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.