Thoughts On: The Nights Of Cabiria - Tragedy: Italian Neorealism vs. Aristotle


The Nights Of Cabiria - Tragedy: Italian Neorealism vs. Aristotle

Thoughts On: Aristotle's Poetics, Tragedy & The Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria, 1957)

For the Italian spot in the series, we will look at an example of Neorealist film and its tragic composition.

The following is a passage from Aristotle's Poetics as translated by Malcolm Heath:

     The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity, since that is the distinctive feature of this kind of imitation. So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune - this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune - this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since it is neither agreeable, nor does it evoke pity or fear. Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune - that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pity or fear, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the undeserving sufferer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke pity nor fear.
     We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these. This is the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error (hamartia) of some kind.

Poetics is Aristotle's incomplete notes on Greek theatre - or, as he refers to it, poetry. It was never meant to be published, instead it was possibly only meant to be read by his students or colleges. As a result, this work, whilst it has become one of the most central and influential documents of dramatic theory since around the 16th century, remained unknown in the West for centuries after it was written. Poetics' primary goal is to classify and describe the best kinds of plays. It discuses three genres of poetry: epic, tragic and comedic. However, a substantial discussion of comedy is missing from the incomplete documents that have survived. Aristotle then primarily discusses tragedy, attempting to argue for it being superior to epic (historical) poetry as well as describe some of the best kinds of tragedy.

There are two fundamental positions that Aristotle takes in his classification of tragedy and poetry more generally; the first is that poetry is an act of imitation, and secondly, that plot is what matters most in the tragedy. These two deductions are central to every other element of his dramatic theory, and so are the roots of all that is insightful and questionable within Poetics.

To begin questioning Aristotle's theory of imitation, it must first be outlined. For art to be imitative, or rather, mimetic, implies that it must simulate reality; it must reflect life. Aristotle is careful in this assertion with emphasis on the fact that 'the function of the poet is not to say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity'. This means that Aristotle believes that the arts do not just replicate reality, but can replicate a version of reality based on probability. Therefore, art can depict monsters, demons and gods, but should do so in a way that is probable; a story should show what would happen if monsters, demons and gods existed; there should always be a basis in reality.

Whilst I, too, believe that art is mimetic, I perceive Aristotle's definition as particularly lacking. Whilst art may imitate life as it would be, reality is only part of the package of life. Reality is the ground we perceive as beneath our feet as we walk. I do not deny the existence of a reality, but I also do not accept that reality is all the mind perceives. Forces of the unconscious mind are immersed in fantasy and the impossible as linked to, but nonetheless abstract from, reality. In such, reality is like the present. The present is what we are trapped in, but it is fleeting and intangible; reality, too, is what we are trapped in, but it is equally intangible and unknowable. The present as preserved by the past is our understanding of reality; reality is history, as accurate and truthful as history can be. However, there, too, is the future; this is the unknown. If the present is reality, then there is the unreal that is waiting to become real, that is waiting to become the present, in the future. In waiting to become present, in remaining in the future, the reality that is not yet here has more potential that what the true reality of the present would allow. Thus, the future is more than the present; the imagining of possibility more than reality. As a result, whilst there remains a link between reality and unreality that is highly akin to present and future, there is a discriminating line. Therefore, in life, in human perception, we consider there to be more than reality; there is the imagination, faith, belief, the unknown, the unconscious and potential. Art can imitate, not just the present, or a version of the present (which mixes reality and unreality), but can fabricate an unreality. This unreality is connected to reality as this is where it emerges from, but there is a simultaneous disconnect. The disconnect that distinguishes reality from unreality is the concept of the unknowable. We represent the unknowable in solid form through art as the transcendentally truthful, as monsters, demons and gods. In this way, art can imitate, not just reality, nor just a probably reality, but a transcendent reality (which can be termed an unreality, the supra-real or the surreal).

Aristotle makes no account of the transcendent reality in Poetics, therefore, his conception of mimesis is confined to reality and versions of reality, not visions of the supra-real. This, I believe, is embedded in his reasoning for poetry's existence. This reasoning is not at all present in Poetics, but Malcolm Heath makes an argument for the reasoning underlying all of Poetics with reference to Aristotle's Metaphysics: 'All human beings by nature desire knowledge'. Heath, using this quote, posits that Aristotle believes that poetry is mimetic because it is a mechanism through which we can gain knowledge (and such is one of our great pleasures): 'Aristotle's contention, then, is that human beings are by nature prone to engage in the creation of likeness, and to respond to likeness with pleasure, and he [Aristotle] explains this instinct with reference to their innate desire for knowledge'. However, the reduction that Aristotle makes provides an incomplete answer. He presents a theory of mimesis that assumes that the knowledge humans desire is of reality. This, in my belief, is incorrect. We so often seek to gain knowledge of a transcendent reality and truths. The transcendent reasoning and knowledge we always desire is beyond science and is found in the meaning we simultaneously assign to, and find in, our actions. Stories represent the transcendent, always, with their meaning and reasoning; reasoning is not just an element of characterisation, as is suggested in Poetics. Aristotle, at many points, comes to the cusp of discussing the meaning of tragedy, but never does. There is then a great deal missing from Poetics, as everything is reduced to plot and never meaning; what matters most is that a poet constructs a plot, not that he constructs meaning to Aristotle. And whilst there is no strict reason given for Aristotle's reduction, it seems to be connected to 'universiality'.

Plot, to Aristotle, is the means of creating the universal and 'the universal is the kind of speech or action which is constant with a person of a given kind in accordance with probability or necessity; this is what poetry aims at'. Such a definition implies that the universal is the universal truth as perceivable in reality, or at least in connection to it. Alas, as we have discussed, truth is not only found in reality, but also in the supra-real. Because Aristotle shows no representation of meaning outside of reality, we cannot assume that his conception of the universal is logical. Because the universe is all that can be known, it intrinsically is all that we do not know but may assume - the same is true of the universal. Thus, the universal truth is not a truth of reality, but a truth that exists above reality. Universal truths are presented by mythology and stories of various forms. These stories do not just show what is real, but assume that the intangible is real. The most fundamental assumption that stories so often make (or instead test) is that there is reason and meaning. Reason and meaning are not provided by reality, we assume they are given by what transcends reality and looks over it - we so often call this entity a god. A god, in such a sense, speaks in universals and of universal truth; for this, a god is transcendent, not real. We must therefore emphasise that meaning is not strictly real, it is supra-real. And plot, ultimately, does not embody the universal; it is a pattern of events and thus is indicative of the universal that underlies a pattern, but this is as close as it comes. Instead, theme embodies the universal as theme is a net of meaning; it is what dictates a universal pattern - or rather, the plot.

The blunder Aristotle makes in centralising plot above all is that, what is central to art should give reason for its existence; plot gives no reason for creating art - theme, narrative message, symbolism and semiosis more generally do. The logic I follow is simple: everything we do is connected to reason and imbued with meaning. Art is a manifestation of this reason and meaning, and it also represents it through mimetic content. This reason and meaning might not be conscious in the mind of a person or artist, but it can always be found. This reason and meaning may also reveal itself to be petty and in turn imply that maybe we should change the way we act, but, again, it can always be found. To construct an example, pleasure can be meaningful, but, in many cases, it is far from the most meaningful thing we should be seeking with our actions; whilst there is meaning in eating junk food and staying on social media for hours on end (it feels good) feeling good rarely provides the most meaning, hence, junk food and social media aren't seen to be unfathomably meaningful. If there is not proper reason to do something in life, or if we fail to find enough meaning, we will not do it. The only way to do something meaningless is to construct a lie that provides reason to cling to, or to be a fool. And to be a fool is not a comment on intelligence, rather, a note to meaning. A pure fool does not hold any reason at all, and in turn welcomes much suffering, but may provide a pathway towards meaning - either for themselves or others.

Because plot cannot be central to art, creation or poetry for the fact that it does not provide meaning to the process of creating it, theme and a more abstract conception of meaning must be recognised as central. In being central, meaning or semiosis is not always the focus of a story or storyteller, but it will always be encapsulative. That is to say that, even if one does not try to say something of meaning with their art, they will most likely reveal something of meaning (sometimes by embodying the fool). The depth and value of this meaning is always varying, which is why there is good art and bad art, better art and worse art, but meaning always remains.

With both mimesis and plot discussed, we can return to tragedy and characters. Let us then again look at the passage we opened with:

     The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity, since that is the distinctive feature of this kind of imitation. So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune - this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune - this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since it is neither agreeable, nor does it evoke pity or fear. Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune - that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pity or fear, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the undeserving sufferer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke pity nor fear.
     We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these. This is the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error (hamartia) of some kind.

In this passage, Aristotle makes two major points; one is tied to emotion and the other to character. These two points converge to suggest that tragedy should engage pity and fear, therefore, tragic characters should facilitate the expression and feeling of pity and fear. Aristotle describes this ideal character as not completely good and not entirely bad, but someone intermediate. It is not clear that he means that this character should be equal parts good and bad, however. Rather, it seems most evident that the tragic character should be good; their only flaw is their hamartia.

Hamartia, much like catharsis, is a term in Aristotle's Poetics that is subject to much debate. The general definition of hamartia suggests that it is a character's 'fatal flaw'. Many have argued, however, and Malcolm Heath is one example of a contrarian, that hamartia does not mean fatal flaw, but just an error. The point of argument that is debated concerns blame. If hamartia leads to tragedy, does tragedy come from within a character or is it pressed upon them? This is always a question that good tragedies pose; is fate or is an individual to be blamed. 'Fatal flaw' implies that an individual is to be blamed. Error is a slightly more dexterous term. An error can be your fault, but it can also be accidental - not necessarily a product of personal defect. Because the term 'hamartia' attempts to define why all tragedies happen, attempts to describe the cause of all tragedy, it will always be debated; the reason for a tragedy is never universal and common to all stories.

With that said, we must take a step back and see that it is this error of sorts, the hamartia, that Aristotle perceives to be the only significant mark on a tragic protagonist's character. Heath provides similar analysis with: essentially concerned with people who are of high status and of good moral character; there will be peripheral figures (slaves and so forth) of lower status, but they cannot be at the centre of tragedy's interest and should at least be good of their kind; high-status characters in tragedy can be morally bad, but not if they are meant to be a focus for our pity, and only if and to the extent that the plot requires this.

The deduction that Aristotle makes in Poetics concerning character leads to this - what I would consider to be pretty nonsensical. This is folly because the reductions that came before it, those concerning plot and imitation, are themselves faulted. And this is proved folly with modern storytelling.

If we were to turn to cinema, we will find that most modern tragedies are not descendent of Poetics' often ill-logic. The most expressive example of this can be found in Italian Neorealist films of the 40s and 50s. This is a body of cinema that is mimetic in an easily Aristotelian sense - that is to say that it concerns itself with realism and, in turn, reality. However, its characters are never of high status, and whilst they have their virtues, they are often defined by their struggle before their morality or goodness. In fact, the moral make-up of Neorealist characters is almost always ambiguous or secondary to their reactions to tragedy. That is to say that their reasoning is not embedded in their consciousness - these characters very rarely find themselves able to decide, they're so often just trying to survive. Instead, decision comes after action, and so, too often too late. Morality is acted out unconsciously, if one can even describe unconscious action as particularly concerned with morality. And such is the aim of Neorealist narratives; they use tragedy to push characters into a predicament in which they cannot decide, in which their morality is not first and foremost questioned. As a result, Neorealist characters rarely resemble classical Greek characters such as Oedipus or Prometheus. Rather, Neorealist characters, unsurprisingly considering their emergence from Italy, are Christ-like; they suffer for the sake of meaning - in search of it, or in spite of it.

In describing Euripides as similar to Thomas Hardy, Philip Vellacott says the following:

They [Euripides and Hardy] posses the same heroic perception, which they exemplify in simple and modest characters, that man's - and still more woman's - highest genius lies in suffering rather than in action; and that the beauty of pain nobly borne outweighs the deformity of a soulless world.

What Vellacott emphasises here is tragedians' common focus on a world that is possibly soulless, that is without meaning and reason, but nonetheless makes us suffer. He supposes here that tragedians, for example, Euripides and Hardy, use modest characters who suffer to find meaning themselves and to question meaning's place in the world. Hardy, for example, uses Tess in Tess of the D'Urbevilles to see a woman suffer at the whims of the men around her and fate above her before reacting in search of blood and then quickly being killed herself. With his novel, Hardy asks why Tess has to suffer, and has his audience question if she deserved to be killed; he seeks to know why and where reason is. (I am obliged to note, however, that I do not think that Hardy's questioning is particularly meaningful or complex). Euripides constructs a similar story to Hardy in Iphigenia in Aulis, a story that sees a daughter have to suffer for her father's, the king's, mistakes. Both stories are brought into resonance because they want to know why; they want to find the beauty, an expression of meaning, in the process of a person experiencing tragedy - in the process of suffering. This is a highly Judeo-Christian concern, it is also the concern of ascetic philosophy as it manifests in Hinduism and Buddhism. One may be even see this in older sets of mythology. For the Greeks, suffering was constant; the gods capricious, malicious and vain. Alas, there was meaning - Prometheus stole the fire from Olympus and has his liver eaten every day with reason. For the Norse, too, the gods were arrogant, but over them hung Ragnarok, and thus they always suffered. The Norse gods found meaning in fending off the inevitable, attempting to act properly as to keep Ragnarok at bay, but they were always pained by fear of fault.

The Neorealists come from this tradition that embodies a philosophy of meaningful suffering. One finds a prime example in Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria. This is a narrative that depicts a prostitute that essentially plays a fools' fool, always the butt of a joke and a parody of herself. The tragedy in the narrative is that she cannot be someone she wants to be; this is her hamartia, and the narrative's question asks if it is her fault that she cannot transform, or if it is the oppression of others. For example, the key motif of the film is the prostitute, who names herself Cabiria, falling in love before being robbed. Cabiria's only yearning is to fall in love, thus, she envisions herself as a princess who has been stolen away from her fortune and loving home - very much so like the Cabiria of Giovanni Pastrone's 1914 epic. Her real name, however, is Maria, which is a likely allusion to the Madonna (Mary, Mother of God), who is also featured in the film. What we see juxtaposed in our central prostitute are two females who suffer. The prostitute identifies with she who suffers unduly and is returned to prosperity, Cabiria, as opposed to she who is known for her grace in face of tragedy, Mary; she who embodies the universal nature, she who encompasses god, yet sees his words come into conflict and his body come to harm within her embrace (see Michelangelo's Pieta:)

In identifying with Cabiria, the prostitute shows that her hamartia is embedded in her naivety; her hope for fortune, to be returned to a throne, to be young again, to find love. Her hamartia, therefore, is her inability to imitate the Madonna. Alas, whilst this is her greatest internal conflict, her fatal flaw is a conflation of her naivety and her environment; the fact that, because she is innocent, she becomes a target.

The tragedy of The Nights Of Cabiria is the same tragedy seen in Tess of the D'Urbervilles; it is the tragedy of the innocent and naive not only suffering, but being a target for tragedy. This kind of tragedy has Jungian and mythological roots. We see this tragedy played out in the Rape of Persephone, which is possible the archetypal representation of this story.

As we have discussed previously in more detail, the Rape of Persephone is a story of purity without a shadow. As Jung has implied when discussing the 'Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype', Persephone disavowed her shadow and identified with her mother, overdeveloping her Eros. In short, she refused to develop a personality beyond the perfect image of her superwoman mother. Without any recognition of a shadow or self, Persephone chooses to remain vulnerable and innocent under the pretence that such are virtues. To a degree, the prostitute of Fellini's narrative is Persephone. Though she has no mother and is familiar with a shadow existence as a prostitute, she clings to innocence and purity, and therefore calls Hades (who is also called Pluto) to snatch her away.

Fellini deviates from a classical telling of the Persephonic tragedy by not having his character killed (as Hardy does) or entirely consumed by shadow in any other manner. There is instead an implication that Cabiria accepts her shadow and becomes a fool. This would conflate the ending of both 8 1/2 and La Strada. In 8 1/2, foolhardiness is shown to be a virtue, and life a party. In the end of La Strada, foolhardiness wears away and gives out to death. In The Nights of Cabiria, there is a mediation between death and life; between our character breaking down and having a party. There is a sense of hope, however, and so The Nights of Cabiria leans towards Fellini's more optimistic, 8 1/2 side. Alas, the meaning of the film is found in a moment of beauty, a glimmer of resolve we catch in Cabiria's eyes as she looks at us, walking away from a fool's tragedy. Cabiria becomes Mary in this moment, she becomes the Madonna, embracing tragedy, nature, arms full of the struggling words of God.

And so let us step away and ask: What does Aristotle have to say for this? The truth is, he says very little. He does not describe the character of Cabiria very well at all, she is not of particularly good moral standing and she is not of a high status, nor the tragedy of her narrative, it is not at all plot-centric, rather, thematically rooted, bound to the idea of the Madonna. One would, I believe, find it quite difficult to convincingly apply Aristotle's Poetics any Neorealist film. Aristotle identifies the emotions that motivate Neorealist narratives like that of The Nights of Cabiria, but he does not do well to provide a justification for emotions such as pity and fear. In truth, pity and fear are emotional manifestations of a pull and push present in all narratives. All narratives push or pull us with their mimetic likeness; they show us something familiar, and in doing so, see us alienated from or identifying with the narrative. Pity, in tragedy, is a pull as we recognise ourselves in main characters. Fear is a push because we also find familiar their downfall and so not wish it for ourselves. Alas, through these emotions comes not just the knowledge of how one may fall to their hamartia; rather, what comes through the emotion is the meaning encased in beauty.

This meaning is more than knowledge, it is motivation for the soul one could say. Knowledge without meaning has no such motivation. We see meaning in The Nights of Cabiria in watching Cabiria imitate the Madonna, become Maria, learn, through tragedy and pain, how to do so. Fellini ultimately provides to us, not the knowledge of how to do this ourselves, but the meaning of why someone would do this at all. Fellini then proves Aristotle wrong in so many ways. One can only mourn the fact that Aristotle never knew of Fellini. But, in face of this, it proves necessary to re-think what Aristotle says in Poetics with narratives that he did not have access to.

To bring things towards a close, I feel there is much more discussion to be had on the topic of tragedy, Italian Neorealism and Aristotle's Poetics. What I mean to emphasise first and foremost here is the crucial lack of a focus on meaning in Poetics, and how this is centralised by the Neorealist film. The Neorealist film, in my view, is not made atypically tragic for this. Rather, it is just one manifestation of the tragedy that indicates the ways in which Aristotle's description of tragedy has always been lacking. Alas, I will leave this topic open for discussion. What are your thoughts on Neorealist film, tragedies and Poetics?

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