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.
Goodness 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.
Even 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!