Pleasure in (watching) Pain: “The Poetics of Aristotle – IV”, part one

In the first three sections of The Poetics of Aristotle  (which I reflect on here , here and here), Aristotle addresses the form (genre), the objects (characters), and the manner (perspective) of poetics (drama).  Section IV digs into the foundation for poetics.

      Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he  is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

We learn things by “acting them out”.  Acting things out also brings us pleasure, whether we are the actors or the audience.  I remember from way back playing school with my uncle Geoff.  He always had to be the “teacher”, which was fine with me.  I found pleasure following his lead and acting out my part.

Aristotle continues —

We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such other cause. 

Inside the Acting for Film & Television Campus by vancouverfilmschool

People are drawn to both drama and melodrama that acts out human misery.  From the agony of Oedipus killing his father and sleeping with his mother to the latest Jerry Springer episode which depicts, well, people wanting to kill their father and sleep with their mothers (or something like that),  we like to observe others facing moral dilemmas.  More than this, we enjoy watching actors struggle while we’re curled up in the theater seats munching on popcorn and leaning back in the recliner eating ice cream.

Aristotle goes on to examine two aspects of poetics —

      Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though many such writers probably there were. But from Homer onward, instances can be cited,—his own Margites, for example, and other similar compositions. The appropriate metre was also here introduced; hence the measure is still called the iambic or lampooning measure, being that in which people lampooned one another. Thus the older poets were distinguished as writers of heroic or of lampooning verse.    

So basically, as a writer of classic drama, you could go in one of two directions.  You could take the “nobler” route, and write of the heroic deeds of gods and men or you could offer “lampooning verse” and playfully expose their weaknesses.

The question I would raise is – “Does the noble path still exist for the contemporary playwright?”  I honestly don’t know enough about modern theater to know how others approach it.  Speaking for myself, I firmly believe all human beings are created in the image of God and, though this image has been seriously stained by sin, there is still the possibility of redemption (and thus nobility).   Certainly, just as the Greeks praise their gods in hymns, we can praise God in songs, dialogue, and action.  So, yes, we can produce plays that imitate nobility.

And we certainly produce satire that lampoons flaws in human figures as well as the false images of God so prevalent in culture.  I just wrote a scene in “Liberty” today I called “An Earnest Faith Healer” that was based on a performance I saw in the freshman talent show at Hanover combined with a story I was told when I attended seminary.  I didn’t find much pleasure in writing it, as I was portraying a very true-to-life example that is so tragically wrong you have to laugh to keep from crying.

I will leave off here and pick up the latter part of section IV in a later post…

(image “Inside the Acting for Film &…”  from vancouverfilmschool, some rights reserved)

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