Monday, August 30, 2004

Week 02, Plato, Aristotle

Aristotle Notes

The traditional reading is that Aristotle makes tragedy safe for reason, or for rational philosophy. This makes sense because he is a culmination of the philosopher-science movement from Anaximander onwards; for these people, the point was to explain things on their own terms and not by means of a deus ex machina argument.

However, we could “go Greek” in our reading of Aristotle. Aristotle writes in the awareness of a shift from an all-encompassing “mythology for life” to a more practical commercial way of life. Art and life have become somewhat more distinct by his time. Therefore, when Aristotle goes back to tragedy, the stuff of mythology, though of course in Sophocles and Euripides that mythology has been highly reworked and reinterpreted, Aristotle is to some extent to doing homage to the ancient stories that have shaped Greek life and thought. He certainly places great value upon them. He treats the ancient pathology as a “usable pass,” as equipment for modern life, as Kenneth Burke might say. Aristotle is revaluing the old forms of thought and life, bringing them into the present day.

What is the intelligibility or clarification that we get from tragedy? Perhaps this clarification is surprisingly ambivalent about our standing or status here in the cosmos and with regard to our relationship with the gods. Aristotle never says “don’t worry, be happy.” He is not turning poetry into a useful thing in the vulgar sense. Neither does he argue that catharsis is the poet's direct goal.

Nonetheless, we still must respond to a question about clarification: if it has an emotional shade, perhaps Aristotle is trying to make an uneasy peace with the old terrors. The kind of cleansing or purification to which he refers must be repeated from time to time.

It may well be that the old gods and stories give us insight into the limitations of our understanding, our powers of reasons. If that is so, it would make Aristotle a recuperative figure, not a cheerful analytic scientist seeking only use value in poetry. Aristotle’s poetics could be an honest admission of his philosophy’s limitations, an admission that there is more to the human animal then rational philosophy can account for. Remember, Aristotle likes to study complicated things.

With a so we face a dilemma when we read Aristotle on poetry: we come to him laden with other people’s interpretations as well as with our own desire that everything should make sense. This may cause us to misunderstand the nature of the object Aristotle understands he is studying.

Conclusion: a “perverse” reading of Aristotle could at least lead us to see that his philosophical methods are processive, that they consist in a project of overcoming limitations by recognizing them. In this way, Aristotle begins to look like the system-builder that Friedrich Nietzsche admires; he sees that intuition and abstraction are both necessary, that we cannot entirely separate them without falsifying the validity of each.

Aristotle Post-It Notes

91. “Our topic is poetry in itself and its kinds….” Aristotle treats art scientifically, classifying it in terms of medium, objects, and manner. Art is a species of representation, and tragedy as a subspecies of art. Plato wasn’t interested in this sort of natural science method.

93. “Representation is natural to human beings from childhood.” Learning satisfies a primary “instinct” -- we learn by imitating when we are children. Since imitation is a valid way of seeking knowledge, and poetry is imitation, poetry yields knowledge. So much for Plato’s condemnation of poetry on ontological grounds. Since we delight in engaging with representations, Aristotle’s theory at least partly recuperates pleasure, too. Apparently, seeking pleasure is a universal characteristic of human nature. But Aristotle will have more to say about this pragmatic or audience-oriented issue. (Pity and fear lead to catharsis.) The Lascaux Caves suggest that Aristotle is correct about our instinctual need to imitate. Aristotle shows concern for the formal coherence of works of art: a representation need not produce pleasure on the basis of its accuracy. If I haven’t seen the thing or person represented in a painting, I can appreciate it as a presentation. Aristotle isn’t interested in narrow ideas about verisimilitude. See 114 -- if someone paints a female deer with horns out of ignorance, the viewer could still judge the painting good for its formal coherence -- “because of its accomplishment, colour, or some other such cause” -- rather than for its strict accuracy.

95-96. “Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action….” The deeper ontological or mimetic argument appears in Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as the imitation of a complete action. What is the plot “imitating” or representing? Not simply events. The events or incidents themselves are mythological -- you couldn’t imitate them in the strictest sense because they never happened. Rather, Aristotle implies that the dramatist arranges the particulars or incidents of his plot in accordance with probability and necessity so as to present to us a complete action. This “action” reveals something fundamental about the nature of things. Examples: the action of Oedipus the King is that of a man fleeing the truth about a prophecy, but the prophecy getting itself fulfilled in spite of the hero’s best efforts. Antigone’s action involves the clash of competing rights -- Creon’s political order and Antigone’s familial and religious order. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, as Albert Wlecke says, we can see a universal, intelligible pattern emerging in that various hopes are exposed as rooted in illusion. One hopes on the basis of illusions, and then sees the hope frustrated and must give it up. Aristotle says that life’s aim is an action: what we do matters more than our “sort” or our character. Our actions will fit into a larger intelligible pattern, and will render us happy or unhappy.

96-98. “So plot is the origin and as it were the soul of tragedy, and the characters are secondary. Moreover, poetry is more universal than history. A drama links its incidents according to the probably and the necessary. History cannot derive intelligible patterns because it is limited to what actually happened: “poetry tends to speak of universals, history of particulars” (98 top). (Well, a modern idea of history is that it, too, requires emplotment.) In a tragedy, if we are to learn anything from it, the protagonist’s slide downhill must occur in a way we can grasp: the action must have a properly linked beginning, a middle, and an end, along with recognition and reversal. A well-rounded plot gives us a complete action. The unities of time and place aren’t very important here. Aristotle doesn’t assume, as Plato does, that an audience needs to be taken in by the play; rather, it is a learning experience that requires critical resistance -- not total immersion. We must explain what he means by “pity and fear” after this point.

98-99. “Among plots, some are simple and some are complex….” Recognition and reversal are logically structured plot-points, events on the way towards self-knowledge or knowledge of one’s standing with respect to the gods. Probability and necessity reign here -- the movement of the plot should seem inexorable, and what happens should develop organically from within the sequence of events. So if all is well done, the audience experiences catharsis, a medical term meaning purgation. See pg. 100.

100. “We must perhaps discuss next what [poets] should aim at and what they should beware of in constructing plots….” Characters are types; they are admirable but not perfect. They must “make a mistake” (hamartano), “miss the mark,” do something by which they become miserable. They will commit an error that we ourselves might commit were we in their position, though of course we know we aren’t in their position. So we will pity Oedipus or Antigone -- might we not do as they did, if presented with the same dilemmas? And this empathy will make us shudder -- something equally bad could befall us. My further suggestion: Aristotle is still interested in the issue of “critical distance” even when it seems we are most immersed in the play. Greek self-control is important to him. He offers perhaps a colder version of Sappho’s “I am prepared to be shaken,” something akin to the Nietzschean quality of openness to experience.

A question posed by Wlecke -- why arouse pity and fear simply to achieve catharsis or purgation of pity and fear? Isn’t that like asking to be beaten because it’s enjoyable when the beating stops? Perhaps it makes more sense to say that we learn something about an action by our emotional response to it, and that we learn something about pity and fear, too.

102-03. “Regarding characters, there are four things at which [the poet] should aim. Character is subject to typification. We should preserve and ennoble the type. Characters should be good, appropriate, life-like, and consistent. Otherwise, if we can’t categorize them, we will draw no lesson from what happens to them -- no pattern will emerge. Aristotle’s formal demands are in the service of his interests as a pragmatic critic: a tragedy succeeds by achieving certain formal effects. If it does that, it induces catharsis.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.


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