Monday, January 16, 2012

Poetics (c. 335 BCE)

     It is more than a little disconcerting that what we have of two of Aristotle's seminal works – The Ethics (be it the Nicomachean or Eudemian version) and Poetics – have not survived as complete works, but rather as the assembled class notes that were subsequently used as the basis of the actual books.  This means that we, who didn't experience the direct teachings of Aristotle, do not get the benefit of the poetry of his language or the true insight of his thought.
     Poetics is perhaps one of the most celebrated texts in Western culture.  Should it be?  Probably.  It serves as the basis for critical interpretation of poetry (and prose, since Aristotle is essentially concerned with how to tell a compelling and meaningful story) and lays out the necessary elements to constructing a story.  The problem – for me – is that it is essentially an older version (and an incomplete one) of a text book.  I'm almost positive that there has been much work in the field of deconstructing the elements of a story, and that amongst them emerges a much more complete (and contemporary) picture of what it takes to effectively enact a plot or structure a tale in such a manner that it is consistent with the point envisioned by the author.
     Indeed, were it not for the lengthy and well written introduction to the text (by translator Malcolm Heath), I think I would have failed to appreciate much of what Aristotle was explaining.  What is more telling is that Aristotle correctly anticipates that the failures of structure are ones that can – and have – endured to the present.  Clearly, Aristotle was more than just paying attention to the poetry and plays of his day (and well before it); he found a way to properly appreciate them as an art form.
     I know that I am nowhere near well-versed in real criticism to truly appreciate what Aristotle accomplished with the Poetics (and yet I am arrogant enough to work in the medium on this blog).  It is doubly painful that his commentaries on comedies – as implied in the text – are completely missing from history.  But I am certainly glad I finally got around to reading this book.  Why it wasn't required for any of the theatre classes I had, I cannot answer.

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