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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Writing Craft/Aristotle Part Two

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into cyberspace, here comes Martin bloviating on about Aristotle.  Dang Aristotle's like a loose tooth; once you discover it, you can't leave it alone.
Aristotle had one more thing to say about the requirements for a good tragedy that I think is worth noting.  Just one more thing, I swear, and then if I mention Aristotle again, you can come over to my house and slap me.
Aristotle also said that plays had to be of a certain magnitude.
What he meant by that was they had to cover a certain segment of human experience - not too much and not too little.  This is where the famous dramatic unities - time, place, and action - rear their ugly heads, although Aristotle himself never articulated them in that fashion.
Aristotle's idea is you can't successfully tell a story about Prometheus chained to a rock - Euripides did just that, but Aristotle's point is he maybe shouldn't have bothered - because the magnitude, the scope, is too short.  It's a single incident and doesn't make a story.  Nor can you tell the entire life of Agamemnon, there are just too many incidents, loose ends, and parts that don't fit.
Again, if Aristotle's right in this, and for me at least he is, he is telling us less about the nature of tragedy than about our own ability to receive and make meaning.  We can only find meaningful narrative within certain parameters
It reminds me of what Bertrand Russell said about grasping the Theory of Relativity.  He said that if we were much, much smaller - so small we could physically witness the movements of atoms - or much, much larger so that we could watch the swirl and spread of galaxies, Relativity would be intuitively obvious to us.  It's only being the size we are, stuck in the middle ground of scale where objects seem so obdurately solid, distance seems so fixed, and time has a metronomic consistency, that Relativity strikes us as counter-intuitive.
Thus it is with stories; I - and this is both humbling and chilling - cannot make meaning of an entire lifetime.  "The meaning of life is that it ends," says Kafka, which is about as much as any of us can deduce.  Oh, I can shape a life, or even several lifetimes, into a story, but life itself - the complexities, oddities, and the ultimate mysterious termination - is just too much for me to grasp.  The magnitude is just too great.  If I'm going to make sense of it, it's going to have to be served to me in smaller slices.
Maybe on the small end of magnitude, where again I cannot make meaning, there are others who can fare better.  This young generation, consarn 'em with their twitterweets and their interwebs and their cellpods and their i-dangles, have grown up watching a zillion channels at once; they watch a few seconds of one narrative - in which I include commercials - press a button, and watch a few seconds of something else.  Maybe this fractured story telling provides meaning to a mind trained to receive it that way, but not to me.  But I still say, no one, no one, can make meaning of a life entire, there's just too much stuff.  Our eyes are not large enough to see the big picture.

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