μῦθος / Plot

5) recognition

recognition

the best form of recognition

Regrets sur quoi l'enfer se fonde - Guillaume Apollinaire, "La Chanson du Mal-aimé"

The specificity with which Aristotle defines recognition as "a shift from ignorance to knowledge" stands at the threshold of yet further precision about the kind of ignorance Aristotle has in mind. It has to do with a central character's relationship with another character who has been, or is likely to be, the victim of an act of violence (παθήματα) perpetrated by that character.  Here again, Aristotle is specific.  The victim is either classified as a blood relative (φίλος) of the character or as an enemy (ἐχθρός) or neutral - options discussed at considerable length in Aristotle's discussion of character.  The recognition suddenly rewrites the relationship, and reverses the judgment on the appropriateness of the act of violence in question.

before recognition after recognition

The dramatic effect of the recognition hangs on the fact that the ignorance being corrected is an ignorance of particulars, rather than an ignorance of principles. As Aristotle states in his discussion of character, if Oedipus were suffering from an ignorance of principles and did not realize that it's wrong to kill one's father, his reaction upon learning that the man he had killed at the crossroads was his father would be devoid of emotional energy. On the other hand, were he to suffer from an ignorance of particulars and not know that the man he took as an adversary was really his father, the revelation would have resulted in a lightning flash of agony and regret.

The extreme emotionality of such a situation is exactly what Aristotle urges the dramatist to seek. These regrets are, to quote Guillaume Apollinaire, the kind of regrets "upon which hell is built." They also reveal that the tragic character was acting as he or she did as a result of a mistake that we, as audience, might also have made, were we in the character's situation. These are the circumstances that could engender the pity that Aristotle encourages throughout the Poetics, assuming that the discovery takes place after the violent act has been committed. Prior to the violent act, the audience experiences the fear that, given the character's mistaken understanding of her or his circumstances, such an act appears likely to occur - as in the case of Iphigenia in Tauris.

Having defined recognition, Aristotle goes on to list five ways the discovery might come about.

by signs
at the will of the poet
by awakened memories
by reasoning
by natural means