every woman adores a fascist -- sylvia plath

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Katharsis in Aristotle's Poetics

Just a brief note on the troublesome term "katharsis" in Aristotle's Poetics. I've come across hundreds of pages (God knows there's more than that) of essays by professors, students, and translators alike who do their best (even if in fits of brief madness) to explain what the heck Aristotle meant by the term "katharsis" in his Poetics.

Why does it matter? Because understanding what the term means gives us greater insight into what art does to us and why we love it so much. The fact that the term is hard to translate is frustrating since the term can mean so many different things and thus confuses our understanding all the more: we know that once we figure out the term our insight will greatly increase, but the more we try to figure it out, the further away we come to understanding it.

Here's the troublesome passage:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation (katharsis) of these emotions.

There are many reasons why translating the term "katharsis" is so problematic:

(a) The term "katharsis" is not a technical term for Aristotle
(b) It only appears once in the Poetics, which makes it hard to translate and compare to other usages in the same text
(c) Its single appearance is as part of a definition of tragedy, but only as an addendum to it
(d) In the literature of Ancient Greece, the term can be used in a wide number of ways including medically and metaphorically

Based on all of these factors, the term "katharsis" could be translated to mean something like a psychological change, or a physiological reaction, or even an emotional outpouring, or even perhaps something as basic as a "release" from the emotions experienced. Nobody really knows how to translate "katharsis" in the Poetics. There's not enough usage of it in the central text, not enough of it in Aristotle's body of complete works, and the Ancient Greeks in general used it loosely and in a wide number of different ways. All of this amounts to sheer agony for translators and interpreters alike since we want to know so badly what art is doing to us.

In reading through the Poetics, we do discover, though, that the feelings of pity for the tragic character and the fear for ourselves excite in us the desire to understand why the tragedy happened. After all, the tragic character did exactly as we might do in the same circumstances, and something totally unexpected occurred. Which leads us to want to understand why it happened the way it did. Thus, if we want to interpret "katharsis" in a disciplined and strict way, we understand that the emotions of pity and fear excite in the audience the desire to understand why the tragedy happens, which in turn, purges (katharsis) those emotions -- in the sense of replacing them. In a sense, the ignited emotions burn themselves out and we're left with the smoke of wonder.

However, this self-contained explanation of "katharsis" isn't exactly satisfying. We know what it feels like to experience that pity and fear, and know there's more to art than a mechanical response-process towards wonder. There is, however, another way of looking at the concept of "katharsis" that is compatible with the strict interpretation which also provides more color to it.

The emotions of both pity for the tragic character and fear for ourselves have the same cause: we identify with the tragic character and know we would do the same thing in the same circumstances. Here's where our richer understanding of "katharsis" starts: We also know that we are not that character. Oedipus is Oedipus, not me. Same for Antigone and all the other tragic characters. They exist separately from us and have suffered instead of us. Thus, the "kartharsis" we experience from tragedy is the "katharsis" of witnessing someone else suffer for our shared crime: our emotions are caused (at first) by identity with the tragic character, but we also know that that character is the one who suffers and not us, even though we, too, are guilty. The character's suffering on stage is what differentiates us from him. It is Oedipus who bears the pains of our (shared) mistake. After all, the real cause of his blood crime is (frighteningly) in all of us, but, he is the one who suffers for it in our stead. It is the tragic character who suffers and is punished for the mistakes and sins of us all. He is our sacrificial-goat. Our fear for ourselves is released as we see the tragic character pay for our crimes, and we are relieved it's not us suffering. And thus we wonder why it happened. Not in the sense of how did the plot unfold, but in a more philosophical way. "Why" with a capital "W". It is this sense of release and relief that gives "katharsis" a richer meaning for us.

Tragedy provides the Ancient Greeks with other sacrifices -- humane ones for our very human mistakes. This may also explain the etymology of the word "tragedy" which comes from the Greek "tragoida", meaning "goat-song" and the reason why tragedies were performed as a part of religious festivals in the ancient world. In fact, Ancient Greek drama developed out of religous ceremonies. This could also explain why we don't watch tragedies anymore in the modern world. With religion disrobed of power and all of the gods dead, why offer up anyone for sacrifice? Why witness Oedipus' suffering at all? It's far easier to simply put him in the asylum.

Joseph Campbell's Theory of Art


Art Theory
The human psyche is both the material from which myths are created and the object to which those myths are applied. In this sense, mythology is a human endeavor that transcends cultures (the monomyth), and the hero's journey in myth is purely symbolic with psychological significance. This symbolic journey of the hero is one of separation from the common world, triumph over and initiation into supernatural wonders, and a return to the (renewed) common world. The myth thus imparts a psychological triumph to the audience that expands our consciousness by uniting the contradictions in life (life/death, male/female, earth/heaven, mortal/divine, etc.) in order to show the audience a way to transcend those painful contradictions (e.g. the revelation of eternal life) and both see and live in the world in a new light.

By constructing a symbolic journey relevant to the audience's psyche and contradictions in life in order to open them to a greater unity that transcends the pain of those contradictions and allows us to see the world in a new way.

The hero can be anyone or anything and symbolizes us in the journey. During the journey, however, the hero must come to know the divine unity and impart it to others.

The history of myth is as vast and timeless as the history of our humanity and human psyche. However, with the advent of modernity and the expansion of the sciences, the myth has come under great pressure. Also, the decision to read myths as biographies, histories, or pre-science mutilates the power of myths and makes them irrelevant. The new and final sphere of mythology is Man himself. The duty of modern mythmakers (creative heroes) is to create new myths about Man (e.g. Star Wars) so that Mankind can expand its consciousness and see the world in a new light.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Nietzsche's Theory of Tragedy


Art Theory
By imitating the equally opposing natural forces of the irrational (e.g. music, fate, madness, suffering, foreign lands) and the rational (e.g. visual form, intention, thought, ethical actions, the state) which constantly struggle yet never overcome each other, the audience is able to fully experience their (shared) human condition of those irrational and rational forces in their lives and supplement the sense of (their) being.

Objective with the Audience
For them to fully experience their human condition in such a way as to transform their understanding of their place in the world.

By imitating the equally opposing and equally powerful forces of the irrational (Dionysian) and rational (Apollonian) elements in our lives and anchoring the irrational elements with rational players.

Doesn't really say except that those characters are subject to (and part of) those forces. The tragic hero is, in a sense, a veil for the irrational emotions excited in the audience. The characters anchor the audience's irrational feelings so that they may be purged and transformed instead of overwhelmed by them.

Historical Development
Prior to tragedy, the Apollonian powers dominated Art: static, idealized, sculptures and friezes were the object of artistic production. Aeschylus and Sophocles were the greatest tragedians, as they were the best at balancing the irrational and rational in their efforts. Euripides and Socrates, however, marked the downfall of tragedy as their efforts returned art to a dominant, rational form. In essence, the history of art is the history of the artist and his or her ability to imitate and mediate the irrational and rational forces of nature and provide a metaphysical supplement to the audience for their lives.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Aristotle and Lovecraft


Art Theory
Tragedy conveys a story where a fortunate and admirable character either potentially or actually injures a loved one by mistake and suffers a great misfortune due to it. Since the injury and misfortune happen necessarily, yet unknowingly by the main character, the audience feels pity for the character and fear for themselves due to all that has happened. Those emotions in the audience are purged by their desire to understand why it all happened, and, in the end, are left wondering about the story.

Objective with the Audience
To excite wonder in the audience.

By describing plausible and necessary events where the main character (either potentially or actually) suffers misfortune by mistakenly harming a loved one.

Fortunate and admirable characters who, while not necessarily paragons of virtue, are in no way scoundrels either.

Historical Development
Poets accidentally (by luck) discovered the principles of tragedy by telling stories of the famous, tragic families of Ancient Greece


Art Theory
Cosmic horror conveys a story of unknown powers of cosmic proportions coming into contact with our known world. The audience feels a suspension or defeat of the fixed laws of nature which are the only safeguards against the assaults of chaos and daemons of unplumbed space.

Objective with the Audience
To excite in the reader a profound sense of dread.

By describing a cosmic power beyond our understanding defeating our understanding of nature and threatening us.

Doesn't directly state. In theory, Lovecraft seems to like the Gothic / Byronic antihero. In practice he seems to prefer Men of Science who have devolved to unreliable, possibly insane, narrators because of their cosmic experience. Characters like Herbert West seem to embody both (the Byronic Man of Science).

Historical Development
Has always existed and always will due to mankind's innate fear of the unknown and the infinite mystery of the cosmos. Also, because of the superstitions we continue to transmit through our traditions and history. The maturation of modern psychology has aided the writers ability to more effectively excite the sense of dread in the reader.

Friday, December 02, 2011


MARLOW is FINALLY available for pre-order. (It ships Feb 28 2012). Feel free to pre-order on Amazon, BN, or just wait a couple weeks and pre-order from your favorite comic book shop (or my store on the right.. soon).