Oct. 11, 1999
Aristotle and Fish: The Significance of Shared Emotion
Mimesis is defined as imitation or mimicry. As humans we learn our earliest lessons by the process of imitation. This natural tendency toward imitation gives us an ability to appreciate, and find pleasure in, creativity. Aristotle wrote, in his Poetics, that it is this innate pleasure in imitation and creation that leads to the development of poetry. Reader-response critics, like Stanley Fish, focus on the reader’s interpretive process as central to the creation of meaning within the text. Both Fish and Aristotle include the audience as a part of the action that creates a meaningful, complete text. Reader-response criticism and Aristotelian mimesis share a focus on audience, methodology, and universality.
The emphasis on the reader’s interaction with the text in Stanley Fish’s "Interpreting the Variorum", echoes the emphasis that Aristotle places on action. For the reader-response critic, the meaning of the text must be experienced, rather than the words (or forms) analyzed. The structure is found in the audience’s experience and not in the words on the page. Aristotle also places emphasis on the whole text rather than on the individual words. Even though the Poetics is focused on tragedy, which we assume is a play to be acted out, Aristotle finds that "Tragedy also provides a vivid experience in reading (my emphasis) as well as in actual performance" (Aristotle 64). As the audience moves from one line to the next, or one part to the next, they are moved forward in a progression of ideas that lead to the resolution or the catharsis. Aristotle’s catharsis is the experience of emotion that is the result of a tragedy. In a similar way, Fish’s readers experience a variety of emotions as they progress from line to line. Rather than the final purging of the catharsis, the meaning is found in experiencing the ambiguous terms within the text. The reader makes sense of the line and begins to anticipate what will come next. Sometimes the assumption is supported, but often the reader will have mistaken the meaning. These mistakes in the meaning are an integral part of the experience of reading, and are intended (by the author) to provoke the reader into experiencing the meaning. The poet’s language also provokes Aristotle’s audience to experience emotions of pity and fear through reversal and recognition (mistakes). Both Aristotelian mimesis and reader-response criticism emphasize the interaction of the audience with the work. How the audience arrives at the desired resolution is a result of the methodology that is applied.
When reading a text, a particular strategy is employed to arrive at the meaning. Fish’s reader is assumed to share a common literary competence with other readers. The strategies used are learned by the readers and, therefore, changeable. Fish refers to these groups of informed readers as interpretive communities. The strategies, assumptions, and opinions that the group has in common govern Fish’s audience. This allows for a group consensus rather than many wildly divergent responses from within the group. Aristotle’s audience also shares a common knowledge about the events portrayed in the poem or tragedy. Aristotle states "that art would be superior that is directed at the more discriminating audience" (Aristotle 64). While the poet is not bound to recording facts like the historian, he is compelled to stay within the artistic boundaries of conventional subjects of tragedy. In emphasizing the overall action rather than the particular details like the historian, the poet is able to illustrate what could, or perhaps should, happen. The appeal to a universal understanding is an integral part of Aristotelian mimesis.
The emphasis on the universal over the particular is at the core of the poet’s art. Even when taking his subject from the historical or mythological record, the poet’s task is not to copy but to create. In the act of creating, the poet reshapes the action by choosing elements that make it more powerful. In addition to making the poem more powerful, the poet is also choosing the elements that make the poem more cohesive. As the reader or audience progresses from one event to the next, there must be a needed or probable connection between the action. The poet removes the extraneous parts that would detract from the message and leaves in the parts that support the unity of the entire work. The selected parts are added to creatively, by "embellished language" that is intended to emphasize the point of the tragedy. Although reader-response criticism allows that there is no single correct reading of a text, the values and meaning are relative to the concept of the interpretive community.
The elements of reader-response criticism and Aristotelian mimesis place the audience in a central position. The experience of the audience is what gives the language meaning. This point is emphasized in the closing chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics: "… the audience does not see the point unless they themselves (my emphasis) add something" (Aristotle 64). The readers are part of the creation of the significance of the meaning found in the work.
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Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 38-64.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle
River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999. 18-23.
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Experience and Meaning." Paper for English 490. Sept. 27,
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of Method." Paper for English 490. Sept. 6, 1999.
White, Dan. "Aristotle (384-322B.C.), Poetics: A Synopsis."
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