Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Oedipus at Colonus. By Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. 1788

July 2, 2020

This brings us to Aristotle’s Poetics, which Critchley gives an even closer reading than he gave to The Republic. And why not? It’s shorter, more succinct and more germane. He begins by unpacking that troublesome concept, “catharsis.” Is it life-changing or purgative or disruptive or like menstruation? Many philosophers claim Aristotle uses it to argue directly with Plato about the value of tragic poetry. Critchley thinks it’s just a description of what people feel when they watch a tragedy, then return home and go on with their lives unchanged. (Much the way people now read murder mysteries.) Which actually is a response to Plato. Tragedy is not disruptive and dangerous, but speaks to normal parts of human nature. Aristotle is an observant naturalist, unlike moralistic Plato.

Critchley works his way through the famous concepts: hamartia, unity, dramatic action, fear and pity, the value of poetry over history (history is “a bloody archive of particulars” that can be used for tragedy). Euripides is Critchley’s favorite but dismissed by Aristotle as “the most tragic”—not actual praise. (Aristophanes in The Frogs left Euripides in Hades because he had made tragedy “democratic.” He saved Aeschylus instead. Aristotle disliked democracy almost as much as Plato did.)

Aristotle’s rules about characters, especially women and slaves, set him at odds with Euripides. But Euripides is even stranger than I knew. The endings of his Orestes and Helen sound as bloody as Jacobean tragedies—with the weird plot twist in both that the real Helen wasn’t taken to Troy, but only a simulacrum of her. Critchley claims Euripides uses deus ex machina as a deliberate mockery of the concept of neat, clean endings admired by Aristotle and practiced by Sophocles. He gives many examples of Euripides parodying Aeschylus and Greek myths with bits of realism and put-down lines. He enjoyed screwing around with the genre.

But he wasn’t alone in his extremism. Elektra by Sophocles stars the biggest screamer in Greek tragedy, even louder than Cassandra. Perhaps Aeschylus and Sophocles both wrote wild, mixed genre plays that are now lost? Aristotle next weighs tragedy against epic and decides tragedy is better, chiefly because it’s more concentrated.

Aristotle is more generous to poetry than Plato was, but Critchley complicates this fact by arguing that he could be generous since philosopy had won. His calm, reasonable descriptions can be smug and condescending, Critchley claims. Well, maybe. But Poetics is never outright wrong or crazy the way Republic can be. And Aristotle’s inclusion of facts and examples is useful to the modern reader, even when he avoids examples that are exceptions to his rules. We may disagree with Aristotle’s answers, but he asks good questions.

July 3, 2020

Critchley moves on to a discussion of the missing second book of Poetics, which is about comedy. Ecco made this text the MacGuffin of his Name of the Rose, but it turns out the book isn’t entirely missing. A Byzantine manuscript, Tractatus Coislineanus, summarizes the missing book. A scholar has recreated it and Critchley finds the recreation convincing, although his summary doesn’t sound very interesting. Nevertheless, Critchley uses it to return to catharsis, arguing for a more moderate, less radical effect on the audience in the eyes of Aristotle, mildly homeopathic, like piling on blankets to cure a fever. Critchley prefers the confusion and disruption produced by Euripides, which he explores with a discussion of The Frogs. Aeschylus is chosen over Euripides in a contest for who should be brought back from Hades to save Athens from itself. Aristophanes finds Euripides too realistic, too “democratic.” Critchley speaks of Cloud Cuckooland in The Birds and the role of Aristophanes in The Symposium (he falls asleep during Socrates’ big speech about the similarities of tragedy and comedy).

Critchley closes with a reading of Oedipus, not a close reading, but a lyric reading that draws in the ideas he discussed earlier. There are interesting observations—acting and being acted upon meld against the background of ideology; the role of grief and funerals in political movements—but it’s surprisingly dry, almost glib, compared to what preceded it. Critchley clearly saw this, because he now gives the real ending. He once interviewed Isabelle Huppert at BAM after a production called Phaedra(s). He talked around the ideas at work in Euripides, Racine and others. She was polite and intelligent, but then she impatiently said, “What theater is about is aliveness, a certain experience of aliveness. That’s all that matters. The rest is just ideas. Good ideas, maybe. But just ideas.” This, with a few words from Anne Carson about tragedy as a furnace glimpsed in the dark, gives him the ending he needs, where great theater leaves us seemingly blinded but able to see further than before.

Here’s a timeline I drew up to help me remember where I am in these pages. (Placing famous works in time somehow makes them more real to me.)

480 BC Salamis

472 BC The Persians by Aeschylus

432 BC Declaration of Peloponnesian War

429 BC Oedipus the King by Sophocles

415 BC The Trojan Women by Euripides

413 BC Athenian defeat at Syracuse

405 BC The Frogs by Aristophanes

404 BC Athens defeated in second war

399 BC Trial and death of Socrates

380 BC The Republic

336 BC Alexander comes to the throne

335 BC The Poetics

323 BC Death of Alexander

Dates before Christ run backwards, so I often feel disoriented. But it’s startling to see that the golden age of Greece lasted 150 years, which seems both too short and too long. Then I remember that the most vital time of American history also ran 150 years, from 1800 to 1950. Maybe we are as doomed as Athens.

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