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]