Exploring Mimesis – Imitatio, or rhetorical imitation

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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.

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This chapter begins part 2, wherein the author explores three versions of mimesis which are Imitatio, or rhetorical imitation; theatre and theatricality; and realism. More than likely, my focus will be on the first and the last, but will read the middle as well. After all, the Gospels were no doubt given and kept alive in an oral culture, filled with performances. The first one catches my attention specifically though, and the more so once I get into the section dealing with it.

Imitatio deals more with role models. The central character of the produced story is sometimes in rivalry with the ‘real’ story. Potolsky notes that the focus of this style is about the relationship between the original and the copy (it must connect to the past, but creates something new (58)). In this, mimesis is defined as a “historical phenomenon.” Indeed, mimesis is what creates genres  and sets the forerunners as an authority on them. I mean, think about. We have genres of literature which were created and mimicked, but they cannot deviate too far from the standard far. It is, as the author notes, making something “new out of old traditions” and “Imitation is the effective origin of tradition itself.” (50-51) I have to wonder, then, what ‘old’ would be? Of course, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about this as later, the author discusses, slightly, the political uses of mimesis made by Longinus who used it to slice at Nero.

I know that I cannot wrestle with Plato and Aristotle forever, but in this section, Potolsky starts to move into more modern thinkers, such as Alexander Pope. But, this comes in handy as Pope offers us the notion that Virgil mimicked (this is the technical term, and not to be thought of as mockery) Homer, which I have already slightly discussed in my soon-to-be thesis. Here, the idea of role model is narrowed down to a conventional idea. In other words, the role model is a very literal term here. Virgil mimicked Homer, adapting his style and work for his own. Further into the chapter, Potolsky gives an shorter list of the mimicks, such as Ovid who performed mimesis on Greek myths, or better, the Roman Civilization who mimicked the Greek (thus, mimesis becomes imtiatio.) Ovid, Virgil and Longinus are the names which ring in my hears in discussing Mark’s (possible) use of mimesis/imitatio because of the political nature of their work.

Potolsky, as I noted earlier, used Virgil as an example of Roman mimesis. It is something that I never could quite nail down in my exegesis, perhaps because I only had 15 pages to write my paper in. Virgil took the Illiad and the Odyssey, two works which the author noted previously as having an almost religious fixation by the Greek populace, and borrowed, here I insert the phrase ‘but not perfectly’, certain elements. It wasn’t a compressed tale, or abridged in some way, but one which was noticeably connected. Virgil had mimicked Homor’s plot points and certain other elements to create something entirely new. Could some of the original sources in the Gospels be events which are being mimicked, but in such a way as to show the power of Jesus? This idea of borrowing leads us to intertextuality, something every seminarian or student of the bible should be familiar with. This concept allows the “notion that all cultural products are tissue of narratives and images borrowed from a familiar storehouse.” (53) We see this in Scripture, and often times associate it with the narrative themes such as exile and redemption. But, it gives us an allowance to ask if the Gospels’ writers were using intextuality to influence his story telling.

In the section which discusses more specifically the Roman practice (Roman Echoes), Potolsky notes that “Imitatio was also a historical and political practice.” Just before that, he noted that this concept was “central to Roman literary education.”. I could imagine then, that such a well-trained writer as Oden believes that Mark was, would have been trained in such a way, perhaps as a juxtaposition between the Roman and the Hellenist worlds. If so, then Mark would have surely know rhetoric and the various concepts found in both Greek and Roman cultures. Further, given the highly political nature of Mark’s Gospel, we must look at the way politics was addressed in Roman schools of thought. Further, he may have engaged in the struggles of Roman philosphers who were grappling with the use of Greek rhetoric in understanding the difference between outright copying and something more along the lines of transformation (56). Perhaps he would have heeded Seneca’s voice, in that imitatio had to “both resemble and differ from its sources.” (57) Seneca argued for transformation, in which a copy wasn’t necessarily produced (the father and the child allegory), but that the foundation was clearly seen, but too much alike.

There needs to be more on Longinus, or maybe I need other books, but Longinus saw mimesis as a form of “writing that goes beyond mere persuasion.” (57), seeing mimesis as a possessing force. He might also qualify for poetic mimesis, as Virgil did, which moves “the reader to self-improvement” (64), an idea which Aristotle no doubt shared.

For all of this, I blame Dr. Adam Winn.

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