The Four-Fold Interpretation of Katharsis: A Humble Critique on Aristotle!

The Play Scene in 'Hamlet' exhibited 1842 by Daniel Maclise 1806-1870
The Play Scene in ‘Hamlet’ exhibited 1842 Daniel Maclise 1806-1870 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847

When a text is interpreted and reinterpreted and re-reinterpreted, it is really hard to take the heat of the critics who are interpreting it, for it might lose its meaning in some or the other way and melt down into nothing but mere rubbish, and that is how many of the great works bite the dust. Classic is a work which stands the test of time, is what is said when we are trying to explain the basic quality a piece of art should possess to qualify itself as a classic. Then I thought who is more classical than Aristotle? Yeah, yeah, Shakespeare (the Demi-God), Dante, Milton and all, yes, but still, persisting his influence for over 2508years is a small thing? That’s the hugest if you ask me.

Aristotle, may be called as the father of western classical literary criticism, is matchless in his game. Being credited as the author of over 400 volumes of treatise on different and diverse subjects as Mathematics, Biology, Physics, Political Philosophy, Speculation, Arts and many more, he is hailed as a worthy pupil of his peerless guru Plato. Even though his pupil, Aristotle never confined himself as a pupil, but was a rebel who had discarded and even discredited many of Plato’s popular treatises, especially in Arts. Aristotle’s fame chiefly rests upon his Poetics, Ethics, Metaphysics, and Rhetoric. Aristotle’s Poetics can be said as the first “Apology” for poetry and poetic art, defending poetic art from Plato’s Republic (chapters 5 and 10), and also the most important document in the history of Western Criticism.

Aristotle’s criticism, or speculation, how they would have called criticism back then, should be understood not as a conscious development, for they are not a product of a mind thinking to contribute to the mainstream criticism (which wasn’t present back then) but were lectures which he had delivered casually to his students, who noted them (not surely for exams sake!) and hence, we got them through the passage of years.

Even then, being just an unconscious orator of his speculations, he stands and is acclaimed as “more modern than most of the modern critics,” by foremost modern critics, and was described as “a perfect critic,” by saakshathu T. S. Eliot, who finds Aristotle as a spring of knowledge to which all the modern criticism is hugely indebted. Aristotle’s Poetics lies as the work which has the most number of editions ever (after Bible of course, and you know why!).

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Aristotle ji!

Aristotle, being the tutor of Alexander “The Great”, has established a gymnasium (not for physical, but for educational) under the name Lyceuon (meaning gymnasium) in 335 B.C which he ran for nearly 13 years. Here, he bestowed his knowledge of diverse subjects on his students. The basic problem which a modern reader will face with Aristotle’s lectures is that they are “achromatic,” which means that no work can be read alone, (I mean, you can read that, no offense, but wouldn’t understand what the old man is talking about). Every work is interrelated with other and the lectures suddenly stop in one work and spring up in the other. One reason for that might be that the great master would be walking around and speculating on his own and discussing with his pupil, while one guy or the other would note everything down. As they discuss, the topics stride up and down leaving and connecting again. When they try to divide those lectures into spate works, yeah, you know what would have happened!

Aristotle, after his own time, was very quickly forgotten. It even lays a mystery if his successors Horace, Longinus and others even know his existence or his works. Aristotle, being in the darkness saw the light only after the Italian Renaissance enthusiasts were severely interested in his treatise of different subjects, which they found to be very close with their treatment of arts. Even the “anomalies” we find regarding Aristotle’s criticism is purely because of these Renaissance guys. Aristotle is portrayed as a serious critic with a frown on his brow and books in his hands and all, while he was not. The serious misconceptions of Aristotle’s criticism are the misreading of his treatise (Yo! I am not being deliberate here; that is what I understood in my little research and all).

While in this small post I can’t explain how he is being misunderstood as a strict man tying art with his unities and all, I shall try a separate post as “Misunderstanding Aristotle” or something. Now, let’s go to the prime issue here.

Anagnorisis, Peripeteia, Memisis, Katharsis, Hamartia, Spoudaious and many more terms play an important role in Aristotle’s critical works. While every other word could be easily summed up in a single line meaning, it is the word Katharsis which drags all the interest with its multi-dimensional ability to form different meanings at different situations.

Katharsis is famously defined by Aristotle himself as, “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of 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 purgation (catharsis/katharsis) of these emotions,” in his sixth book of Poetics.

This definition of Katharsis can be traced down as a direct reply to his master Plato, who was totally against Tragedy and its effect of the audience. Plato condemns Tragedy (of course who poetic system and drama in particular) because he feels the feelings pity and terror, which are primly aroused in people by tragedy is harmful for the society. The violent spectacle and unimaginable fall of the protagonist brings out the terror in a normal being when they realize they too are vulnerable when fate takes the play. But then, Aristotle takes this into the other way round. Aristotle stresses that when audience identify themselves with the suffering on the stage and understand that the fate is undeniable even to us, Aristotle says, it brings release and a sense of serenity with us. How? He explains. . .

Plato says that Tragedy fills people with a dangerous magnitude of emotions which disturb the individual and hence the society as a whole, then Aristotle says that humans are inherently filled with a high magnitude of emotions as we go through life and face different situations which fill us with sorrow and self-pity. Aristotle further defends tragedy by saying that, as we are filled with these emotions, when we see the similar kind of fall, and similar sorrow and pity on the stage before us, we identify ourselves with the protagonist and we become the protagonist. By the end of the play, all our terror and pity are totally consumed by the play, as it makes us suffer to the fullest along with the tragic protagonist, and we come out of the play with a clean and settled mind. (True, eh?)

While such things keep on coming in Poetics, let’s keep our spotlight on the title: Four Fold Interpretation of Katharsis:

Definition being a bit long and yes, allusive, Katharsis became a word of continues challenge and a concept with infinite ability to get interpreted and reinterpreted repetitively. While it is being discussed in many ways with prime interest among the critics, four of the interpretations stay as most important:

  1. Therapeutic
  2. Moral
  3. Structural
  4. Intellectual

Therapeutic: According to this interpretation. Katharsis means the cure for our excess emotions, and how I already discussed it earlier. By giving what’s already excess in us, tragedy rinses those emotions from us. Aristotle gives an example of music to explain this. He says, when a person is agitated and if he listens to exciting music, the persons feels calm and serene. Similar kind of emotion through art can settle our minds as we identify with it.

This is explained also trough the medical process of Homeopathy. The basic principle of Homeopathy is to induce similar kind of pathogen into the body as the disease, and thus it works. Like they say poison is the medicine for a snake bike kind of thing, yeah.

But this notion, that Aristotle has seen an art form as a mere psychological cure is thrown aside by later critics, feeling there should be something more to this, something deeper.

Moral: Then comes these Religious guys who always try to find religious allegories and religious allusions in everything. What they seem to see in the work is the same as Therapeutic, but with a different name as “cure.” So, according to them, a tragedy gives us a sense of fear, sense of responsibility and a sense of awareness regarding the fate which would overtake us anyway. It makes a man moral. They further extend themselves saying that we generally coil with fear when there were any kind of violence in real life, but the similar kind of spectacle drags us towards the stage. Here, stage shows us how dire the effects of such a violent act and other tragic stuff lead to the fall of a person, and hence as the spectacles moves the person, he would be morally awakened!

In such way, Katharisis, they say, according to Aristotle is a moral instrument with which a person could be reformed and some kind of fit all the troublemakers into the society. (I don’t know why, I sound almost cynical and angry, don’t I?!)

Structural: This concept is more like a pre-intellectual discussion on Katharsis. This takes it a bit further and talks of redemption in a step-by-step manner. According to these Structural critics, Katharsis is a way through which the protagonist of the tragedy “absolves” himself of the wrong deeds he has committed. It is a way through which he tries to clean off his pollution by the grant of the audience. If the audience feels pity and fear and terror at the time they should be, if they are touched by the fall of this tragic protagonist, it is likely that he is cleansed off his sins/mistakes and finds redemption. Not so religious, but more like a moral path to take all the consequences of ones deed.

Intellectual Clarification: The title itself signifies it tries to do something intellectual. If it does or not, that is your moral obligation! Yeah! These guys define Katharsis as “insight experience.” They further elaborate their point as. . .

Katharsis is a mystery itself as it gives us pleasure through the most painful things, if they occur in our daily lives. But they state that the pleasure is the pleasure of knowing something, learning something new and hence realizing something which we wouldn’t realize otherwise. The realization is that the identification of the protagonist with ourselves and the parts of the play with the universal aspects which we find in everyday life of ours. Such realization of identity leads us towards the deeper awareness, which Aristotle describes in his works. . .

According to Aristotle, a wise man is the man who capable of feeling the emotions of fear, anger, pity, pleasure, etc. but, a wise person would feel these at the right time, for the right motive and for the right reason. This is called the principle of moderation: Nothing can be in excess.

A tragedy would stir its audience and train them to feel pity, anger, terror and pleasure and other emotions rightfully at the right place, right time and for the right reason. Hence, our stimulating emotions are more trained and enhanced. We are trained to become wiser with the help of awareness of our emotional quantity and quality.

The result of Katharsis is an emotional balance, or emotional equilibrium.

Learning is a source of pleasure, and art is great for this very reason. That is why poetry is greater than philosophy or history.

Whatever might be the apt interpretation of Katharsis, it still seems morally viable, be it in the form of therapy, or a moral benefactor, or a release from guilt or as a supreme form of learning.

Thus, Aristotle sees art/poetry/drama (tragedy) as a great human benefactor, unlike Plato who views it as a dangerous sport!

Katharsis being a versatile concept in the classical criticism, I just wanted to make a post exploring it, but ah, it is really stressing to bring everything out. Summing up the other elements of Aristotle, I shall try a better post again, if I can, that is. I have to humbly mention that I am hugely indebted to M. S. Nagarajan sir, an Indian contemporary critic from whom I have borrowed a many few of my statements.

Thank Ya!

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