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Ramazani, J. (1991). Freud and Tragic Affect: The Pleasures of Dramatic Pain. Psychoanal. Rev., 78(1):77-101.

(1991). Psychoanalytic Review, 78(1):77-101

Freud and Tragic Affect: The Pleasures of Dramatic Pain

Jahan Ramazani

Why do we enjoy tragedy? We need not agree with Yeats (1938) that “Hamlet and Lear are gay,” their “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” to see the paradox that we, the spectators, are in some sense joyful, that we attend the tragic theater in the expectation that our pain will be in some sense pleasurable (p. 294). Freud can help us interpret the psychic basis of our response to tragedy, partly because he wrote about tragedy throughout his career, partly because he formulated the relation between pleasure and pain, and especially because he drew many of his central concepts from tragedy, even suggesting that psychoanalysis was an extension of both tragedy and tragic hermeneutics. Much of the recent literary analysis of Freud has thrown light on his affinities with Romanticism, perhaps at the cost of obscuring his larger debt to classical and Shakespearean tragedy. While developing a Freudian interpretation of tragic affect, I shall also attempt to explore the profound continuities between psychoanalysis and tragedy, as evident in such shared terms as catharsis, anxiety, identification, and Oedipus.

It is to tragedy that Freudian analysis owes its principal theory. In the early discussions of what he would later call the Oedipus complex, Freud presented it as a hypothesis that would explain the effect of a play. The hypothesis was an experiment in what we would now call reader-response criticism, just as phenomenological as it was psychoanalytic. Freud was correlating his responses to two different theaters, the theater of dreams and the theater of Greek tragedy. Freud (1897) first explains his affective theory in a letter to Fliess.

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