Reflections on Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s Poetics is one of the earliest surviving works of literary criticism, and I read it over the past couple days. It’s pretty short (the Project Gutenberg version I got came to 60 pages, and that includes the legal notices), but it’s interesting to explore it as a thought exercise.

It’s one of very few surviving texts that is more than two thousand years old, and it’s interesting to see how well it equates to modernity even though many of the terms and concepts that it uses have developed in the time since its writing (though, to be fair, some of this likely also is a factor of translation).

You also don’t need as much information to go into it as I thought would be necessary. Being familiar with Homer is a must, since Aristotle references his work constantly. Other than a very basic knowledge of Greek myth or drama (e.g. to catch references to Oedipus or Medea or the more famous ancient playwrights), nothing more is needed.

Plot and Episode

One thing that I think is tremendously interesting (though perhaps extrapolation more than true to the original text) is the idea of plot versus episode. One of the distinctions that Aristotle makes is that the plot is often something that can be condensed a great deal.

For instance, he draws from Homer’s Odyssey a short summary, only four or five sentences in length, but which covers the main events.

All other elements are part of episodes, not the overall plot.

It seems that episode is used in a loose sense throughout the text, but one way it seems to be used is as an order of organization lesser than an act (although Aristotle does not delve into acts and instead talks about complication and unraveling).

The purpose of this is simple.

There is a hierarchal relationship between the plot (for neither all of a story nor all of a character will be shown, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment) and the episode. This makes it possible to create a framework in which each is evaluated on its merits.

Aristotle praises Homer throughout as an epic poet worthy of study, so the use of him as an example is not accidental nor coincidental.

The Part of the Character

One of the interesting things that Aristotle shows is the need to show a part of a story and a part of a character.

I find his description of taking part of a story less useful than the description of taking part of a character, because it is the unity of the character that serves as a better illustration for the basis of a plot.

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the Unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action.

Aristotle, Poetics

The guidance Aristotle gives is simple. Start with the absolute limits of what a character is and then figure out what goes in a story.

One thing that can help the modern reader is a knowledge of the way stories were told. Even in Shakespeare’s day, many stories were told with stock characters (e.g. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Faust), or based on known historical figures (e.g. Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, the English monarchs).

So too did the Greeks write about figures with known histories and backgrounds. To what degree these were believed to be historical figures or figures of myth is largely set aside in Aristotle’s work, though there is some room to indicate that he was open to the creation of new fictional characters.

However, the important thing here is that any particular playwright–and here he praises Homer’s treatment of Odysseus in the absence of parts of Odysseus’ story in the Iliad and Odyssey–will only include what is necessary or possible to include in the framework of their plot.

The Necessary or the Possible

Aristotle repeats the phrase “the necessary or the possible” often in Poetics. It is accompanied by a clear emphasis on using it as a tool to weed out undesirable parts of stories.

The deus ex machina is mentioned (though doubtless not by that name, since that is the Latin term for it) as a device that lets bad playwrights nominally succeed at telling a story. The cost is a dissatisfied audience, but at least the central problems of the plot are resolved (albeit at the expense of the writer’s reputation).

Rather, what writers should consider is what is necessary and possible to drive the story along, with an emphasis on satisfying both qualities. When it is not possible to continue the story without violating the mimetic nature of the story, then one has to resort to merely what seems plausible (even if it is, on its face, not even possible).

 But once the irrational has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity. Take even the irrational incidents in the Odyssey, where Odysseus is left upon the shore of Ithaca.

Aristotle, Poetics

This presages the later doctrine of the suspension of disbelief.

The Suspension of Disbelief

One thing that’s interesting throughout Aristotle’s Poetics is that he places a lot of emphasis on the role of a storyteller (though he focuses on plays and epic poems, which are somewhat limited as far as media go but not entirely alien from modern storytelling).

He labels as bad–and Aristotle is plenty willing to pass value judgments–that which is incapable of moving the audience to emotional catharsis.

Now, his doctrine of pity and fear as the metrics of a tragedy stand up less well when one considers the fact that he refers to tragedies much more broadly (he leaves open the chance for a happy ending, although he states a preference for what we would call a tragedy in the sense of Shakespeare’s work). But there is something valuable to them.

And that is the need for an artist to move the audience. When a story is told, we consider any emotion a suitable focus for the storyteller, but we do not consider a complete absence of emotion desirable.

Even the likes of Kafka pursue some evocation, even if their work is less focused on what exactly is being evoked and there is more room left for the audience to draw their own conclusions based on what they make of the setting and plot.

Complication and Unraveling

Aristotle views stories as made up of two parts: complication and unraveling.

While this is more simplistic than, say, Donatus or Freytag’s conceptions (of a three- or five-part conception), there is something elegant in its simplicity.

Complication involves things being made a mess of, though this does not always have to be negative. The protagonist’s actions impact how the story develops, and they should not be so immediately successful that they resolve major problems in the early stages of the story.

This is a point that would make the Poetics worth reading on its own even if there were no other value to it.

Then there is the unraveling, the point at which the knot is undone and the threads of the story are laid out.

The important lesson here is that an artist must not neglect both sides of the development of a story. It must be made, then unmade. For instance, the final section of the Odyssey in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca are not complication, but unraveling. The hero’s success is not guaranteed, but his actions clearly push toward all conflict being raised to rest.

Wrapping Up

There’s some interesting things that an analysis of Aristotle’s Poetics bring to light. He seems to have absolutely no concept of many of the modern conventional understandings of storytelling. For instance, conflict is not mentioned a single time throughout the text.

But for this there are interesting elements within the Poetics that are worth examining. For one thing, the lack of resolution makes it more of a guide for poets (or storytellers) without a focus on any single area of the craft. He brings some attention to grammar, which aligns with the concepts of grammar we might expect to see in a basic overview of the trivium but which is far too short to be worth examining on its own without some greater context.

I think that reading it has definitely helped me improve as a writer and as a teacher of writing, though I’m not sure exactly how to explain all of the things Aristotle said. There are many places where his authoritative understanding comes through, and others where he is speaking from opinion or his perspective (there is one place where he makes an openly negative remark about women that would get any modern person called in for a meeting with Human Resources), but that makes it more interesting.

One thing that should definitely be taken away from it is that the foundational texts do not need to be great and mighty (it is, after all, a work notable for its paucity) and there is some merit to humility when addressing material subject to judgments of preference.

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