The Joy of Catharsis

Black and white photograph of a woman in a white dress lying on train tracks, for The Joy of Catharsis by Malin James

Photograph by Marco Sanges (2011)

I’m a feelings junkie. This isn’t always a healthy thing, but it is the way I’m wired and I’ve learned to work with it. 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 to nearly painful degrees.

If a book breaks my heart, or makes me snort on the train, or scares me so badly that I’m afraid of my own bed, I will love that book, and the person who wrote it, hard. Any author who can effect my cortisol levels is an author I respect. It’s all about catharsis, and the relief that comes with it.

Living life as a functioning adult requires that I maintain an even emotional keel. This is a very good thing, but it can also be a challenge, 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 ways of maintaining my emotional equilibrium that let me feel my feely-feelers without A. making a huge mess of things or B. suppressing them. But this generally means that I experience 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.

My inner sadist would love for my heart to get broken so I could do something grand and tragic like throw myself at a train like Anna Karenina. While I would never actually do that (because I really 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.

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 mess me up. I know exactly how and why. Reading it would be pointless self-torture, and that’s not what catharsis is. 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 not so much), 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 an airport thriller 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 ask), “The Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker…they all came out swinging from left field. Each one of them wrecked me and, after the big ol’ feelers 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. 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 in books give 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.