Did You Know: Mimesis and Literature

Prounounced “my-mees-is,” this ancient Greek term translated into English means ‘imitation’. The argument surrounding mimesis is the question as to whether literature is “true” or “false,” both or neither. The idea begins with Plato, for whom literature was the mere shadow of reality which inspired nonrational, emotional responses. He believed that it led to bad decisions and bad living, so much so that in The Republic he exiled poets and writers from the new world he was building. He did this because he considered literary creations to be subjective, superficial, and untrue.

aristotleThe idea that mimesis creates lies, however pretty they may be, was refuted by Aristotle in his treatise The Poetics, which covers all literary fabrication rather than just poetry. Aristotle pointed out that literary art is better suited to contain or articulate eternal truths because it is unfettered by the accidents or randomness of history. In essence, fiction can be truer than fact.

Aristotle’s argument against Plato’s second objection towards the literary arts being overwrought with emotional response is not as strong. In fact, Aristotle states that one of the primary reasons for literary art is to move us emotionally. He believed that this emotional state engendered by literature was ‘cathartic’. He felt that after the art worked someone up, it left them emotionally spent, which in turn made them thereafter more temperate emotionally. Therefore, art led to the making of more rational decisions rather than emotional decisions. Arguments against this state that catharsis overvalues the ability of literature to affect someone. If catharsis were true, then those books which we reacted most strongly to would be considered the best literature.

nietzscheFrederich Nietzche would likewise argue that mimesis is the basis of all art and therefore desired in The Birth of Tragedy. Later, orwellGeorge Orwell in his essay “Inside the Whale”, would argue that it was preferable for an artist to be “exiled” so that he would not be pressured by society to conformity. As an “exile” a writer would be able to stay “true” to their own voice. Bertolt Brecht agreed with Plato in that mimesis stimulated an emotional reaction that should be avoided due to the effect it had on a person.

More recently, Erich Auerbach wrote Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western auerbachLiterature, a history of representation in Western literature. Perhaps he describes it best, as he brings together the idea of mimesis as something not real but that can still be true. Because of this, mimesis is often interchanged with the term ‘realism’ which is defined as the “practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization.”

Despite this neat turn of phrase though, the argument of mimesis continues today. Many artists and writers today would say that they do not imitate art so much as help to define and sharp nature through their art. We can still argue the conclusion either way. Do you believe that imitation is a task too difficult for literature because it can never equal the model? Or do you believe that imitation is too insignificant and passive to accurately describe what literature does?


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