Catharsis is taken from the Greek verb, kathoros, which translates as "to purify" or "to make clean." The term has been applied to many situations; the most unglamorous of these is its use in medicine, where it may literally mean purging the bowels. Early pioneers in psychiatry were also keenly interested in the term to describe the moment when a person clearly articulated a past memory and was able to feel it fully, often, especially according to Freud, leaving the person free of the pain of the past. In religion, the word can refer to transcendent experiences that free or cleanse the soul.
In literature, catharsis takes on a slightly different meaning. Aristotle first used it in his work Poetics to discuss how drama can affect the individual viewer. Good drama helps the viewer identify with the experiences, especially sorrowful ones, of characters in a play. Drama can evoke powerful emotions, and people who watch it and are moved leave the theater clean, refreshed, and purified in emotional experience.
Aristotle further claims that, having expressed some of their emotions, the audience has a sense of relief that helps them handle daily living in calmer fashion. This is directly antithetical to Plato’s claim that drama and poetry could produce ill effects on viewers and readers, leading them to act more extremely. Aristotle instead contends that drama leads to a more rational mind since the extremes of emotion are tapped and felt in a safe setting.
Many people have had the experience of having a good weep during a film or, more often, a good laugh. Individuals may look to plays, films and books as a means of safe expression of deep emotion. In a society where men’s tears are still looked upon by some sectors of the society as being unmanly, a cathartic moment when watching a film, a little choking up or even a tear or two are often viewed as acceptable. There are few men for example who may not feel that catch in the throat at the very least when Ray Kinsella plays catch with his father in the final moments of the film Field of Dreams.
Catharsis, though, is not limited to creating such moments. In fact, many narratives depend on personal identification with a character in some fashion or another. Watching or reading a comic film or book respectively can also provoke emotional response, especially when the audience identifies with a character. Narratives may fail when people can’t “get” the characters and can’t relate the characters in any way to their own existence. Emotional involvement (of any kind) by readers or audiences with characters or circumstances can lead to deeper appreciation of the narrative.
There’s also the occasional moment in very short narratives where people experience a release of emotions. There are whole lists of commercials, for example, that caused people to either laugh hysterically or suddenly get teary. Individuals may also be influenced by their circumstances when watching commercials. A mother holding a baby in an ad for infant formula might greatly touch a new mom or a woman who desperately wants children. In visual art, too, people may find themselves somehow emotionally invested in what they view.
Whether or not this cleanses the soul, as Aristotle said, is a debatable point that sits at the heart of today’s arguments on whether watching violent television begets violent behavior. Platonic thought suggests that people have to be careful, since extreme emotional experiences might prompt extreme emotional living, including behaving in immoral or unethical ways. Aristotle instead argued that, through catharsis, people emerged purified and less likely to act extremely or immorally. It’s interesting to note that this debate, which is ancient, is still being fought on many levels in modern society, and that emotional identification with characters or plot can be thought of as either a blessing or treated with suspicion.