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21 Oct

Catharsis Explained

Catharsis Explained

This is a key word in Aristotle, occurring only twice in Poetics. In chapter six, Aristotle defines tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious, complete in itself and of a certain magnitude, in an embellished language, through action and not through narration, and through pity and fear effecting the katharsis of these emotions”. Pity and fear constitute the two-fold audience reaction to the sight of tragic suffering. Pity and fear demand the tragic hero to be noble; only then his fall from happiness to misery arouses in us these emotions. Pity is aroused by the magnitude of the suffering undergone by the protagonist. Terror is aroused by the knowledge that tragic suffering and fate has overtaken one similar to us.

The meaning of the term has given rise to a lot of controversy. The four meanings of Katharsis are:

  1. The Therapeutic (Purgation): It is akin to the homoeopathic system of medicine that holds the view that the right cure for an illness is administering an agent similar to the disease. In this sense Katharsis means purgation. It means that by presenting the emotions of pity and fear to the audience, the audience is cured of the excesses of these emotions. Tragedy effects Katharsis by generating the very conditions that it seeks to cure. But many scholars do not accept this medical metaphor.
  2. The Moral (Purification): The purpose of tragedy is to purify the emotions of the audience by disciplining it, and refining it by removing the excesses. Understood as a religious metaphor, Katharsis means purification. It is paradoxical that we go the theatre to experience delight from the spectacle of suffering. However, it must be realized that the element of external suffering on the stage is perhaps the least important part of the tragedy. True tragedy unfolds an inner process. We find the protagonist in a state of clash at three levels – with oneself, with others, and with the impersonal forces of nature. In this three-dimensional conflict, the protagonist displays a certain dignity and probity. The apparent destruction of virtue and innocence may strike terror. But ultimately we realize that the good and the virtuous may be destroyed, but the values of goodness and virtue remain sound and secure. The moral foundation may be shaken, but it only becomes stronger and deeper. F.L. Lucas remarks “the theatre is not a hospital”. However, many scholars do not accept this view of art as a moralizing agent.
  3. The Structural (Absolution): It views Katharsis as a process by which the protagonist can absolve himself of the supposed evils he has perpetrated, so that the audience can respond with emotions of pity and fear appropriate for the occasion and be willing to free the protagonist from pollution.
  4. The Intellectual (Clarification): Katharsis is a kind of insight experience. The features of this experience are
  • It is pleasurable and not painful as in real life
  • This pleasure is similar to that arising from learning
  • It leads to clarification

According to Aristotle, the character of a wise, virtuous man is that he feels emotions at the right time, with reference to the right people, the right object, with the right motive and in the right way. This is the principle of moderation. Katharsis obeys and conforms to this principle. The result of Katharsis is emotional equilibrium. It involves restoration of emotional health.

Whichever meaning one may support, Aristotle sees art not as being harmful as Plato does, but as being beneficial.


Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, St Goege's College Aruvithura

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