Archives for 20 September 2012

Medium and genre

An essai on chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Poetics.

A third difference in these arts is the manner in which each kind of object is represented. Given both the same means and the same kind of object or imitation, one may either (1) speak at one moment in narrative and at another in assumed character, as Homer does; or (2) one may remain the same throughout, without any such change; or (3) the imitators may represent the whole story dramatically, as though they were actually doing the things described.

—Aristotle, Poetics

Here Aristotle arrives at the fundamental distinction of genre, in the older sense of the word. In the Greek system of classification (which he here describes), all poesis is divisible into three genres: drama, dithyramb, and epic. The dithyramb is pure narrative, without any direct dialogue; it is very rare in modern fiction, though it sometimes occurs in popular songs. As writers, we are likely to use this mode mostly for writing synopses or outlines; and then we will use prose narrative, rather than the dithyramb proper (which is a particular verse form, in one of those Greek metres I mentioned earlier, which will not go into English).
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Vice and virtue

An essai on chapter 2 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad — the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are.

—Aristotle, Poetics

The second chapter of the Poetics is one of the shortest in the book; but it is here that we come to a pons asinorum, an obstacle that many would-be critics never get across, and I am not entirely sure that Aristotle himself had crossed it when he wrote this particular book. But as writers we must get across, because the entire business of character and its depiction in poesis lies on the other side. [Read more…]