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Impressions of Poetics by Aristotle: 11/19/21
© 2022 James LaFond
I have listened to this couple-hour audio recording over the course of some 40 hours, on a near continual loop. A someone not much interested in poetry, I am chiefly impressed by the number of authors Aristotle mentions who are lost to time. Aristotle does state that the poet is an imitator like any other kind of artist, including the dancer and the painter.
“Mass and dignity” are a superior aspect of the epic poem. Yet Aristotle finds the tragedy, a concentrated art form that is the child of epic poetry, as a superior form of poetic expression. “Superior in all respects” is Homer, in the eyes of The Philosopher. This is chiefly for his knack of leaving his own voice absent as much as possible and speaking through characters. One supposes that Aristotle would be bored to tears by the modern habit of extensive exposition and philosophical digression on the part of the author.
Perhaps because I have been ill while listening I find it difficult to qualify The Philosopher’s advice. He held the judicious use of metaphor in high regard and had little patience for critics of poets, who tended to—as it seems in our own day—have projected their views upon the art and then used attacks upon the art to raise their views as if upon a corpse. It reminds this reader that the 300s B.C. was the curtain fall of classical Hellas,
He quotes a man named Glaukon:
“They pass adverse judgment and then proceed to reason upon it.”
This recalls the view of Edward Gibbon, when he wrote of the nadir of the Roman Empire, that the writers had become nothing but critics, and compilers and other temporal purveyors of repetition and argument as art.
The Philosopher’s dictum that things and characters might be drawn better than they are, worse then they are and “as they are,” are all techniques used by poets of various types, as well as painters. This reminds us that in our trashcan view of antiquity, looking at the white bones of ruins and sorting through graves and trash heaps, that we lack a view upon a world of painters, of which Aristotle names three. Portraiture was a high and even sacred art in an age that we are led to believe was dominated by unpainted statues.
In his discussion of metaphor he suggests the shield of ares, might be described as “the Wineless cup of War” this reader smiled slightly.
The entire 26 books, from the 1902 translation by S. H. Butcher is an examination of the structure of various forms of poetry.
Of particular interest is the repeated allusions to a great body of work chronicling the Trojan War, including a lampoon, various epics and many tragedies, most of which have bot survived. Of particular interest, is that he names Homer as the first known author of “satyrical” or “lampooning” poetics which would eventually become comedy. Homer is alluded to have authored various unmentioned works, that there were certainly many authors of and before his time unknown to Aristotle in his time some 400 years later.
Homer wrote, “and first too laid down the main lines of comedy,” a “ludicrous” lampoon titled Margates “and other similar compositions” or something similar. It seems from this and other statements that Homer was by no means a first poet of either, but a man so excellent that he became the form-setter for later generations and the men he learned from and practiced among receded in his more excellent shadow.
At least two tragedies were written on events in the life of Odysseus, including the Lament of Odysseus.
The Dorians of Megara, a democracy, claimed to have been the originators of comedy, it having arisen in rural communities who were despised by city folk.
Aristotle clearly holds that women are “inferior beings” and that even a good slave [with most of humanity then ranked as chattel] is inherently a “worthless” person.
Of interest is that a chorus was granted to a poet by an archon, and that the choral members seem to have been slaves, that early on a comedian had to rely on a willing chorus of volunteers. We should recall that it was unusual for a person to not be a slave, and that no slave had rights in antiquity, but all had their throats forever bared to their all-powerful master, even if their master was a man of low status among free folk.
The art of Tragedy concerns itself as near as possible to a series of events “occurring within a single revolution of the sun, or as near as possible.”
Even among the free, Aristotle is an elitest and looks down on the un-curious mind of most free men. He does not, however, despite believing in the goodness of slavery,
He decries the poor tragic rendering of “our modern poets” one even “devoid of ethical quality” and what seems a pursuit of more a claim among lesser-minded audiences.
Aristotle speaks across ages of our own postmodern art: “The most beautiful colors laid on confusedly will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.”
Despite all of this elitist expression, Aristotle expresses no opinion that the art of influencing the slave mind, of raising a mob of rabid slaves to a cause, is something he ever considered. This is of interest, in that our current poetic, communicative and imitative art forms are chiefly dedicated to satisfying bestial appetites and influencing, not the thinking mind seeking a higher order of thought and holding the word as a sacred vessel, but of collectively molding the mass of slavish minds into a emotional engine of sorts that can be harnessed.
Of interest in book 7 is his mention of “the water clock” having been used to time tragedies at some point in the past during contests in this art form.
In Book 8
“Whether from art or surpassing genius” Homer is regarded as superlative as a poet and to have written both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
In book 9
The poet is a higher artist than the historian, due to the fact that he works in universal truth and works upon the question of what may happen, “how a person of a certain type” will act and react in certain situations. To the philosopher, ‘what may” happen is a higher question than the mere facts of what has happened. Of course, he worked in a time before it was common to the historian to lie and shape the thinking of the reader to conform to some agenda. A poet named Agathon seems to be a highly regarded poet of great skill.
Episodic plots are to be detested, and might be tolerated in contests, but is a line of little art. It is comforting, some how, to know that Quinton Tarentino would be despised by Aristotle.
Overwhelming is the sense that most of the material that Aristotle referenced are now lost to us.
Of subjects, beyond persons, The Philosopher notes that thongs might be represented “as they are,” or “as they are said to be—as with the gods” or “as they should be.”
Dealing with heroics and tragedy, he does not seem to frame a fourth “as it might be” setting as done by the purely speculative writer of today. He places tragedy as sacred in form in that it resist the desires of the audience for a happy ending, which is left to comedy on the low end and epic heroics on the high end.
Various technologies for “spectacular” enhancement of a play are alluded to, among them various forms of music.
Thank you, man who would have cursed me as worthless for the low station of my birth, for speaking down to me across the uncaring ages.
Winter Reading
book reviews
your trojan whorse
logic of steel
sons of aryas
the greatest lie ever sold
masculine axis
into leviathan’s maw
blue eyed daughter of zeus
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