I, no. 1 (June 1995)
Sacred Ambivalence: Mimetology in Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus Matthew Schneider
Department of English
Orange CA 92666
Almost from its very beginnings mimetology has looked to ancient Greece for its proof texts. For both René Girard's hypotheses surrounding the ethical and ethnological implications of mimetic desire and Eric Gans's identification of the part played by mimetic resentment in cultural evolution, the texts of Homer and the tragedians have served (in the words of Walter Burkert) as "a mirror in which the basic orders of life, lying far behind us, become visible with an almost classical clarity" (xxiii). For Burkert, this mirror's clarity is the product of ancient Greece's serendipitous "union of antiquity and sophistication" (xxiii). While mimetic theory has dwelt on the significances of Greek literary and religious traditions, the culture's sophistication--especially in matters critical and philosophical-- have received relatively scant notice. In light of the historical priority of the aesthetic over the theoretical, such inattention is understandable. This essay, however, will demonstrate how the writings of three of the classical age's most influential commentators on literary theory--Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus--manifest a debate on the proper place of the sacred in the aesthetic scene of representation. The debate begins with Aristotle's establishment, via critical fiat, of the aesthetic scene's formal and ethical self-sufficiency. Rather than following up the possibilities for artistic and anthropological discovery enabled by this bold gesture, however, Horace and Longinus display a curious reluctance to evacuate sacrality from aesthetic representation, as if they sensed that to do so was, at the very least, to run the risk of emptying the center of its attention-fixing capabilities. For Aristotle's successors, in other words, the processes of aesthetic demystification came into inevitable conflict with the originary "power" the aesthetic scene retained as it emerged from ritual. Their writings can thus be seen as struggles to reconcile originary or ritual immediacy with the emotionally leveling effects that representation acquired as it became increasingly institutionalized. An examination of these early attempts to codify aesthetic value thus illustrates that--despite postmodern claims to the contrary--the problematic status of mimesis is never fully eradicated by artistic institutionalization. I. Aristotle
Tradition holds that Aristotle's Poetics, the West's single most influential work of literary criticism, originated in an esoteric dispute. To the end of his argument for the banishment of poets from the good State in book X ofThe Republic, Plato appended a challenge to all those who "love poetry but who are not poets to plead for her in prose, that she is no mere source of pleasure but a benefit to society and to human life" (340). Aristotle'sPoetics answered this call, countering Plato's claim that poetry is "far removed from reality" and "wisdom" (334-5) because the poet lacks both knowledge and "correct belief" of the 2
"subjects he portrays" (332) by asserting that "poetry and politics, or poetry and any other art, do not have the same standard of correctness. . ." (67). Further, as a reply to Plato's concern that seeing "some hero in Homer or on the tragic stage moaning over his sorrows in a long tirade" (337) will encourage us to indulge in similar theatrics when "we are suffering ourselves" (338) so that we behave "like a child who goes on shrieking after a fall and hugging the wounded part" (336), Aristotle advances his famous theory of catharsis: tragedy "through a course of pity and fear complete[s] the purification of tragic acts which have those characteristics" (25). The impatience with aesthetic representation that prompted Plato to question the place of poets and poetry in the ideal state is...
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