Have you ever exited a movie theater in tears, or gotten choked up by a powerful scene in your favorite book? Or perhaps you have a go-to list of sad songs that, for some strange reason, actually comfort you on a bad day?
If you went to see that movie or hit “play” on that song knowing there was a good chance it would make you cry, then you have experienced catharsis.
Catharsis is the release or purgation of emotional tension, which usually brings a feeling of renewal and restoration.
In art, however, the term refers to the emotional release that is triggered by an overwhelming vicarious experience, like watching a dramatic play, reading a book, or listening to a song.
The concept can be applied to any form of media that makes us feel “negative” emotions, such as sadness, heartache, or longing. However, despite the fact that it makes us feel momentarily sad, we continue to seek out such art because it allows us to purge those strong emotions.
Aristotle was the first to define this term, believing that the purpose of a good story—especially a tragedy—should be to cleanse our emotions.
Catharsis and Aristotle
When Aristotle was pondering the subject, he was trying to figure out why people enjoyed watching and reading tragedies in particular.
It’s important to point out that back in Aristotle’s day, tragedies stuck to their true definition; there was no happy ending for the lead character, no Hollywood hero to save the day.
Yet people even then continued to seek out such content. Thus, Aristotle hypothesized that we must need this kind of stimulation to release our own emotional tensions.
Examples of Catharsis
Even though we’ve come a long way from Aristotle’s time, we can still find examples of catharsis in television, film, and literature.
Game of Thrones Season 8: The Iron Throne
After nearly destroying King’s Landing, Daenerys is fatally stabbed in front of the Iron Throne. This is before she could take the seat of power she had always longed for. Drogon, Daenerys’ last surviving dragon, melts the Iron Throne in grief over her death and carries her body away.
In this final episode of GOT 8, we are purged of our emotions of disappointment and sadness over Daenerys’ fate. Although we might be saddened by the ending, we can release the tension that has been leading up to that moment and start to find closure.
Because we experience sadness through a vicarious experience (we don’t really know Daenerys and weren’t there for her death), we are able to release our emotions without actually being hurt by anything in our own lives.
Catharsis in Macbeth
Macbeth is overcome by ambition and ends up losing his integrity, his wife, and eventually, his life. You might find yourself pitying the tragic figure of Macbeth, who started out as a hero admired for his bravery and skill.
Purgation happens when Macbeth is killed after boasting about his invincibility.
He bragged that he could not be killed by a man who was born by a woman, but Macduff tells him that he was not born by a woman because he was surgically removed (Cesarean section). Macbeth was overcome by immense fear before being ruthlessly killed.
Catharsis in Oedipus Rex
In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus gouges his own eyes out after learning that he had unwittingly married his mother, Joacasta, who then takes her own life.
This tragedy often elicits emotional responses from audiences, thus allowing them to be cleansed of those feelings without being personally involved in the tragedy.
Catharsis in a Sentence
- Music can be a means of catharsis for a lot of people.
- Crying is a great catharsis for releasing emotions such as pain and anger.
- Yoga can be a catharsis that allows many to reflect upon their deepest feelings.
Catharsis in Psychology
In psychology, the concept of catharsis was popularized by Sigmund Freud and his colleague, Josef Breuer. They believed that catharsis could be used as a therapeutic technique by having patients recall their early traumas while under hypnosis.
Although many scholars disagree on the benefits of catharsis, it is still used today to describe moments that bring closure or insight, and in general, such an emotional release brings positive change for the person experiencing it.
What was the last book or film that made you cry? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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