Aristotle’s Poetics

The Poetics is Aristotle’s discussion of the features of epic and tragedy, and it serves as a kind of intro to ancient literary criticism of a formal bent. The second book, on comedy, is lost, although if you’ve seen The Name of the Rose, you know Sean Connery gets to mangle a few lines from it before an evil monk eats the rest.

Of particular interest to me are the places of overlap with the Rhetoric. Aristotle speaks of metaphor and rhythm even more here than there, and there is also an stronger interest on composition. He is not just critiquing what makes a good or bad play, but he also seems bent on prescribing on what each genre may contain. An epic, for example, is presented as a somewhat more primitive and longer precursor to tragedy.

In order to understand poetry, Aristotle quite characteristically breaks it down into parts – genres, in other words – and then describes the forms of each genre. Like rhetoric, poetry (writing plays, more or less) is to be considered an art, because its core principle is mimesis – a blend of representation and imitation. Ebert should consider this definition when declaring films but not games are art. Successful tragedy aims for evoking catharsis, a sort of medical metaphor for emotional cleansing, in the audience.

The Loeb translator, Halliwell, believes calling Aristotle a formalist would be inaccurate; rather, Aristotle thinks that a discussion of forms is the same as a discussion of “the shaping and structuring of poetic meaning.” Sounds like a formalist to me – why else would anyone be interested in form criticism?

Perhaps what Halliwell was trying to say is that Aristotle views playwriting as rhetorical, and I think the text bears this out, though it has its confusing moments, such as in Poetics 19 when Aristotle gives rhetoric proper jurisdiction over “thought,” as plays are supposed to be indirect, rather than direct, argument. This got me thinking about whether or not rhetoric is but the expression of philosophy, but I’ll address that when I touch upon Derrida next.

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