Catharsis in Aristotles Poetics
‘Catharsis’ in Aristotle’s Poetics Catharsis is a metaphor used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the effects of true tragedy on the spectator. The use is derived from the medical term katharsis (Greek: “purgation” or “purification”). Aristotle states that the purpose of tragedy is to arouse “fear and pity” and thereby effect the catharsis of these emotions. Aristotle has nowhere explained the term comprehensively, and his exact meaning has been the subject of critical debate over the centuries. “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. By 'language embellished,' I mean language into which rhythm, 'harmony,' and song enter. By 'the several kinds in separate parts,' I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.” (VI, Poetics translated by S.H. Butcher) The above passage can be further simplified in the following words: Aristotle defines tragedy according to seven characteristics: (1) it is mimetic, (2) it is serious, (3) it tells a full story of an appropriate length, (4) it contains rhythm and harmony, (5) rhythm and harmony occur in different combinations in different parts of the tragedy, (6) it is performed rather than narrated, and (7) it arouses feelings of pity and fear and then purges these feelings through catharsis. The terms, ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ are closely connected in Aristotelian theory. There are different types of fear. Fear can be centred on an individual, in the form of some vague feeling of insecurity and anxiety. Pity, we are told by Aristotle, is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves (i.e., by the misfortune of one like ourselves). Pity and fear are related emotions. Pity turns to fear when the object is closely related to us that the suffering seems to be our own, and we pity others in circumstances in which we should fear for ourselves. Pity is derived from the feeling that similar suffering might befall us. It is because of this that the tragic character should be like ourselves’ and at the same time slightly idealised. In such a case, we feel pity for the suffering of the innately good person, while having a sympathetic fear for one who is so like ourselves. Aristotle everywhere says that pity and fear are the characteristic and necessary tragic emotions. The essential tragic effect depends on maintaining the intimate alliance between pity and fear. According to Aristotle, pity alone should be not be evoked by tragedy. The word Catharsis as debated by many scholars has many shades of meaning. But we may follow the expositions of the editors and reduce them to three. Summarily stated these are (a) the religious, with the meaning ‘lustration’; (b) the pathological or medical sense of ‘purgation’; (c) the moral, with the idea of ‘purification’.
These three interpretations are clearly not exclusive; they do not form a true logical classification, because there is no single principle of classification and no way of determining the limits of each division. Aristotle theorized in his work Poetics that tragedy results in a catharsis (emotional cleansing) of healing for the audience through their experience of these emotions in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama. He considers it superior when a character passes from a good fortune to bad rather than the reverse, at the time, the term “tragedy” was not yet fixed solely on stories with unhappy endings. Catharsis is a Greek word meaning “purification” or “cleansing” derived from ancient Greek gerund Kocooipeiv transliterated as Kathairien to purify, purge, and “adjective katharos” “pure or clean”. The term in drama refers to sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living. The term catharsis referred to a form of emotion cleansing was first used by Aristotle in his work Poetics. It refers to the sensation or literary affect that would ideally overcome an audience upon finishing watching a tragedy (a release of pent-up emotion or energy). In his previous works, he used the term in its medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the “Katamenia” the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material). Because of this F.L. Lucas, maintains that catharsis cannot be properly translated as purification of cleansing, but only as purgation. Since before poetics catharsis was purely a medical term, Aristotle is employing it as a medical metaphor. “It is human soul that is purged of its excessive passions” Lessing sidesteps the medical aspect of the issue and translates catharsis as 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 a 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 felt ekstasies (literally; astonishment, meaning trance) from the fact that there existed those who could suffer a worse fate than them was to them a relief. 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 men to be hysterical and uncontrolled. In response to Plato, Aristotle maintains that poetry makes them less, not more emotional, by giving a periodic and healthy outlet of feelings. Let us look at the various theories put forth by the scholars to interpret and exposit the term Catharsis. According to purgation theory; the term ‘Catharsis’ has been interpreted in medical terms, meaning purgation. In medical terms (especially in the older
sense), purgation meant the partial removal of excess “humours”. The health of the body depended on a true balance of the humours. Thus purgation of the emotions of pity and fear does not mean the removal of these emotions, but that the passions or emotions are reduced to a healthy, balanced proportion. Catharsis in this sense, denotes a pathological effect on the soul comparable to the effect of medicine on the body. Some critics have tried to give a psychological explanation to the term ‘Catharsis. Herbert Read considers it in the light of a safety valve. Tragedy gives a free outlet to the emotions of pity and fear. The result is a feeling of emotional relief. This, one notes, is quite closely related to the purgation theory. A. A. Richard puts forward as ingenius theory. He says that the emotion of pity is an impulse to advance, while fear is an impulse to withdraw. In tragedy both these impulses are blended, harmonised into balance. Emotional excess is thus brought to a balance. However, the theory holds good only for the emotion of pity and fear, and it restricts the range of tragic emotions to these. The ethical interpretation of ‘Catharsis’ regards the tragic process as an illustration of the soul, a lighting up which results in a more philosophical attitude to life and suffering. The spectator sees the largeness of the disasters presented onstage and realises that his personal emotions are insignificant beside such a catastrophe. It brings him to a balanced view of things. Man sees himself in proportion to the large design of the universe. In the words of John Gassner, “only enlightenment, a clear comprehension of what was involved in the struggle, an understanding of cause and effect, a judgement on what we have witnessed”, can bring about a state of mental peace and balance, and result in complete aesthetic gratification. Another set of critics said that the effect of tragedy was to harden or ‘temper’ the emotions. Just as soldiers become hardened against death after seeing it so many times on the battlefield, so too, constant contact with tragedy on stage hardens men against pity and fear in real’life. This is, undoubtedly, a bit far-fetched, if not totally absurd. One meaning of Catharsis is ‘purification’. Some critics have interpreted the term in the light of this meaning. These critics reject the interpretation of Catharsis in the lights of medical terminology. Humphry House, for instance, says that Aristotle’s concept of Catharsis was not as a medical term. He interprets the word to mean a kind of “moral conditioning”, which the spectator undergoes. He comments that purgation means ‘cleansing*. This cleansing may be a quantitative evacuation or qualitative change in the body, in the restoration of the proper equilibrium. In this context he says : “A tragedy arouses pity and fear from potentiality to activity through worthy and adequate stimuli; to control them ,by directing them to the right objects in the right way; and exercises them, within the limits of the play, as the emotions of the good man would be exercised. When they subside to potentiality again after the play is over, it is a more “trained” potentiality than before …. Our responses are brought nearer to those of the good and wise man.” Catharsis results in emotional health. Catharsis is thus a moral conditioning. It is a purification of the excess and.defect in our emotions, so that emotional equilibrium can be restored.
The purgation theory and the purification theory of Catharsis have obvious limitations. They cannot explain the whole process involved in Catharsis. A fundamental, drawback of these theories is that these theories are concerned with the effect of tragedy on the audience, i.e., with the psychology of the audience. Both views concentrate not on what tragedy says or what tragedy is, but what tragedy may do to us; they lie rather in the field of experimental psychology than in that of literary criticism. They treat “pity and fear” as references to something in the audience rather than to something (scenes and elements) in the play. In actuality, Aristotle was writing a treatise on the art of poetry, and was concerned more with technique of writing poetry than with audience psychology. As theories of psychology, the two theories are not bad in themselves, but it is doubtful if it explains the term as Aristotle intended it to mean. References: 1. A. S. Kharbe. English Language and Literary Criticism. New Delhi, India: Discovery Publishing House PVT LTD. (2009) 2. Aristotle, Translator S.H. Butcher. Poetics, 3. G. S. Brett. Some Reflections on Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy. 4. F.L. Lucas. Tragedy: Serious Drama in Relation to Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Collier Books (1962).
Online: 1. http://neoenglish.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/aristotle%E2%80%99sconception-of-tragic-catharsis-in-poetics-by-aristotle/ 2. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm