A New and Complete Translation

Essay 38

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 8 September 1767[38.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I am not the only one who finds Dacier’s interpretation unsatisfactory.[38.2] It was just as inadequate for the German translator[38.3] of Arisotle’s Poetics.[*] He lays out his reasons against it, and though they do not in fact actually controvert Dacier’s sidestepping, they strike him as sufficiently formidable that he prefers to abandon his author completely rather than hazard another attempt to salvage something that cannot be saved. He concludes: “I leave it to someone with deeper insight to resolve these difficulties. I cannot find a light to elucidate them, and it seems probable to me that our philosopher did not think through this chapter with his usual care.”[38.4]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I confess this does not seem very probable to me. An Aristotle is not readily guilty of such an obvious contradiction. Where I think I have found one in the work of such a man, I would prefer to mistrust my own reason, rather than his. I double my attention, I reread the passage ten times and will not believe that he has contradicted himself before I have comprehended, from the whole context of his system, how and why he was misled into this contradiction. If I find nothing that could have misled him into it or that made this contradiction somehow unavoidable, then I am convinced that the contradiction only appears to be so. For otherwise it certainly would have been noticed first by the author, who must have reviewed his material many times, and not by me, the unpracticed reader, who reads it for my own instruction. So I pause, follow the threads of his thoughts back a ways, ponder each word, and continually say to myself: Aristotle can be wrong, and was often wrong, but to claim something here, and then on the next page claim its complete opposite, that is something Aristotle cannot do. And in the end some explanation will be found.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 So without further ado, here is the explanation of which Herr Curtius despaired. I make no claim, however, to the honor of having deeper insight. I will content myself with claiming the honor of more modesty towards a philosopher like Aristotle.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Above everything else, Aristotle recommends a good composition of plot to the tragic poet, and this, above all, is the element that he tries to make easier through many subtle observations.[38.5] For it is the plot first and foremost that makes a poet a Poet: ten will make do with morals, attitudes, and expressions for every one who is irreproachable and excellent with plot. He defines plot as the imitation of an action, πράξεως; and an action as a linking of incidents, σύνθεσις πραγμάτων.[38.6] The action is the whole, the incidents are the parts of the whole, and just as the quality of any whole depends on the quality of each of its parts and of their connection to each other, so is the tragic action more or less perfect according to how well its constitutive incidents correspond, individually and collectively, to the purposes of the tragedy. Aristotle classes all of the incidents that could be part of tragic action under three main categories: reversal of fortune, περιπέτειας; recognition, ἀναγνωρισμοῦ; and suffering, πάθους.[38.7] The words themselves say enough about what he understands by the first two terms; under the third term he gathers together everything destructive and painful that could befall the characters: death, wounds, torture, and the like. The first two, reversal of fortune and recognition, are what differentiate the complex plot, μύθος πεπλεγμένος, from the simple, απλούς.[38.8] They are thus not an essential part of the plot. They only make the action more varied, and thereby more interesting and beautiful, but an action can have its full unity, completeness, and magnitude without them. Without the third, however, no tragic action is conceivable; every tragedy must have forms of suffering, πάθη, whether the plot itself is simple or complex, for they speak directly to the purpose of tragedy, the arousal of terror and compassion.[38.9] By contrast, not every reversal of fortune or recognition, but only certain forms of these, accomplish the same purpose and help elevate it to a higher degree; others are more of a disadvantage than an advantage. So now, seen from this perspective, when Aristotle looks at the various parts of tragic action that he has classed under these three categories and examines each one, investigating which is the best reversal of fortune, the best recognition, and the best treatment of suffering, then it becomes clear that with regard to the first, the best change in fortune is the one that is most capable of arousing and promoting terror and compassion, which occurs when the change is from better to worse. With regards to the last, that treatment of suffering is best (in the same sense) when the persons threatened by suffering do not know each other, but then recognize each other in the very moment their suffering is about to be realized, and as a result the suffering is avoided.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 And this is supposed to be contradictory? I do not understand what someone who finds the least contradiction here must be thinking. The philosopher speaks of different parts: why, then, should what he claims about one part necessarily apply to another? Is the potential perfection of the one necessarily the perfection of the other? Or is the perfection of one part also the perfection of the whole? If reversal of fortune and that which Aristotle understands by the word suffering are two different things, as in fact they are, why can they not be spoken of completely differently? Or is it impossible that a whole might have parts with opposing characteristics? Where does Aristotle say that the best tragedy is nothing but the representation of a change from happiness to unhappiness? Or where does he say that the best tragedy comes down to nothing but the recognition of someone on whom a gruesome, unnatural deed was to have been committed? He says neither the one nor the other of tragedy as a whole, but all of these about a particular part that stands closer or further from the end, and that could have more or less influence (or even none at all) on other parts. The reversal of fortune can transpire in the middle of the play, and even if it persists to the end, it still does not constitute the ending itself: an example is the reversal of fortune in Oedipus, which finds expression right at the end of the fourth act, but to which are added various additional sufferings (πάθη) with which the play actually ends. Likewise, the suffering can reach its point of fulfillment in the middle of the play, and in that same moment be thwarted by recognition, so that, as a result of this recognition, the play is anything but ended, as in Euripides’ second Iphigenia, where (also in the fourth act) Orestes is recognized by his sister just as she is about to sacrifice him.[38.10] And it can be shown in the example of Merope itself how perfectly those most tragic of reversals of fortune can be combined with the most tragic treatment of suffering in one and the same plot.[38.11] The story certainly has the latter, but what prevents it from also having the first: that is, if, in her eagerness to protect her son from Polyphontes after she has recognized him beneath her dagger, she precipitates either her own or her beloved son’s destruction? Why couldn’t this play just as well end with the downfall of the mother instead of the tyrant? Why shouldn’t the poet be free to drive our compassion to the maximum for such a tender mother, by allowing her to suffer through her own tenderness?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Or why shouldn’t he be allowed to take that son, whom he has snatched from the pious vengeance of his mother, and let him nonetheless be defeated by the tyrant’s treachery? In both cases, would not such a Merope in fact combine the two characteristics of the best tragedy that are found to be so contradictory in Aristotle?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I can readily see what could have brought about the misunderstanding. It is hard to imagine a reversal of fortune from better to worse without thinking of suffering, and it is hard to imagine a recognition that prevents suffering without any change in fortune. Nonetheless either can exist without the other, not to mention that both also do not necessarily have to affect the same person, and if they do affect the same person, they both need not occur at the same time, but rather one could follow the other, or one could be caused by the other. Without considering this, people have only thought about those instances and plots in which either both parts coalesce, or one part necessarily excludes the other. That such examples exist is without question. But is the critic then to blame for having drawn up his rules in the most general manner, without having concerned himself with the cases in which his general rules collide, so that one perfection must be sacrificed for another? Does such a collision put him in contradiction with himself? He says: If this part of the plot is to have its perfection, it must have this quality; that one must have another quality; and a third, yet another. But where did he say that all plots must necessarily have all these parts? It suffices for him that there are some plots that could have them all. If your plot does not number among these lucky ones, if it allows you either only the best reversal of fortune or the best treatment of suffering, then consider which of the two you will fare best with, and choose. That is all!

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [*] Herr Curtius, p. 214.

  • 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0
  • [38.1] Actually published 15 December 1767.
  • [38.2] Lessing continues his discussion, which extends from [36] to [50], of Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope and its relationship to Maffei’s original. For the plot of Mérope, see Robertson 86–7.
  • [38.3] Michael Conrad Curtius (1724–1802); his translation and commentary on Poetics was published in 1753.
  • [38.4] See Curtius 213–14.
  • [38.5] To support his argument, Lessing draws from multiple sections of Aristotle’s Poetics: for “composition of the plot,” see Part VI; for the distinction between “simple” and “complex” plots, see Part X; for the “three main categories” of tragic incidents see Part XI; for “reversal of fortune,” “recognition” and “suffering,” see Parts XI and XIV.
  • [38.6] πράξεως: praxis (act); σύνθεσις πραγμάτων: synthesis pragmaton (synthesis, or ordering, of events). See Part VI.
  • [38.7] περιπέτειας: peripeteia (reversal, change in fortune); ἀναγνωρισμοῦ: anagnorisis (recognition); πάθους: pathos (passion, suffering).
  • [38.8] μύθος πεπλεγμένος (mythos peplegménos); απλούς (aplous).
  • [38.9] πάθη: pathos (suffering).
  • [38.10] Iphigenia in Tauris. See [31.3].
  • [38.11] There is no ancient play with the title of Merope; Lessing may be referring to Euripides’ Cresphontes, or, as his later remarks here and in [39] suggest, to a hypothetical dramatic version of the myth.
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