Aristotle’s Theory of Mimesis: A Critique

Aristotle’s Theory of Mimesis: A Critique

It was in 2010 that I first published this idea in the preface to Zaar. I’m still not sure if anyone else has ever looked upon Aristotle’s theory of mimesis (imitation) from this angle because I don’t read a lot. Now that it’s been more than eight years planning to render the critique in English, I have finally decided to rid myself of the guilt of depriving the world of this intellectual gem.

It is safe to maintain that Aristotle believes mimesis to be a process in which an artist imitates life. You are absolutely free to interpret both imitation and life however you want within the rational limits. Some of these limits are evident from how Aristotle himself illustrates the concept. He talks about living persons being the objects of imitation and humans learning through the process of imitation.

What strikes me as odd in the theory is that it should be impossible for the agent and the object of an imitation, i.e., the imitator and the imitated, to be the same. To borrow the metaphor from Plato, a painter can imitate a bed made by the carpenter or the one that exist only as an idea because he, the painter, is not a bed himself. A normal person can imitate a stutterer but a stutterer cannot do this.  Stutterers are stutterers; they do not pose it. They can be objects, but not agents of an imitation of stuttering. And if they are the agents, they are supposed to be imitating rather than originating the stuttering. By the same token, it should be impossible for an artist, i.e., a living person, to be both the agent and object of imitation of life, or nature, if you prefer it that way.

We can avoid this discrepancy simply by maintaining that the artist imitates specific events of life that do not belong to him. He does not imitate life in general that he shares with the objects of his imitation. But the problem with this perspective is that it absolutely fails to justify the universality of art, something Aristotle himself is very sure of.

Personally, I agree with Aristotle in that we learn and express by imitation. But stretching that idea to account for the creation of art is unjustifiable. As a literary artist myself, I believe art emanates from an irresistible temptation to unite with reality as an individual when it calls for it. It is only the restraint of being a human that bars the artist from expressing his experience except by means of imitation. Otherwise, it is neither inspired by nor limited to imitation. I can tell you it is very similar to coitus but you should remember that comparison to coitus is all by means of which I can express the experience!

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