Aristotle, mimesis, cartharsis, and bawlin’ my freakin’ eyes out

by Anne E. Johnson

Recently I went to a play that left me with a rare reaction: By curtain calls, I was weeping uncontrollably. Not just sniffling and daubing the eyes. Sobbing. There was an open wound where my heart used to be.

Aristotle knew the secrets of great theater.

Aristotle knew the secrets of great theater.

This wasn’t just “being moved” by the play. This was getting sucked into a high-walled psychological maze unique to my brain.

As is true for all important elements of art, there’s a Greek philosopher for that. Typically it’s Aristotle. He identified the essential ingredient needed to make an audience connect to a play: recognition. If the theatergoer saw something on stage that he had already seen or experienced in life (albeit, in a smaller, less dramatic way) he would respond emotionally.

This representation of known things is called mimesis. Here’s what Aristotle wrote about mimesis in his Poetics, from around 340 BC:

Thus men find pleasure in viewing representations because it turns out that they learn and infer what each thing is — for example, that this particular object is that kind of object; since if one has not happened to see the object previously, he will not find any pleasure in the imitation for its own sake…

Not every person in an audience will recognize the representations in any given play. The other day, by chance, I recognized a lot.

What happens to us when we do find something we know being acted out is what Aristotle called catharsis. Theater teachers and students toss this word around as if they know what it means, but in truth Aristotle gave us no definition. This is also from the Poetics:

Tragedy is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language that has been artistically enhanced….; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such pitiable and fearful incidents.

Not too helpful, as you see. It was actually from commentary on the Poetics by the sixteenth-century translator Longinus that we get our current understanding of catharsis as some sort of “purging” of emotion.

Aristotle? Longinus? Who cares? I turned inside out and regurgitated my soul at the end of that play. All I know is, mimesis and catharsis are mighty harsh when they catch you at full force.