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Binstock, W.A. (1973). Purgation Through Pity and Terror. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 54:499-504.

(1973). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 54:499-504

Purgation Through Pity and Terror Related Papers

William A. Binstock

Aristotle's doctrine of tragic catharsis has stood as a challenge to the educated for 2, 500 years. Undertaking a work on poetics, he delineated a fascinating psychological phenomenon—the subjective experience of ennoblement produced by witnessing a certain type of work of art. The doctrine of medical catharsis challenges the educated and uneducated alike. It is at least as old as recorded history, yet its appeal is as self-renewing as the promise of spring. People persist in believing that any physical illness will benefit from 'a good bowel movement' and that any mental illness will benefit from an emotional paroxysm. The idea about art is the invention of one man of genius; the medical idea is a collective production of the human race.

Both of these doctrines are as poor in intellectual clarity as they are rich in emotional appeal. Having analysed the tragic drama as a compound of 'imitation, inspiration and catharsis', Aristotle set down a sentence generally translated into modern English to the effect that tragedy functions through the arousal of pity and terror to achieve a proper Katharsis, or purgation, of these same emotions. It is no small task to comprehend how this aristocratic intellectual, formulating the core of his supreme contribution to aesthetics, came to enthrone there the metaphor of constipation. Here psychoanalysis can pick up the scent which classics cannot follow.

We will never know what Aristotle really meant. The fascinating, yet exhausting, proliferation of interpretations through two and a half millennia is roughly grouped by scholars into the 'aesthetic', the 'moral' and the 'pathological', but, as Robertson (1937) concludes from his exemplary survey, these adjectives are vague in application, and the various theories can tell us more about their own cultural origins than about classic truths.

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