Mary Irvine’s Blog: Catharsis


Catharsis is a term referring to purging or cleansing, from the Greek κάθαρσις (katharsis) meaning “purification” or “cleansing”. Emotions are often suppressed, for a variety of reasons. Catharsis is the experience of emotional release and purification which can be inspired by or through art in all its forms.

Plato argued catharsis separated the soul from the body/senses – and we should consider how all great art does this: it removes us from reality and takes us temporarily into another imaginative, emotional realm; for Plato, this realm may be “truer” than physical reality.                                                                                                

Aristotle argued that witnessing tragic drama simply forces us to experience, even if only on a temporary basis, the dangers of transgression and teaches us a basic cautionary tale at a deep, truly terrifying emotional level. Others interpret Aristotle’s treatment of catharsis to mean that we leave the theatre feeling emotionally spent – the pity and terror of our real lives has been released in theatre, placed on a scape-goat and successfully “dealt with” for a while.

Wisdom is central to Aristotle’s view – we learn from it – often revealing/clarifying things about ourselves that we are not aware of…                                            

Aristotle’s view forms the modern psychological perspective: Unaddressed fears tend to evolve/descend into neurosis and phobia and in order to maintain sanity we must learn that we can overcome terror. In psychoanalysis, catharsis is the release of tension and anxiety that results from bringing repressed feelings and memories into consciousness.                                                                                                                  

Catharsis does have a physical effect – a release… You might also think about how good you feel after you cry.

tom rush

I recently experienced a cathartic moment of my own. . .     

In ‘the good old days’ I used to be out and about a lot! I gave talks, one of which was about writing as a cathartic action. Many people, going through emotional experiences about which they found it difficult to speak, could often write their thoughts and feelings down. They may not share the writings with anyone but feel a relief that their feelings have been released.

Music has played a big part in my life and there are many ‘shades’ of music to suit individual emotions. Listening to any particular piece does affect emotions. I personally find much of Mozart’s music very uplifting. It puts me in a good mood. But I don’t want to expound on classical music at the moment but music with words – songs. I was ‘taught’ to listen to the lyrics of songs, not just jig about to the music. As with many at the present time my emotions are going through the entire range. A few days ago I trawled through my cd collection in the hope of finding something that fitted my mood, although I couldn’t have said what that mood was. I came across a cd I hadn’t listened to for several years – Tom Rush ‘The Circle Game’. Why did I choose that? At the time I couldn’t have told you why. The cd began its random selection. I listened but no reaction came until I heard a guitar intro that I recognised. I immediately felt calm. It wasn’t the words/sentiment of the song which is a ‘loving’ account of a breakup. It was the title. Those of you who know me are aware of my more mature years. They will also know I’m not one for looking back/wishing I’d done something differently. In the present situation Tom Rush’s song said it all for me ‘No Regrets’.

Mary Irvine, 23 February, 2021

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