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Pity and Imitation

January 20th, 2015 by

Today I thought again about Plato and Aristotle and their views on poetry.

Plato, of course, rejected poetry as mere imitation. Since it could not, as a copy of a copy of a copy, lead to a perception of truth, it was therefore not worthy of anyone’s time. Aristotle, in contrast, saw that poetry and tragedy could excite strong feelings of empathy and identification, and this was important. Though they disagreed with each other on a number of issues, they seemed to rely on each other for a great deal of their thinking.

I love poetry and drama, so I think I know who is right in this classical argument. But the reason I began rethinking this today is because last night, my youngest son (he’s 14) suggested that we see Night at the Museum 3. At first, neither of our sons had any interest in this sequel, but I suspect that because it stands as Robin Williams’ final appearance in a film, my son thought we should see it. He has that level of awareness about movies. He’s even seen Citizen Kane and thinks it matters.

Even so, he and his older brother found the Museum film horribly flawed, full of dramatic moves we’ve all seen in other movies. Lancelot appears in the British museum, for example, as this movie’s Buzz Lightyear (“He really doesn’t know he’s not real?” the other museum pieces say of him). And the harder the actors in this movie try to make us believe they are earnest as fairly stock characters, the more laughable the whole affair becomes. The son of Ben Stiller’s character, the teen my sons are supposed to identify with, is in a stereotyped teen conflict over whether he wants to go to college or be a DJ in Spain. At one point in the action, he says to Lancelot, who is trying to reach Starfleet–er, Camelot–that he can use a sword because he knows World of Warcraft.

“World of Warcraft has been gone for about eight years,” my older son told us after the film. This is just more evidence that this was a script written by adults who have no real knowledge of what they are writing about.

So at the mere level of imitation, this film did not deliver. It seemed written by someone who once heard about computer games a long time ago from a kid who is now in his late twenties.

There is this problem with the many stories we get through movies that merely follow formulas or work on what we are already familiar with. In a sense, Plato might be right that bad imitations don’t lead us to insights. But they are harmless, laughable failures, not harmful ones, unless, at bottom, we fail then to empathize with a character’s struggles in a story. I think that this is the most important failure in the movie we watched last night. We were supposed to feel empathy for the characters, and we couldn’t. In the great tragedies that Aristotle wrote about, of course, we are supposed to identify with the characters as recognizably human, as having pride and faults like our own, but also hopes and possibilities. When we observe their failure, we are supposed to feel pity and, to some degree, catharsis.

The cheaper application of Plato’s views on art has come when friends who are otherwise good theologians take this approach to TV and movies and think that since art is imitation, everything in a program has to be wholesome and moral, or else it isn’t suitable, and we might begin to imitate bad behaviors. Well, perhaps small children might. But most everyone else, I suspect, is not looking to imitate but for empathy. My older son has told me on no uncertain terms that playing a violent video game is not going to cause anyone to go act out the imitation and shoot up a school lunch room. He thinks that those who blamed the Columbine tragedy on video games are absolutely wrong. Simply because he plays a video game that has violence, my son argues, the imitation of violence in the game will not cause him to go astray. (For the record, he doesn’t play violent video games.)

But what if, I have asked him, we are increasingly subjected to human suffering and we stop empathizing with the sufferers? The more controversial question I’ve begun to ask is this: If we stop feeling pity for those in a drama, is it possible that we will fail to feel pity for those around us?

Is this the cultural scourge of bad art?

Obviously, Aristotle might have been offering a corrective on Plato’s ideas, especially Plato’s emphasis on story as imitation. In a sense, it seems that both philosophers could be right. Story imitates some aspect of what we recognize in the world. If the imitation fails in some way to have any ring of reality, it won’t work. But as Aristotle might question, to what end is there an imitation? Is it only to fool children and to make us feel less responsive to the real when we perceive it, as Plato might have it? Or does the imitation cause us to recognize something in ourselves, as Aristotle has it?

These are questions that lead me to think that these two philosophers really needed each other.

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