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Thursday
Oct012009

Poetics (Περί Ποιητικής)

Most people want to believe that we learn enough from books in adolescence so as to be able to do without them in adulthood.  Books are associated with schooling, the symbol of ignorance and immaturity, as well as the concomitant struggle to gain control of one's life, and over time they become less and less necessary because "real life" emerges as the greater priority.  What is "real life"?  I suppose one can presume that what is meant by "real life" in conventional parlance involves the practical features of our existence – money, grooming, cleanliness, the palpable peace of private quarters – and there is nothing inherently wrong with such priorities.  They contain the germ of bourgeois life so widespread and uniform across cultures and centuries that one is almost tempted to dub it human nature.  Until, of course, one takes a closer look and finds the categories and desires outlined distinctly in this seminal work.

Poetry may have infinite meanings for the modern listener who wishes no moral structure upon himself, but for Aristotle and some subsection of his contemporaries the very act of versification implied a certain standard of mimesis of life.  Poetry's aim was neither to educate or intoxicate, but to reconstruct.   Comedy, an art form treated in the Poetics's lost second part, was in any case inferior to epic and tragic poetry, as has remained the case among those of discerning taste.  Without elaborating, Aristotle offers us an explanation as to why pain and suffering seem more vital: comedy finds its foothold in the mockery of those below the average citizen, while tragedy and epic exalt those well above.  This dichotomy would change in the eighteenth century with the advent of what has lamentably been termed a "bourgeois tragedy," but the principle remains true: we look to tragedy and epic poetry as exaggerated summaries of our fatal flaws and regale ourselves in their identification.  And while he acknowledges our attraction to images of "vilest animals and corpses" as our most human method of contemplating the repulsive in an effort to understand it, tragedy and epic have their own rules and regulations.  Tragedy "tends as far as possible to stay within a single revolution of the sun" (which may call to mind this famous modern novel negotiated on those terms), while epic "is unlimited in time span" and, indeed, multifunctional and multidimensional.  He adds the following synopsis:

Tragedy, then, is mimesis of an action which is elevated, complete, and of magnitude; in language embellished by distinct forms in its sections; employing the mode of enactment, not narrative; and through pity and fear accomplishing the catharsis of such emotions.

It is no coincidence that another great artist once defined art as "beauty plus pity": the beauty of life, love and the amazing moments that swell in our memory and pity for losing them all to death or tainting these waters with the blood of inequity and wrongdoing.  The word catharsis has drawn out longer debates as to its precise meaning, but one would do well to emphasize the cleansing effect that first-rate art has on the human soul.  Recalling a lost love, lost happiness, a mistake that ended a friendship or marriage, the death of a relative – all of these instances reinforce the pain that we as adults must endure and watch our contemporaries endure.  A work refracting this suffering in elevated language and with an eye for the most beautiful and memorable details would then qualify under the definition of true tragic poetry.

More interesting still are the criteria for good tragedy, which are six.  Spectacle, diction, lyric poetry, character and thought may seem self-evident, but plot, which is at once the engine of tragedy and pure contrivance, is allotted a special place among its requirements.  Indeed, Aristotle goes so far as to grant it preeminence:

The most important of these features is the structure of events, because tragedy is mimesis not of persons but of action and life; and happiness and unhappiness consist in action, and the goal is a certain kind of action, not a qualitative state: it is in virtue of character that people have certain qualities, but through their actions that they are happy or the reverse .... character is that which reveals moral choice – that is, when otherwise unclear, what kinds of thing an agent chooses or rejects (which is why speeches in which there is nothing at all the speaker chooses or rejects contain no character) .... [Therefore] a plot is not unified, as some think, if built around an individual.  Any entity has innumerable features, not all of which cohere into a unity; likewise, an individual performs many actions which yield no unitary action.  So all those poets are clearly at fault who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, and similar poems: they think that, since Heracles was an individual, the plot too must be unitary.

The solipsism of twentieth-century letters, the dreadfully dull tales that never really look beyond their authors' own crooked noses, might find its anathema in this passage.  It is remarkable that many of these books eschew plot, structure and any form of cohesion for the emotional merry-go-around of the unenlightened, then have the gall to attack the classics' sublime symphonies – but this argument has already won its battle.  That the characters react according to their own decisions and in so doing form a web of intricacies that yields a tragic result seems like a very fundamental premise, yet how often do we heed this advice in our days of me and mine?  There is also the matter of probability and necessity that need not detain us here; suffice it to say that for all its imagination and wonder, poetry triumphs in its universal aspects, in the likelihood or plausibility of what it depicts, even if what it depicts has not quite occurred. 

Other observations complete the portrait that Aristotle desired: the inferiority of the episodic plot; the four elements of characterization (goodness, appropriateness, likeness and consistency); the reservation of deus ex machina for very select circumstances; and every tragedy's need for complication and dénouement.  Much is also said regarding epics, yet one gains the distinct impression that Aristotle thought less of their capacity to imbue us with emotion than the simple and plain plots of the tragic.   Yet perhaps the most crucial element is what the characters realize and how they change over the course of the plot, what are termed "reversal" (περιπέτεια) and "recognition" (ἀναγνώρισις):

The kind [of recognition] most integral to the plot and action is the one described: such a joint recognition and reversal will yield either pity or fear, just the type of actions of which tragedy is taken to be a mimesis; besides, both adversity and prosperity will hinge upon these circumstances.

We know exactly what turn of events he means, but another point should be mentioned.  Real tragedy cannot involve the evil becoming prosperous, or the prosperous incurring greater prosperity, or even the evil getting their comeuppance; nor can the dual purpose of epic so evident in modern cinema become a factor: that is, there cannot be a good ending for the good and a wicked ending for those who have always been immoral.  No, the truly tragic must involve someone prosperous who tumbles into adversity owing to a mistake – in other words, his own moral choice, however well-intentioned at the time.  It is the lifeblood of fine drama that Stephen chooses Anna, that Ali chooses Emmi, and that Christian chooses to fight back.  There were other paths, paths cleared from snow, paths already well-trodden and as solid as a twenty-year marriage between two people who love and respect each other.  Tragedy is triggered, however, by the impulse that distinguishes us from automatons and allows us to fail; it is the epitome of free will and the fulfillment of a fate that we might have always suspected.  Not that these choices were all mistakes; but then again, erring is really only human.

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