I alluded in my last post to this passage from Aristotle’s Poetics (ch. VIII), writing “Aristotle discourages us from thinking that a life constitutes a whole,” but for some reason did not post it. I now correct this omission:
Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.
I could be reading in, but Aristotle seems to suggest here that tragedy has to imitate action because nothing would count as imitating an entire life; an entire life has too many “infinitely various” incidents to be reduced to a unity. This is not just an aesthetic statement, for it implies a certain understanding of human life, as if superhuman forces were working themselves out through human actions, but did not particularly care whose actions they were, since nothing substantial connects any one action a person performs with any other.
“On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” I am reminded here of a passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:
The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.
In Eliot’s view, often denoted “impersonality,” the poet is not a personality, but merely a medium for the recombination of emotions. in the peculiarly impersonal anthropology implied by the Poetics, all agents are merely media for the working out of human action.
I concluded my original comment by noting that “we often think differently than the Greeks about such things.” I might have said, more strongly, that Aristotle often thinks differently about such things. I find it difficult to square the above anthropology with the considerably more personal one implied, e.g., by this passage from the Nicomachean Ethics (I.7):
… human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.
The answer, I suppose, is that for Aristotle personality is real, but an achievement; an activity of the soul. The biography of a happy man could supply a tragedy with its unity, for the happy man performs one action all his life. But tragedies are, for various reasons, rarely about happiness.
The Star Wars prequels are bad. Everyone knows this. Will it change our minds to hear this argument that they are not?
The argument: most people assume the prequels are bad because they “have a tendency to come across as lesser, more commercially-minded rip-offs of the original trilogy.” But the similarities between the originals and the prequels are not a result of laziness, but are a part of the design: as George Lucas says in an interview, “I create themes…and I repeat those themes, in different chords and different arrangements.” For example, “Instead of destroying the Death Star [like Luke], [Anakin] destroys the ship that controls the robots. It’s like poetry. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.” When we recognize that the prequels are not rip-offs but rhymes, we can see them not as selling out, but as creating a larger and more complex work of art.
Does this convince us? Why or why not? It’s easy to say “I don’t buy it” (and I don’t), but more difficult to say why. Aesthetic arguments are funny this way. What sounds to one person like a knock-down argument will seem to another to be, not wrong, but irrelevant. We might respond: “So what that George Lucas intended the parallels between IV/V/VI and I/II/III? It doesn’t change the fact that the prequels are bad, and that the connections between them and the originals does more to sully the originals than it does to redeem the prequels.” It can be difficult to see where the argument can go from here. Still, it seems worth trying.
One option would be to ask why increasing the length and complexity of the story should be seen as desirable. The pro-prequel argument assumes that this is the case; without this assumption, the argument may convince us not to think that Lucas “sold out” (at least not consciously), but it cannot convince us that what he did actually made the Star Wars series better.
Surely increasing the length are complexity are not inherently good; if they are good, it is only under certain conditions. Aristotle agrees that the greater the magnitude, the greater the work, but he has this to say about to what extent (in Chapter VII of his Poetics):
As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock—as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.
Undoubtedly, six is greater than three. But that’s good only “Provided that the whole be perspicuous.” How can we judge whether the “whole” of the Star Wars saga, Episodes I through VI, is perspicuous? It certainly doesn’t accord with the Aristotelian unities, but then neither do most film series. What, then, can we use as criteria for the presence of a perspicuous whole? Well, the series does deal with the whole of Anakin Skywalker’s life, from his childhood to his death. Aristotle discourages us from thinking that a life constitutes a whole, but we often think differently than the Greeks about such things; biographies can have a certain unity, though they are not guaranteed to do so.
We wind up, then, with the question: is Anakin’s life a strong enough thread to bind the entire saga together? I tend to think not, in part because it’s far from obvious, watching the original series, that it’s about Anakin’s life at all; it seems to be about Luke’s. The focus on Anakin in the prequels makes a sort of sense, but the way that focus shifts the meaning of the entire series makes it seem like a bait-and-switch.
Another option would be to pursue the question from the other side: why have we judged in the first place that the prequels were bad? Even if we decide that the saga has no coherent unity, the claim that George Lucas clearly intended for it to “rhyme” might be taken to defuse the “rip-off” argument; we can leave the author’s intention behind, and just look at the work. There’s plenty to detest: bad acting, bad dialogue, Jar Jar, the Gungans, CGI Yoda.
Bad acting, bad dialogue, and Jar Jar are indisputably bad; if we all acknowledge this, there remains only the task of determining how much this detracts from the works as a whole. A difficult task, since some readers like great dialogue with a plot that makes little sense; other can stand some bad dialogue if the whole is good enough. Can we offer coherent arguments between prioritizing the surface of the work and prioritizing the overarching structure? I don’t know.
The Gungans and CGI Yoda give us more to work with. Both affect our enjoyment of the original series, but in different ways. CGI Yoda bothers us because we already like puppet Yoda, and don’t like how he’s turned into something fake and shiny and manic. The Gungans bother us, conversely, because they remind of us the Ewoks, which we didn’t like but could overlook. They make an annoying (and somewhat racist) motif more central to the saga than it had been before.
These seem to me the sort of counter-arguments one could offer to the claim that the rhyming prequels improve the saga rather than detract from it.
From Aristotle’s Poetics, ch, 9:
Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.
Posting will continue to be light for the next few weeks as I attempt both to complete by diss. prop. and to organize a graduate student conference on the subject “community, reason, tragedy.” If you’re in Chicago in early November you should come by.
When Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, & Strider come across the turned-to-stone trolls in their journey to Rivendell, Sam Gamgee sings this song:
Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by.
Up came Tom with his big boots on.
Said he to Troll: “Pray, what is yon?
For it looks like the shin o’ my nuncle Tim,
As should be a-lyin’ in graveyard.
This many a year has Tim been gone,
And I thought he were lyin’ in graveyard.”
“My lad,” said Troll, “this bone I stole.
But what be bones that lie in a hole?
Thy nuncle was dead as a lump o’ lead,
Afore I found his shinbone.
He can spare a share for a poor old troll,
For he don’t need his shinbone.”
Said Tom: “I don’t see why the likes o’ thee
Without axin’ leave should go makin’ free
With the shank or the shin o’ my father’s kin;
So hand the old bone over!
Though dead he be, it belongs to he;
So hand the old bone over!”
“For a couple o’ pins,” says Troll, and grins,
“I’ll eat thee too, and gnaw thy shins.
A bit o’ fresh meat will go down sweet!
I’ll try my teeth on thee now.
Hee now! See now!
I’m tired o’ gnawing old bones and skins;
I’ve a mind to dine on thee now.”
But just as he thought his dinner was caught,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, Tom slipped behind
And gave him the boot to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!
A bump o’ the boot on the seat, Tom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.
But harder than stone is the flesh and bone
Of a troll that sits in the hills alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain’s root,
For the seat of a troll don’t feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!
Old Troll laughed, when he heard Tom groan,
And he knew his toes could feel it.
Tom’s leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don’t care, and he’s still there
With the bone he boned from it’s owner.
Troll’s old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from it’s owner!
It’s a curious song for Tolkien to have written. Evil seems to win. Of course anyone who’s read the Silmarillion knows Tolkien tells many stories where evil wins; but they’re always contained within a larger story, catastrophe followed by eucatastrophe. Here, the troll keeps the bone, and that’s the end of the story.
Some explanation is needed. I offer this one: though trolls be evil in Middle Earth, in the world of this song this troll is not. He is simply natural; perhaps, even, (though Tolkien hated allegory,) he is nature, or rather is matter, and the resistance matter offers to our desires. This troll is not to be overcome, or given the boot to larn him; he’s harder than stone, and no more mobile: “Troll’s old seat is still the same.” But neither is he malicious; unlike Sauron, who detests whatever he does not control, “Troll don’t care, and he’s still there.” This troll is to be accepted, and taken into account.
If we accept this reading, we can see in this song (despite Tolkien’s hatred of allegory) three interpretive levels of natural resistance:
First, and most obviously, the troll is gnawing on the shin o’ Tom’s nuncle Tim. This is perfectly natural: animals eat each other. But it bothers Tom because he’s not merely natural, he’s human, and he wants his nuncle Tim to remain buried. But as Tolkien knew, nothing can remain buried forever. If a troll doesn’t dig up your shin and eat it, it will still turn eventually to dust.
Second, much of the humor of the song comes from each stanza’s apparently nonsense rhyming: “come by. / Done by! Gum by!” Of course, the rhymes aren’t all nonsense; some reveal what someone intended to keep hidden. Take “larn him. / Warn him! Darn him!”: Tom claims to want only to teach the troll, but his words betray him: he wants to damn him. Or “owner. / Doner! Boner!”: Tim was the bone’s owner, but the bone is no longer his, he has donated it to the earth, and all that’s left of him is bones. By stressing and over-stresing the rhyme-words, the song demonstrates the materiality of language, and how that materiality is a two-edged sword: it breaks down both sense and deception.
Finally, Sam Gamgee sings this song while the fellowship takes a rest in the literal shadow of one of the most memorable events from the book The Hobbit, predecessor of The Lord of the Rings. Without The Hobbit, of course, The Lord of the Rings could not have happened. But in writing the latter, Tolkien had constantly to overcome the resistance offered by the former. He found it necessary, in fact, to rewrite an entire chapter (the riddle-game with Gollum) to fit with his new conception of the Ring. But in Tolkien’s mind it would have been dishonest to simply rewrite that chapter with no explanation; it would be a brute-force attempt to overcome the resistance The Hobbit offered in the writing of TLotR, a resistance necessary for that work’s composition. So Tolkien did something more ingenious: he rewrote that chapter of The Hobbit, but made its very rewriting a minor plot-point of TLotR. The original chapter becomes the story as Bilbo first told it; the revised chapter becomes the story as it really happened; and the difference between them becomes significant: it shows us how the Ring convinces its wearer to deceive others about its true nature.
Of course there’s more to be said about this poem; I could write, for example, about how Tom evading the troll’s grasp but laming his foot offers a comic version of a common Tolkien motif, the maimed hero (consider Beren’s hand, or Frodo’s finger). But I’ll end, I think, with this: a recording of Tolkien singing this song (with slightly different lyrics). His singing voice is actually quite decent: