Catharsis


Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...
Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The term catharsis has deep literary roots, and goes back to Plato and Aristotle.¹  In everyday contemporary usage an experience is called “cathartic” if it helps us release a good deal of pent up emotions. Usually some kind of enhanced intellectual understanding follows.

Catharsis is also used in the arts with much the same meaning, where some dramatic performance – be it theatrical, visual, poetic or musical – compels us to release feelings, this usually followed by some insight into ourselves or into life in general and the human experience.

Sigmund Freud picked up on the ancient and modern usages of catharsis and incorporated the concept into his psychoanalysis, specifically when talking about abreaction.

Today, the term crops up time and again in the arts and music.

¹ See this good discussion, “Plato and Aristotle on Tragedy” about the complexities of catharsis: http://classics.uc.edu/~johnson/tragedy/plato&aristotle.html

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