Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s Poetics : According to Eliot, the poet must understand his or her position in the literary tradition.

Aristotle’s Poetics

The Concept of Imitation

In The Poetics, Aristotle asserts that literature is a function of human nature’s instinct to imitate. This implies that as humans, we are constantly driven to imitate, to create. By labeling this creative impulse an “instinct,” one is to believe that this desire for imitation is a matter of survival, of necessity. The question then arises, of what does one feel compelled to imitate and in what way does it aid in our survival? According to essays by T.S. Eliot and Barbara Johnson, the purpose of literature is to be a part of a necessary creative process, sometimes to the extent that the creator is lost and consumed by the cause.

The first issue to tackle is the question of what literature imitates. Imitation and representation encompass all the media of artistic expression with the artist striving to represent aspects of reality or human experience. This is done either through song, the visual arts, or literature. The artist, in a sense, strives to imitate God by wielding creative power and performing a human version of divine creation. The artist is attempting to communicate his or her subjective interpretation of the world. However, the use of an interpretive medium also poses a unique challenge. In the case of Literature, imitation is complicated by the inherent limitations of language. Despite, or perhaps because of these limitations, artist then becomes part of a creative process in which the relationship between the writer, the text, and the subject matter become intertwined, blurring distinction between these separate components.

Aristotle’s Poetics

T.S. Eliot deals specifically with how one should view literature in relation to its creator. He opposes the school of literary criticism that judges a poem’s effectiveness based on the history and personality of the poet rather than the poem itself. According to Eliot, the poet must understand his or her position in the literary tradition. He states that “what is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career”(CMS 407). According to Eliot the only consciousness a writer should have is of his or her place in the literary tradition. Consciousness of emotional authenticity is irrelevant for Eliot. Consciousness of the literary past is what gives a text its individuality. The individuality of the poet or the uniqueness of the emotions expressed in the poem is unnecessary because, Eliot believes, “one error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express”(CMS 410).

Eliot wants the focus to be on the actual text for its contribution to the literary tradition rather than the poet’s personality or emotional depth. Questions of whether or not the poem realistically captures human experience are not as important as whether the poem maintains its own emotional impact regardless of the poet’s history. Therefore, if one understands imitation as the creator’s representation of personal emotions or subjective experience, Eliot does not see imitation as the goal of literature. The poem is not representing something, but rather, it is existing on its own.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Despite the fact that Eliot does not see “mimesis” or, imitation as the goal of poetry, his theory of depersonalization of literature does relate to Aristotle’s idea of mimesis. Eliot does not view the poet’s personal experience as the proper motivation for good literature. During the creative process, the poet should experience “a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist, is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (CMS 407). However, this does not mean that the poet does not communicate emotional depth through poetry. A poet can still successfully capture certain epistemological and philosophical truths about existence and reality. He or she is still fulfilling the instinct to imitate. In fact, Elliot argues, only through depersonalization can the poet successfully communicate his imitation because it is not bogged down in subjective interpretation. Therefore, the poet is imitating and representing, but Eliot believes it is possible only by escaping the self and removing the personal implications of a text’s meaning.

Barbara Johnson explores mimesis in relation to the limitations of language in her essay, “A Hound, a Bay Horse, and a Turtle Dove: Obscurity in Walden.” Johnson focuses on Thoreau’s use of symbolic language and what she sees as his unintended goal. She understands Thoreau’s use of obscure symbols as representing an idea of obscurity rather than actual objects or concepts. She asserts that “You are supposed to recognize them as not as obscure symbols, but as symbols standing for the obscure, the lost, the irretrievable”(CMS 658). In this sense, form follows content. The symbols are purposely obscure because they represent the irretrievable and obscure. Thoreau’s imitation here is not relegated to a particular experience of loss, but of a concept and he accomplishes this in an intentionally cryptic fashion. This is because the concept he is attempting to communicate is itself so unknowable, so he uses obscure terms.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Thoreau realizes the limitations of language. He understood that the act of imitation is itself an endeavor limited by language. Therefore, for Thoreau, this instinctual impulse toward imitation remains exactly that ­ an impulse toward creativity despite the limitations of the medium. However, his text also maintains a consciousness of its inherent limitations. Johnson calls Thoreau’s technique “catachreses,” or, figurative substitutes for a literal term that does not exist (CMS 659). Thoreau fulfills his imitative instinct by using literature’s representative, though inherently limited, faculty to represent something, which can not be represented.

Johnson concludes her essay by stating that Thoreau became so completely consumed in the creative act, that his figurative language ceases to be understandable as either pure rhetoric or a literal cataloguing of thoughts. She explains that, “what Thoreau has done in moving to Walden Pond is to move himself, literally, into the world of his own figurative language.”(CMS 661) His writing loses its coherence because his symbolism saturates and overwhelms the narrative.

Johnson explains that “Thoreau has literally crossed over into the very parable he is writing, where reality itself has become a catachresis”(CMS 661). He has delved so deeply into the act of representation that the reader is never sure of the creator’s true intent. Perhaps it is Thoreau’s intent to illustrate that the imitative power of literature is that one can never quite represent an idea, thought, emotions, without disclaiming its true intent beforehand. The paradox of artistic intent is that because of its inherent duality, art and literature can never specifically be separated from its creator or its product.

Both Eliot and Johnson agree that a text should posses a certain consciousness. For Eliot that consciousness is of the literary tradition, of the text of human experience. As Johnson demonstrates through Thoreau, text can not help but be conscious of its own limited imitative capacity. Eliot believes that if a poet depersonalizes a text enough, than it can really accomplish an expression of deep emotion or thought. Johnson sees the medium of literature as an obstacle to actual representation, but that ambiguity enhances the text to the extent that it “delights and baffles” (CMS 655).

Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s idea now takes on greater depth given these new perspectives. He phrases it as an “instinct towards imitation” because this impulse toward to creation is practically unconscious. As thoughtful beings, humans are driven to pursue this creative instinct. It is as innate an instinct for survival as the need for food and shelter. Therefore we pursue this impulse toward imitation almost without caring if we imitate successfully. We are acting within our given boundaries and limitations. According to Johnson, that is what gives literature its richness. Eliot believes the poet can transcend those limitations. Everyone agrees that one must act on the creative instinct.

Aristotle on Tragedy

The Nature of Tragedy: In the century after Sophocles, the philosopher Aristotle analyzed tragedy. His definition: Tragedy then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

Aristotle identified six basic elements:

(1) plot;

(2) character;

(3) diction (the choice of style, imagery, etc.);

(4) thought (the character’s thoughts and the author’s meaning);

(5) spectacle (all the visual effects; Aristotle considered this to be the least important element);

(6) song.

According to Aristotle, the central character of a tragedy must not be so virtuous that instead of feeling pity or fear at his or her downfall, we are simply outraged. Also the character cannot be so evil that for the sake of justice we desire his or her misfortune. Instead, best is someone who is neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness; nor is it through badness or villainy of his own that he falls into misfortune, but rather through some flaw [hamartia]”. The character should be famous or prosperous, like Oedipus or Medea.

What Aristotle meant by hamartia cannot be established. In each play we read you should particularly consider the following possibilities.

(1) A hamartia may be simply an intellectual mistake or an error in judgement. For example when a character has the facts wrong or doesn’t know when to stop trying to get dangerous information.

(2) Hamartia may be a moral weakness, especially hubris, as when a character is moral in every way except for being prideful enough to insult a god. (Of course you are free to decide that the tragic hero of any play, ancient or modern, does not have a hamartia at all). The terms hamartia and hubris should become basic tools of your critical apparatus.

The Concept of Tragedy:

 The word tragedy can be applied to a genre of literature. It can mean ‘any serious and dignified drama that describes a conflict between the hero (protagonist) and a superior force (destiny, chance, society, god) and reaches a sorrowful conclusion that arouses pity or fear in the audience.’ From this genre comes the concept of tragedy, a concept which is based on the possibility that a person may be destroyed precisely because of attempting to be good and is much better than most people, but not perfect. (Irony, therefore, is essential and it is not surprising that dramatic irony, which can so neatly emphasize irony, is common in tragedies.) Tragedy implies a conflict between human goodness and reality. Many scholars feel that if God rewards goodness either on earth or in heaven there can be no tragedy. If in the end each person gets what he or she deserves, tragedy is impossible. Tragedy assumes that this universe is rotten or askew. Christians believe that God is good and just, hence, for certain scholars tragedy is logically impossible.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Of course a possible variation of the tragic concept would allow a character to have a fault which leads to consequences far more dire than he deserves. But tragic literature is not intended to make people sad. It may arouse pity and fear for the suffering protagonist, or for all humanity, especially ourselves. But usually it also is intended to inspire admiration for the central character, and by analogy for all mankind. In the tragic hero’s fall there is the glory in his or her misfortune; there is the joy which only virtue can supply. Floods, automobile accidents, children’s deaths, though terribly pathetic can never be tragic in the dramatic sense because they do not occur as a result of an individual man’s grandeur and virtue. After reading each book in the course, be sure you know whether it presents a tragic view of life. (Incidentally, although some plays we read are certainly tragic in all scholars’ opinions, many Greek plays produced as tragedies are not tragic by anyone’s definition, including Aristotles’.)

Aristotle’s Poetics: Basic Concepts

You should be aware of the following concepts and opinions of Aristotle’s which have tremendously influenced drama in the Western World.

Tragedies should not be episodic. That is, the episodes in the plot must have a clearly probable or inevitable connection with each other. This connection is best when it is believable but unexpected. b. Complex plots are better than simple plots. Complex plots have recognitions and reversals. A recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge, especially when the new knowledge identifies some unknown relative or dear one whom the hero should cherish but was about to harm or has just harmed. ‘Recognition’ (anagnorisis) is now commonly applied to any self-knowledge the hero gains as well as to insight to the whole nature or condition of mankind, provided that that knowledge is associated, as Aristotle said it should be, with the hero’s ‘reversal of fortune’ (Greek: peripeteia). A reversal is a change of a situation to its opposite.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Consider Oedipus at the beginning and end of Oedipus the King. Also consider in that play how a man comes to free Oedipus of his fear about his mother, but actually does the opposite. Recognitions are also supposed to be clearly connected with all the rest of the action of the plot. c. Suffering (some fatal or painful action) is also to be included in a tragic plot which, preferably, should end unhappily. d. The pity and fear which a tragedy evokes, should come from the events, the action, not from the mere sight of something on stage. e. Catharsis (‘purification’ or ‘purgation’) of pity and fear was a part of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. The meaning of this phrase is extremely debatable. Among the many interpretations possible, consider how well the following apply to our plays:

  1. Purification of the audience’s feelings of pity and fear so that in real life we understand better whether we should feel them.
  2. Purgation of our pity and fear so that we can face life with less of these emotions or more control over them.
  3. Purification of the events of the plot, so that the central character’s errors or transgressions become ‘cleansed’ by his or her recognitions and suffering.

Plot and Tragedy

In his Poetics [1] Aristotle (384-322 BC) classifies plot into two types: simple [haplos], and complex [peplegmenos]. The simple plot is defined as a unified construct of necessary and probable actions accompanied by a change of fortune. The complex plot, says Aristotle, is accompanied by two other features, namely; peripeteia or reversal, and anagnorisis, or recognition. It is this which Aristotle feels is the best kind of tragic plot, in that it provides the best possibility of delivering tragic pleasure.

Before we look at the distinctive features of the complex plot, it would perhaps be instructive to examine those features which it shares with the simple plot. The unity of structure recommended by Aristotle includes the tripartite division of the plot into the beginning, the middle and the end, as well as the unities of time and action. He stresses unified action, where all action in the plot carries a definite link to other actions, and subsequent actions are the necessary and probable outcomes of the former.

Necessary and probable are terms which recur throughout the Poetics. They stand for the universality of poetry in that they point to how or what actions should logically be in a given situation. Unity of action, therefore, does not mean all that happens to the protagonist, but precisely what comprises a particular whole action according to the norms of necessity and probability. Unity of time, in contrast to its neo-classical applications, here simply means the time span in which the tragic action can be best comprehended by the audience, given the constraints of human memory, and the wholeness of the action.

Finally, we come to the change of fortune. It is either from good to bad or the reverse. The former is more characteristic of tragedy but in a later section Aristotle complicates the idea by saying that those plots where the catastrophe is averted by recognition are best. The change of fortune is also accompanied by a complication of events [desis] and their resolution [lusis].

Aristotle’s Poetics

Having briefly examined the common aspects of both kinds of plot, we can now look at the special attributes of the complex plot.

Let us take another look at Aristotle’s celebrated definition of complex action: ‘A complex action is one where the change is accompanied by such reversal or recognition or both.’ Peripeteia has been defined as a reversal of the action. If, however, it is just that, then how is it different from the change of fortune? Clearly this is too limited a definition of peripeteia and it would perhaps be pertinent to consider two other definitions. Humphrey House [2] defines it as a ‘reversal of intention’. This definition takes into account the ‘thought’ or the dianoia exercised by the character. House describes it as ‘holding the wrong end of the stick’. Peripeteia is therefore the turning of the stick thinking that it is the right end.

The ignorance behind any peripeteia is not mere ignorance. It is the ignorance arising out of error. The other definition is more recent. Frank Kermode [3] defines it as a ‘disconfirmation followed by a consonance; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach discovery by an unexpected route. It has nothing to do with our reluctance to get there at all. So that in assimilating the peripeteia we are enacting that readjustment of our expectations in regard to an end’. This points out the pleasure we receive from peripeteia which is quite different from the straightforward following of a narrative to its end, or in other words, mere change of fortune.

Having defined peripeteia and identified its characteristic pleasure, we must also consider what this pleasure actually consists of. This is the element of surprise or wonder [Gk. Thaumaston]. The source of wonder is often the tragic recognition or anagnorisis. Recognition has been variously defined. In Aristotle it is the recognition of persons through tokens, artistic contrivances, memory, reasoning (including false inferences) and lastly, arising out of the events themselves (as in Oedipus Rex). Aristotle defines this anagnorisis as a change from ignorance to knowledge. In terms of Humphrey House’s analogy, it would mean the realization that you have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. House himself defines recognition thus, ‘The discovery of the truth of the matter is the ghastly wakening from the state of the ignorance which is the very essence of hamartia.’ Other scholars define it variously as ‘a way in which the emotional potential . . . can be brought to its highest voltage, so to speak at the moment of discharge’, or, ‘recognition brings its illumination, which can shed retrospective light’.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle likes best the recognition which arises out of the events themselves, as in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. The whole play is a step by step unravelling of Oedipus’s true identity and Oedipus’s holding the wrong end of the stick, as it were, in trying to discover his identity without knowing that the results will be catastrophic. At second best, he places those tragedies where reasoning effects the recognition. Together with these definitions, we could compare the slightly different angle from which Terence Cave [4] views recognition. For him it is a stumbling block to belief which disturbs the decorum. From this comparison we realize the complicated nature of recognition. In the unravelling of the complex plot the point of the recognition is very different from that possible in a simple plot. The combination of peripeteia and recognition does not merely affect the characters in the tragedy. They can also extend to the audience or the reader. The unexpectedness of the tragic catastrophe which the complex plot brings [the element of wonder or tha umaston] heightens our feelings of pity and fear as well as other related emotions.

Here it would be useful to look at another famous assertion of Aristotle’s. In Ch XIV of the Poetics he says, ‘the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation’ [5]. Perhaps an examination of pity and fear together with imitation can give us a better idea of the pleasures incidental to tragedy. Let us start with an appraisal of pity and fear. Pity and fear are man’s sympathy for the good part of mankind in the bad part of their experiences. Pity is evoked when there is a discrepancy between the agent and Fate, and fear when there is a likeness between the agent and us. Stephen Dedalus defines Pity and Fear in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He calls pity the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human-sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror, or fear, is that which unites it with the secret cause. [6].

Aristotle himself gives similar definitions of these terms in his Rhetoric [books V and II]. There he defines them as a species of pain. It is here that we can begin to consider the idea that tragic pleasure derives from the purgation of these emotions. The idea of purgation as a medical metaphor has been in vogue for a long time and can be substantiated by examples from Aristotle’s Problems [problem XXX] where coldness of black bile accompanies ‘despair and fear’ and heat is the suggested cure which restores the temperature to a temperate mean. Aristotle, unlike his teacher Plato, says that the emotions are good in themselves. Therefore there should be no need to purge the feelings of pity and fear. Instead, a more sensible definition of tragic pleasure would be that concomitant with the proper feeling of these emotions. By proper I mean a temperate attitude to these emotions as Aristotle teaches in his Nichomachean Ethics.

Aristotle’s Poetics

In Book II of his Ethics, he says:

fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. [7]

Aristotle’s idea of the mean is derived from the Pythagoreans who applied it to music. Here we may note that another place where Aristotle uses the term catharsis is in his Politics and in the context of giving ‘relief to overcharged feeling’ through music. Interestingly, here too, he mentions pity and fear among the emotions dealt with and the restoration is once again to a temperate mean. [8]

Is catharsis the only possible source of pleasure in tragedy? Humphry House does not think so. Those who are temperate in themselves and do not require an adjustment of their emotional reactions to tragic situations, still derive pleasure from tragedy. Even Plato in The Republic testifies to this fact: ‘even the best of us enjoy it and let ourselves be carried away by our feelings; and are full of praises for the merits of the poet who can most powerfully affect us in this way.’ [9]. The pleasure arising out of poetry is therefore not entirely dependent on catharsis. Instead, it works in two ways. In Book VII [section 11 – 14] Aristotle discusses ‘pure’ pleasure and ‘incidental’ pleasure. The former is universal and is accompanied by no pain and is likened to the pleasure arising out of contemplation. Those who experience this do so solely by contemplating and appraising the imitation of human emotions in tragedy.

It is through this view that we bring our focus back on the last part of Aristotle’s statement quoted above. Pleasure is effected through imitation [or mimesis]. As Aristotle said [10] imitation is itself a pleasurable act. All of this applies to epic as well as tragedy and can probably be extended to other types of poetry. The specifically ‘tragic’ pleasure is that pertaining to the medium and the dramatic mode of tragedy. These constitute the specific imitative aspects of tragedy.

The idea of tragic pleasure therefore necessarily consists as Aristotle aptly puts it ‘in that which comes with pity and fear through imitation’. A heightened sense of pity and fear is effected when the necessary and probable events take an unexpected turn. This is possible in the complex plot with the accompanying peripeteia and anagnorisis. Thus our examination of the elements of the complex plot has led us to a consideration of pity and fear. These together with imitation [or mimesis] help us understand the pleasure peculiar to tragedy.

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