Aristotle's Styles: Poetics

By Melissa Flores-Bórquez


Reading through, as far as I can, Aristotle's Greek, his style is one of short sentences, little, closely-aligned movements. In English, he has tended to be translated into long, fluid lines, an elegant writer, a reflection of the medieval idea of a mind which speaks in logic. In the two books of lecture notes on Ethics, Aristotle speaks a kind of mosaic. In Poetics, he takes a zig-zag line.


The Poetics begins with comments on lyre and flute playing, and then Aristotle says: "There is further an art which imitates by metres, either one or a plurality of metres. These forms of imitation are still nameless today." (1447b) This diversity is to be named poetics. Its objects are human actions. To get here, Aristotle zig-zags through comedy towards epic and then tragedy. "Every tragedy is in part a complication and in part a release." (1455b)

Each section of the Poetics performs this zig-zag in miniature, such as part 16, on discoveries, where the forms of discovery swing upwards in power - starting with discoveries by signs, moving towards the greatest form of discovery, considered to be those which arise from structure, from style. "These last are the only discoveries independent of the artifice of signs and necklaces." (1455a)


In his Analytica Prioria, Aristotle writes that the paradigm, the thing beside, moves not from universal to particular, or vice versa, but from particular to particular. This is the zig-zag, a beautiful movement which Agamben picks up on: "Thus in the Rhetorics, 1357b, [Aristotle] writes that the two singularities in the paradigm are under the same genus. But then he has a very enigmatic statement immediately afterwards: 'But only one of them is more knowable than the other.' It’s a very interesting point. The important thing is not that the two are homogenous but precisely that one is more knowable." (Agamben, Lecture at the European Graduate School, August 2002)

So every word and use of grammar will entail this zig-zag movement of the more or less knowable fly. Agamben finishes with a quote from Wallace Stevens: "It is possible that to seem, it is to be. And the sun is something seeming, and it is. The sun is an example. What it seems, it is. And in such seeming all things are." (from "Descriptions Without Place")


A human is something seeming, and Aristotle, in part 8 (1451a) of Poetics emphasises the creation of multiplicities in poetry, "The unity of a plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject. An infinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many actions of one man which cannot be made to form one action." Aristotle's style in Poetics imitates how writing should be this multiple zig-zag blur of human agency, actions more or less good or bad.

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