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Catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning "purification" or "cleansing") is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. It is a metaphor originally used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the effects of tragedy on the spectator.
Catharsis is a term in dramatic art that describes the effect of tragedy (or comedy and quite possibly other artistic forms) principally on the audience (although some have speculated on characters in the drama as well). Nowhere does Aristotle explain the meaning of "catharsis" as he is using that term in the definition of tragedy in the Poetics (1449b21-28). G.F. Else argues that traditional, widely held interpretations of catharsis as "purification" or "purgation" have no basis in the text of the Poetics, but are derived from the use of catharsis in other Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian contexts. For this reason, a number of diverse interpretations of the meaning of this term have arisen.
D.W. Lucas, in an authoritative edition of the Poetics, comprehensively covers the various nuances inherent in the meaning of the term in an Appendix devoted to "Pity, Fear, and Katharsis". Lucas recognizes the possibility of catharsis bearing some aspect of the meaning of "purification, purgation, and 'intellectual clarification'" although his discussion of these terms is not always, or perhaps often, in the precise form with which other influential scholars have treated them. Lucas himself does not accept any one of these interpretations as his own but adopts a rather different one based on "the Greek doctrine of Humours" which has not received wide subsequent acceptance. Purgation and purification, used in previous centuries, as the common interpretations of catharsis are still in wide use today. More recently, in the twentieth century, the interpretation of catharsis as "intellectual clarification" has arisen as a rival to the older views in describing the effect of catharsis on members of the audience.
In his works prior to Poetics, Aristotle had used the term catharsis purely in its medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the katamenia—the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material). Here, however, he employs it as a medical metaphor. F. L. Lucas maintains, therefore, that purification and cleansing are not proper translations for catharsis; that it should rather be rendered as purgation. "It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions." Gerald F. Else made the following argument against the "purgation" theory: "It presupposes that we come to the tragic drama (unconsciously, if you will) as patients to be cured, relieved, restored to psychic health. But there is not a word to support this in the "Poetics", not a hint that the end of drama is to cure or alleviate pathological states. On the contrary it is evident in every line of the work that Aristotle is presupposing "normal" auditors, normal states of mind and feeling, normal emotional and aesthetic experience."
Lessing sidesteps the medical attribution. He translates catharsis as a purification, an experience that brings pity and fear into their proper balance: "In real life," he explained, "men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean." Tragedy is then a corrective; through watching tragedy, the audience learns how to feel these emotions at proper levels.
In the twentieth century a paradigm shift took place in the interpretation of catharsis with a number of scholars contributing to the argument in support of the intellectual clarification concept. The following works can be usefully consulted in this regard: L. Golden, "Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis," Atlanta, 1992, S. Halliwell, "Aristotle's Poetics," London, 1986, D. Keesey, "On Some Recent Interpretations of Catharsis, "The Classical World", (1979) 72.4, 193-205. The clarification theory of catharsis would be fully consistent, as other interpretations are not, with Aristotle's argument in chapter 4 of the Poetics (1448b4-17) that the essential pleasure of mimesis is the intellectual pleasure of "learning and inference".
It is generally understood that Aristotle's theory of mimesis and catharsis are responses to Plato's negative view of artistic mimesis on an audience. Plato argued that the most common forms of artistic mimesis were designed to evoke from an audience powerful emotions such as pity, fear, and ridicule which override the rational control that defines the highest level of our humanity and lead us to wallow unacceptably in orgies of emotion and passion. Aristotle's concept of catharsis, in all of the major senses attributed to it, contradicts Plato's view by providing a mechanism that generates the rational control of irrational emotions. All of the commonly held interpretations of catharsis, purgation, purification, and clarification are considered by most scholars to represent a homeopathic process in which pity and fear accomplish the catharsis of emotions like themselves. For an alternate view of catharsis as an allopathic process in which pity and fear produce a catharsis of emotions unlike pity and fear, see E. Belfiore, "Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion." Princeton, 1992, 260 ff.
Below is an analysis by the distinguished British scholar E.R. Dodds directed at the character of Oedipus in the paradigmatic Aristotelian tragedy, Oedipus Rex, which incorporates all three of the aforementioned interpretations of catharsis: purgation, purification, intellectual clarification:
There have been, for political or aesthetic reasons, deliberate attempts made to subvert the effect of catharsis in theatre. For example, Bertolt Brecht viewed catharsis as a pap (pablum) for the bourgeois theatre audience, and designed dramas which left significant emotions unresolved, intending to force social action upon the audience. Brecht reasoned that the absence of a cathartic resolution would require the audience to take political action in the real world, in order to fill the emotional gap they had experienced vicariously. This technique can be seen as early as his agit-prop play The Measures Taken.
Catharsis before the sixth-century rise of tragedy is, for the Western World, essentially a historical footnote to the Aristotelian conception. The practice of purification had not yet appeared in Homer, as later Greek commentators noted: the Aithiopis, an epic set in the Trojan War cycle, narrates the purification of Achilles after his murder of Thersites. Catharsis describes the result of measures taken to cleanse away blood-guilt—"blood is purified through blood" (Burkert 1992:56), a process in the development of Hellenistic culture in which the oracle of Delphi took a prominent role. The classic example—Orestes—belongs to tragedy, but the procedure given by Aeschylus is ancient: the blood of a sacrificed piglet is allowed to wash over the blood-polluted man, and running water washes away the blood. The identical ritual is represented, Burkert informs us (1992:57), on a krater found at Canicattini, wherein it is shown being employed to cure the daughters of Proetus from their madness, caused by some ritual transgression. To the question of whether the ritual obtains atonement for the subject, or just healing, Burkert answers: "To raise the question is to see the irrelevance of this distinction" (1992:57).
In psychology, the term was first employed by Sigmund Freud's colleague Josef Breuer (1842–1925), who developed a "cathartic" treatment using hypnosis for persons suffering from hysterical symptoms. While under hypnosis, Breuer's patients were able to recall traumatic experiences, and through the process of expressing the original emotions that had been repressed and forgotten, they were relieved of their symptoms. Catharsis was also central to Freud's concept of psychoanalysis, but he replaced hypnosis with free association.
The term catharsis has also been adopted by modern psychotherapy, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis, to describe the act of expressing, or more accurately, experiencing the deep emotions often associated with events in the individual's past which had originally been repressed or ignored, and had never been adequately addressed or experienced.
There has been much debate about the use of catharsis in the reduction of anger. Some scholars believe that "blowing off steam" may reduce physiological stress in the short term, but this reduction may act as a reward mechanism, reinforcing the behavior and promoting future outbursts. However, other studies have suggested that using violent media may decrease hostility under periods of stress. Legal scholars have linked "catharsis" to "closure" (an individual's desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity) and "satisfaction" which can be applied to affective strategies as diverse as retribution, on one hand, and forgiveness on the other. Interestingly, there's no "one size fits all" definition of "catharsis", and this doesn't allow a clear definition of its use in therapeutical terms.