Friday, November 5, 2010

Rousseau on the Arts

Why does Rousseau think the Theater is harmful?

The theater (includes various forms of performance-based entertainment) is harmful insofar as "every useless amusement is an evil for a being whose life is so short and whose time is so precious." (p. 16, Letter to M. D'Alembert, Cornell University Press)

The emotions roused by theater are dangerous in that passion should be subordinated to reason. Artists claim that the arousal of diverse emotions can help to balance the passions, but Rousseau retorts that "all the passions are sisters and that one alone suffices for arousing a thousand, and that to combat one by the other is only the way to make the heart more sensitive to them all...the only instrument which serves to purge them is reason...."

Rousseau would also claim that Reason, when introduced into theater, only bores the audience, and no successful spectacle incorporates reasoned, stoic characters.

And yet, the movie Waking Life immediately comes to mind. If you've seen this movie, do you think it counts as an exception to Rousseau's rule about the role of reason in the Theater? There are plenty of movies that feature logical, rational characters - but are these characters ever stoic? Does their portrayal subordinate passion to reason? And do you agree with Rousseau and a long lineage of philosophers that passion should be subordinated to reason? Is it possible they can co-exist within us in a non-hierarchical way?

Perhaps our reason can serve to interpret our passions, and not to quash them down.

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