sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage ?The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author.

I am hardly qualified to argue with St. Augustine, but I have to say I value tragedy more highly than he does. I have written elsewhere on this blog about the value of sad stories. One of the big benefits of a sad story is its capacity for strengthening the empathy muscles of the reader or audience member. At least as important, is the fact that tragedy is an important means of coming to terms with the situation we find ourselves in apart from the gospel, which itself is bad news before it is good news. I love what Frederick Buechner has to say on in a chapter called "The Gospel as Tragedy" (in a short book entitled The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale):

Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it--meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful--but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery...after the silence that is truth comes the news that is bad before it is good, the word that is tragedy before it is comedy because it strips us bare in order ultimately to clothe us.

Not that preparing us for the gospel is the intent of every writer of sad stories, or even most of them--but as Flannery O'Connor said, the Devil is forever accomplishing ends other than his own.

I was still thinking about St. Augustine's view of dramatic sadness when I ran across a very interesting article about sad movies. Psychologists looking to study emotions face an ethical dilemma: how do they make people sad (or fearful or angry) without deceiving them or otherwise putting them in emotionally harmful situations? One very helpful way is to show them movies or certain scenes from movies. But even that's not easy, since most really sad movie scenes also evoke other emotions besides sadness. Researchers looked high and low for the movie scene that would most reliably evoke unalloyed sadness in their subjects. They finally settled on the scene in the mediocre 1979 movie, The Champ, in which nine-year-old Ricky Schroder sees his father die and cries, "Wake up, Champ!" It has become the go-to scene for scientists seeking to study the behavior of people under the influence of sadness. Here's the Smithsonian article I read, which also includes a list of movies used to evoke other emotions and mental states, from happiness to surprise to disgust. And here's the academic paper that was the basis of the Smithsonian article.

And here's a link to that scene from The Champ. (I can't embed it, so if you follow the link, you'll be exposed to some less than polite comments at YouTube. You've been warned.)