Exploring Mimesis – The New Critical Idiom, Aristotle’s Poetics

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As a reminder, I am reading several books on mimesis for my upcoming thesis work. This is not a review or a reflection, but an internal dialogue to which you are a party too. Further, it helps for me to summarize my work for later use. Feel free to drop suggestions, but remember that this is not the final book that I’m going to read on the subject and that my thoughts on all things are left to better facts if there are any.


At the very least, this chapter, or perhaps better, Potolsky’s take on Aristotle’s understanding of mimesis, has solidified, in my mind, the use of it by New Testament authors. Further, I think that these pericopes in Mark are strung together to give a rational reason for the Cross, but that taken together, they present ‘complete’ tragedies which evoke the cognitive abilities of the audience, and in doing so, must be tied to an audience which would have had the emotion which Mark needed to relate to.

One of the fascinating things for me is the idea that Aristotle was rebuffing his teacher, Plato, on the idea of Mimesis. Of course, I still grapple with the idea that Plato was using Socrates’ narration to rant against mimesis which of course, used another’s voice, something Plato/Socrates derided. I mean, Plato in effect used an element of mimesis to rail against mimesis, thereby creating ethics, a goal of mimesis. Of course, that might be just me. Potolsky notes, however, that Aristotle’s defense of mimesis can actually be built upon Plato’s use of Reason, or rather, the magnification thereof. Platonic Reason drove Aristotle, so it may be that in some way, it is not a response from student to teacher, but an exercise, mimicking the Teacher’s greatest work. Aristotle focused so heavily on Reason that mimesis came natural. I might put it this way: Plato’s magnification of Reason forced Aristotle’s use of mimesis. Of course, mimesis had to be shaped differently, away from Plato’s use of the word, coming to be defines as “a craft with its own internal laws and aims.” (p33) Later, in quoting Aristotle regarding mimesis becoming art, Potolsky demands that mimesis be judged only by seeing if it met the “proper aims and methods.” (p36)

This focus, however, mystifies me, in that the work, the poem (remember, it is Aristotle’s Poetics from which the ancient philosopher’s understanding of the concept is derived) is seen as a complete work and should be judged ‘in itself’, with the reflected item coming secondary. Plato thought that the reflected item was, of course, the essential focus. I would fall, perhaps, into the realm between the philosophers. For my study in Mark, the reflected item is important, serving not so much as a mirror, but as an exact opposite, uncorrected, but it had to be known, and recognized in order for the periscope to work. Of course, not much is being said in using mimesis as a rhetorical tool just yet, and I may yet get to that point, but I think that if mimesis is to teach ethics, morals, and to cause/purge emotion, then the basis of the poem, the ‘reality’, needs to be knows so as to give cause to the cognitive senses. It allows the audience to focus on the differences, then, which in that phantom zone gives rise to the ‘ah this is he.’ I’ll get to that later.

On poets and poetry, the ancient writer says that for their tools, they have “rhythm, language, and melody;” that this person is a craftsperson; that “poetry has its own proper methods and aims and is not just a diminished version of science or philosophy.” (p34). Later, when Potolsky gets to the historian vs the poet, I think we real find a connection to the Gospels as divine poets, but first we have to understand that unlike science (history), poets have different aims, but that they no less truthful. Poets in tragedy is another connection to the Gospel writers, in that Potolsky contends that they serve to present people as better than they are. Again, it’s about the aims, truthful, although maybe not historical, that gives rise to the power of the Poets, which I think Plato feared. Mimesis causes the artist to mimic life, but diverge, and thereby create something almost wholly different, which is not a mirror, and therefore cannot be exactly what Plato defined it as. This happens through various ways, this divergence, but it is essential in understanding what Aristotle is trying to say.

Potolsky lists Aristotle’s three types of narration as history, epic, and drama. In history, the poet is speaking with his own voice (something Plato didn’t do, using instead, Socrates). Epic allowed the narrator to speak with another voice (thus violating the use of one profession only in the Republic). Drama, however, is by far the most interesting. Drama, according to our author, allowed the poets to put the characters in the middle of the audience. The audience got to ‘see’ (Potolsky later calls attention to the metaphor here of seeing = knowing) the characters “living and moving before” them (36).

I know, because a friend never lets me forget, that Dawkins has brought about the meme theory for biological evolution, but I do think that mimesis is a psychological process as well. This has become apparent the more I study mimesis, and the more so when I read that Aristotle thought the same thing. He notes that we have inside of us two sources of poetry, with the first being mimesis. This is what we do as children, in mimicking our parents of the nature of things around us. Aristotle thought that this contributed to our development of logic, while in adulthood, it brings pleasure and more importantly, knowledge. It is in adulthood, however, that mimesis becomes a way to separate ourselves away from the actual events or reality. As I said earlier, the reality needs to be known in order to accomplish any good from mimesis. Why? Because in linear thought, for a distance to occur, one must have a starting point. That starting point is in reality. The starting point is a historical person or event from which we travel through tragedy/poetry in order to take pleasure and knowledge of it through mimesis. Potolsky notes that the “fictional distance from things” allows “that the sufferings of tragic characters on stage can be pleasurable rather than painful.” Therefore, we can learn from what we see (i.e., Reason) whereas in being apart of the actual event, only emotions would rule. There is where the “Ah, that is he” statement comes in at.

Potolsky quotes Aristotle as saying, “Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, “Ah, that is he'”. I agree with Potolsky that this “provides insights into human action and character that we might not otherwise have.” (p37) The notion of inference grasps my mind. This is what Wright means when he says that the narrative (the Canon) shapes us, as it has shaped Israel. In that, I would say something along the lines that in Mark 5, the audience would have been able to infer from the story told that the Gospel writer was speaking about them, there, in Gadara. This is again, why I think that the Gospel of Mark is early, and based on historical events. Potolsky notes on p39 that mimesis reflects “the position and cognitive abilities of the viewer.” Surely, if Mark was removed by centuries from the supposed event, it would evoke the needed response or actually serve to mean anything except for a dull story. Further, I would contend that a historical Jesus is very much at the center of the audience’s thought, or else, the ethos would mean very little.

This idea of ‘complete’, which for Aristotle involved mythos, ethos, lexis, dianoia, opsis and melopoeia, may be be found in the small pericope of Mark 5.1-20, although I imagine that the whole of the Gospel includes these elements. The section in particular as a beginning, middle and an end, as needed by Aristotle, even though it is set in a section all by itself. Indeed, the ancient writer noted that the mimesis unit could be completely separate from other united in the tragedy and be completely whole. Of course, this gets into how big/small is too big/small? Aristotle rules here are insightful, especially for those writing such things, and perhaps for those wondering why each pericope is a mini-story all by itself. For Aristotle, the plot, mythos, is the center of the act. It is essential. Why? Potolsky says that it is through the plot that the character is revealed. Thus, the theologia crucis. The road to the cross, the mini-plots, everything revealed who Christ is, even if Mark is acting more as a poet than a historian.

Mimesis in Aristotle’s mind can include impossible elements, and be accepted as probable, as long as those elements are reasonable. There is much here to dwell on, especially when it comes to the wonder stories in the gospels and how easily they were accepted as reasonable, even through the lack of evidence, by the early Church. Why? Because the ‘real world’ is not the focus of mimesis, but the role of human thought. Potolsky writes, “impossible incidents can be made realistic if they seem probable.” In fact, they become real, understood, and responded too but only within reason of human thought. He writes, “Mimesis, in other words, need not be true to fact to be pleasurable and persuasive. It need only be true to the principles and normal processes of human cognition.” (p41) This leads to recognition, which I will write about in a later post, but the idea that the poet can create reality in the human mind is a powerful tool. And this, finally, is where the poet vs historian battle comes in at, or “what may happen” against “what has happened.”

This is a key principle, in my opinion, of understanding the Gospels as history. Both operate within the realm of truth, but the historian is tied only the events which he or she can prove happened. Thus, for Aristotle, poet is actually the higher pursuit. While the poet broadens the truth, the historian is tasked with shrinking the reality to only the known facts, and when you get right down to it, facts are hard to come by. Thus, I agree with Potolsky who writes, “Mimesis is defined not by its repetition of the real but by its ability to reveal universal truths in particular characters and actions.” (p42)

Potolsky moves on to discuss the role of emotion in mimesis in Aristotle. The ancient philosopher contends that the poet can in fact manage emotion, calling it a failure if emotions are not produced. In my view, Mark manages the emotions of the audience by showing them what has been accomplished and gives them the choice to move forward with a liberation already won. When Potolsky writes the wonder in mimesis is “internally logical, and so satisfies our sense of probability and necessity”,  I apply this to Mark’s Cross. The Cross doesn’t make sense for Mark, as other authors have noted. So, mark provides an Aristoltean rationality through these mini-tragedies which are complete parts of a whole, giving us the reason of the Cross, or perhaps satisfying the reason of the Cross for Mark. This, of course, means that Mark didn’t have to be an eyewitness, but needed only to know the brutality of the cross with scant details of the life of Christ, which is what we see expressed in the Gospel. The plot of Mark is hardly episodic, or rather a linear progression of boring events, one after the other. Instead, it turns on events. One event leads to another, with several larger events puncturing the Gospel story leading to the dramatic conclusion of the Cross, with only questions afterwards.

Aristotle’s two essential emotions are phobos (fear) and eleos (pity). Can’t we see that at work in Mark. There is a fear of the demonic, and then pity. But, after the liberation is won, there is now fear of Jesus by the towns people, in which we should feel pity for the soon-to-be-crucified Christ. Who will carry on his mission? Why, the demoniac of course? Won’t you join him? This is produces a psychological identification with the people in the story, and in our case, the many actors, including Jesus and even the town’s folk. This is what Aristotle calls katharsis, something which Potolsky notes is often argued over. I tend to agree with the idea that the emotions are to be aroused in that they didn’t know that they had them, but now do and must now act on them. (Such as the nationalistic response to the movie Braveheart, which quickly lead to homerule for first time in centuries for the people of Scotland.)

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