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First of all, I'm aware of the Greek origin of the word. I have looked this word up in a dozen different dictionaries but I still don't quite understand what a catharsis is. A definition:

Originating from ancient Greece, the word "catharsis" refers to the emotional outpouring of a character. Often, when a character in a tragedy realizes his/her flaws or downfall, a cathartic speech is delivered.

In other definitions it also says that the audience also experiences this, but I don't understand at all what is meant by this. The above definition reminds me of an epiphany, but I don't see at all why the audience would experience this too, since the flaws of a character are usually known by the audience from the start. Can someone clear up my confusion regarding this subject?

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The first definition I found was: A release of emotional tension after an overwhelming vicarious experience, resulting in the purging or purification of the emotions, as through watching a dramatic production (especially a tragedy). Coined in this sense by Aristotle. (emphasis mine) –  Jim Jan 12 '13 at 20:35
    
@Jim I don't understand it –  JohnPhteven Jan 12 '13 at 20:36
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If you don't feel anything when watching tragedies, then why bother? –  Jon Hanna Jan 12 '13 at 21:22
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@JonHanna I don't understand what a catharsis is > I don't feel anything when watching tragedies. That's the most stupid non sequitur I've ever seen. –  JohnPhteven Jan 12 '13 at 21:52
    
"I don't see at all why the audience would experience this too", what does the audience experience? –  Jon Hanna Jan 12 '13 at 21:54

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The short answer is No, someone can’t clear up your confusion. Scholars of Greek philosophy and of dramatic criticism have been arguing about this since at least the middle of the 18th century and have come to no firm conclusion.

The slightly longer answer is that the term derives from Aristotle’s Poetics, in his definition of tragedy as

“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 catharsis of these emotions.

And that’s all he says about catharsis.

Aristotle uses the term in other works in the medical sense of purgation — so the metaphor here implies that somehow somebody is being purged of “unhealthy” pity and fear. And it’s generally conceded that he’s confronting Plato’s very negative opinion of mimetic poetry as an exciter of ‘base’ emotions and impulses —

lust and anger and all the other affections [...] desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action —in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.

So Aristotle is presumably claiming that tragedy arouses pity and fear in order to ‘purge’ them and restore emotional balance to the hearers. But the mechanics of this operation are entirely conjectural.

There's a respectable article on Wikipedia which can usefully launch you into a deeper dive.

EDIT:
By the way, the notion of catharsis operating on characters is not widely held; and the notion of a cathartic speech in drama — basically employing the psychological sense which Kristina Lopez’ answer advances — is absent from Aristotle and from LitCrit discourse.

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This is similar to what I was taught about dramatic catharsis. By experiencing tragedy vicariously, the audience are supposed to vent off their own fears and frustrations about life. This works in two ways; first, you feel better if your life doesn't suck as much as someone else's; secondly, you supposedly have a finite quantity of negative emotions built up that are temporarily "drained" by experiencing them during the play. If you got angry at the villain during a play, then perhaps you won't feel as angry at your husband that night. You can't be angry all the time. –  Cerberus Jan 12 '13 at 23:30
    
@Cerberus Fersher; that's been a basic argument since Freud. But whether that's what Aristotle meant; and (even more to the point) whether that actually happens; and (most important of all) whether that's an end that mimetic forms should or must end at are all very open questions. –  StoneyB Jan 12 '13 at 23:37
    
Indeed. But some research has provided ividence that children who play-act wicked things with toys or in stories turn out to be more emotionally balanced. Whether or not this evidence was conclusive I do not know. My friend used to play "cocaine plantation" with Playmobil, with her sister in primary school (long before we met). We played "slave city" with our Playmobil, where we caught and tortured slaves. It was probably a way for us to learn how to deal with social norms and morality. We were all good children and consider ourselves upright citizens, so perhaps it was cathartic. –  Cerberus Jan 12 '13 at 23:54
    
Splendid answer Sir, and beautifully written! –  spiceyokooko Jan 13 '13 at 0:09

Definitions are great, but let's use an example of catharsis:

Your dog dies. Of course you miss him but you can't seem to actually grieve him or even shed a tear. Instead, you get mad every time you see his favorite red ball in the yard and you tell your friends to bug off when they mention the dog.

A couple weeks later you pass a pet shop and see puppies playing in the window. The grief you've surpressed overwhelms you and you find yourself sobbing uncontrollably in front of that store window as you feel the tremendous loss of your canine companion. Feeling foolish, but surprisingly relieved, you can now talk about your dog with friends and can start to heal your broken heart because of the catharsis you experienced that day at the pet store.

Does that help explain what it is?

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