Tag Archives: Aristotle

Is It Time For Me To Head Back To The Ancient Classics?

It is funny how long you will deny something to yourself and indeed the reasons for doing so. From an early age I was brought up not just on fairy tales but on the stories of, and adventures around, the Greek gods and goddesses. You see my mother is something (understatement of the year) of a classicist and so as often as I would ask to be regaled with the story of Rapunzel again and again, I would also ask to be read and reread the tale of Persephone. I was also obsessed with Jim Henson’s The Storyteller spin off about the Greek Myths, I also just had a flashback to a phase I had of loving the animated Shakespeare series, especially Zoe Wannamakers Lady Macbeth. I digress. This all changed when I went to school, where Mum taught, and got 99% in my classics exam. Rather than this being a good thing, some bullying little sods at school made my life hell and said I was either a complete geek or my mum had told me all the answers. My response of course was to shut down and shut out classics. Wow, this is like therapy.

Almost 23 years later when I found myself picking potential holidays Cyprus (have I mentioned I have been on holiday at all) kept coming up and once I explored it, it wasn’t just the all inclusive four star hotel bargain that kept pulling me back, if I am being honest it was also the fact there were ancient tombs, moments, rocks, myths and legends about the island too – like being the birthplace of Aphrodite – that kept drawing me back. And when I got there it was the archaeological park that was one of the first places I wanted to visit, and oddly when I did I felt strangely at home.

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This might of course be because of all the times I went to these places with my mother as a kid (driving through the Greek mountains recently I was reminded of those trips where I played all Cathy Dennis’ albums on repeat) even the seven hour trip around Pompeii, which may have also hardened my heart to classics a little bit possibly. What I wasn’t expecting was for mosaics to bring such a sense of nostalgia back to me…

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But they did…

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And then I was really cross with myself when I couldn’t remember the stories surrounding some of the mosaics that we saw, even when I recognised the names. The more we saw the stronger the sense of nostalgic and slight pining for these tales of ancient times became.

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As did the sense of the ancient world suddenly being so vivid and overwhelming the more of the old ancient sites that we visited. Really there is nothing like standing in or in front of an old Odeon to bring back the spirits and beliefs of the people who would have been sat in there watching some performances.

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So the more we wandered round, and the more that we saw throughout the week, the more I started to get the old classicist itch, which I honestly thought was more dormant than Mount Vesuvius. So now I feel I need to scratch it, or if we want to go right down Pun Alley, the more I want to start an archaeological dig on my soul and start to excavate this side of me again.

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I have dabbled with the classics in the past few years. I read Poetics by Aristotle (who my mum once named a cat after) and thought it was a brilliant piece of writing about, well, writing. I loved Mary Beard’s collection of essays It’s A Don’s Life, and loved her TV show Rome but I love Mary Beard regardless, who doesn’t? I also really enjoyed Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury which weaves Greek tragedies through it, and enjoyed the nods to Greek tragedy in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And then there is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles which I love, love, love, love, love. If you haven’t read it you must.

The question is what next? I have just gone and ordered Natalie’s The Ancient Guide To Modern Life as I think that will be up my street and am debating both Robert Graves Greek Myths (as I want to be reminded of them all, if it isn’t dry and dusty) and Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone. In fact speaking of Ali Smith, I should get my hands on more of the Canongate Myths series really shouldn’t I? Oh and Vintage did kindly send me a copy of Euripides The Bacchae so that could be next. Blimey so much choice. What do you think? Any ancient classic texts you would recommend to me, or indeed any other retellings?

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Poetics – Aristotle

I have visions of my mother seeing that I have read this and fainting, I thought I would share that image with you, at the idea of me reading something by Aristotle. I think before this last week or so the only reason I knew who Aristotle was was because my mother named one of our cats after him, see she is a classicist through and through. However recently I have been reading lots of books about how to write and why people write and the mechanics of it, both for myself as a writer and indeed as a reader. In the wonderful ‘Monkeys With Typewriters’, which I am loving reading on and off at the moment, Scarlett Thomas says that everyone should read Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ as the first, and possibly ultimate, book on writing, how to write, how books work and how to read them. So I thought I would give it a whirl.

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Penguin Classics, paperback, c.335BCE (1996 edition), non fiction/literary theory, introduction and notes by Malcolm Heath, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Apparently Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ is the oldest surviving piece of dramatic theory on earth. That is quite something for a start really isn’t it? In twelve sections, which only span around 45 pages, Aristotle looks at, and indeed breaks down, how  and what creates the perfect play (and indeed these were in the days of c.335 BCE really acted books if you will) and why. He looks at genres, plots, characters, and language and its rhythm stage by stage – no pun intended.

I have to say I thought that I was going to be bored by this book. I couldn’t see how something about poetry would make me think about how I write (for work or for pleasure) or indeed how I read. I was wrong. What I didn’t understand, though have since discovered, is that ‘poetics’ actually translates as ‘making’ and so that is why many people say it is the first piece of literary theory. I can now see why, from the way he takes apart how characters function and plots work. I am sure we all think we know how these work already, and so it could be preaching to the converted, as we read ourselves (I know I was dubious) yet this gives a whole new slant and appreciation to the art of creating a story and one that has drive, plot and characters you empathise with.

Who knew a piece of theory could still be so relevant all these hundreds and hundreds of years later? Especially when he had no idea that novels or films (because the theories work on films too) would exist in the future though this is actually good in a way. You see I think there is always a slight danger with literary theory and with books like ‘Poetics’ that if you learn too much about the mechanics you don’t look at the machine, in my case books in general, in the same way again and so you might be put off reading. This isn’t the case with ‘Poetics’ though, how could Aristotle ruin something he didn’t know of? Plus I think he had the utmost respect for the Arts and a good old yarn itself, if done well admittedly.

I have to admit that some of the book did occasionally go over my head. It isn’t a book you can just read from cover to cover and I certainly advise, like with any book actually, you read the introduction and notes afterwards and then read it again – which at 45 pages is easily done. Some of his thoughts still don’t quite make sense to me, but then Aristotle was an incredible philosopher and I am… well… not. Plus I do think this is a book that I will revisit and gain more from each time I re-read it now and again, in fact I should have called this post ‘Poetics; First Impressions’ really shouldn’t I?

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Filed under Aristotle, Literary Theory, Non Fiction, Penguin Classics, Review