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Askew, M.W. (1961). Catharsis and Modern Tragedy. Psychoanal. Rev., 48C(3):81-88.

(1961). Psychoanalytic Review, 48C(3):81-88

Catharsis and Modern Tragedy

Melvin W. Askew, Ph.D.

The analogy between catharsis as it occurs in tragic drama and as it occurs in the psychotherapeutic situation proved to be a fruitful one; it at least demonstrated, if it did not add, another dimension to the psychological concept of catharsis. Since the analogy is such a close one, and since it proved valuable psychologically, it might be profitable to reverse the perspective in order to see, first, if the analogy cannot illuminate some of the sources of tragic effectiveness and provide some basis for a distinction between aesthetic and psychotherapeutic catharsis; second, if the somewhat deplorable critical confusion about modern tragedy—at least the confusion arising when classical tenets are applied to it—may not be clarified.

The analogy is simply as follows: catharsis in classical drama occurs when the discordant actions, impulses, and thoughts of the tragic hero are composed upon the background of an orderly moral, ethical, social, and/or religious system; similarly, psychotherapeutic catharsis occurs when discordant thoughts, feelings, and emotions (and perhaps deeds) are composed (by the therapist) against the ‘orderly’ self-system of the client. In both instances the actions and passions do not simply and magically disappear, but rather they become part of the texture, part of the background itself against which formerly they were seen in frightful and distorted relief; thus the terrible is portrayed in a context with which it can achieve harmony, and the frightful is assimilated into a larger pattern or system where its fearfulness is dissipated by organization and meaning and its characteristics seen in more realistic proportions.


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