I think that I had a cheeky katharsis the other night at the opera. I can say it was involuntary - I spent the first two acts wondering if I could leave -and that it involved physiological symptoms.
Fans of Hellenistic philosophy will recognise katharsis as Aristotle's word for the audience experience at a good tragedy. Luckily, Aristotle's extant writing don't define the word that well, so it's open for argument. Leon Golden (Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis, 1992) has a whole chapter on it. Like Sifakis' chapter on the same word, it's a run down and a running down of competing ideas, beginning with the popular medical interpretation by Jacob Bernays.
Tighten your seatbelts. I am going to join in and list all these amazing interpretations. Rather than give my own opinion at the end, like a proper scholar, I'll just say now that 'purging' is close enough, and that gives enough information for individuals to think about it, without all the cross-referencing and learned analysis.
Katharsis is like puking your guts up
In 1857 - well after the enlightenment, so it is really trust-worthy - Bernays said Aristotle was always banging on about katharsis, and it is a medical word, and so it's about the process of healing, featuring a good spew of excess bile. Golden counters that the vomit and shit school ignore that when Aristotle mentions it in The Politics, he is talking about education, not tragedy, and it's more appropriate to have a medical metaphor involving bodily fluids when kids are involved.
In The Politics, having a good emotional puke is good way of getting a balanced soul. He even mentions the right kind of music to induce it. Bernays, apparently, calls katharsis a necessary cure (this leads Sifakis to get way too literal, asking what the illness might be that requires a purging cure. Frankly, if you are asking why people have an excess of emotion that needs an outlet, you want to get out more. Or read Facebook, and all those posts about David Cameron having a good lie to the public. Then you'll see...).
No, the whole fish supper doesn't come back up
Getting away from the buckets of sick with all bits of fear and pity in them, like sweetcorn on a shit, Milton off Paradise Lost had a theory. You can read about it in Golden or Sifakis, they cover the same ground. To be honest, there's not much difference, only Milton and his followers think the purgation of katharsis aims to achieve a mean of emotion, while Bernays and the gang see it as a complete emptying of the emotions, like when you are really sick and end up spitting bile in the toilet because breakfast is already swimming with the fishes.
Actually, it's nothing to do with spewing
But Golden keeps going. He cites H. Otte and G. Else, who call katharsis the defining characteristic of tragedy: if you don't get some, what you are watching is not tragedy. Otte adds that katharsis happens not to the audience but to the plot: that is, it is about purging the story of 'possible moral pollution'. Else piles in with a more cerebral twist: the audience recognise that the protagonist in a tragedy (who has probably done something like fuck his mum) was ignorant in his behaviour and was basically a good bloke. It's the old 'why bad things happen to good people' trope, only this time, it has a specific emotional response which is triggered by an intellectual recognition.
At least that katharsis doesn't get all over my shoes.
There's plenty more, and I'll get back onto it another time - just like Aristotle, when the going gets tough, I'll say you can read about it later: most of the problems with interpretation came about because he promised, in The Politics, to deal with katharsis more fully in The Poetics, but he probably got distracted by whatever they had instead of Facebook in the fourth century BC and didn't. The way I used katharsis in the first paragraph is a good example of the problem. It's a synonym for a 'peak theatrical experience'. That's terrible scholarship.