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and Katharsis/Catharsis

Trevor Pateman

My readers, like me, are likely to have little Latin and less Greek, but enough general education to know that many of the concepts in which we describe and appraise works of art come to us, ultimately, from Ancient Greece, from Plato and Aristotle. So it is, for example, with the place given to genre concepts (epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric) in aesthetics and criticism, and to normative concepts of artistic rightness (e. g. unity of time, place and action in drama). So it is also, and evident in the words themselves, with katharsis (or catharsis) and mimesis.

For Plato and Aristotle and for the traditions of classical or neoclassical criticism later created from their work, works of art are representations of an actual or possible world, and as representations are mimetic of it. Sometimes but by no means always `mimesis' does have the sense of `illusion' and of creating an illusion, as in trompe l'oeil painting, a genre which exercises a considerable fascination for Greek authors. In contrast, there is little interest shown by the Greek philosophers and critics in those genres, like lyric poetry, where it is less the relation of work to (possible or actual) world than of work to artist which is central. It is only in romanticism that the lyric `I' is privileged (q.v. `Classicism and Romanticism' to appear on this website in 2005). Aristotle, indeed, in the Poetics, takes the view that poets should not speak in their own voice, but should represent or show others speaking or acting, and this is because he thinks a first person use of language can only be one which asks us to evaluate it in terms of truth (as an assertoric use of language) whereas artistic mimesis is not assertoric. It shows fictional possibilities; it does not make claims to truth. (This idea appears in contemporary aesthetics, notably in work on the logical status of fictional statements. See, for example, Roman Ingarden's The Literary Work of Art and Kate Hamburger's The Logic of Literature.)

In stressing fictionality, Aristotle is reacting against Plato's assumption that the poet is a truth - teller who tells lies, and hence is to be condemned and banished from the ideal republic. This is the famous theme of Book 10 of Plato's Republic. For Plato, poetic mimesis does indeed capture the apearance of things - this is the poet's skill - but these appearances may render persons and actions attractive and acceptable which are ethically repugnant. Hence they are dangerous and ought to be controlled or proscribed. This is doubly so because the encounter with poetry takes place in the context of performance (oral recitation or dramatic enactment), the theatrical qualities of which may effect a bypass of the audience's understanding and make direct connection with the audience's (baser) feelings. A painter's trompe l'oeil effects are of relatively trivial ethical concern; the poet's ability to mislead the heart is, to Plato, of enormous ethical moment since it threatens the role and effectiveness of a properly philosophical education aimed at an understanding of reality, the forms manifest in the appearances of life.

Consider, notably, that tragedy is a genre which represents extremes of human suffering and invites us somehow to accept and take pleasure in them. In response to this, says G.R.F. Ferrari, `Plato banishes tragedy from the stage for fear that it will prevent us coping with the drama of life' (`Plato and Poetry', p. 141). Aristotle's Poetics may be read in large part as an attempt to find a positive conception of tragedy and of our response to it. One result is a strongly normative conception of how tragedy ought to be constructed, which eventually results in neo - classical ideas of unity of time, place and action. Another result is an influential, if obscure, conception of katharsis (or catharsis)

A well-constructed tragedy shows individuals better than ourselves, but not so different that we cannot identify with them in the unmerited afflictions which overcome them. We experience sympathetic pity for their suffering, and a kind of terror arising from the thought or recognition that such suffering could befall us (`there but for Fortune'). The experience of pity and fear is the katharsis effected by the play. Katharsis is not pure emotional release, still less discharge of pathological emotions though this is how the concept tended to be understood in the nineteenth century (for example, by Nietzsche). Rather it is, according to Stephen Halliwell, `a powerful emotional experience which not only gives our natural feelings of pity and fear full play, but does so in a way which conduces to their rightful functioning as part of our understanding of, and response to, events in the human world' (The Poetics of Aristotle, p. 90).

Mimesis and katharsis are connected in that it is the mimetic (representational) qualities of the well - made play which allow the identifications and elicit the emotions of the katharsis. The normative requirements of unity (of time, place and action) are consequences of the idea of a mimesis which aims to represent a possible reality. Unity is made, not found, and mimesis should not be equated with any kind of `slice of life' naturalism. Nor is the idea of mimesis of a possible reality the idea of verisimilitude or vraisemblance insofar as these are concepts of the representation of the typical rather than of the simply possible. Nonetheless, there is a clear line of intellectual descent from Aristotle to classical and neoclassical norms for tragedy and for the theatre more generally.

In the present century these norms were contested, notably by Brecht, who connects them explicitly to Aristotle. Thus early in Brecht's Messingkauf Dialogues (written 1939 - 1942) we find the Dramaturg summarizing and endorsing the conception of tragedy he thinks is found in Aristotle's Poetics:

"He defines tragedy as an imitative representation of a self-contained morally serious action of such - and - such duration; in heightened speech whose different varieties are employed separately; distributed among different parts; not narrated but performed by the persons taking part in it; stimulating pity and terror, and thereby bringing about the purging [katharsis] of those same moods. In other words, it's a matter of imitating your events from life, and the imitations are supposed to have specific effects on the soul. Since Aristotle wrote that, the theatre has gone through many transformations, but not on this point. One can only conclude that if it changed in this respect it would no longer be theatre." (p. 16)

Brecht challenges this Aristotelian conception of theatre in a way which might reasonably be described as quasi - Platonist. At one level he takes issue with the Aristotelian emphasis on unity of time, place and action, preferring the epic (episodic) mode to the tragic privileged by Aristotle. For example, Brecht's Life of Galileo (written in 1938) has fifteen scenes representing events spread over more than thirty years in a variety of settings, some of them precisely located temporally, others not. Brecht says that `the Life of Galileo is not a tragedy' (p. 117), yet it is not optimistic with respect to Galileo (scene 14), and the `happy ending' (scene 15) is not debarred by Greek rules of tragedy (Halliwell, op. cit., p. 138). It is reasonable to compare Galileo with a `classical' tragedy. The obvious point then is that though the play is not held together, unified, by time, place or in any obvious sense action, it is held together by the character of Galileo whose Life the play, episodically, represents, and whose life could in principle and may in practice inspire pity and terror.

However, as everyone knows, Brecht does not value positively the empathy created in Aristotelian theatre as the precondition of katharsis. Brecht may be wrong to think that such empathy is importantly uncritical and merely emotional. Interpreting Aristotle, for example, Stephen Halliwell writes that for Aristotle, `Pity and fear presuppose and involve . . . a fundamental sympathy for the tragic agents, and a sympathy which is not purely spontaneous or unreflective, but one which engages us imaginatively in understanding the causal nexus of the tragedy' (p. 125). Nonetheless, it is understandable that Brecht took the view he did, since important strands in nineteenth century German thinking about theatre including Wagner's avowedly Greek-inspired Gesamtkunstwerk did emphasize the spontaneous, unreflective character of empathy and empathetic response. Brecht wants to break with this in order to introduce thinking into the theatre, to make the audience think. So in The Messingkauf Dialogues (First Appendix) he summarizes the idea of a theatre where `empathy would lose its dominant role' (p. 102), a goal to be achieved by the use of what Brecht calls the Verfremdungseffekt: the Alienation or Estrangement effect. This `consists in the reproduction of real life incidents on the stage in such a way as to underline their causality and bring it to the spectator's attention. This type of art also generates emotions; such performances facilitate the mastering of reality; and this it is that moves the spectator. The Alienation effect is an ancient artistic technique; it is known from classical comedy, certain branches of popular art [e. g. commedia dell' arte] and the practices of the Asiatic [e. g. Noh and Kabuki] theatre, (p. 102)

Plato would have approved of the idea of `mastering reality', in contrast to the idea of wallowing in illusion, and he would have understood Brecht's reasons for reviving the chorus, an aspect of Greek theatre which Aristotle ignores but both Plato and Brecht emphasize.


Brecht, B (1965) The Messingkauf Dialogues London: Methuen

Brecht, B (1980) The Life of Galileo London: Methuen

Ferrari G (1989) "Plato and Poetry" in G A Kennedy, ed, The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol 1, Classical Criticism. Cambridge University Press

Halliwell, S (1987) The Poetics of Aristotle London: Duckworth

Hamburger, K (1973) The Logic of Literature Indiana University Press

Ingarden, R (1973) The Literary Work of Art Northwestern University Press

"Mimesis and Katharsis" first published 1991 in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts: A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education London: Falmer Press pp 110 - 113. Lightly revised for this 2004 website version