Critic's Remark on Aristotle Poetics

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1. Concept of Imitation

      The essence of that kind of imitation which is "mimicry" is that the imitation is in the same medium, in the same material, as the thing imitated ... and in such a case deceit, actual delusion, is possible, given the right conditions...Another example takes the matter a little further. Take the case of a child walking behind a pompous or peculiar person in the street and mimicking the gait and gesture of the person in front of him. Here the medium of the imitation is still in a sense the same as the material of the thing imitated-one person walking imitates the movement of another person walking; but here under no circumstances is there any possibility of delusion or deceit . . . . . this is not a hoax but an entertainment. The pleasure to be got from it, such as it is, lies in seeing the combination of likeness with unlikeness (as with a metaphor). It seems quite plain that Aristotle had not altogether gotten away from the sense of imitation by which it means plain mimicry of something in the same medium. And the evidence of this is that he uses the fact that children learn by imitation in support of his general doctrine that art is a form of imitation.

Humphry House

      The work of art is a likeness or reproduction of an original, and not a symbolic representation of it; and this holds good whether the artist draws from a model in the real world or from an I realized ideal in the mind. A sign or symbol has no essential resemblance, no natural connection, with the things signified. Thus spoken words are symbols of mental states, written words are symbols of spoken words; the connection between them is conventional. On the other hand, mental impression are not signs or symbols, but copies of external realities, likenesses of the things themselves. In the act of sensuous perception objects stamp upon the mind an impress of themselves like that of a signet ring, and picture so engraved on the memory is compared to a portrait. Thus the creations of art are, as it were, pictures which exists for the phantasy. S.H. Butcher

      Imitative art in its highest form, namely poetry, is an expression of the universal element in human life. If we may expand Aristotle's idea in the light of his own system-fine art eliminates what is transient and particular and reveals the permanent and essential features of the original...Beneath the individual, it finds the universal. S.H. Butcher

2. Plot and Unity

      Plot in the drama, in its fullest sense, is the artistic equivalent of 'action' in real life. We have already observed that action in Aristotle is not a purely external act, but an inward process which works outwards, the expression of man's rational personality. Sometimes it is used for 'action' or 'doing' in its strict and limited sense; sometimes of that side of right conduct in which doing is only one element, though the most important....In the drama the characters are not described they enact their own story and so reveal themselves...without action in this sense, a poem would be not a bad drama, but no drama at all. The form might be epic or lyric, it would not be dramatic. S.H. Butcher

      According to his definition of tragedy, the tragic action must be complete and of a certain magnitude; and these features, it necessarily follows are also characteristic of the plot. A well-constructed plot, he asserts must neither begin or end haphazard, there must be a limit of length, a certain order in its incidents, and these requirements are in accord with an aesthetic law, since "beauty depends on a magnitude and order. J.W.H. Atkins

      Of the structure of tragedy Aristotle has observed with his usual fine disregard of apparent platitude, that it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end...All that Aristotle is insisting upon is that a play should have good and obvious reasons for beginning where it begins, and for ending where it ends, and that its incidents should follow from one another by a clear chain of causation, without coincidence and without irrelevance. There shall be nothing which is not clearly caused by what precedes, nothing which is not clearly the cause of what follows. F. L. Lucas

      The plot, then, contains the kernel of that 'action' which it is the business of tragedy to represent. The word 'action'...embraces not only the deeds, the incidents, the situations, but also the mental processes, and the motives which underlie the outward events or which result from them. It is the compendious expression for all these forces working together towards a definite end. S.H Butcher

3. Tragic Hero and Hamartia

      His (Aristotle's) pronouncement on the character of the ideal tragic hero follows naturally from his idea of tragedy and has in it much of interest...He is a man not pre-eminently good, though of average virtue, who is overtaken by misfortune brought on, by some hamartia, some error of judgment. J.W.H. Atkins

      He (i.e. the ideal protagonist of Tragedy) is composed of mixed elements, by no means supremely good but a man like ourselves'. The expression, if taken alone, might seem to describe a person of mediocre virtue and average powers. But Aristotle must not be read in detached sections; and the comparison of ch. ii and ch. xv. with our passage shows that this character, which has its basis in reality, transcends it by a certain moral elevation...As it is, we arrive at the result that the tragic hero is a man of noble nature, like ourselves in elemental feelings and emotions; idealized, indeed, but with so large a share of our common humanity as to enlist our eager interest and sympathy:- He falls from a position of lofty eminence: and the disaster that wrecks his life may be traced not to deliberate wickedness but to some great error of frailty. S.H. Butcher

      So he (Aristotle) is left with a hero, not specially outstanding in goodness, nor yet guilty of depravity and wickedness, but only of a tragic error. F.L. Lucas

      The first thing to grasp about this famous word ("hamartia") is that it is not a general inclusive descriptive phrase for those moral shortcomings in which the hero, as already described, is said to fall short of being "pre-eminently virtuous and just". It should be quite plain..that Aristotle is quite clearly and deliberately distinguishing the hamartia from these general moral failings....So little does the word concern his general moral character, that Aristotle attaches it, if anything, to the better man rather than to the worse.. Hamartia is not a moral state; but a specific error which a man makes or commits ... It means an error which is derived from ignorance of some material fact or circumstance. Humphry House

      The plot he says, "is the first Principle, and, as it were, the soul of Tragedy; character comes second." The assertion is strikingly at variance with the assumptions of many dramatic critics, who regard a dramatist first and foremost as a creator of character. But says Aristotle, character by itself, however skilfully delineated, will never give tragedy: it is only character in action that can be tragic (or more generally, dramatic). 
Characterization is in fact, as much a part of the dramatist's expressive technique as the prosody or imagery of his language, and what he is expressing is the idea of life which inspires him. Lascelles Abercrombie

4. Catharsis and Tragic Pleasure

      Catharsis is in any case metaphor. It may allude to rites of religion, in which case it means "purification" or it may allude to theories of medicine, in which case it means "purgation". It is not easy to see exactly what is meant by "purifying" pity and fear...But if he meant "purgation", it would be quite enough to refer to Catharsis as the mere rousing of these emotions....Tragedy affects the purgation of pity and fear by its administration of these very emotions; it was desirable that these emotions should be discharged either because they were unwholesome in themselves, or because they tended to Lascelles Abercrombie excess.

      Too often, however, it is misleadingly assumed that the only emotions supposed by Aristotle to find healthy relief in serious drama are pity and fear. But he does not say "pity and fear producing the relief of these emotions" he says "the relief of such emotions of emotions of that sort." But of what sort? I take it that a tragic audience had also such feeling as sympathy and repugnance, delight and indignation; admiration and contempt. To Aristotle, presumably, these seemed less important, or less intense....Grief, weakness, contempt, blame - these I take to be the sort of thing that Aristotle meant by "feelings of the sort". F.L. Lucas

      Let us assume, then, that the Tragic Catharsis involves not only the idea of an emotional relief, but the further idea of the purifying of the emotions so relieved ... Tragedy, according to the definition, acts on the feelings, not on the will ... The tragic Catharsis requires that suffering shall be exhibited in one of its comprehensive aspects; that the deeds and fortunes of the actors shall attach themselves to larger issues, and the spectator himself be lifted above the special case and brought face to face with universal law and the divine plan of the world. S.H. Butcher

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