Monday, 21 February 2011

Meta-thoughts on Catharsis

I was caught out this week at work when Johnny Cash’s cover of NIN’s ‘Hurt’ came on whilst I was innocently listening to Kerrang! Radio and, of course, bouncing about at my desk bobbing my head like a demented string puppet, or a Bobblehead.

This practice of occasionally very quietly Rawking Out at my desk is sometimes the only thing that can keep me from repeatedly smacking my forehead against the desk and is generally performed during about hour 72 of a particularly frustrating spread sheet and has so far stopped any Falling Down-esque Michael Douglas moments:

“What about the brief case? You forgot the brief case! I'm going home! So clear a path, you mother****s! Clear a path! I'M GOING HOME!”

Anyway, I was wading through a pile of stuff which I can’t be bothered to explain as I am sure you really don’t want to know (I want you, dear reader, to keep reading and not fall into a coma) until the first bars of the song started up and I had to stop what I was doing and stare into the middle distance. Only seconds before, I was merrily nodding and jiving (albeit in a small, please don’t notice or comment on me way) and tippy-tappying on the old keyboard but the moment the song started I froze. I stared into space for those four or so minutes and let the sadness of the song build up, whilst having all kinds of meta-thought about the cathartic nature of sadness and how music can be a fantastic catalyst for this process.

You can be happy as the proverbial clam, pootling along within the confines of your day then suddenly- whammo – the likes of Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley will appear and you are transformed into some pale, consumptive version of yourself, musing on the bleakness of existence and the darkness of your own soulscape or some other emo lyric. If the wind changes and you stay that way, your only hope is to dye your hair black, get a blind man with severe DTs to crop aforementioned hair, develop a strong hatred for the colour pink and complain a lot about how everything sucks: maybe you’ll be famous one day.

For those of you who, after a period of time, come out the other side of your funk you will notice that the day is brighter and that things are ok. This, we are told is the cathartic process in effect and apparently it is good for you.

A Google search on the term catharsis gives some interesting definitions:
  • an American hardcore punk band, associated with "Holy Terror", a phenomenon commonly regarded as a form of apocalyptic metallic hardcore that was breeding during the mid-'90s.
  • a Russian power metal band who originally played doom metal, but have since develop their style to symphonic metal.

Ok, I have no idea what apocalyptic metallic hardcore, doom metal or symphonic metal is, but my lack of understanding of the increasingly complex naming conventions in the music world aside, I am guessing that these bands both chose to brand their various caterwauling efforts with the name Catharsis because of the general meaning of the Greek word (κάθαρσις) meaning "cleansing" or "purging".

Catharsis can happen in many different ways. Aristotle talks about it taking place in a play when it occurs for one or more of its characters, as well as being part of the audience’s experience. It describes an extreme change in emotion, occurring as the result of experiencing strong feelings, such as sorrow, fear, pity, or even laughter. (Poetics, 1449b25f, via Wikipedia)

This should not, however be used as an excuse for watching any old tripe – “but mum, it’s cathartic for me to watch this trash, I’ll finish pondering on the emptiness of my existence for 5 more minutes and then get back to cleaning my bedroom” – watching Eastenders on Christmas Day just to see who bumps off whom, and who ends up in tears is merely schadenfreude (a wonderful, wonderful thing, by the way, but not catharsis) and there is no excuse for watching Hollyoaks ever.

Catharsis makes us feel better and, I infer, less likely to kick the dog, spouse or inanimate object in our houses. So save your toe bones and next time you hear that song, watch that film or read that book go on, have a good old cathartic moment. Wallow. Indulge! Help yourself!

But please make sure you have a friend with a prodding stick on standby, just in case the wind changes.

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