On 1917: A Look Through History At Poetry
The film 1917, recipient of this year’s Golden Globes award for “Best Motion Picture” and, very nearly, of that same prize for whose bestowal the Oscars are so feverishly monitored, was rather a history than a tragedy. Chronologically, the film was set in the year for which it was named—an obvious fact by which, with the mere purchase of a ticket by whose possession the doors to the local theater are opened, the movie-goer should be little surprised. As such, though perhaps insufficiently studied in all parts of the first quarter of the twentieth-century, that most consequential century through which, as of yet, man has had the opportunity to live, he needn’t stretch too tightly the cords of his mind to recognize the event to which this film refers. That event, of course, is WWI.
Drama is, quite decidedly, a secondary attribute of what is, on its whole, an historical film. This, however, isn’t a fact by which the work is to be vitiated in the opinion of the dramatically-inclined viewer—a viewer to whom, if the film is rightly to be enjoyed by her, a deep and emotional movement of the soul is considered most vital. Despite its focus on a single event in time, and, more than that, a single person upon whose weary shoulders this event’s weight has thrust itself by no doing of his own, it succeeds in being a cinematically-enthralling, aerobically-taxing, and technically-masterful work. The gravity in which its mood is set and the fluidity with which its scenes are filmed don’t have, when combined, a relevant precursor in the history of film. But 1917 is, first and foremost, a history. It is not a highly dramatic work, and it is certainly no tragedy.
Therefore, by the timeless estimation and infallible standard of the great Aristotle—the ancient philosopher upon whose everlasting artistic sensitivity our modern tastes still rely—it ought not to be more highly regarded and judged than a purely dramatic work. Thus, we ought not to be vexed by the realization that an obscure, culturally-distant, and linguistically-indecipherable film (to which, if the sentiment of the populace is to be believed, 1917 was credited with being far superior) was given priority over it. Said “inferior” film, in this case, Bong Joon-ho’s break-out hit entitled, Parasite, was triumphant if, and only if, an ounce of Aristotelian logic is to be applied to a pound of the population’s preference.
In perhaps Aristotle’s most famous work—a consequence, one might say, of its graspable length and accessible subject matter—the Poetics declares to us, with the vaunting confidence and the tranquil affirmation of a man who was, during the sixty-two years of his life, both teacher of an emperor and student of a sage, that tragedy is to be set at a higher place than history in the aesthetic valuation of man. Indeed, for that matter, tragedy was to be placed above all other genres of art—be they performative, narrative, or of any other conceivable type.
Comedy, in his opinion, was very minimally to be esteemed. With his inimitable air of authority, at once heavy and beclouding, a palpable mist into whose thickness the modern critic still immerses herself and breathes, Aristotle said of comedy that it was an “imitation of men worse than the average”. On this point, he conditioned the following statement, specifying that this “worse” man of whom he spoke would be worse not as it regarded “any and every sort of fault”, but only as it regarded “one particular kind of fault, that which is ridiculous”, which is, on its own, “a species of the ugly”.
The ugly, we well know, wasn’t long to be endured by so urbane an observer as was Aristotle—a level of sophistication peculiar to him of which we, at our best and most polished, imagine ourselves to be in pursuit, if not in full possession. Comedy, he made clear, hadn’t the salutary effect on a viewer for which, as the result of the consumption of a theatrical work, he might’ve been hoping.
And, thus, comedy was a type of dramatic perversion, a deviation from the norm, for which the aesthete Aristotle hadn’t very much tolerance. Even if, as was the case for most of the comedic “ugliness” to which he might’ve been exposed in his day, it was productive of neither pain nor harm to its viewer, it was to be judged far beneath the ethereal beauty, the hard solemnity, and the overwhelming dignity of the tragic form. As such, the puerile, obscene, and downright scatological rowdiness of, say, an Aristophanes was to be valued far below the sobriety, pathos, and decorum for which the likes of Aeschylus and Sophocles were so inexhaustibly celebrated in Aristotle’s mind.
That said, Aristophanes—though a scandalously ribald and brilliantly subversive playwright by the standards not only of his, but of those of every age—wouldn’t be the only Grecian writer upon whom Aristotle’s disparagement and, more importantly, his artistic contempt was heaped. Indeed, some criticism, albeit of a gentler type, was left in reserve when he dealt in his Poetics with the author of the epic poem. Admittedly, the epic, as a genre, was a variety of drama that marked a noble improvement over the baseness of the comedy—that form of which Aristotle was so unyieldingly contemptuous. Perhaps this was because the comedy, much to his voluble detestation, was the art form of which the hoi polloi—a class of people quite innocent of proper taste—was so inexplicably enamored. Ever the aristocrat (at least, etymologically, in the original sense of the term as it referred to the leadership, in matters both cultural and political, of the best), it’s no surprise to see Aristotle bristle against the base and vulgar preferences of the mass.
Yet the epic poem, in contrast to the comedic, was not to be so forcefully discountenanced—neither were those to whom it held so unspeakable an attraction to be excoriated for what might’ve been, in the case of the comedic-patron, a horribly illicit pleasure. Epic poetry was laudable, not so much on the basis of its own merit—on which, by any normal standard, one might expect a work to be judged—but on the fact that it “resembles tragedy” and that, like tragedy, it is “an imitation of serious subjects in meter”.
In other words, epic pieces of work, or those volumes that constitute the genre for which the likes of such distinguished authors as Homer, Virgil, and Milton are renowned, are only commendable insofar as they approximate, in both their theme and their style, those aspects by which a tragedy is defined. An epic is only good and worthy of our attention because, of all the other dramatic types among which it’s to be counted, it comes closest to that paragon of drama, to that quintessential work of tragedy.
That said, the distance between the two can, and oftentimes is, insurmountably vast. While just about every tragedy can be made into an epic, not every epic can make the tragic leap. To use an analogy by which schoolchildren, wanting in their geometry and abstract sense, are enlightened, a tragedy is to an epic what a square is to a rectangle. The former places upon its applicants demands by which the latter is unencumbered. The one can, if wisely manipulated, become the other, but certain immutable conditions must first be met. More than by anything else, an epic differs from a tragedy by its length. The epic’s action, while gripping and compelling from its start till its conclusion, has no established fixation of time. This is not a formality by which it must constrain itself, as is evidenced by Homer’s two great works. The Trojan War, for example, on whose waning days his sanguinary Iliad is based, surpassed a decade in time. Many winters had come and gone as those inchoate Europeans and Asians fought at the gate of the Dardanelles. That same bard’s circuitous Odyssey lasted, much to the exasperation of its eponymous hero, a similarly long duration of time.
In the opinion of a tragic purist such as Aristotle, these allotments of time must be determined to be excessively long, for tragedy “endeavors to keep as far as possible within a single circuit of the sun”. Twenty-four hours, and not a minute longer, is the properly tragic allowance of time. Outside of the Greek masters, to whom we defer as the best exemplars at constraining themselves to twelve hours of day and to twelve of night, we look to the French. Racine and Corneille, tragedians by whom the artistic explosion of the seventeenth-century was lit, are especially adept at regulating their plotlines to nothing beyond the ascent, the fall, and the matutinal re-emergence of the sun—at which point the story has settled and the dénouement has arrived.
The Odyssey, while the more enthralling of the two Homeric works by whose preservation the literacy and tradition of the West has been elevated and improved, is purely myth. Though epic in construct from head to foot, it’s ahistorical and not in the least tragic. The Iliad, on the other hand, is at the very least historic. Excluding the constant interpolations of divine beings, by whose incorrigible whimsicality and bloodlust a salacious marital dispute was extended across two continents and ten long years, the events as described, more or less, likely happened (though it’s debated, within halls vastly more prestigious than those along which I pace, whether the Trojan horse wasn’t actually a natural disaster, a kind of force majeure to which, in the absence of a sufficiently resilient redoubt or defense, the ancient city succumbed). We know, informed by the work of such sweat-laden archaeologists as Heinrich Schliemann and those by whom he was followed, that the city of Troy existed in the thirteenth-century BC and was besieged by an overwhelming force.
If we are to continue to follow the standards by which Aristotle judges a dramatic work, we must—at his urging—rank the Odyssey above the Iliad. The reason for so definitive a judgment is that, as previously stated, the latter is, at least in part, a history, while the former is not. In the eyes of Aristotle, this alone is cause for the devaluation of its dramatic merit. A distinction here between the author whose chief concern is history, and he whose concern is poetry and drama, must be made. In his Poetics, Aristotle states that the stylistic preference of the former is prose, while that of the latter is verse. That doesn’t mean, however, that an artistically-inclined historical author couldn’t easily adapt and versify his work. The Histories of Herodotus and those, though perhaps less mellifluously, of Thucydides, could be put to the lyre and sung as songs.
The fundamental distinction, above all, is that the historical writer “describes the thing that has been” and the tragic writer “a kind of thing that might be”.
Hence, he concludes, “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history”, a statement by which, considering the empirical and somewhat artistically-etiolated age in which we live, we moderns are all quite taken aback. Can it be that poetry, produced by the hand of a Whitman or a Byron, is really of graver import than the lessons of history—lessons of which, admittedly, we’re so often negligent? We endlessly commit the same follies from which we ought to have learned, but this is no reason for marginalizing the importance of history and preferring, in its place, the poetic craft. In light of this, how can the superiority of poetry over history be established and confirmed in the thought of man?
The reason, Aristotle assures us, is that poetry’s “statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars”. That which is particular and circumscribed by setting, place, or time is necessarily weaker than that which encompasses all things at once in the girth of its embrace. This is the ultimate strength of poetry, of which tragedy is but the highest form. Tragedy, not unlike the God to whom we pray, or the Nature of which we’re assured he’s the author, is like a circle with neither center nor circumference. It is, at one and the same time, everywhere, in everything, and a part of everyone who has lived or, in the future, is yet to come. Universality, or the concept of an ideal and imperishable “Form”, a superior entity of which all lesser beings partake but, over which, they’ll never be ranked, was a notion conceived of by Plato and inherited by Aristotle. The Platonic voice reverberates through him and, having done so, emanates in us.
Having said all that, be it too little or too much, the film 1917 won’t soon be forgotten. In all likelihood, it’ll long surpass Parasite—that film standing astride both “Best Picture” awards—one domestic, and one foreign—and that by which 1917 and all its worthy competitors were defeated. This might not be the result by which the normal movie-goer will be contented; she might’ve hoped 1917 would take home this most venerated of awards. But the logic and the poetics of Aristotle fail us not. Poetry trumps history, and Parasite—based on that calculation alone—is justified in having won. The universal and the foreign triumphed over the singular and the known.