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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, June 25, 2007

art imitates life

I'm reading--indeed, am close to finishing--Aristotle's Poetics. The text runs only 46 pages, plus notes. In that brief space he says a great deal.

The text, or the portion of it that has survived, is devoted mainly to tragic drama, which Aristotle regarded as the highest form of poetry yet devised. But despite the fact that his book is about poetry performed as live musical theater--which was how it was staged in ancient Greece--Aristotle's work is still highly relevant to the storyteller of today. This is because, among all the aspects of tragedy, the one he regarded as most important, and making the largest contribution to the power of a work, was the choice and arrangement of the events depicted: in other words, plotting.

As far as Aristotle was concerned, the tragic poet's number-one concern was storytelling. And while the Poetics was not intended as a handbook for writers, but rather as an analysis of an art form to help in understanding and assessing the quality of specific works, nonetheless it is of great potential benefit to crafters of story. Indeed, Aristotle's Poetics is, I see now, the main source of ideas for Robert McKee's teachings on storytelling. McKee's work is largely a matter of explaining, expanding, illustrating, and adapting Aristotle's ideas to the modern storytelling medium of filmmaking.

The ideas are excellent, and still have that quality of freshness and immediacy that all great and original thinking has, regardless of the passage of time (Aristotle died in 322 BC).

Aristotle starts off by saying that tragic poetry, like all other poetry (and indeed all other types of art), is an imitation--that is, an imitation of things in life. Malcolm chose the word imitation to translate the Greek mimesis, rather than the usual representation, because he feels that this is closer to the sense intended by Aristotle. Whereas a representation of something may not look like the thing represented--a dot on a map might represent a city, for example--an imitation is something intended to resemble the thing imitated. The aesthetic experience is the recognition of the thing imitated in the artist's imitation of it: the better the imitation or depiction, the greater the pleasure experienced by the viewer or audience.

I sense that this distinction is important. I think of how "modern" art arose in the 19th century, leading on to nonfigurative art by the turn of the 20th, when, in painting, not only imitation but also representation went out the window. With Abstract Expressionism, the notion that a painter was trying to depict some external visual object was abandoned; the aim was to "express" something within--to project outward the contents of the painter's psyche, perhaps the collective unconscious.

I believe that in fiction-writing and drama, the turn away from story was part of this same trend toward nonfigurative art. Artists and writers wanted to free themselves from the shackles of tradition and do things that were utterly new.

The art may have been unshackled and new, but how effective was it? Through study I have learned how to appreciate and enjoy some nonfigurative art. Once you've learned some of the underlying ideas, there is a certain mind-expanding pleasure in regarding the cubist works of Picasso, for instance. But I can't say that a cubist work like Picasso's "Still Life with Carafe and Candlestick" (1909) has ever struck me with the immediate, visceral sense of power and enjoyment that the painters of the animals on the cave-walls at Lascaux and Altamira were able to generate across a gulf of 30,000 years. And I feel sure that if Picasso's work survives 30,000 years, any proper enjoyment of it will require a guidebook--so we'd better hope one of those survives along with it.

Aristotle is saying that art imitates life, and that in viewing or appreciating such art, we experience the pleasure of recognition, which is at bottom the pleasure of learning. This does not mean that art is or should be didactic, but that in recognizing our world in the forms created by an artist, we necessarily learn about it. There's no need for art to preach; it's enough for it to exist.

So then: the function of art is to imitate life, and the writer's primary tool for such imitation is the sequence of the events of life: story. The difference between a good, well-told story and a feeble, poorly told one is the difference between a successful work of art and a failed one.


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