It’s a Tragedy

The Identity of Oedipus the King

by Alastair Cameron
New York University, 165 pp., $6.95

Reality and the Heroic Pattern

by David Grene
University of Chicago, 169 pp., $5.00

These books are all concerned with classic drama and its meaning for us, and therefore could be reviewed at great length if one tried to deal with the countless questions they raise. They all treat Sophocles, but except for that they have little in common.

Mr. Kaufmann’s title suggests an interest in philosophy as much as tragedy, but he tells us, “My central aim is to develop a sound and fruitful approach to tragedy, try it out, and thus illuminate Greek tragedy and some problems relating to the possibility and actuality of tragedy in our time.” His first two chapters are devoted respectively to Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy, his third is entitled “Toward a New Poetics,” and his fourth, “The Riddle of Oedipus,” which he describes as a crucial effort: “Not only is the play familiar, but so are a number of different interpretations. Let us match our own against them, and if we succeed in coming up with a different but convincing reading, we will have gone a long way toward establishing our own poetics.” This opening part of the book is the best place to consider his themes and methods.

He disposes of Plato’s few remarks with speed, and then bears down on Aristotle’s Poetics with resolution. He acknowledges, rather ruefully, the prime importance of the Poetics, but he doesn’t like Aristotle and, lacking much feeling for his philosophy, gives a singularly dry impression of the classic work. It was not written as a whole; it consists of notes, some of which may even be by someone else, and is therefore a most difficult text. The commentator has the choice between sticking literally to the frustrating text, or trying, in the light of Aristotle’s other works, to interpret it and then show how it may be used in the analysis of drama. Kaufmann selects, on the whole, the first approach, as a preliminary to offering his own “new” poetics.

His first criticism is of Aristotle’s notion of imitation, which appears at the beginning of the definition: “Tragedy (tragoidia), then, is the imitation of a good (spoudaias) action….” Kaufmann wants to reject “imitation” altogether, and substitute “make-believe” or “pretense” for it. He is particularly disturbed by the very Aristotelian notion that poetry, dance, and lyre or flute music imitate. His trouble is twofold: he doesn’t see the possibility of imitating in a limited medium like musical sounds and rhythms, and he completely fails to notice what Aristotle means by the “action” the dramatist imitates; he never discusses that crucial concept. In the Poetics “action” means something like “motive”: “mainly a psychic energy working outwards,” as Butcher put it. If one understands action that way it is easy to see that music or lyric poetry may imitate it; if one does not, most of the Poetics loses its force, its consistency, and its suggestiveness.

Having failed to understand action kaufmann naturally fails to bring out the fact (recently emphasized by Else) that the parts of tragedy mentioned…

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