The emotional response to literature: an explanation of ecstasy and katharsis

So…I have long wondered what makes good literature good.  I know that this question is partially answered solely through the bias of taste; however, I know that there are some books, some stories, that seem to transcend not only time and cultures, but even what someone would typically like or dislike.  During my time studying and reading, I explored the nature of the emotional responses we have to good literature.  Aristotle was the first to look into this phenomenon.  He called it katharsis. Later, other writers, philosophers, and orators would come up with their own postulations about it.  So…here for your reading pleasure is a little treatise on the concept of ecstasy and katharsis as it relates to knowing and understanding good literature.

“For the effect of elevated language is not to persuade the hearers, but to amaze them… The extent to which we can be persuaded is usually under our own control, both these sublime passages exert an irresistible force and mastery, and get the upper hand with every hearer”(Longinus 114).  

Aristotle was the first to give credence to emotional response in literature.  He called the emotional experience katharsis—a release of pent up emotions, mainly pity and fear. Aristotle’s katharsis is experienced primarily through tragedy.  For Longinus the experience is something different, something that requires higher emotions.  It goes beyond merely purging the soul; it transports the soul.  The ecstasy that Longinus writes about any sublime passage can transport the hearer there. When making the distinction between the two types of emotional sublimity, ecstasy and katharsis, there are more similarities then differences.  As T. R. Henn suggests, “both the katharsis and the ekstasis may be regarded as two different manifestations of the same phenomenon, capable of existing separately or combined” (135).

Ekstasis, or as we have incorporated it into the vernacular, ecstasy, is the notion of transport that Longinus says elevated language will cause. Other translations connect ecstasy to the concept of amazement as can be seen in the first quote.  Immense pleasure or amazement is received in hearing excellence.  This sort of pleasure is not something the author can persuade us to experience.  It “is stronger than persuasion or the incidental pleasure attended on persuasion, for the audience is powerless to resist έκστασις (ecstasis).” (Olson 232).  Just as Aristotle’s audience attending a tragedy could not resist experiencing katharsis. The hearers are more then persuaded, it is an involuntary response the tragedy. It is a universal response.

Longinus says “by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with the proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy” (120). This strictly emotional response ties the author to the hearer as they share in the wondrous transport of the same experience.  This oneness starts with the author, during his writing process, when he is transported by the sheer greatness of the content.   Longinus uses the example of Euripides: “would you not say that the soul of the poet goes into the chariot with the boy, sharing his danger and joining the horses in their flight? For he could never have visualized such things had he not been swept along, keeping pace with those celestial bodies” (134). This same rapturous transport that takes the author into the heavenly realms is the transport that the hearer experiences later when the passage is preformed or spoken. Macksey explains this duel transport:

It is Euripides’ terrifying image of the Furies, whom the poet has ‘seen’ and ‘almost compelled his audience, was well, to see,’ that allows Longinus to make an important shift from a mimetic motion of the image (a ‘picture’ vividly presented for inspection) to an emotive response to the fabulous that is communicated from the rapt poet to his audience (920).

This culminating emotional experience is what Longinus considers to be the greatest pleasure. And it should be noted that Longinus is using tragedies as his examples.  Longinus’s ecstasy is the katharsis Aristotle lauds at the end of a tragedy, so the pleasure of the shared rapture follows the hearer beyond the final acts.

Part of what makes ecstasy so wondrous is that it is unexpected.  Like a thunderbolt “a well-timed stroke of sublimity scatters everything before it” (Longinus 114).   The anticipation for what comes next is like a suspense thriller without the cheap gimmicks. Though the sublime passages are unexpected to the hearer or even perhaps to the author, they are not without purpose.  Sublimity is not random or pointless.  It must articulate and enhance the overall story for the amazement to truly take affect.   Aristotle comments, “even chance events are found most astonishing when they appear to have happened as if for a purpose—as, for example, the statue of Mitys in Argos killed the man who was responsible for Mitys’s death by falling on top of him as he was looking at it.” (Aristotle 6.1).  An example of poetic justice or is it simply sublime?   Longinus would say yes to both.  But Longinus would find fault with those who merely fling around high sounding words and images to no effect.   He cautions, “we must take into account the place, the manner, the circumstance, and the motive”  of how something is written and delivered (Longinus 137). Timing is essential to making a passage simply words or making it an experience.

Aristotle wrote that, “poets use astonishment to achieve their chosen aims; this is tragic and agreeable” (Aristotle 8.8).   Aristotle is writing primarily with concern for how a tragedy is written and delivered. He saw a difference in the use of astonishment in tragedy and epic.  As is noted in the following passage:

While it is true that astonishment is an effect which should be sought in tragedy, the irrational (which is the most important source of astonishment) is more feasible in epic, because one is not looking at the agent.  The pursuit of Hector would seem preposterous on stage, with the others standing by and taking no part in the pursuit while Achilles shakes his head to restrain them; but in epic it escapes notice (Aristotle 10.5)

While Aristotle makes a distinction concerning tragedy and epic, Longinus separates the poet from the orator.  But the idea is essentially the same – the visual, tragedy and orator, versus the auditory, the epic and the poet.  It is important in understanding how the audience can and will respond to something that is seen versus something that is heard.  Longinus makes his strongest argument for this when talking abut visualization.  Visualization or phantasia “means one thing with the orators and another with poets—that in poetry its aim is to astonish, in oratory to produce vividness of description, though indeed both seek to stir the emotions” (Longinus 133).  It must be clarified that phantasia (that is visualization) is not to be confused with spectacle.  Spectacle is uncouth. For example, no one should see Medea kill her children on the stage.  Such an act would be obscene.  It would not invoke pity or fear, but true horror.  The benefits of katharsis could not take place with a horrified, traumatized audience.  Although Aristotle admitted that spectacle could be attractive, it “is very inartistic and is least germane to the art of poetry. For the effect of tragedy is not dependent on performance and actors” (Aristotle 4.4).   A poet should not try to engage in the spectacle in his writing.  He needs to stay above it.

Longinus maintains that poets use exaggeration and fabulous expressions to achieve their visualization but “the finest feature of visualization in oratory is always its adherence to reality and truth” (Longinus 134).   Mats Malm in his article “On the Technique of the Sublime” puts it this way, “The poetical use (of phantasia) leads to astonishment, while the rhetorical use leads to clarity” (4).  Clarity and enlightenment are the goals of the orator; however, he can still use the astonishing effects of visualization to do so.  Longinus uses Demosthenes as his example of this collaboration between the truth of events and the astonishing use of visualization to transport the hearers.  It is the hearer’s natural tendency to latch onto the effects of visualization.  When the orator “has at one and the same time developed an argument and visualized events, and his conception has therefore transcended the bounds of mere persuasion” (Longinus 135).  The hearer will have no choice, but to be seized upon “the astonishing effect of the visualization”; thus, leaving the argument “blow the surface of the accompanying brilliance” (Longinus 135).   In other words, “this (phantasia) is a most potent rhetorical device for exploiting the emotions of the audience” (Malm 4). It is not that the argument is lost but that the hearer is so amazed by the grand conceptions and word pictures; they are beyond being swayed by the argument.  The brilliance of the passage carries them.

Ecstasy is a key element to experiencing a great passage. This is not to say that transport is all about pleasure and gratification. Longinus understands that in some instances, namely tragedies, it is about fear and pity.  Henn clarifies this saying “‘ecstasy’ will be the product of an infinitely complex blend of the ‘pleasure’ and ‘instruction’ aspects” (Henn 137).  Ecstasy has the same capacity as katharsis to instruct the hearer.  It is not just enough to feel the transport or purge; “pleasure [is] derived from instruction, the philosophical aspect of poetry, and, possibly, pure pleasure as well” (Henn 137).  Aristotle places instruction over pleasure due to his emphasis on plot structure.  Tragedy is plot not character; therefore, the katharsis is the product of the structure.  The hearer is to learn through the actions and consequences of the tragedy for katharsis to take place.  Longinus having a vaster pool of literature to discern from is not concerned with type (i.e., tragedy) as he is with style. For him “the sublime is not a type of style at all, it is an effect…and its overwhelming impact can be gained from styles ranging from the grandeur of Homer and Plato to a vivid colloquialism or the simple words of Moses in Genesis” ( Innes 273).  The effect is not limited to tragedy, as Aristotle may suggest.  It encompasses the whole scope of literature.

Even though capacity to write inspired emotion and grand concepts is largely innate, Longinus believes that the ability can be fostered through technique. Longinus gives several examples of different techniques such as figure of speech and metaphors that effect how emotion influences the hearers.  With the former, he discuses how figures of speech are best when they are not obvious. Emotions used by the orator are a “wonderfully helpful antidote against suspicion that attends the use of figures.  The cunning artifice remains out of sight, surrounded by the brilliance of beauty and sublimity, and all suspicion is put to flight” (Longinus 138).  This concealment is not to say that the orator is trying to be crafty and deceive his hearers.  It is that the image the orator conjures is so magnificent that the use of the figure of speech is over-looked by the hearers.  With the use of metaphors the concept is much the same. A “timely expression of violent emotions, together with true sublimity, is the appropriate antidote for the number and boldness of metaphors” (Longinus 150).  As before, he warns against the overuse of such figures and metaphors when attempting to achieve the sublime.   He likens those writers who get carried away to drunkards, who make “outbursts of emotion which are not relevant to the matter in hand, but are wholly personal, and hence tedious (Longinus 117).

There has been some difficulty in understanding this emotion of transport.  Longinus’ understanding of emotion in the sublime was two-fold: it was part of the process of sublimity and a product. The process more important for the writer must reach sublimity firt. The writer of the sublime commands “the stimulus of powerful and inspired emotion” (Longinus 121).  However, excessive emotion is discouraged. One can be over zealous.  Longinus berates this in his list of faults, “a third type of fault is impassioned writing which Theodorus called the ‘pseudo-bacchanalian’. This is misplaced or hollow emotion where none is called for or immoderate passion where restraint is what is needed” (117).  Just as the effect of sublimity cannot be forced, so the art of the sublime cannot be forced out of the author. One cannot force sublimity by merely getting emotional. Not all sublime literature has emotion. He also cautions that not all emotions are sublime. Notably he considered pity, grief, and fear to be common, the very qualities which Aristotle held in high esteem. Though Longinus did not particularly care for such emotions like fear or pity, he at least understood their importance to transport.  Longinus also advises that the best eulogist should lack emotion that is to say they do not let the emotion of their task overwhelm them and thus, negatively affect their hearers (Longinus 122).

Sublime literature produces ecstasy, and the sublime writer will know how to do it. Sublimity is not confined to epic, tragedy, or oratory. Longinus has made the style irrelevant. Nor is katharsis as an emotional experience tied solely to tragedy.   There is ecstasy, the transport of all sublime literature.  Longinus was amazed at how Homer could astound in his day; Homer still amazes us today.  We experience the transport that Longinus describes, as he read Homer, even as we read Homer.  Transcending time, Homer takes all to the battlefields outside the city of Troy.  We are not persuaded to transport; we are taken by the shear power of sublimity.

Work Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath.New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Henn, T. R. Longinus and English Criticism.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1934.

Innes, D. C. “Longinus and Caecilius: Models of the Sublime.” Myemosyne 55.3 (2002): 259-284. JStore. Web.24 August 2009.

Longinus, “On the Sublime.” Classical Literary Criticism. Trans. Penelope Murray and T. S. Dorsch.  Penguin Books,New York: 2000. 113-166.

Macksey, Richard. “Longinus Reconsidered.” MLN 108.5 (1993): 913-934. JSTore. Web. 26 August 2009.

Malm, Mats. “On the Technique of the Sublime.” Comparative Literature, 53.1(Winter 2000): 1-10. JStore. Web.26 August 2009.

Olson, Elder. “The Argument of Longinus’ “On the Sublime”.” Modern Philosophy, 39.3 (1942): 225-258. JStore. Web.24 August 2009.


5 thoughts on “The emotional response to literature: an explanation of ecstasy and katharsis

    1. That is a really good question. I think that eucatastrophe is something else. It does fell under the concept of something within good literature but it is more than just an emotional response. It is closer to what Elaine Scary talks about in her book, “Beauty and Being Just” where something beautiful or just will decenter you. Eucatastrophe does decenter and it does transcend the reader but its primary understanding is not tied to an emotional response. “Out of something bad, something good” does invoke a response but it is not defined as an emotional response like ekstasis and katharsis.
      PS: Eucatastrophe is one of my favorite concepts I have ever come across. It’s connection with understanding God’s grace and salvation is priceless.

    1. Scary calls it “decentering.” The idea is that beauty and justices will force a person out of themselves, taking the focus from themselves and placing it on the object of beauty or justice, which I suppose would be a type of recentering.

  1. Funny — I had a similar question to Don’s. So to see if I follow, let me translate into speech act terms and see if I’ve understood the above: Ekstasis and katharsis would perlocutionary effects, and the telling of a eucatastrophe a locutionary, and probably illocutionary, act?

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