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Varvin, S. (1994). Katharsis. Sjælens Renselse I Psykoanalyse Og Tragedie (Catharsis. The purification of the soul in psychoanalysis and tragedy.): Judy Gammelgaard, Copenhagen, Hans Reitzels forlag . 417 pp.. Scand. Psychoanal. Rev., 17(1):84-86.

(1994). Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 17(1):84-86

Katharsis. Sjælens Renselse I Psykoanalyse Og Tragedie (Catharsis. The purification of the soul in psychoanalysis and tragedy.): Judy Gammelgaard, Copenhagen, Hans Reitzels forlag 1993. 417 pp.

Review by:
Sverre Varvin

Many so-called alternative therapy-forms have a simplified conception of cure with an important underlying misconception of “catharsis”. We know from the gestalt therapies and the different forms of new-age therapies, the stress they put on abreaction and the “getting out” of feelings. “You put your imaginary parent in an imaginary chair, and cry out the things you never dared to say”, or you just shout. This can be a relief but is not therapeutic in itself. (It can give you a nice (or horrifying) weekend, but it is dubious if it will change anything.)

This book is an extensive critique of the conception of catharsis on which these therapies are built. But it is much more. Those who will give themselves the time to read this most scholarly and thorough doctoral thesis on catharsis will not only be better equipped to understand the fallacies of modern therapeutic vogue, but will also journey through some important aspects of the origins of psychoanalysis and, not the least, see a very interesting exposition of the classic tragedies interpreted through and with the help of Aristotle.

The structure of tragedy, as defined by Aristotle, has four elements: pathos (that which shakes you, an act which is condemnable, i.e., an act of killing, inflicting wounds on another, especially within the family), hamartia (the heros' mistake), peripeti (the turning-point caused by destiny) and anagnorisis (insight, getting to know). This was beautifully demonstrated in a book by a modern tragedy-teller which this reviewer happened to read at the same time—“Tar baby”, by Nobel-prize-winner Toni Morrison (1).

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