From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Catharsis is a Greek word meaning "purification" or "cleansing" derived from the ancient Greek gerund καθαίρειν transliterated as kathairein "to purify, purge," and adjective katharos "pure or clean" (ancient and modern Greek: καθαρός).
Catharsis is a term in dramatic art that describes the "emotional cleansing" sometimes depicted in a play as occurring for one or more of its characters, as well as the same phenomenon as (an intended) part of the audience’s experience. It describes an extreme change in emotion, occurring as the result of experiencing strong feelings of sorrow, fear, pity, or even resulting from much laughter. It has been described as a "purification" or a "purging" of such emotions. More recently, such terms as restoration, renewal, and revitalization have been used when referencing the effect on members of the audience.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to use the term catharsis with reference to the emotions – in his work Poetics. In that context, it refers to a sensation or literary effect that, ideally, would either be experienced by the characters in a play, or be wrought upon the audience at the conclusion of a tragedy; namely, the release of pent-up emotion or energy.
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."
Lessing sidesteps the medical aspect of the issue and 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. Some modern interpreters of the work infer that catharsis is pleasurable, because audience members experience ekstasis (Greek: ἔκστασις – ecstasy) (literally: astonishment, meaning: trance) or, in other words, "relief," ensuing from an awareness that, compared with what they have just seen portrayed, their own life is less tragic.
Any translator attempting to interpret Aristotle's meaning of the term should take into account that Poetics is largely a response to Plato's claim that poetry encourages people to be hysterical and uncontrolled. Aristotle maintains that, on the contrary, the effect of poetry is to allow people to be less controlled by emotion – not more so – by its providing a healthy outlet for their feelings.
In literary aesthetics, catharsis is developed by the conjunction of stereotyped characters and unique or surprising actions or events over time. Throughout a play, we do not expect the nature of a character to change significantly; rather, preexisting elements are revealed in a relatively straightforward way, as the character faces these confrontations. This is clearly evident in Oedipus Rex, where King Oedipus is confronted with ever more outrageous actions, until the emptying generated by the death of his mother-wife, and by his own act of self-blinding.
In contemporary aesthetics, catharsis may also refer to any emptying of emotion experienced by an audience, in relation to drama. This exstasis (ekstasis – ἔκστασις – ecstasy) can be perceived in comedy, melodrama and most other dramatic forms.
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.
"Natya Shastra" by Bharat Muni, an ancient Indian Sage
In his treatise, Natya Shastra, written almost 4000 years ago, Bharat Muni was another who acknowledged the benefits of the cathartic process. He strongly exhorted kings to spend some time outside of their 'sanitized worlds' and to participate in drama and theater activities, which would allow them to encounter emotions that were not part of their routine daily experience. Drama was important, both to the actors and to the audience, as an aid to healthy emotional balance; the Natya ("the arts") Shastra ("-ology") were considered intellectual art forms—enlightened pursuits carried out on a high spiritual plane – not as mere entertainment.
"Catharsis" before tragedy
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 did not yet appear 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 Hellenic 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).
The term catharsis has been used for centuries as a medical term meaning a "purging." Most commonly in a medical context, it euphemistically refers to a purging of the bowels. A drug, herb, or other agent administered as a strong laxative is termed a cathartic.
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. Modern psychological opinion is divided on the usefulness of cathartic aggression in anger management. "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.
Catharsis is also an emotional release associated with talking about the underlying causes of a problem or seeing a dream.