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21 Oct



The term ‘Catharsis’, which Aristotle uses in Poetics to describe the emotional effect of tragedy on the spectator, has always been a subject of intense controversy. It has provoked much creative thinking through nothing positive has come out of this age long controversy which still remains unresolved.

In the 6th chapter of the Poetics, Aristotle defines the tragedy. Here he describes Catharsis as the effect of tragedy on the mind of the spectator. Tragedy, he says, arouses pity and fear accomplishing a Catharsis of such emotions. Many critics have interpreted Catharsis to mean ‘purification’. They argue that in the theatre our feelings of pity and fear are ‘sublimated’ ie, when we witness a tragedy, we cease to be selfishly sentimental or egoistic. These emotions are directed to the suffering hero. An obvious effect of tragedy is that our feelings are purified by our becoming uninterested. One might say the emotions are universalized. T.S Eliot significantly says that the emotion in art is always impersonal.

F.L Lucas and others take Catharsis to mean ‘purgation’. It is suggested that Catharsis is a medical term. It means partial removal of the excess humours. It is in keeping with the Greek medical notion that the health of the body and the mind alike depended on a due balance of the humours. By cathartic effect Aristotle means that tragedy reduces the passions to a healthy balance and proportion. This interpretation is borne out (proved) by certain passages in Aristotle’s works. An occasional eruption of the lava prevents an earthquake. Similarly, the overflowing of emotions helps to tranquilize our mind. Tragedy brings about a tempering of our emotions.

We have to be clear in our minds as to what Aristotle means by pity and fear. Pity to what? Pity for the suffering hero. For instance, when we see the terrible suffering of King Lear, our hearts go out in pity towards him. Tragedy works our pity to an excess, thereby causing it to overflow.

As regards ‘fear’, it may mean both the sympathetic fear for the characters and a general dread for the cruelty of life. The spectator may have an awareness that the tragedy that has overtaken the hero, might come to him as well. By allowing free vent to his sympathetic fear in the theatre, the spectator can lessen, if not fully overcome, his fear of destiny.

Aristotle means not only the purgation of pity and fear but also of all kinds of emotions like repugnance, delight, disgust, admiration, contempt, etc. If our emotional energy can be likened to the pent up water (full) in a reservoir, fear and pity serve as two pipes that lower the general level of emotions. In this sense, comedy also accomplishes a sort of Catharsis.

The comic festivals of Athens which were characterized by unrestrained loosening of emotions were based on the principle of purgation. Milton, in the preface to his Samson Agonistes identifies the cathartic effect with purgation. He says that tragedy by raising pity and fear helps to purge the mind of those and such like emotions, “that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight stirred up by seeing those emotions well-initiated.” In the theatre, pity and fear are artistically embodied in the drama. In the process, these emotions are converted from a source of pain to a source of pleasure. The mind of the chorus at the close of Samson Agonistes best illustrates the Cathartic effect. The tragedy has a tranquillizing and ennobling effect on the audience. The audience leaves the theatre “calm of mind, all passions spent.” This is the tragic effect.

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