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.