Catharsis for the Bourgeois

In a commentary on Ethika Nikomacheia by Aristotle, the critic, Andreas Dalezios, points out «… in vain would one look for a declaration of moral commands, addressed to young people, slaves or low-class workers.» The French philosopher, L.Boutroux, also emphasizes «the aristocratic character of Ancient Greek morality, the main propagator of which is Aristotle. He explicitly declares that «Greek wisdom … developed in a sophisticated environment within a circle of a society blessed with wise, well-living, privileged people. Those were free citizens of the Greek city-states … Is it ever possible (he asks) to demand of the masses that, through them, knowledge guides action, that thinking becomes more dominant than emotion and instinct? The masses can never be wise because they are guided by emotion if not by instinct. Therefore, Greek morals are aristocratic, desighned only for the few.»
So, where does the Aristotelian catharsis emanate from? Who defines it and whom does it ultimately concern? There is obviously a latent arbitrariness in the civic attitudes, both in the past and the present. There has also been a given concept as to what constitutes «suffering» (pathemata) and for the necessity for catharsis.
For more than six centuries -from the Middle Ages to the present- critics and philosophers have been writing about catharsis, an issue about which Aristotle, nevertheless, left no comment in his works, those, at least, which have been preserved.Let us examine the four key words in the definition of tragedy in Aristotle’s Poetics:eleos (pity), fovos (fear), pathemata (suffering), and catharsis.

The two emotions that bring about catharsis are :pity (ο or το έλεος), that is, sympathy/empathy, compassion and the personified deity that was worshiped in Athens and Epidaurus and fear(φόβος), the panic of fear, terror, awe for a deity. And all this took place in the play on stage, the drama, a Homeric word from the verb δραίνω (that is :I wish to do something).
And the suffering? Was it misfortune or, according to other interpretations, emotions and sentiments? Is it simply the fall of the sovereign or hero, the fall from power and authority of those governing the fates of people? Is it only the despair of a great queen who sees her country destroyed and her children killed? Is it the unthinkable revenge of a woman of divine descent for the betrayal of her husband? Or is it the ineffable emotion created by anagnorisis of brother and sister, in intensity and quality stronger than what the best thriller can produce? Is it the dilemma between a personal moral choice and that of authority, the civil war and the uprooting of the innocent, the hatred of a mother’s lover, the sorrow of an untimely death, the arrogance of authority, and the human effort to overcome or go beyond mortal boundaries?

All these questions were addressed to and still concern everybody today, those present in the theatre and those absent, the high priests in the sculpted seats of the front rows but also the women and slaves in the last rows of seats, high up in the theatre. They are addressed to the leaders of the world but also to the anonymous crowd that yells, “Butcher them”, for the captives being led into exile along roads literally strewn with bloody, human flesh.
If, therefore, suffering, the action on stage, creates feelings common to everybody, let us consider those feelings in relation to pity and fear. Why through pity? Because there is empathy for the common fate, the fact, that is, that we stand helpless before the illogical or absurd element of our existence, before the unavoidable end? Because we recognize that the action on stage concerns us all? Why through fear? Things become darker at this point, and man fears darkness, maybe because he cannot control it, or maybe because he believes that in darkness lays the “evil unknown” that can annihilate him t any time.

The great artist of the 20th century, who delved into this human darkness, Ingmar Bergman, made a film, From the Life of the Marionettes”, where he talks about it. One of the protagonists, Katarina, says: “There is something you must take seriously! Can’t you see that? There is something menacing going on which we don’t speak about because we have no words. What sort of damned idyll is it we are clutching onto with tooth and nail, though it is hollow and the decay is oozing through all the holes? Why don’t we let all that is black and dangerous come to light? Why do we block up all the exits and pretend it isn’t there? Why don’t we stop hoping for all kinds of political wonders, although we hear the roar getting louder and know that the catastrophe is approaching? Why don’t we shatter a society that is so dead, so inhuman, so crazy, so humiliating, so poisoned? People try to cry out, but we stuff up their mouths with verbiage. The bombs explode, children are torn to pieces, and the terrorists are punished; but for every terrorist that is killed, ten are standing ready-they are invincible because they are in league with a power that we can’t reason with. They are victims like their own victims, just as we are.”

Yet another character, Tim, who is possibly a persona for the artist himself, goes even further: “I bend forward to the mirror and gaze into my face, which is more or less familiar to me, and see that right inside that combination of blood and flesh and bone are two incompatible … I don’t know what to call them … two incompatibles. The dream of nearness, tenderness, fellowship, self-forgetfulness -everything that is alive. And on the other side, violence, filthiness, horror, the threat of death. At times, I think it is one and the same urge. I don’t know. How can I? My dreams were perhaps too beautiful, and as punishment -life slaps you when you least expect it- as punishment you have your orgasm with your nose so far down in the muck that you nearly choke.”
But human beings cannot ignore darkness. In The Bacchae, the god Dionysus triumphs over the rational establishment, who are unable to acknowledge that other dark side. However, the most obvious attempt to explore darkness, to exonerate it, sublimate it, and incorporate it -transformed- in the entity of existence, is possibly the last play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Eumenides.

But let us go back to catharsis Plato in Phaedon (67, c-d) says: Is not, then, catharsis what an old tradition claims?” (This old tradition is the Orphic dictates that the Pythagoreans had accepted.) And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body, … ; the habit of the soul gathering and collecting herself into herself from all sides out of the body; the dwelling in her own place alone, as in another life, so also in this, as far as she can; -the release of the soul from the chains of the body?
Very true, he said.
And this separation and release of the soul from the body is termed death?
To be sure, he said.

The parallel between death and catharsis naturally bears a direct relationship to the etymology of the word -κάτω-αίρω (downward directed)- and refers unquestionably to Heraclitus’ saying: «Οδός άνω κάτω μίη (και ωυτή)»: The road up or down is one and the same.
The allusions bring us from philosophy to religion, and it is these two places, interwoven in a chthonic way from time and eternity that concerns us. Christ says: “I am The Way, The Truth, and The Life,” and St. Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews consolidates this by showing how, through death, Christ vanquished death for all mankind.
Catharsis – the separation of the soul from the constraints of the body then? This presupposes, of course, the existence of a soul. So, if the separation of the soul from the body means death and we accept that, do we then anticipate a “life” of the soul after death? Do we then hope that the apocalypse will happen at that time and in that way? By descending to Hades, “defeating Death by death (Θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας)? What will the apocalypse entail? To whom is or will be granted such an apocalypse? Who will see the darkness disappear? And how is it possible to be talking about catharsis, the recollection of soul, when a play can incur the anger of the audience who punish the writer? Or is this decision taken not by the public but by the annoyed authority?
Why then does neither Plato nor Aristotle finally reveal what catharsis is in essence and exactly how it is achieved? Why do they not describe how the descent into darkness and the surfacing into the Light of Truth are effected? Is it because this catharsis is part of the secret terminology of the few and selected? Is it because, as the Greek philologue, Ioannis Sycoutris, has written in an inspired article on Sophocles’ satyr play, The Ichneutes, that these few and select had decided “the level of an aesthetic and moral development and had developed in laws and rhythms every expression of life from the folds in a dress to the duties of a citizen to his country?”

And the others? Those who belong to the majority or even the masses? Sycoutris once again refers to Ancient Greece, though he could actually be speaking about any bourgeois society. “Serious poetry was deeply embedded in the Athenian soul, they were the people emancipated through upheavals of internal struggle … and had learned to face life with a sense of responsibility and, therefore, refused to negate it. They preferred a compromise. Of the four choruses a poet received from the State, one, the last one, had to be comprised of Satyrs.” The Satyrs, these beings who consider Life the most significant event in the Universe, are pushed to the margins. The “others”, that is, those who refuse to obey the moral order and discipline that sometimes illogically demands the sacrifice of life, those who have accepted darkness too, as the other side of existence, meet the fate of the Ichneutes. Tony Harrison, the British poet-playwright-director, called them The Trackers in his presentation of the homonymous play at Delphi in 1988, and later at the Royal national Theatre in London.
At Delphi, the Satyrs who, according to Tony Harrison, are the creators of folk culture, gentrified and appropriated by the establishment, burnt the papyri of Oxyrhynchus containing fragments of the play, The Ichneutes, and engaged in orgiastic movement to the music of the boom boxes they carried. At the Royal National Theatre of England, directed the play with the Satyrs being the homeless, sleeping in cardboard boxes. At the end of the performance, the homeless emerge from the cardboard boxes and wildly dance an exceptionally rhythmic and horribly noisy traditional clog dance.

Almost all analyses of catharsis take for granted that tragedy is mainly addressed to a sophisticated public on which it exerts psychotherapeutic or moral influence, with some references to important aesthetic characteristics.
In Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Art (London, 1902 p.273) S.H.Butcher writes: “Greek tragedy, indeed, in its beginnings was but a wild religious excitement, a bacchic ecstasy. This aimless ecstasy was brought under artistic law. It was ennobled by objects worthy of an ideal emotion. The poets found out how the transport of human pity and human fear might, under the excitation of art, be dissolved in joy, and the pain escape in the purified tide of human sympathy.”
Nevertheless, “Aristotle, probably first among Greek thinkers, proclaims in his Poetics the necessity of legislation for egalitarian and extensive education in the framework of equality. Equality (he believes) constitutes the foundation and guarantee for social peace. He endeavours to encourage citizens to become important and happy in an important and thriving city.”
But how equal could the philosophers in the agora be or become with the farmers of Acharnes, the women or the slaves? According to E.Papanoutsos, “the all-inclusive relevance of tragic poetry is that it materializes within the framework of human life, either because of unavoidable need or just following the natural flow of events.” However, polemics and the attempt to invalidate the Aristotelian “system” (after Brecht’s alienation theory) came forcefully from Augusto Boal (1932-2009), the Brazilian director and founder of Theater of the Oppressed. In his book of that title, the first and longer chapter is entitled “Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy.” It examines concepts and terms such as mimesis, art, hubris-hamartia, happiness, virtue, justice, catharsis, and intimidation and describes the development of theatre from the general free “song” in an open space to -according to him- the coercive system of tragedy, where the elite establishes dividing lines. In this way, some people can act, some can be protagonists, and others, the chorus, can come from the masses. The rest have no choice but to sit and passively accept what happens on stage. These are the spectators, the crowd, among them the elected rulers, whom Boal forgets to mention.

Nonetheless, even if you have just watched a seminar by Augusto Boal out of professional curiosity, you would have discovered certain things about yourself first of all. You would have soon realized that you were deceiving yourself by claiming you had successfully dealt with smaller or great oppression on a personal or professional level. The Greek poet, Nobel Prize winner, George Seferis, maintained that, at least on a conscious level, the theatre is not the obstetrician of society; that role belongs to the politician.” Boal on the other hand claims that theatre is a weapon because “Of all the arts and sciences, the sovereign art and science is Politics, because nothing is alien to it. Politics has for its field of study the totality of the relationships of the totality of men. Therefore, the greatest good -the attainment of which would entail the greatest virtue- is the political good … tragedy imitates actions that are directed toward the highest goal, the political good. And what is the political good? There is no doubt,: the highest good is the political one, and the political good is justice.” He refers to Ethika Nikomacheia to express his opposition to established justice and the criteria that define it (sex, social status, etc.) thus proving, according to him, that Aristotle’s justice is in essence not equality for all, but a proportionate form of justice since … “the masses live indulging in their passions. As for the (morally) beautiful and in reality rewarding (they) have no idea, since they have never experienced it.”

I would not like to agree with Shakespeare’s Hamlet who says:

“But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn,
No traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action.”
Hamlet, III, I, 78-87

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), Shakespeare’s contemporary, has a very different opinion about the human beings and their capacity to face what Shakespeare calls “The undiscovered Country”.

“Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.”
Tamburlaine: Part One, II, vii, 18-29

Aliki Bacopoulou-Halls
Professor Emeritus
University of Athens