I’m kind of an emotional junkie. Whether due to empathy, sensitivity or maladaptation, I tend to feel emotion (both mine and other people’s) really intensely and, every now and then, I like putting myself in the position of feeling something to a nearly painful degree (hello inner sadist).
That said, I prefer the experience to be self-inflicted – breaking my own heart of one thing. Having it broken by someone else is another….unless that someone is a book.
If a book breaks my heart (or makes me giggle until I cry; or scares me so badly that I’m afraid of my own bed), I will love it hard. I will also be really impressed – any author who can effect my cortisol levels is an author I respect.
It’s to do with catharsis. Life requires that I maintain an even emotional keel, which is good but also challenging, especially when you’re a highly-feely-feeler person. My big feely-feelers tend to make a mess out of things if I don’t maintain an objective perspective, so a great deal of my energy goes into being mindful of where I am in a situation and how I feel about it.
Over the years, I’ve found that it’s the best way (for me) to maintain an emotional equilibriumI can feel my feely-feelers without A. making a huge mess of things or B. suppressing them. But it also means that I process through a lot of emotions that don’t get verbally expressed as intensely as I feel them. Enter catharsis – the process of releasing (and thereby getting relief from) strong emotions.
Let’s go back to my inner sadist. She would both love for my heart to get broken so I could do something grand and tragic like throw myself in front of a train. While I would never actually do that (because I seriously want to live), I still crave the emotional catharsis that comes from those heightened emotions. So, rather than becoming one with the A-train, I read Anna Karenina and boom. I’m sobbing in bed as beautiful Anna does what my logical, even-keeled self would never do. And goddamn if it doesn’t feel good.
Dialing it back a bit, the truth is that I don’t care how “good” a book is so long as it makes me feel genuine emotion. Even if it doesn’t reach Russian novel levels of catharsis, I like feeling and that only happens when an author gets under my skin by over-riding my brain.
I can enjoy a book without this happening, just like I can enjoy sex that doesn’t turn my world technicolor. But every now and then, I stumble over a book that digs right in and hurts. And I love it. So, if I want this, why don’t I go straight for books like The Road – books that I know will hurt to read?
Let me compare it to dating. It’s going on OkC vs. randomly meeting someone and hitting it off. There’s nothing wrong with OkC but, for me, the sparks really fly when chemistry smacks you right out of the blue.
So, bringing it back to books, I know that reading Sophie’s Choice will fuck me up. I know exactly how and why. Reading it would be pointless self-torture and catharsis isn’t that. It’s the release of emotions you have inside you, not poking a stick at things that already hurts.
This makes catharsis a really personal, hard-to-predict thing. It has as much to do with what I’m bringing to the table, as it does with the book. In other words, it’s all about my context and how the book plays with it.
I can pick up a book like The Natural Order of Things (which I will eventually read along with A Little Life. Sophie’s Choice can fuck off) expecting a catharsis that doesn’t come, just like you can go on OkC, find a 99% match and find, as soon as you meet them, that the spark isn’t there. Alternatively, I could be reading blithely along and get punched in the face with it. You can’t make catharsis happen any more than you can force sexual chemistry. It either happens or it doesn’t. You’re just along for the ride.
So, cathartic books that I never saw coming….
Affinity by Sarah Waters. Holy god, I felt physically sick. It was glorious. Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons was the same thing. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, The Rogue Pirate’s Bride (don’t even fucking ask), “The Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker…they all came out swinging from left field. Each one of the wrecked me and, after the emotional high passed, I was left with a level of emotional clarity I hadn’t had before.
Ultimately, that’s what I’m after. I want my foundations rocked – it’s a way of living vicariously through words. That’s why it hurt to leave acting – interpreting a role was an emotional joy. It’s why I write character driven stories. Catharsis is an earthquake that causes a shift and I want to feel (and be responsible for) that movement. I want the pain and intensity of it, along with the happiness and joy.
Catharsis gives me a place to put all of my emotions that have nowhere healthy to go. It gives me perspective on experiences I’ve had and a window into worlds that I will never see, and those are beautiful things. I want to be affected. I want to feel. I want to live more life than I have to live. The joy of literary catharsis is that it allows me to experience emotional intensity (and feel a sliver of its aftermath) without taking the destruction on as my own.