Poetics

Around 335 BC Aristotle wrote, Poetics (Περὶ ποιητικῆς) the earliest known work of the theory of drama. So comprehensive is it, that it is still used by literary theorists, writers, educators and directors of theatre of film. Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters [2002, Michael Tierno] is a modern application and case in point.

Interestingly, the whole work was lost to the Western world for a long time until the Middle Ages when part of the original was discovered, through an Arabic translation of the scholar Averroes.

In the work, Aristotle defines “poetry”, a term which in Greek literally means “making” and includes treatises about drama, comedy, tragedy, satire, lyric and epic poetry.

He outlines various rules for the construction of drama, which still form the bedrock of story telling and narrative theory. These include [among others]:

  • Character [ethos] is the moral or ethical character in tragic play and supports the plot. Their personal motivations somehow connect parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear.
  • The tragic accident or crisis, is what happens to the hero because of a mistake he or she makes (hamartia). That is because the audience is more likely to be “moved” by a character driven accident than by a random occurrance. A hero may have made the mistake knowingly (in Medea) or unknowingly (Oedipus).
  • Discovery must occur within the plot and the poet should incorporate complication and dénouement or resolution within the story.  The poet must express thought through the characters’ words and actions, while paying close attention to diction and how a character’s spoken words express a specific idea.

 

tragic2tragic

  •  Catharsis, or tragic pleasure, is the experience of fear and pity produced in the spectator. According to Aristotle, tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to release the audience and purge away their excess.  Aristotle also talks about “pleasure” one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that are aroused through the play.
  • Aristotle defined levels of narration and audience knowledge of what is happening in the plot. His tripartite division of characters, means some are  in a superior position (βελτίονας) to the audience, and know more than the audience. Most narrators know the full story and so are superior to the audience. Other characters are in an inferior position to the audience (χείρονας) for example a character could be lost yet we audience members know that around the corner lies the murderer waiting for them. Finally, some characters are at the same level (τοιούτους) as the audience, and as they discover truths, so does the audience.

Interestingly, Aristotle points out that the origins of tragedy stem from the dithyramb or Dionysic rites and the origins of comedy, stem from phallic processions. These pagan rituals continued throughout the classic period until they were discontinued under Christian Emperors such as Constantine. Unfortunately, drama and theatre itself along with the works of classical authors such as Aristotle were consequently lost throughout the dark or medieval ages.

tragedy

However, Aristotle’s theory of Poetics, underpins the logic and structure of all epic narratives, including the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures.

To Aristotle, tragedy is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place. Within the order, the characters act knowingly and unknowingly act, facing crises often by their own mistake [harmartia].  Interestingly harmartia is the same Greek word used by biblical writers for sin . Artistotle’s tragic characters experience catharsis, or the purging of emotions, through the denouement or resolution of their wound [harmatia]. This occurs through satisfying of the logic of the universe within which it is set. This satisfaction creates pleasure within the audience through the purging of emotions.

 drama

Advertisements

Krisis

The Greek word crisis /krisis/ means human or divine judgement, a decision, a sentence.

As part of narrative, the “crisis” is usually the turning point of the story, at which the tension reaches maximum point, the hero or characters are put through intense trial, until the “catharsis” , the purification, cleansing or resolution is found.

krisis

The ancient world believed, something the eastern world still appreciates, that this world is built upon justice. 

Ancient beliefs such as Hinduism teach that our suffering is merited for past misdemeanors. Buddhism teaches that ego and attachment cause suffering and that is in fact, detachment which brings “catharsis” or cleansing and release.

In this way, story and narrative are built within an ancient understanding of the world and the consequences of justice, and injustice faced by the characters. For this reason, ancient stories, myths and legends, retold in comic books, science fiction and fantasy hold such power in our modern world. These stories provide a meta-narrative in a post-modern era which has done away with such notions.

vikings

The popularity of medieval and ancient world narratives such as Vikings, Game of Thrones, Rome and other such sagas, though decried as violent, misogynistic, immoral, and licentious, simply illuminate the taste for a world ruled by justice, though harsh, somehow real and biting. These ancient worlds are populated by blood thirsty gods, vengeful warriors, power hungry despots, fates and powers.

It is within these worlds, because of their violence and darkness, that the voyeur can feel the bite of justice as characters meet their end. These worlds are Shakespearean and biblical in the darkness they portray. The world is wicked without much redemption.

Rome

In our contemporary context, we speak of issues of “justice” such as issues of child slavery, human trafficking, the exploitation of women, racism and more. However, an ancient understanding of “justice” would indicate that suffering is the normal state of humanity by merit of our hubris and corruption.

To frame these issues as matter of “injustice” implies a high view of human value from which we have slipped, and justice would require the righting of wrongdoings.

But how is this possible in a world corrupted through and through?

Merely showing mercy does not deal with the “just” nature of the universe. We cannot “love” the universe into wholeness.

justice

This is where narrative helps. Epic narratives depict the “hero” as the one who experiences the crisis, the judgement, in place of the innocent victims. The hero achieves the “catharsis” or the cleansing, the expurgation and righting of wrong.

Those who would fight against “injustice” must understand their role, like the hero of narrative, is to undertake the trial in place of the innocent one, to suffer the death and judgement issued to them by a cosmos geared by “justice” and in doing so re-balance the world.

Philippians 2:5-8 explains the Christian truth:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

 

 

 

Who is the baddy?

We all know that story does not work without a crisis; the protagonist requires a challenge to overcome, the dragon to slay, the mountain to conquer, the darkness to subdue. Every hero requires a nemesis and every protagonist, an antagonist. This is the stuff of good stories – drama, tension, a fight.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as:

“a cruelly malicious person;….a scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.

Important evil agency in the plot.…………Interesting!

mary poppins

As a child watching Mary Poppins I remember the bad guys clearly – they worked  in the bank. Cold, miserly, money hungry, they would steal men’s time away from their children, away from joy, fun and family. In contrast, Mary sought to bring the children’s dreams alive and to mend relationships between parents and their offspring.

The sensitive viewer may grow to believe that banks and institutions are evil, that the arts and pursuits of family, simple hearty work [such as chimney sweeping] and creativity are true, good and right. But is this a fair representation of reality?

 

Well not really,  but it’s just a kids story, right?

In a cowboy or Western movie – the baddy is an Indian or Mexican. In a spy or war movie, the baddy is a German or Eastern European or Muslim. Are the baddies foreign nationals?  Are the baddies the capitalists [Mary Poppins]  or the government [Divergent/ Hunger Games]?  Are the baddies the drug dealers and criminals amongst us ? Who are the bad guys, really?

 

cowboysbond-villains-blofeld

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The very word villain comes from the Middle-English word for “base or low born rustic” or medieval latin “farmhand”. In medieval times, it accounted for one who did not behave in manner befitting a Knight – one of lowly, dishonourable behaviour.  In contemporary parlance, the word is cognate to the french word for “ugly.” The term “sinister” comes from the latin root for “left.”

So in narrative terms – cruetly and malice, wickedness and crime are related to social class, political persuasion and physical appearance? Maybe not in such simplistic terms but if we continue to digest simple stories and their simple morals, perhaps we produce a society of people with narrow minded stereotypical views of who out there needs to be punished for social ills.

How do we redress this?

maleficent

Of late, years Hollywood has played a lot with story conventions around stereotypical bad buys, and we have more tales telling the back stories of villains such as Wreck It Ralph, Despicable Me, Maleficent, Shrek, Monsters Inc and so forth. Children learn that the bad guy [or girl] has a story too.

However since classical days, the greatest of literary works are the most complex in their approach to the nature and origin of evil.

Greek and Roman plays and poems presented complex tales of conflicted heros with murky motivations. Shakespeares characters are deeply wrought characters full of  jealousy, hubris, power lust, and vengeance. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the Russian writers are famed for the manner in which they can cast characters both empathetic and corrupted at once. The genuis of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is that while evil lay without in the form of Voldemort, it existed in very real form within Hogwarts too, among the full blooded wizards, the Slytherin families and even within Harry himself and his desire for power.

harry and voldemort

Most tales of inner struggles are tragedies. Simple stories of good versus bad can end happily when good guy defeats bad guy, but what does one do when the good guy IS the bad guy? How does this story possibly end happily?

John Lennon’s song has become the anthem of peace marches since the ’60s

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

 

For us to realise that there is no baddy “out there” – not another nation, not another religion, not an ugly person or a different person – this requires a terrbile self knowing and self realisation that is absent from Lennon’s anthem – the baddy is within.

This sounds like religious dogma you might protest…. Religion has created all manner of  guilt complexes to make us out the be the culprit of all wrong doings.  Religion exists to torture us in the knowledge that we are “baaaaaad” deeply and irrevocably bad. However, it does seem that within this realisation comes the truest form of self- knowing.

religious guilt

No wonder our human psychology is complex – we construct stories in which  the fault belongs to others. These narratives save us from descending into madness. Acceptance of culpability would crush us. But lack of acceptance creates in us a delusion, a splintering from true self-knowing. So what is the answer?

I personally find the solution in Hebrew literature. Ancient and deeply perceptive, Hebrew narrative is nuanced enough to make the protagonist both empathetic [we can identify with them] but also the villain. When you pass by the normal foils – giants, lions, enemy kingdoms – you find the true problem. The human heart is the problem. While there is evil and conflict and tension from without – ultimately it’s the complex, betraying and deceitful human heart at the bottom of it all.

This narrative however, does not descend into despair. It does so by introducing a new note into the story – the note of grace.  When the crushing knowledge of human culpability is first raised, so is the notion of a sacrifice, a scape-goat. First, literally it was a goat or lamb, ceremonially slain at feast times and symbolically expunging evil. However, such symbols cannot redress the evil in the human heart, can they?

Abraham

And so transpires the greatest myth of all, the myth become history [as CS Lewis puts it], God become man, to die a death that only man can die, and redress an evil that only God can redress. This scape-goat moves from beyond symbol into something so groundshattering  that philsophers and theologians are still confused by the depth and weight of it all. This event in history, permits true self knowledge. Humanity can know self to be corrupt without despair, for the punishment has fallen upon the scape-goat, the innocent. This gracious act in turns becomes the wellspring of transformed action, as with a new lease of life, humanity can simultaneously know self and rejoice.

How would this transform politics, international relations, human relations – the fundamental understanding that the problem lies within?  And this knowledge does not result in despair, nor in delusion, but in glorious self knowing and true “peace on earth.”

 

Journalism as Narrative

One cannot spend long listening to mainstream media without realising that a “narrative” is being laid out. By narrative, I mean a conversation, a view point, a focus upon a certain perspective [character] with a certain struggle [crisis] and seeking a certain resolutions [catharsis].

This is well acknowledged by commentators. Factoids are thrown about such as “more people are killed by obesity than by shark attacks” or “more people die walking down the street than in plane crashes” or most significantly, “more people die daily from prevantable diseases and hunger than in terrorist attacks.” Yet the media has a narrative to tell and mostly this narrative is driven by what the audience, the readers, are interested in reading or viewing. Unashamedly appealing to the feelings and fears of the viewers, media will focus on the shark attacks, the plane crashes and the terrorist attacks. The viewer must supplement their world knowledge through self study.

This is a curiousity to note, especially because many of us state, “I’d rather read the news than fiction, I think the real world is interesting enough” or ” I want fact not fiction”. Journalists are bound to various codes of conduct not to perjure or malign people or companies unduly or not to insert opinion into their pieces, retaining an impartial reporterly perspective. However, the bias evident in what is reported and how it is reported is remarkable and one that the user generates.

Brandon Stanton, photographer of the wildly successful blog “Humans of New York” gave this brilliant TEDx talk in 2013. He highlights how the media selects their content and how this content does not reflect the greater reality of life. His blog seeks to counter that and tell a different narrative.

Fiction is simply another form of narrative. Let us read with discernment.