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Changes of Fortune

In response to:

Herakles: Punished Again! from the May 23, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

In his interesting review of a new production of Euripides’ Herakles [NYR, May 23] Daniel Mendelsohn places considerable emphasis on Aristotle’s supposed concept of a dramatic katastrophe. Unfortunately the term katastrophe appears nowhere at all in Aristotle’s Poetics (nor elsewhere in his writings). Shouldn’t a classically trained critic of Mendelsohn’s standing be more careful with “canonical” texts?

Stephen Halliwell
Professor of Greek
University of St. Andrews
St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

The answer to Stephen Halliwell’s rhetorical question is (of course) Yes! The professor, who is too modest to identify himself as our preeminent scholar of the Poetics, is right to make this clarification about the Greek term katastrophe, and I am grateful to him for doing so in such a generous way. As he and I know, the word that Aristotle uses at Poetics 1442a (the passage I refer to in introducing the crucial concept of peripeteia, which I trust I did accurately) to describe a character’s “change in fortune” is metabasis; I fear that, in my eagerness to make what I thought was an interesting etymological point about the derivation of the English word “catastrophe,” I gave the erroneous impression that katastrophe was the term Aristotle actually used. (The technical use of katastrophe as the “final turning-point” in a drama appears in much later Greek authors, for instance in Polybius’ Histories 3.48.8 and in Lucian’s Alexander, 60.)

That said, I very much hope that Professor Halliwell will agree that, whether katastrophai or metabases, such changes of fortune are the objects of Aristotle’s interest in the passage from the Poetics that I cited; that Aristotle finds them most interesting when accompanied by anagnorisis and peripeteia, as I described; and that they abound in Euripides’ Herakles, the text under discussion in my review.

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