andrian_kreye's picture
Editor-at-large of the German Daily Newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich
The Promise Of Catharsis

There are no cathartic moments in evolution. There are plenty in faith and ideology. With the former being a mostly private affair in modern society and the latter a remnant of the 20th century one should not have to worry about the lure of catharsis anymore. Still there it is, keeping those shut doors to irrational groupthink a tiny crack open.

It might not be possible to ever get rid of this powerful lure though. In the Western world this mindset has been embedded in the cultural DNA too deeply. There is no art form that has not built-in mechanisms that simulate catharsis. Most have been derived from religion.

Take the best-known and powerful of examples—Beethoven's 9th symphony. There are very good reasons, why this work is performed whenever there is the need to soothe a grieving collective or to enhance a moment of national unity. After the attacks of September 11 there were countless performances of the piece worldwide. The divided Cold-War-Germany played it, whenever sports teams of both parts joined forces. The European Union has chosen the choral "Ode to Joy" from the fourth movement as her anthem.

It is easy to hear how this works. The overall key of the 9th is the tragic D-minor. Over the course of an hour this somber mood is lifted slowly, until the fourth movement breaks into the jubilant chorus based on Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy". This is solid 19th century instant catharsis. And there is no doubt, where this joy comes from. The key part of the poem starts "Joy, beautiful spark of Gods".

Just like Beethoven's 9th resorts to the dynamics of a church service withs a sermon promising a rapture-like end to all worries, even pop culture riffs on the spiritual lift. Take a great Rock or Soul song or concert. In the perfect case there will be an exhilarating opening, after which the rhythm will slow down below the speed of a heartbeat. If the drumming and the groove are convincing, the human pulse will adapt. Step by step the music will accelerate the rhythms speed up past the regular heartbeat. Lighting, movement and volume will help to create a state of ecstasy. Those tricks are borrowed from faiths like Voodoo or Baptism. Ever wonder why U2 concerts are always experiences as such an ecstatic event? They openly borrow from the traditions of Catholicism.

The same leitmotifs of catharsis can be found in literature, theatre and film. The classic three act drama still taught in film school is built like a holy book: setup, conflict, resolution. In narrative art catharsis isn't even a reference. When Aristotle came up with the structure of tragedy in the 4th century B.C., the catharsis of the audience's emotions was his outspoken goal.

The urge to experience catharsis is of course so strong, because it always embodies salvation. After the rapture there is paradise. This dynamic even transcended to the scientific. What else would the singularity moment be, but a technological rapture that absolves humanity from being the ultimate responsible party on this planet?

The problem with catharsis though is that it will always remain an empty promise. There is no paradise, no salvation, no ultimate victory. Progress is a tedious process of trial and error, no matter if it is biological, scientific or social. If one or all work towards an unobtainable goal, much effort is wasted and the appearance of false prophets almost a given. Catharsis thus becomes the ultimate antagonist of rational thinking. If there is paradise in the beyond, why bother with the here and now.

There will be no way to change our mental blueprint though. The simulation of catharsis is the very way we enjoy art, music, stories, even sports. Every joke's punch line, every hook of a song promises this tiny moment of release. That is all there is after catharsis. To ask one to refrain from giving into this urge would lead to joyless forms of Puritanism. If aware of the patterns and dynamic of catharsis though, it is possible to see the thresholds of escapism.