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j^rThe Impact of Literature upon Health: Some Varieties of Cathartic Response Angela Belli The inscription on die door of die Library at ancient Thebes carried the simple motto, "Medicine for the soul." In die twentieth century, or more precisely on the tenth of December 1950, dvilized sodety was reminded once more of die value of literature as medicine for the soul. On that particular date —some five years after die dropping of die atomic bomb on Hiroshima —an American novelist, William Faulkner, stood before an audience in Stockholm to accept die Nobel Prize for Literature. Faulkner's concern on that day was diat the current and universal fear of the annihilation of rivilization had so absorbed young writers diat diey could direct their art solely to the exploration of one question, "When will I be blown up?" The Nobel Laureate seized die occasion to reaffirm the duty of the writer, as he saw it, to explore the conflicts of the human heart and to express die old, universal trudis of love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Faulkner rejected die possibility of total annihilation and expressed his own faith in the capadty of the human spirit to endure. Maintaining that it is die spedal privilege of die writer to help people endure by lifting dieir hearts, he conduded his acceptance speech by declaring, "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of die props, die pillars to help him endure and prevail."1 In more esoteric fashion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge conveyed a sense of the poet's unique gift in memorable lines from "Kubla Khan": Weave a cirde round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, Literature and Medicine 5 (1986) 90-108 C 1986 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Angela Belli 91 For he on honey-dew hath fed. And drunk die milk of Paradise. (lines 51-54) The poet is to be insulated, protected by the magic of ritual, for he — unlike odier men —stands as intermediary between die temporal and spiritual worlds, transmitting unique perceptions of reality. His gift, divinely bestowed, is die power to help people endure by transforming their lives. Of die various artistic means used by the writer to bring his or her vision to odiers, not die least fascinating is die phenomenon of catharsis. Greek in origin, of course, the term means simply "to clean or purify." Physiologically, the term refers to a riddance of congestive matter, such as follows the taking of a purgative, along with a resulting feeling of general well-being. It was Aristotle, the son of a physidan, who applied the term to the moral or spiritual purification which he found to occur at a dramatic performance when certain extreme and, possibly, dangerous subconsdous emotions in the spectator were released by the playwright, with the result of inducing a spiritual renewal or rebirth in the individual. Such a personal examination and growtii was the healthy cadiartic effect die dramatist aimed at. To die extent diat he succeeded, art could be viewed as therapeutic . The process is particularly benefidal in situations where there exist powerful external and/or internal controls on die discharge of emotion. In altering die audience's perceptions, both of self and of the world, die artist proceeds first to evoke a wide range of hypnotic, assodative, and identificative experiences. The last is most crudal. For in order to undergo a profound emotional upheaval, spectators must empadiize with the hero; they must know the hero's suffering, usually by finding themselves in a parallel situation. As die action unfolds, the spectators recall and even relive harrowing events in their own lives. This is not to suggest that the experience of die fictional hero need coindde predsely with that of the spectator, but diat bodi experiences must be universal. The hero's situation may symbolize or represent a pattern of action identifiable to the spectator . The work need not be an exceptionally distinguished one. AU that is required to bring about a cadiartic response is diat an action or image stimulate some deep emotion, often repressed, in the beholder. The process occurs...


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pp. 90-108
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