Recognitions: A Study in Poetics

Recognitions: A Study in Poetics

Recognitions: A Study in Poetics

Recognitions: A Study in Poetics


Anagnorisis--recognition--is one of the least familiar terms in Aristotelian poetics, yet it is used to describe one of the most familiar features of drama and narrative fiction. This invaluable study by leading Renaissance scholar Terence Cave is the first to trace the history of the term and to explore its role in French, German, and English literature as a continuing focus for theoretical reflection.


I need hardly tell you that in families of high position strange coincidences are not supposed to occur. They are hardly considered the thing.

(The Importance of Being Earnest)

RECOGNITION (anagnôrisis) is unquestionably the least respectable term in Aristotelian poetics. Mimesis, hamartia and catharsis are all serious matters: it is difficult to go far in literary criticism without knowing what they are, or at least what they are supposed to be. The very word anagnorisis is less familiar, and the lack of familiarity is a symptom of a suspicion -- even a contempt -- which is easy enough to detect in the reaction of readers and critics, from Aristotle's day to ours, to scenes of recognition in drama and narrative fiction. Recognition is reputed to be an implausible contrivance, a shoddy way of resolving a plot the author can no longer control. Only a handful of famous instances escape the slur, but even they are not immune: neoclassical critics and dramatists found plenty to rectify in Sophocles' Oedipus.

Recognition is a scandal. The word may seem excessive, but it is appropriate even in its most ordinary, venial sense, since recognition plots are frequently about scandal -- incest, adultery, murder in the dark, goings-on that the characters ought to know about but usually don't until it's too late. From the critical angle, recognition is a scandal in the stronger sense preserved in the French scandale: it is a stumbling block, an obstacle to belief; it disturbs the decorum which makes it possible for rational readers and critics to talk about literature. And it is a scandal according to the etymology of the word in that it seduces the reader into a trap or snare (skandalon) -- hunting, as will later emerge, is a metaphor endemic in the topic. In Aristotle's definition, anagnorisis brings about a shift from ignorance to knowledge; it is the moment at which the characters understand their predicament fully for the first time, the moment that resolves a sequence of unexplained and often implausible occurrences; it makes the world (and the text) intelligible. Yet it is also a shift into the implausible: the secret unfolded lies beyond the realm of . . .

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