I cry to purge.
To cleanse my body.
And let go of the pressure.
Catharsis (Ancient Greek: κάθαρσις) is a term often used to describe that state of purification. Most prominently described in Artistotle’s Poetics, it was in ancient times and is still today in use as a means of narration. Aristotle found catharsis mainly in the dramatic form of tragedy. The staging of a tragedy evokes a state in the audience that ought to purge them of negative sentiments. This is achieved through mimesis (imitation or simulation) of actions. Poetic text and theatrical acting together induce a more or less intense simulation, depending on the skill of their originators – according to Aristotle. A good mimesis then provokes those two things called éleos and phóbos in the spectator.
Pity and Fear are commonly used as the English translation of éleos and phóbos. Within German speaking studies though, their corresponding terms „Mitleid“ und „Furcht“ (a translation originating from G. E. Lessing) would be criticised as imprecise. Therefore a more accurate description of what induces catharsis would be lament/ emotion (Jammer/ Rührung) on one side and terror/ shudder (Schrecken/ Schauder) on the other.
A good catharsis is meant to help me cleanse my passions or sentiments. As I watch the protagonist go through intense states on stage (or respectively: on screen, in a novel, in a telenovela etc.) I feel for them. I take a stance towards the mimetic simulation in which my sentient and, what’s more, my moral compass are shaped. Catharsis, throughout history, was therefore frequented as an instrument for moral and politcal education – bearing in itself, of course, the immediate potential of misuse.
In a psychological sense, the element of catharsis is also in use, very pracitcally, to cleanse from traumatic experiences or to handle negative memories. There are various methods in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy that attempt to induce cathartic moments, hoping to heal wounds. (see, for example: anger therapy (S. Freud), psychodrama (J.L. Moreno))
The importance of telling stories of trauma, and with it building a bridge between the literary and the psychological sense of catharsis, is pointed out by philosopher Richard Kearny:
„Cathartic healing involves the narrating of past wounds both as they happened and as if they happened in this way or that. And it is precisely this double response of truth (as) and fiction (as-if) that emancipates us from our habitual protection and denial mechanisms. One suddenly experiences oneself as another and the other as oneself – and thereby begin to apprehend otherwise unapprehendable pain.“Kearny, Richard: „Narrative Imagination and Catharsis.“ Academia.edu, n.d., https://www.academia.edu/34439052/Narrative_Imagination_and_Catharsis. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Abd Elsalam, Dina: „Psychodrama and Sociodrama: Aristotelian Catharsis Revisited.“ Alexandria, UP, 2015.
Aristoteles: „Poetik.“ Translation by Manfred Fuhrmann. Stuttgart, Philipp Reclam, 1982.
Cherry, Kendra: „What is Catharsis?“ Verywell mind, 20 Aug. 2022, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-catharsis-2794968. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Halliwell, Stephen: „Katharsis.“ Encyclopedia.com, 2005, https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/katharsis. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Katharsis. Dorsch: Lexikon der Psychologie, n.d., https://dorsch.hogrefe.com/stichwort/katharsis. Accessed 12 Jan. 2023.
Kearny, Richard: „Narrative Imagination and Catharsis.“ Academia.edu, n.d., https://www.academia.edu/34439052/Narrative_Imagination_and_Catharsis. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Sabata, Valeria: „Die Bedeutung der Katharsis in der Psychologie.“ Gedankenwelt, 15 Nov. 2021, https://gedankenwelt.de/die-bedeutung-der-katharsis-in-der-psychologie/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
The Meaning of Catharsis in Freudian Theory. Act For Libraries, n.d., http://www.actforlibraries.org/the-meaning-of-catharsis-in-freudian-theory/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.