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On the ritual function in art and culture (after its manifestation in Greek Tragedy).



Katharsis. Release, purging or cleansing… of fear and pity for the objects of misfortune; but also frenzy, possession and the subsequent escape back into the normal, the everyday. Such is the breadth of experience covered by the concept of ‘katharsis’ (after Aristotle in Poetics and Politics).


Already we note that the two essential ingredients of the Sublime experience – a keystone, even in its negative aspect, of Western aesthetics - are to be found in Aristotle’s definition of katharsis: a discomforting experience, which touches on the self; and a pointer elsewhere, beyond the commonplace, to a mythic, a-temporal zone, outside of the everyday temporality of the self (bearing also an implied threat to the self as constituted in that temporality).


Fear as sublime. In ritual directly acting upon us (witness-participant): in the artwork mediated by another (character, actor, depiction). Or is the distinction so clearly drawn; rather is there not a continuum of participation? Pity is the form of this experience when we find ourselves before an artwork containing the depiction of that which we might fear befall us. Pity is the distance between the fear of the pursued and the tears of the witness. The distance of personal safety. (The degree of participation, the felt proximity of witness, the only difference between art and ritual? But where to draw the line between ‘pure’ ritual’ and the presence of ritual effect in the artwork)?


Frenzy as sublime. As when the self as overcome, as if by the experience of another, as if taken from the outside, taken outside, outside of self, outside of consciousness. Transported onto the stage: the stage of another’s transport. The threat to the other actualised in the self: self as actualisation of the other’s threat. Taken by the spectacle of another’s sacrifice. So, on our return, surprised, finding ourselves in association with the destructive forces in the depicted event (‘The Bachaae’). An association with Fate, or with the side of power… Becoming at once a heroic, mythic other about to be sacrificed, and equally becoming a part of the forces that are to perform the sacrifice… is this not the formula for ritual? The balance between these two sides being an index of the narrative’s position in respect of the site or personification of power.


The first part of the definition, ‘fear and pity’, concerns the act of witness, a key to the understanding of entertainment, which will eventually find its final home in today’s literary and visual genres; how it is that what we watch can entertain us - when that something may depict an uncomfortable situation (this applies equally to comedy, to the genre of the happy ending, which must pass through a ‘crisis’ or problem phase).


And so we see that ‘katharsis’ can also be found in other genres, even those considered opposite to tragedy…


The second part of the definition, ‘frenzy, possession’, as we have seen, concerns the question of participation, of the degree of participation, and so of ritual, of ritual force as the key to the understanding of the force of art; art’s seriousness. The residual element of ritual in art from which art derives its potency…


And let us add a third part to the definition, or rather a return to the first phrase of the definition, the last stage, or final phase, of the kathartic experience, the purging or release from what has gone before, the reflection that may occur after the experience, that returns us (us with the art work) to the status quo ante (but temporally moved forward, as proved by the artwork’s after image still contained within us). A stage of potential reflection, of learning, of renewal (a moment built upon by didactic or conceptual art forms). Of renewal of the self. Same as before but moved by the experience, and so moved on - same but different. Renewed (the sense that follows on from any religious ritual, its gift to the secular world).


For we are taken… and then are returned.


All of these aspects of katharsis lead to the reconfiguration of the self (reconfirmation by definition against, and by the return to the everyday). In the calling up of narrative from the past we are called upon to be witness to sacrifice as a misfortune suffered for us (to learn from) in the future. There follow degrees of self-involvement, possibly leading to identification or possession: to be followed by a return, cementing the self as self (then there is also a sacrifice of time; the price of participation, the time of witness). With respect to our modern genres, we have the bifurcation of the first stage (the story) into comedy, spectacle of the low other, now become the common other (we define ourselves against and even superior to such foolishness when we do not associate ourselves with the dilemmas portrayed) and into tragedy as the disaster of the high other, now become the everyday self (we are in all cases on a par with the object, we are taught to evade their end). Evolving into good and bad outcomes of a given conflict situation – a ritual of our times… However, despite the democratic levelling indicated in the previous sentence, still maintaining perhaps rather more than just residual positions of superiority, either to the class of persons depicted (comedy, it could only happen to them) or with respect to the depicted situation (tragedy, it could have happened to us, but has not).


Again, some degree of kathartic effect takes place in most genres, most comedies today, for example, contain elements of cruelty, or moments of melodrama. However it is in tragedy proper, the tale of the fall of an individual, that the highest degree of intensity appears to be found (and in the ritualised of this telling, say in music drama or other forms of theatrical rendering, we find the highest degree of -potential- possession, or ritual force, but also in film, for what are the final sequences of ‘Apocalypse Now’ if not ritual possession and release ).


If the element of witness in all genres implies a position of the self on the self, a self-image with identity propositions, ‘I am …XYZ’ (our self-definition as a product of reason, a rational matter), then participation, our degree of involvement in what we are witnessing, works more directly on the emotions… the feeling which surges up through us. Short circuits the rational, comparing, faculty of the act of witness and accesses an older, more fundamental, more constitutive form of identification and self-renewal; that of the history of ritual (our self-definition as an irrational matter). Our prehistory, our history of religion, and now persists in our modern forms of identification (perhaps not yet rendered superfluous or a residual mark of the archaic, as felt or desired by Enlightenment rationalists, but incorporated into the everyday exchanges of our social form).


The other forms of ‘tragedy’. That to which we lend the name. ‘Tragedy’ as another name for… one more name for…another’s story, another’s misfortune.


If katharsis once appeared unthinkable without tragedy; the history of literary forms is also in part the history of the tragic equivalent in other cultures and other times. Tales of another’s kathartic experience (and tales of our own, for we are neither members of archaic Greek society, nor of the city states that followed). At issue is the question of agon, perhaps the nearest thing to a universal genre (along with the complaint); the tale of conflict. Of a struggle between the individual and some larger whole, of which they are a part, and so of themselves as divided within by this division. Crucial is this division of the individual, which must be echoed in the reader or audience to ensure their full participation, and so for the effect of the art work to function properly (without this identification, no affect, no drawing of the breath, no sense of relief, no katharsis). For the ritual effect to cast its spell, renewing us through the experience of a crisis (a sublime experience). The genre of agon is the result of a division of loyalties, paralleling a division in society and posing important and difficult choices; a division of self (or couple, family, group) from god, but equally from ones own family, community of interest, or class, or from the State. There is also the question of gender roles, of self as a member of such, a member of one such, making one a performer of social division, in a performance of this (‘originary’) division; transgression of gender roles demonstrates the normative effect of tragedy, instructing us as to the proper way to behave… Or this division may occur (especially in more recent fiction) as against ones own community (which division covers the options of self versus society) and extends them (as in postmodern fiction reflecting a plural social manifold) into a crisis of the self versus ones own community (of fact or identification). A crisis that must divide the self. All variations on the genre of the dilemma, the key feature of the tragic vein in art – and the one best designed to ‘capture’ its audience. Or otherwise put, the problem, followed internally by the audience, to be followed by a solution, as the organising principle of form, in comedy as in tragedy (comedy is tragedy with reprieve, tragic-comedy in effect, all variations of this are simply a watering-down or flattening out of the situation and the affect involved). In tragedy the solution takes place after the disaster, after the fall of the key characters. It is as such as solution for the audience, the old order revives, a new order is established… life goes on as before (the crisis has been resolved for us as participants, but not for the sacrificial lead or pair, the smoke of whose burnt offering ascends to a heaven now again smiling in favour upon our return to recommended ways). Ritual.


The kathartic mechanism. (Misfortune becomes sacrifice). Sacrifice? Identity exchange. A relationship between the elements in the text, and between the text and its (implied) audience. Destructive (of self or others, or of self’s goods, of others goods (sic)) in the world of the text: constructive, even constitutive for ourselves, for our world, the word of the audience. A sacrifice for us (the implied audience). The distinction here is that of a sacrificial exchange within the text, or world of the text, and that which takes place for the audience. As when we are shown the sacrifice of a member of the home group of identification (the implied audience) as a rhetorical device to ensure the audience’s self-definition, even valourisation, against those shown as responsible (the ‘other’ community, against which ‘we’ are defined, and against which a negative is being cast).  A sacrificial mode as old as (if not older than, but certainly popularised by) the Saint’s Life, which features it so frequently, defining the Martyr narrative. A rhetorical potency which may furthermore help explain the popularity of this textual exchange relation in Jewish and Christian art forms, and so in the literary traditions of the West - including recent ones (the history of radical theatre would be unimaginable without it).


A modern example. Katharsis and cinema: Cinema and brutality. Brutality in the cinema (on screen) including content, form, and means of expression, from displays of questionable behaviour (transgression), to bombardment by exaggerated special effects and ‘near things’ (spectacle), to the sheer volume of sound that leaves us leaving with ringing ears… These may indeed add up to a manifestation of the modern sublime (certainly the content of such may be said to constitute a popular sublime, heir to the Gothic in art and literature). It often appears that what we have is something akin to a form of bullying; a didactics of effect. But does it offer katharsis? On leaving the cinema (or the less totalising experience of watching a DVD on a private screen) does one feel cleansed or relived (apart from escaping with ones hearing intact)? In the insistence of the image, and of the sound image, in the brain; in the insistence of often discomforting subject matter, we find little that is reminiscent of the katharsis once experienced in the theatre… Yet perhaps this is the kathartic effect as we experience it today, one kind of a sufficient katharsis, in which the difference is aesthetic, perhaps based upon our culture of education, on cultural expectation; but not a difference fundamentally anthropological or functional.


(And then we remember the noise attendant on traditional ritual…)


Indeed the modern experience of film is often an experience more akin to a fairground ride. A proof of the ability to survive such an ordeal; a proof of a form of the self (badge, or ritual, of membership). All that is left of earlier, more subtle, forms of art and the self? (Or perhaps the Sublime in the art of the West and the kathartic moment it contains, was never, certainly not from the late 18th c onwards, never very subtle…). Here again the modern artwork is reduced to brute sacrificiality… (in essence to masochistic discomfort - a freely chosen, and paid for, discomfort taken for ones own pleasure). Pain chosen for pleasure. The masochistic rituality of an identity exchange. (But for what aspect of our identity, and does it really matter; the fairground ride is, after all, an exception in our everyday experience… ).


Katharsis as we have inherited the concept can be read as a refined form of this structure of exchange (yet the 18th century notoriously found most tragedy barbaric…). Or perhaps this refinement is itself a ritualised form; a ritual form which bears witness to a specific kind of identity. Sophocles is more subtle than ‘Terminator’. Yet the art music of the 20th century, from Bartok and Stravinsky to Birtwhistle and Xenakis,  notoriously exploit a ‘noisy’ form of katharsis – not least in its music theatre (and shock has long been a part of radical theatre). A distinction within types of katharsis which needs to be made interior to the term and not a difference seen as constituting its essence, a definition which performs the elitism it would maintain. Judgement must be made between types of ritualised, kathartic experience, and not evaded by ruling out either high or low ends of the spectrum of cultural experience. This exchange is, after all, a fundamental part of all art, a trace of its workings can certainty be found in all problem/solution structures, in the portrayal of all manner of crises, in the witnessing of all and any pain on the part of the other, and is therefore to be found in all narrative art forms. The masochistic moment in ritual, in art as the sacrificial moment – now grown into an essential part of all manner of entertainment.


Definition: the refinement of the division plot, the genre of agon, of crisis, of the problem we fear, of the obstacle in narrative (at times touching transgression) at the behest of identity confirmation.


And so we finish: a katharsis of (the concept of) katharsis.







Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk