Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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