Department of Humanities
Simon Fraser University
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Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6
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1. Introduction: Oedipus the Best?
One of the most widespread assumptions about a good Greek tragedy is that it must have an unhappy ending. Aristotle himself, in Poetics 13, seems to sanction this persistent misunderstanding with his remarks on Sophocles’ most famous work, the Oedipus Tyrannus. For this reason, commentators have long puzzled over Aristotle’s subsequent ranking of Oedipus Tyrannus as a kind of second-rate tragedy in Poetics 14. The puzzle over the apparent contradiction between Poetics 13 and 14 has not been resolved by philologists, but recent scholarship has nonetheless argued persuasively that Aristotle must be read as making a coherent argument across both chapters (see Belfiore 160-176 and Halliwell 202-237).
In this spirit, then, that is, in defense of the coherence of Aristotle’s argument about the best esthetic experience that tragedy can offer, I would argue that the Poetics needs to be read more carefully (and more anthropologically) in order to recognize that, in Poetics 13, Aristotle is discussing the content of tragedy, and, in Poetics 14, the form of tragedy. For such a reading, Eric Gans’s understanding of esthetic experience as an oscillation between form and content can help to clarify Aristotle’s argument, because Gans’s theory of esthetic history also helps to clarify, with the benefit of hindsight, the discussion of high culture and popular culture also embedded in the Poetics‘ treatment of tragic form and content.
As Matthew Schneider has observed, “Aristotle anticipates Gans” in many ways, because the key insights of the Poetics into the esthetic experience of tragedy in fact address key anthropological questions:
While the play’s peculiar construction of tragic irony is a unique case (and hence a special case that tests the esthetic rule about the best tragedy),(1) apart from its irony the play is a textbook example of clichéd form and content in tragedy: a hero learns the truth too late, and comes to an unhappy end. It is this clichéd form and content that makes it exemplary for Aristotle’s purposes in the Poetics. For Aristotle thinks, and says (1453a27-30), that Euripides, not Sophocles, is the gold standard in tragedy. To understand Aristotle on this point, we need to see that he is not contradicting himself between Poetics 13 and 14 on the matter of Oedipus. Generative anthropology can help us here to make a closer reading of Aristotle’s discussion of form and content, and of high and popular culture, with regard to the esthetic of tragedy. In particular, such a closer anthropological reading solves philology’s special difficulties with the received text of Poetics 13 and 14. But it also serves a more general and salutary purpose. It argues against the popular prejudice of many readers of Aristotle and Greek tragedy, a prejudice to which even writings on generative anthropology have hitherto not been immune: the notion that Aristotle gives preeminent esthetic rank to the Oedipus Tyrannus. On the contrary, Aristotle’s Poetics gives no warrant for us to see this play as the “perfect” tragedy (Schneider) or as the “greatest tragedy” of Sophocles (Gans 1993, 139). It is, rather, in Aristotle’s eyes, a compendium of exemplary tragic clichés.(2)
2. Unhappy Form, Unhappy Content: The Problem of Oedipus in Poetics 13 and 14
The plot of the Oedipus Tyrannus is well summarized as, formally, the unhappy belated discovery of a violent pathos (suffering), and, with regard to content, as the unhappy end of a morally serious man, King Oedipus:
In the historical chronology, of course, the play with the “happy ending” is dated two decades after the other two plays, the Oedipus at Colonus being written instead in Sophocles’ old age. But it is interesting to note, in this regard, that the Oedipus Tyrannus did not win first prize in competition. The posthumous production of the latest work Oedipus at Colonus, however, did win first prize. Yet in spite of its lesser acclaim Aristotle nevertheless still has much to say about the Oedipus Tyrannus in the Poetics.
In the Poetics, Aristotle refers to the Oedipus Tyrannus ten times (Kassel 68; cf. Halliwell 40 n.59): twice with Thyestes, in chapter 13, as possessing the best sort of subject matter for tragedy (1453a11, 20); twice in chapter 11, as an example of peripeteia (reversal of the action) and an anagnorisis (recognition of persons) coincident with the peripeteia (1452a24-33); again in chapter 16 as possessing (along with Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians) the best kind of anagnorisis that arises from the dramatic action itself (1455a18); twice in chapter 14, as a tragedy whose plot summary alone causes one to shudder (phrittein 1453b7), containing an anagnorisis of philia (i.e., of kinship: 1453b31); in chapter 15, as a plot that leaves the inexplicable (the alogon) outside the action of the plot (1454b8); meaning, as he says in chapter 24, that Oedipus’s lack of previous inquiry into how Laius died does not concern the action of the plot (1460a30); and in chapter 26 as being of the right (non-epic) length for effectively portraying the action (1462b2).
This frequency of mention (a veritable top ten list of Aristotelian literary criticism) has led readers to assume that the Oedipus Tyrannus is Aristotle’s gold standard for tragedy. Yet a major puzzle has long confronted interpreters of the Poetics: if the Oedipus Tyrannus is so unproblematically the gold standard, how are we to reconcile the account in chapter 13 (where the Oedipus myth is the stuff of the best tragedies), and the account elsewhere (that it has the best kind of thrill, a coincident anagnorisis and peripeteia, as part of a taut plot structure that excludes inexplicable external action from the course of its own internal development), with the account in chapter 14? For chapter 14 argues that the Oedipus Tyrannus is an example of the second-best plot structure. The best formal plot structure is exemplified for Aristotle in the Iphigenia among the Taurians, with its coincident anagnorisis and peripeteia preventatively before, and not tragically after, the fact of violent pathos (the violent pathos here which, while certainly being the play’s implicit subject, is never realized as its actual content):
Stephen Halliwell has rightly observed that the unhappy ending of the metabasis apparently recommended in Poetics 13 is “exceptional within the Poetics‘ discussion of tragedy”; for Aristotle, “the possibility of a change in either direction” clearly describes all the metabasis options available to tragedy (218). A careful reading of the text shows that Aristotle is noncommittal on any formula for the recommended metabasis in tragedy. For Halliwell, then, there is continuity between Aristotle’s discussion in Poetics13 and 14 (223), and “the anomaly between Poetics 13 and 14″ (226) with regard to the variations of plot-form is best interpreted in light of a unifying idea: the consistently serious content of tragedy (227-230, 235-237, esp. 228). While Halliwell thus suggests a reading in the direction of content to achieve a coherent account of Poetics 13 and 14, he does not fully work out, however, the esthetic interplay of form and content in tragedy.
Elizabeth Belfiore, in her book Tragic Pleasures, attempts to reconcile Poetics 13 with Poetics 14 by reaffirming the Oedipus Tyrannus as Aristotle’s gold standard for tragedy. In absolute terms, she suggests, Aristotle prefers a plot with an unhappy ending, where the coincident anagnorisis and peripeteia occurs after a pathos. The Iphigenia plot, with its happy ending, is ranked superior in Poetics 14 only because it “provides an easily followed formula” (Belfiore 176). The Oedipus plot is thus absolutely best “according to craft” (kata ten tekhnen 13. 1453a 22-23), whereas the Iphigenia plot is only relatively best; that is, relative to what poets have been able to generate in formulaic practice by chance (ouk apo tekhnes all’ apo tukhes 14. 1454a 9-11). Belfiore admits that her suggested interpretation is inconclusive and “a plausible suggestion only” because it rests on “this slight different in phrasing” regarding chance and craft (Belfiore 174).
Despite Belfiore’s efforts, the distinction between the content apparently recommended in Poetics 13 (an unhappy metabasis) and the plot form recommended in Poetics 14 (a happy anagnorisis coincident with a peripeteia generating an ending without pathos) reflects a tension inherent in tragedy that cannot simply be explained with reference to chance practice and carefully cultivated craft. The question remains why an “unhappy ending” ought to be associated with the best craft, and the “happy ending” associated with allegedly formulaic plots. In a word, if the crowds are relatively happy with the formulaic happy Hollywood endings, why is the art-house “unhappy ending” absolutely superior? Moreover, why did allegedly formulaic happy endings evolve only later, after the earlier, absolutely superior unhappy endings? The case in point: Oedipus Tyrannus is dated to between 436 and 426 BCE and Iphigenia among the Taurians is dated to c.414 BCE (Sommerstein 80-81; cf. Knox and Bates).
The problem still remains why Aristotle in Poetics 14 would rank later, allegedly formulaic developments in plot composition higher than the earlier, high culture “unhappy ending” type of tragedy. Surely an appeal to chance or formula would define not the superiority, but rather the inferiority, of “happy ending” tragedies, just as people imply today when they sneer at the haphazard and formulaic composition of Hollywood endings. The problem has traditionally been seen as concerning why Aristotle gives highest rank to the Hollywood ending in Poetics 14 but seems to imply everywhere else that Oedipus Tyrannus is, despite its second-best type of ending, the Oscar-caliber gold standard in all other respects. Positing that the craft of tragedy degenerated artistically as it advanced technically introduces unwarranted (Nietzschean) assumptions nowhere justified in Aristotle’s text. A more minimal hypothesis is required to explain the harmony between Aristotle’s remarks on the Oedipus and those on the Iphigenia.
As I have already suggested, the distinction that explains this apparent contradiction in the Poetics is not, pace Belfiore, the distinction between chance and craft, but rather the distinction between content and form. The evolution of tragedy’s subject matter no doubt followed what, by “chance” in a given year, best resonated with audiences. But the cultivation of such tragic content (a metabasis that proved successful with audiences) surely was a practice that was subsequently refined by the development of craft no less than the cultivation of the tragic plot forms (that used more complicated configurations of anagnorisis, peripeteia, and pathos). The tension between form and content is not reducible, then, to the opposition between chance and craft. The interplay between form and content, rather, opens up more possibilities for the artwork, possibilities greater in number than a simple binary opposition between happy and unhappy endings.
3. Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer: Aristotle on High Culture’s Form and Content
The fact that there is an apparent contradiction in the Poetics between the recommendation of happy and unhappy endings points only to the inadequacy of this binary standard for literary criticism, and not to the inadequacy of the Poetics. It is insufficient merely to define the difference between high culture and popular culture as the difference between unhappy endings and happy endings. Someone who classifies every movie with a happy Hollywood ending as crowd-pleasing (philanthropon) popular culture, and every movie with an unhappy art-house ending as serious (spoudaios) high culture, is being superficial. Clearly there can be products of high culture with happy endings and products of popular culture with unhappy endings. A more subtle classification, based on a more careful consideration of both the artwork’s form and content, is required. To Aristotle’s credit, the Poetics does contain such a careful classification and consideration. The tension reflected in the apparent contradiction between chapters 13 and 14 testifies to the depth of Aristotle’s analysis, a nascent critical theory that distinguishes between popular effect and more refined artistry, and that does so, moreover, with reference to form and content.
Evidence for reading Poetics 13 and 14 this way is indicated elsewhere in the work. The plot summary of the Iphigenia in Poetics 17, which distinguishes between form and content, has already been mentioned. But the distinction is prepared from the beginning, in Poetics 2, where Aristotle outlines the ultimate subjects, that is, the defining content, of tragedy’s mimesis: namely, the type of people it represents. Tragedy represents people as better than they are in real life, whereas the content of comedy is people represented as worse than they are:
The treatise’s unity is visible when it becomes clear how the distinction between form and content neatly solves longstanding difficulties with interpreting some notorious passages. In Poetics 18, four “kinds” [eide] of tragedy are identified in a passage that has long baffled interpreters with regard to how it is connected to the discussion in the rest of the Poetics (cf. Lucas 184-186):
The Phthiotides (“Women of Phthia”) and Peleus (the father of Achilles), on the other hand, are perhaps less clear for us as examples, for the plays do not survive. Based on what evidence we do have, however, it is sound to conjecture that they had “happy endings.” For example, the famous myth of Peleus, Achilles’ father, tells of how he wrestles the goddess Thetis who, in spite of her best efforts to change shape and escape, nevertheless is compelled to be his bride. A wedding is the classic example of a happy ending, and the wedding of Peleus and Thetis could have been the happy finale of a Peleus (cf. Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, 1036-1079). (The judgment of Paris at the ensuing wedding reception, however, and the Trojan War which followed upon it, would not be episodes proper to the unitary dramatic action of the wedding, if the wedding were taken as the content for a Peleus; cf. Aristotle at 1462b2-5 and 1459b1-7.) But if Aristotle is referring in Poetics 18 rather to the non-extant Peleus of Euripides, that play would treat the rescue of Peleus from persecutors by Philoctetes on his return from Troy (Post 15; cf. Euripides, Trojan Women 1126-8).
Similarly, the ending of the Phthiotides would also have been happy, since the play would concern the rescue of Hermione and Orestes from their persecutors and then their marriage. Aristotle could be referring to the non-extant Phthiotides of Sophocles, in which this is likely what happened. Or else when he says, “Phthiotides and Peleus” (hai Phthiotides kai ho Peleus), he is referring to them, not as names of plays, but simply as characters, as he has just done with Ajax and Ixion. That is, he is perhaps referring to both the character Peleus and the chorus of the Women of Phthia in an extant play of Euripides, namely, the Andromache (as Post 13-15 suggests), in which precisely this persecution and marriage of Hermione and Orestes does happen:
This reading of Aristotle’s classification of tragedy (in terms of form and content) is strengthened by the parallel passage in Poetics 24, where Homer’s epic poems are also described both in terms of general form (being either simple or complex) and their content (being either “pathetic” or “ethical”). The passage confirms, with reference to the Iliad and the Odyssey, my thesis about the “pathetic” and “ethical” in Poetics 18 as being descriptions of the metabasis content (“unhappy” or “happy”):
Better translations for “pathetic” and “ethical” in chapters 18 and 24, therefore, would be “poignant” (pathetike) for the unhappy metabasis, and “morally uplifting” or “inspirational” (ethike) for the happy metabasis. Generative anthropology, moreover, would probably be most comfortable with translations that point to generative contexts for the content of these two types of metabasis: “sacrificial” (for pathetike) and “sentimental” (for ethike). If we admit with Schneider that “Aristotle anticipates Gans,” then it is not hard to see that, in terms of ultimate content, tragedies can be either “chronicles of love” (ethike) or “chronicles of resentment” (pathetikon).(5)
Both Sophocles and Euripides achieve the high culture effect of Greek tragedy, but in Aristotle’s literary criticism their mimetic achievement can be distinguished with regard to how they employ form and content. Further, Aristotle’s remarks on Homer help us discern his views on the kinds of tragedy composed by Sophocles and Euripides. But before clarifying Aristotle’s stance on these more general questions, it is time now to confront the particular problem still before us: the fact that, in Poetics 14, Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians is ranked by Aristotle above Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. In the latter play, I maintain that Aristotle sees how Sophocles reworks clichéd tragic form and content to good effect, whereas in the former Euripides play we see innovation that is not simply effective tragedy but, in Aristotle’s view, the development of the composite of form and content that is most proper to the high culture of tragedy. To see this, we need to recognize the harmony in Aristotle’s presentation, as already evidenced in the discussions above (from Poetics 17, 2, 25, 18, and 24), where he has shown his sensitivity with regard to distinguishing form and content. We turn now to read this harmony in Poetics 13 as commending a certain exemplary content for tragedy, and in Poetics 14 as commending a certain exemplary formal structure. In the end, this will help us to see, not just how each poet is a master of the “complex” (peplegmene) plot form, but which poet is more “sacrificial” (pathetike) or “sentimental” (ethike) with regard to content.
4. Serious (Not Unhappy) Content: The Exemplary Metabasis of Poetics 13
First we turn to Poetics 13 to discern its recommended metabasis. We have a clear distinction between types of content in Poetics 13 with Aristotle’s distinction there between what he calls the “single” plot and the “double” plot. Aristotle describes the content of the “double” plot as what is popular with the audiences (philanthropon):(6)the good are rewarded, and the bad are punished. In contrast, Aristotle affirms the superiority of a “single” plot because it exemplifies what he considers to be the right kind of metabasis:
In Poetics 13, the type of content that is being commended is the singular focus of plot on one person’s fortune, and not so much the type of end that that person meets. The only prescription for the ending is that it should be a single (haplous) plot metabasis. Tragedy’s high culture is best achieved through a single metabasis, and not through the popular metabasis of a double (diplous) plot ending. On the one hand, as Aristotle remarks, the double ending in comedy would have the bad man (Aegisthus) coming to a good end (avoiding the death penalty at Orestes’ hands), and the good man (Orestes) coming to a bad end (failing to exact the necessary vengeance against his enemy, instead making Aegisthus his friend). On the other hand, the double ending in tragedy would be what we actually have in Aeschylus: Orestes kills Aegisthus in vengeance; hence the bad man comes to a bad end (The Libation Bearers 838-877), and the good man comes to a good end (Eumenides 752-777). Aristotle is silent on whether Aeschylus’s treatment of this plot outline is more haple than diple in its execution in the Oresteia, and thus he is silent on the rank of Aeschylus’s Oresteia as an achievement in tragedy. But in outline, nevertheless, the revenge tragedy, with its content of double metabasis, is a “formulaic sub-genre” (Gans 2000, 62) that risks descending into the crude satisfactions expected by popular culture, however much we must still affirm that the Oresteia and the Odyssey do not descend into such diple cliché (cf. Gans 1985, 227-268). In any case, it seems clear enough that in this passage Euripides is the “most tragic” poet, the one who has mastered the use of the content of single metabasis.(7)
The classification of the possible kinds of single metabasis that precedes this very passage in Poetics 13 also supports the thesis that, for Aristotle, a single plot metabasis with an unhappy ending is not the preferred content. For in that preceding section he says that an unhappy ending can be miaron, vulgar (1452b36). Instead, the single plot metabasis that is to be preferred is selected, not on the basis of the ending being happy or unhappy, but on the basis of the metabasis being generated by a hamartia (mistake):
The classification of the possible kinds of single metabasis in this preceding section can be summed up as:
c(3) the very bad [sphodra poneros] meets an unhappy end: philanthropon
c(4) the above-average [metaxu] meets an unhappy end: pitiable & fearful(8)
What is needed to read this list in context is to realize that the third item, c(3), listed here on its own as a kind of single metabasis, can also be taken as one half of a double metabasis; the other half would be: “good person meets a happy end.” From this point on, after the classification of possible types of single metabasis, Aristotle proceeds, as we have already seen, to discuss just this sort of popularly satisfying double metabasis. We may note that Aristotle does exclude the logical possibility of “good person meets a happy end” from this list of four here (cf. Else 367). The reason is that he does go on to identify this thread of plot as usually characteristic of one half of the popular double metabasis. As he does so, he limits himself in Poetics 13 to rejecting its incarnation as half of the thread in the popular double metabasis. He remains silent on whether “good person meets a happy end” is acceptable as single metabasis content in Poetics 13. Only in Poetics 14 does he go on to consider this single metabasis content, not spoken of in Poetics 13, and to articulate the sort of form that can shape it into the best sort of composite of tragic form and content.
In sum, it is only the type of person who is here in Poetics 13 being commended as content, and not so much a happy or unhappy ending. A double metabasis is identified as being (like certain types of single metabasis) often characteristic of inferior, vulgar (miaron), and popularly satisfying (philanthropon) culture, and hence more proper to comedy than to tragedy. Further, an unhappy ending is not sufficient for tragic high culture content; a morally serious person implicated in mistaken action certainly is. Thus the high culture criterion is content consisting of serious (and preferably mistaken) action, which is ultimately related to how the person is portrayed relative to how people are or ought to be. By chance, craft discovered workable serious content in the unhappy metabasis. But Aristotle’s point about Oedipus as exemplary content is not that his metabasis is unhappy, but that it is only unhappy because its serious hamartia content is opposed to the popular effect of the double-plot metabasis (1453a12-17). Moreover, concerning how the practice of the stage has demonstrated that Oedipus is exemplary content, Aristotle merely observes that, when in search of an effective metabasis, poets have discovered that by experience the unhappy single metabasis is an easy way to achieve this, because pathos is already embedded in the unhappy content. The happy single metabasis, however, is formally more challenging, and hence a later development, as Aristotle goes on to explain in Poetics 14, since it has to formally generate pity and fear in the absence of any realized pathos content.
5. Timely (Not Belated) Deferral in Form: The ExemplaryAnagnorisis of Poetics 14
So much for content in Poetics 13. Regarding form, we have a clear distinction in Poetics 14 between four possible plot forms and their configurations of pathos, anagnorisis, and peripeteia:
f(2) Complex plot, with pathos: pathos occurs in ignorance, and anagnorisis happens afterwards [usually without a coincident peripeteia]. Example: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus [in which, unusually but most effectively, a peripeteia is coincident with the anagnorisis].
f(3) Complex plot, without pathos: a coincident anagnorisis and peripeteia averts pathos. Example: Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians.(9)
The fact that a plot structure that takes the complex form having no pathos is ranked highest by Aristotle should not mislead us into thinking that an Iphigenia-style “happy ending” is the gold standard for high culture, in contradiction with the apparent indications elsewhere that Oedipus, unhappy metabasis and all, ought to be. The recommended plot in Poetics 14 is not simply a popularly satisfying “happy ending” but, more rigorously, a unitary plot that avoids an unhappy pathos by means of a coincidentanagnorisis and peripeteia having a thrilling effect.
In other words, a happy metabasis content is not as important as the formal discovery of hamartia. Formally, preventative discovery of hamartia is superior to tragically belated anagnorisis. Formally, Oedipus Tyrannus is only second-best. But this means only that high culture can treat pathos, peripeteia, and anagnorisis in various configurations as either present or absent in the plot structure. It does not require them to be configured so as to generate formulaically an unhappy metabasis (following a crude “high culture” formula: i.e., “avoid Hollywood endings”). Nor does it require them, pace Belfiore, to be configured so as to generate by chance (learning by chance what pleases the crowd) a formulaically happy metabasis (following an easy “popular culture” formula: i.e., “strive for big box office”). Formally, what is essentially prescribed by Aristotle in Poetics 14 is the superiority of a timely deferral of pathos to a belated recognition of the hamartia that generated a pathos.
In summary, then, Poetics 14 distinguishes between the various simple and complex plot forms, while Poetics 13 distinguishes between the single and the double metabasisof plot content. And Poetics 13 rejects, not the happy ending metabasis, but only the popular culture incarnation of it in the double metabasis. The failure to read Aristotle’s remarks about the unhappy ending metabasis in their context leads to the mistaken conclusion that Aristotle commends only the unhappy metabasis. On the contrary, Aristotle simply commends the single metabasis. Although longstanding theatrical practice has associated the single metabasis with the unhappy ending, this is only because a single metabasis that has a happy ending is harder to achieve than the single metabasis with an unhappy ending. Hence Aristotle proceeds in Poetics 14 to analyze in detail the evolution of form that has led to highest achievement of tragedy’s high culture. At the summit, he ranks the single metabasis content with a complex plot form that discovers and prevents violent pathos.
6. Drowning Resentful Form-of-the-Content: Complex Form and Single Content
Yet the question remains why Aristotle ranks the happy absence of pathos higher in terms of formal plot structure, when he has so emphatically treated the high seriousness of Oedipus Tyrannus as exemplary in terms of content. The answer to this question lies in the esthetic theory of Gans, who has developed his analysis of esthetic history in response to René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire (cf. Gans 1977), to explain more fully the relation of texts to material culture. Gans credits Girard alone among critics as seeing the “priority of cultural form over content” (Gans 2000, 55). By this Gans means that prior to both form and content in the artwork is the cultural form-of-the-content (forme du contenu): “literary works, like all cultural forms, can be traced back to events which form their original content” (Gans 1981, 807). There is an anthropological form-of-the-content that is prior to, and originarily generative of, both the artwork’s literary form and content. The anthropological form-of-the-content visible in literary works is found in individual triangles of desire or, more generally, in the resentment of the periphery toward the center. This is the human reality behind the artwork, the cultural reality that generated it. Resentment is our emotional state with regard to those ways in which we are powerless to change our station in life. In a particular situation, for example, we may be frustrated in a triangle of desire and resent the rival who models our desire for the object; the clichéd example here is the romantic triangle. In general, we inhabit the social periphery, and hold resentment towards those who inhabit the social limelight; some clichéd examples here would be resentment towards politicians or celebrities.
In this regard, improving upon Girard’s literary analysis of triangular mimetic desire, Gans’s generative anthropology has observed how “resentment is the basis of all esthetic form.” By using resentment, Gans is best able to distinguish between popular culture and high culture in esthetic phenomena. Popular art “satisfies the resentment that generates formal closure.” For Aristotle, such popular formal closure can happen both in the happy endings of the double plot or in the unhappy endings of the single plot. But “high art turns us against [resentment]”: this is the more austere experience generated by successful esthetic complications in high culture (Gans 2000, 62 n.9), as Aristotle intimates with his preference for the deferral of violent pathos.
Gans explains esthetic experience as an oscillation between the contemplation of form and content. It is this oscillation that “drowns” resentment, whether in the askesis of high culture that lingers on the form of the artwork, or in the appetitive satisfaction of popular culture that lingers much more over the consumption of its content (Gans 1993, 117-131). Resentment is deferred in high culture through sublimation, but deferred in popular culture by being discharged (Gans 1997, 132). In this way, “mimesis is a purgative cure for resentment, a catharsis” (Gans 1993, 135). High culture encourages us to dwell more on form, whereas popular culture encourages us to dwell more on content. Yet we can never have an artwork made up of either exclusively form or exclusively content. And thus, on the one hand, high culture can satisfy the full range of our esthetic appetite, by allowing us to oscillate to the “vice” of popular culture (a resentful enjoyment of pure content) and, on the other hand, popular culture can satisfy our esthetic appetite by allowing us to oscillate to the “virtue” of high culture (a sublime contemplation of form). But esthetic experience, of course, is concerned primarily with neither virtue nor vice; its amoral oscillation is what makes it, not moral, but esthetic. Esthetic experience is a purgative cure for resentment because it is not concerned with either moral discipline or indiscipline in the real world, but rather with an emotional catharsis generated of, by, and for the imaginary world of the artwork.
The content of an unhappy metabasis is consumptively enjoyed as we resentfully delight in the fearful downfall of a great man who had previously occupied the center inaccessible to us, dwellers on the periphery. But the literary revenge enacted to satisfy our resentment also oscillates from the content to the form. The unhappy discovery of unwitting hamartia arouses our pity as we esthetically contemplate the narrative form of the suffering: the formal structure highlights the belatedness that makes our literary revenge possible. Paradoxically, in the case of Oedipus, the pathos has already occurred, before the discovery, and so we can oscillate back to resentful enjoyment of the content. Esthetically, we have our pitiable tragic form and eat its fearful content too. We pity the sacrificial form our resentment takes while, at the same time, we witness the dramatic enactment of that resentment’s fearful power (cf. Gans 1993, 136-142).
In Sophocles, the esthetic experience is one of high culture as we can linger on the ironic form that depicts how people ought to be, that is, how they ought to bear themselves in undeserved suffering and thus merit our pity. Noble people (people “as they ought to be”) meeting an unhappy end would merely merit the pop-culture Schadenfreude provoked by the merely miaron (vulgar) metabasis: for example, as in the movies, when the wealthy businessman gets a punch in the face from the downtrodden employee; and if the businessman, moreover, is caricatured as totally evil, the violent pathos that occurs is philanthropon (popularly satisfying). Sophocles, however, innovates in developing tragedy’s form, refining the practice of complex form in the service of high culture. His audience’s resentment towards the “better people” (the very resentment that shapes the form-of-the-content of Sophocles’ people) is sublimated by their contemplation of his artistic refinements of complex form.
But in Euripides, who lingers more on people “as they are,” our emotional engagement with the human content deepens. Moreover, when hamartia is discovered and pathos is avoided, as in the Iphigenia among the Taurians, the formal structure is a higher order of culture than the Oedipus plot form, because there is no pathos and hence less impetus from the narrative form (which is merely the artifice that relates the story of the violent pathos) for us to oscillate back to resentful enjoyment of the content. The height of Sophocles’ formal achievement was the coincident anagnorisis and peripeteia of the Oedipus Tyrannus, which was purchased, however, by placing the pathos outside of the drama (1453b31-34); but in Euripides, the pathos is deferred, and not just by the poet, but by the play’s action: a signal advance in esthetics, for which Aristotle gives him due credit. The violent pathos in tragedy, as a formal closure with regard to human content that mimics the form-of-the-content of a longed-for, resentful real-world pathos, attains its highest possibility of deferral in Euripides. In a word, our resentment is sublimated more than indulged.(10)
Oedipus Tyrannus then is not so much the gold standard and exemplary paradigm of tragedy’s high culture as it is a handy compendium of its resentful clichés and stereotypes generative of both pity and fear: unhappy metabasis as content, and unhappy belated discovery as form. While useful for illustrative purposes, the Oedipus play’s composite of form and content is not as tragic as Euripides’ plots. For Aristotle’s distinction between form and content, implicit in the Poetics‘ analysis of the esthetic of tragedy, allows us to see how Euripides’ works of high culture are unlike Sophocles’ works of high culture. While, on the one hand, Euripides more effectively appeals to the sentimentality prized by popular culture, on the other hand, he deepens our emotional engagement with his plays’ human content (by having us identify with characters as being “like us” more than having us resent them as being “better than us”). Thus Euripides, not Sophocles, best sublimates the vengeful power of resentment visible in tragedy’s clichéd sacrificial form: “somebody has to die.”
Aristotle’s apparent endorsement of this clichéd single-plot “unhappy” tragic ending at Poetics 13 (1453a12-17) ought to be read more carefully for what the text in fact says there: that this kind of single-plot “unhappy ending” is preferable only to the inferior double-plot “happy ending” preferred by popular culture. This in no way means that the single-plot “unhappy ending” is the best possible high culture ending. Aristotle’s preference in Poetics 14 for the single-plot “happy ending” that defers violence confirms his attunement to the anthropological function of high culture. A timely recognition that formally defers violence is better than belated discovery of mistaken violence. For in this way, our catharsis formally sublimates our resentful identification with the drama’s content, a content that, anthropologically, is a mimesis of our resentful relationship with the form-of-the-content. That is, the people of the drama (as “better than” or “just as” people are) are shaped as content by a form-of-the-content: by the social resentments that originarily generated the drama’s subject matter and that continue to generate our fascination with its literary content. Formal deferral best sublimates our resentful relationship with the content: that is, with both imaginary content and the real form-of-the-content.
How ironic that literary criticism has been so scandalized by Aristotle’s apprehension in Poetics 14 of this anthropological truth. For it is no small irony that, in spite of Aristotle’s rigorous desacralization of the play’s form and content, Oedipus has become, not anthropology’s recognition of tragedy’s cultural form-of-the-content, but rather literature’s foremost tragic cliché. Indeed, the hardest reading to do is a close reading of what you are closest to: neither content nor form, but the form-of-the-content.
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* Portions of this essay were delivered as part of the presentation, “Aristotle on Textual and Material History: Mythical Structures of Reality,” a paper read at the 2003 Classical Association of the Canadian West conference on Texts and Material Culture: Possibilities and Problems at the University of Calgary on March 22, 2003. I would like to thank the conference participants for feedback and discussion of the paper. In particular, the comments of Prof. Laurel Bowman of the Department of Greek and Roman Studies, University of Victoria, inspired me to refine my argument. I would also like to thank the referees for Anthropoetics, whose feedback helped me to revise and expand this article.
1. I would argue that Aristotle in Poetics 14 (at 1453b31-34) is aware of the special case that the Oedipus Tyrannus presents, because of his distinction between Oedipus, on the one hand, and Alcmaeon and Telegonus, on the other hand. Hence I surmise that Aristotle would have shared my opinion about the Oedipus Tyrannus, namely, that it is such an interesting topic for conversation about tragedy because it is both so sui generis and so clichéd. (back)
2. The Oedipus Tyrannus, however, is admittedly a tour de force that turns stones to bread. Sophocles’ esthetic miracle is one of clichéd form and content reworked, to turn out unparalleled, and literarily exemplary, tragic irony. But our concern here is not this unique esthetic achievement of Sophocles (on this, see instead Gans 1985, 289-295; cf.Gans 1997, 72 and Gans 2000, 58-59). It is, rather, the persistent misunderstanding of Aristotle’s discussion of the play’s clichéd form and content in Poetics 13 and 14, which both professional scholars and Greekless Hollywood amateurs have preferred to read as an endorsement of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, and of its unhappy ending, as the Oscar-caliber “master plot” of Greek tragedy (cf. Hiltunen 5-20). Murnaghan, for example, defends this misunderstanding by tracing Aristotle’s “contradictions” back to those of tragedy itself: “The contradictions of the Poetics are conditioned by the nature of tragedy itself, which has the paradoxical mission of giving acceptable form to unacceptable actions, of presenting the unpresentable” (767). (back)
3. All translations from the Poetics are my own modified versions of Malcolm Heath’s modified version of S.H. Butcher’s translation. Heath’s adaptation is available on-line at <http://www.leeds.ac.uk/classics/resources/poetics/poettran.htm>. See Lucas, Kassel, or Else for recent editions of the Greek text. All my references to Aristotle, Homer, and the tragedians are keyed to the line numbers of the Greek text (and hence not reliant on any particular bibliography entry for page numbers). On the history of the happy plot of Iphigenia the Taurian priestess, see Burnett 73-75. For an excellent recent edition of the play, see Cropp. (back)
4. For a different view of the Iliad, arguing that it is complex due to a peripeteia and anagnorisis in response to the death of Patroclus, see Rutherford. I am not persuaded, however, since Achilles forswears neither anger nor glory at Iliad 18.98-126. (back)
5. Cf. the thematic discussion of love and resentment in the first few Internet Chronicles of Eric Gans at <http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw9596.htm>.(back)
6. This is my fresh interpretation of philanthropon in Aristotle, for which I credit the generative anthropology of Gans as my inspiration. At any rate, it is a word that has exercised many an interpreter. See Carey for recent discussion. (back)
7. Aeschylus, in contrast, may be seen to have mastered, not the content of single (haple) metabasis, but the form of simple (haplous) plot. See Garvie for details. (back)
8. Halliwell 217-220 complicates things rather too much, but relatively useful schemata of the discussion are found in Belfiore 161-162, Else 367, and Golden and Hardison 185. Examples from Belfiore corresponding to my schema are: c(1) Prometheus in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (pity and fear is generated, however, by Io’s analogous suffering); c(2) Medea in Euripides’ Medea (pity and fear is generated, however, by the suffering of Jason’s loved ones); c(3) the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey (pity and fear is generated, however, by longsuffering Penelope and by Odysseus in disguise as a beggar); and c(4) Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (whose story, even in plot outline, generates pity and fear; cf. Poetics 14. 1453b7). (back)
9. See the useful schemata at Belfiore 173, Else 418-419, Golden and Hardison 197, and Halliwell 224-225. (back)
10. An example of how sublimated resentment might be effected in a relatively crude dramatic scenario: The student of the story does not throw a pie in the face of the teacher; the student comes to a knowledge of the teacher’s burden in life and bakes a pie for the school bake sale instead. For a more nuanced discussion of the configuration of high and popular culture in the postmodern era, in which they no longer simply contrast, but rather commingle, see Gans 1998. (back)