Catharsis, Music, and the Mysteries in Aristotle
Of the many meanings of katharsis available to Aristotle, two have predominated in scholarly attempts to say what the word means in the Poetics when “the katharsis of pity and fear produced by pity and fear” is defined as the aim of tragedy. The past thirty years have seen a concerted effort among scholars of the Poetics to overturn Jacob Bernays’ appeal to Aristotle’s use of katharsis in his Politics (1342a10-11) with its medical meaning of ‘purgation’ as the basis of his theory that tragedy provides a harmless ‘outlet’ for emotions; against this, Plato’s notion of intellectual ‘purification’ as a kind of katharsis has been invoked to argue that the workings of the tragic art were fundamentally cognitive and resulted in the ethical ‘clarification’ of the audience. The present essay proposes that Aristotle’s theory of tragedy was deeply informed by another meaning of the word in his day: the ecstatic release provided by certain mystery cults. After underlining Aristotle’s familiarity with such rituals, it draws on Walter Burkert’s Ancient Mystery Cults to bring out suggestive commonalities between mystery initiations and theatre. The ‘telestic’ ‘initiations’ (τέλη) aimed not at the afterlife but at alleviating fears and anxieties of initiates; both their secret nocturnal ceremonies and public choral processions were dramatic and highly theatrical, with an essential role played by ecstasy-inducing ‘sacred tunes’. In order to discern the relevance of telestic katharsis to the Poetics it is necessary not to focus solely on the definition of tragedy in chapter 6 but to appreciate the anthropological approach to the poetic arts in chapter 4. This context supplies, if not a fully worked out model of tragic katharsis, a broad-based explanation of how human beings might respond to imitations of terrible things with pleasure and profit.
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