Socrates, we’ll remember, felt a reverent awe in the face of poetry. In Ion, god-inspired rhapsody had an effect on the audience akin to possession. In Republic, the emotions aroused by poets threatened the polis. We can disdain his censoriousness, but at least Socratic dread in the face of art is an improvement over our own indifference toward its power.
Aristotle shares this veneration, but abandons the claim that poetry poses a threat to rational society. Unlike Plato, Aristotle embraces the salutary effects of emotion aroused by art. He just wants to know how it works. And he makes it safe by explaining it. In Aristotle, philosophical/rationalist rule-making finally triumphs over pre-rational ritual; Camille Paglia calls his pity and fear, “a broken promise, a plea for vision without horror”. It is an attempt to explain the effect that epic poetry and tragedy has on him, and as such is a foundational text of Western aesthetics. It’s a text we must absorb and, I think in the end, reject.
Poetics deals, in great part, with tragedy, a Western literary form. Japan, for example, only developed tragedy in the late nineteenth century. Drama, developing from religious ritual and epic storytelling, is fairly universal; but tragedy is a specific genre that requires the audience to conceive of a hubristic individual will coming into conflict with the larger reality: social, existential, or divine. In some sense, the main character’s way of being becomes unfeasible and they try to extricate themselves from that situation. Usually, someone winds up dead.
Where does drama come from? Aristotle agrees with Socrates that poetry is basically imitative. He adds an anthropological note: children imitate at an early age, so perhaps all humans take part in imitation. Poetry imitates with language, taking on the voices of different characters. Tragedy is a form of poetry whose object is an individual who is better than average, but only slightly. The audience watches as the character undergoes a change, usually from good fortune to a bad fortune.
This means action- a tragedy, according to Aristotle, is an imitation of an action that it complete (with a beginning, middle and end) and has emotional magnitude. The action in Medea, for instance, is the vengeful murder of the children and the princess. The poet shows what would likely happen in a particular kind of situation involving a particular type of character- this gives tragedy its universality. Tragedy is also pleasurable- watching a character go from good to bad fortune evokes fear and pity in a way that is cathartic- that is, it purifies us.
The idea of Katharsis is key to the Poetics. Socrates often acknowledged that poetry is enjoyable, but he did not suggest it was good for our well-being. Aristotle believes that intense emotions are aroused by art, in much the same way as Socrates said they are in Ion, but that allows us to safely experience the emotions and be cleansed as a result. Tragedy is what we would now call a “safe outlet”.
Another key idea is that the tragic hero plays a role in his own reversal of fortune. It is often claimed that Aristotle is talking about a character’s “fatal flaw” here; and yet this doesn’t seem correct. Clearly a misstep on the hero’s part sets events in motion, according to Aristotle. But he believes the ideal tragic hero should be slightly better than us, in order to evoke pity and not disgust; and a character with a ‘fatal flaw’ would not be slightly better than us. I think it’s more that an action on their part is flawed- it’s an error. They make some mistake that sets the plot in motion.
For Aristotle, plot is considerably more important than character. He has several rules about plot. He thinks plots should be simple and unified in terms of character, place, and length of time- a good tragedy takes place in a day. The story consists of conflict and finally resolution. And the most interesting plots show the character’s recognition, reversal and suffering. The “recognition” comes from realizing that an evil act was performed in ignorance. The best resolutions are organic to the plot; Medea is out. The language should not be too elevated, but it should include interesting and unique words and creative use of metaphor. Characterization should aim at goodness, appropriateness, likeness, and consistency.
As a description of how drama is constructed and why it moves us, this is absolutely unparalleled. You could easily write a drama along these lines and do reasonably good work. And it’s hard to imagine an introductory course on drama or aesthetics that does not include reading the Poetics. The text is a cornerstone of aesthetic philosophy and western thought more generally. Make no mistake: You should read the Poetics.
The problem is the primacy of plot: for Aristotle, plot is more important than characterization or even language; these make a difference in quality, but a play with a deficient plot is an abject failure. However, contrary to Aristotle, I think it’s quite possible to imagine a play in which the plot is mediocre and the tragic character at the center overwhelms us. Many of us consider the greatest drama ever written, in fact, to be one in which the fully realized main character, a melancholy Danish prince, almost destroys the feeble plot structure entirely. In general, Shakespearean language and characterization tower above the often chintzy plots. I don’t mean this as a criticism either- in Shakespeare, the plots hardly matter, and the writing is matchless. We can think of other examples; Persona, for instance, is a staggering film about the very nature of individual personality; but I’d be hard-pressed to outline its plot and not make it sound terrible.
Conversely, there are countless examples of plots that follow the guidelines for conflict and resolution to the letter, usually within a tidy three act structure, that would bore you to tears; most television programs and movies, in fact. Unlike Aristotle, we have seen hundreds of dramatic stories in our lives. Many of these plots seem artificial. To some extent, this is because our own lives so seldom seem plotted. Events in life rarely have a beginning, a middle, and an end, or bring any recognition on our parts. Art imitates life, but by formatting it- giving it a plot- it somehow falsifies life as well.
The problem for us is that most of the dramas we encounter are plotted within in an inch of their lives and populated by lifeless avatars. The inner lives of the characters cannot compete with the audience’s own lives, which have swelled in importance and crowded out psychology in drama. We don’t want to know about some Danish Prince’s problems- who cares if he’s going to be, or not to be? We want simple plots that get to the point. And we’re offended with characters that are slightly better than us or too aware of their inner lives. Who do they think they are? It sometimes seems that our technologies are now designed to drown out the inner life, while our entertainments deny an inner life is even a possibility.
So, in order to revive theatre, and art- as a discussion about what it means to be human- I think we need to relearn drama: to begin with characterization and see what sort of plots develop from fascinating characters. Humanity- that is characterization- needs to replace plot in importance. Our dramas are drowning in plot.