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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 2
ARISTOTLE'S TRAGEDY: AN EXAMPLE OF COLLECTIVE AMNESIA
LYNN E. ROSE
Copyright (C) 1981 by Lynn E. Rose
The Poetics might seem an unlikely place to look for Aristotle's reactions to cosmic catastrophes. But we shall see, especially in Aristotle's conception of the ideal tragedy, that the Poetics is in many ways an even richer mine of information than are his strictly cosmological works. For Aristotle's cosmology is simply an elaborate denial or repression of the past catastrophes; his philosophy of tragedy, on the other hand, provides him with a way in which he can revisit those catastrophes, safely this time, and with himself in full control. (Both the denial or repression and the revisiting would be at the unconscious level.)
In the Poetics, Aristotle expresses a philosophy of art and a view of tragedy that are peculiarly his own. He prescribes a rigid set of criteria governing what a tragedy must be and how it must be constructed; these criteria require him to dismiss or to classify as inferior most of the work that had been done by the tragedians with whom he was familiar, and would also require us to exclude most of the tragedies written after the time of Aristotle.
Aristotle's definition of tragedy is as follows:
Aristotle's views about katharsis or purgation are not fully available. There is a passage in the Politics(2) in which he refers to purgation several times, but he admits that its nature has not been specified: "the word 'purgation' we use at present without explanation, but when hereafter we speak of poetry, we will treat the subject with more precision."(3) Our text of the Poetics contains no such discussion, and some think that the reference is to a section of the Poetics that is now lost. In any case, we have no full or precise treatment of the subject. Is it the emotion that is purged of real import, or is it the spectator who is purged of the emotion? It seems to be the latter sense that Aristotle usually has in mind, but it might also be argued that he intended for "purgation" to apply in both senses: we spectators are purged of the emotions of pity and fear, and the emotions of pity and fear that we feel are themselves purged of the import that they would have if we were viewing real events rather than artificially-staged imitations of such events.
Thus the emotions of the spectators in a theater might be "purged" of realistic import in that they know all along that it is only a play and that when the play is finished they will return to the real world. This would be a rather abstract and metaphorical use of the term "purgation". A more nearly medical use of the term (though emotional rather than physical) would be that the spectators themselves are purged of these emotions: we have them aroused in us by the play, we feel them, and we thereby purge ourselves of them and get them out of our systems. The play provides us with an innocent, make-believe way to purge ourselves and relieve ourselves of the emotional energy that is built up and pent up within us. Our emotional reservoirs are drained safely and painlessly – which could hardly be said for involvement with the same events in real life. After all, who would want to have dinner with Thyestes, or receive a wedding present from Medea? Tragedy permits us to "thrill with horror and melt to pity"(4) in a way that is satisfying, pleasant, and beneficial. Aesthetic experience of the right sort is therapeutic. (It should be remembered that Aristotle was the scion of an Asclepiad or medical family; his father had been physician to King Amyntas II of Macedonia.) The Politics even mentions the notions of healing and purgation together:
This producing of pity and fear is said to be what is "proper to"(6) tragedy and what is its "distinctive function".(7) Aristotle explains how this goal is best achieved:
Thus we must be able to identify with the tragic victims. They must be sufficiently "like ourselves"(10) for us to fear that what happens to them may happen to us. Insofar as we identify with the victims, even our pity is self-directed; it is self-pity. Thus the Rhetoric says that "generally, we feel pity whenever we are in the condition of remembering that similar misfortunes have happened to us or ours, or expecting them to happen in future".(11) This identification with the tragic victims, with its consequent pity and fear, is facilitated by having the victims be not all good and not all bad. If they were all good, they would not be "like ourselves", we would fail to identify with them, and their downfall would inspire shock rather than fear and pity. And if they were all bad, their downfall would be just and deserved (whereas Aristotle would want it to be "unmerited"(12)), and we would feel no pity for them; and since they would not be "like ourselves", neither would we fear that the same fate might befall us.
Aristotle seems to see tragedies as addressed to an upper-crust audience. For if the man "like ourselves" is "highly renowned and prosperous" and is one of those "illustrious men of such families" as provide the noble and royal characters of Greek mythology, is it not implicit that Aristotle and the others in the audience are of like status?
It also seems to be implied that Aristotle would like for tragedy to be an all-male affair. He wants the tragic character to be good, but neither so exceedingly good nor so minimally good as no longer to be "like ourselves". This means to him that the tragic figure should be male, and he takes this occasion to offer some of his typical comments about women; in particular, he seems to doubt whether a woman could have even the modicum of masculine virtue required in a tragedy:
In any case, Aristotle regards character as of less importance than plot:
The plot or story itself embodies what is essential in tragedy; the actual stage production is a mere "artistic ornament"(15) that is one of the "embellishments"(16) but is not really necessary:
Altogether, Aristotle recognizes six parts of tragedy, which he calls plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle. But it only is the plot or the arrangement of incidents that is crucial:
Aristotle calls special attention to three features of the plot. These are the peripety or reversal of the situation; the recognition; and the pathos or scene of suffering. The first two of these are specifically mentioned among Aristotle's reasons for regarding the plot as the most important element of tragedy:
These three plot devices are explained as follows:
It is often said that "character is fate". But the fate of a tragic victim, as Aristotle sees it, is a result of the sequence of events, and is not essentially a matter of character. He tells us that without action, incidents, and plot "there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character". Later theories of tragedy emphasize the "tragic flaw" of the victim. This tragic flaw is usually a matter of character, and is often a matter of immorality or vice: the tragic downfall is seen as a consequence of the guilt or mania or other personal trait of the main character. The plot is still important, of course, but it is difficult to see how any proponents of the "character is fate" or "tragic flaw" schools of interpretation could ever agree with Aristotle that the plot alone – that is, the action, the sequence of incidents and events – is what is essential to tragedy, and that there could be tragedy even if there were no character involved.
The single Greek word (at 1453a10, 16) that Butcher translates as "error or frailty" is [Greek text]. This word has a number of other meanings as well, such as "failure", "sin", "wrongdoing", and "missing the mark", which would seem at first to apply quite nicely to the tragic flaw in character. But there are still further meanings: "failing of one's purpose", and even, in a passive sense, "being deprived" and "loss". This passive sense may be what Aristotle is actually driving at. For he sees character as non-essential to tragedy, and he stresses the essential function of the plot and the sequence of events and actions. His tragic victims are not the architects of their own fates: their fates do not result from their offenses or wrongdoings, but are "unmerited" consequences of a tragic sequence of events beyond their control. Their downfalls come upon them "by surprise" and from outside themselves. Their only "offense" is their frailty, which I think is all that Aristotle means here by [Greek text]. Their frailty is what allows for their deprivation and for the loss of their lives, honors, positions, and/or loved ones, but their goodness or badness of character is not an essential factor in what happens to them. Aristotle does speak at some length about goodness and badness in victims of tragedy, but it must be stressed that he does not present the moral condition of the victims as a reason for their downfalls: all he says is that if the victims are either too bad or too good we feel no tragic fear or pity. In order for us in the audience to feel pity and fear we must see the downfalls as "unmerited" and we must see the victims as "like ourselves", that is, neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. These are the only considerations that lead Aristotle to mention the moral status of the tragic victims.
* * *
The central thesis of this article is that Aristotle unconsciously models the characteristics of his ideal of tragedy after the characteristics of interplanetary near-collisions. The victims of such cosmic catastrophes (like the tragic victims) are selected independently of any wrongdoing. Their downfalls are "unmerited" and come "by surprise". Their fates befall them from outside, and their characters have nothing to do with it. The main destruction even tends "to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit",(25) in Aristotle's words concerning the dramatic duration of a tragedy. (It is noteworthy that Aristotle relates this to the Sun: he could have simply said "a day or so" without mentioning a heavenly body at all.) Aristotle's conception of the ideal tragedy preserves these and – as we shall see – other features of a cosmic cataclysm. He leaves out of the picture such considerations as guilt and punishment.
Velikovsky has repeatedly pointed out a human tendency to react to misfortune as if it were divine punishment for sin.* The survivors of interplanetary near-collisions frequently concluded that the planetary deities must have been punishing the entire human race for past misdeeds, or else that those individuals who perished were being punished for their evil-doing and that those "chosen" to survive were being rewarded or at least spared on account of their virtue.
There is thus a strong association between the idea of misfortune and the idea of deserved punishment. It is significant that Aristotle does not make this association. In this way he is able to keep his ideal of tragedy far closer to the actual structure of a planetary cataclysm.
The tragedians themselves, both before and after Aristotle, have not been so firm on this point, and it is quite commonplace for a tragic downfall to result from some moral shortcoming or character flaw. Few writers of tragedy follow Aristotle's advice that the downfall should be "unmerited". This is not to say that the tragedians themselves are not drawing upon planetary or cosmic catastrophes for their subjects and for their plots. It is just that they are doing it in ways other than those ways recommended by Aristotle. Thus Shakespeare does not usually adhere to Aristotle's unsolicited advice to playwrights, but he does nevertheless use his plays as vehicles for plots, themes, and even characters that are based on interplanetary near-collisions and resulting global catastrophes; all these matters are admirably discussed by Irving Wolfe in his Shakespeare and Velikovsky: Collective Memory and the Springs of Art, parts of which have been pre-printed in KRONOS.(26) Wolfe argues, for example, that Antony and Cleopatra is primarily a revisiting of the near-collisions of Venus, Mars, and Earth some twenty-seven or twenty-eight centuries ago, rather than a mere retelling of the story of a Roman adventurer and an Egyptian queen who lived twenty centuries ago. Wolfe also argues that many of the themes, metaphors, characters, and so forth of A Midsummer Night's Dream pertain to the cosmic catastrophes described by Velikovsky. Thus Shakespeare and many other artists may need to be reevaluated in the light of Velikovsky's work. Even the Hamlet story, which is found with the same basic structure in various widespread parts of the world, is shown by Wolfe to spring from mankind's collective but unconscious memories of periods of interplanetary turmoil.
I do not suggest that those dramatists who tend to ignore Aristotle's prescriptions for tragedy are not using their art as vehicles for unconscious catastrophism. But I do suggest that Aristotle's prescriptions constitute a thorough-going and unparalleled effort to recreate in tragedy the characteristic features of interplanetary cataclysms. Aristotle went to greater extremes in this sort of thing than any other person who ever lived. No one else shares his unerring instinct for the location of the maximum extremity that was possible. (No wonder that he has been called "moderate to extremes".) So preoccupied by past catastrophes is he that even the characteristics and structure of tragedy must be those of interplanetary near-collisions.
There is still another parallel between Aristotle's tragedy and interplanetary cataclysm. It would seem trivial, at first glance, to point out that both in an interplanetary near-collision and in Aristotle's preferred sort of tragedy there is much that is fearful. But there is more to it than that. The Greeks had several words for fear. The sensation of fear was called [Greek text] or, sometimes, [Greek text] or [Greek text]. The expression or manifestation of fear was called [Greek text] (or, in the adjectival form, [Greek text]), which is panic flight from the feared object. This distinction is of at least Homeric vintage. The two basic kinds of fear were early personified as Phobos and Deimos, the monstrous offspring of Ares (Mars), and in the nineteenth century these very names were given to the newly-discovered (or rediscovered) satellites of the planet Mars.
The fear aroused by a tragedy would of course be primarily a sensation of fear (Deimos); there would be no overt manifestation of fear (Phobos), with the audience rushing out of the theater in panic flight. Thus it is peculiar that Aristotle should speak usually of Phobos (that is, [Greek text] or [Greek text]) and much less frequently of Deimos (for example, [Greek text] at 1453b14 or [Greek text] at 1453b30). Velikovsky has observed that sudden, panic flight and mass migrations both by human beings and by animals are among the usual consequences of an interplanetary near-collision and its accompanying destruction.*
Thus, even Aristotle's choice of words may be significant here. He has many words available to him. Why does he favor words that are more appropriate to cosmic catastrophes than to tragic theater? Perhaps here, as in so many other respects, his theory of tragedy is designed to reflect the characteristics of a cosmic catastrophe, one of which is that it leads to panic flight by the survivors.
* * *
"These then are the rules the poet should observe",(27) says Aristotle. One wonders if Aristotle has not left himself open to the same sort of charges that Glaucon made against certain critics and that Aristotle strongly endorses:
Aristotle himself points out how rich and varied Greek tragedy was, and how many were the discrepancies between what he wanted and what was actually being done in the theater. Most of it just did not fit the mold that he sought to impose. The Poetics is full of allusions to those in the century or two before Aristotle who did not write as he would have liked. Aristotle himself seems time after time to "find fault if a thing is inconsistent with [his] own fancy". (The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles seems to be Aristotle's favorite tragedy, one of the very few that he does not criticize.) Aristotle is very narrow in his prescriptions, and he rules out much of what had been done before his time, as well as much of what was to be done after his time. Antigone, for example, was probably too good to meet Aristotle's requirements. Clytemnestra, on the other hand, who is the real "protagonist" of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and who appears in other plays as well, was probably not good enough for Aristotle's purposes. (As we have seen, Aristotle would in any case have preferred males.) And it has often been noted that Aristotle's criteria would exclude such later tragedies as Shakespeare's Richard III or Macbeth,(29) in which the central characters are evil, or at least not particularly admirable. Aristotle's criteria would also exclude Willy Loman of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman as a suitable protagonist. Perhaps there are numerous people who are closer to Aristotle in their thinking about tragedy than they would be if he had never lived; but very few accept the entire Aristotelian account, because that would mean that too many excellent tragedies would have to be discarded as inferior.
Thus Aristotle's views about tragedy have not been without influence, but most of their influence has been on persons outside the theater. Not much of either ancient or modern drama seems to exemplify very well the distinctively Aristotelian principles of tragic composition. The Poetics has had its greatest influence on peripatetic philosophers, rather than on critics or dramatists. The critics and dramatists have attended to the varying song of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, rather than to the narrow inflexibility of Aristotle's Poetics.
* * *
In sum, then, the distinctive features of Aristotle's rules for tragedy are: the emphasis on pity and fear; the notion of purgation; the requirement that the tragic personage be "like ourselves", neither exceptionally virtuous nor exceptionally evil; the requirements that the misfortune come "by surprise", be "unmerited", and be "brought about not by vice or depravity but by some . . . frailty"; the preference that the reversal of the situation and the recognition should coincide (as they do in the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles; see the passages cited in footnotes 22 and 23); and the limitation that the entire action, including the pathos or scene of suffering, should not greatly exceed "a single revolution of the sun".
All of these distinctive features of Aristotle's theory of tragedy were attractive to him for reasons of which he was not conscious, that is, because they all pertain, in one way or another, to interplanetary near collisions. The victims of planetary catastrophes are, typically, "like ourselves", neither exceptionally virtuous nor exceptionally vicious. And for that matter they are neither all fit nor all unfit, for the fit suffer no less than the unfit in planetary catastrophes;(30) all are frail reeds. Furthermore, the fate of the victims is unrelated to any tragic flaw in their characters: their fate is "unmerited" and befalls them "by surprise".
For most people, the recognition of the near approach of a planetary deity and the peripetous collapse of their worlds coincided, and their tragic stories were finished within "a single revolution of the sun". Thus recognition and peripety come together in a cosmic cataclysm: except for an occasional figure like Isaiah (who was probably only guessing), people did not recognize that another planet was approaching until it was upon them. And we certainly can feel "pity" for the victims of catastrophes and feel "fear" that the same thing might befall us: their vulnerability and frailty is fearfully like our own. Perhaps our fear is a collective fear and our pity is a collective self-pity, in regard to what may happen to our entire species. After all, audience reaction in a theater is largely a collective experience: something would be lacking if one were the only person in the audience. (The Spectacle or production may thus be more important than Aristotle – who was called "the Reader" – recognized.) In any case, Aristotle's perfect or ideal tragedy does have the very features that are needed if it is to purge us of our catastrophic fears and concerns by letting us face a situation that is disguised and is artificially staged (so as to be purged of real import), but that still retains the distinctive features of the catastrophic downfall.
* * *
Aristotle acknowledges that the materials for tragedy are drawn from relatively restricted sources:
Nearly all of Greek drama was about "mythical" figures from such houses as these. Velikovsky argues that most of the world's myths and religions are of planetary and catastrophic origin. Stories of the adventures of various deities were inspired by the interactions of certain of the planets (Kronos and Zeus, Athena and Ares – now called Saturn and Jupiter, Venus and Mars), and stories of the adventures of various human characters may have been based upon real people (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua) who lived at the time of cosmic or interplanetary cataclysms. Most of the human figures in Greek mythology, if they really lived, would have lived no later than the seventh century, since their stories seemed to have achieved stable form by then. According to Velikovsky's revised chronology for ancient times,(33) nearly all of the heroines and heroes of Greek mythology who were real people would have lived in the late ninth century, the eighth century, or the very early seventh century – that is, the period during which Venus and Mars, and then Mars and Earth underwent a series of near-collisions. All of the families that had some connection with the Trojan War, for example, would have lived during this time of Deimos and Phobos. Aristotle seems to have had an unerring instinct for the era that would best suit his purposes.
The Oedipus story itself would have been given its Greek form during this same period, though Velikovsky has shown(34) that the story has its historical prototype in the life of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaton, whom Velikovsky places in the middle of the ninth century. It might be noted that while the Oedipus Tyrannus seems to be Aristotle's favorite play, the original story of Akhnaton (who lived just before "the century of perturbations"(35) did not feature any planetary catastrophe and did not exemplify the characteristically Aristotelian features of tragedy. One could argue, for example, that Akhnaton was not "like ourselves" and that his downfall was not "unmerited", did not come "by surprise", and would not cause the Aristotelian sort of pity and fear; one could even argue that, since Akhnaton knew very well who his parents were and knew very well what he was doing, there could not be the kind of tragic "recognition" or "change from ignorance to knowledge"(36) that Aristotle finds so well handled in the Oedipus Tyrannus.(37) Thus the Hellenization of the story of Akhnaton seems to have modified the story in those very respects that would give the story its appeal to someone like Aristotle. (Whoever was responsible for this retelling must have had tastes and motivations similar to those of Aristotle.)
We have seen that Aristotle is willing to draw the elements of tragedy (plots, characters, and so forth) from historical events. But he does distinguish, after a fashion, between history and poetry:
It is not clear from this whether Aristotle thought that characters like Atreus and Thyestes really lived. Probably he did, even though he would surely have rejected as non-historical the catastrophic elements in their stories, such as the reversal of east and west.(40) But what Aristotle would have the tragedians do is far more than a universalizing of historical events. If they were to "impress the tragic quality upon their plots" (1454a11-12) according to the Aristotelian rules, they would be giving their plays all of the distinctive structural features of an interplanetary near-collision, just as Aristotle, unconsciously and in amnesia, intended. Aristotle's kind of tragedy is more closely tied to actual historical events than he could allow himself to acknowledge.
Aristotle was born barely three centuries after the last of the interplanetary near-collisions proposed by Velikovsky, and the human species in general had still not completely succeeded in submerging its recollections of those catastrophes into the collective unconscious. Plato, in fact, had preserved and endorsed many of the accounts of such catastrophes, accounts that Aristotle and his admirers were soon to reclassify as "mythical" or "unscientific" or "non-historical". One function of myth in Plato was to communicate a truth that could not readily be communicated in any other way: "myth" was not a dirty word to Plato. Another function of myth was to preserve an account of past historical events: such an account was basically factual, not fictional. But in Aristotle, myth becomes merely a part of literature; it is fiction, not fact, and is no longer a part of history. Aristotle uses myth as a vehicle through which to ease the tensions that result from his denial of historical truth; the noble myths become mere receptacles for emotional katharsis. Aristotle was sitting on so much historical information that he wanted to deny, and so much unreleased emotional energy, that it is no wonder that he sought a way to "purge" himself of that energy. Nor is it any wonder that Aristotle, so concerned about catastrophes, should look to myths (which themselves originated in a catastrophic era and under catastrophic circumstances) as a channel through which to release that energy.
Since myth is a special sort of representation of interplanetary near-collisions and global catastrophes anyway, it is entirely expectable that the proposals of Aristotle – the leader of the catastrophe fighters – should seek to streamline the myths and reshape them where necessary so that they could better perform their intended function: to provide a representation of catastrophic downfalls that is disguised (though the structure and special features remain the same), and that will permit us therein to purge ourselves of our repressed memories of catastrophes and of our repressed emotions concerning those catastrophes.
Tragedy is indeed for Aristotle an "imitation",(41) but the object of that "imitation" is the interplanetary near-collision.
Aristotle's entire theory of tragedy, with its detailed and arbitrary provisions, is itself but a "panic flight" from the reality of planetary cataclysms, combined with a life-long effort to reexperience and to relive those same traumatic and cataclysmic events, but in safe and "purged" circumstances that – this time – are of his own making and design and that therefore – this time – remain firmly under his own control.
Ross is wrong in saying that Aristotle's writings on tragedy are "far removed from his main interests";(42) the truth is that Aristotle's treatment of tragedy exposes him precisely where he lives (or relives). None of his other books does this.
It is appropriate that Aristotle's "active intellect" is usually called nous poietikos.(43) For Aristotle's entire philosophical edifice is a poetic construct, aimed not at truth but at enchantment. The philosophy of Aristotle has been a tragically influential Idol of the Theater. Through Aristotle's own philosophy of tragic theater we can better understand the seeds of that idolatrous influence.
REFERENCES1. Poetics 1449b24-28. All quotations from the Poetics are from the Butcher-Nahm translation.
2. Politics 1341b32-1342a27.
3. Politics 1341b39-40, the Jowett translation.
4. Poetics 1453b5.
5. Politics 1342a8-15.
6. Poetics 1453b11.
7. Poetics 1452b33.
8. Poetics 1452a1-4.
9. Poetics 1452b30-1453a12.
10. Poetics 1453a5-6. See Rhetoric 1383a11 and 1386a25.
11. Rhetoric 1386a2-3, the Roberts translation. On fear, see Rhetoric 1382a19-1383a12, and on pity, see Rhetoric 1385b12-1386b8.
12. Poetics 1453a4-5. See Rhetoric 1385b14 and 1386b7.
13. Poetics 1454a17-24. See Politics 1342a16-27.
14. Poetics 1450a38-39.
15. Poetics 1449b25.
16. Poetics 1450b16.
17. Poetics 1453b3-7.
18. Poetics 1449b31-34.
19. Poetics 1450a4-10.
20. Poetics 1450a15-25.
21. Poetics 1450a33-35.
22. Poetics 1452a22-26.
23. Poetics 1452a29-33.
24. Poetics 1452b9-13.
25. Poetics 1449b13.
26. KRONOS, I:3, pages 31-45; I:4, pages 37-54; III:4, pages 3-18; IV: 1, pages 67-89; VI:1, pages 25-47; VI:3, pages 71-92.
27. Poetics 1454b15.
28. Poetics 1461b1-3. This passage was a personal favorite of Velikovsky's. He once said that he would like to use it as the motto for a section; but he did not ever do so.
29. Ross, Aristotle, page 279.
30. See Velikovsky, Earth in Upheaval, page 228: "Fit and unfit, and mostly fit...."
31. Poetics 1453a18-22. See also Poetics 1453a11-12, which was quoted above.
32. Poetics 1454a9-13.
33. See Velikovsky, Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History (1945), and the several volumes of the Ages in Chaos series. The Dark Age of Greece is shown not to have existed, and the events described by Homer are shown to have immediately preceded the Archaic period that began in the seventh century.
34. Velikovsky, Oedipus and Akhnaton (1960).
35. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, page 344.
36. Poetics 1452a29-31.
37. Poetics 1452a32-33.
38. Poetics 1451a38-b10.
39. Poetics 1451b15-19. Compare Rhetoric 1382b31-32.
40. But see Worlds in Collision, pages 109-110, 216-218, and 236-237.
41. Poetics 1449b24. The full definition, from Poetics 1449b24-28, was quoted on the opening page of this article.
42. Ross, Aristotle, page 276.
43. Aristotle himself happens never to use this exact phrase in the surviving corpus.