Thursday, September 08, 2005

Week 03, Aristotle

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. Both are to some extent 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 an old prof 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 be rigid and 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 – cf. 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 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 profoundly, 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 a plausible one 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, is 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 places great value upon 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 “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 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.


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 ‘‘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 Reich or the Volk might well be described as a diabolical work of art in which every 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 cruelly 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.

Aristotle Notes (These are my “post-it” style notes, in case they’re of any interest -- they repeat some ideas found above, but also contain other commentary.)

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

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. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.


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