Aristotle and Exegesis

There was an article some of you might have read (some of you may even have commented upon it) in The Guardian the other week, about the fellow Barthes. It began, perhaps you’ll remember, like this:

Ecclesiastes famously warns us that “Of making many books there is no end” – the same, of course, applies to book commentaries. George Steiner has long denounced the “mandarin madness of secondary discourse” which increasingly interposes itself between readers and works of fiction. For better or worse, the internet – with its myriad book sites – has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, literature has always given rise to its exegesis, but now that no scrap of literary gossip goes untweeted, it may be time to reflect a little on the activity of literary criticism.

Classic essay-writing, I’m sure you’ll agree, with a few nice appeals to authority and a splendid reference to the zeitgeist: – but what is all this about Aristotle and textual exegesis?

I thought I’d get out my copy of Aristotle’s Poetics and see if I could find some exegesis in it. – But first, a definition of the term: – I take “exegesis” to mean (borrowing from Wikipedia) “a critical explanation or interpretation of a text”; which is what I understand the common usage of the term to be, and nothing else by it.

Well, so I read Aristotle’s Poetics from cover to cover and I couldn’t find a single instance of exegesis in it. – No, nor did I expect to. – Aristotle’s Poetics is a manual on how to go about writing a drama (mostly, at least, he concentrates on drama); it lists all the various techniques, the types of diction you should use, what plots you should employ. It does mention texts, but only as examples of how these techniques have been used by practitioners of the art.

If Aristotle’s Poetics is aimed at any sort of literary criticism, it is an answer to the following question: what is it that makes a good drama? – This, it appears to me, is in fact the basic literary question which mankind has asked, up to (who knows?) the end of the nineteenth century. – No, I know: – there’s some evidence the ancients too sometimes argued about the meaning of works (see the quote at the top of this page); on the other hand, they don’t seem to have taken such argument very seriously.

Indeed, if you wish to align Aristotle’s Poetics with any particular theoretical movement in literature, perhaps it should rather be somewhere between the formalists and the – structuralists.

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6 thoughts on “Aristotle and Exegesis

  1. Spot on, obooki. The Poetics probably falls into that select category of books more written about than read, and it’s often used as shorthand by any critic who wants to claim that his or her kind of work has a respectable lineage.

  2. No question: Aristotle’s name and authority are routinely taken in inanition and even ignorance. But there is some ‘critical explanation or interpretation of texts’ in the Poetics, in the course of Aristotle’s descriptive and comparative “manual” of poetry.

    For example, in Ch. 11, in order to give examples of peripeteia in tragic drama, Aristotle turns to Sophocles: “[At Oed. Tur. 911 – 1085,] the opposite state of things is brought about by the messenger, who, having come to gladden Oedipus and dispell his fears concerning his mother, reveals the secret of Oedipus’s birth.” Aristotle isn’t just telling us what happens; in order to indicate the operation of reversal, he’s interpreting the play, so as (partly) to show his students the play’s meaning. Aristotle doesn’t just present the device; he shows critically – as I see the process of criticism -, albeit briefly, how the play works — I’d say: in the sense of what it means, or some part of its meaning.

    In ch. 16, Aristotle presents and compares several genh (“species”) of [h]euresis (“discovery”) in what I’d call a “critical” way: “[…] next are discoveries made directly by the poet, which are inartistic for that reason; for example, Orestes’ discovery of himself in Iphigenia: whereas his sister reveals who she is by her letter, Orestes is made to say himself what the poet rather than the plot demands.” To me, this comparison isn’t just technical – it’s a genuinely critical insight (whether one agrees with it or not).

    And so on — Aristotle turns to tragic drama (and, pretty often, to Homer) not simply to display this technique or that aspect of poetry, but, in his characteristically subtle way, to engage himself and his students with the poem’s meanings.

    You’re right, of course: “Since Aristotle’s Poetics” doesn’t inspire (nor, in the rest of the article, which I liked, does it merit) much confidence in this context; it’s gratuitous. But the Poetics is epexegetical, in Aristotle’s seizing-examples-in-the-classroom way.

  3. Epyllion fail on my part: that word in Poetics, ch. 16, is NOT [h]euresis, ‘discovery’, but rather, and quite famously, ‘anagnwrisis, ‘recognition’.

  4. I’m sure no-one noticed.

    I guess the school-room examples are what struck me as being the closest to any sort of exegesis. On the other hand, I’m not sure that’s really what we (I) mean when we (I) use the term exegesis, so perhaps my (Wikipedia’s) definition is inadequate.

    On the basis of the examples put forward, I’m supposing pretty much any statement about a text could be considered exegetical, in that it implies / hints at an interpretation (even if that interpreting is what we might call the bleeding obvious); – in which case, if it can be applied to anything, the notion of using the term exegetical ceases to have any value.

  5. I’ve always taken it to mean ‘to expand on, to elaborate, to analyse with a view to clarifying’
    My Shorter Oxford’s first definition is:

    e17. [Gk exegesis, f. exegeisthai interpret, f. as ex-2 + hegeisthai to guide.]
    (An) exposition, esp. of Scripture; a gloss, an explanatory note or discourse.

  6. Well, if we accept Shorter Oxford’s (slightly) permissive explanatory note or discourse, Aristotle is epexigetical in the Poetics. Certainly, it doesn’t contain – nor pretend to! – sustained “exegesis”; it’s a digest, rather than what I (anyway) think of as a ‘treatise’.

    And your apt point – that the blogviator was clutching at easy high-brow credibility — you’re not going to quit reading Guardian blogicles (and threads . . .) altogether?

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