Catharsis in Ritual, Tragedy, and Performance-Art
The term ‘Catharsis‘ – Greek for ‘purification‘ – has undergone countless changes since antiquity. The most famous treatise on catharsis stems from Aristotle.
In his ‘Poetics‘ Aristotle wrote about the cathartic effect of Greek tragedy. The tragedy causes a ‘catharsis‘ through ‘Eleos‘ (‘pity‘) and ‘Phobos‘ (‘fear‘), which are triggered in the spectator by the fate of the tragic hero.
All of Aristotle’s interpretations basically agreed on this still rather a vague statement. The ‘Poetics‘ as achromatic writing was not meant for a larger audience. In fact, it was a script for the lecture before students of the philosophical school of Aristotle. It is characterized by its difficult legibility as well as omissions. Therefore it leaves a great deal of room for interpretations.
In addition, the concept of catharsis existed long before Aristotle. The tragic catharsis described by Aristotle has its origins in religious and ritual acts of purification.
“One should bear in mind that Aristotle clearly lived after the three great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and that between the heyday of the Attic tragedy in the 5th century B.C. and the lifetime of Aristotle lies a turning point in time […] There are therefore legitimate doubts as to whether Aristotle accurately reflects the nature of the tragedy.”1
The tragedy was part of the ‘Dionysia‘ at the time of its creation. Athenians celebrated this festival in honor of the god Dionysus annually in ancient Greek. It developed from ritual choral hymn songs ‘Dithyrambs‘, ‘Satyr plays‘, dance, and sacrificial rituals. The fact that the first tragedies – as unique gifts to the god of metamorphosis – were only performed once each time, also points to the ritual character of the tragedy.
“The nameless ‘mighty hunter’ – Zagreus, [a pre-Dionysian hero] […], early on found a large community of orgiastic followers in Boeotia and Attica, as well as in other Greek regions and perhaps even on the islands, until his cult became a tributary of the victorious religion of Dionysus.”2
Representation of human existence
In Aristotles’ interpretation and his description of the impact of tragedy, however, this religious, cultic context of interpretation already begins to fade. In Aristotle’s time, theology gave way to ethics. “Tragedy becomes an exemplary portrayal of human existence, in so far as it is decided in man’s own, self-responsible act.”3 Nevertheless, conclusions can be drawn from the Aristotelian concept of catharsis as to the cultic origin of the ‘purification’ that is to take place in the tragedy.
Pity and fear
The question of what catharsis purifies the spectator was a hotly disputed topic in the interpretations of Aristotelian Poetics‘.
A very influential interpretation of the Aristotelian catharsis theory in the Age of Enlightenment and beyond came from the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He declared, that the decisive tragic pathos was pity. Moreover, Lessing assigned a moral purpose to tragedy. He saw the cathartic effect of the tragedy in the fact that it leads pity and fear to the right extent.
Bernays’ discharge theory
Another interpretation, very influential in the psychology of the 19th and 20th centuries, is also based on the view that the affects of pity and fear themselves are to be purified by catharsis. This is what critics sarcastically call ‘Bernays theory of purge‘. According to Jacob Bernays, catharsis, as in homeopathic medicine, intensifies certain affects and thereby causes a relieving discharge of the same affects.
Pathema and Pathos
“The medical interpretation retains […] the homeopathic principle of catharsis recognized by Lessing […], but refused to consider catharsis as purification, instead it is understood as purgation, as the expulsion of a disturbing substance. […] The distinction that makes his interpretation ‘pathological’ […], is that of ‘pathos’ as ‘affect’ and of ‘pathema’ as ‘affection’. He understands affection as a chronic tendency of a person to have an affective outburst. Affect, on the other hand, is the unexpected and temporary phenomenon.”4
Jacob Bernays, Henry Weil, and Hermann Baumgart like Johann Wolfgang Goethe, deny tragedy any ethical effect:
“Tragedy is the imitation of an action that purifies itself through compassion and fear of the imperfect manifestations of these feelings.”5
But how can the tragic activation of compassion and fear purify them ‘homeopathically‘?
Parallel to Jakob Bernays, Henry Weil had developed a similar but far less influential theory of the removal of affects. He was the first of the modern interprets to consider that tragedy could be about the purification of the spectator through pity and fear.
“There is certainly nothing grammatically wrong with the fact that pathematon [the two ‘affects’ pity and fear that affect the audience] can be just as much genetiv subjectivus as genetiv objectivus.”6
The ‘genetiv subjectivus‘ refers to the author of action. In this case, pity and fear would be the causes of something else. In Greek, the context indicates the function of the genetiv. However, in this case, the context itself must first be established. Therefore, the question, of what the cathartic effect of pity and fear might refer to, can only be figured out by other evidence. According to P. Manns, ‘pathema‘ is the cause of ‘pathos‘ (of suffering). ‘Pathema‘ is the changing, ‘pathos‘ the changed or changeable.
In the ‘Politeia‘ (VIII. 7) Aristotle explains how the ‘Korybant-mania‘ or ‘bacchanalian frenzy‘ could be tempered by ecstatic, passionate flute melodies. After all, his followers worshipped Dionysos as ‘Hiatros kai Katharsios‘ (‘the purifier through enthusiasm‘) even before the birth of tragedy. The first actors were called ‘Tragoi‘ (bucks), as Dionysos’ orgiastic worshippers, to whom Aristoteles is referring here. This shows, once more, that tragedy has developed directly from the Dionysian cults.
Aristotle’s explanation of musical catharsis led to the view that catharsis in tragedy works as in homeopathic medicine. However, one could, as P. Manns, also interpret it exactly in the opposite way, not as ‘homeopathic‘ but as ‘allopathic‘ purification.
Plato compares the healing of the ‘Korybantes‘ with the procedure of the nurses when children cannot sleep. They do not accompany the children to sleep through rest and silence. Rather they are cradling them in their arms and singing a melody to them.
“He [Platon] attributes both emotions to feelings of fear […] and explains: ‘If one now gives them a push from outside, the [uniform] movement brought about from outside triumphs over the inner fearful and insane one, and thus brings about calm, so that some find sleep, but others [the Dionysian worshippers], […] get out of the insane mood into a reasonable state by dancing and playing the flute with the help of the gods to whom they worshipped.”7
In this way, one movement balances and brings to rest another movement that is completely different from it. An ordered, regular movement (the weighing or the rhythm of the melody) counters another, disordered, disorderly movement. The balanced center between the opposites finally brings about rest.
If the means of catharsis in the tragedy are pity and fear, these, according to P. Manns, have a balancing effect on the ‘Pathé’ opposite to them. They have an affect on selfishness and arrogance, which the Greeks called ‘Hubris‘ (presumptuousness, overconfidence).
The serious, poignant plot of the tragedy – the suffering of the tragic hero – should provoke pity in the audience. But it should also turn the spectator’s heart to suffering humanity‘ (P. Manns), and purify him/her from selfish aspirations.
The fear that the spectator feels in the face of the heroine’s terrible fate should remind him/her of the fragility of his/her own fate. In this way, it counteracts pride and arrogance, according to the ancient conception.
Effeminacy through compassion?
Plato accused tragedy of making people soft by arousing an excess of pity and fear. However, arguments like this ignore the fact, that exaggerated pathetic excitement is necessary to counter egoism with a similar intensity.
“These tears of pity and fear do not enervate, they only make the action milder and more level-headed. The arousal of the affect must be a potentiated one so that the effect can be lasting and charitable for life outside the theatre, so that the spectator does not, as Goethe wants, find himself just as lovelessly in his flat as when he left it.”8
The effect of this battle of opposing affects is ‘virtue‘, the side effect ‘Hedone‘ (‘joy‘). For these effects to occur, the plot of the tragedy must have a consistent structure. The spectator feels pity and fear only when the events, although unexpected, are in a logical sequence.
Peripeteia und Anagnorisis
“The turning point (from happiness to misfortune) can occur either with or without ‘peripeteia‘ (‘transformation’) or ‘anagnorisis‘ (‘recognition’) [when Jocasta recognizes Oedipus as her son and he recognizes her as his mother]. Peripetia means that an intention to act turns into its opposite, for example, an act intended to help, which triggers a catastrophe.”9
The tragic character
However, Aristoteles not only described exactly how to structure the plot of the tragedy in order to captivate the audience emotionally. Furthermore, he explained what character the hero should have so that the audience can feel pity and fear for him/her.
On the one hand, the characters of a tragedy must not appear too flawless. Or else, their tragic fate would seem unjustified. It would not cause pity, but complete discouragement or indignation, even horror, in the spectator. On the other hand, they should not be too corrupt either. Otherwise, they would not arouse any pity at all. “Thus the demand for tragic guilt grows out of catharsis teaching itself with logical rigor.”10 Aristotles’ lesser-known doctrine of ‘Hamartia‘ (‘tragic guilt‘), is a direct consequence of his catharsis doctrine. So how does this tragic guilt arise?
The failure of the tragic character does not lie in a tangible violation of the law. Rather, it consists of disregarding the unwritten laws (‘Eikos‘).
‘Epieikes‘ in Greek means: to look not at the letter of the law but at its meaning; not at the act itself but at the intention behind the act; not at the individual act but at the context of the act. The common good is the focus of the unwritten laws. Tragic heroes/heroines fall into misfortune precisely because they act against these unwritten laws for valid reasons. The hero/ine of the tragedy violates ‘Eikos‘ by misjudging the situation and thinking s/he is doing right.
The unfortunate outcome of the tragedy must appear undeserved to the spectators so that they can identify with the tragic character.
‘Hamartia‘, tragic guilt, thus, arises from actions committed in a state of delusion. The hero/ine in this state overlooks warning signs or ignores essential aspects of the unwritten law. Through their immoderation, the blinded tragic heroes upset the order of the social fabric.
“For the Greeks, delusion is generally seen as the beginning of the chain of events, which then results in self-harm and harm to others. Blinding always means an impairment of the organ of reason, the Phrenes.”11
In a state of delusion, the person becomes unable to correctly assess a situation and act accordingly. While mythological tales, such as the ‘Iliad‘ still consider ‘divine arbitrariness‘ as the cause of blindness, later, in the course of the moralization of the Greek religion, ‘self-blame‘ takes its place.
However, the deluded actions of the tragic characters, which cause this disturbance of order, are, according to Daniel Hug, regarded as ‘impurity’. Thus, the tragic fate has to ‘purge’ this ‘impurity’ as an act of compensation, so that the situation can be rectified.
The blinded hero/ine experiences a situation, in which s/he makes a fateful mistake. In this way, s/he loads ‘Hamartia‘ onto her/himself. Subsequently, in the course of the tragedy, her/his tragic end ‘forcibly purges’ this guilt.
However, tragic guilt is not limited to the title role, secondary characters can also be involved in it. The catharsis, therefore, does not only happen in the audience but already on stage, in the tragic character. At the climax of the plot – short before the downfall of the hero/ine – the spectators recognize the hero/ine’s and their own delusion. Therefore, tragic catharsis can be seen as a ‘pathetic‘, emotional and existential realization.
Allowance to be seized
“The [tragedy specific] process of reception takes on an affective meaning through the recipient’s ability and willingness to allow himself to be seized by the suffering of the tragic hero. The perceived resemblance to the hero leads to the fact that the suffering, recognized in the hero, is perceived as threatening to his or her own person. […] A part of his [own] delusion is revealed to the recipient and he is startled at the idea of the damage his deluded action is causing him.”12
Etymologically, the term ‘catharsis‘ can be traced back to ritual purification by the atonement (‘Katharmos‘). But what form and function did the sacrifice have in the ritual?
In ‘Violence and the Sacred‘ René Girard makes a daring thesis that will be difficult to digest for modern advocates of the nonviolent attitude. He claims that sacrificial rituals are repetitions of a lynching that allowed to restore order in the community.
“The originating violence is unique and spontaneous. The sacrifice rituals, on the other hand, are manifold. They are repeated on to excess. Everything that escapes the originating violence – place and time of sacrifice, selection of the victims – is determined by the people themselves in the sacrificial rite. The rites have the tendency to regulate everything that evades the rule.”13
In other words, the rite of sacrifice should protect the archaic community from the violence that was rampant as a result of mutual vendetta.
According to Girard, the first spontaneous sacrificial act of a scapegoat is often implicit in the founding myth as the killing of a mythical creature. This mythical sacrifice was not only conceived as the founding act of the cultural order but also as the source of all fertility.
Conciliation through sacrifice
Hence, by the sacrificial and unanimous violence against a victim, the members of the community intend to unite, reconcile and purify from violence. The sacred dehumanizes violence and thus liberates the person from it. It, thus, turns it into a transcendent threat that can be averted by (sacrificial) rituals.
“Because we play down the danger of revenge, we do not know what the sacrifice might be used for. We never think about how societies without criminal law can keep violence under control that we no longer even notice. Our misjudgment forms a close system. Nothing can refute it. We do not need religion to solve a problem we do not even know exists.”14
The atonement thus actually served the purpose of preventive reconciliation. With the ‘Katharmos‘ members of the community purified themselves from violence when they were contaminated by it. According to Girard, this was to prevent violence from spreading throughout the community and endangering the peaceful order.
The anthropologist Victor Turner speaks of the ‘Communitas‘ that arises from the ritual. The ritual community dissolves all differences between the participants for a short time. According to Rene Girard, this dissolution of all differences in the ‘liminal‘ threshold phase of the ritual is the ritualistic repetition of the ‘Sacrifice Crisis‘. It is the ritual re-staging of the de-differentiation that led to the first mythical sacrifice. For in times when – during a civil war, for instance – violence actually prevails, all cultural differences become irrelevant.
Violent death by revenge stops – as an infectious disease – at no one, thereby destroying all cultural differences. According to René Girard, the ritual sacrifice is not performed in order to pacify a deity. Rather, the sacrifice has the real function of channeling the potential violence, of restoring differences, and with them, order:
“The sacrifice […] replaces all the members of society and is offered to all the members of society by all its members. […] [It] protects the whole community from its own violence, it directs the whole community towards other victims outside itself. Sacrifice draws the ubiquitous tendency to discord onto the victim and at the same time disperses them by partially appeasing them.”15
The sacred as a threat
From countless myths and rituals around the world, it is clear that the ‘sacred‘ not only holds ‘salvation‘. Rather it implicates ‘disaster‘, namely the threat of uncontrolled violence. The sacred poses a danger, which one cannot look into the eyes with impunity. The sacred therefore always has a double face: it is a ‘salvific disaster‘. The sacrificial order considered violence, as well as everything connected with it – blood, death, decay, returning warriors, any connection with the realm of the dead – as contagious.
Societies that did not yet have an independent judiciary rightly considered violence as contagious. Since the clan of the murdered person would avenge any act of violence.
“The obligation not to shed blood is not really separate from the obligation to avenge the blood that had been shed. Thus, to put an end to revenge, to put an end to wars today, it is not enough to convince people of the abhorrence of violence. Precisely because they are convinced of it, they make it their duty to avenge violence.”16
The contamination with violence or involvement in a vendetta imposed a tabu on anyone, involved in it. In other words, he had to be evacuated like a contagious. Otherwise, his violence would trigger a collective ‘revenge frenzy’ in the community.
Pharmakon: poison and cure
Thus the sacrifice banned the danger of epidemic violence and restored the peaceful order. But the victim of the sacrifice could not be from the own community. Otherwise, his/her relatives would have to take revenge. ‘Pharmakon‘ in Greek means ‘poison‘ and ‘evil‘ as well as ‘antidot‘ and ‘remedy‘. The sacrifice became the cure for the contagion of violence.
Taboo through violence
‘Pharmakos‘ described the person tabooed by violence: the ordinary murderer, the marginalized, the stranger. But even the priest who made the sacrifice was not allowed to be touched after the sacrificial rite. He was either banished temporarily or not allowed to leave the temple.
To do violence to a person contaminated by violence, would mean to let oneself be infected by violence. Therefore the community exposed the Pharmakon to a situation that s/he could not survive. Only s/he her/himself should be responsible for her/his death. They for instance abandoned her/him to the open sea or on top of a mountain; forced her/him to throw her/himself off a cliff, or exposed her/him to wild animals.
“In a world where the slightest conflict, like a minor injury to a hemophiliac, can have devasting consequences, sacrifice leads the aggressive tendencies towards real or imagined, animate or inanimate victims. [Since they] must never be thought to ever be avenged, and […] are without exception neutral and sterile on the level of revenge. […] The sacrifice prevents the germ of violence from developing.”17
In preparation for animal sacrifices, the community usually ‘sacralized‘ bulls, oxen, or goats by treating them in the same way as the ‘pharmakoi‘. During the ‘buphonies‘ in Athens for instance, the animals, after being separated from the herd and fattened, were driven around the city. But because nobody could avenge them, they were beaten, abused, and ridiculed by passers-by, since the animals should soak up the violence of the whole community like a sponge before being sacrificed.
Apathic and Pathic Gods
By their death, they should transform the dangerously contagious violence into peace and fertility. Thus, they were ritually purifying the community. The priests and priestesses in charge of the rite were consecrated to one god or goddess alone. They belonged either to all or to none.
The strict separation between the ritual realms of the Olympic, ‘apathetic’ heavenly gods, and the ‘pathic‘, ‘chthonic‘ gods of the underworld, was also due to the impurity of everything related to death.
The sacrificial ritual can be seen as the origin of the tragedy, as it ‘performs’ a myth. “Both artistic and ritual performances emerge from careful staging, both can work with script templates and samples as well as improvisations, both are capable of constituting reality and also entertaining their audience; both provide the possibility for actors and spectators alike to have their own role change.“18
Nevertheless, the first Greek tragedy already has something of an anti-ritual about it. “ If the tragedy has an excessive cathartic effect, […] then it only owes it to the anti-ritual moment of its original inspiration.”19
The tragedy does not repeat the myth like a ritual, but ‘deconstructs‘ it up to a certain degree. Moreover, it reveals the violence which usually remains hidden in the myth. According to René Girard, the tragic catharsis still revolves around the founding violence. This was the case although, or precisely because, the sacrificial order was already withdrawing.
“If one studies the Aristotle text a little more intensively, one can easily see that in a certain way it resembles a true sacrifice’s manual. […] So that it [the sacrifice] can polarize and purify the passions, it […] must at the same time be similar and dissimilar to all members of the community – at the same time, near and far, the same and the other, the double and the sacred difference.“20
Rene Girard refers here to the characteristics established by Aristotle for the qualities of tragic heroes. According to Girard, in many tragedies, the verbal battles between two heroes of about the same strength stand out. They embody in perfect symmetry – in the form of the ‘Stichomythia‘ – the mimesis of rival violence. From Rene Girard’s mimetic perspective, tragic hubris is the will to always be right.
This overconfidence is the force that draws the rival opponents deeper and deeper into the tragic conflict:
“Everyone first believes they are able to cope with the violence. But it is the violence that gradually overwhelms all protagonists and draws them into a game of violent reciprocity without their knowledge. […] Everyone sees in the other the usurper of legitimacy that he believes he is defending and yet constantly weakens.”21
Ritual alert scream
In other words, tragedy does not veil sacrificial violence as it is done in myth. On the contrary, it is becoming her subject. Euripides ‘Medea‘, for instance, prepares the death of her children, who fall victim to her anger and vengefulness like a priestess prepares a sacrifice.
“Before the sacrifice, as is the custom, she emits the ritual warning; she orders anyone whose presence could jeopardize the success of the ceremony to withdraw. Medea […] introduces us to the elementary truth of violence. If the need for violence is not met, it continues to accumulate until the moment when it becomes excessive and pours devastatingly into its surroundings.“22
Crisis of the ritual
While the sacrificial rite should protect against the risk of contagion by violence. Tragedy warns against violence by depicting the mimetic dynamics of its emergence. Hence, according to Rene Girard, tragedy reveals her roots in the crisis of the ritual. In contrast to the ritual, the tragedy form creates a meta-level on which the rite can be critically ‘negotiated’.
Many tragedies are exactly addressing a failure of the sacrifice. The sacrificial violence takes a fatal turn and leads even more to an outbreak of violence.
In Euripides ‘Children of Heracles‘, the hero wants to make a sacrifice in order to purify himself of his violent heroic deeds. But he gets himself into the dreaded bloodlust through the violent act of sacrifice. He ‘sacrifices’ his closest family – wife, and children – whom he actually wanted to protect by purifying.
‘King Oedipus‘ by Sophokles becomes the victim of the scapegoat mechanism. The search for a culprit for the outbreak of the plague falls back on the seeker himself.
“While theater maintains a mirror’s distance from life, its proximity to life is the reason why it is the most appropriate form of commentary or meta-commentary in terms of conflict. Because life is conflict and competition is only a sub-species of conflict.”23
Distrust against the sacrificial ritual
Tragedy no longer blindly trusts the sacrifice as a preventive measure to avoid violence. Aeschylus‘ ‘Eumenides‘ (a part of the ‘Oresteia‘) thematize the reason for this new distrust of the sacrificial ritual. Around the time the tragedy was born, the Greek city-states, especially Athens, established an independent judiciary.
“Historians agree that Greek tragedy belongs to a time of transition from an archaic religious order to a subsequent modern state and judicial order.“24
Erinyes and Eumenides
Mythologically, this fundamental social change is expressed in the transformation of the dreaded ‘Erinyes‘ (goddesses of revenge) into ‘Eumenides‘ (goddesses of justice). Consequently, human sacrifices thus lost their justification – even if they had not yet completely disappeared.
“The judiciary averts the threat of revenge. It does not cancel vengeance; rather, it limits them to a single retaliation […]. The decisions of the judicial authority always assert themselves as the last word of vengeance. […] There is no fundamental difference between private and public revenge. But on a social level, the difference is enormous: revenge is no longer avenged; the process has come to an end; the danger of escalation has been averted.“25
Tragedy: ritual-critical deconstruction of the myths
With this greater certainty, the tragedy poets were able to adopt a more courageous, ritual-critical attitude towards the myth. They could deal more freely with the subject matter of myth than would have ever been possible in the fearful and conservative sacrificial ritual system. By transferring the executive power to the state, there was no longer any fear of falling back into the violent chaos of vengeance due to the smallest ritual transgression.
Relief from the ritual duty
As a result, the ‘anti-ritual’ tragedy could formally develop much more quickly than an ordinary ritual. The legal system received the conservative task of maintaining order. However, the tragedy has not lost its political impact through the removal of this conservative load.
On the contrary: it was precisely through this division of labor between the art and legal spheres that the critical and rebellious potential of art was able to develop fully. In the legal system, the ritual has survived to some extent. Against all appearances, religion has by no means lost its relevance to the judiciary:
“Just as the sacrifices are in principle offered to and accepted by a deity, so the judicial system invokes a theology that guarantees the truth of its justice. This theology can even disappear, as it has disappeared from our world, and yet the transcendence of the system remains intact. […] Centuries pass before humanity realizes that there is no difference between its legal principle and the principle of revenge.“26
Since René Girard wanted to work out the mimetic contagion of rivalry in tragedy, he particularly emphasized the ‘agonal‘ or combative principle in his characterization of tragic art. However, Vjaceslav Ivanovic Ivanov pointed out, that the agonal conflict is already representing a derivation of the ‘Dyas‘.
The ‘Dyas‘ characterizes the conflictual dichotomy that is unique to humans: the tension between his/her physical needs and the striving to participate in the divine; between mortality and the longing for infinity; between self-glorification and humility, selfishness and love. The resolution of the inner, tragic conflict forces people either to cast themselves off, to ‘transform themselves from the ground up, or to perish‘.
“The basic Pathos [of tragedy] […] can be rooted in the stirring experience of the crack, in the dark and empty abyss between two near but incongruous edges, in the feeling of the hidden and irreconcilable contradictions of the psyche, whose gap will gently uncover the secret of being […] This art has to shake and educate the soul – through a holy shiver.”27
Multiplication of heroes
In the first tragedies there was only one actor, and therefore only one heroine. “Aeschylus increased the number of actors to two and reduced the number of choirs. Sophocles added the third actor and the stage designs.“28 Thus, before this multiplication of heroes, one individual hero or heroine must have represented the inner conflict that arises from the mental division described by Ivanov so poetically.
The female soul of tragedy
“The tragic energy increases when the dyas is expressed in the tragic character itself – it is weakened […] when it is transferred to the relationships of the people involved, or to the situation. Real tragedy requires that the hero be tragic in nature; such a character will inevitably turn the situation into a tragic one too.”29
However, the inner contradiction of the ‘Dyas‘ presupposes unity. Ivanov conceived this inner-spiritual split with simultaneous unity, emerging much more clearly in female characters than in male ones. Ivanov, therefore, attributed a ‘female soul‘ to tragedy.
Maenad and Monad
“The tragedy is a maenad […]. The action takes place between God and the woman who is enthusiastic about him and who is represented by the choir; the ancient choir felt like one person. […] In her ecstasy she [the maenad] finds herself and this finding in power is a feeling of painful and intoxicating psychological spasm. The woman discovers two souls, two wills, and two instincts. […] [Her conflict arises from a] revolt against the [male, Apollonian] monad.“30
Since the male hero as an individual is not so suitable for the ‘female soul’ of tragedy, the disempowerment of the Dionysian ‘maenad‘ by the Apollonian ‘monad‘ (the male hero) leads to those rivaling doubles that René Girard describes.
Expansion of the conflict
Finally, the conflictual ‘Dyas‘ expresses itself in a collective. In the distance from the Dionysian ‘Dyas‘ – through the penetration of the tragedy with the masculine, Apollonian principle (or through the expansion of the conflict to several characters) – the tragedy could develop into the art form that has survived on to this day.
According to the Pythagorean theory of numbers, the ‘Monas‘ or the principle of unity was assigned to the male. The ‘Dyas‘ on the other side was assigned to the feminine as suffering but also moved and boundless deviation principle. This assignment obviously assumes that the agent is always aware of his intention. Which just doesn’t apply to tragedy.
However, one does not have to carry out the essentialist assignment of the conflict to the female gender. The notion, that the conflict becomes even more tragic when it initially occurs in the individual is understandable even without this gender ascription.
In the tragedy, the heroine, blinded by her inner conflict, creates her suffering precisely through her own immoderate action. According to the Pythagorean theory of numbers, the ‘Monas‘ is that which is equal to itself. The ‘Dyas‘ on the other hand is not only unequal to itself; it rather stands for both, deficiency and excess. It is the liminal principle, the dynamic difference between the surpassing on the one hand and the surpassed on the other.
Ivanov spoke of the ‘Dyas‘ because the hero/ine suffers an inner conflict or split. Her/his actions emerge from an internal discord that expands into a conflict with other characters. Hence, this internal contradiction is by no means in contrast to the conflict between the individual and others. One all too often leads to the other.
The birth of tragedy from the spirit of music
Friedrich Nietzsche describes in his work ‘The Birth of Tragedy‘ the long struggle between the Dionysian and the Apollonian principles. From their ‘marriage alliance,‘ the tragedy finally emerged – as a ‘child‘.
As the title of his treatise suggests, Nietzsche assumes a ‘birth of tragedy out of the spirit of music‘. Ancient Greek culture drew a quite strict separation between the Olympic and Chthonian cult spheres. Likewise, in Greek music, there was a separation between two styles: the ‘kitharian‘ and the ‘auletic‘.
The tonality of the tragedy
The ‘kitharian‘ music, the accompaniment of the sung heroic epics with the lyre, strove for measure and balance. It should bring about courage. Whereas the ‘auletic‘ flute music had a plaintive, wistful, but also enthusiastically exciting character. These two musical moods correspond to the Apollonian and Dionysian spheres.
Apollo expresses himself through the kitharian style: clarification of consciousness, the concentration of will, mental armament to ward off danger, and self-control. Whereas the chthonic, pathetic, enthusiastic, Dionysian sphere corresponds to the auletic music style.
“The relationship between the tragedy and the epic is determined by its tone. […] It is not just a dramatization of the epic, but a translation or transposition of it into another key, that we could compare with the ‘minor’. The change in key brought with it a new form – the dramatic.”31
As a Dionysian chant, the ‘Dithyrambos‘ united the two poles of enthusiasm. It reached from celebration to ecstatic mourning and was interspersed with disharmonious calls.
The tragedy emerged from the ‘dithyrambic‘ choir, which was accompanied by the ‘choreut‘ (the lead singer). According to Ivanov, proto-tragedy still mixed tragic mourning with the exuberance of the satyr play. “The religion of Dionysus includes both pathos and catharsis, and this is where it differs from the purely Chthonian religion [which is based solely on the cult of the dead].“32
Choir of the goats
The satyrs, chthonian demons, and companions of the hero from the realm of the underworld brought with them an influx of new life forces from ‘fertile Hades‘. The Satyr choir is, in contrast to the audience, completely caught up in the vision of the tragic events on the stage. The Satyrs believe that these scenes are their reality. Therefore, Nietzsche was enthusiastic about Schiller’s idea that the ‘choir of the goats‘ (‘tragoi choroi‘) formed a human wall; a screening off the sacred space of the tragic scene from the profane reality.
“The dithyrambic choir is a chorus of transformed people in whom their bourgeois past, their social position has been completely forgotten: they have become the timeless servants of their god, living outside of all social spheres. […] This enchantment is the prerequisite for dramatic art.“33
Mother-womb of the tragedy
The choir parts, which form the Dionysian and musical womb of the tragedy, ‘discharge’ themselves, according to Nietzsche, in the Apollonian imagery of the scene. The dramatic scenes are externalizations of a ‘Dionysian state‘ and the choir is the embodiment of the ‘Dionysian excited crowd‘. With his ‘pathetic‘ chant he serves to stimulate the emotions of the audience.
“The rapture of the Dionysian state with its annihilation of the usual barriers and limits of existence contains […] during its duration a lethargic [inhibiting] element into which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. In this way, the world of the every day and the Dionysian reality is separated from one another by this chasm of oblivion. But as soon as that everyday reality comes to consciousness again, it is felt as such with disgust.“34
Disgusting insight into the absurdity of existence
The Dionysian ‘insight into the horrible reality‘, into the gap of the inner conflict, inhibits the drive to act. Apollonian catharsis tames the ‘disgust‘ that follows the overpowering through the tragic conflict. That inhibiting ‘disgust for the absurdity of existence’ arises from the impossibility of demarcation and dedifferentiation; it results from the eerie attraction of this abysmal conflict.
But rescue is near: the aesthetic distance robs the Dionysian experiences of the overwhelming. This distance defuses it and turns it into a ‘sublime vision‘.
According to Nietzsche, the sublime is the ‘artistic taming‘ of the terrible. Due to the aesthetic distance, the abyss moves into the distance. At the beginning of the development of the tragedy, the comical satyr play ended the theater evening as aftermath. It discharged the conflicted feelings through humor.
Dionysian and Apollonian drives
The hero/ine’s suffering arises from the conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian instincts. “In the attempt to step beyond the spell of individuation and to be the one world-essence himself, he suffers the primal contradiction hidden in things, that is, he is wicked and suffers.“35
Individuation reveals itself in tragedy as an abyss. Therefore the tragic hero/ine represents the peak of human self-assertion. However, the excess and ‘hubris‘ of the tragic hero/ines show, that all these heroes/heroines are only masks of Dionysus. Behind the masks is none other than the god of transformation himself.
Chthonic God of suffering
It is also Dionysus who conjures up the hero/ine and his/her chthonic companions, the ‘satyrs‘, from ‘Hades‘. As ‘Psychopompos‘ he leads the hero/ines, after the performance of their fate, back into the realm of the dead. Thus, Dionysus‘ power frees the living and the dead and allows them to wander around in strange envelopes. The ancient Greeks, therefore, called him the ‘redeemer of souls‘.
Dionysian catharsis did not banish shadows from the community of the living. On the contrary, it let the living share otherworldly inspirations and released them purified and more alive than ever before:
“The assimilation to the chthonic God, […] his inclusion in himself [enthousiasmos], that is the content of the cultic pathos, the holy endurance of divine suffering. The result – the fullness of the grace is ‘purification ‘, ‘catharsis’.“36
However, according to Nietzsche, the fact that Dionysus can appear entangled in the ‘web of individual will’ with this clarity, is only due to the Apollonian powers of vision and interpretation. The over-distant Apollonian principle balances out the under-distant pathos of the Dionysian.
The aesthetic distance that results from this balance ensures that the audience is still able to deal with the pathos. In this way, the Apollonian principle enables tragic catharsis.
“The drama […] as a whole achieves an effect that lies beyond all Apollonian artistic effects. […] Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo finally speaks the language of Dionysus, with which the highest goal of tragedy and art, in general, is achieved.”37
Pathos must prevail in tragedy. This is not only true because it is a mourning ritual for mythical heroes/heroines. The cathartic task of tragedy is to create pathos in the audience. Without sympathy and living through emotions, no catharsis is possible. The Apollonian principle only ensures the balanced distance to pathos so that it does not overwhelm the viewer.
Dionysus is both, sacrifice and sacrifier. Similarly, the tragic hero/ine is on the one hand suffering precisely due to his/her deluded ‘hubris‘ and on the other hand, infecting the audience with his/her tragic pathos. Thus, as a ‘pathematon‘, s/he creates empathy in the audience.
As the ‘goat’, consecrated to Dionysus, the actor voluntarily becomes the scapegoat ‘of the entire theater community‘ – actors, choir, and audience.
S/he evokes the hero/ine’s spirit through his/her mask and costume (as in the memorial service). ‘Obsessed’ by the tragic character, the actor as a ‘scapegoat’ let the choir and the audience live through the tragic scenes together.
“The empathy, especially the empathy for different characters, as it can be accomplished in the course of the performance, can be understood as a trial, taking over and acting out new roles and identities and in this sense as a threshold experience [like in an initiation rite].“38
United in Pathos, the theater community experiences a transformative threshold state in which, as in the ‘sacrifice crisis‘, all differences melt away.
In his description of the social importance of theater, Max Herrmann, the founder of the first institute for theater studies in Germany, shows clear parallels to René Girards’ characterization of the community-creating sacrificial ritual.
“[The] original sense of theater […] is that the theater was a social play – everyones’ play for everyone. A play in which all are participants – participants and observers. […] The audience is, so to speak, the creator of theatrical art. […] There is always a social community in the theater.“39
Rites of passage
The anthropologist Arnold van Gennep used the term ‘threshold state‘ to describe one of the three phases of initiation rituals in his work about rites of passage.
“The first phase, the separation phase, clearly demarcates [like the Greek choir the scene] the sacred space and time from secular space and profane time […] it includes symbols that reverse profane things, relationships and processes. […] During the […] threshold or transformation or liminal phase […] the ritual subject goes through a time […] of ambiguity, a kind of social intermediate stage that has few characteristics […] of the preceding or of the following profane social positions […]. The third […] phase, known as affiliation or incorporation, comprises symbolic […] acts that represent the return of the ritual subjects to society and to their new, relatively stable and well-defined position.“40
Latent system of potential alternatives
During the threshold phase of an initiation ceremony, the initiates live in an anti-structure. Society has no power over them at this time. Since they are outside the order, they are ‘sacred‘, untouchable, contagious, and dangerous like the gods. The anti-structure of the ‘liminal‘ (threshold phase) of the ritual of passage represents the ‘latent system of potential alternatives‘.
Precisely because the initiates are outside the order, they can play carefree with the elements of the familiar. They can alienate the familiar and create something new out of it.
It is obvious that Dionysus is the god of the threshold state:
“He lifts all prohibitions for those possessed by him and his omnipresence cleanses from all evils and infirmities of life and soul.”41
It was this transformative threshold-state, which suspends the limitations of the individual in the ‘Communitas‘ of the commonly experienced pathos, which fascinated artists like Antonin Artaud, Georg Fuchs, Julian Beck, and Hermann Nitsch, Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schechner, Christoph Schlingensief, Christoph Marthaler.
According to Erika Fischer-Lichte, they were spellbound by the possibility of “creating communities in and through the performance, dissolving them again and reflecting on them.“42 The ‘liminal‘ state arises through affective contagion, which in turn can trigger a transformation of the individual.
However, there is a certain threat to the freedom of the individual in this ‘return’ to the ritual. In collectivist societies, the ritual was not a ‘leisure time’ like going to the theater. Rather, the community regarded it as ‘work’ – as man’s work to maintain the cosmic order.
The ritual required the total participation of the entire community. It was the duty of every member of the community to take part. Therefore Victor Turner differentiates between liminal and liminoid states. Due to the division between work and leisure, in complex industrialized societies, the ritual has lost its binding force. Therefore, in modern societies’ people can only experience liminoid states.
The short flare of the subversive
However, according to Turner, in archaic, ritual societies, the liminal can never be more than a ‘brief, subversive flare‘.
“As soon as it occurs, it is placed in the service of normativity. […] [But it does contain] a kind of institutional capsule or shell that contains the seeds of future social development and social change in such a way that the central tendencies of a social system can never quite become spheres in which law and order and the forms of social control that serve them are decisive.“43
The disintegration of the Persona
In this respect, tragedy stands between the ‘liminal‘ and the ‘liminoid‘: it emerged from the mourning and sacrifice ritual. As a play, it owes more to the non-compulsive part of the ritual. The liminal Chora is the source of the tragedy’s wealth of forms.
The tragedy contains, despite the prevalence of the Dionysian catharsis, ultimately also the Apollonian protection against the lasting dissolution of the ‘persona‘ in the ‘communitas‘ (before the collective, Dionysian ‘frenzy’).
“Since the [Dionysian] will to surrender knows no boundaries, it is precisely the excess of its self-emptying that constitutes a danger for the divine integrity. That is why the self-waste of Dionysos is set a barrier in the form of another ego, called Apollo, who reveals himself as the god of victorious unity and re-uniting power [of the individual].“44
The Apollonian warning against violence, revealed by the tragic conflict, should ‘cool off’ the spectator at the climax of the drama like a cold shower – exactly at the moment when the tragic conflict on the stage turns into violence and shortly before the tragedy releases the audience from the ‘heated’, liminal state back onto the ‘social stage’ of mundane everyday life.
“Every work of art whose power makes one affected is at least as initiatory as it anticipates violence and its effects; it urges caution and turns away from hubris.”45
The cathartic function of ordinary rites
In his work ‘Catharsis in Healing Ritual and Drama‘, the anthropologist Thomas Scheff points out that even the simplest rituals can have cathartic effects. The overemphasis on the cognitive functions of the ritual has blinded many anthropologists to the emotional aspects of the ritual. In archaic societies, the ritual fulfills a cathartic function in that it keeps the emotions at a balanced distance.
Distancing in rites
To effect catharsis, rituals contain distancing techniques. Thereby the attention of the ritual participants should be directed in a way, that they feel at the same time as an observer and as participants of the emotions which are affected by the rituals.
Means that cause distancing in rituals include the use of masks, stylized language, and the conscious mixing of positive and negative feelings. However, of all the distancing techniques, music is the most powerful. No other artistic device can control the mood and emotional tension of a ritual, drama, or film so precisely.
The tragic ‘catharsis formula’ can therefore already be used to describe the ritual:
Pathos + (aesthetical) distance => Catharsis
“Ritual usually develops around recurring sources of collective distress. […] The pain of the permanent loss of the dead gives rise to funeral rites and ceremonies of mourning. […] Ritual drama, as in the case of Greek tragedy, is concerned with the universal human distresses death, injustice, betrayal, and exile. Any device which allows people to be both participants in and observers of their own distress accomplish the second component in this conception of ritual: distancing.”46
Only the aesthetic distance, the balance between Apollonian over-distancing and Dionysian under-distancing leads to catharsis. If the distance to the tragic conflict is too small, the viewer will be pathologically ‘inundated’ and overwhelmed. On the other hand, if the distance is too great, s/he remains unaffected or ‘apathetic’.
Because the ritual has become non-binding – ‘liminoid‘ – in today’s Western world, it has partly lost its cathartic effects. Rituals become conventional pods when they can no longer be emotionally charged by the participants.
However, today’s people’s need for emotional catharsis is far from gone. This is also shown by the fact that most psychotherapies are implicitly or explicitly based on the principle of catharsis.
The cathartic discharge of tension is nowadays sought unconsciously and largely in vain in the entertainment industry and sporting events. However, during such events, the aesthetic distance ekes out a rare marginal existence.
“It can be argued that the rise of mass entertainment and the increasing poverty of ritual are both products of the same process, the increasing repression of emotional distress in modern societies.“47
Under-distanced dramas, thrillers, horror, and disaster films, or ‘Law and Order’ series only keep increasing the tension. They are not leading to the catharsis of the primary emotions of sadness, fear, anger, shame, or indignation. The few remaining social rituals, on the other hand, are largely characterized by over-distancing.
Freud and Breuer
The catharsis term on which Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud built their method for the therapy of Hysteria in 1893 was based on Bernay’s ‘affect discharge‘ theory. However, by differentiating between unconscious acting and conscious abreacting of emotions, it was a lot more complex.
“Breuer called our procedure the cathartic; its therapeutic intention was stated to lead the amount of affect used to maintain the symptom, which got on the wrong track and was, as it were, trapped there, onto the normal path, where it could be discharged.“48
The basis for this method was the assumption that the repression of unresolved traumatic events triggers hysterical symptoms. This unconscious ‘acting out’ indeed often appears as a ‘dramatization’ of the trauma.
The therapy consisted of calling the repressed scenes back into consciousness through hypnosis. The emotions prevented or suppressed in the traumatic situation should be relived and thereby abreacted in the process.
Breuer and Freud found that the traumatic events (encapsulated by repression) do not experience the usual processing by memory:
“It can be said, then, that the pathogenic ideas keep themselves fresh and affecting because they are denied normal Usur [the decrease in the amount of emotion of the idea through conscious, mental processing] through abreaction and reproduction in states of uninhibited association.“49
The fact that the movement of the emotion, that the traumatic event should have triggered, was stopped for certain reasons, ‘freezes’ the scene. Consequently, it becomes less accessible by the conscious mind. However, although it can no longer be processed consciously, it continues to unconsciously produce symptoms.
According to Freud and Breuer, this frozen unconscious ‘memory’ of the trauma acts like a foreign body that can trigger reactions long after it has penetrated. By suppressing this reaction to the traumatic event, the emotion remains connected to the frozen memory.
Performing instead of purging?
The traumatic scene is performed again and again in the form of symptoms instead of being discharged once and forever. Freud and Breuer spoke of unconscious ‘acting‘, as opposed to conscious ‘abreacting‘.
Hypnosis served as a method to overcome resistance in this ‘working through‘ of the memory in search of traumatic triggers of the symptoms. Such resistances to the analysis arise from the repression of emotions or memories that are in conflict with conscious censorship.
The catharsis in the treatment of hysteria consists therefore in the attempt to bring the frozen scene back to consciousness. In addition, what seems to be even more important, they should be emotionally reanimated. So that the stopped movement of the emotion can be completed.
“Remembering without affect is almost always completely ineffective; the psychological process that originally took place must be repeated as vividly as possible, brought into statum nascendi, and then ‘pronounced’. When it comes to irritation symptoms, these: cramps, neuralgia, hallucinations – appear again at full intensity and then disappear forever.“50
Neuroses and hysteria arise, according to Freud and Breuer, from conflicts between the conscious person and their unconscious drives. When these conflicts cannot be resolved and occur with unbearable intensity, the conflicting instincts are suppressed. In the case of hysteria, the healing catharsis consisted of consciously living through the stressful memory and the pain associated with it.
Why did Freud abandon the cathartic method when it led to a cure in six of the nine cases described in the ‘Studies on Hysteria‘? Was this method ‘too’ good? Has this cathartic method exposed too clearly the traumas behind neurosis and hysteria? Was Freud afraid of letting too much of the dark, violent underground of fine bourgeois society penetrate the surface of consciousness?
Psychoanalysis is not based on hypnosis and catharsis, but on the method of ‘free association‘. As the founding myth of psychoanalysis, Freud conjured up a ‘complex’ that was not modeled on the incest myth by chance.
“[Freud’s and Breuer’s abreaction] theory [was] not received enthusiastically by the professional world, including many doctors, bankers, and lawyers. Most of them were fathers themselves. And knowing how widespread sexual abuse is, some of these men were almost certainly guilty of incest themselves. For this and other reasons, Freud refrained from […] his therapeutic method of uncovering suppressed memories […]. Many of his patients must have found it a fundamental betrayal that Freud no longer traced their symptoms back to crossing sexual boundaries, but rather as ‘oedipal‘ childish desires and fantasies that revolve around having sex with the parent of the opposite sex.“51
Apart from these social constraints, Freud also failed to give the cathartic-hypnotic method a sufficient theoretical foundation.
Breuer and Freud noticed indeed that by reliving emotions, which were suppressed in trauma, the symptoms disappeared. But they did not differentiate exactly which emotions were cathartically ‘dissipated’ in which way. Freud’s approach was too mental to be open to these ‘pathetic’ details.
Their approach places the emphasis on the verbal, and mental processing (‘Usur‘) of the repressed emotions. Moreover, they neglected somatic discharge in their theory. Therefore, Freud concluded that it was necessary to trace each symptom individually back to its traumatic trigger. According to his method, the traumatic events had to be recalled individually, verbally, and in the correct order.
“It is still possible that the difficulties Freud and Breuer encountered were not due to the invalidity of the theory but to flaws in the techniques they used. The theory that Freud and Breuer stated was crude and, in crucial ways, quite vague. […] their techniques, which followed from the theory as they formulated it, were faulty, even though the basic theory is essentially valid.“52
For instance, Freud and Breuer made no attempt to classify the types of involved emotions and the ways in which they were abreacted. Other cathartic therapies as Bioenergetics, Reichsche– and Gestalt therapy were, according to Thomas Scheff, also imprecise in this differentiation of abreaction.
However, there is a cathartic therapy that explicitly defines the process of abreaction. ‘Reevaluation Counseling‘ differentiates between seven emotions and the somatic reflexes in which they discharge: sadness (crying), intense fright (trembling, with cold sweat), fear (spontaneous laughter), rage (storming, with hot sweat), anger (spontaneous laughter), boredom (spontaneous, uninterrupted talking), somatic tension (yawning, stretching, scratching).
According to this theory, there are four main emotions: sadness, fear, anger, and boredom. The somatic states of tension that form the base of these emotions are caused by stress.
“Our very language seems at fault, since the nouns which we use to designate emotions to lead us to think in terms of states rather than processes. [...] We do not possess suitable terms to differentiate between the distress of grief, fear, embarrassment, and anger, and their discharge. Perhaps a new set of terms which are all verbs is needed: griefing, fearing, embarrassing, angering for the distressing side of emotions and degriefing, defearing, deembarrassing, deangering, for the discharge side.”53
If this process of abreaction is not disturbed, the tension can be reduced by the respective somatic discharge. But mostly this process is interrupted by suppressing or repressing the emotion.
Upbringing, social constraints, and cultural customs increase, by suppressing the somatic abreaction, the tensions even more. This happens especially when the socialization of emotions takes place mainly through punishment and not through reward. Furthermore, somatic abreaction can not take place, when there are no suitable cathartic rituals in society.
Reduction of mental clarity
Each individual in this way accumulates a large amount of suppressed emotions, which are manifested in physical tensions. The accumulated tensions are in turn passed on to other individuals. The abreaction of others now poses a threat to the unstable psychological balance.
Another consequence of suppressed emotions is a decrease in the clarity of perception and thought. For though the suppressed emotions do not cease to have an effect due to their repression. Just that the affected individual does not know where this effect is coming from. The ability to cooperate with others also suffers from the accumulation of suppressed emotions.
The repression of emotions creates a feeling of emptiness, alienation, and indifference (‘apathy‘). Therefore, the collective discharge of suppressed or repressed emotions in a protective social environment such as ritual, theater or performance has powerful psycho-social effects.
Antidote: catharsis in publicity
The ritual and public catharsis release tension and increase compassion, cohesion, and solidarity in the community.
The theory of catharsis through optimal distancing also provides a framework for a deeper understanding of the dynamic identification processes that occur between the audience and characters of a drama.
In his analysis of the psychological reaction to the drama, Sigmund Freud assumes that dramatic scenes move the audience because these scenes address repressed emotions. Thereby the theater scenes do not have to be exact equivalents to the scenes that the spectator has experienced him/herself.
Living through emotions
“In terms of the theory, the play must create conditions which lead to the re-stimulation of repressed emotions in the audience, under a balance of attention, allowing them to be both participants in, and observers of, the dramatic scene.”54
As mentioned at the beginning of this text, Aristotle spoke of the fact that catharsis takes place through pity and fear. With the help of Thomas Scheffs’ definition of catharsis, we can now further specify this ‘pity‘. Furthermore, we can indicate, which affects the viewer suffers with the tragic hero.
Scenes of separation and loss will revive suppressed grief as threatening scenes will revive repressed fears; scenes of humiliation will revive feelings of shame, and scenes of injustice and disappointment will revive anger.
Controlling the identification-process
The fear for the tragic hero can also be interpreted as identification with him/her. Since without identifying with someone, we will not fear for him/her.
In order to be able to control the audience’s attention, the identification with the main characters must be strong enough to allow the viewer to participate in the emotions suffered by the tragic hero. However, on the other hand, it should not be so strong that the viewer forgets where s/he is. Since s/he should not tumble too much into the scene s/he herself experienced in the past.
Exclusion and inclusion
One way of drawing the spectators into a scene is to let them share a secret.
“The sharing of private information between members of a group promotes a strong, primitive sense of inclusion of belonging and therefore of identification between the members. Just as withholding of this information creates a strong sense of exclusion among those from whom the information is withheld.“55
The temptation to identify becomes almost irresistible when inclusion and exclusion become visible to those involved at the same time. Seeing someone else being excluded while oneself is included increases the feeling of belonging to the group many times over.
According to Thomas Scheff, this situation is regularly encountered in cathartic dramas. For example, when the audience shares knowledge of an important fact with one or more characters in the drama, while another character is excluded from this knowledge.
The effect of this ‘shared consciousness‘ distancing technique is subtle but very powerful. It offers the playwright a technique with which s/he can direct the audience’s identification. On the one hand, s/he can lead it to characters who are usually not very attractive. On the other hand, s/he can dynamically de-identify the spectators from the main characters who usually get too much attention.
Balance of awareness
In this way, the audience’s attention can be brought to a dynamic balance between all characters in the drama. This flexible equilibrium implicitly determines the distance to the misfortune experienced by certain characters.
Due to the dynamics of identification, the viewer can always regulate the degree of being either more observer or more participant. It is exactly this balance that enables the catharsis of these emotions. In cathartic dramas, the viewer almost always has a knowledge advantage over one of the characters.
Under-distanced overwhelming strategies
In under-distanced, Dionysian dramas or horror films exactly the opposite is true. The viewer always knows less than the characters and must constantly fear being surprised by the shock. So the suspense – supported by the music, which suggests constant threat – grows ever greater. The calamity overwhelms the viewer emotionally, without him/her being able to abreact the exciting feeling of fear. Although sometimes a catharsis takes place with elements of dark humor.
Pronouncement of the disaster
Due to the knowledge advantage of the audience in classical tragedies, the approaching disaster announces itself before it occurs. In this way, the viewer is less overwhelmed and abreaction of the evoked emotions can take place. “By the time the event takes place, its effect has been softened by the prior discharge, so that the actual event is not overwhelming.”56
Jacob Levy Moreno developed Psychodrama in the 1920th. It is based on the cathartic re-living of emotions or scenes. However, Moreno emphasizes that Psychodrama evokes a ‘catharsis of action‘ instead of the ‘cognitive‘ catharsis affected by Psychoanalysis. ‘Action-catharsis‘ means, that the interaction in psychodrama breaks through old patterns to create new forms of interaction.
In the development of his therapy, Moreno was, like Freud and Breuer, influenced by Jacob Bernays’ homeopathic concept of catharsis. “The intention is, to make apparent the disease, not to get right away healthy, but sick. The ill person drives out his illness.”57
Catharsis of action
But whereas Breuer and Freud dug the catharsis entirely out of the community ritual. Moreno’s intention was, to put it back in this context again. Moreover, Morenos’ catharsis concept differs from Barnays’ quite mechanical understanding of catharsis by the emphasis on the creative process. Through spontaneity, creativity shall be activated, which, according to Moreno, can release the human being from his/her manacles. S/he experiences the collective catharsis as a turnaround, or as a purge.
“By seeming my past tragedy once again, I appear to myself, the original tragical heroe, comical, liberating. By mirroring myself gravely and naked as I was, in front of the people, internally I break out in laughter; for though I see my world of past suffering dissolved in illusiveness.”58
Humor plays a crucial cathartic role in Psychodrama. Those moments, in which we realize our own limitations and blindness, often evoke laughter in role-playing.
In spite of all the involvement, the awareness that it is only a play brings relief, and joy to the shared experience. In the protected space of the play, the player can rehearse new behaviors that are not yet possible on the ‘social stage’ of the everyday world. Moreno therefore also describes the Psychodrama stage as an ‘extension of life‘:
“Reality and fantasy do not fight each other, but are functions of an expanded sphere – the psycho-dramatic world of objects, people and events.”59
The psycho-dramatic ‘action catharsis’ occurs when the participant in the group acts out a stressful scene on stage. With the help of the group, s/he can feel, how the entire dynamic of relationships within the group changes through a shift in the attitude of one of the group.
According to the anthropologist Victor Turner in his theory of ‘Social Drama‘, a subject is constituted by the performance of roles, by the breaking of roles, but also by the demonstration of a status change.
“One of the most effective interventions [in Psychodrama], the role exchange, enables an experience on a somatic, emotional, and mental level. It means to be ‘involved’, to engage in an ‘I-position’. This [perspective from the first person] is in the role-change […] connected with a higher activity of the limbic system or the so-called subcortical centers.”60
The experience of these redesigns, or the recognition of misjudgments of one’s own role, leaves a lasting and deep impression. Furthermore, it expands the behavioral repertoire of the player in real situations. The ability to change roles spontaneously and creatively is according to Moreno an indication of mental health. He understands spontaneity as a ‘willingness to change‘ and behavior that is appropriate to the situation.
“At the moment of a new, surprising situation, the individual activates his/her spontaneity, […]. Being self-reliant, the person asks for courses of action in order to cope with the required situation. […] S/he can develop his/her own creative reactions. Due to her/his lack of drive, s/he evades stereotypes. Moreno postulates three possible reaction patterns. ‘No response in a situation. An old response to a new situation, a new response to a new situation‘.”61
For Moreno creativity is the ‘original substance’, the ‘divine spark in a human shell’. Only then can wo/man play the role of a co-creator, when s/he opens to creativity spontaneously.
The head of Psychodrama should have the intuitive ability, to anticipate turning points in the cathartic processes of the participants or to lead them to such points. Group participants can embody, as so-called ‘make-shift-I‘, different emotions, feelings, or inner-psychological roles of the protagonist.
Even in this role as ‘makeshift-I’, the team-actor can experience a catharsis, if s/he lives through by then suppressed emotions. The Psychodrama can thus be described as a ‘sacrifice’. “A chosen, representing the community, is becoming a symbolic ‘sacrifice’, by undergoing a painful transformation with everyone involved.”62
The protagonist voluntarily takes on the role of the scapegoat. S/he exposes him/herself to the group, by performing a scene with them, that is very near to him/her. S/he puts him/herself in an uncertain situation, to rearrange his/her worldview. “Any further development requires the sacrifice of what was of fundamental importance in earlier phases, lest a dear habit ruins the world.”63
Everyday rituals have a supporting function and help people to maintain a protective facade in times of crisis and transformation. But they can also become shackles. Moreno calls those shackles ‘conserves‘ – they are conserving the status quo.
When a person is caught up in everyday rituals, it is often because s/he is not able to react in accordance to a situation. Having not enough resources to deal with a situation, s/he experiences it as overwhelming or even traumatic. According to Moreno, Psychodrama brings the individual in a position, from which s/he can find out of the freeze. By ‘warming up’ in the impromptu staging s/he can come into the creative processing mode.
“This poetic ritual [which triggers creative processes] relates thereby to social rituals, which are felt as terror-connections by the protagonist. […] Repressive rituals of everyday life are broken up by the psychodramatic ritual […]. The Psychodrama is also an anti ritual.“64
The boredom of the showcase-theater
With his refusal of the ‘old theater’, which performed scenes based on a literary script on a showcase stage, Moreno wasn’t alone. Bertold Brecht wrote about this ‘old theater‘ (of the nineteenth century):
“Let’s go to one of these (theater) buildings and observe the effects, which it has on the audience. Looking around one is seeing quite motionless figures in a peculiar state. They seem to tense all their muscles in a great effort, […] they hardly communicate with one another. Of course, their eyes are open, but they are not looking, they are staring, as they are not hearing, but listening.”65
Before Moreno had developed his ‘Psychodrama‘, he saw impromptu theater as the only option for any further development of theater. He demanded the ‘destruction of all previous elements of the theater‘.
Everyone should become a poet, actor, and spectator in one person. The impromptu theater emerges at the moment. Thereby creativity and spontaneity are manifesting. However, the posed conflict is here no representation of a literary ‘conserve‘. Rather it results from the encounter of two or more ‘layers of consciousness’.
With’ layer‘ Moreno meant a mental state. The transition from one state to another causes an existential transformation. In the Impromptu position, humans become aware of their conflicts and can live through and abreact conflicting affects cathartically.
“Moreno postulates an art of the moment, which takes shape as orderly, externally formed creativity. Spontaneity and creativity are forced by principles into a structured arrangement. Moreno doesn’t bear deviations from the rules. He wants to establish a theatre of the play-mighty […]. In [his] concept of theater, the fragility of existence has no access. Chaos and inconsistency do not exist.”66
Likewise, Jerzy Grotowski tends in his theater productions, to tear down the barriers between the actors and the audience, as well as to call the spectators to active participation. Although, he started his productions with literary text templates, in the process of rehearsal he integrated the actor’s individual conflicts. These conflicts were extracted by the actors’ confrontation with their actual roles, and their personal answers to existential problems.
“The text of the author is for both of us, director and actor, a kind of operation knife, to open ourselves, […] to find out the hidden in ourselves and to carry out the act of encounter with others.”67
Consequently, by his forceful opening, the actor should evoke creative and transformative processes in the spectators or call into their memory their possibilities and limits. In the ‘Theatre of 13 Rows’, the audience was not distinctly separated from the stage. Grotowski appealed, like Moreno, to the creative power of humanity and the human ability to transform.
Tearing off the masks?
Jerzy Grotowski’s conception of theater shows the same modern Avantgarde tendencies as Moreno’s thoughts about impromptu theater. Namely, it turned everything upside down that has been true so far. “The theater offers the possibility to tear off the masks, to reveal the true substance: the totality of physical and mental reactions. Here the therapeutic function of theater for humans in today’s civilization is becoming evident.”68
However, this ‘therapeutic function’ of theater is not new at all, but rather as old as the theater itself. Avantgarde concepts of the theater had emerged as an answer to the over-distanced showcase stage theater of the 19th century. Furthermore, it was a reaction to the representative concept of ‘embodiment‘ of literary roles. The concept of ’embodiment’ is abstracting as much as possible from the mere corporeality of the actor. For this reason, the actor’s body served merely as a bearer of signification.
The tension between actor and spectator
In post-dramatical theater, which already has integrated performative aesthetics as far as it can play in a postmodern manner with classical as well as modern styles of theater, therefore there is a shift “of the energy-center in dramatics […] to the sphere between actor and spectator […] and away from the dramatic tensions immanent to the scenes.”69
Besides that, momentarily ‘role reversals‘ between actors and spectators in post-dramatic performances are, according to Erika Fischer-Lichte, leading to a permanent shift in the subject-object-relation. In this way, the ‘autopoietic feedback loop‘ between actors and spectators is becoming a topic over and over again in new ways.
These experiments thereby focus on “respectively other parameters for the negotiation of the relationship between performer and audience […] [The role-reversal or the participation of the spectator] is, however, concealed, a matter of negotiation of positions […] and power-relations. […] The role reversal […] brings the apparent dichotomy of the aesthetical and the political to collapse.”70
The feedback loop between actor and audience can develop different dynamics in each performance of the same dramatic production. In post-dramatic performances, the in-scenation just defines the frame conditions: by mimetic affect-contagion, by closeness or withdrawal of the actors, or by bodily affecting rhythms. Thereby, each affecting action with which a spectator performs the role reversal again leads to an unpredictable turn in the dynamics of the ‘autopoietic feedback loop‘ (Fischer-Lichte).
Collectively shared emotions are triggered in the audience when strong taboos are broken. “For taboos generally prevails, that for members of the concerned community they are connected with strong, often highly ambivalent feelings. The desire to break them is as a general rule as burning as the eagerness exorbitant, to see those punished and excommunicated, who really have broken them.”71
The breaking of a taboo shifts the spectator into a crisis of understanding and orientation. Thereby s/he is provoked to answer in the realm of emotions. Under these circumstances, the felt emotions become so strong, that they can trigger an impulse for action.
Theater of Cruelty
The aesthetic stops herewith, to be action-relieving. The aesthetic distance neither protects the performer nor the spectator from being overwhelmed by the performed conflicts. The conflict in post-dramatic performances quite often takes place just between the actors and their audience.
Likewise, Antonin Artaud, who aspired to this performative, Dionysian penetration of the aesthetic distance, spoke about a ‘theater of cruelty‘.
“As the pestilence, the theater is a crisis, which ends either with death or with healing. […] Important is especially the concession, that the theatrical play, like the plague, is a furiousness, and that it is infectious.”72
Aesthetical experience as a bodily process
However, in performance art, which witnessed its first peaks in the 1960th, the dissatisfaction with over-distanced cultural practices extended to the realm of the visual arts. Thus, for visual artists, who increasingly turned towards performance art, the bodily processes came into the focus of attention.
The aesthetics of the performative always emphasize the moment of deviation, irritation, amazement, overwhelm, and uncertainty. As the ‘other’ of rationality, this aesthetics of the event “flusters [the spectator][…] and [disempowers] accordingly any conceptual access.”73
The aesthetic experience of shock characterizes most of the performances and post-dramatic theater performances. The view of the ungraspable should shift the spectator into a feeling of awe. As the sublime in tragedy, this fascination connects conflicting feelings like attraction and disgust.
The sublime implies the “fear, that ‘we are dissolved into the limitless’ […]; at the same time an uncanny delight in experiences kin to giddiness, […] and to throw one’s life into immeasurable abysms.”74
Why this emphasis on incomprehensiveness, irritation, uncertainty, and off-limitness?
At stake is the event character of the performance. It refers to nothing else than to itself and therefore is not to grasp in terms of mere reason. Rather it should trigger – often contradictory, conflicting – emotions.
The fascinating, sublime turns as the break-in of an event against the structured and work-like: “[An] interruption, suspension, hush of structured […] rhythmical quantification takes place. […] [The sole structure is] the structure of the strict unpredictable and inducible event.”75
Refusal of catharsis
Given all these overpowering of the spectator: is there a possibility at all to experience catharsis in performance art? Since as we have seen: aesthetic distance is its precondition. A catharsis as it is happening in tragedy is seldom occurring in art performances. Additionally, few performances last long enough to actually build up a dramatic arc of suspense, which would allow ‘tragic’ catharsis.
“The inexorability of most of the [art] performances, in interplay with the openness, in which they left the audience, indicates even to the fact, that they are out to refuse catharsis in the sense of a controlled discharge of emotions.”76
Transformation due to performance?
Which kind of transformation is happening in these liminal states, which are evoked by the performance artists?
“Just as the subjunctive mood of a verb is used to express supposition, desire, hypothesis, or possibility, rather than stating actual facts, so do liminality. […] The phenomena of liminality dissolve all factual and commonsense systems into their components and ‘play’ with them in ways never found in nature or custom, at least at the level of direct perception.”77
According to anthropologist Victor Turner, from the ‘dangerous’, unsettling liminal play with rules ‘meta-comments’ about social order can arise. In this process, seemingly inapt elements are mixed with each other.
The free play of the sense of possibility in the liminal state reveals the contingency and changeableness of what our culture estimates as (the one and only) reality. Maybe in performance art catharsis is taking place not as much in the psyche of the individual (as living through emotions represented by the heroes of the tragedy), but – as in rites of passage – at the collective level.
Performative aesthetics play with the frame conditions of art itself. It shifts the participating audience into the commonly experienced liminal state – a condition ‘betwixt and between‘. This dangerous indeterminate inter-state expands the senses of all participants by the sense of possibility. It brings out of balance and unsettles everything which stucks, and questions dichotomic conceptual schemes (subject/object, significant/significance, passive/active).
Impossible to react adequately
Moreno determined the situative appropriateness as the measure for mental health and Aristoteles mentioned it as ‘the unwritten laws‘, whose non-compliance bestows the destiny of the tragic hero. However, performance art and post-dramatic theater performances, just put this appropriateness on tough probation.
Since the replacement of the modern central perspective with the post-modern multi-perspective, especially in performative art, there are only ‘fields with different variables’ (Victor Turner). Within these perpetually changing conditions, the spectator has to negotiate the frames and rules consistently. After the performative turn, everything in art seems to align to excessive, critical, and liminal states.
Framework at stake
The liminal experience places the spectator in a situation, in which s/he “has to temporarily endure to be without a firm position, without reliable references, without familiar environment, without clear rules and explicitly defined tasks.”78 Both, the performer as well as the audience voluntarily or involuntarily expose themselves to situations, in which they have no possibility to react ‘accordingly’.
In post-dramatic theater and performance art those settings and frameworks, which are usually ‘orienting’ our actions and imposing clear rules to them, are becoming unstable. “In the moment of experience, no frame of interpretation is able to grasp, so that it is vital to tentatively think in new and different ways. Cognition is starting to move intensively [in this situation] when comprehension is disturbed, interrupted, and impeded.“79
Simultaneously, the procedures the performer is exposing him/herself or the pain which s/he is imposing on her/himself forces each spectator, to self-assuredly and spontaneously create a temporary framework of interpretation, and to act accordingly to this invented setting.
Performer in danger
In fact, sometimes the ‘liberation‘ of the spectators to ‘co-subjects‘ (as for instance in the performance ‘Dionysos in 69‘ by the ‘Performance Group‘ in New York) had the effect, “that the liberated spectators now themselves started to suppress the performers and to commit acts of violence against them.”80
Performance artists therefore actually and not only supposedly exposed themselves to the danger of violence, by allowing to let the aesthetical distance between them and the audience to become permeable. This was the case even in those performances, which did not have violence as an explicit topic.
Also in another respect, the aesthetical distance proves to be penetrable in this crisis of orientation. In masochist performances, the spectator doesn’t feel compassion with a represented or ‘played’ pathos, but with real pain.
How long is the spectator able to withstand the performers’ self-tormenting exercises? Is the compassion genuine – as genuine as the pain, the performer senses – if it is not leading to any consequence in the current situation of endangerment of the performer’s body? On the other hand: would it not be disrespectful to interrupt the performer in order to protect him/her from self-destruction?
From the perspective of sacrifice-rites it is striking, how many performances just in the time of the emergence of this new form of art, in the 1960th and 70th were taking place according to this pattern of self-injury, or exposure to violence (among others the performances of Marina Abramovic, Rachel Rosenthal, Günter Brus, Chris Burden).
Self-sacrifice by choice?
It appears as if the performer offers her/himself as a sacrifice for the performance community. As theater performances and other liminal rites, performances give rise to a ‘flash’-community.
But by the elimination of the aesthetic distance – depending on the setting of the performance – the transfer of energy or the ‘autopoietic feedback loop’ between the performer and the performance community is undergoing a fundamental transformation.
“It is […] a transfer of art in the social and public space, an interventionism or an ethics of practice, which is tending to transform the spectator into a participant, to a collaborator, who can not shun anymore and finally has to take a stand or make a statement.”81
The transgression which takes place in performance is manifold: from the (semi-public) art space to the public space of the street; from passive observation to active participation; or from the symbolism of embodiment to the body that is only referring to itself; last but not least, from meaning to being. In performance, the critical analysis of violence, therefore, takes place on another level than in tragedy. The ‘battle’ is carried out in the body of the performer itself.
By the voluntary sacrifice of the performer, the audience can immediately feel the victim’s pain – without any aesthetical distance.
“The physical impact, which is triggered by the act [E. Fischer Lichte refers here to Marina Abramovic’s performance ‘Lips of Thomas‘]’ seems to have priority here. The materiality of the process is not transferred into a symbolic status, does not disappear in it, but causes its own effects, which are not resulting from a symbolical status.”82
No medium, no filter of signification is in between the vulnerable performer and the flash community, participating in the performance. Is this sacrifice binding them together in a kind of ‘liminal‘ state?
When the war in Vietnam was broadcasted as the first war in history to the living rooms in the West, these pictures affected most people. It sparked protests and anti-war movements in the USA and Europe. However, at the same time, the events stayed far away, at least for those, who just followed them on television. Among other things, it might have been the circumstance that these pictures of violence could be brushed away at any time by shutting off the TV. This switching off, zapping, or (in times of smartphones) wiping away the happening, has no consequences at all. Even more, the viewer does not even consider it an act.
It doesn’t matter how extreme, realistic and cruel the presentation of violence is or how huge the screen is. Conveyed by the media, it will never be bodily tangible, how a victim of collective violence is really feeling. In performances like Abrahmovics ‘Lips of Thomas’, this experience of violence is directly tangible. However, concurrently in this experience, the spectators turn into co-perpetrators.
“As artists are generating their specific and individual corporeality [in the performance], they put into effect processes, by which they embody the vulnerability of their body, its exposure to violence, its liveliness, and its endangerment which grows from it.”83
Heritage of the tragic Pathos?
In this respect, performances that make violence collectively tangible, take on the heir of the tragic pathos. Although, the aesthetic distance, the prerequisite for catharsis, is missing here completely. However, by exposing themselves to violence in a collective setting, masochist performance artists were in a certain way performing a sacrifice rite again. They offer the opportunity to feel, in the bodily co-presence of the performer, the pain affecting compassion in their own ‘living flesh‘. Unlike in the ‘act’ of switching off the TV, in this bodily co-presence, the observer is forced to become a participant.
“The performance comes into being as a result of the interaction between actor and spectators. […] The performance is happening between actor and audience, they generate it in community.“84
By sharing the ‘guilt’ of just observing the performance of pain, a transformation takes place. It is a transformation, that could never come up in the passivity of watching TV. Given the violence happening, every intervention – even leaving the gallery – is becoming a public statement. In other words, it is a liminoid ‘Initiation‘ or status change for each participant and for the whole flash community.
Whereas the collective ‘guilt’ for the wars in the far East always is intangible, abstract, and all too distant, the audience can not easily brush away the uncomfortable feeling that occurs in the intimacy of the performance event in a packed full gallery room. Even if the spectator decides to leave the performance untimely, this feeling sticks in the memory of the body.
“In performance art, the audience, from its role as a sadist, subtly becomes the victim. It is forced to endure the artist’s plight emphatically or to examine its own response of voyeurism and pleasure or smugness and superiority […] in any case, the performer holds the reigns […] the audience usually ‘gives up’ before the artist.”85
Author: Eva Pudill
Estimated reading time: 62 minutes
Questions & Answers
According to Aristotle, which two emotions are triggered by a tragedy in the audience?
In his ‘Poetics‘ Aristotle wrote about the cathartic effect of Greek tragedy. The tragedy causes a ‘catharsis‘ through ‘Eleos‘ (‘pity‘) and ‘Phobos‘ (‘fear‘), which are triggered in the spectator by the fate of the tragic hero … read more
What emotions can be cathartically discharged when feeling compassion and fear for the heroes?
Scenes of separation and loss make us relive suppressed grief; life-threatening scenes animate repressed fears; Scenes of humiliation invigorate suppressed feelings of shame; Scenes of injustice and disappointment make us relive suppressed anger … read more
How can catharsis be directed in a drama by dynamic identification?
In order to direct the viewer’s affectation (‘pathos‘), the identification with the characters of a drama must be directed in such a way, that this identification is strong enough to allow the viewer to participate in the emotions suffered by the tragic hero. On the other hand, it should not be so strong that the viewer forgets where s/he is, that is, tumbles too much into the scene s/he had experienced her/himself in the past. One way of drawing the spectator’s attention to a scene and letting him/her identify with a specific hero is to let him/her share a secret. In other words, the identification can be directed by inclusion and exclusion … read more
Why is it important to let go of repressed emotions through catharsis from time to time?
Emotions stopped in their movement (‘motion‘) reduce the clarity of our perception and our thinking. In this way, we are more likely to perceive events as overwhelming or even traumatic. For, the suppressed emotions do not cease to have an effect due to their repression or suppression. Just that we are not sure where these effects are coming from. The catharsis of others even becomes a threat if we want to control ourselves under all circumstances. That’s why the ability to cooperate with others suffers from the accumulation of repressed emotions. We end up feeling empty, alienated, and isolated … read more
Why is catharsis considered bad by some psychologists?
Due to a one-sided understanding of catharsis, as an unreserved, obtrusive discharge of negative emotions or even aggression, some psychologists warn against the cathartic abreaction of emotions. Because this would only stir up and intensify the emotions, and they would do all the more damage.
But as becomes clear in this text, ‘catharsis‘ does not mean the obtrusive living out of violent emotions.
Which two components have to be in balance for catharsis to occur?
Observation and participation must be in balance so that catharsis can take place in the repeated reliving of a scene. Only the aesthetic distance – the balance between Apollonian over distance and Dionysian under distance – leads to catharsis. If the distance to the tragic conflict is too small, the viewer will be pathologically inundated and overwhelmed. If, on the other hand, the distance is too great, he remains unaffected or ‘apathetic‘ … read more
What is the connection between catharsis and ritual?
In archaic societies, the ritual fulfills a cathartic function in that it keeps emotions at a balanced distance. In order to achieve catharsis, rituals, therefore, contain distancing techniques. This is intended to direct the attention of the ritual participants in such a way that they can feel at the same time as an observer and a participant in the emotions triggered by the ritual … read more