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Blair Hoxby on Aristotle’s Poetics

Blair Hoxby studies the literature and culture of the long seventeenth century. Two of his foremost interests are the commercial culture and the theatrical practices of the period. His book Mammon’s Music: Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) examines the impact of the commercial revolution on writings […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison,
and we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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While preparing for today's show on Aristotle's poetics,
I was overcome by a feeling of bliss,
the bliss of reading the Greeks again.
Nothing shines like the Greeks.
In Thoreau's words,
"Later writers say what we will of their genius
have rarely,
ever equal the elaborate beauty and finish of the Greeks."
Frederick Nietzsche put it even better,
quote, "Oh, those Greeks, they knew how to live."
What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface,
the fold, the skin,
to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words,
in the whole Olympus of appearance.
Those Greeks were superficial out of profundity.
And it's not this precisely what we are coming back to.
We dare devils of the spirit who have climbed the highest
and most dangerous peak of present thought.
Are we not precisely in this respect,
Greeks, adores of forms, of tones, of words,
and therefore artists end quote.
Looks so good.
It looks so cool.
Your plan to live in to the probe.
It don't give a window.
Here's an example of what I mean when I speak of Greek radiance.
You open Aristotle's poetics and read the opening paragraph.
Quote, "The art of poetry, both in its general nature and its
various specific forms, is the subject here proposed for discussion.
And with regard to each of the poetic forms,
I wish to consider what characteristic effect it has,
how its plots should be constructed if the poets work is to be good,
and also the number and nature of the parts of which the form
This is like an Aegean sun rising on a summer world.
This is at Greek lucidity, which loves form,
resolution, and the boldness of contours.
And here I will read another passage which speaks about the love
of outline here from the poetics,
whether one is using a traditional story or an invented story
and composing it oneself, one should first set it down in a general outline.
Note that in drama, the episodes are short,
whereas in epic poetry, episodes are used to give the poem length.
Thus, the argument of the odyssey is not long.
A certain man has been absent from home for many years.
He is kept under hostile surveillance by Poseidon,
and he is alone.
Besides, the situation at home is that suitors are dissipating as property,
and plotting against his son.
But after suffering from storms at sea, the man returns,
reveals himself to certain persons,
and attacking his enemies comes off safe himself and destroys them.
This is the essential story, and all the rest consists of episodes.
You try getting your students to summarize the odyssey in two sentences or less,
and see what they come up with, and compare that to Aristotle.
The text we call Aristotle's Poetics is fragmentary,
certain parts of it never made it down to us,
the discussion of comedy, for example.
In my own English edition, the Poetics is less than 35 pages long,
yet it is arguably the most important work of literary criticism
in the entire Western tradition.
We have the luxury of devoting the next hour
to an in-depth discussion of the treatise,
and its reception across the centuries,
with a scholar who has spent a lot of time with the Poetics.
His name is Blair Hoxby,
an associate professor of English here at Stanford.
Blair's primary field is early modern English literature,
and as we'll see later in the show, Aristotle's treatise was especially important
for early modern writers and theorists,
not to mention the first composers of opera.
Blair, welcome to the program.
It's a pleasure to talk Aristotle with you here on entitled opinions.
Thanks Robert, it's a pleasure to be here with you.
The first question is the most generic question.
Why is Aristotle's poetic?
Such a hugely important text since it's discovery in the late Middle Ages
or early Renaissance, depending on where you want it located temporarily?
Yeah, I would point to, I guess, five things that I think are the most important things in the Poetics,
some of which are so obvious that we take them for granted, but we shouldn't.
The first one is that Aristotle has an idea of poetry as being memetic or being imitative,
and that was simply not the common assumption when he was first retranslated again in the Renaissance in 1499.
Up to then, Horace was really the leading teacher of what poetry was about,
and he taught that its purpose was to teach and delight, which was a more rhetorical or instrumental idea of poetry.
And we can think of other alternatives. Later on, we'll hear that poetry is an expression of overflowing feeling,
or perhaps that poetry is really a verbal object,
but for Aristotle, it's a form of imitation, and that turns out to be an incredibly powerful idea throughout Western art.
And he then ties that back into the fundamentals of human nature.
He says that we are creatures who enjoy imitating and learning that way, right from childhood,
so that there's somehow the very nature of our psychology is tied in with the nature of his view of poetry.
And then he furthermore says it's essential that art be recognized as imitation for us to be able to take pleasure in it.
So he really has quite a complex idea of art as memetic that proves to be incredibly important through Western art.
Then just more briefly, I'd say a few other reasons that poetics have been important to people is first that he really recc thinks about art as a form of skill,
and literary criticism as a form of skill that can be learned and analyzed, transmitted,
and that's very empowering. It's essentially because of Aristotle that there is literary criticism, I would argue.
And as sort of parts of that job, his job as being a literary critic, he has a theory of genre as being both about what's imitated and how it's imitated,
he offers a very influential account of the roots of tragedy, and the most important of all, I think for us,
is he offers an analysis of tragedy, one of the fundamental sort of creations of the Western psyche.
Well, my Mises imitation is not the first one to use it in reference to poetry, because obviously Plato has a whole condemnation of the poets for being imitators of a second order of reality and so forth,
but I gather you think that he's using Mises in a different way than Plato was.
I'm not trying to argue that that's an entirely original idea with Aristotle, but he seems to me to offer the fullest account of it. Plato's comments on art,
although they were influential and suggestive to people are really quite short, if I think you could probably fit them in three pages rather than 30 pages.
So, yeah, when you said that with Aristotle, the idea is that a Tragedian or a poet is also a crafts person and has a skill, a technique, no?
And the poetics, I understand to be a kind of analysis of what a skillful poet does if he wants to write a good tragedy, is that correct?
Yeah, I think so. I think Aristotle is, you could think of it as, you know, he's teaching a writing workshop or something like that, although he also distinguishes between himself and authors.
He says that, for instance, a carpenter might be able to make a beautiful chair and not understand the essence of making chairs, essentially just as you may have to be a philosopher to understand the essence or all of the rules of making tragedies that a poet can arrive at instinctually.
So, he doesn't insist that the art of poetry needs to be entirely distilled into principles, but he doesn't insist that a philosopher should be able to do so whether or not the poet's always can.
And obviously to write a good tragedy, one has to have some notion of what is a tragedy. And that's where the philosopher, Aristotle, comes in and he, right off, you know, in the first section, he offers us a kind of generic definition of tragedy.
Can you summarize that for us?
Well, sure. I can offer it to you, and then we can decide whether we can make sense of it or not, because I think few sentences in Western literature have invited so much analysis, but he says that tragedy is an imitation of an action.
So, there you have the notion of a mimesis again that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude. And here we start getting into that sense of having an outline, having an appropriate size, having a sense of shapeliness that you were talking about, that kind of the Greek concern with surfaces, right?
In language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts, that's one of the most confusing parts of his definition, but he really seems to there be thinking about poetry, song and dance as being potentially separable and being used in different sections of the tragedy.
Then he says it's performed by actors, so it can't be something like an epic that's only recited, not through narration. And then the key thing is that he says affecting through pity and fear, the purification of such emotions.
And that was the passage that really got people in the Renaissance so excited because a Plato had been very doubtful about the place of the poets and the Republic to say the least.
Here you seem to have this kind of direct assault on Plato's questioning of strong and powerful theatrical affect and coming up with some kind of a defense of why that might actually be useful to the commonwealth rather than simply dangerous and damaging.
Alright, so since it's a loaded sentence, let me read it in its entirety in my translation, which is slightly different than the one that you have, thus tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and possessing magnitude.
In embellished language, each kind of which is used separately in the different parts in the mode of action and not narrated and affecting through pity and fear, what we call the catharsis of such emotions.
So let's try to unpack a little bit at a time, an imitation of an action, I think the action is translating the Greek mythos, or is that not mythos is a plot.
So the, so it might be praxis.
It could be, yes, I'm sorry, praxis would probably would be the action, but plot obviously is founded, it has to be completely concerned with an imitation of the practice.
So it's an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and possessing magnitude, and it's in the mode of action and not narrated.
So on the one hand, your imitating action, on the other hand, action is the medium by which the imitation of action takes place, in other words, with actors on stage acting out a story, and affecting through pity and fear, what we call the catharsis of such emotions.
So even though we might not know what he means yet by the catharsis of such emotions, are you suggesting that that last clause there is what is Aristotle's rescuing of the role of poetry from Plato's condemnation?
I am, and it was certainly taken that way almost immediately by readers of Aristotle in the 16th century, and Italy when they rediscovered him, and at that time Plato was extremely admired and extremely influential, the period of sort of neoplatonism and a cult of platonism surrounding the court of the Medici and other places.
And to see this as an alternative, it's something that the first humanist certainly did, and I think even classes today generally refer to it as a kind of response of the disciple Aristotle to his teacher Plato.
So the definition that we were discussing gets further clarified when he discusses things like the parts of tragedy and the plot and so forth. So he divides it, tragedies into various parts.
Right, he has six parts of tragedy. The first is plot, which you've referred to already, and he insists that that is the most important element of tragedy. He calls it the soul rather than the body.
The next two are also objects of imitation, so they're different than the other ones. The second one is character, the Greek word is ethos.
We usually translate that as character, but it could in fact be just as well translated as something more like manners or habits, moral disposition. The third one is thought or reasoning.
And those are what's being imitated. Those are the things from real life in some sense that are then put on stage in some shapely manner. And the rest are really the means or manners that are used in order to represent tragedy on stage. So that's diction or word choice, song or melody and spectacle.
And although Aristotle really emphasizes plot as the most important element of tragedy, he does think of the three things plot character and thought or reasoning as being interconnected in some very important way so that it's the choices that you make that reveal character. It's the thoughts that you have or the reasoning that you undergo that will often determine what choices you make and so forth. So he really, I think it's best almost to think of them as a triangle with arrows going from one to another in this constant dynamic of pattern.
Yeah, I like the way you put it, rereading the parts of tragedy, the extraordinary priority gives to plot. I was surprised to say that character is much less significant because I had remembered Aristotle suggesting that the reason action is so crucial to a successful tragedy and imploding the action in a way where events follow each other according to a law of consequences.
The character, the ethos of the tragic hero is revealed, something gets revealed about the character flaw or the Hamach Tio will talk about that concept later. But when I reread it, it wasn't all that clear to me that's exactly what Aristotle is saying that clearly then the first principle and as it were, it was a very important thing to say is that the character is not the same thing.
First principle, and as it were the soul of tragedy as the plot as you said, and second in importance his character.
And then he says, "character is whatever reveals a person's habit of choice, and this element is therefore absent from speeches, in which there is absolutely no choosing or rejecting of anything."
And so he seems to suggest that the character of a person is revealed more through the thought.
Is present wherever speakers are engaged in proving that something is so or not so, and making choices in what we would call their, you know, they would reveal themselves more through their speech parts rather than through their actions.
Well, I think he says they reveal themselves through their choices as well, right, which are actions in some sense, and usually choose to undertake an action.
I think the real difference between Aristotle's view of character and the view that we might have, if you think about a modern novel or a typical movie, there's frequently lots of interesting little bits of color that are throwing in in order to flesh out of character that he's a chain smoker.
Or, you know, that he's his favorite team is the Spurs and all of these things that are somehow make the characters seem rounded and full and complete to us.
But I think for Aristotle, he really is thinking of character in a more purely ethical way so that it's only choices that will become sort of ingrained, let's say, what type of person you are that are most important to him.
And that's the type of character he's talking about rather than all of the sort of psychological complexity and eccentricity that we might associate with character from our reading of Shakespeare or reading of 20th century novels, if that sort of thing.
So you have no problem in saying that for Aristotle, one of the purposes of action in a tragedy is that it serves to illuminate, manifest or reveal the character of the hero.
Yes, I have no problem. I have no problem saying that. And there are certainly very interesting examples of early moderns reading Aristotle in that way. There's a French tragedy on music of Medea called Medea by Sharpente and Thomas Cornay, the younger brother of the more famous Pierre Cornet.
And they do something very interesting there where every time Medea makes a choice, they associate, they have this theme music that plays that is eventually associated with the demonic and so forth.
But basically, we see that each one of her moments of decision and the tragedy is actually a revelation of character that's only complete in the end when she becomes kind of godlike and which like.
But so that would be a reading of saying that characters revealed through choice. And here plot the complicated concept because obviously whatever has to do with action takes place in time.
And Aristotle seems to be concerned with distinguishing, let's say events that are merely chronological episodes that follow from one another in a chronological sequence and a different order, let's say configuration of events which don't follow necessarily chronologically, but almost logically what he calls according to probability or necessity.
And therefore he speaks about the events which are parts of the plot must be so organized that if any one of them is displaced or taken away, the whole will be shaken and put out of joint.
For if the presence or absence of a thing makes no discernible difference that thing is not part of the whole.
I love that because I organic, I love organic form the whole concept of it and the way the romantic thought of it as well.
And so there's a principle of consequence, and therefore the Trigidian, there should be nothing superfluous in the order and he then goes on to say in the next section that.
There is a vast difference between following from and merely following after.
So this, let's say, configural logic of the plot is more important than just the sequential this happened and then that happened and then that happened.
Absolutely and that's one of the reasons he really doesn't like a tragedy that say as supposed to be all events that are concerning one character, but it aren't tightly connected to one another, right?
Because for him that's not the form of unity that he wants to see precisely because character is not a sufficient basis of unity that it has to be the action or the plot that's creating it.
And here just having a side, Paul recur the French philosopher and theorist when he wrote this multi volume work of his major work called time and narrative and he juxtaposed what he does in the first volume is is differentiate.
An Augustinian concept of time as a present which fades into the past and which is not the not the future yet.
So this kind of radically chronological notion of time versus Aristotle's implicit theory of time in the poetics where there is a again a kind of configural concept of that.
And of course he thinks that the latter has corresponds more to the kind of foundation of the way we live.
We make meaning out of the events in our own time.
But the question I'd like to ask you Blair now is about how going back here to the question of the centrality of character or the hero is this.
Rather opaque concept that he introduces about how much Tia which when I was in high school was always translated somehow as tragic flaw.
And I noticed that it's not really translated that often anymore as tragic flaw, but it's a Greek word how much Tia that
is hard really to pinpoint.
It is hard to pinpoint and whole books have been written on it. But the first thing I would say about how mark Tia is that even though Aristotle doesn't mention it as one of the four building blocks of the plot, I think that's really the best way to think about it.
So the three other building blocks are reversals of fortune, recognition and he says it's best when the two things go together.
You just realize that you slayed your son, so that's a reversal of fortune and a recognition at the same time.
And pathos is the third part of a plot.
And how mark Tia I think we have to recognize as in some ways being the opposite of recognition.
Most literally it means missing the mark, it probably means making an intellectual mistake, possibly an intellectual mistake that can imply something morally about you.
But the idea that it's a character flaw really seems to have arisen in the 19th century and to have come out of readings of the novel and out of readings of Shakespeare and thinking that somehow the character had to be responsible for his own downfall.
Among many of the romantic critics really felt that the only way a tragedy could be purely satisfying because a tragedy for them was supposed to be a demonstration of human freedom.
So the only way that it could really be satisfying was in some sense if you wrote your own tragedy for yourself.
You could not, you had to be the author of your destiny.
So in that sense you had to have a moral flaw or something like that.
It could not simply be the victim of misfortune.
Is that because there was a strong demand for justice in the romantic conception of the tragedy so that somehow the character had to deserve his or her fate.
So that Lear is a little bit doting and too vain and wants to push this situation because there's a flaw in his character whereby he creates the mess that he ends up becoming the victim of.
I would actually differentiate between the demand for justice which was also became prevalent in the late 17th century and what was going on with the romantics.
In the late 17th century we find many more tragedies in which the good are rewarded and the vicious are punished at the end.
Their what Aristotle would call double tragedies or tragedies with a double ending.
The Odyssey would be an example of that where the suitors are killed and Odysseus gets his wife back.
And in fact we find people like Naeumte, rewriting King Lear to have a different ending so that it doesn't outrage a sense of justice.
And this could actually be justified through Aristotle because the idea was that if justice appeared to be assaulted too brutally, then rather than being able to feel pity and fear we would simply fear to feel disgust or horror.
So it was really a concern about the response of the audience to what was going on.
But for the romantics I think it's something quite different.
They really get interested in an idea that they find in Kant which is that it's essentially what they would call the second Antinomy.
It's the idea that we seem to be completely bound by and subject to necessity or nature but at the same time we have to believe in our own freedom and order that we can have a sense of self worth or dignity.
And they wanted to see tragedy as this conflict between freedom and necessity and that leads them to really emphasize the power of nature and fate and Greek tragedy.
And to see in the destruction of the hero a kind of invisible or intimation of a freedom that's impossible to perceive with your senses.
So it's the moment of the sublime when the character is crushed that that reveals the freedom has very resistance to being crushed shows the invisible force of spirit within him.
But that's so they can call it a character flaw but somehow it's that it's the sheer emanation or expression of some kind of power within the character throughout that makes it essential for them to think that he's kind of brought about his own downfall I think.
That does sound a little counterintuitive because you could say the opposite that what is sublime and what gets revealed in the downfall is the absolute sovereignty of fate and the decree of the gods and the ultimate impotence of the human agent to be responsible for the outcome of his or her actions and that that would bring about pity and fear because you're going to pity the person who is not.
Ultimately responsible but is a kind of victim or a plaything of fortune as freight shakes me with.
And you would have a terror of the fact that fate inscrutable in itself can bring about the sort of tragic outcomes in human life because we are subject to the gods and that the realization that to be mortal means not to be immortal and there's no greater revelation of the intrinsic input of the human being.
But it's a very important of mortality then to have these stories in which a hero who is by no means perfect but by no means you know a slouch be brought down from his high standing position by by a series of events which seem to be beyond his control.
Well I think that's that's a just question if you will and that there is a kind of paradox there but of course the German romantics in particular really like to think paradoxically right there constantly running into these these sorts of conundrums and to give you an example what Schelling says about his interpretation of edipis the king essentially right.
Certainly takes into account of the fact that edipis is crushed but it also thinks that what's great about it is that edipis in some sense takes the cop for something that he wasn't responsible for and that's his expression of freedom so what Schelling says is you know how is it that Greek reason is able to bear the contradictions of its tragedy because the doesn't seem reasonable right.
A mortal faded by destiny to become a criminal fights against his destiny that's edipis and in spite of this he is horribly punished for a crime that is the work of fate.
Okay so this is precisely what you're saying right the reason for this contradiction that which made it bearable they deeper than the level at which it has been sought.
In the conflict of human freedom with the power of the objective world a conflict in which the mortal necessarily had to succumb when that power was a superior power a fattum in other words of fate.
And yet since he did not succumb without a struggle here's the key the counterposing thing without a struggle he had to be punished for this very defeat.
In fact that the criminal succumbed only to the superior force of fate and yet was punished all the same this was the recognition of human freedom and honor owed to freedom.
So that's their take on that.
Now you were reading from whom there that's Schelling telling tense letter on dogmatism and criticism.
Well that's beautiful I'm not going to take on Schelling in that regard because he is extraordinarily foreshadowing the doctrine of the outcome of articulates the truth.
The truth articulates in the myth of Cisifus that essay of his where he wants to preserve the space of human freedom even where Cisifus is condemned to push the boulder up the hill and go down following and when it rolls back down for all of eternity and Kamehous says that he will do that but there's at one moment at the top of the mountain.
As the boulder starts rolling down where Cisifus can look around him and he can become the master of his fate because his own freedom is still cannot be completely extinguished by this absurd condemnation by the gods to an eternal futility.
Yeah I think that's exactly right in that sense of effinescence of the incredible momentaryness of the insight into freedom or something like that.
The assertion to freedom seems to be very important to many people's thought about tragedy especially to the romantics but this idea that there's kind of a lightning bolt that destroys the hero creates a momentary insight and then it's gone and perhaps can't even be remembered or rearticulated but you have this sense of insight or momentary.
It's a momentary freedom and mid-destruction.
Well I'm thinking now because I for a long time have thought that the reason Dante called his poem a comedy is because he had a conception of history, the divided between the pagan, let's say the pre-Christian era and the Christian era and that the fundamental difference was that through the Christ event now every individual was empowered with an almost unconditional free will.
To choose his or her own salvation or damnation and therefore the possibility of a Christian happy ending, namely a state of grace, was now a matter of individual choice so there was an empowerment of subjective free will through the Christian incarnation and crucifixion as opposed to the pre-Christian era where there is absolutely no choice.
Where there is absolutely nothing, Virgil, Eulisis and the others can do in order to earn their salvation because it was just the tragic period where subjective free will had not yet been empowered.
But now I think through our discussion I'm realizing that Eulisis in Kant of 26 of Dante's Inferno is tragic in the way that shelling that you're describing because he actually takes it upon himself.
To try to reach them out in the purgatory and relying on his own resources to save himself and then of course there's a tragic storm and a shipwrecked but his freedom is still very much a part of his ethos.
That's a lovely observation and it would be interesting. How self-conscious do you think Dante would be about that?
Obviously he's a pagan hero so as Dante himself and scribing the difference between paganism and himself as the Christian.
Oh absolutely, in that same section he draws attention Virgil calls his own aneid, my high tragedy, as that tragedy and Virgil also is someone who belonging to the pre-Christian era is condemned to a kind of tragic impotence and he's, I think rightly, perceives in the aneid all these undertones of sorrow, despair,
a yearning that can never be fulfilled and therefore the souls in limbo live in hope without in desire without hope. And clearly the Eulisis figure that he creates in 26 is a heroic person with hubris.
He delivers a speech which is so conforming to the Aristotelian prescriptions of tragedy that you would think that Dante must have known that text firsthand. Of course we know he didn't but Eulisis gives a speech with a beginning, middle and end.
The whole narrative is based on actions, external settings and it begins in happiness and in grief. In fact Eulisis says when they saw the mountain in the distance, we rejoiced and our joy quickly turned to grief, the most succinct definition of classical tragedy, Aristotelian tragedy that you can get.
So I think he was very conscious of it. And he knows himself as the pilgrim, he undertakes the voice that Eulisis takes in a failed way, he's going to be the successful Eulisis because he's a Christian.
And because his journey has been sanctioned by divine grace as opposed to Eulisis but that's...
Right. Well, and then of course one of the sort of ironies or interesting things about the reception of the Poetics later on is that although we might think of Christianity as bringing about a world view that's completely inconsistent with tragedy.
In fact there are countless sacred tragedies that are written in the wake of the rediscovery of the Poetics and these can be about the killing of martyrs or episodes from the Old Testament, things like chapter sacrifice of his daughter, things like that.
The Jesuits probably put on about 50,000 tragedies in the 17th century. So there's certainly a belief at that time that Christianity does not make tragedy an unuseful or mode to be writing in.
Of course part of what they remember is that many classical Greek tragedies do not end in grief that your rippities often has the day of ex-macking up up here and rescue the hero at the end.
There's a sense that there can be tremendous suffering, fear and pity in the middle of the tragedy but that can perhaps be evacuated by a sense of wonder or relief at the very end.
And so many Christian tragedies follow that mode of writing rather than the one that necessarily ends like edifice the king.
Well we want to go systematically through certain stages of the reception history of the Poetics but before we turn to the reception, we've talked about how much Tia, it's missing the target.
It might prefer translation would be something like human fallibility, something like that. In other words, fallenness that you're not a god, you are a human.
The last concept I'd like you to help us clarify is catharsis because the purpose of tragedy is to bring about the catharsis of pity and terror.
What does aerosol mean by catharsis?
Well the first thing we should say is that this concept has been debated ever since the Poetics was rediscovered and their countless different interpretations of it.
But I would say there are three really important ways to think about it that people have suggested.
One of them puts weight on the Nicomachean ethics and it's just which is Aristotle's ethical treatise and it's discussion of the way habits are feeling are formed.
And it thinks that habits of feeling and judgment are very important and that they go together.
And so it sees catharsis as a kind of training of the passion so that you learn how you should rightly pity, what you should rightly fear, and it instantiates a kind of proper habit of feeling so that when you go out in real life and you see somebody weeping on the streets, if you will, you know instinctually either to sympathize or not.
a second one puts more emphasis on a passion, a passage in the politics where he talks about the psychic catharsis that people feel when they listen to enthusiastic music at festivals.
And that line of interpretation really emphasizes the fact that catharsis was also a medical term and that it was used to talk about a kind of purification or purgation.
So that view of catharsis sees it as more of a purely kind of medical experience almost in which you have this welling up of emotion that for some reason it's sheer excess leads to a kind of a clarification or relief which could be as simple as weeping or sometimes people have more complex ideas that it puts your system back in order essentially.
And then the last one is a purely intellectual one, this is especially been emphasized by some 20th century critics, and that doesn't talk about it.
It says that the catharsis is not of the emotions but of the painful events that are presented on the stage.
So really it's just kind of a resolution of the events on the stage.
I think you could think of that as the new critical or the attempt to make Aristotle fit with the new critics that you want to have explained everything on the stage or the events and not worry about the audience reaction.
Aristotle insists on the pleasure that comes from the catharsis of these negative emotions and that has worried theorists for ages not only reading the poetics but generally how can people go to tragedies and enjoy or find it a form of entertainment to see people suffering.
And that is something that makes me favorably disposed of that third reading that you mentioned because I think the resolution, there's some almost aesthetic pleasure that comes from the proper resolution of an intrigue that I've been following for two or three hours on the stage.
And then that fits, Aristotle is a philosopher writing, he's always emphasizing the pleasure of learning.
So that would make a lot of sense that you say, "Ah, that's how everything, that's the way it has to be."
And in some sense I think when you watch a really good play, tragedy like Hamlet or something, you have this sense of rightness, it really couldn't have ended any other way.
And so that would make sense.
Although I have to say, it goes with this idea of reversal and recognition which Aristotle says that the reversals and recognition are best when they are sudden.
And of course if you've seen a play ten times and you know that the reversal is coming and you never the less take pleasure in it.
And in the recognition scene, and the more sudden the better, not because all of a sudden you're shocked into a realization, but because it seems to be part of the law of the artwork itself working itself out properly.
Absolutely, I think that's right.
And of course I suppose you could say that's one test of whether a piece of art is good or not.
I think there are novels or movies that you would really wouldn't want to see a second time, right? Because there's something about them that the recognitions and reversals and them simply aren't earned enough or aren't well enough,
were all enough for it. But certainly when doesn't get tired of reading Jane Austen five times or watching Shakespeare.
Sure. And Jane Austen, everyone in Pride and Prejudice when they want to see that six-part BBC, the one scene or two scenes that everyone wants to rewatch are the ones where Darcy surprisingly makes a proposal to Elizabeth.
And then at the end when Catherine Deberg comes and says, "Well, then there's this reversal and then reconciliation and people don't tire of that, I guess."
And I guess enhammed at the same thing.
Yeah. And it doesn't even have to be highly serious like Hamlet.
For people who read PG Woodhouse or someone like that, when someone like Bertie who's constantly beneath the heel of his aunts gets the better of them and gets to tell one of them off or something, there's something just immensely pleasurable about this completely surprising turn of fortune.
Yeah. Yeah. I'd like to get us to the defensive Shakespeare against Aristotle. But before we get there, what are some of the some of the main moments in the reception of the of the poetics that you'd like to draw attention to Blair given that we only have like 15 to 20 minutes at max.
Okay. Well, I'd say the first key moment comes around 1550. Aristotle's poetics had already received a translation 50 years earlier in the Renaissance. But this is one couple of professors in Italy, Robertello and Vitenzo Magi, published these huge commentaries on the poetics that are just voluminous and really try to sort out lots of the problems with the text and with the Greek.
And there they start to really get people excited about what catharsis means. That's that's where that whole debate really gets a great start. And one of the things I think most important about that moment in the reception of the poetics is how much emphasis they place on pathos, the third element of tragedy is really the one indispensable thing as much as they recognize that Aristotle likes recognitions and reversals and complex plots.
They think that it's enough to have pathos and that really that's partly because of interest that already exist in Renaissance Italy.
But it affects the way the plays that people read plays like the Ajax or the Philoc TDS which seem to have simpler plots are very important to them.
And then they also think about the stories of simple heroines like Daito or Ariadne is also fitting quite neatly with this view of tragedy that as long as the feeling is sufficiently powerful that that's enough to constitute tragedy.
And that's a very unfamiliar view of tragedy to most of us. I think we're used to reading critics regularly saying it's not tragic. It's merely pathetic. They wouldn't have recognized that.
So that's the first moment that I think is interesting. Then the second one comes about 30 to 50 years later in the 1580s. There's a humanist named Geralimo May who reads essentially every surviving bit of evidence on Greek music.
And we've hardly discovered anything since then. We have some things from Papyrite discovered in Egypt and so forth. But he was immensely learned.
And he decides that the reason that Greek tragedy was so powerful was because it used a different kind of music. It didn't use polyphony and it didn't use counterpoint.
That it used simple monodeses, simple melodies that were able to affect the passions of the audience because they essentially sent an unmixed message to the audience.
And then this gets coupled with the theory of some humanist that, well, if tragedy is somehow more cathartic than epic, it can't really be that the poetry is better. It must be that there's something that tragedy has that epic doesn't. So what does it have? It has stage, spectacle and music and dance and those things must be essential to an even more powerful cathartic experience.
And it's based on that theory that people working in Florence and Rome and later Venice like Yaku-Poe Perry and Monte Verity would be the most famous composer who we still go to listen to, start to develop the stealer representatevo and the theory of recitative and aria and opera.
And that's really, I think we can think of as a brilliant creative response to Aristotle by people who then turn to other Greek sources to find out what this Greek music might have been like and to recapture that power on the stage.
Let's see. Let's dwell just a moment on that because we're talking here about the origins of opera in a group of humanists and musicologists, Giuromo May was hugely important.
Vincenzo Galile, who was Galileo's father was part of that group. And they would sit around reading the poetics and they concluded probably erroneously that not only were the chorus parts sung, but also the actors' lines were probably sung. And they say in the typical passion for the emulation of the ancients, let's write some Greek tragedies and they write the first operas, you know, Rinucini and so forth.
And create melodrama as a result of perhaps a misreading of the poetics.
It's a remarkable moment. And I think although classes is seen a little bit more toward the idea of that the actors didn't sing most of the time in tragedy that remains somewhat debated.
And it is clear, particularly that many of your rippities is characters do sing what essentially are arias, that it's not just the chorus. And they are especially looking to your rippities who survives in his play, surviving greater numbers.
And a lot of the stories of the power of ancient music that survived from the Hellenistic and Roman period all focus on your rippities as tragedies because he was the most popular tragedy and at the time and introduced all sorts of new music like Crete.
And things to the stage. So they later on in the romantics, Nietzsche, people like that think your rippities is terrible. He's the cause of the death of tragedy. He's disgraceful. He's decadent and so forth. But they have none of those reservations about him. They just hear that he knocked people socks off, you know, in Alexandria.
Okay, other moments, big ones. Yeah, well, the next big moment I guess is the movement of these Italian critics. Essentially some of their ideas are amplified and hardened, if you will, in France, where we start to really hear about the so-called rules of tragedy.
And these are especially the respect for the unity of time, place and action. But they include other senses of decorum and so forth. And not all the French critics are as rigid as they're made out to be, but quite a few of them really are and they deserve their bad reputation.
And you constantly see practicing real men of the theater like Corne, on the one hand feeling they need to conform. But on the other hand, you know, saying that if anybody had tried writing a play following all these rules, they might see how difficult it is to get everything in in 24 hours and that sort of thing.
But then I think the next really interesting moment in the history of the poetics is the rejection of Aristotle that comes in 18th century England. And that's essentially it's hard for us to remember this, but Shakespeare just was not a big deal in the world in the 18th century, except in England and in England he'd always had a certain following.
And I think it's partly because England starts to become essentially chief nation, right? They start to become an imperial power that that Voltaire and other folks become more interested in in English culture.
And the English uphold Shakespeare as their greatest, their national poet, but he doesn't do very well if judged by the rules that the French critics had derived from Aristotle.
And so there has to be a way of rejecting those rules, especially the unities. Is it because his plays didn't conform to unity, time and space or was it?
Exactly. That's the most major one people say why this is taking place over years rather than all in the course of 24 hours or this has multiple plots. There is in a particular appreciation say of the Leer plot and the Gloucester plot and the way they might speak to one another.
There's a tremendous distaste for the introduction of lowly scenes like the Porter scene in Macbeth. So Voltaire says, "Mixed things about Shakespeare at times, he admires him, but at other times he says he's basically just a country clown, right? There's this sense that he doesn't have good taste. The French have terrible troubles translating Shakespeare into French because even the use of words like thigh or handkerchief.
If I mean, imagine trying to translate Athello without being able to refer to strawberries or a handkerchief, but they're both too unworthy to endign to appear on the French stage. Those words have been purged from French diction.
Shakespeare poses lots of problems for their ideas, but the great answer is that Shakespeare is a master of character and the character is a fourth unity that's more important than any of the others.
And that, I think it's no accident that this idea occurs to people in the 18th century when the novel is really becoming very important, but Richardson people like that, because they're really reading novels and seeing that character can land a kind of unity to a sprawling work that seems profoundly fulfilling and they can then reinterpret Shakespeare in some sense as readers of the novel and recognize that he was there first.
But wouldn't you agree that Shakespeare's plays finally, even though they don't conform to all of the Aristotelian rules, finally are imitations of action, even in a play like Hamlet, which has so much what Aristotle, I guess, would call thought with all those interior monologues and salutalquis and Hamlet himself, who's problem is that he can't act or he, you know, we think we're led to believe that he has a problem with action. He's alienated from the world.
From the world of action. Will the action really be a true revelation of his character or not? But finally the play does unfold according to action and not just according to thought and language and care.
Well, and yes, and I think that defense can be made and that defense was made by 18th century critics as well saying that he, they would also claim that Shakespeare does not violate the unity of action and they point out that that is the only true unity that Shakespeare that Aristotle insists upon.
Do you also try to defend Shakespeare in terms of Aristotle but they're willing to amend Aristotle on the example of Shakespeare in some sense. They're not willing to have Aristotle be the ultimate authority by which their poet gets judged, I think.
Do you think how much Tia is crucial to Shakespeare's plays?
Well, if we understand it as something inherent in a character rather than in the order of the gods or of the order of necessity.
Well, it would certainly seem essential to me and it would not be necessary to interpret it usually as character flaw.
I think most of the time it would be quite satisfactory to think of it as a kind of fallibility or a mistake.
If you think about what does Othello do as it really, I suppose we can talk about it being a study of jealousy or his having certain character flaws, but he is also certainly duped into misrecognizing the facts.
And that seems to be the case for so many of the tragic heroes. No, I think how much Tia is crucial to understanding some of the plays of Shakespeare, the tragedies.
For me, the poet, if I were teaching a course on Shakespeare, the poetics would be an absolutely necessary text to begin with just to put us in the right ballpark.
It would work in a lovely way with Macbeth as well, obviously, trying to interpret the weird sisters and make sense of that.
And so, we did speak about the romantics as well, no, but you want to say something more about them?
Well, we sort of anticipated that point, I suppose, but I would just say quickly that what's really startling at the end of the 18th and early 19th century is, first of all, there's a lack of interest in catharsis anymore.
And so, people no longer believe in it or they don't care, which is such a change from 200 years of absolute obsessive publication and thought about catharsis.
And then that people like A.W. Schlegel, who publishes very influential lectures on drama that Coleridge famously stole a lot from.
And so, I think that's absolutely forthright in saying that he's taking his theory of tragedy from Kant, that it's really all about the struggle of freedom versus necessity, and that he freely admits that that is not an Aristotle.
And in fact, then he goes on to insist on the importance of fate to the whole spirit of Greek tragedy.
And he once again says, "I admit that you will find no notion of fate anywhere in Aristotle." So, there's suddenly a really kind of bold sense of liberation from Aristotle that comes with the romantics, I think.
Do you think that that's true, though, when you read the poetics and that word necessity keeps recurring all the time and probability and necessity?
Doesn't that seem to at least gesture in the direction of some power of fate, some law of fate?
I guess you could make that argument. Even a lot of classes today say that they might agree, they would say that Aristotle doesn't talk much about the gods and the gods are clearly important to tragedy.
So, they would say he underestimates it. To me, when he's talking about necessity and probability, that's normally internal to the action that's being presented on the stage. I don't have a sense that he so emphasizes justice as a goddess or the importance of the gods actually crushing mortals beneath their heels.
I think he wants there to be the illusion of everything working out as it had to, but that seems to me to stem from the poet. But you disagree, I guess.
No, I would like to see some kind of thought of an order of necessity against which the hero is ultimately powerless.
So, the gods have decreed that edipus will work out this fate that's been imposed on him before he was even born.
And he can't change it. He might be free in the way that he struggles and suffers it.
But it is the gods who decreed that he would come to this end.
Well, you could say that Sophocles has a notion of fate.
The question is, I mean, Aristotle doesn't seem to emphasize that.
Edipus is the best possible tragedy ever written.
True, although he also says that if it's a Gennai and Taurus, is also the best elsewhere, which is a completely different sort of play.
So, it's a little bit puzzling to people.
Well, I just wish some of our contemporary novelists would read the poetics carefully before they write some of their novelists.
But that's a discussion for another time, Blair. Thanks for coming on.
We've been speaking with Professor Blair Hoxby from the Department of English here on entitled "Pinions."
I'm Robert Harrison, and pleased to an end.
And since we've been talking here about Shakespeare, I think we'll end here with a little song that will recall a little bit.
We'll recall us to the tragedy. I guess the tragedy of Ophelia more than Hamlet himself.
And thanks again for coming on.
Thank you, as a pleasure. Bye-bye.
Good night, sweet ladies, good night.
I trust you enjoy the fight.
My forester's got missing in the book, what I've been kissing is the one who put out his legs.
They told me that you were a kind.
Let you think the whole world was blind.
There was all a glad shadow that your mind has a huddle.
Now it's me who's losing my mind.
But I can't, you decide.
When you keep rolling, you'll all dream of simple and sad.
I'm killing you.