A folk musician once remarked that no celebration of British traditional music is complete without a song of tragedy in which everybody dies. If you suffered through “Sir Patrick Spens” (or, worse, “The Twa Corbies”) during your high school days, then you know exactly what I mean. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that there were only two kinds of ballads: “sad ballads about broken hearts and cheerful ballads about broken heads.” He was basically right.
I have a reputation, at least within my family, of listening to depressing music. It’s rather odd, since I don’t consider myself a particularly angsty person. I test as an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs indicator and have been accused (falsely) of lacking emotions altogether. But most of my favorite folk songs are the sad ones. Why is it that some people, myself included, feel almost uplifted by music that should be depressing.
Aristotle’s theory of catharsis might be a partial explanation. In Poetics, he argued that tragedies were beneficial because they produced a cleansing effect in those who watched them. To put it another way, sad songs or stories or dramas allow us to get in touch with emotions that we cannot safely express much of the time. We don’t have to be genuinely angsty to experience those emotions, because we feel them in direct relation to what we are listening to, reading, or watching. No need to start dressing like a goth and writing poems about your death. You feel the emotions—then comes the climax—the problems resolve—and you relax.
Aristotle’s theory of catharsis isn’t the greatest justification for the existence of tragedy, as C. S. Lewis pointed out. But it does explain why some of us listen to depressing things and don’t end up depressed. Still, it’s more an effect than a cause. (Who goes to a bookshelf saying, “I feel like having some catharsis today”?)
Oscar Wilde, I suspect, had less interest in catharsis than in beauty. Most of his fairy stories end with at least one death. Probably his most famous fairy story is “The Selfish Giant,” which has been made into a children’s book. Yes, Wilde meant his stories, sad endings and all, for children. His sons, specifically, when Wilde grew tired of playing with them. But Wilde put his own hunger for beauty into the stories to the extent that he once cried when telling “The Selfish Giant” to his sons Cyril and Vyvyan. When Cyril wanted to know why, his father said that truly beautiful things always made him cry.
Sometimes Wilde’s love of beauty can carry him away—in his collection The Happy Prince and Other Stories, the descriptions are always beautiful but sometimes become too long. Generally speaking, I think that adults will probably get more out of Wilde’s fairy stories than many children will, although my ten-year-old brother enjoyed having the book read to him.
My favorite of the stories is probably the one for which the volume was titled. “The Happy Prince” is such a good story that any single theme I might assign it falls short. Self-sacrifice? Loss of innocence? The need for compassion? The Happy Prince was once a great noble who lived a life without sorrow. But after his death, his spirit resides in a golden statue made to resemble him, from which he sees all the sorrows of the city he once ruled. He begs a swallow who is traveling south to begin removing some of the gems and precious metals from his statue of a body in order to alleviate some of the suffering. The swallow complies, and many of the townsfolk find relief from their poverty. But in the mean time the Happy Prince is rendered blind and ugly, and the swallow dies from the approaching winter. The Mayor orders the stripped statue to be melted down and has the swallow thrown into a dust heap. The heart of the Happy Prince, which broke when the bird died, will not melt, so the Mayor has it, too, thrown away. The story ends with these two paragraphs:
“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.
“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”
The wonderful thing about fairy stories is that they might be tragic, but only on rare occasions are they tragedies. The Happy Prince chooses sorrow and finds joy. And maybe that’s the point of a lot of fairy stories. They’re about finding wholeness in brokenness—the moment when the young Fisherman’s lost soul reenters his shattered heart.
Whatever might be said about depressing art in general, I think there’s a good deal to be said for art that, in the same stroke, can help us understand both sadness and joy.