Catharsis and Making People Feel Good About Themselves

I was taken aback when Bharati Mukherjee, in effect, insulted William Gass, who while I was not very interested in his book The Tunnel, but for her to say that, “There are those who confirm social, political stereotypes and other writers who interrogate the stereotypes. William Gass will have a respected small audience, but he’s never going to have a wide, popular audience because he isn’t entertaining and comforting the average reader by expressing the ideas and articulating the philosophies that make you feel good about yourself.” This was from: Holders of the Word: An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee by Tina Chen and S.X. Goudie, University of California, Berkeley, 1997. 

So, Gass will never be popular because he is not entertaining… because he is not comforting… he does not express ideas and philosophies that make you feel good about yourself?

This is absurd. A. His books are incredibly entertaining. I did not like The Tunnel, but I think his essay “The Art Of Self – Autobiography In An Age Of Narcissism,” (Harper’s, ’94)  was the best essay I have ever read.

While I did not particularly like his “inquiry” On Being Blue, I understood it and knew what he was doing, which was to eloquently render all contexts of the word “blue” one might ever encounter. His is an exercise in language.

The comfort that comes from reading Gass, as with his essays, is that you, at least I, could not imagine a better explanation than he devised. Especially, when you consider that Mukherjee misses the main point about fiction/non-fiction, art in general, which is that art is measured by cathartic import, which not only makes you feel good but it verifies your existence if you are even half-way paying attention. Catharsis is the means of understanding the world and sharing what I think is the most important thing about human existence and it does make you feel good about yourself, but it also makes you feel strangely isolated where evil and ignorance is concerned. To me Mukherjee is ignorant in this matter. Gass does express ideas and articulates philosophies that make you absolutely self-relishing because, as I said, self-relishment of this type is catharsis. You read Gass and you separate from the reality of reading and you embrace his ideas and you and the ideas become one.

Gass may never be widely read, but that’s only because most of the world may not engage in cathartic endeavors; enough do not even read, but this has nothing to do with feeling good about oneself. That can happen in a number of ways.


7 comments

  1. A very interesting critique. Unfortunately I have not read Gass yet. I like your definition of catharsis as something that “does make you feel good about yourself, but it also makes you feel strangely isolated where evil and ignorance is concerned.” On the whole, would you say catharsis produces in us pleasant and unpleasant strong emotions that lead us to equally pleasant and unpleasant feelings and thoughts at the same time? If all the arts, music and literature are cathartic, do they always have to be beautiful or could they even be terribly ugly? Is ugliness considered cathartic art? In other words, if any artistic or literary creation is ugly, is it always considered art? 🤔

    • Catharsis references a release of emotions toward renewal, as in an epiphany, which is to suddenly understand, so it is generally a positive experience, but once reviewing work that I hated, or which produced a negative attitude toward the work as failure, I later felt that this was an accurate evocation by the artist about the “state of the world.” So, while the experience was critical, I saw the negativity as accurate and also releasing/renewing, like understanding a secret. Yes, perhaps both positive and negative emotions simultaneously, which ultimately is beautiful, like seeing the good or at least the value of a tarantula, for example.

      When I reviewed the “ugly” art, at the time, I was experiencing it, writing down my thoughts and experiences, which validated the art as achieving its purpose, which even the artist was apparently unaware of at the time, because she was mad at me for saying “mean” things about her art. But, her mother read the article and saw that I was just being true in my description of the art, which happened to be ugly on point. As artists, as critics, we can be cathartic if we are tied to the truth. The truth is beautiful.

      • Highly philosophical and psychological work to help understand better our human condition. No doubt it looks interesting. I like Gass’ scheme on the following website with the EGO ID OBJECT: http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/gass/item/3529,
        and also the a, b, c and d psychological operators, but, without reading further, I don’t understand what each operator means as connected to our sexual instinct. I can just hint at a vague idea of what it is about.

  2. But, as I reveal a preference for art, I seem to undermine the value of it as “truth” to somehow be played out in the grand scheme. Your particular example may exemplify a complement to an interior design that takes into consideration the lines, forms, textures, and colors of the works, and thus by hinting at the architectural period, owner’s personality, Feng Shui, whatever application, creates a heightening of the design. Examples of this include interiors that match the furniture or artwork. But these scenarios seem to complement the place rather than the other way around. Art, like Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” or Damien Hirst’s diamond skulls speak to issues outside of the room. They make indictments of ourselves and our times. Your example may be decorative vs. Picasso and Hirst’s more significant allusions.


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