Whimperings on Catharsis
A couple weeks ago I got an email calling out for stories, treatise, and expostulations upon the subject of catharsis. And as I do every time somebody emails me by mistake, I shall now reply at length.
You should have seen the size of the file I sent those Nigerians.
Ahem. I’ll start with the quote that was given to me:
“A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”
And that was like, Aristocrates, or whatever. Greek like a debt crisis.
But I don’t really know what any of that means. So I’m running with the contemporary definition of catharsis as being when you see something that makes you cry like a Republican on election night.
And so now this becomes an article perhaps not best suited for Minnesota Playlist and it’s emphasis on theater and dance since neither of those have, to my questionable memory, ever brought me to tears.
Which is not to say I don’t cry often. I’ve cried twice writing this essay (I misspelled minimum and it ruined me for two and a half minutes). Seriously, I’m the father of a two year old and I have a full time job, I’m one big walking, blogging, ruggedly handsome, frayed nerve. I cry when I see my son’s tiny shoes in the hallway. I cry when Country Roads plays on Pandora. I cry when I run out of espresso. I cried when I found out the Bryant Lake Bowl still had Surly Darkness on tap. I tear up a little bit with every paycheck, because it’s just so beautiful.
But theater? Dance? Not so much. I’ve seen shows that I thought were incredible, that spoke to my own story, that changed the way I think about the art, but at the end of it all my steely gaze remained unmoistened and my tissues, pristine.
No, the last time I cried because of a performance (not counting the movie Ghost...there’s just something about clay…) was when I saw Yo-Yo Ma play at the Saint Paul Cathedral. This was a while ago, late 90’s. Post-Bobby McFerrin, Pre-Appalachian/Irish/World-Music-collaboration.
Yo-Yo – or as I affectionately refer to him, Mr. Ma – was touring an album of Bach’s cello suites which, because I’m a nerd, I own.
By the way, if you’ve never listened to Bach’s cello suites, you may discover that you’re actually a weak little baby with no brain. If nothing else, check out the prelude to the first suite. You’ll either thank me, or have just had to wait another five minutes before you watch Jersey Shore.
Anyway, so the concert was great. A little long, maybe, to watch a little Chinese dude sit behind a cello for a few hours if you had the cheap seats, but it was great nonetheless.
And then there was the encore.
To this day, I still don’t know what he played. I asked one of my professors at the Macalester Music Department who’d also been to the show, and he didn’t know either. I couldn’t hum it for you, I actually have no memory of the melody whatsoever. I might not even recognize if I heard it again.
But there, then, it destroyed me.
I remember it was slow - the notes took their time. Was it the cathedral itself? Did the sound waves hit that "God Spot" on the back wall above the toilets before they hit me? Slap that onto the long list of things I’ll never know, between the appeal of Michelle Bachmann and how many donuts are enough.
But I could feel those notes in my teeth. When he drew his bow across the strings my sternum vibrated. In the intervals between pitches where resides the soul of a song I found some essential reflection of my existence.
The whole of my identity, from respirating vertebrate to Euro-American loveable rogue was reduced to its component parts, the base fibers of my being (and they were fibers, not globules of atoms, not spherical electron clouds, they were fibers, threads woven together to make this delicious me) the fibers of my being were laid out on that wooden pew and it was futile and wondrous and hideous and elegant and brutal and so, so beautiful and it would never, ever happen again and could never have possibly happened until now and it needed to happen.
I needed to happen.
And then the song ended. And we clapped. And walked back out into the darkness and started worrying about stupid pointless things and looking forward to stupid pointless things, and didn’t any of you just hear that? Were any of you even there? Why do your knees still work?
And the spell faded and reality slipped back into my pores. And life rolled on.
So, catharsis. That’s what I got. Why music? Why music with no lyrics, no less? Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, I love these guys, I listen to them all the time, I find my life in the stories they tell.
And I love theater. It’s immediate, it breathes. And when you find the right play in the right space with the right actors you feel like you’re watching your own biography. And I even love dance, though I don’t get to see it often. It’s primal and sweaty and visceral and speaks too broadly for words.
But none of them hit me like that piece of music. I can’t wax philosophic on dance much since it’s a language I don’t really speak, but for the rest, my only thought would be that, thematically at least, theater comes to you. It’s presenting something to you directly, where you sit. It’s got characters and a time period and physical things which are unquestionably chairs and bonnets and stuffed moose heads, whatever your personal interpretation of their significance may be. “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” or “Innocent When You Dream” have the same handicap, in that the story being told is set before it gets to your ears.
Double-Yo Ma’s piece, though, or Bach’s Cello Suites or ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,’ or, Buddha forbid, Manheim Steamroller, all force you to come to them. They make you do the work. You bring your own story to the song to watch it play out. It forces your imagination to find the points to lock onto moreso than any scripted act.
Which is why, if anybody asked (they haven’t) my advice on how to make theater that inspires catharsis in the audience, my answer would be, don’t. Skip the agenda. There will always be that middle aged, lonely democrat from Stillwater who cries at whatever brave, important work is being done, and thankful we are for him. But that’s his white guilt tripping the catharsis switch, not your script. Any teacher will tell you: kids can smell bullshit a mile away, and there are some things we never outgrow. Master the basics of your craft. Make your work honest. Make yourself vulnerable. If catharsis is going to happen, that’s when it will.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to Phil Collins and sob in the bathtub. Strong men also cry.