There are several forms of imitation within literary texts. In the perfect Aristotelian model of literature, the characters would behave in an everyday manner Aristotle desiring that “the portrayal should be appropriate” to the characters’ social statuses, the plot which Aristotle termed “the first essential of tragedy” would progress along a steady narrative structure, from one point in time to the following moment through a cohesive narrative link, and events within the plot would be recognisable to the average reader.
In short, the reader would be familiar with anything inside the fictional world of the text, including the more metaphysical elements such as narrative. Imitation is a form of iconic representation, and hence particularly mundane. We easily recognise iconic representation for what it is, and within that recognition is a greater degree of concrete knowledge of the represented than presented by the symbolic form of representation. Iconic representation relies on “x standing for y” because x resembles y in some way. It therefore represents a particularly emphatic mark for something definite.Order now
A symbol, by contrast, may contain many different and elusively abstract connotations and signifieds. Literary texts are necessarily bound by a certain degree of imitation from which they cannot escape, except in the furthest realms of the avant-garde and the experimental. As Aristotle pointed out, we learn our first lessons as children through imitation: learning to write, we copy the forms of the letters, learning to walk, we imitate the movements of adults.
Mankind is the “”representational animal,” Homo Symbolicum. A text that was completely devoid of imitation, if it were possible for a human agent to produce such a text, would probably hold a special horror for us, being so far removed from anything with which we are familiar, and would be entirely incomprehensible. Aristotle”s ideal of literature does not seem to have held any particular dominance, even within his own culture. The Wasps, by Aristophanes, contains a slave who is insolent and intelligent, a character who would have been abhorrent to Aristotle since whilst “a slave may be good” , he is “in general an insignificant” being.
Aristotle”s remark about how “it is not appropriate that a female character should be given manliness or cleverness” seems less authoritative in the context of plays like Euripides” Medea or Aeschylus” The Agamemnon, both of which contain strong and intelligent female characters. It seems that even his contemporaries did not completely support Aristotle”s theories of literature. Narrative within literature is necessary, no matter how small a part it plays.
A text without any scrap of narrative structure would be a heap of sentences thrown together without any thought for their meaning or implications, which would be alien and grotesque in our eyes. Even the more experimental of contemporary authors have not made complete escapes from narrative imitation. William Burroughs, for example, destroyed the traditional concept of the narrative and fashioned something new from the pieces. His work also has a hallucinatory quality, involving all sorts of ideas and characters which are often literally alien to our experience.
For all that, his writing is still imitative, in that the fragments and routines which make up even his earliest and most disorganised works such as Naked Lunch or The Ticket That Exploded contain narratives within themselves which can be made by the reader to link up and form coherent structures. There are also recurring characters e. g. Hassan i Sabbah or Bill Lee and themes e. g. what Eric Mottam formulated as the “Algebra of Need” or perverse sex-acts in his sketches and cut-ups which serves to create a sense of a holisticism within the chaos.
To imitate something is to present your audience with a context and object with which they can associate. On a theoretical and abstract level, this can even be seen in words which, although in the context of Burrough”s writing describe strange and wonderful things, individually carry connections of our experience from which they cannot be separated: “The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order” Characterisation, under Aristotle”s theory, would also represent that with which the audience is already familiar.
Whilst, in the great majority of texts, we recognise the characters as representatives of their worldly counterparts, often we must be content with only being able to associate with parts of them. The characters of Mervyn Peake are often grotesques and fantastical, for example Dr. Prunesquallor or Abiatha Swelter from Titus Groan but our lack of previous experience with such characters is in no way a hindrance to enjoying and understanding the text of the Gormenghast trilogy, since within each character we may associate with certain thoughts, descriptions or actions.
Critics have noted that, whilst the dialogue of characters within the plays of Harold Pinter seem artificially stagnated, e. g. “Max: ‘What have you done with the scissors? ‘ Pause ‘I said I’m looking for the scissors. What have you done with them? ‘ Pause ‘Did you hear me? ‘” Pinter”s basic premise is that real people actually behave in this alienating and uncomfortable way. Aristotle”s proposition could be taken to the far extreme of searching for the absolute imitation, the holy Grail of mimesis.
Many novelists, for example Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and Martin Amis in Money, have attempted to subvert the reader”s expectations by attacking the traditional premise that the narrator is, by definition, truthful, creating the realist possibility in Money it is especially a probability “You should always read these things slowly, on the lookout for clues or give-aways. ” that the narrator is making it all up, or presenting himself as something that he is not.
It must be considered whether Aristotelian literary theory should be taken to such limits, or further. Personally, I believe that Aristotelian theory is firmly grounded in the material. Joyce”s “Ulysses” could not be seen as an ultimate work of mimesis, although it attempts to realistically portray the consciousness of its characters, since it concerns itself with the realms beyond the material, and hence moves beyond Aristotle into something altogether different.
In this way, “Modernism frequently presents itself as having “grown out of” representational models of art, language, and mind, and it has, in the modern era, been very unfashionable to talk about literature or the other arts as representations of life. ” It is as though, in the modern era, we have constantly attempted to move beyond the confines of Aristotelian theory, into a different degree of representation within art. It seems, therefore, that most authors would agree with the basic premise of Aristotle”s statement, in that we have a constant desire, and indeed need for, imitation.
However, something that has carried throughout literary history, since and possibly before Aristotle, is the alteration of the limits to which imitation must be imposed upon a text, and an experimental quest to find the bare minimum requirements for mimesis with a literary text. A text which conforms absolutely to Aristotle”s ideal would possibly be just as devoid of interest as a text that was completely outside any idea of imitation.