Important details Essay
Almost from its very beginnings mimetology has looked to ancient Greece for its proof texts. For both Rene Girard’s hypotheses surrounding the ethical and ethnological implications of mimetic desire and Eric Gans’s identification of the part played by mimetic resentment in cultural evolution, the texts of Homer and the tragedians have served (in the words of Walter Burkert) as “a mirror in which the basic orders of life, lying far behind us, become visible with an almost classical clarity” (xxiii).
For Burkert, this mirror’s clarity is the product of ancient Greece’s serendipitous “union of antiquity and sophistication” (xxiii). While mimetic theory has dwelt on the significances of Greek literary and religious traditions, the culture’s sophistication–especially in matters critical and philosophical– have received relatively scant notice. In light of the historical priority of the aesthetic over the theoretical, such inattention is understandable.
This essay, however, will demonstrate how the writings of three of the classical age’s most influential commentators on literary theory–Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus–manifest a debate on the proper place of the sacred in the aesthetic scene of representation. The debate begins with Aristotle’s establishment, via critical fiat, of the aesthetic scene’s formal and ethical self-sufficiency.
Rather than following up the possibilities for artistic and anthropological discovery enabled by this bold gesture, however, Horace and Longinus display a curious reluctance to evacuate sacrality from aesthetic representation, as if they sensed that to do so was, at the very least, to run the risk of emptying the center of its attention-fixing capabilities. For Aristotle’s successors, in other words, the processes of aesthetic demystification came into inevitable conflict with the originary “power” the aesthetic scene retained as it emerged from ritual.
Their writings can thus be seen as struggles to reconcile originary or ritual immediacy with the emotionally leveling effects that representation acquired as it became increasingly institutionalized. An examination of these early attempts to codify aesthetic value thus illustrates that–despite postmodern claims to the contrary–the problematic status of mimesis is never fully eradicated by artistic institutionalization. I. Aristotle Tradition holds that Aristotle’s Poetics, the West’s single most influential work of literary criticism, originated in an esoteric dispute.
To the end of his argument for the banishment of poets from the good State in book X ofThe Republic, Plato appended a challenge to all those who “love poetry but who are not poets to plead for her in prose, that she is no mere source of pleasure but a benefit to society and to human life” (340). Aristotle’sPoetics answered this call, countering Plato’s claim that poetry is “far removed from reality” and “wisdom” (334-5) because the poet lacks both knowledge and “correct belief” of the 2 “subjects he portrays” (332) by asserting that “poetry and politics, or poetry and any other art, do not have the same standard of correctness.
. . ” (67). Further, as a reply to Plato’s concern that seeing “some hero in Homer or on the tragic stage moaning over his sorrows in a long tirade” (337) will encourage us to indulge in similar theatrics when “we are suffering ourselves” (338) so that we behave “like a child who goes on shrieking after a fall and hugging the wounded part” (336), Aristotle advances his famous theory of catharsis: tragedy “through a course of pity and fear complete[s] the purification of tragic acts which have those characteristics” (25).
The impatience with aesthetic representation that prompted Plato to question the place of poets and poetry in the ideal state is conventionally attributed to the problematic status of art within his “theory of forms”; teacher and pupil differ, it is said, in the degree to which they grant philosophical legitimacy to poetry. Whereas Plato sees “a long-standing quarrel between poetry and philosophy” (339), Aristotle advances the opinion that “poetry is a more philosophical and serious business than history” (33).
From the standpoint of the mimetic theory, however, the real issue at stake is not philosophy, but the threats posed by any kind of imitation to the social fabric. As Girard writes, “Plato’s hostility toward mimesis is an essential aspect of his work and it should not be seen as confined, as it always is, to his criticism of art. If Plato mistrusts art it is because art is a form of mimesis, and not the reverse. He shares with primitive peoples a terror of mimesis that has yet to be sufficiently explained” (15).
Though he concedes his teacher’s intuition that that imitation is art’s core element, Aristotle nevertheless asserts that the aesthetic scene’s self-containment amounts to a guarantee that representational mimesis cannot threaten the polis with the kinds of social and ethical disintegration Plato feared. Eric Gans puts it this way: For Aristotle, mimesis has none of the conflictive connotations it had retained for ritually focused thought up to Plato.
It is a wholly advantageous doubling, participating in all the benefits of originary representation with no possibility of provoking the resentful rivalry that accompanies mimesis in the real world; on the contrary, mimesis is a purgative cure for resentment, a catharsis (Originary Thinking 135). For Girard, then, Plato’s intolerance for poets and poetry stems from his unwillingness or inability to separate “appropriation from imitation.
” Furthermore, this misapprehension has passed “unnoticed because all of his successors, beginning with Aristotle, have followed his lead” (Things Hidden 8). Gans, on the other hand, recognizes the extent to which Platonic and Aristotelian concepts of mimesis differ. For Plato, literature’s ties to the originary event remain strong enough to ignite new crises; Aristotle, on the other hand, holds that poetry’s institutionalization has effectively severed its threatening connections with primeval, violent forms of mimesis.
That artistic representations are indeed “far removed from reality” is for Aristotle their saving grace; poetry’s ability to create bracketed worlds effectively establishes safe havens where primevally “infectious” behaviors may be indulged with relatively little fear of instigating communal crisis. 3 The difference between Platonic and Aristotelian mimesis therefore becomes more a matter of degree than of kind. Thus both Girard’s refusal to distinguish between the two and Gans’s view of Aristotelian mimesis as “participating in all the benefits of originary representation with no possibility of provoking.
Resentful rivalry” oversimplify the contribution of Poetics to the understanding of the essential operations of imitation and art. Lying at the core of Aristotle’s text is an ineradicable tension between the tangible emotional power of originary or ritual immediacy and the comparatively vitiated affects of secular, aesthetic representation. This tension places Aristotle and subsequent critics on the horns of a dilemma both ethical and practical: how much violence can the scene of representation contain?
How thoroughly must–or can–poetry cleanse itself of the stain of its violent origins? Aristotle’s inquiry into the precise nature of the relationship between the ritual and aesthetic scenes of representation is the bold first step that enabled his subsequent discoveries of art’s possibilities; only by calling into question Plato’s one-to-one identification of the two scenes could Aristotle advance, as Gerald Else has written, “a viable philosophy of literature” (Poetics 4).
Curiously, however, this achievement begins not by denying literature’s ritual origins, but by relocating ritual from the human to the animal realm: As to the origin of poetic art as a whole, it stands to reason that two operative causes brought it into being, both of them rooted in human nature. Namely (1) the habit of imitating is congenital to human beings from childhood (actually man differs from the other animals in that he is the most imitative and learns his first lessons through imitation), and so is (2) the pleasure that all men take in works of imitation (20).
His anthropological starting point enables Aristotle to disconnect mimesis and ritual by advancing a hypothetical, pre-ritual scene of representation. If mimesis is a behavior, part of our animal inheritance (“man differs from the other animals in that he is the most imitative”), then the Platonic closed loop of imitation and ritual leading either to ethical action or to mimetic crisis must be re-examined in light of the existence of animal (non-ritualistic because “congenital”) “forms” of mimesis.
In short, resituating mimesis within an ethological context enables Aristotle to rid representation of its narrowly ethnological (that is to say, Platonic) threats and terrors. The distinguishing characteristic of the neoclassical art, according to Gans, is its aesthetic self-consciousness (Originary Thinking 151-156). While it is impossible to decide whether Aristotle’s faith in artistic self-sufficiency enabled or merely hastened the neoclassical era’s “discovery” of aesthetic self-consciousness, it seems more than just a coincidence that this development so closely followed the Renaissance’s rediscovery of the Poetics.
But while separating the aesthetic and ritual scenes represents an important step in the ongoing process of understanding the fundamental categories of humanity, de-emphasizing literature’s ritual legacies comes with an affective price, and Aristotle knows it. So long as Aristotle strives–as he clearly does in Poetics–to present both a general theory of 4 representation and universal criteria for poetic excellence, he cannot ignore the potent emotional force, or pathos, which ritual, drawing on the crisis/resolution pattern of the originary event, possesses in abundance.
The famous “rules” of tragic construction are, in fact, attempts to specify the means by which a relatively de-ritualized aesthetics may nevertheless retain ritual’s power (to employ a telling and still-popular metaphor) to “strike” its audience. Take the central recommendation about plot: “the plot must be so structured, even without benefit of any visual effect, that the one who is hearing the events unroll shudders with fear and feels pity at what happens.
This represents, in effect, the interpolation of a ritual or even pre-ritual phenomenology into the theory of tragedy. By definition, ritual is participatory, even if participation amounts to little more than directing one’s attention to the scene on which an event unfolds; the complete evacuation from the aesthetic scene of ritual elements would thwart the arousal of what Aristotle calls the indispensable “tragic emotions” of pity and terror.
Other Aristotelian recommendations for representational success can be seen as attempts to balance the power–and danger–of originary representation against aesthetic distance. We will begin with the most famous–and hotly debated–criterion: what nearly two thousand years of criticism have termed the “unity of action. ” From Ludovico Castelvetro in the 16th century, through Pierre Corneille in the 17th, right up to the present century’s “Chicago critics,” perhaps no aspect of Poetics has generated as much comment and controversy as this.
The so-called unity of action informs practically all of Poetics, since tragedy is defined as “an imitation not of men but of a life, an action” (27) and “the structure of events, the plot, is the goal of tragedy, and the goal is the greatest thing of all” (27). Subsequent critics derived the unity of action primarily from section 7: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action which is complete and has some magnitude (for there is also such a thing as whole that has no magnitude). ‘Whole’ is that which has beginning, middle, and end” (29-30).
Elaborating on the meaning of “magnitude,” Aristotle writes that the beautiful, whether a living creature of anything that is composed of parts, should not only have these in a fixed order to one another but also possess a definite size which does not depend on chance–for beauty depends on size and order; hence neither can a very tiny creature turn out to be beautiful (since our perception of it grows blurred as it approaches the period of imperceptibility) nor an excessively huge one (for then it cannot all be perceived at once and so its unity and wholeness are lost), if for example there were a creature a thousand miles long–so, just as in the case of living creatures they must have some size, but one that can be taken in in a single view, so with plots: they should have length, but such that they are easy to remember (30-31).
In short, a tragedy’s length should be such that “it must be possible for the beginning and the end to be seen together in one view” (63).
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 5 June 2017
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