While my copy of Poetics has apparently gone walkabout, it seems like a general reminder of the meaning of katharsis might be timely. Why were people celebrating in the streets that bin Laden is dead? Because they feel this overwhelming catharsis, and that’s the only way they know how to express it.
It often surprises people to learn that a cathartic is any substance that purges feces from the body, or that the original Greek phrase specified the purging of menstrual fluid and semen. In fact, that’s why Aristotle snagged the term for Poetics – he wanted that medical association of purging, because he saw catharsis as being an emotional cleansing, purging, or evacuation.
In Poetics, catharsis is the extreme change in emotion that happens for character and audience after strong emotion, something that is achieved often through opposition – laughter set against tears, death that comes immediately after success (Whedon, I’m looking at you), and so on. It’s the release of pent up energy and emotion, or as Karen Armstrong summarizes in her book A History of God, tragedy effects a “catharsis of the emotions of terror and pity that [amount] to an experience of rebirth” (37).