Catharsis

The Greek word catharsis, heard in Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception, was unfamiliar to me. The authors I read usually translated it by purgation (same in French and English), or used other words to convey the idea. Nolan applies it to the relationship between Fischer (the “inception” target) and his father. Reading some reviews afterwards, I came upon Bishop Robert Barron’s YouTube commentary of Inception, where he dwells mostly on the spiritual Christian meaning of catharsis.

Bishop Barron says how he was taken aback by the “relentlessly secular” aspect of the movie, and the “mercenary purpose” of the “inception.” He then proceeds to describe the “old venerable spiritual practice” of Catholic contemplatives on their “inner journey to discover God.” This type of catharsis is quite expectedly absent from Nolan’s movie, as it is applicable to ascetic and mystic theology. The film author used the term rather in the second and third meanings, related to literature and psychology respectively.

Four meanings

The first meaning of catharsis is medical, and retains its original Greek literal sense of bodily purgation in an attempt to cure an illness. A cathartic substance is a purgative one.

The second meaning, in classical literature, is the emotional release provided by an artistic or theatrical experience, such as a Greek tragedy. Maritain alluded to this in passing in his book Three Reformers, and quoted it as “the purgation of passions by tragedy.”

The classic metaphor probably mutated into the psychoanalytic contemporary meaning of liberation from repressed feelings and traumatic experiences. This third meaning is especially obvious in the movie when Nolan appends it with the word “reconciliation” while speaking of Fischer’s relationship with his father.

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