Book: Poetics

Poetics I recently read the Penguin Classics version of Aristotle's Poetics, and holy crap, why didn't anyone force me to sit down and read this sooner? In college I minored in Film Studies and English, and I thought I had a good introduction to deconstructing texts through those years of classes. Little did I know I've been missing a core way to think about stories.

A great book about giving presentations is Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. (I've mentioned it here before: Public Speaking.) Atkinson has a very useful system for telling a story via Powerpoint that's based on some of Aristotle's ideas in Poetics. He mentions that a couple times in BBB. I've put together a few presentations using the advice in the book, and the ideas were very helpful. So I figured ad fontes (I often think in Latin, heh), and picked up Poetics. I also recently read Eco's Name of the Rose, which tangentially featured Aristotle.

I know next to nothing about Artistotle beyond the fact that his books are sort of teaching notes on various subjects, and only a few survive today. I'm also vaguely aware that Aristotle and Plato had two different ways of viewing the world that continue to split our collective psyche to this day. (Something about Plato's love of ideal forms vs. Aristotle's favored observation of the real world.) I guess this basic understanding kept me from reading Aristotle. Why would I want to read some half-finished ideas? I figured the ideas were probably so remote, abstract, and ancient that they wouldn't have much relevance to me. So I had low expectations going in. I figured I wouldn't even be able to understand it.

I read the introduction to Poetics by Malcolm Heath, and I got quite a bit out of it. Of course it's very dry and academic, but it did help explain some sort of consensus of thinking about Aristotle, some of the issues raised in Poetics that people have been struggling with, and some of the context in which Aristotle was writing. But the real value was Poetics itself.

Aristotle shows how Greek tragic plays like Oedipus are most effectively constructed. He contrasts tragedy with comedy and epic a bit, but Poetics is focused on tragic stories as a form. And he wasn't so concerned with plays as they are performed, but as they are written. So his thoughts translate well to any type of story.

The overriding idea I've been thinking about since reading this is that stories, art, any media we consume, is an imitation of reality—and this imitation is trying to evoke an emotional response so we can identify with it. (And I've been thinking about this in relation to advertising, especially, which are really little stories that evoke emotions about products.) Aristotle says that tragedy should evoke fear and pity, and discusses the best way to evoke these emotions: by having normal characters go from good fortune to bad through no fault of their own.

Aristotle places quite a bit of emphasis on social status which is sort of taboo in our society. And it's a bit uncomfortable to read. But now that I've seen stories through Aristotle's eyes, I can't help but see changes in fortune and differences in status in stories everywhere. It's like seeing a fundamental building block of the content I continually consume for the first time. And this is why I can't believe I haven't read it sooner. I know this sounds obvious, but character status, arc through the story, and emotions evoked should be the first step in analyzing a story. I've found it's very useful when watching a Youtube video, reading a blog, or looking at a billboard to think, "What emotion is this work trying to evoke?" This step back seems so clear that I should have been doing this all along. But analyzing for Aristotelian effectiveness is quite a bit different from "Hot or Not", Love/Hate decisions about stuff I consume.

Anyway, this is my attempt to sit you down and force you to read Poetics, because I wish someone would have made me do it sooner. There's a lot more than what I've described to get out of it, and I think it will help you think about media in a new (old) way.

Comments

You know, this might be my favorite blog entry you've ever written! It's my turn to select our next book group book, and I've been wavering between Dickens and Hardy (with The Godfather as a dark horse). But Aristotle? Who would expect that? On the other hand, I've always wanted to read The Name of the Rose...
Very cool. I hope this inspires you to check out the Rhetoric, too. There's some interesting crossover between the two.
Thanks J.D., might be an odd one for a book group--but it might make your future discussions of books interesting.

I'm intimidated by Rhetoric (just as I was by Poetics), but thanks for the encouragement, Mark. I might need to find a gentler introduction to that one instead of diving right in. :)
You might also want to, if you haven't already, check out Plato's The Republic (which I finally read just a few years ago), so you can see how differently he and Aristotle go about understanding the world, so you can see his theory of "forms" in action and read some even more uncomfortable comments on class (and along with it, read Karl Popper's deconstruction of Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1.). The Republic is one of those books that I often heard talked about in college but didn't really understand until I read it myself, which is true, I've found, of most philosophical works. Most are complex and subtle enough that a summary just won't do. I read the translation by Sterling and Scott and really liked it.

I like your emphasis here on using literary criticism to approach new media. I find that very valuable, and something I do often. You've inspired me to re-read The Poetics, because I can't remember much of it and it didn't make a big impression on me when I read it before (maybe I was too young or too into postmodernism to see the value of it). So now it goes on the reading list.
Thanks, wheat, I've always had The Republic on my "read someday" list. Based solely on Poetics (and discussions of Greek Philosophy), it seems that Aristotle meshes a little better with modern thinking than Plato. I recently read an interesting book called Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman that sort of blames Plato for the Middle Ages. ;) So maybe Aristotle can shoulder some of the blame for modern society?

I got this creepy sense reading Aristotle that my entire education has been based on Aristotle's method of breaking things down into categories for further analysis. Almost as if the reason Math and English aren't the same class in school is due to the approach he took in understanding the world. It's like reading some sort of source code, and that's why I think you can apply it across any type of communication.
That's a good metaphor, pb: Aristotle as the source code of modern, western thought. And I think that's certainly true. Aristotle was one of the only ancient philosophers that the medieval church could admire, so they carried his ideas forward (he was known as "The Philosopher") and found ways to combine his ideas with the main currents of Christianity, so that he had an enormous leg up by the time we hit the Renaissance and the rest of antiquity gets rediscovered by the moderns.

Popper blames Plato for totalitarianism, BTW. Plato's stock has fallen quite a bit over the years, I guess. :)