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  • Contingency and Poetics
  • Gary Saul Morson


In the Poetics, Aristotle surmises that “poetry . . . seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature.” 1 We take pleasure in imitating because we love to learn. No less important, we possess “an instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm,” for structure, order, and form (Poetics, p. 50). Each of these sources of poetry testifies to our residence in a radically uncertain world, which requires us both to find whatever order it may contain (learning) and to create order where we can (harmony), whether for instruction or consolation. If the world were certain, if our instincts provided clear and inflexible rules for dealing with it, and if experience manifested an evident harmony, we would not need art.

The very existence of art therefore indicates a radical disjunction between the world it portrays and the world in which we live, between experience and harmony. Unlike Euclidean geometry and the perfect motion of the heavenly bodies, life in the sublunary world is radically uncertain. Contingency, disorder, and consequently the unexpected reign. Count no man happy until he is dead, Herodotus warns us, and Euripides ends several plays with variations on the same theme:

The shapes of divinity are many, and The gods accomplish many things beyond hope; The expected was not fulfilled And god found a way for the unexpected.   That is how this affair turned out. 2

The world does not conform to the patterns of our mind. But the very works that enunciate this truth do conform to it. “We envy streams and [End Page 286] houses that are sure; / But we are articled to error. . . . We live in freedom by necessity, / A mountain people dwelling among mountains,” 3 writes W. H. Auden in a poem that achieves the perfection whose absence it laments. If we do not find what is sure, we make it.

The order of art and the mess of experience: this opposition underlies much Western thought, which, if I may adapt a received phrase, may be seen as a series of footnotes to Aristotle.

For Aristotle, and for the tradition of poetics deriving from him, the harmony of art ideally eliminates all contingency from the artwork. It makes a perfect “unity,” in which everything has its place. Nothing is just there, as it is in life, but everything is there for a purpose. Otherwise the artwork would be flawed. A perfect poem manifests perfect form—a term that in Aristotle’s thought means something like an overall plan or formula—or as we might say today, control of information. Form is the DNA of art. When properly written, all the matter out of which the artwork is made has been subject to an all-encompassing design, “the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole” (Poetics, p. 55). In the well-made work, nothing is contingent, if by the contingent we mean, as Aristotle defines the term, something that can either be or not be.

For this reason, Aristotle rejects episodic plots—“of all plots the episodic are the worst” (p. 54)—inasmuch as in such a plot one could add or subtract an episode and not materially affect the whole. If such an incident were eliminated, its absence would not be perceptible; on the other hand, the episodic narrative could, in principle, be extended indefinitely without altering its structure.

By the same token, Aristotle reasons, it is a mistake to think that the story of one person’s life provides unity: “For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life, which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action” (p. 53). Eighteenth-century theorists were to reduce these points to a demand for artificial “unities” of time and place, but virtually every school of poetics has maintained a demand for some kind of unity that rules out the merely contingent. Indeed, one...

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