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The ultimate aim of the ancient Greek tragedy was to effect catharsis or emotional transformation. That is more generally the ethical function of literature: confronted with the change of destiny of the characters of a drama or a novel, the reader is forced to question fixed opinions, thus enlarging his or her moral horizon.

Desensitization is the opposite of catharsis. It is the term used to describe the numbing of emotions that results from the repeated viewing (or experience) of something horrible. The modern media, and especially war reporting, have often been criticized for having precisely this effect: when presented the same bad news repeatedly and in the language or image of hyperbole we become insensitive and no longer want to care.

Can something be desensitizing and cathartic at the same time? That is the key question raised by the play Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies, currently staged at the Vienna English Theatre.

The play is about two war reporters, a couple, who return home from covering the war in Iraq and find out that they have become estranged. The man, James, has suffered a breakdown and wants to settle down and go back to normal assignments. His partner, Sarah, who is still recovering from her injuries, is keen to return to the line of action.

Before they finally decide to separate James and Sarah will marry; and they will touch base with Sarah’s mentor, Richard, who in his mid-fifties decides to marry his much younger girlfriend Mandy. Mandy is sweet and loving but also entirely apolitical. She reproaches Sarah for always portraying hardship and pain—she should be helping the children dying rather than shooting their photos for a story, she says.

Even if its characters are somewhat typecast, and their existential and moral dilemmas are predictable, Margulies’ play is quite complex by reason of its brilliant dialogue and argumentative style. In that it is typical for modern narrative in both fiction and non-fiction.

The question ‘can something be desensitizing and cathartic at the same time?’ is, of course, not explicitly answered nor is the play’s suggested answer straightforward.

Sarah, who is the one to pose the question in the first place, thinks initially the obvious, namely that desensitization and catharsis negate each other since the prerequisite of catharsis is feeling. At the same time, she admits that in order to do her job, namely run around photographing corpses, she must distance herself from the reality of war, otherwise her instinct would drive her to either drop the job or change it—for instance, in order to become a humanitarian aid worker. However, were she to do that, thus following the example of James and Richard, there would be no war reporting and also no awareness-raising.

In the ancient idealized world of Greek tragedy it was still possible to pose either / or questions and also reach clear answers to moral dilemmas. In our modern more complex and news-saturated societies, we might instead have to settle for imperfect answers to wrong questions. Better some or fragmented awareness-raising than none at all.

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