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Ancient Wisdom

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES September 2005

Once upon a time, Aristotle made a remark about tragedy: “Estin oun tragôidia mimêsis praxeôs spoudaias kai teleias megethos echousês, hêdusmenôi logôi chôris hekastôi tôn eidôn en tois moriois, drôntôn kai ou di' apangelias, di' eleou kai phobou perainousa tên tôn toioutôn pathêmatôn katharsin.”

This is, of course, the famous line translated by Butcher in 1911 as “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play, in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”

These words have had an enormous amount of ink sprayed over them, creating a dark cloud of conflicting interpretation and conjecture that is almost like the cloud of ink a squid blows into the water so that it can run away. The passage runs away behind all that scholarly link, leaving only the misty confusions behind it.

Butcher’s translation is a very fair reading, and I don’t mean to quibble over it. What I do mean to do is to go back to the original and take another look in a very simple way, possibly even simple-minded, to see what this famous idea means to us today. Tragedy is a very old-fashioned idea now, but what if we ask not, “What is tragedy?” but rather, “What makes a serious play worthwhile?”

When Aristotle says mimêsis, he means what happens when actors get up on stage and tell a story. So what’s the story about? It’s about praxeôs, which is very simply what people do—the actions people take. Remember Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: “there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.” That’s praxeôs—“stuff people do.” What sort of stuff do people do? Stuff that is “spoudaias,” “worth paying attention to,” and “teleias,” “complete,” and “megethos echousês,” “that has size”—or we might say, more metaphorically, “weight.” Bottom line: something people do that matters, and that we can see all at once. Is not that what we do in a serious play today?

When Aristotle talks about embellished language, he uses an interesting metaphor: you can read hêdusmenôi as “well-seasoned,” as in food. The classic Hindu theater used the same idea; the theatrical experience for them was like sampling many tastes from many kinds of fine food. Aristotle wants to hear all kinds of language, but not all mashed together; he wants them to be separated, as the lyric song of the chorus was separated from the hexameter verse of the dialogue. He wants a rich, but well-orchestrated experience. Though we have banished some kinds of embellishment, such as singing, from straight plays today, do we not still sometimes give language something more than everyday quality?

And he’s very specific about the structural approach: through drôntôn, thank you very much, not through apangelias; through the doing of something important, not through reporting or narrating. The Greeks spoke of doing religious ritual using this word; “drôntôn ta hiera” means “to perform the sacrifices.” There are limits; some things were reported, not staged, but as anybody who has looked for audition material in the Greek plays knows, the messenger-speeches are terrific stuff, potent emotional action in and of themselves, not bland reportage a la CNN. We certainly do this, often to a fair-thee-well; there are some plays, such as Peter Handke’s The Ride Across Lake Constance, that are so purely action-in-front-of-us that we really wish we had a little more reportage to help us make sense of it all.

Last but hardly least, what’s the bottom line? What experience does this art offer? Well, through “eleou kai phobou”, i.e. “compassion and fear,” it will “katharsin”—cleanse, used sometimes as a medical term—“tên tôn toioutôn pathêmatôn”—“these same kinds of emotions.” The play not only evokes a powerful emotional response, be the character of that response as it may; it also transcends that response, carries you past mere pity, compassion, empathy, fear, horror or whatever to a state beyond that emotional level. When you have followed every event, every partial victory, every partial defeat, gone through hope and fear, frustration and reward, and finally it’s over, complete—there is a sense of passage, of relief, of “Ahhhhh,” or even, “Yes. Now I see it all.” That is the payoff of a tragedy; that is what Aristotle is talking about. We do this today—perhaps not often enough, but it does happen, and it is certainly one of the things we try to make happen.

Ancient wisdom sticks with us because it continues to work. Not mechanically, not prescriptively, but desideratively—a thought to guide us, a goal to shoot for. Clear away the clouds of ink and find the elusive idea. That’s how to deal with ancient wisdom.

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