Much more tolerant of the arts than his mentor Plato (who basically condemned all poets in his master work The Republic), Aristotle crafted a theory of how tragedy works on us, the audience. He was writing primarily about the dramatic form of tragedy, but then again, he was writing before the rise of the novel as a literary form.
Here's what he had to say:
Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude—by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.
In plain language, tragedy has a beginning, middle and an end. It employs different tricks and devices to keep its audience engaged, and its aim is to evoke two main emotions - pity and fear - and in doing so, purges or relieves those emotions. (The "does not use narrative" bit refers to Aristotle's focus on plays rather than storytelling / narration.)
That emotional effect - evoking pity and fear and purging them - is what Aristotle identified as the point of tragedy. He called this effect catharsis. In the medical jargon of his day, catharsis referred to the body's ability to get rid of excess fluids, or the medical practice of using various herbs and devices to "assist" this process. If you think about it, the body does tend to release a lot of stuff: urine, poop, sweat, tears, saliva, phlegm, menstrual blood, regular blood, vomit, lymph and pus. The predominant medical model from Aristotle's time forward - right up until the nineteenth century - focused on getting stuff to come out of the body in order to restore it to a state of balance. (Fascinatingly, traditional Chinese medicine still uses some of these techniques.)
So when Aristotle argued that tragedy is a form of purgation - a purging of negative emotions - he was simply extending the hygienic concepts of his day.
I never know what to think about the literary form of catharsis. I've certainly experienced a mass purging of tears when I've watched tragedy. A few years ago, a friend of mine loaned me a copy of Dancer in the Dark. "It's harsh," he said, "but it's also amazing." Partway through it, when it was pretty clear how absolutely badly things were going for Björk's character, I laid my head down on one of my couch pillows. It was soaking wet by the time the film was through.
But I have to say that that film also traumatized me. As much as I definitely released some emotions, I felt kind of destroyed for a few days afterward. I did not feel more emotionally balanced at all, which is what Aristotle says you should feel at the end of a tragedy.
Good old Shakespeare seemed to understand that Aristotle's idea of catharsis was limited. When he crafted King Lear, he set a whole new benchmark for brutal tragedy, guaranteed to leave everyone feeling simply devastated. So much so that instead of the usual restorative, let's-put-the-pieces-of-society-back-together moment you get at the end of most of Shakespeare's tragedies, there is only this:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Those last two lines are a little bit strange: Lear is an old man's play, and I see in those lines the idea that the younger generation is somehow left with a feeling of doom and maybe a lack of will to live. But it's what comes before that's really interesting. There is general devastation all around (and a fairly large number of corpses), and where there would otherwise be a whole lot of speechifying (this is a Renaissance play, after all), there's a call for true speech, but then only silence. These lines end the play.
No one feels good at the end of King Lear.
While catharsis seems like a great concept in theory, I'm not sure if it ever really applied to tragedy. I have a theory that there's just something about being human that means we enjoy having negative emotions exercised rather than exorcised. What do you think?