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Monday, September 28, 2009

Elementary School Classroom

‘Far from gusty….other than this’

Spender begins his poem by describing the children in the class I the first stanza. He begins by creating a contrast between the gusty, energetic waves of the ocean and the children in the classroom whom he describes as ‘rootless weeds’. There is a tall girl with her head weighed down as if she was eternally burdened and tired. There is a boy so miserably thin that he is described as ‘paper seeming’. This boy while being paper thin has rat like bulging eyes. This is a sign of malnourishment. This is also indicative of the social milieu from to which these children belong. Another boy in the classroom suffers from a disease where his growth has been stunted and his bones are twisted. This disease has been passed on to him by his father. Hence for this child, his lesson is not the one taught in class but his inheritance of his father’s disease. But there is also a sweet looking boy among all such gloomy faces who is dreaming about a squirrel playing games in a room other than this classroom.

As is evident the children belong to the poor classes of society. The reference to them as ‘rootless weeds’ might be indicative of the fact that society treats them as worthless population which needs to be eradicated. Much in the same way as weeds are eradicated from fields.

‘On sour cream walls...and stars of words’

In this stanza Spender describes the class. On sour cream walls donations made to the class are recorded. On one wall Shakespeare’s head is drawn; there is also a drawing depicting a Dome, a sign of prosperous society, a far cry from the world of these children. There is scenery of Tyrolese valley. Lastly on one wall there is a map which shows the people the world they inhabit. Spender says that all these depictions on the wall are not the real world of the children. Their world is the one which they see from their classroom windows-a world of fog; narrow, crammed, polluted streets. The usage of ‘fog’ is also depictive of the life of these children. It signifies the blur that their future is in.

‘Surely, doom’

Spender calls Shakespeare wicked and the maps a bad example since they create a false world for the children. This also includes the suns and the ships. This virtual world results in the children having a temptation to steal since they see no way to achieve this ‘world’ of the walls. Their world is the world of cramped, dingy holes. Their lives move from to fog to endless night, with no hope in sight. They are so thin that their bones show through their skin. When they wear spectacles it seems bottle bits are places on stones.

‘Unless, the sun’

This situation will continue until the officials do something about it. Until the map becomes the real world of the children they will continue to lead a miserable life. The world which seizes them, which puts a shackle on them should be broken and shattered. The green fields of the walls should be their world. Their future should be enlightened in place of the present fog which prevails over it because only they create history whose present is illuminated.

This was a presentation by HEP I.

Arush Tandon

Sunday, September 27, 2009

As the wedding bells chime

Ladies, gentlemen, and dear others,

Flowers. Music. Smiles. Happy tears. Golden rings. White gowns. Today, the wedding bells chime, rhyming in time, love sublime, and a knot tied.


Mr Pinto, or Anil as he likes to be called, is getting married to Geraldine, or Deena as he calls her, today in Mangalore.

Let us, with open hearts, and love, wish the couple a wonderfully happy wedding day, and a beautiful married life!

All the best Mr Pinto! Love you sir!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Teching and Learning

Khalil Gibran was born in 1883, in Lebanon. He was a poet, philosopher, artist, prophet and a writer .Among his best known works, is the Prophet, a book of 26 poetic essays .Those poems have been transleted into over 20 languages.Gibran lived in a foreign country for twelve years. He was a man of hope and optimism. While returning home he taught some people about the mysteries of life. Gibran conveys to all about the important message of life and all humanity which is meaningful in today's world.
He says nothing can be revealed to us that isn't already in us. We need to bring them alive .The teacher who always walks with his followers can try to share as much of his knowledge and understanding as he can but he cannot give his followers his own sense of understanding. The good teacher does not presume to give us his understanding, but he would lead us to the threshold of our own mind .The astronomer may speak about his understanding of space, but he cannot give us his understanding to us. The musician can sing the rhythm, but he cannot give us the voice which we hear. The person who knows about science can tell us about the weight and measure of the things he may direct us, but we cannot do as he does .We cannot force anyone to believe in our vision. All of us are different from one another. So our understanding about God is different from others.
According to Gibran Knowledge is not given, it is within us, we are helped to bring it up and make use of it.

This was a presentation by HEP I.
Tarcilla Kujur

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Teaching in a Tolstoy Farm

MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI: He was a prominent political and spiritual leader of India during the Indian Independence movement. He was the pioneer to satyagraha- resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience, firmly founded upon ahimsa- which led India to Independence and has inspired movement for civil rights and freedom across the world. Gandhi is commonly known around the world as Mahatma Gandhi. ‘Mahatma’ In Sanskrit means ‘great soul’ and he in India is popularly known as ‘bapu’. He is officially honored in India as “Father of our nation”. His Birthday on 2nd October is commemorated as Gandhi Jayanthi, a national holiday in India and worldwide as International day of non violence.
TOLSTOY FARM: This site is located in a south western corner of the Johannesburg municipal area approximately 35km from Johannesburg. It is located on the site of privately owned lorobrick brick factory. However, the company has recognized Tolstoy farm’s strategic and historic importance and has granted permission for its usage as a heritage site.
The Tolstoy farm was the 2nd of this experiment established by Gandhi. The 1st experiment was the phoenix settlement in natal, was inspired by him in 1904 by a single heading of John Ruskin’s s‘units this last’, a work that extolled the virtues of simple life of love, labor and dignity of human beings.
Gandhi’s settlement was called as Tolstoy farm at the suggestion of Kallenbach. The settlement consisted of men, women, and children for short, long and irregular intervals who are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Parsis people who spoke one or more from among Gujarathi, Hindi, Tamil and English.
He regarded the ashram as the family and himself as the ‘Father’. He decided to live amongst them all 24 hours a day as their father. The children in the ashram were expected to undertake for 3 hours in the morning duties which involved gardening, farming, sandal making and cloth sewing. Such work was counter balanced with a programme of lessons in geography, history, arithmetic, writing, and bhajans.
In the Tolstoy farm, the acquisition of knowledge by the students was not through the text books, but through the character building, literary training, building up of the body and vocational training.
Since Gandhi was a great supporter of manual labor, he advocated vocational training to the students. One such vocational training was shoe- making and for this purpose Mr. Kallenbach went to a Trappist monastery and returned having learnt it and Gandhiji learnt it from him and trained the students. Apart from shoe- making, Kallenbach had the experience of carpentry and therefore they had a small class in carpentry also. Almost all the youngsters in the farm had learnt cooking.
The only training that the Indian children received in South Africa was in the 3R’s i.e. reading writing and arithmetic. So, this form of training was new to these youngsters but they showed a great interest and learnt it cheerfully. The reason behind this was an interesting policy followed in the farm i.e. the youngsters were not asked to do anything what the teachers did not do. Therefore when they were asked to do any work, there was always a teacher working with them and so the students learnt with earnestness.
Literary training was much more difficult than these activities. There was no adequate teachers let alone trained teachers in Tolstoy farm and adequate resources were also not available. Since the mornings had to be devoted to work on the farm and domestic duties, the school hours had to be kept after the mid- day meals. Three periods were given to the literary training. Languages like Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and Gujarathi were taught to children along with elementary history, geography and arithmetic. Gandhiji was in charge of teaching languages even though he was not well versed in any of them, but, he did not conceal this fact from his students. This truthfulness earned Gandhiji a lot of respect from them.
Gandhiji did not believe in teaching from textbooks as he did not consider them necessary. According to him, the true text book for the pupil is his teacher. The instruction based in teachers experiment and convictions would carry more weight than the lifeless pages of the textbooks. Gandhiji could not arouse the student's interest books. Through experience, he realized that that the children pay more attention when they listen to teachers than when they read from the text books. Gandhiji as a teacher was exemplary and had love for the subjects i.e. languages of his own nation and had confidence in himself and acknowledged his limitations and tried his best to arouse students’ interest in self learning.

This was a presentation by HEP I
Apurva and Bindu

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

technology and aesthetics

Nottingham is a combination of technology and aesthetic architecture. A combination of really old buildings and hugh ended technology. The library here is huge. Four stories of books, books and books, all neatly organised and waiting for the students to be used.

Everything is online. One has to register online to be a student; one has to reguster online for accommodation; for courses; pretty much for everything. They have a website for each and every aspect of what they do; starting from their IT services to the maintenance of the IT services. It's interesting and also slightly annoying at times because there are so many things to keep track of.

Another thing about Nottingham is that everything has to be a separate department and separate websites and separate ways of communication. You cannot go to a library and ask them about where you can find a school or a department. There is a procedure for everything and there is a predetermined schedule for everything; that will happen on time whether your there or not.

It's a cold and warm sort of a system that requires you to be so mechanical that it is difficult to get accustomed to.

More tomorrow.


First Day at Nottingham University

The first day at Nottingham University was a combination of intimidating and interesting at the same time. I arrived with a baggage weight of around 40 kgs and I was really surprised that it was so easy to get that into my accommodation and settle in. A lot of new students from new countries are also here for the first time, and are as lost as I am, which makes it easier for me to speak to them, interact with them etc. 

It's a whole new world out here, where every single thing about my world has changed. Starting from the fact that my parents are not here, and that the campus is so beautiful, and that I need to start making a lot of different friends as soon as possible, its all very challenging and interesting. 

The campus is absolutely fabulous . Every bit if it is lovely, amazing. I'll put up pictures of the campus in a bit!

Will write soon


A very short introduction to literary criticism- Jonathan Culler

Dear all,
here is the link to download the book by Jonathan Culler, the one that Mr. Pinto suggested. Please feel free to download and share it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On Interviews

5th Sep, 2009


Interviewing is not an inborn skill. This skill can be trained. An interviewer’s relationship to the data of interview could be in two ways.

1. The interviewer has a slavish relationship to the data. The data is considered as gospel truth and unchangeable.

2. Data is ,manipulated’

In the second category Interviews can be considered under two categories

1. Modern: interview as a discourse. The data is considered as resource. This is a seamless narrative.

2. Post modern: here the data is taken as a topic and a position and the interviwer challenges sometimes the interviewee.

In post modern interviews the data is constructed by both the interviewee and the interviewer. In the post modern interviews the pauses and delays are deleted, even the location of the interview which forms an important role in identifying the power bargains between the interviewee and the interviewer. Postmodern interviews are also self reflective i.e. being aware of the manipulations that both groups make in the data.

The classification as modern and postmodern are more applicable to the reports of the interviews than to the process of interview itself.

Post modernism is a condition

Post-structuralism is a theory of reading.

The method of the post structuralist

The process of the post structuralist is a decentring the other. Derrida decentres for the purpose of decentring, not for creating another centre.

Absent centre:

Derrida says that there are some centres which give meaning for the rest. E.g. God. All the rest levels of gradation downward, man, animal, plant etc.. get a meaning on the basis of this centre. God here is known as the transcendental signified. This centre is outside the system of meanings. It is absent. This is the absent centre. Another example. Christ University. It gives a meaning to everything inside it. Now if you remove the students, it still is the university, the chancellor is moved still it is a university. Etc..... These are constructs. If they are constructed they can be deconstructed.

In the case of an interviewee and interviewed, the process of construction is a self reflective. Post modern interview is a self reflective act. Whereas in modern interviews the process of the interview is absent while it is reported. It does not speak about where the interview is held. In whose territory? The interviewees or interviewed. If neutral spaces are chosen as the locus of interview it will create its own meaning and spaces.

Interviews in English Studies

Interviews have not been taken seriously in English studies as a serious process for creative and research writings, although creative writers have been using such interviews for their resources.


The interviews can have different dimensions

Based on number of people

1. One to one interview

2. One to many (Focus Group Discussion. This group discusses on one topic)

3. Many to many? Is it possible simultaneously


1. Structured

2. Semi structured

3. Unstructured

Mode (Place)

1. interviewer’s place,

2. interviewees and

3. neutral

4. face to face

5. telephonic

6. email

7. chat

In the interviews we do an elimination test for the one to many interviews. In the elimination test you choose the inclined and the less inclined. Accordingly you eliminate or group the interviewees.

Unstructured: There is hardly any unstructured interview because you know how to begin and end. That is to say some sort of structure underlies the interviews. However, in unstructured interviews, the interviewer asks the subsequent questions based on the previous answer. These are very deep interviewees.

The interviewers are not always in control of the interviews, sometimes the interviewee is able to highjack the interviews to their perspectives.

(The content of this section is the class note of Jijo, on Pinto’s regular lectures to II MA English students in Christ University Bangalore on 5th and 8th September, 2009.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Post-structuralism (Part II)

Continuing the first discussion on post-structuralism in III FEP, Mr. Pinto emphasised on Derrida’s absent centre – an entity which defines and perhaps even assigns functions to all aspects around it, except itself. This centre is very powerful in its capacity to ensure the cohesiveness of the system it belongs to. Instances of institutions, God and nations help explain this.
To elaborate, we know who people belonging to a nation are, what its anthem, symbols, values etc. stand for, but even with such information which when closely examined will seem substantial, we cannot precisely explain what the essence of the nation in itself is. Also, a nation is not singularly defined by its people or certain achievements, because from history and contemporary goings-on we know that they constantly evolve. Similarly, across groups, societies and cultures, different points (God, patriarchy and so forth) are attributed or assume centrality. And in opposing this, post-structuralism finds its primary rationale – challenging/ denying the centre. Perhaps, it also questions if there is something as a centre; if for many of us this is difficult to comprehend, the underlying point is what kind of a worldview expects us to expect a unifying centre?
While the structuralists sought to unearth a quintessential structure, as in Levi Strauss’ analysis of Oedipus myth, post-structuralism reacts to it by deconstructing narratives to see where the myth assigns its centre and arranges events around this centre so as to give an illusion of having resolved the conflict. Structuralism, it can be said, causes a legitimising of the centre. Post-structuralism, on the other hand, frees one from the guilt of the centre.
As such, post-structuralism is a way of reading, wherein one critically analyses the text’s supposed centre and further, consciously recognises that often concepts have to be understood in their binary relationships. Only an idea of “evil” will aid our judgement of what is “good”.
Another facet of this school of thought is to examine how acts of naming sanction power and control over the object. For example, christening an area “SG Palya” gives a resident the claim of ownership and defines the boundary within which the residents’ association can exercise authority.
But how is post-structuralism relevant to literature? To rephrase an earlier statement, it liberates the reader from having to conform to the centre and its set derivatives. There is no compulsion to merely read a text from one point of view, say to examine the imagery as the romantics or the formalists did. Post-structuralism allows for plural readings and denies that any one reading is absolute.

(Compiled by Marlyn Thomas, with inputs from Preethi Ninan, Aditi Rajgopal, Deepti Rao, Suchita Isaac, Karishma Christopher and Gayatri Ganju)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Lectures on "PROXIMITY WITH THE OTHER - A Multidimensional Ethic of Responsibility in Levinas"

DHARMA ENDOWMENT LECTURES 2009-2010 Faculty of Philosophy Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram Ponti cal Athenaeum of Philosophy, eology, and Canon Law Bangalore

PROXIMITY WITH THE OTHER : A Multidimensional Ethic of Responsibility in Levinas
Prof. Dr. Roger Burggraeve, SDB Levinas Scholar and Professor of Moral eology Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium Date : September 17-18, 2009 Venue : DVK Auditorium, DVK Administrative Block

Based on the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, the Dharma Endowment
Lectures 2009-2010 examine the relationship among the self, the other, society, and politics. This leads to a multidimensional concept of responsibility. Responsibility is often seen as the extension of freedom and self-interest. Levinas sheds light on another view on responsibility, namely, responsibility that makes possible ethical proximity with the other. In turn, this interpersonal responsibility requires a broadening into social, economic, and political responsibility. This ethic of responsibility is illustrated by a remarkable text of Levinas on the “Social Meaning of Money” (translated by Anya Topolski). Indeed, the lectures would be interspersed with Prof. Burggraeve’s testimonies from his own personal encounters with Emmanuel Levinas.

Aristotle Vs Plato

Aristotle Vs Plato on Poetry and Mimesis
[Class Notes: 4th, 5th and 8th August, ‘09]
In The School of Athens (the 16th Century fresco by Raphael, in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican) Plato and Aristotle stand side by side. Plato points to the heavens, to the ideal world of the Forms. Aristotle is shown with his hand open toward the earth. It accurately portrays the difference between Plato and Aristotle. It's a difference that shows up in their approaches to the arts – one dealing with the cosmos and the other grounded in practicality.

Plato considers mimesis in ethical and political contexts; Aristotle uses mimesis as an aesthetic phenomenon. They both agree that poetry is mimetic but they have different ideas about poetry and mimesis.

Plato, in the Republic, uses the argument of mimesis to attack poets, asserting that poets and artists should have no place in the ideal state because their work is far removed from the truth as it is mere imitation or representation of ideas/reality. According to him, there is first the metaphysical world/reality, then the world of appearance/world of ‘becoming’ and lastly, the mimetic world.

Plato has a problem with this mimetic world. He wants to make a distinction between truth and falsity, right and wrong. To understand this mimetic world, one needs to know the reality and the path to reality is in philosophy and reason, not in poetry and emotion. [Note: It is, in fact, not Plato who begins with such a notion of criticism. He comes in the line of people who judge in terms of truth/falsity – called the Kritai.]

These as we can see, lead naturally to the questions of ‘ethics’, which in turn played an important role in Plato’s arguments regarding his ‘ideal state/community’. Interestingly, we can see ideas of the ‘ideal community’ echoed in several works later on, Utopia for instance. Both, Republic and Utopia are political treatises talking about reorganizing society that existed at that time.

For Plato, true literature is that which helps in recognizing the ideal world and also helps us in understanding that what we’re doing is just the manifestation of that world.

Republic is not a treatise on literature, as one might mistakenly think it is, rather, it is a political organization/sketch of what should comprise an ‘ideal state’. It is in this context of creating such a state that he talks of mimesis and banning poetry from the ‘ideal state.’

But Plato’s attitude to poetry is neither simple nor consistent: when he banishes poetry he does so in terms which suggest the renunciation of a sinful love in the interests of a higher good; equally, when he speaks of the poet as divinely inspired [Laws 719c], that image does not carry with it an unambiguous respect for the poet’s message. The ambivalence of Plato’s presentation of poets and poetry in his dialogues has generated an extraordinary variety and range of responses.

By ignoring the ironic resonances of Plato’s concept of poetic inspiration and by reinterpreting the famous ‘mirror’ motif of Republic Book X as a means of exploring the relationship between nature and art in a positive way, later writers, and particularly those inspired by Neoplatonism, were able to respond to Plato’s provocation by developing a defence of poetry which was constructed out of Plato’s own work. Thus, for example, Plotinus, the influential Neoplatonist philosopher of the third century AD, transformed Plato’s view by declaring that the artist bypasses the sensible world and looks to the Forms themselves, enabling him to create works of beauty which improve on the imperfections of nature. And the long tradition of the apologias for poetry from Aristotle’s Poetics to Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poetry (1595) to Shelly’s essay of the same name (1821) can all be seen as responses to the challenge that Plato issued when he banished poetry from his Republic.

For Plato poetry is not an object of study in itself; his concerns for poetry and art are ultimately subordinated to his larger philosophical aims, whether epistemological, ontological or ethical, hence his discussions of poetry are always embedded in some wider context. With Aristotle's Poetics, however, we arrive at the first work of theoretical criticism devoted specifically to poetry in the Western tradition.

Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, was no poet. His treatise is written in a spirit of scientific detachment, and he treats poetry no differently from any other field of inquiry – be it politics, logic or biology. Poetry for him is an independent art with its own internal logic and his emphasis is primarily on its formal aspects without reference to the social, political or religious dimensions which had so preoccupied Plato.

Aristotle makes a distinction between the political and the aesthetic world. The reality in the two is not the same. The reality called ‘history’ – that is, a recording of real facts or happenings – is not what literature (poetry) claims to record. The world of literature constitutes of an alternate (aesthetic) reality. Thus, Aristotle created this break or separation between philosophical and aesthetic works. For instance, he claims that art and philosophy deal with different kinds of truth; philosophy deals with concrete and absolute truth, whereas art deals with aesthetic and universal truth. The difference between mimetic poetry and history is stated as ‘one (history) writes about what has actually happened, while the other (poetry) deals with what might happen’. Art, unlike science, doesn’t abstract universal form but imitates the form of individual things and unites the separate parts presenting what is universal and particular. Therefore, the function of poetry is not to portray what has happened but to portray what may have happened in accord with the principle of probability and necessity. Since poetry deals with universal truth, history considers only particular facts; poetry is more philosophical and deserves more serious attention. In addition, aesthetic representation of reality is not technical, factual, philosophical, and historical.

Poetry, he asserts, are objects in their own right which can best be understood through the analysis of their structure and form; whereas Plato concentrated on textual existence and emphasized on performance.

The Poetics is in part a response to Plato’s strictures against poetry, and the Platonic background is crucial to our understanding of Aristotle's arguments. Whereas Plato views poetry as an inspired, and therefore irrational, activity, Aristotle treats it as the product of skill or art, which is based on rational or intelligible principles.

For Plato the poet has no real knowledge, as the imitations which he produces are far removed from the ultimate reality; for Aristotle each area of knowledge is imitation in the sense that as a human being we all learn through imitation; there is a close relationship between imitation and learning, both at the simplest level (human beings ‘differ from other animals in that we are the most imitative of creatures, and learn our earliest lessons by imitation’, Poetics 1448b), and at the much more sophisticated level where the ‘universal’ situations of poetry are said to be more philosophical than the particulars of historical narration (1451b). Since poetry presents us with ‘the kinds of things that might happen’ in human life, it gives us a generalized view of human nature from which we can learn more than we can from particular facts.

Plato regards poetry, and especially tragedy, as morally harmful in that it stimulates emotions which ought to be suppressed; according to Aristotle, the ability to engage our emotions is an essential feature of tragedy, and one that is positively beneficial in its effects.

Pleasure, which for Plato is the source of poetry’s greatest danger, is for Aristotle an intrinsic part of our response to poetry, since all human beings instinctively take delight in ‘imitations’ (chapter 4).

Aristotle takes over from Plato the idea that poetry, together with other arts such as painting, sculpture, music and dance, is a form of mimesis, but, unlike Plato, he nowhere explains what he means by this term. So the obvious worry is whether it should be translated as ‘imitation’ or ‘representation’, but Aristotle's usage includes both of these meanings. According to Aristotle, the instinct for imitation is a basic element in human nature: we have a natural propensity to engage in imitation, we learn from it, and we instinctively take pleasure in works of imitation. As he explains in chapter 4, we enjoy looking at representations, even if they are of things which we would find painful to see in real life, because we enjoy recognizing the similarities between the image and the thing which it represents. Perceiving likeness and working out resemblances is a positive pleasure for human beings because it satisfies our natural desire to learn. Hence the enjoyment of imitative arts like poetry and painting is rooted in human nature, and the pleasure they afford has cognitive value.

A final note for those who wonder about the relevance of Plato and Aristotle’s arguments on ethics, mimesis and poetry/art in today’s world: Note the criticism levelled by some today against violence and sex in the media. They argue that violence and sex in the media cause us to be a more violent, sexually obsessed culture. This affects not just the people who consume the violent images, but the entire community of which they are a part. There is then a whole other school of argument made today in defence of graphically sexual or violent art or even of pornography or of violence on television. It is defended to be a purging of negative emotions by a dose of (harmless) negative emotions, therapeutic in nature and part of a healthy life for an individual. Ring any bells?

[REFERENCES: Mr. Pinto’s class notes; Literary Theory and Criticism, Patricia Waugh; Classical Literary Criticism, Penguin Classics; The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch; Plato on Beauty, Wisdom and the Arts, Julia Annas; Internet resources]

Aristotle's POETICS

As Aristotle makes clear in his introduction, the poetics is intended as an investigation into the nature of poetry through the classification of its different kinds and the analysis of their function and purpose. Though it contains elements of prescriptive criticism and description, it is primarily a work of aesthetic theory, whose objective is to understand how poetry operates and the way in which it achieves its effects.

The notion of similarity or resemblance between art and its object is crucial to Aristotle’s conception of mimesis, and both poets and painters are specifically referred to as ‘image makers’ or ‘makers of likeness’ (1460b7-8, chapter 25), but that is not to say that mimesis involves the notions of mechanical copying. Rather, what the artist offers is a re-fashioning of nature or experience than a straightforward copy.

Aristotle’s idea of poetic imitation is not unlike the modern category of fiction; what the poet describes is, so to speak, a reality that he imagines. What is crucial, however, is that the poet’s imitation should be plausible – the events that are dramatized should be of the kind that could happen because they are, in the circumstances, either probable or necessary. Tragedy represents the probable rather than the actual, but in doing so it deepens our understanding of the world in which we live.

For Aristotle the poet is a ‘maker’ (the literal meaning of the Greek poietes from which the word ‘poet’ derives), but specifically a maker of imitations, and the work which he produces is poetry because it is an imitation in the verbal medium rather than because it uses metre. Mimesis is thus what distinguishes poetry from other kinds of discourse.

The Poetics promises a discussion of poetry in general but the text itself focuses predominantly on tragic drama. Epic is briefly discussed in chapters 23-5, and a second book on comedy is lost, so the Poetics is, in effect, a treatise on tragedy.

Tragedy, according to the definition in chapter 6, is ‘a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements used separately in the various parts of the play; represented by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.’

Based on this single reference of ‘catharsis’ in chapter 6 and briefly in Politics (despite a promised discussion by Aristotle in Politics there are no other references to be found) in the context of a consideration of the uses of music, we understand Aristotle’s version of Catharsis. Music, says Aristotle, has a variety of beneficial functions: it can be used, for example, for the education of the young, for relaxation and leisure, and for catharsis, which he explains in the following way:

“The emotions which violently affect some minds exist in all, but in different degrees, for example, pity and fear, and ‘enthusiasm’ too, for some people are subject to this disturbance. We can see the effect of sacred music on such people when they make use of melodies that arouse the mind to frenzy, and are restored to health and attain, as it were, healing and catharsis. The same effect will necessarily be experienced in the case of those prone to pity or fear, or any other emotion, in the proportion appropriate to each individual; all experience a catharsis and pleasurable relief.” (Politics 1342a4 – 15)

(In other words, catharsis is a kind of therapy that can be used in the treatment of neurotics?)

But what connection does this passage have with the Poetics and what does Aristotle mean by catharsis in the context of tragedy? This is probably a question to which we shall never know the answer to as he never did go on to detail what it meant to him.

What is clear, however, is that, unlike Plato, he attaches considerable value to the emotional appeal of tragedy, and the pleasure which we derive from it. That pleasure stems directly from pity and fear which tragedy arouses, for as he says in chapter 14, we should not demand every kind of pleasure from tragedy, but only that which is proper to it (that is, the tragic poet’s aim to produce by means of his representation ‘the tragic pleasure that is associated with pity and fear’.)

A large part of Aristotle’s discussion (chapters 7 – 14) is concerned with plot, ‘the ordered arrangement of the incidents’. It takes precedence over character because, as he explains in chapter 6, ‘tragedy is a representation, not of people, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness – and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action. Characters, indeed, make people what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse.’

Aristotle considers various types of plots and concludes that the best at arousing pity and fear is a plot that represents a man who is neither a paragon of virtue, nor utterly worthless, but somewhere in between these two extremes, who falls from prosperity into misfortune through some error (hamartia). By hamartia he doesn’t mean a fatal flaw in the hero’s character such as we see depicted in, for example, Shakespeare’s Othello, whose tragic fall is brought about by his own obsessive jealousy. Hamartia is, rather, a mistake or error which is committed in ignorance of what is being done. The classic case is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, a play which Aristotle takes as the model Greek tragedy. Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother in ignorance of the fact that they are his parents, not because he is morally flawed. Indeed, he does everything that is humanly possible to avoid the terrible fate predicated for him, and it is because his sufferings are so undeserved that we feel such pity for him. Yet his punishment is not accidental because it results from his own actions, actions that are well intentioned, but misguided.

Aristotle places suffering and the mutability of all things at the heart of his conception of tragedy, yet the Poetics is notoriously reticent about the religious explanations of human suffering which are integral to the genre. His neglect of the gods, together with his apparent lack of interest in the social and political implications of tragedy, have been severely criticized my modern scholars. But these omissions are symptomatic of Aristotle’s essentially formalist approach. The Poetics does not set out to provide a comprehensive account of tragedy; rather, it aims to discover for each kind of poetry the form that will best bring about its characteristic effects.

[REFERENCES: Mr. Pinto’s class notes; Classical Literary Criticism, Penguin Classics; The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch; Internet resources]