Ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας, μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι᾽ ἀπαγγελίας, δι᾽ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν. (Aristotle, Poetics 6)
“Master Aristotle, how does one spell ‘catharsis‘?”
“You know perfectly well how to spell it, Alexander.”
“I suppose. But I don’t know why you say tragedy stimulates the bowels.”
Incorrigible. So hard to resist the urge to beat this boy within an inch of his life.
“That is not the kind of ‘purging’ that a tragic play brings about in the audience.”
“And yet in the Laws, the immortal Plato …”
Alas for his father Philip. What will happen to Macedon when this princeling becomes king, I cannot imagine.
“Now, as I was saying, Alexander, the great events of tragic drama arouse pity and fear in the spectators, and in this way …”
Once, years ago, I hit a deer. It was dark, and I was driving fast on two-lane blacktop. From stage right, a large buck leaped into the light of my high-beams. It then veered ninety degrees and raced down the double-yellow line ahead of me. Animal and car were now on the exact same path, the gap narrowing by the second. I braked hard. The front end of my car dipped. In the footlights, the deer’s antlers rose and fell, rose and fell.
(There is an old story about a hunter who became a deer. In the woods he stumbled upon a leafy grotto so picturesque that it did not seem real: nature imitating art imitating nature. And standing in the cool water on a hot day was a naked goddess. The virgin goddess of the hunt, in fact. She turned, saw, blushed. Lifting a handful of water, she cast it at the hunter. Through his wet hair antlers sprouted. His neck lengthened. Fur grew over his body. Soon, too soon, his own hounds noticed. He, or it, fled. The terror was unspeakable. Hunter, predator, seeming rapist had become hunted, prey, victim. Can so much turn on one chance encounter?)
Too late, with a slight tilt of its powerful body, the deer began its exit, once again stage right. In the end, it was a glancing blow. Driver’s side mirror torn away, windshield glass cracked by one antler. And in that moment before life and death parted ways — the one on a course to now, the other into the darkness of that night — our faces were separated by mere inches.
I saw a movie recently, The Rider. A young cowboy named Brady Jandreau, who once suffered a career-ending injury in a rodeo when a bronco stepped on his head, plays a young cowboy named Brady Atkinson, who suffers a career-ending injury in a rodeo when a bronco steps on his head. In the film’s most difficult-to-watch scenes, we see Brady visiting his close friend Lane Scott, played by Lane Scott, who is paralyzed and being cared for in a rehab center. Brady and the fictional Lane watch videos of the real Lane competing in bull-riding competitions and hamming it up for the camera. Near the end of the film, Lane uses hand signs to spell out for Brady the words “Don’t give up on your dreams.”
In The Rider, Brady Atkinson is a brooding, intense young man whose squinty-eyed profile against the South Dakota grasslands is iconic. For his part, Brady Jandreau, already somewhat jaded, now has an agent and is auditioning for other movies. And the real Lane Scott? Tragically injured not by a rodeo bull, as I had assumed, but in an automobile accident.
There must have been a moment in human history when, for the first time ever, a person had the realization, “This right here is like one of those great stories.” I wonder what time of the day or night it was when this thought first occurred to a human being: “I myself am the hero of this story.” In that moment, the mythical emerged from myth. In that moment, imagination was born, and humankind began its rapid ascent from animal instinct toward godlike contemplation of self.
So, it’s not that we turn to art to be cleansed and emptied out, as the literal-minded philosopher had it. Just the opposite, in fact. We look to art to be filled up with story, stories that we can tell ourselves about ourselves.
Alexander the Great is supposed to have slept each night with a copy of Homer’s Iliad nearby.
Whenever Brady Jandreau settled on the back of a wild bronc, clutched the reins, and waited for the gate to open, it was a mythical cowboy very much like Brady Atkinson — stoical and indomitable — whom he was emulating, just below conscious thought.
Finally, the real Lane Scott, from his wheelchair at QLI Rehabilitation Center in Omaha, Nebraska, is reported to have improvised at least one line of dialogue for his character Lane Scott. The latter asks Brady how he is doing with the brand-new metal plate in his head. Lane listens to his response and then signs, grinning a big grin, “J-u-s-t r-u-b s-o-m-e d-i-r-t i-n i-t.”
At night on a backroad in rural America, circa 1990, one of two things happened.
A deer ran out in front of a car and got hit.
Or two earthly creatures had a sudden and violent encounter, in which was figured the divergent paths taken by their remote ancestors, the one mostly unaltered from then until now, and the other speeding ever faster and faster into an uncertain future, both blessed and cursed with his Promethean gifts. And in that chance meeting on the boundary between human and nonhuman, past and future, heaven and hell, the man caught a glimpse of what was and is no longer, and at the same time, what might be but won’t.