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The Poetics

I’ve started writing-up my PhD thesis supposedly for submission in March 2011. For me, this means getting up at 5am and getting in a couple of hours study before I head off to the office: there’s no way I’ll be able to do anything meaningful after a day’s work. Anyway, my new regime seems to be working and, three weeks in, I’m still on schedule!

I’ve been working on Aristotle’s Poetics. This is the ur-text for all narrative studies and forms the basis of what we might call the ‘standard model’ of narrative. Part of my thesis, then, involves going back to the original text and asking basic questions like “what did Aristotle really say?” Here’s part of my first draft. It needs notes, the image is only a placeholder, but references are included:

Aristotle’s Poetics
Probably written between 335 – 323 BCE, Aristotle’s Poetics remains a “recurrently, indeed tenaciously, significant” piece of literary criticism (Halliwell 1992). This is all the more remarkable as it is little more than a set of notes, half of which—the section on comedy—is missing (Heath, in Aristotle 1996, xxxvii). Despite its brevity, the text itself presents all sorts of problems: there are several translations which vary considerably in the way that key terms are interpreted and in the way the text is organized; parts of the original text are missing or illegible; there is some internal inconsistency; ideas expressed in the Poetics are inconsistent with the same ideas in his other texts (Belfiore 1992, p.103); and Aristotle often offers examples to illustrate key points by referring to texts that no longer exist (e.g. the discussion of Lynceus at Poetics 11). In fact the brevity of the text often works against understanding: many key terms are not explained and the style is generally elliptical.

The Poetics is largely concerned with poetry, expressed through the three main forms existing at that time: tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry. The bulk of the text is taken up with tragedy, but there is a chapter on epic poetry and a short chapter comparing tragedy with epic. Although comedy is often mentioned in passing, it is thought that the extended analysis of this that Aristotle promises (Poetics 6) lies in another, missing, text (as noted above). Aristotle identifies six component parts to tragedy which are, in their order of importance: plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry (song), and spectacle (ibid). Here we will be mainly concerned with the component that relates to the structural analysis of narrative—and which in any case takes up the best part of the Poetics—plot.

Aristotle defines plot as “the imitation of the action (by ‘plot’ here I mean the organization of events)” (ibid). He then goes on to explain why it is the most important component of tragedy, which we could summarize by saying that character (and its dependents reasoning, diction, and song) are expressed through the action: without action there is no tragedy. Aristotle then goes on to define plot in some detail, identifying five key characteristics: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.

Aristotelian Plot
This is virtually everything Aristotle has to say about completeness:

We have laid down that tragedy is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole action, possessing a certain magnitude. […] A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning is that which itself does not follow necessarily from anything else, but some second thing naturally exists or occurs after it. Conversely, an end is that which does itself naturally follow from something else, either necessarily or in general, but there is nothing else after it. A middle is that which itself comes after something else, and some other thing comes after it. (Poetics 7)

In other words, Aristotle is arguing for a tightly organized and self-contained structure where, putting it into more modern terms, we could say that the plot must be made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.

Aristotle’s next section on magnitude encapsulates everything that is problematic about the Poetics, being seemingly straightforward, baffling, and highly suggestive all at the same time. He begins by talking about a living organism, which not only “possess parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary” (ibid). Although he would not have expressed it in these terms, here we could suggest that Aristotle is recognizing that living organisms generally speaking do not evolve parts that have no function; there is a kind of minimalism at work here that will not expend energy on developing these useless parts.

Aristotle then goes on to make two specific statements about the magnitude of a plot. Firstly, that it “should be such as can readily be held in memory” (ibid) and, secondly, that the ideal magnitude should be “in which a series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability or necessity gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” (ibid). The first of these does not really bear scrutiny: although Aristotle presumably means that the plot must be graspable by the audience at a single sitting, clearly we have memory systems that allow us to maintain highly complex semiotic structures over extended time periods. The second of his definitions is more specific but introduces several new ideas that remain undefined. “In accordance with probability or necessity” is Aristotle’s formula for what many modern commentators might call causality, the recognition that the events in the plot are connected together in a meaningful way and not just a random series of actions placed one after another. Although this clearly relates back to Aristotle’s comments on wholeness and is supportive of that concept, he defines neither “probability” or “necessity” in either the Poetics or indeed any of his other works (Belfiore 1992, p.112).

Furthermore, in this short section Aristotle also introduces another new idea that is important to his conception of the tragic plot, namely that it “gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune.” This is not really explained until later in the Poetics, where Aristotle says that:

By complication I mean everything up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune; by resolution I mean everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end. (Poetics 18)

This introduces terms that have become crucial to the development of the ‘standard model’ of narrative in general and the study of narrative structures in particular. It implies a bipartite plot structure with a “change” or turning point somewhere in the middle. If we relate the terms complication and resolution back onto the beginning-middle-end structure Aristotle has already laid out, we could say that the complication is the beginning and some undetermined amount of the middle, whilst the resolution is a similarly undetermined part of the middle through to the end; where the “change” occurs would vary from plot to plot but would demarcate the boundary line between the two:

schematic of Aristotle's plot structure

Aristotle’s concept of the correct magnitude of a plot, then, offers a kind of minimalist philosophy, with the underlying assumption that it should include only what is necessary (or perhaps, only that which performs some specific function). This is the single idea that unifies his ideas about the organic nature of the plot, its graspability, and the minimum requisite action it should include.

Aristotle’s third key characteristic of plot is unity. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to offer us very much in the way of new ideas: surely if a plot is ‘whole’ it must be a unity? However, it does serve to tie together his idea of wholeness with his definition of plot as “a series of events” giving rise to a “change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” as noted above. Central to this is Aristotle’s concept of a “single action” (Poetics 8). A plot where a character undergoes a change of fortune made be made up of a series of many events, but all of these events are related to, are necessary for, this change to be represented. In other words, the change of fortune is the “single action” and the events in the plot must all be probable or necessary to it; only in this way will it have unity. There is again this emphasis on the plot containing only those events or actions that are absolutely essential.

Aristotle’s entire comment on determinate structure from Poetics 8 is as follows:

Just as in other imitative arts the imitation is unified if it imitates a single object, so too the plot, as the imitation of an action, should imitate a single, unified action—and one that is also a whole. So the structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole.

The first sentence is merely a reiteration and summary of Aristotle’s concepts of unity and wholeness as discussed above. The second sentence, however, does contain something new: the idea of “transposition or removal” of sections gets to the very heart of plotting, and is one of the few instances in the Poetics where we can clearly see the difference between “story” and “plot” expressed directly. The story is the events in linear order, but the plot is those events “organized” in some artistic way. What Aristotle is saying is that if events from the story are transposed—moved in time relative to each other—or removed, and that these changes have no effect on the whole, then they are dispensible, not part of the ‘unity’. Yet again there is this emphasis on the minimal means of expression, reinforced by the final sentence in the section.
In fact, we can see from this section of the Poetics that we could reasonably collapse all of Aristotle’s ideas about wholeness, unity, and the minimal representation of a single action under the umbrella term ‘the determinate structure of a plot’.

Aristotle’s fifth key characteristic of plot is universality. This section of the Poetics is concerned with the type of overall effect “the poet” should be striving for, that is, qualitative or aesthetic outcomes. Whilst it includes what is probably the first exposition of the ‘fact versus fiction’ problem, there is little relevant to the issues under discussion here.

One final issue that Aristotle does deal with and that does have relevance for us is that of the defective plot. He highlights the episodic plot as being “the worst,” and by an episodic plot he means “one in which the sequence of events is neither necessary or probable.” In other words, an episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events (and here I am trying to avoid the word ‘causality’). Which in the terms of Aristotle’s argument is all very straightforward; however, later on in the Poetics he seems to use the word ‘episode’ in a completely different way:

The prologue is the whole part of a tragedy before the entry-song of the chorus; an episode is a whole part of a tragedy between whole choral songs; the finale is the whole part of a tragedy after which there is no choral song. (Poetics 12)

What makes this worse is that he also seems to be using one of his key terms for plot—”whole”—in a new way as well. However, what he is doing is making a distinction between what he calls the “formal elements” of the tragedy—plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry, and spectacle—and what he calls the “quantitative terms” (ibid). In modern terminology, this would be the same as making the distinction between the story (as plotted) and the narrative discourse: the plot may be whole, have unity, and be the minimal representation of a single action, but as instantiated in a single performance it may be presented episodically. And in fact, later on in the Poetics, Aristotle makes this distinction very clear:

One should handle the chorus as one of the actors; it should be part of the whole and should contribute to the performance—not as in Euripides, but as in Sophocles. In the other poets the songs have no more to do with the plot than they do with any other play… (Poetics 18)

In other words, the songs move the plot forward.

To summarize this section on Aristotelian plot:

  • The plot is “the organization of events.”
  • There are five key characteristics of plot: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.
  • The plot of a tragedy is an imitation of a complete and whole action, possessing a certain magnitude, and which has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a tightly organized and self-contained structure made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.
  • The plot is minimally functional in the same way as a living organism.
  • The plot must be graspable in a single sitting.
  • The plot must be of a magnitude so that, with the minimum requisite action, it should represent a change of fortune for the protagonist(s). The events leading to the change are the complication, the events after the change are the resolution.
  • The plot has unity; it represents a single action.
  • The plot has determinate structure: everything must be there for a reason.
  • The plot should strive for universality.
  • An episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events.

Aristotle (trans. Heath, M.) (1996) Poetics. Penguin Classics
Belfiore, E. S. (1992) Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle On Plot And Emotion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Halliwell, S. (1992) ‘Epilogue: The Poetics and its Interpreters’ in Rorty, A. O. (Ed) Essays On Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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