From Plotting Action to Revealing Character

face of a prisoner

The shift from competition for acclaim in classical Athens to competition for attention in early-nineteenth-century England generated a more characterized Prometheus that contributes less to accountability for prisoners’ sufferings. The classical Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound adapted a traditional account of origins to address Athenians’ communication with persons being punished. Imaginative works in the early-nineteenth century gave Prometheus a deeper, more consistent character. They represented Prometheus engaged in world-remaking. The new, heroic Prometheus demands heroic action. In the new representations of Prometheus, the mundane practices of punishing fade to weak imaginative significance.

Plotting action was the most important task for Greek tragic poets. Aristotle, writing roughly 120 years after the death of Aeschylus, declared:

tragedy is a mimesis not {simply} of men but of actions – that is, of life. That’s how it is that they certainly do not act in order to present their characters: they embrace their characters for the sake of the actions {that they are to do}. As so the {course of} events – the plot – is the end of tragedy, and the end is what matters most of all. … 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.^

Playing out imaginatively created scripts of consequential actions supports rational choice of action. Action scripts can be coded in biological reproduction. Action scripts can be transmitted over time as intentional symbolic communication (stories). Action scripts can also be recognized through personal experience. Making poetry involves making action scripts for intentional evaluation:

Aristotle can combine an analysis of poetry with an analysis of action because in some sense the two are the same thing. That they are the same thing is what it means for human beings to be rational animals.^

Greek tragic poets typically altered ancient stories. The figures in ancient stories were typically heroes and gods not clearly separated in ancient Greek understanding from the reality of everyday life. Making tragedies by altering these stories imitated persons making choices to alter the course of their lives:

we ourselves are poets, who have to the best of our ability created a tragedy that is the most beautiful and the best; at any rate, our whole political regime is constructed as the imitation of the most beautiful and best way of life, which we at least assert to be really the truest tragedy.^

Striving for the most beautiful and best way of life, and recognizing the effect of past striving, plays as tragedy in every human life. That is the poetry of plotted action.

Revealing character is the most important concern in making imaginative texts that compete for attention. Robinson Crusoe (1719), Pamela (1740), and Julie (1761) were pioneering, best-selling novels in the eighteenth century. These texts present previously unknown characters. Of the three, Robinson Crusoe by far gives the most weight to story-telling. Nonetheless, unlike the Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe is not mainly about Crusoe’s struggle to return home. Robinson Crusoe is primarily about what sort of man Crusoe is. Pamela and Julie are long, epistolary novels in which interest overwhelming accrues to the inner person of the titular characters and their intimates. A literary critic observed that with Pamela:

readers start engaging in the sort of sympathetic identification with and critical judgment of fictional character that will lie at the centre of novel reading from Richardson, Fielding, and Burney through Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James. Pamela’s readers ‘read through’ the words and ideas of the novel’s eponymous heroine in order to assess her character with the view of discovering whether ‘Pamela’ is what the text’s subtitle declares – a personification of virtue – or its reverse, a mere sham. By conferring on a character in a novel some of the free-standing qualities of a real person, and insisting that judgments of literary character reflect as much on those who judge as on the judged, both sides in the Pamela wars {public arguments over whether Pamela personified virtue or was a sham} confer an unprecedented moral seriousness upon the evaluation of fictional characters.^

Julie stretched to six volumes “unrelieved by any episodes of violence, explicit sex, or anything much in the way of plot.”^ Julie imitated personal, emotional responses to written words and created such responses in its readers. Across contexts of natural-world realism, moral conduct, and sentiment, characters to whom readers respond sympathetically were key to the successes of Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Julie.

Shift in textual weight from action to character appears even across the history of textual accounts of personal development. About 1600 years ago, Augustine of Hippo began his autobiographical Confessions with action:

Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and infinite is thy wisdom. … I will seek thee, O Lord, and call upon thee. I call upon thee, O Lord, in my faith^

Actions oriented toward an externally defined trajectory of Christian realization frame Augustine’s account of inward spiritual conversion. Pre-modern Christian conversion narratives subsequently were less inwardly oriented.^ Nonetheless, Augustine’s Confessions, like the confession of St. Patrick (fifth century) and the conversion accounts of Clovis of the Franks (fifth century), Ethelbert of Kent (sixth century), and Edwin of Northumbria (seventh century), principally concern actions, not character.

Autobiography of realizing essential character developed from the mid-eighteenth century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions, written in the late 1760s, begins with a declaration of self:

I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.

I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mold with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.^

This autobiography eliminates an external trajectory for the self and emphasizes revealing natural character. It declares that the author’s natural character can be understood only through reading his book. Readers are figured as god-like judges of persons represented in written characters:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. … Such as I was, I have declared myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast read my inmost soul: Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.^

Individuals who judge each other’s character through books signify modern consciousness. Such consciousness is associated with imaginative texts that emphasize unique, subjective character relative to universal, objective action.

Compared to competition for acclaim, competition for attention favors authors’ investment in character. Competition for acclaim implies judging one work relative to another among an institutionally presented set of works. Competition for attention doesn’t institutionalize the set of competing works. Competition for attention implies a broad scope of judgment. Judgment in competition for attention is akin to choice of personal association: do I want to spend time with this work? Do I want to know this author?

Compared to plot, character names better support both work abstraction and distinct identification. Identifying Sophocles’s tragedy as “Oedipus” rather than “Mistaken Parricide and Mother-Marrying” has obvious advantages. Despite the relatively high importance of plot in ancient Greek tragedies, almost all ancient Greek tragedies acquired names based on one of their major characters or the chorus. Of 300-400 titles of Greek tragedy identified in historical records, all but 20 were named after the chorus or a major character: “by far the most ordinary kind of title {for Greek tragedy} is that which consists merely of the name of the chief personage.”^ Character epithets, e.g. “tyrannus” in “Oedipus Tyrannus,” probably were added by early bibliographers.^ Naming tragedies apart from the poet’s name was unimportant in poetic competition for acclaim at festivals in fifth-century Athens. Naming tragedies became important when prolific poets’ tragedies circulated across time and space.

Character names have been favored for identifying and describing works in competition for attention. Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Julie all originally had long titles that included some indication of the novels’ plots. Over time these novels’ titles were shortened to simple personal names. Lack of institutional determination of competitors in competition for attention implies increased investment in branding and describing works. Investment in character serves those purposes. Interesting characters are more important in marketing works in competition for attention than are interesting plots. Persons today typically describe favored movies by actors and characters.

The shift from competition for acclaim to competition for attention is associated with a demographic shift that favors authors’ investment in character. Across a wide range of representational forms, men tend to prefer imaginative works with action-oriented plots that present pragmatic, objective problems and then solve them. Women tend to prefer the subjective development of characters within circumstances of social complexity. Contrast between male and female targeting in movies ( “action movies” vs. “chick flicks”), in online worlds (combat v. socializing), and in magazines (sports vs. relationships) are aspects of popular media obvious to all but the ideologically well-educated. Elite men historically have dominated competition for political authority. Elite men historically have determined success in symbolic competition for acclaim. Non-elites, who consist of roughly equal numbers of men and women, have much more influence on success in competition for attention. Women’s greater influence in determining the success of imaginative works competing for attention favors greater concern for character in those works.

Shift in investment from action to character shifts imaginative force away from ordinary personal agency. External, common circumstances of the one, physically understood world relate pragmatic possibilities for action across characters and persons. In contrast, every person can present a separate, infinite personality. Investment in character draws the audience’s imagination into the character rather than out among possible actions in the real world. Important generic predecessors to the novel were romances and conduct manuals. Romances concern heroes engaged in extraordinary, emotionally fraught actions of conventional types, e.g. extreme fighting and extreme loving. Conduct manuals prescribe ordinary actions for generic persons. Relative to both romances and conduct manuals, novels have greater investment in character. The more imaginative actions are character-mediated, the less they are immediate for the audience.

Imaginative works concerning Prometheus provide an index of investment in action relative to investment in character. Great investment in action supports greater public accountability through imaginative works. The shift from action to character in imagining Prometheus implies less public accountability for Prometheus’s punishment. It also implies less accountability for penal imprisonment in the present.

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