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Understanding Catharsis

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As human beings one predictably looks for a palliative when hurt or struck by a tragedy. While pain and hurt is instant and seeks immediate relief, tragedy is different as its effect is slow, brutal, and long lasting. A person seeking relief from a tragedy would invariably look for a catharsis, which is akin to riddance of emotions.

Catharsis happens when pent up emotions and feelings are metaphorically sluiced out by another incident or action of similar nature. The experience of catharsis is meant to make a person feel calm and refreshed. When personal pain is confronted by pain experienced by another person, one feels a sort of connection, and this in turn makes the personal tragedy seem less intense.

Many a time it happens that a song, a piece of poignant poetry, a film scene, or watching an opera makes one weep, and the act of weeping swills out the inner turmoil. It often feels as if something is flushing out the miasma of one’s soul.

Such an experience is the catharsis that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, speaks about in his work Poetics. He explains the exact effect an audience would have while watching a touching rendition of a drama or opera, and the release of pent up feelings.

The effect, he believes, is often similar to the flow of menstrual fluid, or any reproductive material. Such an act of catharsis has the power to becalm a person after the experience of release through tears or any other way of expression.

However, catharsis cannot be termed as cleansing or purification of a person’s inner being. It is more like purgation. It is the emotional breakdown that lets loose the repressed feelings stuck somewhere in the gut or chest, and brings about a kind of release, but not relief of a permanent kind. Catharsis was used as a purely medical term, like purging of bowels, and any drug used as a laxative was called cathartic.

Aristotle gave a different connotation in Poetics. He says the human soul is purged of its excessive passions through catharsis. Since this work was largely in response to Plato’s claim that poetry makes a man hysterical and uncontrolled, Aristotle responded by saying that poetry helps a man to become less emotional by providing a periodic and healthy outlet to their feelings.

In psychotherapy, where therapy is provided to people suffering from mental ailment and trauma, psychoanalysts use the method of talking and expressing of emotions as catharsis. People suffering from deep mental trauma or grief are provided a professionally congenial atmosphere where they can speak about their inner turmoil while a psychoanalyst listens with uninterrupted silence and trained compassion.

Catharsis is quite pleasurable because it involves a feeling of astonishment and a state of trance where the person experiencing it, while watching a tragedy, thinks there are others who are the recipient of even greater tragedy than him. One feels an emptying of feelings and resolving of raging emotions by the end of it all.

In the Greek mythologies they believe that a person’s fate and personal flaws bring on the tragedy, and no amount of prevention can let a man escape his fate.
This brings to mind two tragic plays – Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.

Oedipus Rex comes to his tragic fate by unintentionally marrying his own mother and falls victim to the tragedies prophesied by the oracle. He was looking for catharsis when he took out his own eyes with his sword.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is another classic example, though the concept of catharsis varies from Oedipus Rex, according to the extent of their tragedies. Hamlet is the victim of his own tragic flaw, and falls prey to the consequences arising out of it. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is that he spends too much time pondering an action before taking it.

“To be or not to be” (Shakespeare, Hamlet) is the famous quote that often defined him, and he could not prevent his tragic downfall due to this flaw in his character. When he finally decides to kill Claudius, who is the killer of his father, he watches him praying and decides to wait. The next time he gets the chance he takes it, but by that time it is too late. By killing Claudius, Hamlet is seeking revenge, and the act of revenge is the subconscious catharsis that he is looking for.

The audience experiences catharsis when Claudius is killed. As the murder came much later in the play due to Hamlet’s indecisiveness, the true character of Claudius as the evil king become obvious.

If Hamlet had killed Claudius in the beginning when he had his first chance, then it would have come across as another son avenging his father’s death. But the catharsis occurred when the king Claudius is shown as an evil person responsible for death of others and who would continue to cause harm if allowed to live. The revenge of Hamlet becomes a secondary thing, and the killing of a malevolent man becomes the primary cause, which the audience applauds.

It is proclaimed that tragedy teaches endurance and perseverance in the face of calamities. It also expands the boundaries of experiences in life.

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