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Aristotle's Literary Aesthetics

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image of Phronesis

Against the consensus that Aristotle in the Poetics sets out to give tragedy a role in exercising or improving the mature citizen's moral sensibilities, I argue that his aim is rather to analyse what makes a work of literature successful in its own terms, and in particular how a tragic drama can achieve the effect of suspense. The proper pleasure of tragedy is produced by the plotting and eventual dispelling of the play's suspense. Aristotle claims that poetry 'says what is universal' not in order to suggest that poetry achieves anything of the effect of philosophy, but to explain how in creating his plots the poet takes into consideration what, in general, could be expected to happen. Chapter 4 of the Poetics is not a theory of mimesis but an analysis of the lowest common denominator of the pleasure we take in fictions. The inevitability or likelihood by which events in the tragic plot are to be connected has an aesthetic rather than a moral function. Doing away with the irrationality of chance and increasing the human intelligibility of the action is not its point; the point is to furnish the plot with the second half of the formula for successful suspense: that events in the plot should happen 'against expectation because of one another'. The first half of the formula is examined under the rubric of peripety or reversal. The formula as a whole describes the pivotal moment when the pieces of the plot suddenly fit with a configuration that only in retrospect can we see to have been falling into place all along. Pity and fear are the emotions on which Aristotle focusses because they are the emotions engaged by the tightening-towards-release of literary suspense. And the pleasure of catharsis is the pleasure of that release.


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