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Wells, D. (2002). Tragedy, Catharsis and Creativity: From Aristotle to Freud to Winnicott. Free Associations, 9(3):463-478.

(2002). Free Associations, 9(3):463-478

Tragedy, Catharsis and Creativity: From Aristotle to Freud to Winnicott

David Wells

The Pleasure Experienced by the audience of a tragic drama poses an enduring puzzle. How can the representation of suffering be enjoyable, other than to a sadist? According to Aristotle, tragedy by presenting pity and fear accomplishes a catharsis of those emotions (Dorsch, 1965, p. 39), which explanation raises, however, the equally enduring problem of the nature of this claimed catharsis.

Plato, as so often, disagreed with Aristotle: he asserted that poetry ‘feeds and waters the passions’ and would have banished poets from his ideal state (Wimsatt & Brooks, 1957, p. 611). Modern psychological research might seem to side with Plato: showing aggressive acts to children evokes, not undermines, aggression (Bandura et al., 1963). Anyway, Aristotle himself never supposed that the horrors of warfare were cathartic. Why is tragic drama?

Greek tragedy mirrored Greek society which was extraordinarily competitive. Agon (struggle, contest) was central not only to warfare and their athletic games, and the law courts, but also to musical performances at festivals, and the tragic and comic dramas.

However, according to Greek folk psychology, success in agon naturally led to hubris, overweening pride, which exposed the winner to the envy (phthonos) of others. In his fantasy of omnipotence, he struggled against moira, Fate, and was envied even by the gods, created, of course, in the Greek image. As Xenophanes put it, ‘If the ox could paint a picture, his god would look like an ox’ (Dodds, 1971, p. 181).


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