What to read? (Part 6) Catharsis
Sometimes reading really depressing books can be good for you. From Aristotle’s classic theory of catharsis to the modern ‘misery memoir,’ I explore how encountering literary tragedy can actually be uplifting.
The classical theory
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) set out guidelines for literary tragedy that still hold true today. His Poetics (350 BCE) defines it as follows: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (Section 1, Part VI). That word “purgation” is more usually transliterated directly as “catharsis,” from the Greek katharsis. It is a difficult term to translate precisely, but its literal meaning is something like “purification” or “cleansing.”
Catharsis was, in fact, originally a medical metaphor, referring to the purging of unhealthy fluids from the body. In his article “Mimesis and Catharsis Reexamined,” Harvey D. Goldstein suggests that a better alternative translation would be “pruning,” because it has the dual implication of both cutting and shaping – molding the viewer or reader into a more moral person.
By arguing that art could be a tool of moral development, Aristotle was countering the views of his contemporary Plato (428/427-348/347 BCE), who felt art had little value. In Plato’s thought system, art was considered to be at two removes from the truth: first came the godly (or Platonic) ideal of an object, secondly came its form on earth, and thirdly came the artist’s representation. To echo the example used in my college Introduction to Philosophy classes, one could think of it as: the ideal chair, as held in the mind of God; an actual physical chair, built by a carpenter; and a painting of a chair.
Although both Plato and Aristotle wrote extensively about mimesis (meaning imitation or representation), where Aristotle saw its value to a society, Plato saw only deception. He feared art would cause people to wallow in unhealthy emotions and irrational responses, and so he famously declared (in The Republic) that in his ideal state artists would be banned.
A classic Aristotelian tragedy has three essential elements: a turn of fortune, the hero’s acknowledgment of his circumstance (moving from ignorance to awareness), and the depiction of suffering. “Two parts, then, of the Plot – Reversal of the Situation and Recognition – turn upon surprises. A third part is the Scene of Suffering…a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like” (Section 1, Part XI).
The central figure of a tragedy is a fairly average person – though often of high station or wealth – who suffers a calamity through a flaw or mistake. That word for flaw, hamartia, is the same word that is translated throughout the New Testament as “sin”; in the Poetics it can connote pride, fate, or the will of the gods. Aristotle imagines his tragic hero as “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous” so that his fall is all the more precipitous (Section 2, Part XIII).
How does catharsis work?
According to Aristotle, the point of tragedy is to elicit pity and terror from the readers or viewers, thus allowing them to purge themselves of those very emotions. He predicted that “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Section 2, Part XIII). I. A. Richards, in his 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism, notes that tragedy thus creates a dual response; we look on in fascination, but we also want to recoil in horror: “Pity, the impulse to approach, and Terror, the impulse to retreat, are brought in Tragedy to a reconciliation which they find nowhere else.”
Donald Keesey, in his article “On Some Recent Interpretations of Catharsis,” argues that by imposing “artistic form on the most pitiable and frightening events,” tragedy “thus satisfies our ‘rage for order.’” What we see might be horrible, but from an artistic distance it seems to have a certain inevitable shape. H. D. F. Kitto puts it this way, in his “Catharsis” essay in The Classical Tradition: “mimesis removes the crudities of impact that the events would have in real life…It can surround the event with a certain grave, even appalling stillness, whereas the corresponding event in real life would be, so to speak, noisy and confused.” In other words, seeing a representation of tragedy puts viewers at one remove from them – so that they can think calmly and logically about events rather than being overcome with emotion as they would be in the moment.
“we now pay to attend concerts, read books, watch films, or attend theatrical performances where we may experience an emotional discharge in a way that is cathartic and liberating. In so doing, we participate directly in the suffering and pain reflected in the work, but in a ritualistic manner that does not crush us. This act of mourning thus helps us face up to our suffering and work through it in a healthy way rather than repressing it or being overcome by it.”
So although we are absorbed in the suffering portrayed on stage, screen, or page – almost as if we are a part of it – there is also a sense of relief in knowing that we do not have to live through this particular tragedy in the real world. That duality, of participating but simultaneously withdrawing, makes for an uneasy balance of feeling but, ultimately, Aristotle insists, a healing experience.
A case study: David Vann
Acknowledging the theory of catharsis when choosing books means trusting that reading what you find unpleasant will be uplifting in the end. By that logic, the unremittingly tragic view of the human condition found in David Vann’s three excellent works of fiction should be helpful, even therapeutic.
Perhaps you’ve heard Vann compared to Cormac McCarthy in terms of bleakness, along the lines of “Compared to Caribou Island, The Road is grim-lit lite” (that was Ian Sansom writing in the London Review of Books). I personally find that McCarthy books such as Blood Meridian are much more violent and nihilistic than Caribou Island. There’s no denying, though, that Vann’s vision of the human struggle is incredibly miserable.
In Caribou Island (2011) the tragic heroes are Gary and Irene, whose health and marriage are failing spectacularly in the desolate landscape of a remote Alaskan island. In building a cabin on Caribou Island, Gary pictures himself as a Viking colonizing a new world, but in reality he’s just a bit of a loner and a loser, trying to run away from a life and relationship that have never lived up to his expectations. The novel’s gory final tableau will certainly remind readers of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, but the story is also reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children; in both books, the characters’ grand dreams cruelly mock the mundaneness and perversity of their real lives.
Vann’s first book, Legend of a Suicide (2010), has many things in common with Caribou Island; in fact, Caribou Island could be seen as a sequel, as it reworks many of the grim tales of family breakdown and violence found in this short story collection, even reusing some of the same characters. Along with recurring themes of island isolation, fated lack of preparation, and suicidal despair, this book turns on a twist that smacks the reader upside the face. Once again Vann relies on the masterful, cruel reversal of fortune that characterizes the Aristotelian tragedy – though this time he was overtly inspired by his father’s suicide.
In Dirt (2012), his latest novel, Vann positively revels in the filth of everyday life. Twenty-two-year-old Galen and his mother live on the family walnut orchard in northern California. There’s enough money in the trust fund to keep them going, but not enough for Galen to start college – after his fourth year of deferral. The struggle between grubby reality and the purified mind is most evident in Galen’s kooky New Age spirituality. He’s obsessed with freeing himself of the attachments of family and ambition, and cleansing his body through a vegetarian diet and chastity. But the flesh is weak: he binges on hot dogs and acts on his lust for his cousin. When the whole family head out to a cabin in the woods for a short vacation, you just know something awful is going to happen. Galen’s mother finds out what’s going on between the cousins and vows to have her revenge; meanwhile, Galen decides to rid himself of the trappings of family forever. Throughout the novel “dirt” serves as both metaphor and literal reality, coating the characters and their possessions, tainting their lofty thoughts, reminding them that they and all their ambitions are but dust.
You should expect nothing less than a full-blown Greco-Shakespearean tragedy from David Vann. His novels have all the weight and horror of a King Lear or Oedipus. They also call to mind Thomas Hardy’s greatest tragedies, with characters crushed under the burden of Fate; as Galen thinks, it was “not as if he’d had a choice…The thing about a path was that it always led somewhere, and we could never pause on any path.” I believe that Vann’s novels perform the cathartic function of a classic tragedy: filling you, the average reader, with relief that you and your family aren’t as messed up as his miserable bunch of cretins. I don’t enjoy David Vann’s novels so much as breathlessly endure them through to their brutal conclusions. He may well have the most depressing oeuvre of any author I’ve read. Nevertheless, I think he is one hell of a talented author.
In Book Lust, Nancy Pearl singles out Life in the Air Ocean by Sylvia Foley as “surely one of the most depressing books I have ever read in a lifetime of reading grim and depressing books.” What’s the most depressing book you’ve ever read?
The ‘misery memoir’
‘Misery memoir’ is a term supposedly coined by The Bookseller magazine to characterize books that chronicle their author’s overcoming of trauma or abuse; one of the first examples would have been Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1999). Here I broaden it out to encompass all memoirs about tragic personal circumstances. I am, in fact, surprisingly devoted to books about illness and death. Indeed, many of the best books I read last year seemed to center on wasting illnesses and unexpected mortality. I attribute this not to a morbid personality but to a desire to read about what really matters: birth and death and the quality of the life in between. Perhaps I feel that in reading these types of memoirs I am getting close to the bone of what it means to be human and experience frailty and fatality.
The best book I read in 2012 was To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush, a Scottish professor and author who has also written two memoirs of his growing-up years, and several novels including the clever Will, from the perspective of a dying Shakespeare. To Travel Hopefully is an account of his wife’s sudden death from advanced breast cancer, and the therapeutic journey he then took through the French region of the Cévennes, replicating Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes from over a century previous. Pervasive and haunting literary echoes set the book’s melancholy tone: chiefly from the Bible and Shakespeare, but his quotations and allusions also range from Homer through Tennyson to Larkin – an English teacher’s treasure trove of consoling authors. The book’s title phrase comes from Stevenson, who said that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” I usually find metaphorical generalizations sappy and insincere, but I believe Rush wholeheartedly when he says we each have our own donkey – our burdens, our sources of grief – and our own journey.
Another wonderful account of a spouse’s illness is Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love, about her husband Paul’s stroke and subsequent loss of speech. The book chronicles Paul’s remarkable recovery, from having only one spoken syllable to – within four years (long past what many doctors would have called the golden window of opportunity) – publishing several novels. Ackerman recreates Paul’s state of mind throughout his ordeal, while also revealing the particular challenges of being a carer to a disabled spouse. The joy of this book is double: it’s not just a warming emotional story, but also an extraordinarily playful take on the language Diane and Paul could no longer take for granted. It makes for fascinating and inspiring reading.
Also among my favorite reads from last year is An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, an exquisitely written memoir of losing a child – and a worthy companion to Ann Hood’s Comfort and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. I have read almost too many poignant cancer memoirs to list, but a few that have struck me are Eating Pomegranates by Sarah Gabriel, C by John Diamond, and Mortality from the late Christopher Hitchens. And I mustn’t omit Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of cancer, The Emperor of all Maladies.
In an interesting New York Times article from 2010, Dr. Abigail Zuger asks whether patients’ memoirs are held to the same literary standards as other books. Are we allowed to criticize writing style and technique when dealing with stories of such pathos? Does a tearful tale trump the usual criteria for good prose? Zuger notes that some memoirs of illness can be poorly written, with clichés abounding, but still prove to be cathartic for people who are suffering from the same condition, even if, as she puts it, it’s not so much “There but for the grace of God go I” as “That’s me. There go I.” I can see that reading about one’s own situation would potentially be reassuring, but I disagree that it’s unlikely for a ‘misery memoir’ to be both emotionally powerful and a work of accomplished literature – just see all the great examples I’ve listed above.
Takes a little time sometimes: the question of readability. What makes the difference between those books you just can’t put down and the ones that take time and determination to finish?
 Goldstein, Harvey D. “Mimesis and Catharsis Reexamined,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 24.4 (1966): 567-77.
 Keesey, Donald. “On Some Recent Interpretations of Catharsis,” The Classical World 72.4 (1978-79): 193-205.