Mimetic Theory: Introduction

The mimetic theories judge a literary work of art in terms of imitation. This is the earliest way of judging any work of art in relation to reality whether the representation is accurate (verisimilitude) or not. For this purpose, all these theories treat a work of art as photographic reproduction i.e. art’s truth to life, poetic truth and so forth. This model undoubtedly started from Plato and runs through a great many theorists of the Renaissance up to some modern theorists as well.



Some critics/ philosophers consider the external objects as a world of mere appearances. Plato is the founder of this consideration. He locates reality in ‘ideas’ or ‘forms’ rather than in the world of appearances. Therefore, his group of thinkers is the ‘idealist’ one. Some others, Aristotle primarily, believe that a form manifests itself through the concrete and the concrete takes meaning with ordered principles. The poet imitates a form of nature and reshapes it and thus he is both an imitator and a creator. Mimetic thinkers can be grouped as ‘idealists’ (Platonic) and ‘mimetic’ (Aristotelian).

Platonic idealist mimetic mode locates reality in ‘ideas’ or ‘forms’ and not in the world of appearances. Poetic creation is considered by Plato a copy of a copy twice removed from reality because it imitates the external objects of nature. Boethius, Mazzoni, Hobbes and Sir Joshua Reynolds follow Platonic idealistic mode. Boethius states that poetry is dangerous since it feeds on passion and caters to sensuous and earthly interests. For him theological pursuits are more important than sensuous artistic pursuits.

Mazzoni differentiates objects as to be beyond imitation and merely for imitation and opines that poets imitate and make an ‘idol’. The ‘idol can be particular, credible and verisimilar, but not necessarily true. He dwells in between Aristotle and Plato by adopting Plato’s preference for the “credible impossible” (fantastic imitation) over “incredible possible”. He argues for freedom from canons of naïve realism and feels that the creation of illusion is important. Hobbes as a rationalist and materialist reversely limits poet’s activity for realism and states that a poet cannot exceed the possibility of nature in his invention and therefore, he must rely on experience and knowledge of nature. Hobbes is concerned with consistency and decorum in all aspects of the work of art.

Sir Joshna Reynolds in ‘Discourses on Art’ argues that art seeks to represent ‘central forms’ of the objects not the singular forms, local customs, particularities and details, and that it receives perfection from its approximation of ideal beauty. Artists acquire perfect skills by observing selecting, digesting, methodizing and comparing observations.

Aristotle and his fellow thinkers are in line with him in the sense that they also feel that a poet takes form from nature and reshapes in ordered principles; he is an imitator and a creator, and his work – art- is an improvement on nature. Plotinus, who emphasizes on intellectual beauty, and advocates for imitation and expressiveness, considers that the artist imposes on his material and he is the creator of vehicles of valuable spiritual insights. Art for him is an emanation from the ultimately unknowable one, God, intellect and its knowledge, and all souls and beauty in imitation are closer to the original.

Castelvetro as a prescriptive critic displays literal-minded utilitarianism demanding that poetry should serve to make common people happy. He establishes unities of time and place as the rules of the drama and a kind of inventiveness for its plot which does not have to be derived from history. Reader response occupies a place in his utilitarian outlook.

Tasso’s work also does have pragmatic importance like Castelvetro. He assumes that poetry’s purpose is to help see by the examples of human deeds and to provide pleasure directed towards usefulness. He places epic under poetic imitation in the broader sense.

‘Poetry raises and creates the mind by submitting to the desires of the mind’ as for Bacon, the pioneer of the empirical method. He agrees with Sidney that ‘poetry presents a better world than the real one as it expresses our desires and our experiences. Bacon distinguishes “poesy parabolical” from other straight forward forms of poetry, but at the same time opines that not all poetry hides an allegorical meaning.

Henry Reynolds defends poetry for allegorical reasons and ranks ancients better as they employed allegorical contents in the work of art. His appreciation for the ancients springs from their employment of the occult allegorization of myth and literature and their ‘arcane (mystery/secret) wisdom. He disagrees with Francis Bacon for his impatience with poetic allegory.

Corneille is more prescriptive than descriptive. He adheres to the unities but is not as committed to exterior canons of judgment as the earlier commentators on unities. He refers rules of dramatic art to common sense and to the situations of the audience.

Dryden, prescriptive in nature, defines dramatic art as an imitation with the aim to delight and to teach, and is considered a just and lively image of human nature representing its passions and humors for the delight and instruction of mankind. Dryden emphasizes the idea of decorum in the work of art.

Boileau treats language as a secret medium of expression – expression which follows the thought. In terms of thinking and expression, he is in sharp contrast to Croce, who identifies intuition with expression. An artist should know how to please and touch. He should imitate the classical writers in order to imitate nature and should fly neither too high nor too low. The metaphor of “meadow brook” reflects his views – about creative writers.

The proper object of imitation is the fundamental form of reality for Pope and the basic rule is to “follow nature” -- “nature methodized”. He does not negate the possibility of transgressing the rules if the basic aim of poetry is achieved and this transgression brings hope closer to the idea of the sublime.

Johnson forwards his criticism with moral consideration and prescribes imitation which is closer to truth, reality and to the right. Imitation has to be of a general nature rather than particular. The business of a poet is to examine not the individual but the species. Johnson restrains the “wild strains of imagination”, but his moral concerns are principally important.

Lessing fundamentally shows the difference between sculpture and painting, and poetry. Sculpture and paintings do not have temporal dimensions and they imitate actions by way of indication or through the means of bodies. Poetry paints/ makes bodies and present actions in time. In poetry, there is frugality in the description of the bodily objects. Art is, however, fundamentally mimetic in his views.

Diderot throws light on the theoretical compact between poet, actor, work and audience, and expresses that what the poet expressed and writes about and the actor acts are authentically felt and is then conveyed to the audience. Poetic composition, according to Diderot, starts when sensibility is dulled. Diderot’s views on sensibility match with Wordsworthian views.

Peacock shows his sympathies with neo-classical critical principles and parodies Wordsworthan views that poetical impressions can be received only among natural scenes as artificial object and antipoetical.

Zola says that a novelist can use the genius under the control of the experiment. The idea of experimenting carries with it the idea of modification and he sees the artist adopting the experimental method. He feels that the experimental method diminishes the ‘non-sense and folly’ or Romantic lyricism and makes literature appear as a form of social science. Furthermore, an experimentalist travels into the unknown to make it known.

Wide foregrounds the importance of the work of art by making art primary and life secondary as he states that life and nature imitate art more than art imitates life and nature. Art is something that can connect the moon and a lake with a scarlet thread. He considers art sufficient in itself (art for art’s sake) and does not go for utilitarianism of the work of art.

As an art historian and critic, Gombrich defines art fundamentally as the process of making images and all process of making images is psychologically based on making substitutes. Thus, he emphasized the matter of artistic conventions. For Gombrich, representation is not the ‘copy of external form’ but substitution and it does not copy “the motif in the artist’s inner world”. He considers that substitution may precede portrayal and creation communication.