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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

into Poetics

Still dealing with the wonky text-input here on Blogger. I discovered that I am not alone, but that others who use the Firefox browser on the Windows 98 platform have this problem. I guess I'm probably hooped.

Yesterday was a mini-Christmas (and quite cool outside, as it happens). I received two shipments from Amazon.com: three books by Aristotle--the Poetics, the Politics, and the Metaphysics--and one book by the 18th-century Scottish statistician William Playfair, entitled An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations, Designed to Shew How the Prosperity of the British Empire May Be Prolonged.

I was delighted with them all. Even though I mainly, for reasons of economy, buy used books, I especially love to get new ones. But the one I was particularly looking forward to was Aristotle's Poetics, a slim Penguin Classic of about 140 pages, most of which consists of the introduction by the translator, Malcolm Heath. Letting the others wait for the time being, I launched my reading period with this book.

I was finally driven to buy the Poetics through my research into the field of literary genre--and especially of my own current genre, epic. Robert McKee lists the Poetics as one of the key reference works for the screenwriter (or storyteller generally). Apparently Aristotle was the first to apply an inquiring mind to the question of how stories work--what are their parts, how do they fit together, and how does the whole thing function? I've read very little Aristotle over the years, but as I have become exposed to his ideas I have increasingly come to see him as a bold, original thinker whose ideas are still striking and fresh today. What a treat to have a whole (little) book by him devoted to the art of literature.

Aristotle was known in the ancient world as an excellent prose stylist; his writing was considered exemplary. Unfortunately, none of his published work has survived (or has been found). All the surviving works of Aristotle are of the nature of notes, possibly lecture notes. They are intended for students, perhaps only senior students, not for a general audience. As a result, the writing tends to be cryptic and difficult for the new reader.

So Malcolm Heath starts off this translation with a lengthy introduction, in which he recapitulates the essence of Aristotle's argument, fleshing it out with examples and warding off potential miscontructions. Wanting to get right to the text, I was going to skip the introduction and read it afterwards, but I found that it is too good to miss, so I am reading it first after all.

Already, after just a few pages, I've encountered many striking and provocative ideas. How about this direct quote from Aristotle's Metaphysics, with which Heath launches the main part of the introduction:

All human beings by nature desire knowledge.

We all need knowledge and use it, but Aristotle means more than this: that we seek knowledge for its own sake, and find the acquisition of it pleasurable in its own right. Animals might need and use knowledge, in the sense of learning what to do in a particular situation, but humans enjoy it. I know this is true for me.

As I understand it, Aristotle goes on to show how the arts arise from this human desire for and enjoyment of knowledge. All the arts, including the art of poetry, operate by imitating objects of experience. The experience of aesthetic enjoyment happens when we recognize the imitated object in its imitated or represented form--for noticing similarities between things is exactly knowledge consists of, at bottom. He's saying that the enjoyment of a work of art is essentially an experience of learning. Fantastic!

At least, that's my effort to summarize the first page. I'll be reading every page, you may be sure.

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  • Hi, Paul! Was nice to see your comment, great to hear from you--thanks! Aristotle's Poetics is a long-time and treasured resident on my bookshelf, and I've read portions of it again and again over the years. As usual, I always find your posts enlightening, and now I'm going to ahve to add Metaphysics--which I'd not heard of--to the shelf. d:))

    By Anonymous Debra Young, at June 19, 2007 11:45 AM  

  • Ooh--well, even the experts say that the Metaphysics is tough sledding. Still, I'm game to give it a go, since there's stuff in there that I know I want to learn about. Poetics is great so far...

    By Blogger paulv, at June 20, 2007 3:12 PM  

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