Harrison Middleton University

Modernizing Aristotle’s Poetics

Modernizing Aristotle’s Poetics

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


September 29, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

In an effort to understand Aristotle’s use of the term “Discovery,” I will try to update some of his examples which are now obscure, difficult to track down, and sometimes missing entirely. Discovery is a vital plot element according to Aristotle, but without examples his ideas may be less impactful. Furthermore, discovery can apparently be used with more or less effectiveness, depending on the subtlety and skill of the author. So it seems even more important that the training of both readers and writers include at least a passing idea of what Aristotle might mean here. My hope is that these modern day works will exemplify “discovery” and therefore may increase the accessibility of this ancient work. I feel that understanding Aristotle, even if we disregard his opinion, can only help us to better understand the process of reading and writing.

The following list is from Chapter 16 of Aristotle’s Poetics as translated by Ingram Bywater. Today’s blog also continues a discussion from last week. You read the previous blog first at https://hmu.edu/translating-aristotles-poetics/

Aristotle remarks that Discovery comes in six different types. He separates them out as follows:

“The first to be noted (I) is the least artistic form of it, of which poets make most use through mere lack of invention, Discovery by signs or marks.”

Of course, the classic example is with Odysseus’s nurse who recognizes him by his scar. Harry Potter is also recognizable by his scar which the audience comes to realize will always link him with the Dark Lord’s soul. This might be the reason that the scar causes Harry pain whenever Voldemort is near. In fact, Harry’s scar links to a number of discoveries throughout the series.

I can also think of any number of Nancy Drew or Sherlock Holmes episodes that contains a revelation through mark or sign.

“Discoveries made directly by the poet; which are inartistic for that very reason.”

Aristotle deems these simplistic and obvious as in the case where Iphigenia reveals who she is in a letter. The mention of a letter reminds me of Jane Eyre. Mr. St. John receives a letter from a lawyer regarding Jane Eyre’s inheritance. He then realizes that Jane’s real last name is Eyre, which would make them kin.

“A third species is Discovery through memory, from a man’s consciousness being awakened by something seen.”

This tactic works in Battlestar Galactica. For example, Starbuck continually draws an image that she’s seen but can’t place. Its meaning slowly comes into focus for her. Another example happens near the series’ end, the hidden Cylons are awakened by a song, which might be considered “something seen.” 

“A fourth kind is Discovery through reasoning.”

For example, as the characters in A Good Place (first season) wander through what they have been told is “the good place,” it takes awhile for them to realize that they are actually really miserable in this “good place.” Sitting in front of a vat of clam chowder, they realize that something is amiss. It does not make sense to them that the good place would leave them all feeling worse about themselves. Using logic (and a few signs), they finally come to terms with the fact that they actually landed in the bad place. The entire series is actually a map of logistical nightmares and hilarious reasoning quicksand.

“There is, too, a composite Discovery arising from bad reasoning on the side of the other party.”

I guess, for me, the height of bad reasoning is demonstrated by Romeo who believes that Juliet is dead and therefore drinks a vial of poison. As he dies, Juliet wakes. Shakespeare could very possibly fit into every single one of these categories, however.

“The best of all Discoveries, however, is that arising from the incidents themselves, when the great surprise about through a probable incident, like that in the Oedipus of Sophocles; and also in Iphigenia.” 

In 1984 by George Orwell, the reader realizes that the owner of the junk store, Mr. Charrington, is actually a member of the Thought Police. This realization substantiates the dread that has grown within Winston for a long time, and yet it still comes as a great shock when Mr. Charrington reveals himself and captures Winston and Julia.

I wonder if we might also include a discovery about what is not revealed. For example, in Toni Morrison’s brilliant short story “Recitatif,” we grow up with two small girls who meet in a shelter because their parents struggled to care for them. As the girls grow up, they lose track of each other, but then do find each other at the end again. This story discusses racial lines and racial tensions. Both girls feel it. Everyone in the shelter notes it. But no single race is ever identified so that by the end of the story, the reader realizes, somewhat dramatically, that both of the main characters, regardless of race, could very believably belong to any race. Morrison foregrounds race only to demonstrate that it’s the wrong issue to focus on. The closest thing we get to an answer is when Morrison writes, “I tried to reassure myself about the race thing for a long time until it dawned on me that the truth was already there…”

And for a third example, I think of the monologue near the end of Waiting for Godot. After the ridiculous hours of waiting and waiting, Vladimir says, “Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?” This notion of perpetual waiting, of blindness or stillness, is beautifully demonstrated and discussed throughout the play.

There are endless examples and I hope that you continue to explore among your friends and/or students. Feel free to add further connections in the comments below. Also, you might complement Aristotle’s Poetics with Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark to better understand the ways we read through culture and personal bias.

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