Authors and filmmakers have depicted the modern stereotypical “struggling author” in their films and stories for decades. From whence did this stereotype come? What is the role of the author in the creation of the artform? There have been a plethora of theories that have investigated the nature of the author, but most find their roots in the theories of the Ancient Greeks, specifically Plato and Aristotle.
Two major works divulge Plato’s theories of art and poetry: Phaedrus and The Republic. In Phaedrus, Plato argues that poetry is often the product of divine inspiration. The poet does not philosophize or think through their poetry; the knowledge necessary to create poetry comes from a muse—a god—that possesses the poet and gives them knowledge that they cannot understand.
Henceforth, since the authors themselves cannot understand what they are creating, the poetic process is not one of understanding, rationale, or “sophia”—wisdom. Rather, poetry is a product of madness and divine possession.
Plato’s theory deeply contrasts with the ideas of Kundera, who argued that the novel comes from the author first thinking, then hearing the sound of God’s laughter. According to Kundera, the novel comes from humanity’s awareness of its own limitations in thinking rather than an ignorant bout of divine inspiration and madness in which human thought is somewhat suspended.
Meanwhile, in Books III and X of The Republic, Plato argues that art in general, not merely poetics, is worthy of suspicion. According to Plato’s philosophy, appearance and reality are separate. Our everyday life is merely a shadow of an idealistic life. Precisely because poetry imitates what we see and does not philosophize enough to get to the more abstract, idealistic sphere of reality, poetry merely attempts to bring humanity closer to appearance and further away from reality. Thus, Plato claims that we must see art as a mere mimesis of appearance, not as true beauty.
Aristotle’s theories are not lighthearted either, though he is gentler in his delivery. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, poetry and tragedy are merely imitations of grand actions taken on by people. In this sense, he agrees with Plato that art and poetry are mimetic. Yet, Aristotle believes that this mimesis is a catalyst for learning. This is because the audience can relate to the action in the display and, henceforth, experience the same pity and fear that the characters in the art piece would—without all of the consequences that come with the story. This is a sort of relief that facilitates thought. While Aristotle does not explicitly indicate what this would mean for the author, one could assume that catharsis first requires a built-up tension; one could assume that mimesis requires observation.
Although they slightly differ in their views, the theories of both Plato and Aristotle indicate that the author must suffer in some way in order to write. According to Plato, the author is only able to write if a god first possesses him and imbues him with knowledge, suspending the author’s thought and sending him into a bout of frenzy. Though Aristotle does not mention any such possession, he claims that the literary genre of tragedy must make the audience feel cathartic. Though he does not explicitly say it, one can assume that there must be a built-up tension within the author in order to be able to create a truly cathartic work of literature. They both further identify art in general as mimetic: it must somewhat resemble or come out of observances of the everyday world.
Aristotle, et al. Poetics. Harvard University Press, 1995.
Kundera, Milan, and Linda Asher. The Art of the Novel. Harper Perennial, 2006.
Platon, et al. Republic. Harvard University Press, 2013.
Plato, and Harvey Evan Yunis. Phaedrus. Cambridge University Press, 2011.