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Askew, M.W. (1960). Classical Tragedy and Psychotherapeutic Catharsis. Psychoanal. Rev., 47C(3):116-123.

(1960). Psychoanalytic Review, 47C(3):116-123

Classical Tragedy and Psychotherapeutic Catharsis

Melvin W. Askew, Ph.D.


The psychologizing of literary men cannot, I suspect, declare any greater precedents than those established by Plato and Aristotle; but the value of this union of two analogous orientations is amply attested by the heavy dependence of this avowedly critical age upon psychology and the happy tribute which pioneering psychological theorists have paid to literature. Curiously, however, in this mutual exploitation of insights, a remarkably profitable area of exploration has been neglected by the psychologists; and this is particularly remarkable since the art medium and psychology share similar terminology: I mean specifically the classical tragedy and the concept of catharsis.

One would scarcely hope ever to explain catharsis, either in literature or psychology, down to its final ramifications in the intellect, the emotions, and the feelings; and this paper is certainly not dedicated to such a pretentious undertaking. However, the analogy between what happens in a classical tragedy and what happens in a completed series of therapeutic contacts is astonishingly close, and a great deal of valuable insight, I think, may be available to the therapist who will make a closer study of the structure of this traditional art form. The nature of the insight, it must be admitted, will not be into the final definition of catharsis, but into its form, its operation, and its mechanics.

This is not to say that tragedy, its social effects, and the world view it promulgates have not been abundantly treated by psychologists. They have. The larger conformations of tragedy, however, the structure of the art form itself—a form which conduces to catharsis— has not yet been correlated with suficient precision to the structure of psychoanalysis and the catharsis to which it conduces.

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