Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

What Does Literature Do? And How Does It Do It?

Classicist Ruth Scodel on the mysterious interplay between involvement and detachment in the reading or viewing of imaginary worlds:

Tragedy for the Athenians was essentially what theater is for us in the West: make-believe. Everybody knew that a poet had made up the words and that the actors had memorized them, and sustaining the make-believe required that the barrier be maintained: the audience could not affect the play, and the play’s only consequences in the real world came from the emotional and intellectual response of the audience. Athenian comedy regularly violated dramatic illusion, but tragedy did not. Philosophers and psychologists still do not have an adequate understanding of the experience of involvement in fiction, of how we manage simultaneously to care deeply about the people on stage and to be fully aware that they are actors. Even though we usually sit in the dark and they sat in sunlight, our actors wear makeup and theirs wore masks, and all the other differences between their theater and ours, the experience, mysterious as it is, seems to have been similar…. (An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, 23–24)

But however it works, it does indeed work; and our lives are richer for it.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.