Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Poetry and Identity: Plato and Artistotle though a Modern Feminist Lens

English 368
Dr. C. Iwanicki - WIU
February 21 2006

Critical Inspirations and Rational Persuasions on the Continuum of Writing:
A Rebellious Look at the Relationship between Poetry and Identity

Plato and Aristotle are widely recognized as the founding fathers of rhetorical theory, but, as fathers, their children (generations of writers and literary critics) may disagree with and rebel from their rules and guidelines, or even—heaven forbid—renounce the validity of their ideas. As a woman-identified student-writer-poet, I prefer that a mother (a feminine and feminist influence) be involved when I engage with the works of Plato and Aristotle, and so I call upon Gloria Anzaldua to create literary support and balance in my critique. Although Anzaldua does not directly respond to the early discourses on writing produced by Plato and Aristotle, her description of the process of writing in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza speaks to issues of writing and representation, and by extension, the place of art in society and the relationship between writing and identity.

I propose that a continuum of personal involvement in writing exists. Plato’s discourse on writing falls along the impersonal end of the continuum, while Aristotle’s discourse falls somewhere in the middle and Anzaldua’s discourse falls along the personal end. Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera provides an appropriate contrast to Plato’s Ion and Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics. In order to look at the relationship between poetry and identity, I will examine and critique some of their rhetorical interactions, strategies of argumentation, theoretical approaches, and ethical arguments.

Plato separates the mastery of subjects from divine inspiration in order to critique the vocations of the poet and the rhapsode in his dialogue, Ion. He implies that a sort of madness is a requisite for the creation of poetry, and that madness is not merely a human phenomenon, but is one that is derived from a divine source. The poet, then, is not a professional, but an “airy thing, winged and holy”—one who must be out of mind and fed by the Muse to make poetry (41). By associating madness with divinity, Plato’s argument is contradictory and ambiguous. He does not discredit poetry entirely, because divinity implies that the poet acts on behalf of the gods as a translator. He does, however, discredit the poet and the poet’s agency because the poet is not to be credited with his poetry. According to Plato’s argument, the poet has no ownership over his words. The work of the poet is not man-made; it is not his own consciously generated composition, but rather a gift to others from a god who acts through the mind and hands of the poet (or puppet). Poetry, therefore, is a creation of the gods and is not a process that involves self or identity—it neither divulges nor creates the self.

Unlike Plato in his dialogue, Ion, Aristotle examines the logistics of poetry and the beneficial role that poetry assumes in society in his essay, Poetics. Both Plato and Aristotle approach poetry as representation, but Aristotle transforms Plato’s original idea of representation as deceiving and dangerous into the idea that art is natural, informative, and beneficial. He reconnects the poet with his poetry, by describing poetry as an “epic and tragic composition” that can be constructed and deconstructed systematically (91). Whereas Plato approaches poetry with suspicion, Aristotle approaches it inquisitively, with a desire to understand its parts and the function it serves in society. Aristotle also brings poetry into a larger context of artistic representation, developing bases of characterizing and labeling poetry, first in terms of verse-forms and then in terms of specific strategies and types. “Poetry” then becomes an umbrella term for types of representation through verse-forms, under which further distinctions can be made between types and characteristics of poetry.

Rather than defining poetry in terms of otherworldly inspiration, Aristotle describes the causes of poetic representation as resulting from man’s natural connection with representation as a means through which early lessons are learned and as a process of learning through pleasurable observation (93). He also credits poetry with having the ability to effect change because “it is the function of a poet to relate not things that have happened, but things that may happen” (97). Poetry is philosophical because it conveys possibilities and transforms history. History itself does not covey possibilities, but when the poet represents history in his poetry, poetry is then believable. It achieves something more because it “tends to speak of universals, history of particulars” (98).

Aristotle does not explore the depths of the process of self-identity in this analysis, but he does suggest that poetry speaks to and shapes the construction of the human identity. He connects poetry to selfhood and self-reflection by implying that humans are naturally drawn to poetry for learning. The process of observing representations requires self-reflection because humans naturally draw connections between tragic representations and their own emotions and experiences. Similarly, Aristotle’s reference to a “history of particulars” (as myriad of individual histories) supports the idea that poetry fuels and is fueled by the construction of identity because it reflects personal experience.

Neither Plato’s nor Aristotle’s rhetorical approaches on poetry address the construction of identity. As a contemporary writer and poet, Gloria Anzaldua reflects upon her own experiences in order to examine how she constructs her identity through the process of writing poetry and how identity is embodied in poetry itself. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldua considers her personal struggle to accept her multifaceted self. She relates her personal struggle to accept multiple identities (ethnic, linguistic, sexual, spiritual, economical, ideological, emotional, and psychological), as the “struggle of borders” (85). She writes about identity and the process of writing in order to reconcile the borders that she straddles in each of her identities.

Anzaldua also examines poetry as an ancient artistic expression, referencing the ancient Aztecs’ belief that humans could communicate with the divine through the use of metaphor and symbol in poetry and truth (91). Poetry, according to this tradition, is representation in the sense that it is manifest in metaphors and symbols, but it is also a method of communicating truth with the divine, so it is not to be looked upon with distrust. She suggests that poetry consists of images, and that an image is a “bridge between evoked emotion and conscious knowledge; words are the cables that hold up the bridge” (91). Representational images are forms of knowledge that are expressed through and connected by words, so poetry brings life to the forms of knowledge that exist in images. Anzaldua’s description of the relationship between images and words is similar to Aristotle’s approach because it is systematic, but she also addresses the purpose that poetry serves as a method through which she constructs and understands her identity.

In his dialogue, Republic, Plato suggests that writing is dangerous because a writer may use “the written word to give a distorted image of the nature of the gods and heroes” (Plato 50). Plato is concerned with the way that stories might be interpreted by children and adults, and so he suggests that a certain degree of censorship should be utilized in order to maintain his version of the gods and their desires. Instead of looking at writing as a way of developing and understanding humanness and self, Plato is primarily concerned with the way that writing may reflect and affect the gods. Through Socrates, Plato dictates that “whatever the type of poetry—epic, lyric, or tragic—God of course must always be portrayed as he really is” (51). His argument here is inconsistent with the argument made in Ion. Plato is willing to censor writing that he believes does not portray God as he really is, but this censorship is insulting to the gods if what he claims in Ion is true (that the poet is the mouth piece of divine sources).

Plato does not reflect on his ethical ideas as personal truths that are self-reflective, but instead applies them universally. He does not explain universal concepts, such as goodness, but he asserts that those concepts are truthful and in the best interest of humanity. His ethical pretentiousness is evident in his claim that “representation and truth are a considerable distance apart” (70). In the literal sense, representations of objects, humans and events in poetry are distant from the objects, humans and events themselves, but they are not so different when you consider them abstractly. There is an emotional element and abstract quality that exists in objects, humans, and events that is not always detectable in the objects, humans, and events, but that are only accessible through representations.

Plato does not consider the abstractness of the concept of truth, but Gloria Anzaldua does. As she recognizes the fragmentation and crossing of borders in her own identity, she supports the idea that multiple similar or contradictory truths may exist simultaneously in the form of personal truths. Truth is abstract; it is different for each individual. A story truth, in its actual or abstract form, exists in writing. For Anzaldua, writing is a way of constructing an identity that is driven by a “state of psychic unrest” caused by living in a borderland (Anzaldua 95). While writing is a method of creating meaning out of experiences, it is also a transformative way of creating self and making soul. Anzaldua describes her relationship with writing best when she states, “I cannot separate my writing from any part of my life. It is all one…When I write it feels like I’m carving bone. It feels like I’m creating my own face, my own heart” (95). It is clear that Anzaldua’s personal truths infuse her writing, but what is even more striking is the connection that she draws between the creation of her identity and the process of writing.

Anzaldua addresses the process of writing both systematically and philosophically, facing her truths, as well as constructing and analyzing her identity. It is appropriate to begin with the man’s voice (the voices of Plato and Aristotle) and to end with the woman’s voice, and so I return to Anzaldua and to myself, for the woman’s voice—the voice of the woman who straddles the borders when it comes to her identity—is a voice of a personal truth, a truth that epitomizes relevance, reflection, reliability and respectability.

Works Cited

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 2nd Ed. San Francisco,CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 90-117.

Plato. “Ion.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 37-48.

___. “Republic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 49-80.

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