Catharsis: Psychoanalysis and the Theatre

By Vives, Jean-Michel | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, August 2011 | Go to article overview

Catharsis: Psychoanalysis and the Theatre


Vives, Jean-Michel, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


The notion of catharsis, in relation to tragedy, was introduced by Aristotle in his work Poetics. Over the centuries, Aristotle's innovative and enigmatic reference to this process has been widely commented on and given rise to intense controversy. In 1895, Freud and Breuer reconsidered this notion in their Studies on Hysteria, where they present the so-called cathartic therapeutic method. It is not, however, this aspect of psychoanalytical theory that the author of this article seeks to elucidate: drawing on a detailed study of the references to tragic catharsis in the work of Freud and Lacan, the author proposes to examine their implications for psychoanalytic treatment. With specific reference to Freud's article Psychopathic characters on the stage (1905) and Lacan's commentary on Sophocles' Antigone (1960), the author argues that catharsis is to be understood not so much as a mechanism of discharge linked to abreaction, but rather as the actual analytic process itself during which the Subject is 'unveiled' and thus faced with the enigma of his own desire.

Keywords: catharsis, desire, psychoanalytic cure, tragedy, unveiling

Tragedy is an imitation ['representation'2] of an action ... effecting through pity and fear the purgation (catharis) of such emotions.

(Aristotle, 1961, Chapter 6, 49b 28)

The sole reference made by Aristotle to the notion of catharsis in his Poetics poses an enigma: the term 'purification, purgation', borrowed from medical vocabulary, seems to be employed there metaphorically although it is not clear what is being compared. The text of the Poetics is only explicit about the objects of the catharsis ) namely, pity and fear as affects, emotive disorders [pathèmata], which are always presented as distressing in the different chapters where they are discussed. It must be assumed, then, that catharsis resides in the paradoxical and mysterious faculty, characteristic of tragic theatre, of transforming disagreable feelings into pleasure.

This paradox has been a subject of constant controversy among commentators since the Renaissance, when there was a renewal of interest in Aristotle's text, until the present day.

The classical interpretation of humanists as well as that of a large section of classical theorists sees the cathartic process as a strictly moral motive force: by showing the disastrous result of the 'bad' passions, tragic theatre is purported to purge ) or heal ) the spectator of these same passions (whatever they may be, and not just fear and pity). Somewhat dubitative, Corneille (1660, p. 145) asks himself, not without a touch of humour, which passions King Oedipus could possibly purge us of: incest and parricide? Already in the 17th century, then, the moralizing interpretation was seen to be insufficient, and even difficult to reconcile with Aristotle's text.

Another tradition places value on the metaphorical dimension of the notion by interpreting catharsis as a sort of medical treatment: tragic mimesis, in this view, makes us experience purified passions, and pleasure is derived from the almost physical relief felt at the end of this 'homeopathic' treatment. The advocates of this medical interpretation sometimes draw support for it from a passage in another work of Aristotle, Book VIII of the Politics, a passage devoted to the musical education of youth, which likens catharsis to music rather than to poetry. The term now refers to the state of calm recovered by certain spectators after the exaltation aroused by sacred chants: the soul returns to itself as if it had undergone a 'medical cure', and this relief is accompanied by pleasure. Indeed music is presented in the Politics as a 'replica' of the internal states [pathè èthous], and it is the application of this replica which is healing for these very states. Pleasure is linked to the 'discharge' of certain 'humours', an excessive concentration of which is considered as the cause of the pathological disorder. …

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