Sunday, January 20, 2008

Full-Throttle Aristotle

Aristotle. No, not Jackie’s other husband. Aristotle, pupil of Plato, tutor of Alexander. Wrote some notes about literature some 2400 years ago. By literature I mean poetry and drama. The Greeks had no word for “literature” in general, and the novel was still a couple millennia away. These musings, he called them the Poetics. They still get talked about today.

Strike that—Aristotle’s Poetics get referenced today, but it rarely gets read. People talk show-don’t-tell. People talk spectacle. People talk character-is-action and plot-twist. Screenwriters love Aristotle, especially the cult of Robert McKee. They talk the three-act structure like Ari invented it, which he didn’t.

So people talk Poetics. Read it? Not so much. No surprise: it’s old, it’s confusing, it’s damn didactic, it gives examples of plays that nobody knows because they’ve been lost in the sands of time. Ari didn’t even like lit all that much, though he liked it better than his mentor Plato. Ari was willing to admit a play is good for one thing: keeping the masses happy. Those masses.

But reading Poetics makes me think about the so-called literary/commercial divide. See, Ari tends not to sit well with the literary folks. They don’t want to be told that plot is more important than character and that beautiful writing is relatively low on the totem pole of what’s important. They don’t want a blueprint for anything, lest it be limiting to their creativity. I’m down with that, sure. Aristotle was musing on how to please the masses, not the elite. In his age, the elite were off reading philosophy, not watching plays.

Then again, Ari claims that tragedy is the highest form of literature. He’s talking plays, of course, and we can debate about how much of what he says is translatable to novel writing. He takes great pains to prove that a unified plot structure with certain magnitude and some revelations and reversals and so forth will give the tragedy its biggest impact. Hollywood has taken Aristotle’s advice to the bank, but, ironically, Hollywood rarely produces tragedies. People don’t like tragedies. They’re depressing. Nobody likes being depressed.

Even commercial books that are full of horror and violence and twists generally tend to turn out all right in the end. Real noir—like the end of Dave Goodis’ Down There or the end of most of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels—doesn’t get a fair shake on the market. Well, fair enough. People have a hard enough time these days, what with the economy. They want happily ever after.

On the other hand, so-called literary writing is full of tragedy—or at least endings that are more ambiguous than all’s-well-that-ends-well. The folks I like tend to be tragic writers, by and large. Thomas Hardy, JCO, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison. Even literary humorists have a dark streak these days. And here’s what’s weird: take a look at the some of novels by these folks I’ve mentioned and you’ll see Aristotle’s plot-talk followed to the letter. I’m not saying Oates and McCarthy mix Poetics like a recipe, but their natural aims sure swing in that direction.

So Aristotle’s good for the goose and the gander, you ask me. Not as a maker of commandments, but as a suggestor of best practices. Take the movie Se7en, one of my favorites, and in my estimation a textbook example of Aristotelian tragedy—man of relatively high standing (Brad Pitt’s police detective Mills) is brought down by his own fatal flaw (wrath) through a series of revelations (“what’s in the box?”) and reversals (killer turns himself in, etc.). The film’s third act is the most Aristotelian and tragic, but also the most divergent from standard Hollywood fare, the most character-based and literary. Yet it is just as tightly and carefully plotted as, oh, I don’t know—Finding Nemo.

It’s refreshing to read Aristotle and see no artificial division between the literary and the commercial. Maybe it’s because in his day all art was considered “low,” but so be it. Ari puts on his best frown face. He’s got his faults, but I think literary writers should be more mindful—cautiously mindful—of what he has to say. Of course he couldn’t have anticipated the hard-to-categorize genre of the novel (much less the short story). Of course he’s got his social class hang-ups (for Ari, virtue and social standing go hand-in-hand). Of course he drastically undervalues character and has nothing to say about inner monologue, but we’ve got plenty of modern-day writing teachers to help us with that.

In fact, I’d venture to say that many writing programs, writing classrooms, writing teachers could stand to evoke Aristotle a bit more frequently. So much tends to be said about character and point of view and language that the nuts-and-bolts of plot can sometimes suffer. Since the Modernists—not to mention the postmodernists—plot has become a four-letter word in some circles. And that’s a shame. Having said that, I must acknowledge that every time I’ve read Aristotle I’ve read him in an academic environment. So he’s certainly not being ignored. It’s just we talk about him for a bit, then forget him when we go to write our stories.

Okay, I admit it: I got one big bone of contention with Aristotle. Though I agree with the guy on many points, I think his whole premise for the purpose of tragedy is dead wrong. He claims tragedy is meant to evoke negative feelings like pity and fear and then purge them through “catharsis.” The word “catharsis” still gets thrown around quite a lot today, but I think it’s total bullshit. After a good tragedy, I’m still feeling the horrible feelings the tragedy evoked in me. I don’t feel better. I don’t feel purged. I’ve received no therapy whatsoever. I don’t think even the greatest literature has a lasting effect on the individual human’s emotions. Sure, we might forever love a movie or a book or a poem for its aesthetic prowess or its intellectual power, but there’s not a book in the world that turns lions into lambs, emotionally. No book has ever cured anyone’s clinical depression.

And I’m cool with that. I’ve never asked that from a book. What I’ve asked is for a few minutes of fleeting emotion, and maybe a few clues about how to be a better writer myself. Catharsis? Never felt it, doubt I ever will. I still remember the empty, angry, terrible weight of my own soul while I stared at the end credits of Se7en rolling up the screen. It was one of the most devastating pieces of art I’ve ever experienced, and I felt terrible for a long time. But I loved the film because of its structure of revelation and reversal, its tricks. I loved it for how intensely and how torn it made me feel, not for how it made me feel. Because it made me feel like crap.

This, on the other hand, makes me laugh:


JT Ellison said...

What a great post. Man, Dr. to be, you are a fascinating creature. Thanks for the provocation.

S. Craig Renfroe, Jr. said...

Great points as always. Especially your doubt about catharsis. Though that video did give me some catharsis from my fear of singing heads in boxes.

Visiting writer said...

Interesting article and hooray for the Aristotle plug.

Wanted to point at that the idea of catharsis is not really spelled out accurately, which may be why you don't believe in it. I think this is tied to the idea that Aristotle talks about a "fatal flaw," but this is a mistranslation from the Greek. The word translated as "flaw" is really "mistake" or "error."

So the tragic hero does not have some fatal flaw in his nature (like "wrath") which leads to his downfall, but rather makes a fatal mistake, miscalculation, decision based on incomplete evidence. That's why the end of Se7en doesn't produce catharsis at all - Pitt's character isn't the victim of Fate, but the victim of Spacey and of his own choices. And there is no recognition, no "lesson learned, albeit too late"; another feature of Aristotelian tragedy.