Wednesday, September 20, 2006

you shook me all night long

that's the title of my bouchercon panel.
i've always been fascinated by the psychology of the attraction to fear and horror, so i think this could be a good topic for me.

in doing a bit of research, i came upon something called sanskrit aesthetics. this is completely new to me, so i'm not going to even try to define or explain it, but it has to do with the emotions a piece of art evokes. these feelings are called rasas and sanskrit dictates that a fully-achieved piece of art should flow with all nine (some say eight) of them.

(i just found this interesting. maybe it's one of those things everybody in the world already knew about. that happens to me sometimes. too many times. )

sexual pleasure

"Indian drama offers a different aesthetic approach from much of Western theatre. With Indian plays, storytelling is the focus as opposed to the action of the story and often the action is described to the audience rather than depicted in the realist mode of most Western performance. At the heart of Sanskrit aesthetics is rasa, a flavor or essence that acts as the aesthetic guide for the performance. There are eight types of rasas that include both emotions, such as rage and terror, and dramatic types, such as comic and erotic, among others. Rasa transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, which is achieved through the performance that brings the performer and the informed audience together. The closest Western comparison to rasa is Aristotle's notion of catharsis, but rasa goes beyond this dramatic outcome by incorporating and producing more than just fear and pity. Because the basis of Sanskrit drama is rasa, Indian plays are not imitations of life but rather representations of an abstraction. The actor is not to represent a realistic imitation of a figure but rather to manifest an interpretation of the character. Also, the actor is better termed a performer because dancing, singing, and music are always part of the performance."


Stephen Blackmoore said...

All that, and it still doesn't explain Bollywood.

anne frasier said...

or DOES it?????

Bill Cameron said...

Ah, hell yeah it does!

I think this is something I've tried to achieve in my own writing without realizing. Each one of those emotions is something I've tried to reflect in lost dog, and I'm working on in my current one.

I think it would be harder to achieve in a short piece. If you actually attempted to express so much in a tiny space it might feel too overwhelming and false.

Now this will be buzzing through my head for days!

Stephen Blackmoore said...


Okay, maybe it does, but thinking too hard about the religious links between classic Indian theatre and Bollywood dance numbers is as painful as trying to draw the links between Jacobean theatre and "Freddy Got Fingered". It just hurts.

That said, I wonder what, from a Western perspective, would make a "fully-achieved" piece of art. Certainly a good mix of humor and tragedy, but what else? I find it interesting that sexual pleasure is called out specifically from joy. Or pity, anguish, terror and laughter, for that matter.

anne frasier said...

bill, my first reaction was that i subconsciously strive for that too. and i agree about a short story -- you'd probably have to choose a few if you were really working on evoking certain emotions.

stephen: LOL!!! and your second paragraph is making MY head hurt! i have to think about this... and think about this....

Jaye Wells said...

I think Dude Where's My Car was an excellent exmaple of Rasa in action. I definitley felt pity and anger when I saw it, plus joy that it was over.

BTW, I finished PI last night! Thank God there a sequel. I can't wait!!

Tami said...

Wow, Freddy Got Fingered and Dude Where's My Car in the same comment trail? What is the world coming to? LOL

anne frasier said...

tami: LMAO! and to think i was trying to post something a little serious for once! LOL! i love it!!

jaye: i can actually say i haven't seen that one. but i can confess to renting harold and kumar go to white castle. there's another, tami!

and jaye: glad you enjoyed PI! i wish they'd released them close together. not sure how this year wait is going to work.

Susan Flemming said...

You know I've never really thought of it like that before. Yet as I read each word, I could identify scenes in my work in progress for almost every word, with the exception of sexual pleasure. It is actually something that I have chosen not to include... it's just not part of this story. Hmmmm... going to have to think about this some more.

anne frasier said...

susan, it's really interesting, isn't it? it also makes me wonder if a lack of "rasas" is why i sometimes don't care for a book that seems to be doing all the right things and on the surface is well-written.

bekbek said...

So what you're really saying is that you're giving up the literary world and are going to make out-of-sync musicals from now on. (I used to have a job sync'ing audio -so the audio is actually the only part of those movies that drives me batty.)

I think the whole point is that just one or two rasas is a little crude. But I wonder if this comes out of a non-literate population. If you think back to what were the more popular Shakespeare plays, for instance... well, it's more obvious when you see them performed than when you read them, but they sure did cover the gamut, didn't they?

So it has to be performed. And the challenge for a writer, I should think (yeah, like I know *snort*), is to provide the important but subtle cues that lead the reader to supply what the text cannot. Written stories are essentially interactive, and you have to engage your readers in the task of providing some of those rasas.

Aha! This makes Dude, Where's My Car a BRILLIANT example -except it's a movie and should have been able to do it all on its own, eh?

I own a copy of Harold & Kumar. It's a whole different art form. *arch look*

Jaye Wells said...

I am not afraid to admnit I have seen and enjoyed some of the worst cinema ever created. But, variety--she is the spice of life.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Bollywood is brilliant.

But then I like really bad direct to DVD action movies, too.

angie said...

The only reason I'd heard of the rasas before is because of a friend of mine who has studied a form of Indian dance (can't remember which type - there are many). I was amazed when she explained that each hand movement (I'm talking subtle stuff here) has a specific meaning tied to a rasa. Very cool stuff. Bollywood films made a little more sense to me after I had a clue about the rasas.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Okay, now you've got my brain going on this whole rasa thing. Damn you.

The point of the rasa is that it's the enjoyment that an audience receives, the extract of an emotion prompted by the performance/art/writing (rasa means "juice" by the way). It's not the emotion being provoked, but the delight that the audience experiences due to the experience of the emotion. Each one of those individual things that you listed can provoke rasa, or all of them together can.

This is a concept that, as far as I know and I'm no scholar, that we don't really have in English, or Western thought in general, though we certainly experience it.

Things like Eros and Agape, for example, are the experience of those particular things, romantic and unconditional love, whereas the rasa is the enjoyment pulled from the experience of those things. I liken it to the fun people have at being scared half to death in a movie theater, rather than the state of being scared itself.

Again, not a scholar, but it occurs to me that in the West (more specifically in the U.S.) we focus on the worth of an artwork for what it produces directly, rather than for what it produces indirectly. The point of Indian art is to produce more than one desired effect (sadness in a tragedy, fear in a horror, laughter in a comedy), but rather to also provoke the enjoyment of having experienced those things.

Not saying it's not experienced that way in the West, but that our everyday language doesn't really incorporate the concept. It's certainly something to consider in regards to our own writing.

What is it that we're trying to do? Not just what emotions are we trying to provoke, but what experiences are we striving to give the audience that they can be delighted with?

In many ways it's much more subjective a concept. If you succeed in provoking a particular emotion will the reader find delight in experiencing that emotion? I would posit that if we can provoke rasa in our readers we've done a hell of a lot more than just successfully written a story. We've created a connection.

Anonymous said...

I'm working on taking all the information in, but I'm very fascinated! I knew there was a cultural difference between Indian and Western storytelling, but never saw it described in detail before.

Jaye Wells said...

Stephen, thanks for the explanation. You raise some very intriguing points.

bekbek said...

And he used the word "posit," too!

anne frasier said...

yeah, i can't stop thinking about this either. even if stephen's post make me brain hurt. but since we don't have the words to explain the meaning fully, i'll just blame it on that. it did make me think about books that were fantastic when it came to a couple of emotions, but lacking in others. books others have liked because they were so strong in those couple of well-defined areas. i think i prefer more rasas.

stephen, so you think it's delight derived from any of the emotions. that makes sense. i keep thinking of kids who are thrilled by scary halloween costumes.

angie: i'd forgotten about the hand positions having so many meanings.

Daniel Hatadi said...

My turn.

Stephen talks about rasa being the enjoyment of experiencing an emotion, almost like a separate layer above the emotion itself.

One concept of meditation that I've come across is the idea of observing your own thoughts without getting caught up in them.

In the West we're not brought up with any teaching of how to control our own minds, but in the East, meditation is much more common.

That could have something to do with why we don't really see our mental state as something tangible and so we don't assign any value to it. It's more about money buying happiness.

In summary, I would like to close with the following conclusion: maybe that's why there are so many films out there that are absolute crap.

anne frasier said...

daniel, great post!