Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Interpret Literature: The literary legacy of ancient Greece

Scholars of literature suggest that one can find instances of literary criticism as far back as we can find poems such as epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and the lyric poetry of Alcaeu and Sappho in ancient Greece. Homer began his epics with an invocation to the muse, thereby acknowledging that they were written with the help of “divine inspiration”—an idea which will play a considerable role in subsequent history of poetics. Instances of literary criticism can also be identified in critical remarks of Greek dramatists and rhetoricians such as Simonides, Solon and Pindar (that poetry is instructive, that it comes natural to a genius, that it has to be learned by art, that it consists of clever use of words), or in the dramatic festivals of Athens (500 B.C.), which were organized as contests requiring an official judgment about the best drama.

The Athens of 500 B.C. is also the period of great dramatists Euripedes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the schools of rhetoric, and the rise of Athenian democracy and power. In one contest, Aeschylus’ drama is pronounced victorious as it “embodied a peculiar kind of intelligence required for the art of tragedy,” which is deliberately contrasted with the “idle talk” and “fine-drawn quibbles” of the philosopher Socrates. The quarrel between poetry and philosophy is as old as classical Greece, which also means that the considerations of truth and beauty, emotionality and practicality are issues of much contention in matters literary. Pascal was right: “The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not.”

Thought, motive and emotion, indeed are fused in complex (conscious and unconscious) ways in literary creation and criticism. The creative act itself, argues Habib, is a critical act, not only involving inspiration but some kind of self-assessment, reflection, judgment and social pragmatics. In composing his poetry, a poet would have made certain judgments about the themes and techniques to be used in his verse, and what reaction they might evoke in a particular audience.

The Greeks, however, were not entirely focused on the purely technical dimensions of a given text. They wanted to know why a text was written, for whom it was written, and what religious, moral or political purposes motivated it. They also considered historical and cultural circumstances implicit in the text, in addition to issues of its style, language, structure, and the deployment of rhetorical and literary techniques. Literature for them was an important element in the educational process and its ramifications extended over morality, religion, and the entire sphere of civic and political processes. Moreover, in the Greek democratic process, only the adult male citizens were eligible to participate in the decision-making process while women, resident aliens, and a vast number of slaves were permanently excluded. The "creatively conflicting" literary theories of Plato and Aristotle were shaped in the context of these specific epistemological, ethical, political and economic struggles in ancient Greece. The legacy of the two great philosophers still endures in one form or another, which made Samuel Taylor Coleridge say that "one is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian."

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Plato was a metaphysician and Aristotle was a scientist. But I am surprised at Plato's disdain for poets, Sophists and rhetoricians although he himself used poetic devices to convey his thought. Why would he choose allegoric devices to convey his theory of forms? Even a genius is not without his blindspots.

Anonymous said...

Plato was more concerned about the potentially harmful effects of poetry because he considered it an imitation of "truth" rather than an experssion of it. But be it poetry or prose, if people are misinformed and are not capable of thinking and reasoning correctly, they could easily be mislead by rhetorical techniques. Instead of banning poets from the Republic, Plato should have come up with an education which could detect fallacies whether deployed by philosophers, politicians, priests or poets.

Anonymous said...

Literary criticism is not always free from "personality cults" and "power politics." For a long time in Western civilization, it was a "blasphemy" to contradict Aristotle. Contemporary writer John Edgar Wideman said it well: “There’s often a confusion between the person I am and what I do in my work. If the work is serious it should stand on its own. It shouldn’t need the prop of personality behind it. Another side of this cult of personality is that it perpetuates our confusion about race. The author’s race or sex determines the kind of critical commentary that appears about his or her work. This stupidity is institutionalized in traditional literary studies.”

Nomi said...

An “unaffiliated reader” is a contradiction in terms. As long as there is an unconscious (personal, cultural, biological, geographical, historical, linguistic, textual, cognitive, ideological etc.) within us, our responses to readings will always be less than objective. But that does not mean that one should forever live at the mercy of unconscious interpretive whims and fancies. By making the unconscious conscious with knowledge and inner-work, one can indeed evolve one’s textual responses, and discover not only some truth about the text and the world but also about one's own true self.

Nomi said...

We are in the realm of reader-response criticism already with special reference to "developmental unconscious." Schweickart and Flynn in their book, “Reading Sites: Social Difference and Reader Response,” sum up the varieties of responses to readings by readers of different identities and levels of development: “A broad consensus has developed on three main tenets of reader-response criticism. First, the text is not a container of stable objective meaning, so interpretive disputes cannot be decided simply by reference to the objective properties of the text. Second, the reader is a producer of meaning; what one reads out of the text is always a function of the prior experiences; ideological commitments; interpretive strategies; and cognitive, moral, psychological and political interest that one brings to the reading. And third, readings are necessarily various. There is no single noncontroversial set of standards for adjudicating interpretive disputes.”

Anonymous said...

All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Anonymous said...

Plato was the otherworldly philosopher and Aristotle was the this worldly philosopher.
It is true that Aristotle spent much of his time in this-worldly analysis and thought, but
the God of Aristotle, unlike Plato's, is a purely Ascending God. Aristotle's God was the
summit and highest goal of all creation (omega), but was not the source or origin or
fountainhead of creation (alpha). In fact, Aristotle's God was not in creation at all,
except as the final cause of all beings, which means as the goal which they would
always strive toward and never reach. Things did not come from Aristotle's God, they
are only going toward it. In other words, Aristotle understood very well and very
accurately the Perfect One as the Good, but not at all the manifestation of that One as
Goodness or creative Plenitude.
The reverse process [that of creative Efflux, described by Plato and extended by
Plotinus] finds no place in the system of Aristotle. His God generates nothing. Except
for a few lapses into the common fashions of speech, Aristotle adheres consistently to
the notion of self-sufficiency as the essential attribute of Deity [causal]; and he sees
that it precludes any [relationship to finite beings that would be implied by its creating
them]. It is true that this Unmoved Perfection is for Aristotle the cause of all motion
and of all the activity of imperfect beings; but it is their final cause only. The bliss
which God unchangingly enjoys in his never-ending self-contemplation is the Good
after which all other things yearn and, in their various measures and manners, strive.
But the Unmoved Mover is no world-ground; his nature and existence do not explain
why the other things exist, why there are so many of them, why the modes and
degrees of their declension from the divine perfection are so various. He therefore
cannot provide a basis for the principle of Plenitude.
Aristotle, then, quite apart from his extraordinary contributions to "this-worldly"
understanding, was at root the West's archetypal Ascender. And thus the first great
fractured footnote to Plato. Plato, we have seen, championed both Ascent and Descent,
Summit and Source. These two currents—Plato's God both in the world and beyond it,
Aristotle's God only beyond it—would enter the currents of Western civilization with two
diametrically opposed agendas: befriend the world, begrudge the world.
A fractured Plato could be called on to support either view, Aristotle could be called on
only for the latter. The weight of opinion, then, was already precariously tipped in favor
of the Ascenders. If the whole Plato was not evoked, there was precious little left to
hold anybody on earth.