A primer in Greek tragedy, applied to the business of making cupcakes
Dedicated, in theory, to my fellow sufferers
Aristotle’s Poetics (335 BCE) is one of the most important treatises on aestheticism, literature, and art in Western thought. It offers a comprehensive study of “poetics” (a term which includes lyric poetry, epic poetry, and drama), focusing on Aristotle’s examination of tragedy, an art form that gives its audience exquisite pleasure by the affective demonstration of pain. Aristotle defines tragedy in the following manner:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear affecting the proper purgation of these emotions. (VI)
For those readers who have not undertaken an exhaustive study of Greek Aristotelian tragedy, I would like to offer the following introduction to the nature of tragedy, illustrated by my recent experience of making cupcakes.
Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events terrible and pitiful. (IX)
It was a disaster, a complete disaster. I’ve made cupcakes before, with quite a successful result (see exhibit A below), but this particular batch was utterly ruined. It was a severe injury to my self-esteem and it has shaken my sense of self. I exaggerate to create an affective effect, but not by much.
The Plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy. (VI)
Aristotelian tragedy derives its affective power from plot, rather than character. In part VII of Poetics, Aristotle explains that a well constructed tragic plot should be able to affect the desired response from an audience solely on the basis of plot alone; “for the plot ought to be constructed so that even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.” (XIV) A good tragedy should also be of a certain magnitude and include only those elements of action that are essential to the advancement of the narrative – no more and no less than needed to form a story that gives a sense of completeness by demonstrating structural union, in which each part forms an organic part of the whole.
Traditional Greek tragedy contains the following elements:
Complication – “all that extends from the beginning of the action and the part which marks the turning point to good or bad fortune.” (XVIII)
Two weeks ago, I needed to change my work schedule at the last minute, and I phoned my boss at the end of the day to see if I could have the next day off. My boss agreed on the condition that I bring cupcakes to the office. Last week, I was busy working on my last big project of the year, so I didn’t have enough time to make cupcakes. Surprisingly, my boss came to visit me at my desk twice that week; usually, I don’t see her for weeks at a time. I interpreted her frequent (although welcome) visits as a sign that she was anxious for sugary treats, and made plans accordingly to make said cupcakes.
Unravelling – “that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end.” (XVIII)
On Sunday, I made my signature cocoa fudge cupcakes. This recipe has produced sweet success on a number of previous occasions, and it’s quite simple and easy to make. However, most of my baking is with full-bodied sweetbreads such as cakes or muffins, so I figured the cupcakes had enough body to stay firm without needing the paper liners. While the cupcakes were in the oven, I made a batch of buttercream frosting.
Peripeteia – “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.” (XI)
Instead of the beautifully domed cupcakes that I had been expecting (I even made a batch of mini-cupcakes!), I ended up with handfuls of cake crumbs. Clearly, the paper liners serve the necessary function of giving the cake enough structure so that the batter adheres more strongly to itself than to the sides of the muffin tin. When I tried to take each cupcake out, at least half of it stuck to the pan. I couldn’t even stick it together with the buttercream icing. Everything tasted great, but there was no way I was going to serve crumbs in icing, no matter how tasty that concoction might be.
Situational irony – not Aristotelian, but appropriate.
My boss is away all week.