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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, October 15, 2010


As observed in several of my Norhtrop Frye essays, Frye's schema of four *mythoi* was evolved with a heavy influence from the first pronouncements Aristotle makes in the POETICS on the nature of portraying characters in literature:

"Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are."-- translation, S.H. Butcher.

But in what ways should the artist seek to portray these "men in action," who would now be called "the heroes" of their stories? In Part XV Aristotle starts out by stressing moral rectitude:

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.

Of course, throughout the POETICS Aristotle deals largely with "Tragedy," referring the reader to other remarks about "Comedy" elsewhere, so here he doesn't have to deal with the average and less-than-average "men in action" that dominate comedy and satire. Still, he does have to deal with the notion of tragic heroes who have flaws:

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it.

To be sure, in the POETICS the character's moral excellence is seen as subordinate to the exigencies of the plot, which breaks down into two essential parts, usually translated as "Complication" and "Resolution." The sphere of the "complication" includes what Aristotle calls the *agon* or "conflict," but modern writers generally speak of a story's "conflict" in roughly the same terms as Aristotle's "complication."

Skipping ahead a few centuries, the British literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch attempted to set down patterns as to what variety of entities or forces a story's protagonist might contend against. Quiller-Couch listes seven basic types of conflict, but many (including myself) tend to pare them down to less. My chosen four are as follows:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Himself

Now the advantage of Quiller-Couch's formulation is that it opens one to speculate to a greater extent as to how literature works upon the audience than does Aristotle's rather prescriptive insistence on "moral purpose," much less his controversial theory of catharsis. In my SPHERE OF LONGINUS essay I quoted M.A.R. Habib on Longinus:

whereas Aristotle actually prescribed necessity and probability, universality and typicality; as the bases for poetry's engagement with the world, Longinus advocates precisely what deviates from such universality.

I also remarked on Longinus' significance to the litcrit tradition of understanding the symbolic nature of art, in that he sought to understand the way certain effects produced in audiences the condition of *ecstacy.* The effect of this insight for Romantic critics was to shift the emphasis of literary inquiry from the dominant notion of "moral purpose" to what I call "aesthetic purpose." To reference Frye once more, it takes the inquiry away from what Frye termed "significant values" of conscious theme and shifts it to the "narrative values," through which one apprehends the nature of narrative apart from moral purpose. (See this essay for details on the values.)

In a very different manner I believe Quiller-Couch also shifts attention from an "ought" to an "is" in his anatomy of conflict (which I confess I've only read from summarizations). On the face of it, Q-C's breakdown looks as if it might simply recapitulate Aristotle's interpretation of poetry as "moral purpose" gleaned from poetry's mimesis of "men in action."

But because Q-C's analysis virtually puts the antagonist on the same footing with the protagonist-- and because he gives us antagonists who in some cases are mere conceptual entities, like "nature" and "society"-- he paves the way for the notion that a hero, far from being uniformly a moral agent, may be more "aesthetic" than "moral," and may not even be a "man" as such. And this formulation can only be understood through the consideration of the *focal character* I mentioned at the conclusion of DUELING QUOTATIONS II-- which the next essay will examine.

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