Confessional poetry Essay
Like almost all of Aristotle’s recommendations in the Poetics, the unity of action is grounded in what a hypothetical viewer is likely to see and, more important, to believe. Tragedy’s formal coherence, in other words, is itself tested and therefore relies for its ability reliably to produce its defining effects upon its phenomenological consistency with a hypothetically pre-aesthetic concept of human nature.
Despite his contention that poetry and politics may employ different standards of correctness, both are ultimately subject to the fundamental structure of center and periphery. In fact, it is the unity of action by which aesthetic representation accesses ritual’s spellbinding and emotionally charged effects. As Gans writes, Discourse, as it emerged from ritual, was temporalized, as was ritual; its own duration followed the irreversible progress of the rite, which itself followed that of the original event. . .
Discourse operates within the temporal limits of the original crisis/resolution, which, whether it last a few hours or a few days, is of necessity extremely short in relation to the normal life span of its participants. . . . The elaboration of ritual is less a prolongation of the critical moment than the addition to it of other episodes. Significance is thus originally a short-term phenomenon, which we may assume to follow more or less the time scheme of a drama, where the speeches of the characters occupy a real time of interaction (Origin of Language 243, 288).
Aristotle anticipates Gans in grounding the significance (or, to use his word, beauty) of literary discourse in a ritually derived temporality. As Aristotle writes in Section 7: “‘Beginning’ is that which does not necessarily follow on something else, but after it something else naturally is or happens; ‘end,’ the other way round, is that which naturally follows on something else, either necessarily or for the most part, but nothing else after it; and ‘middle’ that which naturally follows on something else and something else on it” (30).
To make the connections between aesthetic contemplation and ritual participation too explicit, however, is to risk falling into what Aristotle might have called the Platonic fallacy. Hence his recommendations with respect to the construction of plots tend to de-emphasize the perceptual elements most closely associated with originary representation. The three elements of plot, according to Aristotle, are peripety, recognition, and pathos, which he defines as “a destructive or painful act, such as deaths on stage, paroxysms of pain, woundings, and all that sort of thing” (37).
The emotions aroused by pathos play a paradoxical role in Poetics: while he identifies pity and terror as the “tragic emotions,” the most effective formal means by which they are aroused are, in Aristotle’s view, “the least connected with poetic art. ” Though “the visual adornment of dramatic persons can have a strong emotional effect,” this is the “least artistic element” among the six constituents of tragedy (29); and while “it is possible for the fearful or pathetic effect to come from the actors’ appearance,” the “mark and characteristic of a better poet” is to engender these effects “from the very structure of events” (40).
Again, originary analysis points to how this, one of the most influential of Aristotle’s literary opinions, can be understood as an attempt to reconcile what increasingly appeared to be the potentially mutual exclusiveness of aesthetic contemplation and ritual participation. The non-instinctual attention of the periphery toward the central object at the originary scene must be, at least initially, captured and sustained (for however brief a time) through the eyes.
That is, peripheral identification with the central figure is first visual and then “replayed” on each individual’s internal, imaginary scene of representation. For this reason, ritual retains a primarily visual orientation. Thus, to define aesthetic excellence as that which resists the strict mimetic conservatism of ritual is to disconnect even more radically art from its violent origins. Similarly, Aristotle’s recommendation against reliance on the deus ex machina arises not merely from the “organicism” of his concept of dramatic plot, but from his perception that the proper phenomenal model for tragedy is not ritual but revelation.
The poorest plots, he writes, “are those that are contrived by the poet,” such as that of Iphigenia, where Orestes says “what the poet, rather than the plot, wants him to say” in the recognition of his sister. By contrast, the most artistic plots are those “that develop naturally but unexpectedly. ” Ritual is the opposite of revelation,” writes Gans in Science and Faith (16). Nothing new must occur there; the only evolution the rite undergoes is the gradual draining away of the truth it was its task to preserve.
Rites die and are replaced by others, keepers of new revelations. But these revelations themselves never occur within the framework of ritual; their privileged locus is the individual imagination, whose intuitions are tested only after the fact by the community (16-17). Aristotle thus anticipates Gans in identifying some of the ways in which the aesthetic scene’s escape from ritual conservatism enables it to become an important locus for the discovery of fundamental human truths.
The durability of Aristotle’s theory therefore results neither from historic accident nor scholarly conspiracy: discovering that an anthropologically-grounded theory of the sign could sidestep Plato’s fears about art initiating the contagion of conflictive mimesis enables the classical aesthetic eventually to achieve its logical end point: the exploration the scene of representation qua scene. Aristotle’s achievement comes not, however, from merely denying the validity of Plato’s intuited connection of representation and crisis.
Both thinkers recognize, as Gans has put it, that “[t]he institution of art constitutes an intermediary third term between the minimal institution of language and the maximal one of ritual,” and that “[l]anguage and ritual are each in their own way coercive” (Originary Thinking, 122). Poetry, according to Plato, has ties to the more communally coercive (and therefore threatening) institution of ritual; for Aristotle, it is more closely allied with the individually coercive institution of language.
It is significant, however, that Aristotle’s attempt to rid the aesthetic scene of its Platonic threats never fully succeeds; as Gans writes, “[t]hroughout history, Plato’s qualms about the subversive nature of art alternate with the cathartic claims of Aristotle” (Originary Thinking 136). Later literary theorists, 7 –especially Horace and Longinus, as we will see–while they followed Aristotle’s lead in centering their discussions around mimesis, found themselves having to steer between the Scylla of art’s violent origins and the Charybdis of the emotional lassitude of a scenic center devoid of its specifically sacred power.
Although, as Gans argues, the “relative importance of the Platonic and Aristotelian attitudes depends upon the balance of centrality and decentralization within a given society” (Originary Thinking 136), the most famous ancient literary critics maintained the belief that the positions were interchangeable by falling into sacred ambivalence: the unwillingness to further Aristotle’s desacralization of the aesthetic scene. II. Horace Consider, for example, Horace’s Ars Poetica.
Both in form and content, this treatise on the craft (techne) of poetic composition is predominantly Aristotelian: like that of the Poetics, the argument of Ars Poetica unfolds according to the prescribed succession of poesis, poema, and poeta (Atkins 70). Both works, moreover, identify unity as the essential determinant of literary quality. During the renaissance, in fact, neoclassical critics frequently spoke of the two as if there were no differences between them: concerning the so-called “unity of place,” writes Pierre Corneille in “Of the Three Unities,” “I can find no rule.
For all their concurrences, however, there is an important difference between Aristotle and Horace. Whereas the former makes only one fleeting–and rather dismissive–reference to the question of poetic inspiration, the latter devotes a considerable number of words to the elucidation of the temperamental qualities that conduce to literary genius.
Horace’s contribution to classical literary criticism thus consists of neither an elaboration of the theory of representation nor the practice of poetry, but of his subtle, even hesitant reminders of the poet’s “cult of personality. ” For Aristotle, Sophocles’ greatness as a poet is demonstrated a posteriori, the result of his having produced the “perfect” tragedy, Oedipus Rex. Horace, on the other hand, takes what would no doubt have struck Aristotle as a step back toward the Platonic fallacy by reviving both mystery and violence as indispensable elements of poetic craft.
In Ion, Plato had offered the characteristically mythicizing statement that “all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed” (Adams 14). Though Horace does not go quite that far in this anti-Aristotelian direction, his very willingness to consider “whether a praiseworthy poem be the creation of nature or of art” (Adams 74) indexes his dissatisfaction with what Gans has called Aristotle’s patently demystifying gesture of identifying “the human with the central” (Originary Thinking, 135).
Though Horace refuses to commit himself explicitly to either side of the craft/inspiration controversy–“For my part I do not see what study can do without a rich vein of native gift, nor what the native gift can do without culture” (74)–other elements of the essay indicate that he may have felt inspiration to be more important than he is willing to admit. First, he repeatedly invokes the Muses, indicating that for him poetic composition was still to be undertaken in an attitude of religious seriousness.
Second, and even more significant, is 8 Horace’s deliberate and detailed attention near the end of the letter to the social influence and temperamental characteristics of the poet. “While men were yet savage,” writes Horace, Orpheus, the sacred, the mouthpiece of the gods, awed them from bloodshed and the foulness of their living; whence the legend said that he tamed tigers and ravening lions.