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russell smith: on culture

The news of the past two weeks seems particularly targeted at parents. Every third story has involved the murder of children. We are trying every day not to read the sickening details of the murder trial under way in Woodstock, Ont., and the only other stories we have to turn to are reports of the slaughter of children at a school in France, the bombing of families in Homs and the massacre by a mad Marine in Afghanistan. There are weeks, like these, when you wonder if anyone is safe anywhere, and that can make you start to feel a little unmoored. It's not pleasant to be conscious of reality all the time.

The Tori Stafford murder trial in particular is proving to be a catalyst for discussions about the value of horrible stories and of truthful journalism in general. We all have a conviction that it's important to know the truth about the world, but come away from every new revelation of insane sexual violence with the jangled suspicion that this particular instance is not valuable, that the gory details do nothing to improve the world. You might even have, as I do, a barely conscious superstition like that in the German proverb: " Male nicht den Teufel an die Wand." Don't paint the devil on the wall – if you describe evil, it will appear.

Less attention has been paid this week to a small study done on undergraduates at the University of Ohio about the psychological effects of watching sad stories. Michael Kesterton mentioned it in The Globe and Mail on Monday. The researchers, whose conclusions were published in the academic psychology journal Communication Research, took a group of 361 students and made them watch a real tearjerker of a movie ( Atonement, the film based on the Ian McEwan novel). They gave the subjects a questionnaire about how happy or sad they were feeling – before, during and after the movie. (They interrupted the movie three times to do this.) The tendency was for the students to report that their level of satisfaction with their relationships increased as the sad parts of the movie went on. They felt generally happier by the end.

This is not surprising. We also listen to sad music when we are sad. We wouldn't have sad art if it didn't make us feel better somehow. The psychologists' paper attempts to explain this rise in mood in rather plodding socio-speak: "Tragedies appear to be an excellent means to reinforcing pro-social values." Viewers of the sad film were able to make "plausibly self-enhancing comparison[s] to the disastrous lives of the characters (i.e. they felt better for seeing others in worse shape). The social scientists explain in similarly laborious fashion that sadness brought on by a fictional narrative may make a viewer think more closely about the value of their own relationships.

I'm more comfortable hearing philosophers talk about the purpose of art than social scientists. At least we know with philosophers that it's guesswork. Some of them were talking, without doing any surveys, about the psychological role of tragedy about 2,300 years ago – in particular one Aristotle, who described a concept called catharsis that also explains why we like to hear and see stories about terrible things.

But these studies and essays are all about fictional stories, not true ones. I would be curious to see a study on the effects of horrifying real news, like the news of the past two weeks, on the psyche. Without interviewing any undergraduates I would be prepared to guess that the effects of true stories are much less comforting than those of drama. When we read about sadists from our own culture killing children a few hours' drive away, we come away with no "plausibly self-enhancing comparisons" but rather an inexplicable anxiety, a sense that the world has no comprehensible narrative.

And it wouldn't take a psychologist to guess that this is because art is artificial: It imposes resolutions and meaning on a world without any. Not to mention that it aestheticizes violence and depravity, which also makes them more comprehensible. Simply put, it's not real. That's why we make it. And why writers will eventually make coherent fictitious narratives out of their impressions of these baffling and random events; the dramas will be comforting where the reality is stupefying. The true stories are not "tragedies," as the easy media term goes – a tragedy is an artistic construct.