04 April 2011


Sometime around 330 BC, Aristotle turned from considerations of the nature of the soul, metaphysics, and other lofty philosophical concerns to composing a philosophy of tragedy, which the English-speaking world came to know as the Poetics. Back when I first realized my dream to write (sometime in the *cough cough* 1980s), Aristotle's Poetics and Strunk and White's Elements of Style were the two books most universally recommended for writers. You could do worse than have a look through both of them, but I've come to question Aristotle's accuracy.

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?


Sylvia Ney said...

I've never read Aristotle's Poetics, but I think you raise some good points. Fellow "A to Z" participant here and I look forward to reading more from you.

Lydia Kang said...

What a fascinating post. I read Poetics in college but forgot all about it. Thanks for the refresher!

Anonymous said...

To me, catharsis means you release evoked emotions and are left feeling expunged.

Tragedies certainly evoke emotions, yet we tend to carry them with us afterward.

Interesting post!

Elizabeth Twist said...

You should read it, Sylvia: it's always neat to see literature dissected and systematized, no matter that there are always exceptions to the rules.

Nice to see you here, Lydia: I'll stop by your place soon!

LB, I think that certain tragedies can create true catharsis, but they are tragedies in form only, where we don't really get wrapped up in the character's dilemma as he or she takes the big fall.

Misha Gerrick said...

Hmm... good point.

Some stories really destroy me too, even if they weren't meant as tragedies.

Still, to an extent catharsis is real of me when I write.

Sure, my own imagination can be even darker than the stuff I read, but after I recover, I actually do feel better about things.


Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Interesting topic! I'm not familiar with Greek tragedies, but I have read Shakespeare, and I know he tends to mix some comic relief into his tragedies.

After reading the Hunger Games trilogy in less than a week, I felt numb from all the death and suffering and had to balance it with some light reading. So I agree with you, not Aristotle.

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Misha: this is a really good point. Maybe we writers save all the catharsis for ourselves.

@Sandra: I felt similarly. I loved that trilogy.

Jayne said...

What a great post. So tragedy is purging, a release... but I also agree we tend to live it afterwards. If I watch or read something devastating, then I am devastated, at least for a while. I'm not sure I feel cleansed! To feel cleansed there has to be a satisfying resolution, or it really doesn't work.

Bluestocking Mum said...

Writing, for me is cathartic. Great post and good to make your acquaintance.

best of luck with the A-Z challenge. I look forward to following your progress and writing.

warm wishes

Anonymous said...

"We enjoy having negative emotions exercised rather than exorcised" -- well said! I'll hang onto my angst, thank you very much; it's what drives my writing.

Jeff Beesler said...

I usually feel better after a good cry. So I can definitely see and appreciate how Aristotle thought catharsis worked on tragedy. Awesome, thought-provoking post. Thanks for giving me something to consider.

Wanton Redhead Writing said...

I think all tear jerker novels are great examples of catharsis. There's nothing as cleansing and releasing as a book and a good cry. Thanks for the follow, look forward to more of your posts.