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How Soap Operas Borrow from Aristotle

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Unbelievable plot twists have become a defining feature of soap operas. Whether a character shows up alive after being presumed dead, reveals the existence of a secret (and often evil) twin, or suffers from a surprising bout of amnesia, curveballs have become a standard narrative in daytime dramas.

Soaps still bring in millions of viewers, even though many people consider them to be an inferior form of entertainment. But ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that plot twists do more than simply shock the audience and advance the plot; they're actually the mark of a superior, complex piece of entertainment. We can see striking similarities between today’s soaps—with their melodramatic plot twists and stunning moments of revelation—and classic Greek tragedies.

In Poetics (335 BCE), Aristotle explains the basics of drama, touching on such topics as tragedy, comedy, plot, characters, rhythm, and narrative. Arguing that a tragedy’s most important element is its plot, he makes a distinction between simple plots and complex ones. Because complex plots contain peripeteia (a sudden reversal of fortune) and/or anagnorisis (the realization of reason behind that reversal), they are better and more advanced than simple plots.

Aristotle defines peripeteia as "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite." While peripeteia (a.k.a. a plot twist) is an unexpected or sudden reversal in a situation, anagnorisis is the moment of recognition when a character discovers a new, essential piece of information and changes from a state of ignorance to knowledge. So in a soap opera, an example of peripeteia would be a character turning out to have a secret, evil twin. And that character discovering that he or she has a heretofore secret, malicious twin would be anagnorisis.

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But all plot twists are neither equally valid nor the mark of a fine drama. According to Aristotle, peripeteia and anagnorisis "should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action." In other words, plots that contain a plot twist are only strong and satisfying if the plot twist makes sense in the greater context of the story. 

"Within the action there must be nothing irrational," Aristotle writes in Poetics. So he might view the plot twists in some soap operas as forced, ridiculous, and worlds apart from the twist in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, which he cites as the perfect example of peripeteia coinciding with anagnorisis. As Oedipus discovers the true identity of his father and mother/wife, Sophocles masterfully uses both peripeteia and anagnorisis to shock the audience, make them feel pity and fear, and tie up loose plot ends.

Aristotle’s influence on literary and dramatic theory extends much further than soap operas. Our literature, plays, TV shows, and films all have Aristotelian roots, and even movies such as Star Wars and The Sixth Sense make particularly memorable use of peripeteia and anagnorisis.

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Einstein's Handwritten Note on Happiness Just Sold for $1.3 Million
Keystone, Stringer, Getty Images
Keystone, Stringer, Getty Images

Albert Einstein was on his way to becoming a household name when he took a trip to Japan in 1922. The scientist had just learned that he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, and word of his accomplishments was spreading beyond his home country of Germany. In light of his rising stardom, he gave an unconventional tip to his bellboy after checking into his Tokyo hotel: He jotted down a note on a piece of paper in place of giving him cash, saying it "will probably be worth more than a regular tip" in the future. Nearly a century later, NBC News reports, the same note has sold at auction for $1.3 million.

The message, which has come to be referred to as “Einstein’s Theory of Happiness,” looks much different from the ideas about time and space the theoretical physicist is known for. It reads: "A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

Einstein's "Theory of Happiness" letter.
Menahem Kahana, Getty Images

On Tuesday, October 24, the item went to auction in Jerusalem along with a second note reading "Where there's a will there's a way" that Einstein wrote for the bellboy on the same occasion. The first message was scribbled on official Imperial Hotel paper and the second on a blank sheet of scrap paper. Both were signed and dated 1922.

Following a 25-minute bidding war, Einstein’s theory of happiness was claimed by an anonymous buyer for $1.3 million, making it the highest-priced document ever sold at auction in Israel. The second artifact sold for more than $200,000, according to the auction house. It may have taken a while to pay off, but Einstein's gift turned out to be one of the most generous tips in history. Whether it's going to a relative or descendent of the bellboy is unclear; both seller and buyer are unidentified.   

The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which Einstein helped found, was bequeathed his literary estate and personal papers upon his death. Earlier this year, letters on God, Israel, and physics brought in $210,000 at an auction in the Israeli capital.

[h/t NBC News]

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Something Something Soup Something
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This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
Something Something Soup Something
Something Something Soup Something

Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

[h/t Waypoint]

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