Aristotle originated a theory of catharsis in the theatre. The purpose of tragedy, he wrote, was to “to purge us of pity and terror.” This idea is currently in disrepute because Freud rejected it, even though his first book reported its success. Experimental psychologists also think they have disproved it, because they have shown that acting out anger usually doesn’t get rid of it. Currently it is the fashion to refer to catharsis as a simplistic hydraulic theory, as if there were only one theory rather than many (Scheff, 1979).
However, Aristotle didn’t propose that audiences shout in anger or run away in fear. He was referring to the effect of simply watching a tragedy, somewhat like Wordsworth’s idea that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.
The crucial thing, according to theories of aesthetic distance, is that the audience identifies with the players, and feel their emotions, but at the same time realize that they are safe in the theatre (Goddard, 1951; Evans, 1960). At this distance, being both in and out of their own feelings, emotions that might be painful if one were completely lost in them become pleasurable. In a tragedy, one can have a “good” rather than a bad cry, and experience good fear rather than the painful kind.
My students experience roller coasters as pleasurable, but only if they are sure that the ride is safe. They allow themselves to feel fear because they are able, at the same time, to watch themselves doing it, rather than becoming completely caught up in it. Levine (1997) refers to this process as pendulating, moving very rapidly in and out of emotions that would otherwise be painful. We move so fast that we usually don’t realize it. These states can occur not only in the theatre but whenever we feel safe enough to replay intense emotional experiences, such as describing them to another person we trust, or, occasionally, reliving them alone.
Emotions are at their core only bodily states of arousal, of readiness for fight or flight, etc. In humans, at least, we have many ways of managing these states, not only fight or flight. Feeling safe enough to experience them with some detachment makes them pleasurable, rather than painful. The ability to stop our reactions is reassuring, giving us a feeling of safety in the face of intense fear, grief, anger or shame (Scheff, 2007).
The most controversial issue in catharsis theory is the attempt to answer the question of what to do with the energy and adrenaline that is aroused if you don’t fight or flee. When I was a young man, I knew that running six miles when angry would burn off some of the adrenaline so that I might be able to sleep at night.
Later I stumbled on to a better way. Sometimes, instead of blowing my top, I said to the person who had angered me, “I am angry at you because….” Usually I had to repeat my reasons several times before they understood that although courteous, I was also angry. During my explanation, I often experienced the room as warmer. However, after several episodes, I realized that it was me that was hot. Body heat, I think rapidly (less than a minute) metabolizes the adrenaline touched off by anger.
What about fear? I have had some extraordinary experiences of responding to fear with what might look to an unknowing observer as an epileptic fit of shaking and sweating. The experiences were enjoyable both during and after their occurrence. It may be too soon to write off the ancient idea of catharsis.
Bertrand Evans (1969) Shakespeare’s comedies. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Harold Goddard (1951). The meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Peter A. Levine (1997). Waking the tiger. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Thomas Scheff (1979). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Thomas Scheff (2007). Catharsis and other heresies. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, 1, 98-113.