Thursday, September 6, 2007

Week 03, Aristotle, Horace

Notes on Aristotle’s The Poetics

An introduction to Greek Theater can be found in the Guides section of my Wiki.

Scientific Method: Aristotle is a scientist who treats art as any other thing that can be studied. Why dismiss it? Our topic is poetry, he says, as if it were an organism that can be taken apart and studied. Plato was not interested in that kind of study, and didn’t consider the natural world fit to study; it wasn’t a valid source of knowledge. Aristotle, however, disagrees: we learn our earliest lessons by representation. It is a natural activity, not a matter of hack copying or divine inspiration. An infant mimics things, and learns from that activity. The child begins to make sense of the world, and takes pleasure in learning. We can even see painful events represented and yet take pleasure in the representation. The major difference between Aristotle and Plato is that for the former, the universe is processive, a matter of becoming; for Plato, Being is central, and it cannot be grasped through material perception. (Footnote 1)

Representation: Aristotle says that tragedy is a representation, but we should ask, “of what specifically?” Certainly not everyday affairs since the subject of tragedy is usually mythic—did Oedipus or Medea really exist? Rather, tragedy imitates an ‘‘action’’—an intelligible design or pattern that we derive from a well-constructed plot. (Footnote 2)

Plot: As for the construction of plot, Aristotle isn’t interested in what the neoclassical critics called verisimilitude: exact copying isn’t the point. See 114—even if I paint a female deer with horns, we can excuse the fault somewhat if I did it very well. And the unities of time and place are subject to artistic need; they don’t govern artistic need. Aristotle simply says that a play should be made so that we can “take it in,” maintain a proper sense of proportion with regard to characters and events. (Footnote 3)

Action: Let’s define what Aristotle means by plot a bit more precisely. What’s important isn’t just the plot incidents. See his definition of tragedy on page 95: “Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action…” Included in this definition are the key terms “pity and terror” and “catharsis.” Well, the dramatist arranges plot events in accordance with probability and necessity, so the plot events (the “arrangement of incidents,” to be precise) will be able to deliver to us an intelligible pattern—this is what we might call the ‘‘action’’—which will have universal cognitive significance. We will learn something from the play.

Consider Oedipus Rex. Surely the lesson isn’t simply that you shouldn’t sleep with your mother and kill your father. Those are primal taboos. Perhaps, then, we see the iron law of prophecy brought home to us: Oedipus had tried to flee a prophecy, but the god’s words catch up with him anyway. Even this admirably clever character cannot outwit his own fate. Or perhaps we come to understand the painful process of gaining insight into the nature of things and of ourselves. The play tells us something about the way the world works and how we fit into it. Another example would be Sophocles’ Antigone—there are competing sets of laws and right in the cosmos. Antigone asserts familial piety, while Creon asserts his prerogative to be obeyed as king. To some extent, both are right. Again, what about Dickens’ Great Expectations? Characters find out that their hopes are rooted in illusion, and they must let go of the hopes. We can discover a pattern of meaning in material phenomena and events by studying them carefully. The world is an intelligible order that we can learn from and about, so why not, Aristotle seems to be asking, employ the methods of natural science to art? He offers us a very powerful methodology that allows us to derive meaning from any object of study. (Footnote 4)

Catharsis: Why arouse strong emotions simply to purge them? As a professor of mine used to argue, “that’s like saying, ‘please beat me because it feels good when you stop.’” Perhaps Aristotle means that we learn something about an action by our emotional response to it, just as the characters in the plays constantly hash out their responses to a sparse distribution of terrible events. The idea that by “catharsis” Aristotle means “intellectual clarification” is an attractive idea, but we need not deny the sway of passion as an element in his theory. I believe there’s a way to put the “emotional” and the “intellectual” interpretations of catharsis into a meaningful relationship. I suggest that while tragedy may induce a physiological state, at the same time or as part of the same process it provides us critical distance from life, so it is also a learning experience. This critical distance occurs as a complex reaction during the emotional experience and from the fact that the theater is only partly closed off as a space. (For the Athenians, we might point out, the theater was not entirely an enclosed space as it generally is today.)

Perhaps, then, we should not be too quick to dismiss the notion that by catharsis Aristotle really means “the stimulation and purgation of powerful emotions.” Aristotle always said that arriving at the mean was the best thing to do: keep the middle way in all things. Tragedy, after all, may be viewed in broad social terms as a response to the need to contain primal violence and disturbing emotions that cannot be eradicated from human nature. If we can’t banish them outright, we have to find ways of containing them within the rituals of civic life. The drama staged at annual festivals at Athens and elsewhere developed and remained under the aegis of Dionysus, the orgiastic god of wine and dance, so it might plausibly be said to serve such a function. The cathartic effect isn’t necessarily the poet’s conscious aim. Rather, the way he puts together his play generates the effect Aristotle finds desirable. The Greeks had long seen music as a means of curing insanity, and their mystery rituals seem to have involved dancing that induced frenzy giving way to less intense emotions. (This is the distinction between pathos and ethos.) So perhaps Aristotle borrows from this “health-care” framework to a greater degree than proponents of catharsis as a means of intellectual clarification would find comfortable. It may be that the events at the City Dionysia festival were a “controlled overflow of powerful feelings,” which could be aroused and released as part of an overall learning experience. If so, we can have intellectual clarification and emotional release, too.

I’m suggesting that we might be in accord with a medical notion of catharsis, and yet draw from Aristotle the idea that art provides us with a degree of formal distance from which to reflect upon life’s events. Without this distance, there is no place for reflection, for learning. Some later critics will agree with this—see Wordsworth’s comments in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” about what meter does for poetry, though post-modern art would respond in complex ways to the demand for distance. For instance, isn’t some modern art based on the notion that we are already distant from or alienated from our own life conditions? If so, the point might well be to re-immerse us in the flow of life, to present art as more immediate than life itself, not necessarily to force reflection upon us. Maybe we have Hamlet’s disease—conscience “doth make cowards of us all.” Hamlet inhabits a world in which “enterprises of great pitch and moment / Are sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, / And lose the name of action.” But we can derive from Aristotle the fundamental notion that art requires formal distancing from everyday life, and that this distance is necessary if we are to gain perspective. If you want to play Hegel with that idea, you could mutter something profound about the need for consciousness to lose itself so that it may transcend itself. We need contradictions in order to overcome them and arrive at a higher understanding, a higher level of spirit and intellection. But that’s for later on. The basic idea is that art is a vital kind of artifice, and that artifice, if we listen to Aristotle (and Oscar Wilde, and Schiller, and the Symbolists, etc.) is simply part of what it means to be human. Good lord! Stop me before I sound even more like a school catalog description of “humanistic inquiry.” So let me put things in a more Wildean way—it is unnatural for humans to be caught au naturel, unnatural for them not to adorn their sense of reality the better to reflect upon it and gain insight.

It makes sense to register the effects of strong tragedy in your own consciousness. I do not pity King Lear or feel afraid at the spectacle of his downfall. His behavior and his situation move me, but the “feeling” is strangely intellectual and somehow different than a merely physiological response to real events. From such real-life events, one feels something more like shock and numbness. However, when I watch a tragedy, it seems that my intellect is constantly acting upon or reacting to feelings generated by the play. The term “critical distance” is plausible here. Could it be that feeling and intellect are in such a close relationship that we cannot separate them into stable opposites? For the sake of clarity, we need to separate feeling and intellect in a manner that Aristotle himself does, but as usual, the imperative of clarity, as Nietzsche would point out, involves terminological sleight of hand, and the drive to obtain clarity muddies the waters. We can certainly value some of Aristotle’s own ideas about imitation because they force us to consider the complexity of the relationship between the intellect and emotion.

Some Final Thoughts: One way of interpreting The Poetics is that in them Aristotle attempts to make tragedy safe for rational philosophy. After all, his work is a culmination of the philosophy-science movement from Anaximander onwards; for its practitioners, the point was to explain things on their natural terms and not by resorting to the divine as a principle of order. However, we could also “go Greek” in our reading of Aristotle. He 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, he is to some extent to paying homage to the ancient stories that have shaped Greek life and thought. He certainly values them. He treats the ancient myths as the means of achieving a “usable past,” as “equipment for living,” as Kenneth Burke might say. Perhaps Aristotle is revaluing the old forms of thought and life, bringing them into his own present day. It may well be, too, that Aristotle well understood the nature of the clarity that Greek audiences derived from tragedy—one surprisingly ambivalent about their standing with regard to the cosmos and the gods. Aristotle never says “don’t worry, be happy.” I’m not at all convinced that he is simply a scientist who means to turn poetry into a perfectly vulgar “useful thing.” It is even possible that Aristotle is interested in tragedy because of its capacity to make an uneasy peace with the old terrors of early Greece —its tyrannical gods and powerful furies, before the scientific method began to hold sway in intellectual life. Don’t the old gods and myths give us insight into the limitations of our understanding, our powers of reason? This view would make Aristotle a recuperative figure, not merely a sunny analytic scientist. His Poetics could be an honest admission of his philosophy’s limitations, an admission that there is more to the human animal than rational philosophy can account for. Aristotle likes to study complicated things, and the human animal is complicated.

In sum, we come to Aristotle 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 is studying as well as the conclusions he arrives at concerning it. My 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 kind of 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.

Footnotes

Footnote 1: Pleasure and Pain: Aristotle says that we get pleasure from seeing otherwise unpleasurable things represented—we can enjoy the sufferings of Oedipus, for example. That’s because it satisfies a fundamental instinct for learning. But what about the pleasure we take in films like The Silence of the Lambs? Does the pleasure derive from the same source—love of learning? Or is something else at work here? You could argue that we delight in the aestheticization, the making-beautiful, of violence. Why is that? Is it that we are violent creatures, and therefore take delight in the adorned representation of violence? I wonder if there isn’t a dark side to Aristotle’s claims about what we get from art—he makes it all sound so rational, so intelligible. All Apollo, not much Dionysus. I’m not so sure. Identification with some other element within ourselves may also be at work—how else did Hitler get all those people to salute at the same time, to identify themselves with the Volk, and so forth? The Third Reich might well be described as a diabolical work of art in which every approve German could participate. That sort of thing has absolutely nothing to do with reason.

Footnote 2: Aristotle’s view is far more complex than can be rendered by the sometime translation of mimesis as “imitation.” In Aristotle’s view, we can appreciate the formal properties of a work of art even if we aren’t familiar with the original. In this sense the work becomes a “presentation,” an original in its own right—not a representation in the sense of mere copying. That sounds a bit like formalism, but Aristotle isn’t a modern formalist because he insists that art is a representation of something—we aren’t dealing with a theory that says art is absolutely autonomous, free of any ties to the world outside the text, canvas, or other media. That’s a modern notion.

Footnote 3: Similarly, a character should be constructed so that he or she behave and speaks true to type—otherwise, no intelligible pattern will emerge from the words and deeds of that character.

Footnote: A Nietzschean caveat—if things actually don’t make sense, then we are enlisting criticism and philosophy to falsify things, not clarify them. Or rather, it may be (sometimes) that to clarify is to falsify.

Page-by-Page Notes on Aristotle

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 is a subspecies of art. Plato wasn’t interested in this 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 pre-historic Lascaux Caves of France , as one of my professors at UC Irvine suggested, are good evidence that Aristotle is correct about our instinctual need to imitate. Aristotle shows concern for the formal coherence of works of art, too: 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 might 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 incidents of ancient Greek tragedy are almost always 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 to present us with 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 who finds that the prophecy will be fulfilled in spite of his 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 of UC Irvine says, we can see a universal, intelligible pattern emerging in that various hopes are exposed as rooted in illusion: people hope on the basis of illusions, and after that hope is frustrated they must give it up. Aristotle says that life’s aim is an action: what we do matters more than our character type. 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 probable 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). (A modern historian would suggest that history writing, too, requires emplotment.) If we are to learn anything from a tragedy, 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 or fooled by the representation. Rather, for Aristotle a play is a learning experience that requires critical distance, 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.

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? This empathy will make us shudder because something equally terrible could befall us. Aristotle is still interested in the issue of “critical distance,” I would add, even when it seems we are most immersed in the play. Self-control and openness to experience are conjoined virtues for him. A question posed by Albert Wlecke—why arouse pity and fear simply to achieve catharsis or the 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; probability and necessity reign here, too. 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.

104. On 104 bottom, Aristotle writes, “As far as possible, [the poet should] also bring [his plots] to completion with gestures. Given the same nature, those [poets] who experience the emotions [to be represented] are most believable…. [T]he art of poetry belongs to the genius or the madman; of these, the first are adaptable, the second can step outside themselves.” This passage provides a scientific, dispassionate view of the notion that poetry is a species of madness; the idea doesn’t seem to bother Aristotle in the least. It’s interesting to see this notion in a critic who praises formal coherence and close attention to structure—the point seems to be that once these things are taken care of, the poet is free to invest genuine, even extreme, emotion in completing the representation with appropriate words and feelings.

105. “Part of every tragedy is the complication, and [part] is the solution…. By ‘complication,’ I mean the [tragedy] from the beginning up to the final part from which there is a transformation towards good fortune or misfortune; by ‘solution,’ the [tragedy] from the beginning of the transformation up to the end.” This passage shows that Aristotle thinks of a drama as an experience (for the perceiver) like the tying and untying of a knot—it provides the kind of satisfaction that comes when one deals with some difficulty. His expectation is that if the plot is tight and worthwhile, it will induce the proper tragic emotions. There’s much sense in his argument since, as anybody who has ever seen even a thriller or tear-jerker film can attest, art (along with other types of performance, such as political speeches, etc.) has little trouble generating predictable emotions even in a sophisticated audience. Which is why Elaine of Seinfeld is my hero for resisting the sentimental allure of that interminable movie The English Patient: “Just tell your stupid story about your stupid accident and DIE!”

113. “Impossible [incidents] that are believable should be preferred to possible ones that are unbelievable, and stories should not be constructed from improbable parts, but above all should contain nothing improbable; otherwise, it should be outside the plot-structure.” Aristotle is more flexible than prescriptive. His preference for adhering to what will seem probable to an audience is clear, but at the same time he admits that on occasion something improbable may need to make its way into a drama. In that case, the aim will be to avoid such an appearance from being integral to the action.

114. “[If] impossibilities have been produced, there is an error; but it is correct, if it attains the end of the art itself.” Aristotle also writes, “The error is less, if [an artist] did not know that a female deer has no horns, than if he painted without representing [anything].” That is, if through ignorance an artist paints a female deer with horns, and the painting pleases us because of its fine formal qualities, it might deserve some measure of praise—the error wouldn’t necessarily overwhelm our ability to enjoy the painting. The error committed would, as Aristotle had explained earlier on the same page, be an error in some art other than poetry itself—today we would say that the poet observe nature more closely or even take a course in zoology or whatever discipline would tell you how to distinguish male and female deer. If a poet knows the look of the thing to be represented and fails to draw or describe it properly, Aristotle has less sympathy: that is an error “in the art of poetry itself.” It’s a bad representation, a failure to execute.

114. On 113, Aristotle had written that a poet “is necessarily representing one of three things, either (a) things as they were or are, or (b) things as people say and think [they were or are], or (c) things as they should be.” On 114, he points out that “if [the poet] is criticised for representing things that are not true, perhaps he is representing them [as] they should be….” These statements show considerable subtlety on Aristotle’s part, and his further reference to Sophocles and Euripides reinforces this nuanced approach: we wouldn’t judge Sophocles the “ought” man in the same way we would judge Euripides the “is” man: we would take account of what we thought they were trying to do, and judge them accordingly. It is acceptable and even noble to represent what ought to be, even if our “representation” isn’t a straightforward description of things and people as they really are. If the poet wants to give us a vision of an improved humanity, that’s a laudable goal, not something to complain about. None of what Aristotle says in The Poetics should be taken as slipping away from a representational theory of art, but it’s also easy to see that he’s quite flexible and not rigidly prescriptive when it comes to what, exactly artists should represent. As he says on 116, there are five basic criticisms to make against a work of art: it’s “impossible, improbable, harmful, contradictory, or incorrect in terms of [another] art.” All of these criticisms, we may presume, are to be offered only in the spirit of helpful objectivity: there are no fewer than twelve “solutions” to the problems that may arise, and some of them amount to what we might call “extenuating circumstances” based upon the artist’s aim.

116. Epic poetry is wonderful stuff, but it appears that for Aristotle, tragedy takes the palm. Epic is too much of a “baggy monster” (as a critic once described Tolstoy’s novels) to permit of unified actions, while tragedy accomplishes the same essential tasks as epic without sacrificing unity. The vividness and concentration, the intensity, of a drama, in Aristotle’s view, make it a superior experience for an audience. The epic, he thinks, simply cannot move its hearers the way a tragic play can, or with the same goal of inducing catharsis. I’m not likely to agree with Aristotle that drama is “better” than my beloved copy of Homer’s Odyssey, but I understand what he’s getting at: drama suits his idea of art’s proper emotional impact and its social purpose more closely than epic narration.

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

Notes on Horace’s “Ars Poetica.”

We are used to the idea that art is oppositional, a “disturbing and disintegrating force,” as Wilde said individualism and art should be. As post-romantics, we also tend to judge art with an eye towards its originality, its source in an individual’s imagination and passions. Horace’s views may not appeal to us if we don’t historicize our sensibilities to the needs of his time and to the Romans’ attitude towards concepts like “genius” and “expression.” For Horace, art’s social function is not opposition but rather urbane adornment. A good poetic craftsman reassures the public’s sense of what is appropriate in speech and conduct, enhancing their sense that they live in a stable world. He delights and teaches them with good verses, ones that make them take pleasure in what is essentially already their own view of politics and their particular social order. Decorum—the delineation and observance of what is fitting—are central to the Horatian poet’s task.

Horace lived through tough, unsettling times (65-8 BCE). Rome had lived through decades of dictatorships and civil unrest. Horace was around twenty years of age when Julius Caesar was assassinated (44 BCE), and Octavian didn’t take over to become Augustus Caesar until 27 BCE (the reign lasted until 14 AD, when Tiberius took over). Although Horace at first opposed Octavian, he came around later to accept the Emperor’s vision of post-Republican stability, continuity, and virtue. The political forms had changed, but Augustus wasn’t interested in radically transforming Roman civilization; he seems genuinely to have admired the ancient virtues that made Rome strong, and he tried to promote them every way he could. Horace, then, allies his notions about patient craftsmanship and practical recognition with Augustan political imperatives.

125. Horace would agree with modern people that languages and societies are born, develop, and die or get transformed. He uses the organic metaphor of “leaves” to make this point. So the poet must, in the deep sense, be a follower of fashions, know how the leaves are falling: know your time’s needs, and the words most appropriate to your audience’s aesthetic and moral sensibilities. You can’t teach and delight people who lived 500 years ago, so you have to please those in the here and now.

126. Expression? Well, we need to read Horace carefully here. When he says that you must first weep if you want to make others weep, he isn’t offering a romantic expressivist theory of poetic creation. He is arguing instead that certain kinds of utterances or written sentences most closely “fit” certain character types and situations. Notice that he says nature produces expression by fashioning and shaping our emotions. In ancient times, the passions are figured as coming from without, as an external set of forces that impact us powerfully. Consider Sappho’s brief lyric poem, “Eros seizes and shakes my very soul / Like the wind on the mountain / Shaking ancient oaks.” Words are like tragic masks, validating and expressing the emotion that the poet has deemed appropriate to the character and the situation. We should not forget that masks don’t quash emotion or individuality—they both enhance and validate it, rendering it more permanent. So the fact that emotion isn’t something that comes from within and then is “expressed” shouldn’t make us interpret Horatian expression as stale conventionality. Conventionality itself, handled well, is a powerful artistic element. Wilde said, “give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” No doubt he was thinking of Greek drama.

127. Imitation: we don’t imitate nature, but rather human nature and social conventions. The poet finds out from literary tradition and close social observation what the appropriate conduct and language are, and then makes his poetry reflect those standards. The public wants its stable world view reflected and ennobled in poetry and other art forms. That’s why decorum is important—well-crafted poetry’s harmony with received notions produces pleasure. Craft itself is important, too, because it is orderly and observant of literary rules. The poet should be a good literary citizen.

129. Horace sees some licentiousness behind tragedy. The Satyr play is a response to the audience’s less noble composition and needs. That’s how Horace deals with the Dionysian element in tragedy. But he shows some pragmatic concern about art’s relationship with an audience. He would agree that we should “preserve and ennoble” character types, not debase our art to the level of lowbrows in the peanut gallery. Art should maintain what is best in a society, and improve what is less than worthwhile.

130-31: The artist should follow Greek models. But Horace also wants to assert Roman independence from the Greeks. His classicism is of the better sort, and his advocacy of Roman literature’s development looks forward to French and Italian advocacy of a modern national literature, not just copying from the Romans. (Cf. Du Bellay and Dante, among others.) The “Children of Numa” have their own literature, and they should keep developing it. So Horace’s view of language and literature is dynamic—it must fit its public’s sensibilities and needs at any given time. Polish seems to be the Roman form of excellence—Roman artists are good craftsmen, in the way we think of the French as great chefs and winemakers.

Horace sees literature as a force for shaping culture and morals as well as for accommodating political and social needs, not a vehicle for violent change. He has come to support Augustus’ political values and his enlistment of literature in that cause. See his comments on the degeneration of Old Comedy into mere licentiousness, and the Satyr play as a great lady dancing a bit with the peasants on a feast day because everyone expects her to.

131. Poets and Critics. The critic provides advice on craft and decorum, on how to achieve formal excellence. Horace sees the person of letters as a literary stylist in a rather modern way. The artist measures his success partly by selling his work as a commodity, even if not for a living. The broader point to be drawn from Horace’s practical comments about selling books is that poets serve a specialized function in Roman society. They please and teach the public, decking out their cultural values attractively. Language clothes morality, serves as ornament. Horace keeps making fun of the “mad poet.” He would probably agree with Wilde that “the origin of all bad poetry is sincere emotion.” True craftsmen knows their duty with regard to the reading public; their “specialized” labor function (a modern version of that idea appears in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations) should not consist in a fashionable, class-driven pose of alienation, isolated genius, or divine inspiration by the Muse. Byron’s sardonic opening of Don Juan—“Hail muse! etc.”—isn’t far from Horace’s lips.

So what underlies good writing and craftsmanship? Wisdom—the wisdom that comes from long imitation of “life and manners,” not the insights or delusions flowing from observing the obscure movements of the psyche.

131: The Romans are businesslike even in art. They appreciate fine craft, orderly and well planned work. The Greeks are wonderful, says Horace, but at times a bit wild. Let them have their divine madness.

132-33. Since the poet adorns values, fitness of speech is of the essence. The buying public won’t tolerate a mediocre poet who lacks eloquence and who violates their sense of decorum, of proportion in all character types and situations. A mediocre lawyer or doctor may be useful, but a mediocre poet’s main function is to adorn our world view, so we demand excellence as integral to that function. We want to be delighted and taught—Horace might well agree with Sidney’s later formulation that the poet teaches by delighting, even though Sidney’s statement stems from the Christian notion that original sin has adversely affected the will. Moreover, Horace apparently would like to see a greater sense of professionalism amongst poets—too many equestrian-ranked amateurs are scribbling poetry. Poetasters have been around forever, it seems. Wealth does not give one the crown as poet. See Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon for a send-up of rich art patrons.

133: Art has done humanity great service, writes Horace. It has allied itself with wisdom, helping thereby to establish and maintain the golden mean. It has been vital to civilization, separating, ordering, ranking things and people in the proper way. (See Shelley’s broad definition of the poet—perhaps his argument owes something to Horace, though the sentiment is much different.)

133-34: Talent and genius are both necessary. Genius, says Horace, may be a gift of nature, but talent must help us develop our genius and our linguistic facility. Artistic labor shapes and directs the force of genius as a builder and enhancer of civilization. Originality, in the modern romantic sense, does not seem to matter to Horace. Still, for all Horace’s love of conventionality, we need not consider him stale and bloodless. An artist can work within established literary and cultural traditions and yet be innovative and fulfill deep cultural and individual needs. Again, a mask is conventional artifice or a device, but if properly deployed, it enhances expression.

134-35: The “mad poet” enframes and overflows Horace’s text on poetry, as if the text offers itself as “the safe and sane middle ground” on the issue of what poetry is and how one becomes a poet. Horace writes a decorous treatise on decorum. He doesn’t see a need to offer us either Plato’s condemnation of art or Aristotle’s confident defense of poetry. Aristotle, of course, comes late in the line of philosopher-scientists from the Pre-Socratics onward, and he vigorously opposes Plato’s view of the relationship between art and life. One might say Plato was concerned that the ancient mythology lowered over his “modern” Greece, promoting an uncomfortably close association between irrational art and everyday life. Under the rule of myth, art was an all-encompassing way of life. Aristotle has more confidence in the advent of the rational, scientific outlook, so he is able to defend art by treating it in a scientific manner. Horace’s argument is less philosophical than either Plato’s or Aristotle’s, but he is responding to the needs of a practical culture embarked upon an imperial project that would span centuries. So he promotes art as a valuable but specialized social practice; the Romans have no problem separating and distinguishing art from life’s other facets. The poet has a well-delineated, limited role with regard to the community. Perhaps this is true in all highly specialized, urban societies: consider the advent of industrial capitalism and its driving class, the bourgeoisie. With the coming of the new scientific-industrial paradigm, romantic artists responded with anxious defiance to what they felt as a radical threat of marginalization and even extinction of the human imagination and the art created from it. Horace feels no such anxiety.

Concluding thoughts on Horace: the Greeks understood the forces impinging upon the individual and the human realm as wild and incompatible, while the Augustan Romans treated external forces as more regular and predictable. These different visions of how the world beyond us shapes our identities and social forms are still with us—you can find both attitudes in modern philosophy and theory. Everyone says external forces impact us and at least partly account for who we become and what we do, but people differ concerning our chances of comprehending and controlling those forces.

Today the notion that, for better or for worse, everything is regulated by convention has come back into vogue. Not so much in an affirmative “neoclassical” or Horatian way, but rather in the sense that contemporary theorists see conventional systems regulating everything from language to power relations in the social and political sphere. There’s a great deal of distrust of any formulation telling us we can strip away conventionality and artifice and get at the essence of something like “meaning,” “language,” “spirit,” etc. The individual is construed as the effect of many forces converging and conflicting, and meaning is often described as an effect generated by the play of elements within a sign system, whether the theorist sees that system as satisfyingly closed and complete or otherwise. Structuralism certainly emphasized the notion that we understand things on the basis of structural relationships, by way of relations rather than fixed inner meanings or roles. All of this acknowledges that we are creatures of both habit and convention, and takes up an attitude towards the fundamental claim that stability of perception and thought is itself a kind of necessary wish-fulfillment on our part.

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

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