5.05.2013

Two Observations on Plato, Aristotle, and Harry Potter

I'm taking a Dramatic Theory seminar through the Theater Department this quarter. In addition to the outrageously comfortable conference room chairs and meeting a new group of colleagues, Dr. David King has us wandering through an etymology-strewn, philosophy-riddled history/mind/soul-scape including the Caves of Lascaux, Nietzsche, Horace, Ruth Padel, Benjamin, and so many others. We have one session a week, almost three hours long, after which my sluggish mind, waterlogged with knowledge and hopefully a little wisdom, wants nothing more than to go home and read Harry Potter out loud (lautlesen) as my wife makes dinner. Yet, you can't really halt rumination, and here are two small connections that cropped up:

Plato and Aristotle (discussing HP?) in Raphael's The School of Athens
  1. 1.  The word mimesis is outrageously difficult to define. It can imply imitation, or representation, but also ideas like copy, translation, inventionillusion, or lie. It's often used in dramatic theory to talk about the theater as a crossroads of reality and fantasy, not only in terms of whether or not the plot is historically accurate or realistically feasible, but whether or not one thinks of the actor as actor or as character, the prop or the object. At one point Plato, who has an extremely complicated view of theater, uses mimetic in conjunction with the word diagetic to talk about ways of delivering a text. A diagetic delivery involves simple reading of the text, word for word, in your own natural voice; to read in a mimetic manner means giving different characters different voices. Essentially the former is Madeline L'Engle in her audiobook for A Wrinkle in Time (quite monotone), and the latter is Jim Dale reading the Rowling's Harry Potter series or Phillip Schulmann reciting C.S. Lewis' Narnia books (inflected, character-full voices galore). While one is not necessarily better than the other, I am definitely of the mimetic cast, a trait I inherited from my father's inspired readings of Verne, Lewis, and Twain when I was a child. In my mind, it's simply a lot more fun! However, Plato adds an aspect to mimesis that has some of that ancient world magic to it: the mimetic reader, as they invoke the voice of the character they are portraying, will actually, in a way, become that character and even feel what that character feels. A powerful idea! What do you give of yourself when you enter into a part? What might you receive? I caught myself thinking of this as I spoke Voldemort's "high, cold voice" and in a way count myself thankful that I got through it alright.
  2. 2.  A smaller observation stems from the intensely etymological exegesis of Dr. King. Two words: splanchnon and peripateia. The first, dealt with extensively in a reading we did by Padel, is regularly translated as stomach or guts. For the ancient Greeks this is the place of emotions, of black fear, of the touching point between mortality and the divine. (Next time you get stressed and feel your stomach clench, that's your splanchnon ringing with the sound of eternity!) The second word, peripateia, is dealt with by Aristotle when he's laying out the proper disposition of a theatrical plot. It involves the moment of a plot's change of direction or reversal or twist, and constitutes an extremely important, catharsis-rich moment in a performance. After reading the Poetics and basking in the import of these two ideas, my eye was quick to pick up on a passing, but perhaps pivotal moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: literally, Harry's "stomach turned over!" There it is! His splanchnon peripateia-ed! Blammo! ... (This is when Jessica shrugs her shoulders and allows me a moment of intellectual nerding-out, before we continue the thrilling saga and and she resumes crafting our dinner (which will soon end up right in my splanchnon!!!!))
Here's to the beginning of Week 6. Cheers!

Socrates on his way to that King's Cross Station in the clouds
(unknown artist)

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