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This article is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

Poetry and Autonomy L. M. Findlay

The question of aesthetic autonomy is as vexatious now as it was in classical Greece. The critical accommodations of one generation are contested by the next (more or less bitterly) in the course of larger movements of taste determined in part by the interaction of artistic theory and practice. Art has been seen as dazzling mendacity and visionary truth, the instrument of wealth or faith, of social conscience or unfettered imagination. These, and many other options, will no doubt continue to find favour in the future. But what is the present state of the debate? I propose to examine the case of poetry, first in relation to the capacities and values of man's inner world, and then in relation to the forces at work in the ostensibly wider domain of politics and history.

What is meant by autonomy? The Greek roots (autos, nomos) plainly support the notion of independence, of being a law unto oneself. However, nomos quickly mires us in authentic complexity. This term has two main areas of application: social behaviour and poetic convention. In the first of these nomos may denote usage and custom as well as law and ordinance, and operates with a broad and general force in contrast to the stipulations of specific decrees (psephismata). In the second area also there is room for initiative and conformity within broad guidelines. The Nomic poetry mentioned by Aristotle (Poetics 1447b) originated with Terpander's settings of his own or Homeric texts as solos to be ...


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