The Power of Catharsis

thoughts orangutan

Ah catharsis- what a painful topic 😉 Put simply, it is the purging or purification of emotions through art. Or to put it even more simply, if we’ve had a good old cathartic cry, then we know a piece of art has done its job… or is that just me? 😉 Naturally, every good story should have some form of catharsis, whether it ends happily or not- yet it is most readily noticeable in tragedies or tragic turns.

On one level, I see it as a way to emote and empathise. Catharsis can be educational; it can teach you to walk in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to see the world through their eyes. Not, of course, in a sensational or gratuitous sense- though such styles are hard to define, we all know melodrama when we see it and can tell if a plot point is empty of substance. No, I’m talking about the stories that really touch us, that make us wonder about the world, that shift our perspective. It’s through these moving stories that we can see there is as much beauty and meaning in sadness as there is in joy.

Yet catharsis, in my view, goes much further than simply helping you see things from someone else’s point of view. Sometimes, I’ve found, catharsis acts as a coping mechanism. Now, this is perhaps a grand and unsubstantiated claim- I can only speak from my own experience after all- but I’ve often sought solace in books to deal with bad experiences. Some wholly disagree with my perspective on this- they say, as I found when I wrote my trigger warnings piece, that people ought to be protected from their traumas or unpleasant memories. While I sympathise with the sentiment, I cannot say I completely agree. Life has its ups and downs and everyone must learn to handle it differently- and sometimes the safest way to do that is through a good book. For many of us, catharsis is a more therapeutic action, a useful tool to get past pain. Sometimes the knowledge is worth having- even if we have to go through a painful experience in order to get it.

thirteen reasons whyGoodness knows, I’m not saying “don’t critique art” (where would I be if that were the case?). However, I do think it would be good to be more mindful about trampling all over something that may bring others peace. Way back when, for instance, I had strong objections to the portrayal of depression and suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why– nevertheless what I have thought more and more since (especially as the show gained notoriety) is how the voices of those it helped get drowned out in the cacophony of criticism. As much as I think it is a good idea to break down the misconceptions that arise from some art, it does not do to negate it entirely.

outlanderEven more so, I notice that there’s a lack of moderation. If a piece of art offends- well then, it must have done something evil and must be destroyed. I feel like objectivity has gone out the window in these cases. Sure, it may not be relatable to your individual experience and it may not be great representation- but sometimes I think we could do with taking a step back. There have been times when I thought a piece of media went too far, though I understood at the time that it was me and my interpretation. It is okay to dislike something without resorting to *ALL OUT WAR*.

Personally, I am against sanitising art, regardless of taste. Making art more palatable robs it of meaning and power. It robs people of their chance to process pain and denies others their chance to understand it. Yes, this may mean there are books out there which make us uncomfortable, that we struggle to digest, that do not sit well- nonetheless, ultimately, we are all better off for their existence. Without these tricky tomes, we may never understand the true power of catharsis.

So, what do you think? Do you believe in the power of catharsis? Or should art be more sanitised? Let me know in the comments!

16 thoughts on “The Power of Catharsis

  1. I’ve definitely read books where I felt better for a good cry, and even gained more perspective on something I’ve never experienced, and often have major issues with people who are quick to criticize the discussion of a topic just because it’s unpleasant. Nonfiction can apparently be as dark and grim as all get-out (for example, every single detail of murder and torture, etc.), but once a serious subject or problem is set in a fictional scenario, somehow it deserves censorship. And this I find far more concerning. And even then, there’s a HUGE disparity between what gets slammed and what doesn’t – honestly, I only had minor issues with 13 Reasons Why (and I have plenty of thoughts on that), but I was absolutely horrified at the graphic descriptions of attempted suicide in A Man Called Ove, and that’s a novel that has had heaps of praise and is recommended all over. Why do people find it really objectionable when it’s a depressed teenager, but not a 60-year-old widower? Maybe they related more to Ove’s “plight”, than Hannah’s actual trauma? That’s the part where my head starts to hurt. 😛

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    1. Ah yes I get what you mean and I agree. And I really do find that happens with Non fic too. That’s a good point about how the same issue can be examined in fiction and then get a much more negative backlash (and even censored). I definitely agree- I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being critical, but it concerns me far more when people try to get books banned or publications cancelled etc. Oh that’s such a good point! Because I often see books that addressed the same issues getting totally different reactions- and to me, the difference in what gets praised and what gets slammed can seem pretty ad hoc.

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  2. I totally agree withyou! I even wrote sometimes in my reviews that the read had been cathartic! I do love a good cry. And as you said it’s more than walking in other’s people shoes. It’s something that resonates so deep inside us that it let lose some powerful emotions.

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  3. Wow, this is SUCH a complex topic. There are so many variations of how and when a reader may need to confront something they have lived through or are living through … or reasons they may not be ready to confront it. And there are many reasons an author or other kind of artist may include horrifying things in their own work. They may be working out their own catharsis, they may be honestly trying to portray the tragedy of everyday life … or they may be trying to shock the reader or to justify their own darker impulses.

    But I do agree with these basic premises:
    the human condition is the proper subject of art and literature
    while comic, the human condition is also unavoidably tragic
    therefore, if an artist makes an honest stab at it, his or her work is going to have some tragedy in it
    if they do a really good job portraying it, this will cause readers to cry, whether or not they have any personal experience with the type of tragedy portrayed
    because all readers are also living in this broken world
    and the proper response to this broken world is a good cry sometimes

    I can’t resist pointing out that the culture that gave us the word and the concept of catharsis is also the culture that gave us the play Oedipus Rex, in which the hero kills his father and marries his mother … who then commits suicide … and Oedipus then blinds himself using the pins from her dress … and all this happens because it was fated to … and yet Oedipus is still at fault. If that’s not the human condition, I don’t know what is. Yet I guarantee no viewer of the play will have been through all that personally.

    Sorry about the long comment. Apparently leaving long comments is my condition. And it’s your fate to be on the receiving end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I found it pretty difficult to write about tbh. And yes that’s true. I personally think only an individual can know what’s right for them, under whatever circumstances they find themselves (I just think that sometimes readers aren’t given the space to make these decisions, cos they’re told that the “correct” thing to do is avoid, which was a huge part of my motivation for this post). And yeah absolutely- it’s really difficult (if not impossible) to tell what an author’s reasoning for doing it (I find the latter pretty troubling tbh, but I try not to assume too much about an author’s life- unless they either a) tell the audience that this wasn’t from their own experience ie thirteen reasons why or b) say it relates to personal experience, as with Ninth House

      Yes absolutely agree with you there.

      Ahh yes absolutely- really good example of the human condition (hehe I should hope no viewer of the play has been through that!)

      Haha no worries- it’s always appreciated! I love your long comments! ❤

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  4. I do have the sense that, collectively, we’ve lost sight of the fact that art may have some parts that make us uncomfortable or that we even find offensive, but that does not necessarily mean the whole thing should be thrown out/burned. There are plenty of stories I enjoy that have scenes or descriptions or even throwaway lines that I find distasteful or even offensive. But, I have to ask myself, does a throwaway line about women, for example, mean the whole 300-page book is bad? Arguably, we shouldn’t have to work to overlook things like that. However, I do think we can find value in works of art that aren’t entirely aligned with our values and worldviews. We can take the good away from them. And we can acknowledge that people will react differently to different works of art, but that doesn’t have to discredit any one person’s reactions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes I agree- I’ve found that the response to so much difficult art nowadays is just to condemn and avoid it. And yes I agree with you. I get what you mean- personally I prefer to just acknowledge such things in reviews (so that I’m not overlooking it, but at the same time I like to try and take the context into consideration, even if it makes me uncomfortable). And that’s true. Absolutely!

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  5. Yet ANOTHER post that where I find myself nodding emphatically as I make my way through each sentence. You’re spot on!! Sanitising art certainly takes away much of its power, misses the entire point, and belittles the piece. Unfortunately, I think our society has gone backwards in many ways when it comes to this area, and it can only do more harm than good in the long run :/

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never thought of it as ‘sanitation’ more censorship – and I am utterly against it. I think people should avoid what they want to, without the need to stop anyone else from making up their own minds.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Art should not be sanitised and sometimes, it is meant to make you uncomfortable. You’re right, everyone interprets things differently.

    Liked by 1 person

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