Philosophy of the Arts


Two great writers, and Aristotelian Hamartia

I think that, by now, I have read almost all the books these two crime writers have written.
Jim Thompson will hand his readers the life of a man making decisions that form, from the very beginning—as well as from the very thoughts that motivate the man—the make-up of a looser. The man may believe in the things he is setting up for himself—whether it is a bank robbery, a hotel heist, a gorgeous woman—but we feel, seeping through the pores of his thoughts and behaviour, the disaster that will eventually come upon him. [How does Thompson do it?]

Elmore Leonard’s characters are similar to, yet curiously different from Thompson’s. Reading Leonard one gets the impression that the author truly loves people. He will describe the life and times of a diver dreaming up a succesful career based on the one stunt of diving from the heights of the hotel he lives in, and making a decent living from it. The initial plans of Leonard’s characters seem as stupid as those concocted by Thompson’s, but with Leonard they do fall into place with the world at large. [It is, again, a joy to read him do it.]

Aristotle, in his book on tragedy, Poetics, argues that for the tragedy to have the desired effect on the audience, of “katharsis”, a cleansing of the emotions, there must be a moment of “hamartia” in the plot, where the main character finally acknowledges that he has been bringing the disasters he is suffering upon himself by the choices he made. Thompson includes no such moments of insight in the main character—he’ll let them go down, full stop. And Leonard does not describe the choices of his character as tragically going in the wrong direction, at all.

You may read this entry as a recommendation of Aristoteles, Thompson, and Leonard. To get you going let me point you to some beautiful samples of Thompson, and Leonard’s writing–it is really something of an arbitrary choice.
The films made after Thompson’s and Leonard’s books are almost always great, hilarious sometimes.

– Aristotle. n.d. (1965). On the Art of Poetry. Classical Literary Criticism. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books.
– Leonard, Elmore. 1988. Freaky Deaky; 1995. Riding the Rap; 1996. Out of Sight. (Hilarious film with J-Lo and George Clooney, directed by Stephen Soderbergh); 1999. Be Cool, sequel to hilarious 1990. Get Shorty (feature film not to be missed, with John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny Devito, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld.
– Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg. 1992. “The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy.” In Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, edited by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, 1–22. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
– Thompson, Jim. 1952. The Killer Inside Me; 1954. A Swell-Looking Babe; 1954. A Hell of a Woman; 1963. The Grifters. (Put into film, in 1990 by Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorsese. With John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Benning.); 1964. Pop. 1280. (Watch Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, 1981, with Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Stéphane Audran)

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