First, it needs to be said that I was not a good choice to review this book. Readers of Aristotle’s Poetics generally fall into two categories (though some happily belong to both): those who care about tragedy and those who care about Aristotle. Belfiore belongs to the second. The strengths of her work lie in the links she makes between the Poetics and other works of Aristotle, and the section I found most convincing was the account of catharsis in the biological works. On the other hand, I was disappointed both by her own readings of tragedy and by those of her Aristotle.
She argues that Aristotle elsewhere treats catharsis as mainly an allopathic process, in which drugs, for instance, are able to remove unhealthy residues from the body because they are opposite in certain respects—cold rather than hot, for instance. So she claims that tragedy, through pity and fear, purifies the soul of antisocial emotions such as anger and pride, leaving it in a state of moderation and
This account (like every other attempt to explain what Aristotle means by catharsis) presents a number of problems. Its opening stages are modeled on the Platonic elenchus and on her own understanding of tragic experience; I don’t see much basis in Aristotle for it, and it seems contrived in order to connect shameful desires with tragic fear.
However, I am fairly certain that this interpretation cannot be right simply on the Greek. I may have been prejudiced against the whole volume because right from the start I saw difficulties in an allopathic interpretation of the words
She discusses Iliad 24 at some length as an example of catharsis, and although I find her account somewhat reductive, I am willing to accept it as partially accurate: Achilles is purged of his excessive anger and lack of shame through his pity and fear in response to Priam’s appeal. Still, he is not really purged of his tendency to anger; he himself warns Priam that if the old man annoys him he might kill him. Surely if catharsis is to be seriously useful, it must do more than calm immediate outbursts; people do not usually go into the theater in states of rage. So one needs to consider how the experience of the reader or spectator is related to that of the character. There is no doubt that in everyday life excessive anger can be reduced by pity, where that pity is directed at those against whom we have been angry. But in tragedy our pity is directed at characters with whom we have not been angry. Nor is Iliad 24, for all its tragic mood, in any way typical of a tragic plot.
In one respect she seems to me to misrepresent Aristotle, namely in her treatment of shame. For her, Aristotle’s insistence on the importance of
Belfiore is strongest in reading the Poetics in the light of the rest of the corpus, especially the biological works. She certainly makes it impossible to believe that catharsis is a straightforward homeopathic process in which we are purged of excessive pity and fear. Though I was not convinced, and I doubt that others will be, this is a thoughtful and careful book which should render us all a good deal more thoughtful and careful in reading this extraordinarily difficult text.