Mimesis

Mimesis: “Imitation, in particular. 1.1 Representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature”… “a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated” … “the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another as a factor in social change” (OED).

“Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.” —Walter Benjamin (“On the Mimetic Faculty,” 1933)

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From time to time, I mull over mimesis and its role in human learning. Research on animal behavior since Benjamin was writing has somewhat undermined his assertion that the “highest capacity for producing similarities” belongs to human beings, but the concept remains generally accurate. What I notice among my students, however, is the human ability to perceive differences. My students much prefer to focus on what makes things different than on what makes them similar, but perhaps the reason is that similarities seem so obvious (due to our capacity for “producing similarities”) that we take them for granted. I introduce poetry to my students as an ancient art derived from exactly what, no one is certain, but likely from invocation or ritual or song or the human desire for narrative–and I tell them that it has been carried along through history by, among other compelling things, mimesis–that mimetic faculty we possess that makes us want to repeat or copy, in order to learn, to love, to pass along, to entertain, to communicate, to enjoy. We can look in the mirror and see another human’s face, or our own faces slightly changed through the process of copying another.

The mimetic urge has a long history among those people who intellectualize. Theories of Media (Univ. of Chicago: W. J. T. Mitchell) glossary offers a concise but comprehensive “mimesis” entry authored by Michele Puetz–the article in which I found the Benjamin quote above. (By the way, the Theories of Media glossary project is a great resource!) As I looked through my go-to philosophy resources, though, I was left with the distinct impression that the concept of mimesis has moved from the realm of the philosophical–Plato and Aristotle are our main thinkers on mimesis in the philosophical arena, so that’s pretty far back–and into the realms of sciences, both social and biological. Mimetic response has been researched, and speculated upon, by psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and neurologists (see the initial excitement about “mirror neurons” in this 2006 New York Times article). The term has found considerable employment in the writings of Rene Girard, whose writings span cultural anthropology, literary criticism, psychology, theology, and philosophy.

Writes Gabriel Andrade, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Girard believes that the great modern novelists (such as Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky) have understood human psychology better than the modern field of Psychology does. And, as a complement of his literary criticism, he has developed a psychology in which the concept of ‘mimetic desire’ is central. Inasmuch as human beings constantly seek to imitate others, and most desires are in fact borrowed from other people, Girard believes that it is crucial to study how personality relates to others.”

Clearly, human psychology and biology cannot be simplified to mere reflection and copying, but it is equally clear that the metaphor of mirroring can be fruitful as we explore the complexities of mind and consciousness, culture and art. Sometimes I take on the role of educator; and when I do so, I recognize the need for student learners to imitate, to hear information repeated, and to attempt to create their own “similarities.” Sometimes I take on the role of poet; and when I do that, I am clothed in centuries of form, rhythms, sounds, similes, stylings and borrowings and references: copies and reflections, altered through time.

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras Photo: © Albright-Knox Art Gallery/CORBIS

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A brief aside: When I was eight or nine years old, I went with my parents to an art museum–it may have been the Chicago Art Institute–and there was an installation of Lucas Samaras’ piece “Mirrored Room.” [See the photo at left.] I was deeply impressed by the mirrored room, partly because it was inside this artwork that I finally understood, metaphorically, the concept of infinity. I was awed by the many diminishing selves I could see, the way a single “I” could change (in size), and by the tricks of light and how easily one could get lost in such a small space.

The mirrors copied me.

Mimesis implies something active, a borrowing, a taking–a kind of theft, on the one hand, and a kind of tribute or ritual motion on the other. It is also inherently continuous. The behavior does not stop at the first copy; it is carried on, perhaps through generations, like DNA.

Here is the brilliant Anne Carson:

“[It’s] what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

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Carson describes how I feel when I’ve read a poem or novel that moves me deeply. For that matter, it is how I feel when I find a work of visual art, or a play or dance, that seems to speak with immediacy to my own sense of experience, which arouses my passion, compassion, or emotion and alters my entire psyche for awhile– “by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

Sometimes I even manage to compose a poem that gives me that sense of feeling different than I was at the beginning. On those rare times, I may look at myself in the mirror and see a changed face.

 

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AWP follow-up

photo Ann E. Michael

winterhazel

Snow fell on Boston. Not a big snow, however, and rather typical for a late-winter storm: damp, swirling but not biting, swift-melting once the sun appeared two days later. Early Friday morning, I trudged with a friend over the as-yet unshoveled sidewalks to breakfast on Newbury Street at Steve’s. We met with conference buddies who are all members of the WOM-PO [women’s poetry] listserv. It is lovely to meet face-to-face people who have been virtual colleagues and splendid to discuss poetry over a good breakfast.

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It is also a relief to realize that I have finally learned how to manage conference-going. It is all a matter of pacing and, I suppose, of taking poet William Stafford’s advice and lowering one’s expectations. The hardest challenge is making the choice between blowing the budget on terrific food (in a big city, wonderful restaurants abound) or on books, because the bookfair at the Associated Writing Programs’ annual conference is enough to inspire swooning among literary bibliophiles.

In three huge exhibit rooms, small presses and literary and university presses displayed chapbooks, literary journals, and books that range from minuscule to tabloid-sized, books that are handmade, letter-pressed, offset, print-on-demand, stapled, ribbon-sewn, die-cut, fancy-boxed, reprinted, spare, florid, illustrated, edgy, deckle-edged, marbled, second-hand, one-of-a-kind, limited-edition, mass produced, commercial, educational…in all genres including mixed-genre, collaborative, collage, anthology, with an emphasis more on the literary than the commercial text. These books can be devilishly hard to locate, even with the existence of Amazon and online sellers; and holding them in your hands is a far more convincing sell than seeing a picture file on your computer screen.

Heaven for poetry-readers, there are also wonderful creative non-fiction books, collections of short stories, novels, books on prosody and poetics, the craft of writing, on creativity and inspiration and toil and revision and on the complex and controversial topic of teaching writing. Oh, and there are people, too. Most of the attendees are writers of one stripe or another who are congenial and curious or else walking about with the glazed expression of the overwhelmed.

Or some combination of the two.

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I exercised considerable restraint and managed not to load my bedside table with two months or more of reading material (see a related post here). And I got some terrific ideas for teaching writing to college students and found some wonderful poets whose work I want to study. The last night of the conference, I listened to the mesmerizing Anne Carson read an indescribable take-down of the fifth book of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the section titled The Captive (Albertine). It’s been years since I read Proust, which I did almost out of stubbornness in my junior year of college, but the book came back vividly enhanced by Carson’s peculiar approach to pacing, language, scholarship, whimsy and satire. I like what the Poetry Foundation’s biography says about her after the release of her text The Autobiography of Red:

According to John D’Agata in the Boston Review, the book “first stunned the classics community as a work of Greek scholarship; then it stunned the nonfiction community as an inspired return to the lyrically based essays once produced by Seneca, Montaigne, and Emerson; and then, and only then, deep into the 1990s, reissued as “literature”and redesigned for an entirely new audience, it finally stunned the poets.” D’Agata sees Carson’s earlier work as an essayist everywhere in her poetry, along with her deep absorption in Classical languages. Carson’s work, D’Agata alleges, asks one to consider “how prosaic, rhetorical, or argumentative can a poem be before it becomes something else altogether, before it reverts to prose, to essay?”

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Altogether, Boston provided nourishment of many kinds: gustatory, intellectual, emotional, poetical…food for thought.