Friday, 25 August 2017

M S Nagarajan - Classical Criticism- Chapter 1- Aristotle

     The arrival of an outstanding genius like Aristotle on the literary scene of the age mark the commencement of Criticism, considerably different from the reflective philosophy of Plato.  His empirical approach to works of art which was something unusual in Aristotle's time made him the supreme Arbiter of aesthetic judgement.
His pervasive influence may be gauged from the fact that during the middle ages and during and after the Renaissance , he became a law giver and Supreme Monarch to the poets and critics.
     Having defined tragedy, Aristotle analyses the various elements out of which it is composed. There are six elements mainly plot,  character thought, diction, melody and spectacle . For Aristotle ,character is what determines moral choice
. According to him, tragedy imitates noble character and comedy imitates base character. But this solemn declaration later turned to be a fertile ground for many critics among whom the neoclassical critics' where the prominent ones.  Arthur Miller accuses Aristotle of social snobbishness( exaggerated respect for high social position) and arrogance. He chooses Willy Loman, a common man as his protagonist in Death of a Salesman. Aristotle never said that someone of the common mould cannot be a tragic hero and here Miller fails to grasp the basics in aristotle's logic. The truth is the nobility referred to in poetics is morally determined and not socially analysed.
     The highest form of poetry, Aristotle thinks is tragedy and he devotes 14 chapters for a full discussion of the tragic spirit. The definition of tragedy indicates that tragedy as a poetic form is clearly distinguished from other forms Epic, Comedy and  Lyric . He then spells out the different components of tragedy - plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle and melody. The most important of all is the structure of incidents or the arrangement of the incidents.  It is the imitation of action and not of men.  Aristotle further says :”without action there cannot be tragedy”.  For him the Plot is the first principle and as it were  the soul of tragedy that contains the kernel on nucleus of action.
     Character is that which reveals moral purpose showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. He says :”character determines men's qualities but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse”.
Third in order is thought-  that is the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent( relevant) in given circumstances.  Inn the representation of action the poet should prefer “probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities”.

Pity and Fear
     Aristotle discovered that pity and fear are the two emotions which arouse tragic feelings in humans. These are the two emotions that demand the tragic Hero to be Noble only, then his fall from happiness to misery arouses these emotions in us.

A work of art-a living organism
     Aristotle further says  that a work of art aptly  resembles a living organism that is constructed in conformity with some laws of organisation such as a beginning ,middle and an end, possessing a proper magnitude. His view of the plot has to be analysed on the basis of this organic view for him what is morally determinate action and its excellence lies in its power of synthesizing character ,action and thought.  For instance the plot of Romeo and Juliet is different from that of Pyramus and Thisbe of A Midsummer Night's Dream , though the external events are same.  The forlorn lovers die under similar circumstances but the pot of the former is tragic and that of the latter is farcical. Thus the plot which is the soul of tragedy controls and shapes all other elements that are subservient to it .
     so profound was the impact and so great was the intrinsic worth of aristotle's poetics that it deserves to be called an epoch making book of aesthetic criticism.  Referring to the soundness of the doctrines laid down in the poetics Abercrombie in his Principles of Literary Criticism remarks that:” the argument is such that the poetics is not only the first philosophical  discussion of literature but the foundation of all subsequent discussion”.
The Renaissance scholars of Europe were the first to recover it and to realise its greatness. Then it became a principal document for the neoclassical critics' who misinterpreted some of his doctrines.  They even placed him in the Roman rhetorical tradition . this was a  great disservice to Aristotle,  for he was neither dogmatic nor prescriptive.A telling example is the misreading of the theory of dramatic unities by Italian Renaissance commentators like Robertello and castelvetro.  The truth seems to be far away from the real version for there is no evidence in poetics that suggests that the time of the place should be within 24 hours or the place of actions should be one locality.  The truth regarding the same is that these were later Renaissance additions . Finally the credit goes to the great Samuel Johnson who took effort to correct the wrongs done by those commentators. Aristotle only talks about the unity of action by which it is meant that the action must be organic, a unified whole .

Nagarajan, M S. English Literary Criticism and Theory. Orient Blackswan.2006. print.

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