Solomon Vs. Catharsis: Why We Need Movies

Originally Posted on October 30, 2015 | By JOSHUA GIBBS

Why do people like movies so much? Why will we not shut up about movies? Why do we like making lists of our favorite movies, sharing those lists with friends, and perusing our friend’s lists of favorite movies? Why are movies so easy to talk about at a party? How is it that films are capable of uniting us? How has film become the universal art form? Snooty university profs are apt to enjoy good films, but so are little children. How is it that the National Board of Review named Wall E one of the top ten films of the 2008, and my four year old daughter concurs? What other art form is capable of drawing together Western civilization?

I do not know. It’s a mystery to me why film rose above the novel, above the symphony, above the theater to become the modern global art form, but I would like to talk about what movies are good for. I would like to talk about one bad theory as to what movies are good for, and I would like to suggest what Scripture has to say about the value of film in a world such as ours.

Sometimes you just need a good cry. The Greek theory of catharsis might be that simple. Sometimes you need a good cry, and sometimes you need to let a big, nasty, violent film help you work out all that aggression that’s been building up at work over the last month. The Greek theory of catharsis imagines man as a vessel which slowly fills with emotion. As the vessel fills, the soul of a man becomes painfully distended, and he needs to find a safe way of divesting himself of that emotion. If the man vicariously lives through the characters in a drama, he can empty himself of painful desire, delight, fear or grief, without becoming legally responsible for the actions of the character. Put another way, a man hates his boss and wants to kill him. As opposed to killing him, why not watch this character in this film pretend to kill his boss? That way, you get the pleasure of watching your boss die without having to go to jail.

Or, a man’s life is very boring, and he needs excitement, but he has little time to pursue it. Why not watch a movie about a spy, or a famous lover, or a serial killer— all of whom live very intense, dramatic lives— and imagine that man’s exciting life is yours, as well?

Or, to return to that good cry, perhaps the world seems like a very terrible place, and yet nothing in the world is so terrible as to bring you to tears, though you wish something could. Why not watch a story about an artificially awful world that will induce those tears that your benumbed soul cannot produce on their own?

In each of the aforementioned cases, a certain emotion (hatred, boredom, sadness) has swelled a man’s soul to an uncomfortable extent, and that man must rid himself of the hatred or boredom or sadness or he feels he will burst. Emotion is unstable, unpredictable, and a man must be regularly released from the dangerous effects of emotion if he wants to be safe. You don’t want that emotion coming out suddenly in a grocery store, or on a blind date. Emotion is Dionysian, undifferentiated, chaotic. Greek plays were performed at festivals which began with sacrifices to Dionysius (in Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart notes that our word “tragedy” is derived from the greek “tragos,” the goat sacrificed to the god before the plays began), and the god was known for his ability to deliver men from the exhausting tyranny of reason which typified the responsible, Apollonian day-to-day life. Apollo was normative, and the reasonable life was typical, but from time to time, a man needed to empty himself of self-control, self-awareness, and let wine take over. All the dark impulses of man needed space to roam, even if only for a little while.

While catharsis can sometimes appear to be a satisfying account of man’s emotional life (a good cry does feel good, doesn’t it? “…a sad face is good for the heart…” as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes), I believe it over simplifies the emotional complexities of a human being. From time to time, he gets a little full and needs to be emptied… as though it were that simple. The theory of catharsis radically separates man from his emotions. A man is not his emotions, but sits apart from anger, sadness, boredom and is capable of viewing those emotions as an objective other. We do  not speak of our emotions this way, though. We say, “I am angry.” We say, “I am sad.” We say, “I am glad.” Catharsis  reduces man to a receptacle of feeling. The receptacle is not angry, glad, or bored. The receptacle is clear and only appears red when it is filled with anger, only appears green when filled jealousy, only appears yellow when filled with cowardice, only appears blue when sad. And yet in Proverbs, Solomon teaches, “…as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” A man’s emotions have everlasting consequences, so in what sense is a man not his anger? Not his joy?

I suppose a key reason I am reticent to credit catharsis is, to be frank, it sounds great, but is rarely recognizable in the real world. Were catharsis a proper understanding of man and his emotions, why do we so regularly read that school shooters maintained a regular diet of violence before acting out that which they had so often fantasized? Why is pornography consumed serially, excessively, when the theory of catharsis suggests a few minutes of pornography ought to suit a man for months? Or, why does a man who saves his pocket money to buy his girlfriend a lavish gift not immediately begin to lose interest in her as soon as he gives it? Has that man not spent his love? Catharsis tends to make every human experience into an analog of the sexual experience, wherein desire rises to a pitch and then drops off precipitously.

At the same time, the good cry does something, and whatever that something is, it feels like relief. Is it? And does the relief of a good cry not go far in vindicating catharsis?

In place of catharsis, let me commend to you the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. If the reference is not immediately clear, I refer to Solomon’s “a time for this, a time for that” poem.

Examine the poem, and you’ll find there are twenty-eight times mentioned; twenty-eight is seven sets of four. Four is frequently employed in Scripture to connote humanity and the earth. There are four seasons, four directions, four Gospel writers (four human accounts of the Human One), four elements, four humors, four tempers… And seven is the number of finitude, limitation, completion, finality. In granting us twenty-eight times, Solomon describes the whole of life. God has appointed a season for every human activity, every human task, every proper human experience. “When times are good, be happy; when times are sad, remember: God has created one just as He has created the other,” writes Solomon. God has given man a time to gather stones, and a time to cast away stones. A time to laugh, and a time to mourn. A time to kill, and a time to heal. The infinite splendor of God is made manifest to man through a diversity of events, a complex of desires, some of them contradictory, and yet all of them ultimately capable of harmony… God has appointed such a diversity of events for man becomes He loves man, and desires man should know Him, God, as the Pale Rider who brings death and the Prince of Life, as well… the helpless Child who beholds His mother, and the Warrior who smites the Earth with the rod of His mouth, the lean, fasting student of John the Baptist, but also the “wine bibber” and Lord of the Feast…

The problem is, life in the city scales back the dynamic life of man. Society streamlines man’s life, tends to homogenize it, distract it. Granted, society can also provide a great diversity of experience, as well. In some ways, I imagine my life is richer than the life of a 10th century French onion farmer who never travelled more than ten miles from the spot on which he was conceived, born, helped another to conceive, slept, and died. I have seen art that man could not conceive. I have met strange human beings he could not fathom. My faith has been challenged in awful ways. At the same time, in a very different way, I imagine that 10th century farmer’s life had a greater breadth than my own. He understood the sacrifice involved in having beef for dinner. He intuited a connection between food and weather and prayer that I do not. My prayers for food are an afterthought, a given, obligatory, while his were desperate and genuine. There are profound ways in which life in the modern, Aristotelian city (of Darning and the 8:15, as per Auden) deprives a man of essential human experiences. I have often heard it said that when Gorbachev toured the United States in the 1980s, he remarked on “how well you hide your old people.” There are significant times which Solomon describes from which a city-dweller is cut off. If you would know God, you must reach outside the realm of your immediate experience, for your immediate experience has streamlined God from your life for the sake of ease. The life described in Ecclesiastes 3 is not an easy life, and when a man lives in a world which is always trying to make life easier, such a world is making God unknown.

And so we need movies. Art is God’s gracious condescension to the imbalanced world, the world which has a thousand times to kill and no times to heal… a million moments for laughter, and few for authentic mourning. Art is that which restores balance to a life overly centered on the this and not on the that. Art is the medicine of emotional harmony. Art accounts for those ways in which our world has been edited, formatted to fit this screen, bleeped out, fuzzed out, silenced, or aborted. The soul of the artist is variously empty, but his art fills that emptiness and so testifies to Solomon’s tantalizing spectrum of being in Ecclesiastes 3. The man whose life is overstuffed with laughter needs to go to the house of mourning, and Schindler’s List is just such an invitation. The man who has lingered too long in the house of mourning needs the hilarity of the angel-beast, and so his soul is restored when he watches Dumb and Dumber.

Unlike the cathartic view of human nature, Solomon commends not a mildness of emotional commitment, but pressing in to the hilt. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” teaches Solomon. When God gives you a time to cry, cry with all your might. When God gives you a time to laugh, laugh until your sides hurt. This is manifestly not the view of the Greeks, who believed an extremity of sentiment was painful. The “balance” suggested by Solomon is a balance of strength, not a balance of mildness.

But is film the easy way out? If a man has loitered too long in the house of riches, does he not need time in a soup kitchen? Is watching Wendy & Lucy not the easy way out? Is art not a convenient excuse for a genuinely dynamic life? Can film really restore balance, or merely an image of balanced life?

I know a few people who do not watch films. Some of them are profoundly interesting and live lives I think must be spectacularly fulfilling, and some of them are the most spiritually impoverished and tepid people imaginable. Most of the people I know hang somewhere in between these two extremes. I believe I do. Life in the city is hectic, busy, often awful, and while it is pretty to think that every one of Solomon’s essential human seasons can be encountered in a natural, unfeigned, unplanned way, for myself, this is not the case. I have a job, a family who both weighs upon and supports my soul… Films are a manner in which my soul can be quickly recalibrated, although films must be married with contemplation, introspection, music, liturgy, conversation. When I am depressed, I listen to Louis CK. “It is very easy to love you in the Autumn,” I often say to my wife. My excitement that Fall has arrived must be met by viewings of The Remains of the Day and Gattaca, lest I become overly happy… or overly wise. And I think many people employ films in such a manner… to balance, harmonize, level and focus their disheveled, lopsided lives.

I am grateful for the gift of film. I need films to help me feel, not because my feelings are broken, but because they are slanted, crooked, overcompensated, and the way of the Lord is straight.

Used by permission