Aristotle takes a scientific approach to poetry, which bears as many disadvantages as advantages. He studies poetry as he would a natural phenomenon, observing and analyzing first, and only afterward making tentative hypotheses and recommendations. The scientific approach works best at identifying the objective, lawlike behavior that underlies the phenomena being observed. To this end, Aristotle draws some important general conclusions about the nature of poetry and how it achieves its effects. However, in assuming that there are objective laws underlying poetry, Aristotle fails to appreciate the ways in which art often progresses precisely by overturning the assumed laws of a previous generation. If every play were written in strict accordance with a given set of laws for a long enough time, a revolutionary playwright would be able to achieve powerful effects by consciously violating these laws. In point of fact, Euripides, the last of the three great tragic poets of Ancient Greece, wrote many plays that violated the logical and structured principles of Aristotle’s Poetics in a conscious effort to depict a world that he saw as neither logical nor structured. Aristotle himself gives mixed reviews to Euripides’ troubling plays, but they are still performed two and a half millennia after they were written.
Aristotle’s concept of mimesis helps him to explain what is distinctive about our experience of art. Poetry is mimetic, meaning that it invites us to imagine its subject matter as real while acknowledging that it is in fact fictional. When Aristotle contrasts poetry with philosophy, his point is not so much that poetry is mimetic because it portrays what is real while philosophy is nonmimetic because it portrays only ideas. Rather, the point is that the ideas discussed in philosophical texts are as real as any ideas ever are. When we see an actor playing Oedipus, this actor is clearly a substitute through which we can imagine what a real Oedipus might be like. When we read Aristotle’s ideas on art, we are in direct contact with the ideas, and there is nothing more real to imagine. Art presents reality at one level of remove, allowing us a certain detachment. We do not call the police when we see Hamlet kill Polonius because we know that we are not seeing a real event but only two actors imitating real-world possibilities. Because we are conscious of the mimesis involved in art, we are detached enough that we can reflect on what we are experiencing and so learn from it. Witnessing a murder in real life is emotionally scarring. Witnessing a murder on stage gives us a chance to reflect on the nature and causes of human violence so that we can lead a more reflective and sensitive life.
Aristotle identifies catharsis as the distinctive experience of art, though it is not clear whether he means that catharsis is the purpose of art or simply an effect. The Greek word katharsis originally means purging or purification and refers also to the induction of vomiting by a doctor to rid the body of impurities. Aristotle uses the term metaphorically to refer to the release of the emotions of pity and fear built up in a dramatic performance. Because dramatic performances end, whereas life goes on, we can let go of the tension that builds during a dramatic performance in a way that we often cannot let go of the tension that builds up over the course of our lives. Because we can let go of it, the emotional intensity of art deepens us, whereas emotional intensity in life often just hardens us. However, if this process of catharsis that allows us to experience powerful emotions and then let them go is the ultimate purpose of art, then art becomes the equivalent of therapy. If we define catharsis as the purpose of art, we have failed to define art in a way that explains why it is still necessary in an era of psychiatry. A more generous reading of Aristotle might interpret catharsis as a means to a less easily defined end, which involves a deeper capacity for feeling and compassion, a deeper awareness of what our humanity consists in.
Aristotle insists on the primacy of plot because the plot is ultimately what we can learn from in a piece of art. The word we translate as “plot” is the Greek word muthos, which is the root for myth. Muthos is a more general term than plot, as it can apply to any art form, including music or sculpture. The muthos of a piece of art is its general structure and organization, the form according to which the themes and ideas in the piece of art make themselves apparent. The plot of a story, as the term is used in the Poetics, is not the sequence of events so much as the logical relationships that exist between events. For Aristotle, the tighter the logical relationships between events, the better the plot. Oedipus Rex is a powerful tragedy precisely because we can see the logical inevitability with which the events in the story fall together. The logical relationships between events in a story help us to perceive logical relationships between the events in our own lives. In essence, tragedy shows us patterns in human experience that we can then use to make sense of our own experience.