"Creative Instinct" in Aristotle's "Poetics"

The Creative Instinct
by Sara Liss

In The Poetics, Aristotle asserts that literature is a function of human nature's instinct to imitate. This implies that as humans, we are constantly driven to imitate, to create. By labeling this creative impulse an "instinct," one is to believe that this desire for imitation is a matter of survival, of necessity. The question then arises, of what does one feel compelled to imitate and in what way does it aid in our survival? According to essays by T.S. Eliot and Barbara Johnson, the purpose of literature is to be a part of a necessary creative process, sometimes to the extent that the creator is lost and consumed by the cause.

The first issue to tackle is the question of what literature imitates. Imitation and representation encompass all the media of artistic expression with the artist striving to represent aspects of reality or human experience. This is done either through song, the visual arts, or literature. The artist, in a sense, strives to imitate God by wielding creative power and performing a human version of divine creation. The artist is attempting to communicate his or her subjective interpretation of the world. However, the use of an interpretive medium also poses a unique challenge. In the case of Literature, imitation is complicated by the inherent limitations of language. Despite, or perhaps because of these limitations, artist then becomes part of a creative process in which the relationship between the writer, the text, and the subject matter become intertwined, blurring distinction between these separate components.

T.S. Eliot deals specifically with how one should view literature in relation to its creator. He opposes the school of literary criticism that judges a poem's effectiveness based on the history and personality of the poet rather than the poem itself. According to Eliot, the poet must understand his or her position in the literary tradition. He states that "what is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career"(CMS 407). According to Eliot the only consciousness a writer should have is of his or her place in the literary tradition. Consciousness of emotional authenticity is irrelevant for Eliot. Consciousness of the literary past is what gives a text its individuality. The individuality of the poet or the uniqueness of the emotions expressed in the poem is unnecessary because, Eliot believes, "one error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express"(CMS 410). Eliot wants the focus to be on the actual text for its contribution to the literary tradition rather than the poet's personality or emotional depth. Questions of whether or not the poem realistically captures human experience are not as important as whether the poem maintains its own emotional impact regardless of the poet's history. Therefore, if one understands imitation as the creator's representation of personal emotions or subjective experience, Eliot does not see imitation as the goal of literature. The poem is not representing something, but rather, it is existing on its own.
Despite the fact that Eliot does not see "mimesis" or, imitation as the goal of poetry, his theory of depersonalization of literature does relate to Aristotle's idea of mimesis. Eliot does not view the poet's personal experience as the proper motivation for good literature. During the creative process, the poet should experience "a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist, is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality" (CMS 407). However, this does not mean that the poet does not communicate emotional depth through poetry. A poet can still successfully capture certain epistemological and philosophical truths about existence and reality. He or she is still fulfilling the instinct to imitate. In fact, Elliot argues, only through depersonalization can the poet successfully communicate his imitation because it is not bogged down in subjective interpretation. Therefore, the poet is imitating and representing, but Eliot believes it is possible only by escaping the self and removing the personal implications of a text's meaning.

Barbara Johnson explores mimesis in relation to the limitations of language in her essay, "A Hound, a Bay Horse, and a Turtle Dove: Obscurity in Walden." Johnson focuses on Thoreau's use of symbolic language and what she sees as his unintended goal. She understands Thoreau's use of obscure symbols as representing an idea of obscurity rather than actual objects or concepts. She asserts that "You are supposed to recognize them as not as obscure symbols, but as symbols standing for the obscure, the lost, the irretrievable"(CMS 658). In this sense, form follows content. The symbols are purposely obscure because they represent the irretrievable and obscure. Thoreau's imitation here is not relegated to a particular experience of loss, but of a concept and he accomplishes this in an intentionally cryptic fashion. This is because the concept he is attempting to communicate is itself so unknowable, so he uses obscure terms.

Thoreau realizes the limitations of language. He understood that the act of imitation is itself an endeavor limited by language. Therefore, for Thoreau, this instinctual impulse toward imitation remains exactly that ­ an impulse toward creativity despite the limitations of the medium. However, his text also maintains a consciousness of its inherent limitations. Johnson calls Thoreau's technique "catachreses," or, figurative substitutes for a literal term that does not exist (CMS 659). Thoreau fulfills his imitative instinct by using literature's representative, though inherently limited, faculty to represent something, which can not be represented.

Johnson concludes her essay by stating that Thoreau became so completely consumed in the creative act, that his figurative language ceases to be understandable as either pure rhetoric or a literal cataloguing of thoughts. She explains that, "what Thoreau has done in moving to Walden Pond is to move himself, literally, into the world of his own figurative language."(CMS 661) His writing loses its coherence because his symbolism saturates and overwhelms the narrative. Johnson explains that "Thoreau has literally crossed over into the very parable he is writing, where reality itself has become a catachresis"(CMS 661). He has delved so deeply into the act of representation that the reader is never sure of the creator's true intent. Perhaps it is Thoreau's intent to illustrate that the imitative power of literature is that one can never quite represent an idea, thought, emotions, without disclaiming its true intent beforehand. The paradox of artistic intent is that because of its inherent duality, art and literature can never specifically be separated from its creator or its product.

Both Eliot and Johnson agree that a text should posses a certain consciousness. For Eliot that consciousness is of the literary tradition, of the text of human experience. As Johnson demonstrates through Thoreau, text can not help but be conscious of its own limited imitative capacity. Eliot believes that if a poet depersonalizes a text enough, than it can really accomplish an expression of deep emotion or thought. Johnson sees the medium of literature as an obstacle to actual representation, but that ambiguity enhances the text to the extent that it "delights and baffles" (CMS 655).

Aristotle's idea now takes on greater depth given these new perspectives. He phrases it as an "instinct towards imitation" because this impulse toward to creation is practically unconscious. As thoughtful beings, humans are driven to pursue this creative instinct. It is as innate an instinct for survival as the need for food and shelter. Therefore we pursue this impulse toward imitation almost without caring if we imitate successfully. We are acting within our given boundaries and limitations. According to Johnson, that is what gives literature its richness. Eliot believes the poet can transcend those limitations. Everyone agrees that one must act on the creative instinct.

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