Art Imitates Life (for better and for worse): “The Poetics of Artistotle – II”

882 Classic Greek drama by jasonvance

Following on the heels of my previous post (“Telling the Truth in Fiction“), I was pleased to read section II of The Poetics.  It begins –

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life.

As my former theater professor pointed out to me, good drama is founded on action.  The action of the characters in a play reflect reality, but they extend it for the sake of the story.  In “Liberty”, my current work-in-progress, I am trying to pack 4 years worth of college experience into 2 weeks in the story.  Naturally, I will be condensing and exaggerating certain behaviors.  Some good actions will be better than they were.  Some bad actions will be worse.  If it works well, the end product will be “true to life” though the particular details may be anything but the what really happened.

Section II of The Poetics continues –

Now it is evident that each of the modes of imitation above mentioned will exhibit these differences, and become a distinct kind in imitating objects that are thus distinct. Such diversities may be found even in dancing, flute-playing, and lyre-playing. So again in language, whether prose or verse unaccompanied by music. Homer, for example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse than they are.  The same thing holds good of Dithyrambs and Nomes; here too one may portray different types, as Timotheus and Philoxenus differed in  representing their Cyclopes. The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.

Only the devout student of Greek poetics would follow the many and varied names mentioned here, but the sense of this passage comes through readily.  Basically, each writer must decide precisely how to portray the action  of his/her characters and follow this consistently.  A question that arises in my mind is – could you portray a character who was both better and worse than real life?  It’s possible, I think, to create a complex character who, on some occasions, acts more benevolently than s/he would have while on other occasions, more malevolently.  This may well detract from the consistent believability of the action, however.  Still, a good drama might have an SS soldier open fire on random Jews in the courtyard yet care for a Jewish housekeeper with whom he has fallen in love (in fact, I think they did just this in “Schindler’s List”).

One of the challenges of modern drama, I believe, is to address moral questions in a world that defines itself as amoral.  Or, said better, where moral standards shift and there is no consensus on what is right and wrong.  My hope is, by focusing on the story, showing what the characters do and fail to do and what results as a consequence of their actions and inactions, there will ultimately be a life-affirming “moral” to the story.

(image “882 Classic Greek drama” from jasonvance, some rights reserved)

One thought on “Art Imitates Life (for better and for worse): “The Poetics of Artistotle – II”

  1. All of us, I think, have morals that are at risk of being corrupted or of at least being applied inconsistently to those we know, understand and love, from those about whom we are ignorant and perhaps fear. I like your idea of developing complex rather that simple fictional characters.

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