Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.20

Oivind Andersen, Jon Haarberg, Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics.   London:  Duckworth, 2001.  Pp. viii, 230.  ISBN 0-7156-3131-4.  £40.00.  

Contributors: Malcolm Heath, Elizabeth Belfiore, Richard Janko, Hallvard Fossheim, Stephen Halliwell, Elaine Fantham, Daniel Javitch, Kristi Minsaas, M.S. Silk, Terence Cave

Reviewed by Andrew Ford, Princeton University (
Word count: 3100 words

The question Andersen and Haarberg pose in this book may sound postmodern, but is fundamentally humanist: considering the long series of now discarded but once fruitful interpretations of the Poetics, a series stretching back to Giorgio Valla and beyond, they ask how modern scholars assure themselves that they make progress in recovering Aristotle's meaning and are not, as has happened before, misappropriating him to speak to contemporary concerns. For answers they have juxtaposed five exegeses of the Poetics by leading scholars with five equally accomplished studies in its reception (from ancient Rome through Renaissance Italy to Bertolt Brecht). With the usual unevenness of conference volumes (this conference in Oslo in 2000), the essays succeed in suggesting important conclusions: the philology on display convinces us (yet again) that it is a good thing to disencumber the work of plainly groundless interpretations (e.g. "The Unities"); and this must be called progress, at least in the humanist sense of preferring the errors of today to those of yesterday. As the collection goes on, however, humanist skepticism brushes up against anti-foundationalism when it becomes clear that even the most scrupulous scholarship is vain if it hopes to govern the meaning of this text and, more disturbingly, is hubristic if it aspires to leap somehow out of the series of reinterpretations to which it belongs and to take hold at last of the single true meaning of the work. A.O. Rorty's Essays on Aristotle's Poetics (Princeton, 1992) remains, for its breadth of coverage, the standard collection; but these interesting essays belong in every good college library and will prove especially stimulating to advanced students of the Poetics and the Western critical tradition.

The five exegetical studies generally remain within the now dominant reading of the Poetics, documented in Rorty, which may be characterized as having replaced a formalist poetics, construed primarily in relation to the Rhetoric , with an ethical one, stressing its ties to the Ethics and, to a lesser extent, Politics. Heath's "Aristotle on the Pleasures of Tragedy" is, however, an exception.

1. Heath first argues that the Poetics fails to provide a "sufficient analysis" of tragedy's proper pleasure. The usual explanation appeals to Ch. 4 for the natural pleasure of learning from mimeseis (which I signal with 'imitation'); but H. objects that learning cannot be the "characteristic" (oikeia) pleasure of tragedy since it is available from other forms of imitation as well. After looking in vain for Aristotle's explanation of why tragedy seeks its pleasure from painful emotions, H. supplies an account, which he vouches for as only "Aristotelian," by turning to the discussion of leisure in Politics 8. From this text he argues that tragic pleasure is the auditor's (inherently pleasurable) exercise of intellectual and ethical excellence by responding appropriately with pity and fear (imitation serving to prevent these painful emotions from making pleasure disappear: 17).

One can imagine other "Aristotelian" responses to H.'s critique, but he is right that this central nexus of ideas is an interpretative synthesis from Aristotle's laconic text, and that learning is not the sole, and perhaps not even the main pleasure that Aristotle expected poetry to provide (19-20).

2. By contrast, Belfiore's "Dramatic and Epic Time: 'Magnitude' and 'Length' in Aristotle's Poetics" presents (with due caution about evidence, 26) an essentially coherent Poetics that has a few resolvable obscurities. The problem B. tackles is that Length (mêkos) and Magnitude (megethos) slide between referring to the sheer physical length of a text, its time of performance, and the dramatic time represented. B. argues that these ambiguities become explicable, if not eliminable, in light of Aristotle's Physics. Defining Length and Magnitude as "extent, measured in time" (rightly eliminating any aesthetic sense of "grandeur", 26), she draws the literary implications of the doctrine in Physics that magnitude, change, and time can only be measured relative to each other. So the "limit of magnitude" in tragic plots is dictated both by the time required for its "change of fortune" to transpire and by the audience's ability to perceive and remember (44). (Both should be compatible with the time of performance, though the latter is extraneous to the art of poetry: 36).

B. also takes up Aristotle's famously obscure remark (an anchor of The Unities) that tragedy, unlike epic, tries to stay within "one revolution of the sun" (1449b12-14). The "plausible" (31) reading she proposes activates the ethical connotations of "ephemerality" (the notion is well discussed): a day is sufficient to express the brevity and variability of mortal life. Finally, epic magnitude is discussed, with a critique of "Zielinski's law." In both genres, "'beauty consists in magnitude,' not absolutely, but relative to the perceptions of ephemeral human beings" (44).

3. Reconstruction is also the agenda of Janko's "Aristotle on Comedy, Aristophanes and Some New Evidence from Herculaneum," which reiterates his view that the Tractatus Coislinianus (TC) reliably transmits Aristotelian doctrine and can, in combination with some Neoplatonists and the ongoing revolution in Philodemus studies, fill in lacunae in Aristotle's theory. J. takes some time defending conclusions advanced in Aristotle on Comedy (London, 1984) and subsequent studies (nn. 34, 42), in effect reviewing his reviewers. The general picture: Aristophanes' fondness for obscenity and invective was no bar to Aristotle's taking him as the exemplary comedian (leaving Archilochus to exemplify iambus); this fits with TC's taking middle comedy as the ideal mixture of the laughable and the serious, for Aristotle on Comedy did establish (pp. 244-50) that most ancient literary historians placed Aristophanes in "middle comedy." J. adduces TC 4 on comic catharsis to outline humor's cognitive value: contemplating an "error or blemish" rather than "the ugly" (1449a32-7), spectators recognize their own fallibility (59) and can thus correct excess and deficiency in regard to the laughable. He concludes with suggested practical applications: Aristotle would have found Clouds too violent and "old-comedy," and would have preferred the intellectualism of Frogs.

These late texts, which J. is doing so much to recover, are undeniably important and even, reception suggests, integral to understanding the Poetics. But method requires that, if we have Aristotle's own words on how poetry may educate, as we do in Politics 8.3-7, they trump the late sources, and this text seems to me to rule out any such thorough-going and resolutely cognitivist account of poetry. The neat philological conundrum that J.'s careful work makes clear is that how we interpret Politics 8 can affect how much we value the late texts, but vice versa as well.

4. In comparison with the close, text-based analyses surrounding it, Fossheim's "Mimesis in Aristotle's Ethics" is a mere "sketch" (73) of a large problem in Aristotle's ethics that has significant implications for cognitive views of poetry. The question is what the ethical works mean when they say we first become virtuous "through habituation." F.'s answer is rather subtle: he rightly steers away from Pavlovian models (in Aristotelian habituation, stimuli, e.g. representations of fine characters, are inherently pleasurable). And F. helpfully stresses that even on a cognitivist account of the emotions there may remain a gap between the workings of pleasure, qua pleasure, and the good (81). Partly to bridge this gap, H. concludes that imitating is wanting to be like someone else and habituation is trying on masks to the point where one can rely on autonomous instincts for the good. Predictably, Poetics Ch. 4 comes in to suggest that poetry might afford such an education.

This thoughtful and intelligent discussion is too brief (13 pp.). Most frustratingly, F. defers to a future occasion (n. 11) discussion of Politics 8.5, the key text for his topic since there Aristotle discusses how music can help habituate children to be good. When F. takes up the matter again, he should engage with a wider range of current analyses of Ethics (e.g. Nancy Sherman, The Fabric of Character, and the discussions by Burnyeat and Sorabji in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A.O. Rorty).

5. The final exegetical essay, Halliwell's "Aristotelian Mimesis and Human Understanding," revises earlier accounts he gave of learning from imitations (Ch. 4) and poetry's universals (Ch. 9). Cautiously proffering "the sort of understanding Aristotle would have been willing to posit, ideally, for theatrical audiences" (93), H. stresses how he limits the philosophical thinking expected of a spectator and claims only a "quasi-philosophical respectability and weight" for art (91); mimesis is not the representation of universals but a form of play-acting that "explore[s] the ... world through hypothetical simulation and enactment of some of its possibilities" (88).

H. opposes "minimalist" readings of Ch. 4 (e.g. Heath above): the spectator before a portrait or a play who "understands" (manthanein) or "infers" (sullogizesthai) is doing more that realizing that "this (representation) is that (object)." Citing their use in logical contexts, H. insists the verbs refer to a "rich and intricate cognitive process." On the other hand, this spectator does recognize particulars rather than universals, and so H. swerves from earlier accounts when he characterizes this as only a "quasi-philosophical" learning (95): because the business of poetry is representing particular actions, thoughts, and characters, grasping dramatic ethical situations requires a sort of understanding that falls short of the ethical expertise of the phronimos (92-93). Contra many commentators, Ch. 9 does not say that (some) poetry is a "representation (mimesis) of universals," but only that poetry "speaks of" (legein) universals, hinting at its "quasi-philosophical capacity to reveal something of the universal in or through the particular" (100). Still, poetry has special pertinence for ethical learning since "ethical choice and action cannot be captured to more than a limited extent by universals" (102).

This richly argued distinction between learning and philosophizing is welcome in giving Aristotle a more nuanced picture of what goes on in the theater. H. attributes to Aristotle a spectrum of knowledges, with philosophers at one (high: 102) end but continuous with simple folk. The gradations, however, may be quite sharp: philosophers are those equipped by nature to delight in learning the causes of things, and H. realizes better than others that Aristotle was far from expecting everyone to be a philosopher.

6. The first stop in Aristotle's reception is Rome, but instead of "filling out yet another paper on the shadowy presence of the Poetics in the Ars Poetica," Fantham takes a new tack, asking how Aristotelian ideas may have influenced early Roman theatrical practice. "Roman Tragedy and the Teaching of Aristotle's Poetics" addresses, with easy mastery of the evidence, the question of how Aristotle's esoteric works were known at Rome. F. suggests that the Poetics influenced the "working theater" (e.g. the artisans of Dionysus in S. Italy) more importantly than it did the philosophers via the Greek scholar-critics of the first half of the second century or the Augustan age.

To track this process she examines Roman adaptations of New Comic plots, asking how far Romans followed Aristotle's recommendations when constructing (not copying) their plots. She points to several examples in which Pacuvius, unlike his uncle Ennius, structured plots in line with Aristotelian recommendations, even (e.g. in Atalanta) revising Greek mythology to create the "catastrophe averted" tragedy that is praised in Ch. 14. Allowing for the possibility of coincidence, she suggests Aristotelian influence, one which, to her regret, largely bypassed Horace and Seneca, neither of whom belonged to the working theater.

7. Javitch's "On the Rise of Genre-specific Poetics in the Sixteenth Century" casts light on a crucial stage in the Renaissance reception of the Poetics. Though texts of the work began to reach Italy in the 1470's, Italian dramatic theory and practice remained generally Horatian until the 1540's, when key terms and tenets of the Poetics (e.g. the tragic hero, the role of pity and fear) entered mainstream theory (128). J.'s account of this transition notes that the same decade shows "the emergence of a body of discourse about poetry that is much more genre-specific" (128).

Contrary to the classic discussions in Weinberg and Spingarn, J. argues that the Poetics did not in itself stimulate new theorizing about poetic drama, but rather that dramatic practice, especially the production of modern tragedies composed on Greek models, provoked new attempts to define tragedy and enunciate rules for its composition. Only later did Aristotle come in (not clearly detached from Horace of course), as literati debated such new tragedies as G.B. Giraldi Cinzio's "Orbecche" (1541). J. adds that soon after these developments epic was re-theorized (again, provoked by a vernacular composition: "Orlando Furioso"), and so tragedy set the paradigm for genre theory of the 16th century. This is not only a convincing demonstration that tragedy was "foundational" for "the development of genre-specific poetics" in the Renaissance (131) but also highlights the importance of genre, and tragedy in particular, to Aristotle's conception of art.

8. Minsaas' "Poetic Marvels: Aristotelian Wonder in Renaissance Poetics and Poetry" picks up where J. leaves off, studying the cult of "le maraviglia" in the second half of the 16th century. Obsessed with "catharsis," we have let "wonder" (thauma) drop from sight, but the Renaissance was quite different. Rightly appreciating the subordinate role of wonder in Poetics (146), M. shows how the 16th century expanded its scope and gave wonder a utilitarian (Horatian) dimension.

M. follows Halliwell and highlights the "affective" orientation of Poetics, its engaging the audience "cognitively and emotionally" (145). Citing Rhetoric ("to learn and wonder are pleasurable; for in admiration there is desire to learn": 1371a31-4), M. makes wonder cognitive by conflating it with the "desire to understand" (Met. init.) and the pleasure in learning of Ch. 4. The pleasure is one of "a re-establishment [kathistasthai] to the natural." Like Fantham and Javitch, M. stresses the importance of poetic practice in stimulating change; Aristotle supplied a method and a vocabulary "for the critic desirous to analyze the poetic use of the marvelous." 9. M. S. Silk, "Aristotle, Rapin, Brecht" meditates on the vastness of the Poetics' influence, asking what kind of a tradition can embrace a seventeenth-century Jesuit royalist, a neoclassicist, and a twentieth-century revolutionary Marxist? His answer is that the reception of the Poetics must be seen as a series of reinterpretations that "tend to invest it with more coherence than it would seem, in itself, to possess" (173). The work can be put to use only by smoothing over "incoherences" in the text, such as the simultaneously central and marginal role played by catharsis, the ambiguity of muthos between story and structure, and the underdefined telos of tragedy. To illustrate he shows how René Rapin defends The Unities in "the guise of Aristotelian theory" (177), bringing "unrelated or seemingly unrelated aspects of Aristotle's theory into a coherent relationship" (again, with help from Horace).

S. then turns to Brecht, appropriately seeing in his diametrically anti-Aristotelian views a conspicuous bearer of the Poetics into the twentieth century. Brecht's "estrangement" was antithetical to neo-classical and romantic notions of catharsis; his increasing insistence on the "disunity of the parts" in a work of art reflects a consistent (pace S.) opposition to the organicism pervading the Poetics. From these perceptive sketches, S. implies that we too are condemned to "neo-Aristotelian theorizing" (180), offering at best "another reinterpretation of 'Aristotle,' another creative reconstitution of 'Aristotle,' another new and sublimely un-Aristotelian coherence" (190).

10. Like Silk, Cave is concerned with the difficulty of getting at Aristotle himself in "The Afterlife of the Poetics." This ruminative, wide-ranging conclusion (meandering I thought at moments) sets itself the task of reconciling "positivist" attempts at recapturing the ever-elusive Aristotle with a total relativism that writes off what Aristotle meant to say. C. distinguishes exegeses of the Poetics' historical meanings from sociological and anthropological approaches that consult it for what it may say about enduring human natural capacities. Each side has its problems: historicism is vulnerable to specious objectivity, bogus universalism, and factitious linearity; attempts to flee such errors, however, invite a total relativism which is powerless to explain the "phenomenon of the treatise's survival" (197).

A middle way, a "more moderate relativism" (205), would explain why we continue to read this text without coming to agreement about what it says. C.'s thesis is that Aristotle's flexible terms are connected to "vestiges of ancient structures" which are "powerful and persistent elements in fictional plots" (212). This hypothesis, recognizable from C.'s Recognitions, leads him to propose a cognitive-science approach to Poetics as "a powerful early attempt to understand fiction as a way of thinking and as a model for experiencing the world." He's probably right that this is a field that "still has some way to run" (206), but I for one don't look forward to reading quasi-science that "rejects the possibility of a single objective viewpoint" yet allows for "the probable existence of recurring patterns of human experience" (205).

C.'s survey reminds us that "making sense" of the Poetics is a collective and historical process. Within this reception, I would claim that classical philology is uniquely good at restoring old texts and at pointing out, for whoever cares to be moved by such considerations, which interpretations do not fit with Aristotle's style, leading ideas, or broader intellectual context. But a consequence of its historical relation to the text is that philology relies primarily on adducing parallels, and this makes it unable to distinguish, within a set of interpretations that do not contradict the evidence, which one Aristotle meant to say. So if we classicists continue to approve readings that match the most evidence and match it most economically, we do so, this book suggests, as part of a humanistic enterprise: the caution of these scholars is not solely due to the imperfect and incomplete state of our text.

A final implication concerns a central question in current Poetics scholarship, the relation of ethics and poetics. At present, ethics is loaded in at the back end, so to speak: the formalist diaereses and definitions that make up the fabric of the work are held to enjoin poets to encode ethical theses in their works and critics to decode them by the same technically indifferent means. But ethics first comes in at the front end, in the initial decision to choose a method of reading and thereby to limit the views one will both propose and consider valid. Adopting any (or no) method of reading is such a choice, and classicists who choose to acknowledge some kind of obligation to be fair to the past need not be naive if they, as the book encourages, recognize the limits of their methods. Poetics too can be regarded as an ethical option, reasoned methods to safeguard against error in the tricky enterprise of extracting meaning--whether moral or not, whether from Euripides or from Aristotle himself.

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