Aristotle’s concept of Catharsis
Word “Catharsis is not self-explanatory. In every language, this word has great importance. Aristotle used this word in “Poetics” but forgot to define it. There is no clear cut definition of this word in his book. He left it’s definition on critics and students of literature. Commonly, Catharsis has been defined as the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. There is no word in English literature, which has been debated so much as the word “Catharsis” has been debated and translated. Some other meanings, which come in the mind with respect to catharsis, after reading Aristotle’s poetics are;purgation, purification, cleansing, release, relief, emotional release, freeing, deliverance, exorcism, ridding, abreaction, depuration, lustration. In fact, catharsis, in real meanings explains the importance of a tragedy.
In the eyes of Aristotle, tragedy is the name of feelings of piety and fear. Whole “Poetics” of Aristotle emphasizes on the catharsis of pity and fear. Thus, the word became matter of controversy between the critics. Aristotle, after defining tragedy, says that when the protagonist suffers and moves from prosperity to adversity, if he is mixture of good and bad qualities, then the spectaculars will witness the catharsis of pity and fear. Thus, the word “Catharsis” is not a simple noun symbol of emotions. Every critic defined this word as per his knowledge and experience. It is impossible to get the exact definition, only from “Poetics”, therefore we have to rely upon the suggestions, given by the doctors of tragedy. We have to consider the arguments of every critic and then to draw conclusion that who has best defined catharsis.
More than any other word, purgation and purification best describes the Catharsis. Undoubtedly, Aristotle laid great importance on pity and fear and when spectator witnesses the pain of the characters., he feels for him. In a tragedy, the reader/spectator puts himself in place of the character and thinks what he could do if he were the hero. When the answer comes that the same mistake will be repeated then feelings become stronger for that tragic character. Every person feels the same as by the character of tragedy. The bombardment of questions, in the minds of readers/spectators regarding sufferings of the character, wants justification that whether his sufferings were required or not and if the answer is positive, everyone becomes emotional. Feelings and emotions are there in everyone. These are natural and everyone possesses theme; what makes difference is the suppression of these necessary ingredients; some can suppress them easily, whereas others cannot do so. Nevertheless, ultimately the feelings of pity and fear will arise and the same will increase with every hardship, faced by the tragic characters. Due to sufferings and our emotional attachment with the character, everyone’s heart fills with sympathy. A tragedy, in true words, is the purgation of these feelings and emotions.Catharsis, here thus synonymous for relief, which is observed by every reader after purgation of feelings. We know that the feelings, no matter what their type is, creates disturbance until they are released. A true tragedy, first creates these feelings and then gives relief from them. Hence, catharsis has also been defined as the purgation of the feelings, which arise while observing a tragedy.
Catharsis also means purification and refinement. After the outlet of emotions, we find peace because of the harmonization we face. It purifies our hearts. Every single and successful tragedy can be quoted for the purpose of explanation. We feel same after watching every play whether it is “Othello”, “Hemlate” or any other from the past like “Oedipus Rex”. A tragedy always purifies our soul with a touch of refinement. It can also be referred as a homeopathic treatment as defined by Milton. He, in his preface to “Samson Agonistes”writes:-
“Tragedy has been ever held the gravest, moralist and most profitable of all other poems; therefore said by Aristotle to be of power, by raising pity and fear, or terror to purge the mind of those and such-like passions; that is, to temper or reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated. Not is Nature herself wanting in her own effects to make goodAristotle’s assertion, for so, in physic, things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humours”.
After seeing the sufferings of hero, it is certain that feelings of pity and fear arousesand the spectator refuses to take such steps, which cause sufferings. If we see the words catharsis in this context then it reveals that Catharsis ismerely used for the purpose of teaching. Of course, spectator learns something from tragedy and every tragedy has a subject, which indeed has a moral lesson. Perhaps Aristotle has used this word for the purpose of teaching. It is necessary to be remembered that Aristotle emphasized too much on the main character and said that he must be the combination of good and bad qualities.If the character is mixture of good and bad, the spectator, after witnessing sufferings does not dare to take such steps but if character is too good, it will be unjustified for a good man to suffer and instead of learning something, sympathies of the audience will be attached. If he is totally a bad person, then his sufferings are goodbecause he deserves it. It is clear that Aristotle kept morality on his mind while defining tragedy.So, the word catharsis may be used for morality and teaching purposes in the “Poetics”.
The crux of the above discussion is that Catharsis has different meanings attached to it. The controversy is till unresolved. It would be easier if Aristotle had defined this word but he could not do so. Perhaps, he could notrealize the importance of this word. Here we, being, students of literature are trying to define the word “catharsis” after knowing its importance. Aristotle emphasized on the catharsis of pity and fear; critics defined catharsis as emotional fortitude, physiological balance, a process of emotional outlet, purgation, purification and homeopathic treatment. Every mind has its own interpretation so far as the meaning of this word is concerned. The word has been defined more than any other word in English literature yet ironically, it is undefined. As discussed earlier, it is not simply a word but the name of emotions, thus, difficult to define. Conclusion can be drawn that the words, purgation purification and refinement best describes the meaning of catharsis.