I love pro-wrestling. Every Thursday night I sit down in front of the TV and watch IMPACT Wrestling, a Canadian-based wrestling promotion with a quirky sense of humor and a strong women’s division, operating out of Nashville. During the two hours that the broadcast lasts, I am completely engulfed in the pro-wrestling universe with its over-the-top characters, engaging feuds, unpredictable story arcs, antics, and acrobatics. All that matters is what is in front of me on the TV screen.
Pro-wrestling gives me an emotional release and a way to escape what is happening in the world. That feeling of emotional release and escape is what the Ancient Greeks called catharsis.
The authority on catharsis in the arts is Aristotle, who calls the experience of a Greek tragedy a catharsis of pity and fear. The Greek word “catharsis” has several different meanings. It can mean a purge of pity and fear. Or a clarification. Or a purification.
Regardless of what the word means exactly, we can all agree that catharsis is the emotional climax experienced by an audience that watches characters on a stage go through a crisis.
To me, that is the experience of watching pro-wrestling.
Here you might say what is the point of having this discussion, pro-wrestling is fake anyway.
Well, first of all, we don’t use the F-word in polite society.
Second, what do you mean by “fake”?
In an episode of Young Rock, the NBC sit-com inspired by the life of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, 10-year old Dwayne says the F-word in front of a group of pro-wrestlers, screeching the conversation to a halt. 7-foot-4-inches tall André the Giant lifts Dwayne up by the arm pits until the two are face-to-face and lets him hang there for a moment. Then André asks him, “Does this feel fake to you?” The answer, of course, is no.
Aristotle’s idea of catharsis can be read as a response to his philosopher predecessor, Socrates, who opposed art in his ideal city because art is imitation, that is to say, art is fake.
In The Republic of Plato, Socrates lays out his reasons for considering art as fake.
Socrates starts his discussion talking about poets, but soon we find that he takes issue with all kinds of artistic expressions. He talks about painters, playwrights, and actors. None of these professions can be trusted because they do not express the truth. They are all imitators.
To illustrate his point, Socrates states that nature is the producer of all originals. The carpenter who builds something manifests the idea of that original. The painter creates an imitation of the idea of the original. That is to say, art is third removed from the original.
How can we trust that the image we see is accurate unless the painter is a carpenter also? asks Socrates. How can we trust a writer writing about war if they have never fought a war themselves? he continues. And, says Socrates, how can we trust the actor playing a part talking about things they know nothing about?
Socrates’s point here is that we can’t trust the imitators because the imitators appear to be something that they are not in a way that makes them seem better than they are.
Conclusion: Art is imitation. Imitation is not serious. Therefore, art is not serious.
Art is fake.
In fact, art, according to Socrates, is detrimental to the soul. A healthy soul is the soul where the calculating part is strong. An unhealthy soul is where imitation is strong. He even goes as far as to say that art corrupts the soul by creating phantoms that gratify the soul’s foolish part.
What he is referring to here is “catharsis.” Catharsis, according to Socrates, is an artificial emotion because it is caused by a scene that is staged; it’s not something acting out in reality. And because of that Socrates finds it to be corrupting.
But if we take a step back and ask: would we rather blow off steam and suffer for a moment when an actor playing Oedipus the King pretends to gouge his own eyes out, or would we actually want to watch a man in agony actually gouge his eyes out? Would we rather see W Morrissey slam Brian Meyers into the floor of the squared circle in a choreographed Power Bomb, or would we actually want to watch an enraged man slam another man into the ground at full force?
Which of these scenarios would be corrupting?
If we were to compare pro-wrestling, which is considered “fake” because it is scripted and choreographed and therefore a lesser form of entertainment, with pro-football, which is considered “real” because of the unpredictable nature of the game and therefore a higher form of entertainment, and we place these two within the framework of catharsis vs corruption, what would be the result?
I would argue that pro-wrestling comes out on top.
When a pro-wrestler is carried out of the arena, unconscious on a stretcher, we know he will be fine. When the same thing happens with a football player, we know he most likely won’t be.
The difference between pro-football and pro-wrestling is that pro-football creates moments of actual emotional terror, while the purpose pro-wrestling is catharsis.
The difference between the two is that pro-wrestling is art. And art is real.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.