For those who read my reviews, you will have probably heard me refer to catharsis as a positive element in VNs. I push catharsis like it is the best new designer drug on the market I'm dealing and you are my customers. So... the question that occurred to me recently was, what is the meaning and value of catharsis?
First, while the strict dictionary definition of catharsis in literature refers to a emotional, moral, and spiritual release or cleansing, I can honestly say that the word as I use it is a bit narrower in definition. The way I have used it in the past is to refer to the emotional release that comes with empathizing with a character's troubles and tribulations to the point where your own internal stresses and emotions are blown out the door with those of the characters. Mostly, this has referred to nakige and utsuge style situations where the protagonist and/or heroines are suffering and are either released from that suffering or it comes to its natural end.
However, in the larger sense, catharsis can also occur with positive scenes (not just release from stressful scenes). As an example, the Ruri and Ruka ending of Akeiro Kaikitan. Spoilers for Akeiro Kaikitan below
Where Yashiro lies on his deathbed in extreme old age, Ruri and Ruka, the twin goddesses conversing with him. The lifetime of happiness they had together, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he left behind to ensure they would never again be alone, and his joy at knowing that he was able to fulfill his promise to them to the very end... is so poignant that, while I weep for Yashiro's death and Ruri and Ruka's loss, I am driven to awe by the sheer depth of the love he shows for the twins in this case, looking beyond the selfish and possessive love that is romance to save them from their fate of eternal isolation, even after his death.
All humans have crud that builds up in their psyche over days, weeks, months and years. Stress from loneliness, stress from being around people, stress from loss, stress from fear of failure... stress builds up no matter what kind of life you live. Catharsis in fiction is one method of blowing the built up crud out of your system by flooding yourself with an extreme buildup that is released at the moment they reach their peak, taking your stresses with them.
For this reason, catharsis will always be an important element in fiction. It is the reason why nakige and utsuge never really fade in popularity when other VN genres are in flux, and it is also the reason why sappy emotional stories will always be a staple of all forms of media. There are many stresses in life that cannot be removed from your life experience. However, a good catharsis moment can provide relief and bring you back on even keel in a way that is far better for you than indulging in alcohol or other traditional methods.
Edit: I probably shouldn't post this, but it was only because of catharsis in fiction that I was able to live this long. Just being around people is extremely stressful to me, as is dealing with people as part of work. In my worst moments, I've even thought about how wonderful it would be if I just had an aneurysm and toppled over right then and there. Fiction has been saving my life repeatedly on a weekly basis for almost twenty-seven years... and as such, I think there is no way to underestimate the value of catharsis in fiction to those of us who have social issues.