BMCR 1993.01.12

1993.01.12, Golden, Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis

, Aristotle on tragic and comic mimesis. American classical studies ; no. 29. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1992. x, 115 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9781555407186. $24.95 (hb).

It is safe to say that Leon Golden is the single most influential living authority on Aristotle’s Poetics. He has long been known for his advocacy of the view that tragic katharsis is neither medical purgation, as Bernays argued, nor intellectual purification, as Lessing believed, but “intellectual clarification.” Golden argued for the “clarification” theory in a series of articles beginning in 1962 (cited in Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis, 32, n. 31), and some version of it is now accepted by a growing number of scholars (e.g., R. Dupont-Roc and J. Lallot, Aristote: La Po├ętique, 190; M. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, 388-91; A. Nehamas, “Pity and Fear,” in A. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, 307). Even those who disagree with Golden acknowledge his importance and his influence on themselves (see R. Janko, Aristotle on Comedy, 142; S. Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics, 354-55; J. Lear, “Katharsis,” in Rorty, 318-19, and n. 25). If most scholars now recognize the importance of cognitive elements of some kind in tragic katharsis, it is Golden who is largely responsible. Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis is welcome, then, in part because it provides us with a definitive and more accessible statement of Golden’s important and influential views on katharsis. This book also amplifies and draws together into a coherent whole Golden’s previously expressed views on the related topics of Platonic and Aristotelian mimesis, and Aristotle’s theory of comedy. Much new material on these subjects has also been added. Golden’s views are, for the most part, convincingly argued for and clearly stated, with admirable brevity.

Golden’s four main theses are summed up in his Introduction (1-3). He argues, first, that katharsis is “that moment of insight which arises out of the audience’s climactic intellectual, emotional, and spiritual enlightenment, which for Aristotle is both the essential pleasure and essential goal of mimetic art.” Golden also contends that Plato’s views on mimesis are the “principal point of departure” for Aristotle’s aesthetic theories, and that “Aristotle’s theory of art is both a refutation of Plato’s negative view of mimesis and a skilled and revolutionary refinement of his great teacher’s insight into the positive force of mimesis.” Third, Golden argues that “hamartia in the sense of ‘intellectual error’ takes precedence over nuances of ‘moral flaw’ and ‘sin’.” Finally, Golden addresses Aristotle’s theory of comedy. He holds that “the extant works of Aristotle, especially the Poetics, … represent the most secure basis we have for the reconstruction of Aristotle’s comic theory.” He argues that comedy represents the ridiculous ( to geloion) and arouses the emotion of indignation ( nemesan).

In Chapter 2, Golden offers a definitive statement of his “clarification” theory, providing many helpful clarifications and new arguments, and taking recent scholarship into account. He argues that the text of the Poetics itself is the best source for an understanding of tragic katharsis. Although Aristotle is frustratingly silent on the subject of katharsis, Golden argues that strong support for the “clarification” theory is provided by the view, expressed in Poetics 4, that the “essential pleasure of all mimesis … is one which involves learning and inference” (20). This general account of mimesis allows us to conclude that the specific kind of mimesis by means of which tragic katharsis is accomplished must also provide an intellectual pleasure. Further evidence for Golden’s theory is the fact that tragic katharsis accomplishes its effect by means of spoken or written words, which “must be processed mentally before they can achieve any effect either therapeutic, moral or intellectual” (26). On the other hand, Golden points out, “there is no statement in the Poetics itself that can be used to support either a medical purgation or moral purification theory of katharsis” (18). Golden refutes the view commonly held by the purgationists that the enthusiastic katharsis of Politics 8 is similar to tragic katharsis in the Poetics. He argues that the two works have very different goals and concerns. The Politics deals primarily with music as an aid to the education of children (paideia), while the Poetics is concerned with the essential nature of music and art, the goal of which is diagoge, an intellectual activity which is an end in itself (18-20). Against the purification view of katharsis, Golden argues that “no credible mechanism has been suggested for explaining how katharsis can fine tune excess and deficiency of emotional response, both of which Aristotle addresses as deviations from the mean” (15).

While I agree with much of what Golden says about katharsis, I take issue with some details. He argues that the Poetics is concerned with mimesis as diagoge rather than as paideia. However, Poetics 4, to which Golden frequently refers, might seem to support the opposite view. When Aristotle states that people have their first learning experiences through mimesis, and that all people, not just philosophers, share in the pleasures of learning by means of mimesis, he is more likely to be thinking of paideia than diagoge. Moreover, Golden himself notes (20-21) that mimesis in the Poetics appeals to a broad audience, while only mature and philosophically advanced people are capable of diagoge. Yet he fails to explain how they are consistent with his theory. Nor is it clear how Golden can, without inconsistency, quote with approval Bennett Simon’s view that tragic mimesis was “an integral part of the paideia (education in the broadest sense) of each Athenian” (29).

Another problem concerns the relationship between cognition and emotion. While Golden acknowledges the importance of “emotional motivation and emotional response,” and “the centrality of ethical issues” in tragedy, he stresses that “central to all of our experiences with tragedy and other literary genres is an act of intellectual insight elicited by verbal stimuli” (39). Golden is not, however, as clear as he might be about the difference between cognition and emotion, and about the precise way in which the former is “central.” Golden rightly notes that, according to Aristotle, the emotions themselves have cognitive as well as physical aspects. One aspect of pity, for example, is the judgment that someone suffers unmerited misfortune (33). Could it be, then, that the cognitive aspects of our experiences with tragedy are not separate from but a part of our emotional reactions? Golden apparently wants to deny this, for he argues that “the access of literary characters and the audience to the cognitive dimensions of emotion is by exercise of intellectual analysis” (33, n.33). He fails to explain, however, what the difference is between the judgement that someone suffers unmerited misfortune, which is a part of the cognitive aspect of the emotion of pity, and the intellectual analysis that is apparently distinct from this emotion. A detailed analysis of relevant passages in Aristotle’s psychological works might help to clear up this point.

In Chapter 3, on Plato’s concept of mimesis, Golden argues that Aristotle’s predecessor held a negative and a positive view of mimesis. In its negative aspect, mimesis is ontologically separate from reality, and it can corrupt the soul (41). In its positive aspect, mimesis, while still ontologically separate from reality, can nevertheless be used as a means, secondary to dialectic, to approaching the truth (45-47). Drawing on the work of many other scholars, Golden gives an illuminating account of the various forms of mimesis (including metaphor, image and myth) in Plato’s own dialogues. While largely correct, Golden’s broad interpretation of mimesis would be improved by a detailed study of the more narrow, technical account of mimesis given in Republic 3. Because Plato refers specifically to this account when he exiles the poets in Republic 10, a better understanding of it could help us to interpret his views on poetry and mimesis as a whole.

Chapter 4 deals with Aristotle’s concept of mimesis and such related topics as hamartia, and comedy. Throughout this chapter, Golden offers further support for his contention that mimesis provides the intellectual pleasure of learning and inference. He argues convincingly that “the cognitive dimension of Platonic mimesis … serves as the background for Aristotle’s interpretation of this concept” (63). He adduces much evidence, in the Poetics and in Aristotle’s other works, to show that mimesis is essentially connected with intellectual pleasure. Golden also draws on the work of numerous scholars to show that the Greek term hamartia is used by Aristotle to refer to an intellectual error rather than to a moral failing. He wisely cautions against an uncritical use of the tragedies themselves to illuminate Aristotle’s views on hamartia, noting that the Poetics offers a prescriptive rather than a descriptive account (88).

In discussing comedy, Golden gives some excellent reasons for rejecting Richard Janko’s view that the Tractatus Coislinianus is a good source for Aristotle’s views on comedy. Golden argues instead that “an Aristotelian theory of comedy can be established, in large measure, on the basis of the Poetics itself” (91). While our Poetics notoriously fails to give a full account of comedy, Golden makes skillful use of Aristotle’s few explicit statements about this genre, and he draws on the philosopher’s more general account of mimesis to arrive at reasonable inferences. Golden is remarkably successful in doing this, although I would question certain details. Golden’s inference that comedy as well as tragedy has recognition and reversal (74) might seem to be contradicted by Aristotle’s explicit connection, in Poetics 11, of these parts of the plot with tragedy and the tragic emotions. His statement that “These rules [about complex and nonepisodic plots] also generally apply to Old comedy but not necessarily to all aspects of New comedy” (74) needs elucidation.

Golden departs most obviously from the text of the Poetics in arguing that the specific comic emotion that corresponds to the tragic emotions of pity and fear is nemesan, indignation. In Rhetoric l 1386b8-11, this emotion is defined as “pain at undeserved good fortunes,” and it is said to be the opposite of pity. While Golden’s view is attractive in some ways, it is not without problems. In the first place, nemesan is never explicitly mentioned in the Poetics. Golden admits this, however, and presents his account as a reasonable inference only. A more serious objection to Golden’s view is the nature of nemesan itself. While it is indeed the opposite of one tragic emotion, pity, Golden’s theory takes no account of the other tragic emotion: fear. Moreover, nemesan is said in the Rhetoric to be pain. How, then, can this painful emotion be central to a genre that arouses laughter? Golden recognizes this problem, and tries to meet it. He points out the concept of nemesan is extended in the Eudemian Ethics to include pleasure for deserved good fortune or deserved misfortune (92, n. 90). He also argues that, in comedy, “this indignation will be incorporated into the essential intellectual pleasure that all forms of mimesis generate,” and that when “an emotional threshold of pain” is approached, “farcical interventions … make it impossible to sustain a painful response” (93). A similar problem, of course, arises in the case of tragedy for those who argue that emotions painful in real life, pity and fear, produce pleasure on the stage. The problem is more acute, however, for the view that comic emotions have an element of pain, since this genre is essentially painless. In spite of these difficulties, Golden’s view is worth serious consideration. One great advantage is that it takes into account the element of aggression in humor that Sigmund Freud concluded to be universal, and that Gregory Nagy has found specifically in Greek “blame poetry.”

I conclude by addressing a more general criticism that may well be brought against this book: that it repeats much of what Golden has already said many times before. (Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics, 354, criticizes Golden on these grounds). Even if this were true, the book would still be useful as a more accessible compendium of Golden’s ideas. However, this work also contains much that is new. Golden has here, for the first time, drawn together his views on katharsis and mimesis into a coherent whole, showing how they are interrelated and mutually supporting. Moreover, many of Golden’s views have changed significantly over the years. For example, in “Catharsis” ( TAPA, 1962), Golden wrote that the “relief of the emotions has nothing to do with the term ‘catharsis'” (59). In “The Clarification Theory of Katharsis” ( Hermes, 1976), he apparently held a less exclusively intellectual view, for he cited with approval Lain Entralgo’s statement that “tragic catharsis was pleasurable because it was suitable to the whole nature of man” (452). Now, however, Golden explicitly gives much greater importance to the emotions in tragic katharsis, while still holding that cognitive elements are primary. (See pp. 33 and 39, quoted above). This book should do much to correct the common idea that “Golden goes too far in denying the importance of the emotions for catharsis” (Janko, “From Catharsis to Aristotelian Mean,” in Rorty, 347). Also new are many of Golden’s ideas on Platonic and Aristotelian mimesis, and on hamartia . While his views on comedy have been expressed in previous articles, they are here amplified, clarified, and defended with new arguments. Finally, Golden’s reiteration and refinement of his “clarification” theory, now over a period of more than thirty years, has many virtues that should not be forgotten. His theory is an important one, and its influence has been increased by reiteration. His concentration on this topic has also allowed him to refine and develop his ideas, and to state them, in this culminating book, lucidly, eloquently, and concisely. I suspect that Golden’s work will be read, understood, and appreciated by future philosophers and lovers of poetry alike, when the work of many of his critics has been forgotten.