Ibsen and Mimesis

Article excerpt

WE THINK OF IBSEN as the playwright who revived Western drama, and in obvious ways he did. But he did not just write realistic plays that exposed bourgeois hypocrisy concerning marriage, sex, business, and politics. He also gave Aristotle's mimesis new relevance. He did not re-invent mimesis or set it on a new theoretical base, for drama has always mimicked reality--and must do so--according to society's shifting demands and expectations. Dramatic conventions change, but staging "reality" remains their purpose. Ibsen's achievement was to write mimetic plays that were better crafted, richer and more cogent in language, and more responsive to audiences' concerns than both the popular and the literary dramas of his time.

The primary meaning of mimesis is the replication of the world of sensory phenomena in words. To Plato, such imitation of passing externals was philosophically trivial (because it was a copy of a copy), morally subversive (because it excited dangerous passions), and rationally suspect (see Republic, book X). At best, poetic drama could only imperfectly shadow forth ultimate reality, the realm of pure ideas or "forms" The is sue between Plato and Aristotle concerns the value rather than the identity of the object of imitation, and Aristotle's rehabilitation of poetry is less an alternative to Plato than an extension. There is nothing in The Republic about mimesis as an agent of good, either for the community or for the individual, but the Poetics says that mimesis triggers a catharsis [purging] of audience emotions and the restoration of equanimity of soul. This is of value both to the individual and to society. The means to the end of catharsis is the imitation of praxeis [men in action]. By "laws of necessity and probability" the dramatist selects and orders human events in a muthos [plot], a structured whole, that shapes the action into suspenseful form and gives it moral and psychological meaning. He prefers the invented probable to the improbable possible, imaginative truth to historical fact. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire becomes literature the moment we read it, not for information about the Roman Empire, but "as a narrative with its own kind of rationale" (Ellis 48).

Mimesis does not simply equal "realism in literary art" although that is its core meaning. Mimesis is interpretation, for to make order of the inchoate, the orderer must have an idea of what meaning the unordered material may yield under submission to the discipline of art. The order he makes is order revealed, not imposed--King Lear, not the Gulag. Hamlet's advice to the actors that their task is "to hold a mirror up to Nature" is consonant with Aristotle's theory. Mimetic drama is not indiscriminate snapshots of fleeting appearances, but a mirror to the nature of things, including human nature. It is an act of the intellect and of the moral imagination, an essentialization of human experience. The archetype it seeks is a model, both an idea and an ideal, and therefore not incongruous with Plato's eternal "forms" Above and beyond any actual table there is the idea of tableness under which all actual tables are subsumed. No one real table is an ideal table, but the idea of tableness is. But mimetic drama also entails the making of an artifact, practicing a craft (techne) with rules and proper procedures of its own. Form in art is expression, for the formless is mute. Mimesis is at once cognition and creation: the tragic poet is both a thinker and a maker, and what his art makes is morally and metaphysically meaningful and aesthetically pleasing. What may appear as an arbitrary collage of things and words is a device for authenticating as pristine reality the author's artful design. Smalltalk turns out to mean something, and stage props signify beyond their looks. But the talk still sounds small, and the doors and chairs and hats and shawls look like their real-life counterparts. They are illusions of the actual. …


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