Mimesis in its simplest context means imitation or representation in Greek.
Both Plato and Aristotle saw, in mimesis, the representation of nature. However, Plato thought all creation was imitation, and so God's creation was an imitation of the truth and essence of nature, and an artist's re-presentation of this God-created reality therefore was twice-removed imitation.
Aristotle thought of drama as being "an imitation of an action", that of tragedy as of "falling from a higher to a lower estate", and so being removed to a less ideal situation in more tragic circumstances than before. He posited the characters in tragedy as being better than the average human being, and those of comedy as being worse.
Aristotle's most well known work on this subject is his Poetics.
Walter Kaufmann in Tragedy and Philosophy Ch.II suggests that we translate mimêsis in Aristotle’s Poetics as “make-believe”.
Michael Davis, a translator and commentator of Aristotle writes:
"At first glance, mimêsis seems to be a stylizing of reality in which the ordinary features of our world are brought into focus by a certain exaggeration, the relationship of the imitation to the object it imitates being something like the relationship of dancing to walking. Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes." (The Poetry of Philosophy p.3)
More recently Erich Auerbach and Merlin Donald have written about mimesis.
Mimesis in contrast to diegesis
It was also Plato and Aristotle who contrasted mimesis with diegesis. In diegesis it is not the form in which a work of art represents reality but that in which the author is the speaker who is describing events in the narrative he presents to the audience.
It is in diegesis that the author addresses the audience or the readership directly to express his freely creative art of the imagination, of fantasies and dreams in contrast to mimesis. Diegesis was thought of as telling, the author narrating action indirectly and describing what is in the character's mind and emotions, while mimesis is seen in terms of showing what is going on in characters' inner thoughts and emotions through his external actions.
What it does
In the arts, mimesis is considered to be re-presenting the human emotions in new ways and so re-presenting to the onlooker, listener or reader the inherent nature of the emotions and the psychological truth of the work of art.
Mimesis is thus thought of as a means of perceiving the emotions of the characters on stage or in the book; or the truth of the figures as they appear in sculpture or in painting; or the emotions as they are being configured in music, and of their being recognised by the onlooker as part of their human condition.
Some examples how mimesis works in the arts
In sculpture, mimesis mirrors the placticity of an image an onlooker has with which he can empathize within a given situation. In Rodin's The Kiss, for example, the protective arms of the male and seeming trustfulness of the female figure enclosed within her partner's limbs, down to the stance of their feet, is a position all humans would recognize immediately in that the trust and truth that permeates the erotic element of the statue is that which is entailed in the relationship of any man and woman in a similar situation.
In Picasso's Guernica, the artist re-presents the destruction of life and the terror it causes in a way this kind of cubistic image lends itself to most dramatically. The fractured details of the composition, the tortured faces, the screams that may be almost audibly imagined, the terrified horse, the bull, the dismembered limbs: all these things help making the picture most memorable for the truth it brings to the observer. However, the face of the woman holding a light may be seen either as a face of stoic resignation throwing light on the devastation, or a face of luciferous evil swooping in malevolent satisfaction.
In Beethoven's 6th Symphony (the Pastoral), music re-presents the various stages of a stay in the country, of a person's emotions and moods that are metamorphosed into movements of music most faithfully corresponding to these emotions. Thus, the pleasurable anticipation on arrival in the country; the various happy scenes of their associating with countryfolk; a shepherd's song; birdsongs; a storm and the thankfulness after it is over; all will be observed and recognised readily by the audience.
A further paragraph, highlighting Erich Auerbach's ideas of mimesis, will be added as soon as possible.
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach, Princeton University Press, 1953 (with reprints)
Caging The Rainbow: Places, Politics and Aborigines in a North Australian Town, by Francesca Merlan, Universtiy of Hawai'i Press, 1998.
Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, by M. Taussig, Routledge, 1993.
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