The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Whalley on Mimesis and Tragedy


C. Q. Drummond



George Whalley published his understanding of mimesis and tragedy in three remarkable essays: “On Translating Aristotle’s Poetics,” “The Aristotle-Coleridge Axis,” and “Jane Austen: Poet.”[1] Whalley did translate the Poetics, but everything I say here is based on the three published essays I listed, especially the first, “On Translating Aristotle’s Poetics.” That essay includes four paragraphs from the translation along with the commentary Whalley wrote for them. From just these few packed pages emerges a strikingly coherent and profound accounting for tragedy and mimesis. It is coherent because everything in it derives from one central insight—that both mimesis and tragedy are species of doing, acting, making, activity, process. The virtue of Whalley’s argument is that even the Greekless reader turns to other translations of the Poetics alerted to the informing presence in Aristotle of energetic process, of purposive self-disclosing activity. Whalley sees and stresses the cardinal importance of doing or acting in Aristotle’s Poetics in at least three ways: first, in Attic Greek itself; second, in the peculiar energy of Aristotle’s thinking; and third, in the very meaning of mimesis and tragedy as action.


            My first point I must take on authority—Whalley’s own and that of other students of Greek who corroborate his account of “the vivid directness typical of Greek philosophical writing” (85). This directness Whalley attributes, for the most part, to Greek’s being highly inflected and “extremely rich in participles, which with a fully inflected definite article offer a wide range of substantival adjectives which function like verbal nouns, preserving the active initiative of the verbs that are radical to them” (85). The trouble with English as a language for translating the Poetics is that it is weak in “words of active or indicative termination … words that by their form clearly imply process or continuous action” (85-6). In particular, “English has no word to match the processive implications that abide in the very form of the words mimesis and poiesis” (86). Because in ordinary English “we tend to fall back on nouns formed from Latin past participles (imitation, conception, notion, construction) or upon collective nouns (poetry, for example, which has to serve far too many uses” (86), Whalley proposes to use many present participles and to transliterate the technical terms, especially those that end in -sis, to keep clear their meaning activities or processes and not things or products. A homely example for those of us in universities is the difference between the word administration, which seems to identify some authoritative or consecrated “thing,” and the word administering, which only means a kind of doing or acting that all of us take part in.


A less homely example of Whalley’s way of stressing the energy and activity of Greek is his describing it in metaphors from athletics. In a figure (I believe) from wrestling, he demands “a prose style that will remain in close continuous contact with the details of Greek, an English vocabulary, syntax, and rhythm that will catch the immediacy and movements of the Greek” (84), which he describes as “supple,” “strong,” “vigorous.” He therefore praises Else’s translation for “its close contact with Greek” and Grube’s for “its firm muscularity” (89). His best statement of the metaphor, in which the figure both clarifies and reintegrates the literal, is this: “The best Greek prose is wonderfully sinewy and fluent—athletic in its grace and with a superb athlete’s way of disposing energy in repose; by contrast much English philosophical prose recalls the muscle-bound rigidity of Hellenistic and Roman boxers”(86).


Greek may indeed be as strong and supple as Whalley says it is, but more important are the athletic energy and physicality of the Poetics itself, “the direct tactile qualities of the Greek original” (77), “the driving energy of Aristotle’s thought” (77). Whalley quotes the static word thought from Jaeger, but he significantly rephrases it as the processive present participle—thinking. His wish is to bring his reader to “a vivid sense of the energy and shape of Aristotle’s thinking, and so to bring him into the presence of Aristotle thinking—Aristotle making this thing, Aristotle inventing for this purpose a method that allows him to do what he sees he must do” (82). In Aristotle’s presence, in the presence of “energy that imparts wholeness,” Whalley finds himself saying: “We have a given text, made by Aristotle; it has a form which implies not only why it exists, but what it is, and what energy is disposed in its realisation, and what patterns of resistance have been interposed to lead that energy into self-expository form” (82). We recognise here George Whalley’s persistent understanding that “vigorous thinking is an activity of imagination,” what he calls in the Jane Austen essay “an integrated and potent state of the self—a realising condition” (104). Whalley wants a translation of the Poetics to disclose the drama of the discourse, for as he says Aristotle himself notes, drama means doing, acting. The drama of the Poetics, like other dramas, according to Whalley, consists in the action of an athletic energy disposed against patterns of resistance. The account he gives of Aristotle’s Poetics is the account he gives of Greek prose. His intention in tracing both is the intention he ascribes to Aristotle: “to heighten the [reader’s] dramatic sense [his sense of doing, acting] and energise his understanding” (89). Whalley says that Aristotle, “intensely aware of the complex and refined dynamic of tragedy, … is not content to say what tragedy is (as though that were easy anyway), but insists on showing how it works” (99). Similarly Whalley, also intensely aware of the complex and refined dynamic of the drama of thinking, is not content to say what Aristotle’s Poetics is (as though that were easy anyway), but insists on showing how it works. And like Aristotle, “as he advances, he concentrates on making and doing and acting” (99).


But neither the processive activity of the Greek language nor the peculiar energy of Aristotle’s thinking can alone count for much with us, especially those of us who without a proper translation of Aristotle’s Greek could not begin to appreciate either. Our judgement of Whalley’s dealing with mimesis and tragedy will ultimately turn on what he, with his knowledge of Greek and Aristotle, can invite us into thinking. My third point, then, is that Whalley’s account of mimesis and tragedy is that they are species of the making, doing, and acting, other species of which he has already delineated in Greek and in Aristotle’s thinking.


As I have said, the word mimesis itself Whalley declines to translate. He transliterates it to avoid using the word “imitation,” which because of its Latinate form leads us to believe it denominates a thing. Mimesis, Whalley says, is a processive word: we should always read it as a “process—mimesis.” In fact, “in order to keep clear that mimesis is an activity or process and not a thing or a product,” he uses the clause “they do their mimesis” instead of “they make their mimesis,” because this latter clause “would allow mimesis to be thought of as a product, an ‘imitation’” (91). Since, as Whalley points out, Aristotle himself does not define mimesis, but leaves it “open for exploration and for progressive self-definition in the body of the discussion” (91), and since that exploration takes place mainly in the discussion and defining of “tragedy” itself, we must turn to that discussion. And here I must quote an extended passage from Whalley’s translation. Aristotle has just said that tragedy “is a mimesis of an action” and has asserted that the number of “aspects” to tragedy is exactly six: “plot and characters and speech and thought and ‘visuals’ and song-making”:


But the most important of these is the putting-together (?structuring) of the events. For tragedy is a mimesis not of men [simply] but of an action, that is, of life. That’s how it is that they certainly do not act in order to present their characters: they assume their characters for the sake of the actions [they are to do]. And so the [course of] events—the plot—is the end of tragedy, and the end is what matters most of all. Furthermore, you can’t have a tragedy without an action, but you can have it without [clearly defined] characters…. So it follows that the first principle of tragedy—the soul, in fact—is the plot, and second to that the characters; it is a mimesis of an action (praxis) and therefore particularly [a mimesis] of men-of-action in action. (96)


A tragedy—indeed, the soul of a tragedy—is a mimesis of an action, the action of men-of-action in action. To understand this we need to be clear about two terms that Whalley has already discussed, praxis and men-of-action. The men-of-action Aristotle is talking about are spoudaioi, morally superior praiseworthy men-of-action whose actions flow from deliberately taken moral choice. They are to be distinguished from phauloi—mean, trivial, no-account men, who might be the subjects of rough lampooning, but who are utterly incapable of the kind of action that morally superior men can initiate and that is the subject of tragedy. The action of a morally superior man-of-action is a praxis. Thus far Whalley takes us by his insistence on acting, doing: the plot for tragedy is an action; the subject of a tragedy is a  praxis, a certain kind of action; and the relation between them is mimesis—a process, that is to say, an action. One action is a process or action of another action.


Let us take the next step, a step that seems to me clearly implied in Whalley’s account and that on Whalley’s account seems to do no violence to Aristotle: the plot of a tragedy may be the mimesis of a praxis because the plot and the praxis have the same form. I would even hazard that mimesis is the process by means of which one action may be said to be about another action, for the reason that the two actions do have the same form. If this interpretation is possible, it helps explain why Whalley calls Aristotle’s Poetics, on the one hand, “bravely and incontrovertibly moral” (94-5), and on the other, formal. It is moral because it argues that tragedy has as its subject moral action by morally superior men; hence to explain tragedy Aristotle must explain both the ethical sources and the ethical consequences of human action. Ethics logically precedes poetics. But poetics is none the less formal, because the mimesis of a serious moral action cannot succeed unless it achieves the form of that moral action. That is, tragedy can teach because it presents for our intellectual apprehension the form of moral action.


But is this interpretation consistent with what Whalley himself says about form? Perhaps. Following Aristotle, Whalley treats form itself as a cause of an activity or doing. Aristotle’s “way of looking at anything—man, creature, poem—inevitably presents it as becoming or having become what its internal necessity demanded of it” (“Axis,” 100). “The form then is the final statement … of an activity seeking its own end, its own fulfilment” (“On Translating,” 97). In support of this point Whalley quotes from Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “Since we must know the existence of the thing and it must be given, clearly the question is why the matter is some individual thing…. Therefore what we seek is the cause, i.e. the form by reason of which the matter is some definite thing; and this is the substance of the thing” (106). What we might tend to call things, Aristotle—and Whalley—see as processes becoming what they are to be: this is achieving its end; its form is the cause of its achieving its end. A man’s soul is his form, the cause that he is becoming what he is to be, his end, and we can recognise that Whalley’s stress on doing or acting has its ultimate source deep in Aristotelian metaphysics.


Now when Whalley says that for Aristotle “everything presents itself to him in terms of motion and end” (97), the things he lists as examples are “a snail, an octopus or dogfish, the convolutions of a nautilus shell or the evolution of the government of a city-state, or the activity of man as a moral creature” (97), and we have just noted another list that includes “man, creature, poem.” These lists may unfortunately conflate the two kinds of things that Aristotle says compose the world: natural things, in each of which its form is internally realised (the snail, or the octopus); and artificial or man-made things, the form of each of which a man has imposed upon it externally, a pot or a bed. These artificial things come into being not by realising a form potentially in them but by a man’s imposing upon external matter a form that was previously in his mind. Is Whalley implying that a tragedy is a sort of compromise or tertium quid between natural and artificial things? Tragedies are indeed made by men; the form of Oedipus Rex was in Sophocles’ mind before Sophocles imposed that form upon his matter, which in this case is speech. Indeed, in his commentary on Aristotle’s opening paragraph Whalley insists that the poet is a maker, and that the poetic art is an art of making. But is a tragedy a special kind of thing—a made thing that nevertheless realises internally its own form? The only sanction for what seems to me a quite un-Aristotelian compromise is that sentence I have already quoted in Whalley’s translation: “the first principle of tragedy—the soul, in fact—is the plot.” If the soul of a man is his form achieving its end, and if we take Aristotle’s intention here to be not just to use a striking metaphor but to assert a literal fact, then a tragic plot is essentially like a man: each is an activity seeking its end or fulfilment. But then a made thing is essentially like a natural thing, and this Aristotle denies.


I do not claim to understand this matter, and I wish that either Whalley had been more explicit or that I could better understand Whalley’s prose. On the other hand, Whalley writes that for him the outcome of a piece of vigorous thinking (such as I believe each of his essays is) “could be expected to be, not a group of ‘conclusions’ or doctrinal precepts, but rather the record of a feat of inventive thinking and the starting-point for fertile, elucidatory, finely controlled, and energetic reflection in response to it” (83). So in attempting (at however low a level) some elucidating reflecting, let me ask whether a possible answer to our question could go something like this: A man of-(moral)-action in action is realising his end as a man. A true mimesis of this action of a superior man’s realising his end is a plot that also realises its end. But the mimesis must be a true mimesis; that is, the poet must succeed in his making or doing. If the poet does succeed, if his process of mimesis goes well, if he makes what he ought to make, the form of  the plot will be the form of the action of the man of-(moral)-action in action. If the action and the tragic plot do have the same form, then the poet has made a kind of living thing. Is this what Whalley means when he says in the conclusion of his essay “On Translating [the] Poetics” that “mimesis is simply the continuous dynamic relation between a work of art and whatever stands over against it in the actual moral universe …,” that it is “the specific delineation, within extremely fine limits, of a moral action so subtle, so powerful, and important that it is almost impossible to delineate it; an action self-generated that has as its end a recognition of the nature and destiny of man”? (103).[2]







[1] “On Translating Aristotle’s Poetics,” University of Toronto Quarterly 39 (1970): 77-106; “The Aristotle-Coleridge Axis,” University of Toronto Quarterly 42 (1973): 93-109; and “Jane Austen: Poet,” Jane Austen’s Achievement, ed. Juliet McMaster (London: Macmillan, 1976): 106-33. The first and third of these essays were reprinted in George Whalley, Studies in Literature and the Humanities: Innocence of Intent, ed. Brian Crick and John Ferns (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1985); the second was reprinted in George Whalley, trans., Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. John Baxter and Patrick Atherton (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1997).

[2] This essay is part of a collection of essays by C.Q. Drummond, In Defence of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others forthcoming from The Brynmill Press/Edgeways Books. We are grateful to the Press and to the Estate of C. Q. Drummond for permission to reprint it here.






Drummond, C. Q. “Whalley on Mimesis and Tragedy.The New Compass: A Critical Review 1 (June 2003) <>