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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, January 04, 2008

notes on finishing Aristotle

I've just finished keying notes from Aristotle's Poetics. This short work is still probably the best overall guide to writing dramatic works, whether as prose or as script. Aristotle focuses on storytelling, which he sees as the core of the poetic art. Art, to him, means "imitation": when we see art we must be reminded of life in some way. In Shakespeare's terms, it is the mirror held up to nature.

For Aristotle, the highest form of poetry was tragedy: serious poetry intended to be acted out on stage. In order to gain the fullest audience involvement, the characters need to be "better" than we are, at least in certain respects. Why? Because the key emotions of tragedy, according to Aristotle, are pity and terror. It is to experience these vicariously that an audience watches tragedy, and they are evoked by seeing superior people undergoing misfortune. When a good person suffers, we feel pity; whereas when a bad person suffers, we feel satisfaction.

It felt a bit strange to read these things, put so bluntly by the great philosopher, and yet he hit the nail on the head. We see it all the time in movies: the bad guy does mean things, and gets his just deserts in the end. The good guy, or girl, braver and more noble than we are, suffers, and we feel pained about that. It's politically incorrect to rate people on a quality scale, and yet that is what popular art does all the time as a matter of course. (For the record: I'm no friend of political correctness--quite the reverse.)

According to Aristotle, comedies are stories about people who are worse than we are. And this is true also: think of the TV sitcom, the staple story of which is about the flaw of one of its characters. Out of jealousy, social climbing, greed, lust, or other motives, a character does ridiculous things, and we laugh. "Ha ha, what a schmuck." The typical sitcom episode ends with the character being chastened, and apologizing for his behavior: all is restored to equilibrium until the next episode.

It gets me wondering though about more modern dramas, that depict gangsters and low-lifes (say) in heroic dramatic roles. Usually gangster heroes (such as those played by, say, James Cagney) were seen as popular heroes by many--admirable rebels against corrupt or unjust government forces. Or some, such as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, are relatively good: he may be a greedy, violent, vengeful, ignorant criminal, but he has principles or a code of honor that his foes lack. He's better than they are.

But then we get to the "grunge" phenomenon of the 1990s: movies like Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, populated almost exclusively by the dregs of society: criminal lumpenproletarians who lack redeeming qualities. Both movies were more or less comedic in tone, at least in many places, and so were perhaps conforming to Aristotle's scheme in that way. But I found most of the characters in both those movies revolting, and I cared less about what happened to them than about whether I was about to be subjected to yet more disgusting scenes. I wouldn't want to see either movie again, although I thought there was much cleverness and ingenuity in Pulp Fiction.

But in general I regard shows like that as a measure of the aberrant times we're in. I think about George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, how people in that future dystopia attend movies to watch the women and children of their "enemies" being killed, and laugh at them. In many ways, we're there now.

Still, I'll rely on Aristotle. All spiritual training involves the cultivation of virtue--and not just the relative "virtue" of being less cowardly or brutal than one's enemies. The challenge of being human remains the same. And as Gandhi recommended that one should be the change one wants to see in the world, so I think I should create the stories I want to read.

So that's what I'm doing.


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