Mimetic Criticism; or, Plato’s Influence Upon Theorists Then and Now

From Plato to modern critics and theorists, the nature of literary mimesis varies, and modernity inevitably problematize mimesis; however, Plato becomes the inevitable commonality between the theorists from the ancient to the modern (Aristotle, Plotinus, Nietzsche, Wilde, Saussure, and Baudrillard). These theorists explicitly or implicitly enter into a dialogue with Plato, thus responding to or reacting against Plato’s position concerning art’s purpose and its representation. Of course, there are various schools of thought and organization. While Plato focuses on the objective purpose of art and questions its value, Aristotle focuses on the process of art and its seemingly natural place in life and the world.

Modern theorists problematize the method, working not in an integrative way but rather a dispersive way. Nietzsche and Wilde both suggest the expansive realm of lies, while Saussure suggests the arbitrariness of language. Finally, Baudrillard calls into question reality itself–reality and virtual reality become indistinguishable for us in the realm of hyperreality. Baudrillard, in a sense, swings full circle. Baudrillard, a Platonist who furiously waves his fists and claims that there is no way out of the cave, reveals his foundation in the scholastic tradition going all the back to Plato. Additionally, it is imperative to keep in mind how these theories concerning mimesis can shape our view of the purpose of literature and art and its interpretation.


In the Ion, Plato questions whether the rhapsode, a person who recites and discusses poetry, knows a skill or knowledge. In his dialectical method, Plato questions whether a poet who speaks about music knows more than the actual musician. Plato argues that those who study art have no knowledge, and the poet has no art, no knowledge but is merely inspired or possessed, acquiring a special kind of madness. Poetry is not knowledge because poetry is merely a copy of a copy. First removal: there is somewhere above humans in the heavens the realm of Ideas. Second removal: then there is the world or the Phenomenal. Finally, then there is art. Consequently, these removals result in “leading away from the truth rather than toward it,” which is why Plato has “a distrust of mimesis representation or imitation” because “all art–including poetry–is a mimesis of nature, a copy of objects in the physical world” (Leitch 41), as symbolized in Book 7 in The Allegory of the Cave.

Plato is esoteric in his theory on Forms. The Allegory of the Cave is an allegory of our perception of reality. Those who watched the images of images had a difficult time experience a paradigm shift, and when they returned back to the cave, they had a difficult time explaining their experience. Obtaining ideal forms are beyond us because we live in a world of fallen shadows. Everything people see is an illusion of their perceptions. Nietzsche comes along and claims a more scientific way to describe the same way. My view of the Cadbury hot chocolate on my desk is actually a light image on the retina and a nerve impulses optic nerve connecting back to the brain. This is the first metaphor. Then comes the concept or an image in the head. Nietzsche assigns this second occurrence as the second metaphor. Nietzsche turns Aristotle and Plato against themselves because these forms/essences that language names are not forms/essences but rather metaphors, not a thing itself but rather creations of our own intellect, which associate by convention with our sensory experiences. Therefore, perceptions become layers upon layers of metaphor.


While Plato believes that reality is not in the realm of phenomena, Nietzsche would claim that truth never really represents reality because the true metaphor for reality is what we come to accept. In fact, “because Nietzsche . . . robs this vision of its transcendental object, the Platonic Idea, it is bereft of any object whatever,” and as a result, “It is representative of the dominant poetic perception in nineteenth-century literature: ‘absolute’ or ‘pure’ poetry” (Heller 163). Truth equals illusion, for Nietzsche. Additionally, when defining truth, Nietzsche uses literary terms to define this abstract term: “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration” (Leitch 768). Since truth is not reality, then literature, therefore, can never reach the ultimate truth because literature becomes yet another layer of lies—which humans also choose to accept—to look at the world. This idea mirrors Plato’s idea of separated realms. The separations for Nietzsche include reality, then the metaphor for reality, and then literature as another separation from truth.

Yet Plato would argue that we humans are trapped in our perception. Plato claims that poetry is also two times removed, and language is representative and is two times removed, as well; therefore, poetical limitations ruin human understanding, unless humans know the true nature of things. Art becomes a dysfunctional family: the mother, matter or being; the father, knowledge; and the child, the effect on the soul.


Of course, Plotinus both draws from but diverts from Plato. Platonius’s On the Intellectual Beauty explains, “[O]ne who has attained to the vision of the Intellectual Beauty and the grasped the beauty of the Authentic Intellect will be able also to come to understand the Father and the Transcendent of that divine Being” (Richter 111). Richter explains, “For Plotinus as for Plato, the artist imitates but does not necessarily copy the things of this world. The artist may represent his grasp of an Idea with the medium of his art” (109).

Therefore, Plotinus claims that art draws directly from the of the Muses or the divine. Art tells people how to know god. Art skips the middle part, or the world, and is able to intuit truth to human relationships. He claims that art is a privilege step, suggesting a Neo-platonic idea.


In contrast, Saussure highlights the ambiguity of language. Saussure claims that “The sign . . . designate[s] the whole and . . . replace[s] concept and sound-image respectively by signified . . . and signifier” (Leitch 853). The signified is not reality but rather a concept in our heads constructed by language. This concept could be reflective of the Platonic ideas of an imitation of imitation. Before language, there were no clear thoughts because words dictate our thoughts. Thought cannot really exist without words, since there would be no way to organize thoughts without words.

This interconnectedness of words and thought could be reflected in literature. We have stories in our head and understand in a certain way, which is reflected in our ability to identify beginning, middle, and end. The narrative structure is based on the words in literature. While Nietzsche suggests that society creates constructs of truth that they accept (those truths are actually all lies), for Saussure, no thought would suggest no reality. Without thoughts, a writer could not create or form thoughts into action, and there would be no reality for art to ever exist. But for structuralists, such as Levi-Strauss, everything is a language organized, like Saussure suggests, in binary codes and value; however, this would be in opposition to Plato, since there would be no universal value because everything would be relative to local systems.


Wilde’s conclusion ultimately ends with “the argument that there are many kinds of lie—white lies, black lies, lies told to save face or to gain advantage—but that the highest for is for its own sake,” and “the highest form of lying was art” (Kibred 287). For Wilde, the reality of stories are the structures already had; art creates that structure, creation uses that structure again. Ultimately, “[i]n an age when Marxians preached that ownership of the means of production was the key to progress, Wilde correctly sensed that ownership and understanding of the means of expression would be the question of real consequence in the century to come” (Kibred 292), which has proved to be true. Wilde’s claim that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” suggests that art, or words, impact life, or the structure.

Therefore, Wilde would claim that there is no way to imitate reality because, in fact, our truth is imitation of literature we create, while Nietzsche could claim that literature is several times removed, and there is no way to imitate reality, since it is all socially-accepted-constructed lies. Although Nietzsche would claim that false truths shape literature (which is in itself a false truth, thus entangling the lies even further), Wilde would argue that literature is false truths that shape our reality, which is apparent even in Wilde’s own writings, because even within Wilde’s own writing, he contradicts himself. The underlying irony is that Wilde, who is an artist himself, claims that “All art is quite useless” (790). Wilde’s entanglement of lies upon further lies makes it nigh impossible to ever reach the Plato’s Ideal of Forms. Yet Wilde’s character Gilbert argues the following:

[C]reative art is that it is just a little less vulgar than reality, and so the critic, with his fine sense of distinction and sure instinct of delicate refinement, will prefer to look into the silver mirror or through the woven veil, and will turn his eyes away from the chaos and clamour of actual existence, though the mirror be tarnished and the veil be torn. His sole aim is to chronicles his own impressions. It is for him that pictures are painted, books written, marble hewn into form. (Leitch 800)

Basically, for Wilde, there is reality, and then there is art, which is not quite as awful as reality, and; finally, then there is the criticism. Once again, we experience a two-times-removed experience, paralleling Plato’s original critique of poetry. Here, Wilde sets the highest form of criticism upon the pedestal: “[Wilde] did not again use the form Plato had found a necessity of the expression of his sense of how the human mind seeks enlightenment–what is called Plato’s ‘theory of ideas.’ Wilde expressed great faith in the indispensable function of form in the creative process: as language was the parent of thought, form was the parent of artist creation” (Buckler 279).

Nonetheless, both Wilde and Plato suggest an unrealizable Ideal: “But the inherent weakness of Gilbert’s position is that he tries to make a practical matter of an unrealizable idea. No example of his ‘most perfect form’ of criticism actually exists. He conceptualizes it admirably, but he never exhibits it. Like Plato’s Ideal Forms, it is an imaginative idea realizable only in his imagination” (Buckler 285).


Yet Plato, who believed philosophy and poetry was at war, was ultimately a dogmatist, believing in one truth. Aristotle, perhaps the first pluralist, established a problematic theory of truth. Consequently, Plato focuses on the practical when speaking of art questioning the purpose of art: ideally, if art is to be used at all, art ought to be in the doing with the goal of educating the children who will later become rulers of the ideal republic. However, poets lie, therefore, they must be banished from the society because the better the poetry, “the more they are to be kept form the ears of children and men who are to be autonomous and to be more afraid of losing this freedom than of death” (Leitch 53). Plato’s conflict emerges from his problem with mimesis again: first, “At the simplest level of [mimesis], Plato raises the questions about literature’s content,” which fails to live up to the high expectations of Socrates’s examples; second, “mimesis presents us with an inferior copy of a copy, poetry—performed rather than read in Plato’s—takes its listeners away from rather than toward the idea Forms” (Leitch 43).

In contrast, Aristotle focuses on the productive disciplines of poetics, aesthetics, or manufacturing, for the purpose of the study of making, with the end goal of beauty. In other words, for Aristotle, humans look in to see or intuit the form or essence, while for Plato, we look in, then up because form is not just a concept, but concept is a reality that exists in a realm of forms.

Plato argues that art is inadequate representation, yet Aristotle presents a different argument. Nehamas argues, “The problem, then, whether or not Aristotle has met Plato’s criticism successfully has not yet, to my knowledge, received a satisfactory answer. The issue of the nature, the status, and the ethical character of … fiction remains disturbingly unresolved. Plato’s questions, like most of the other questions he asked, are still our own” (281-2). Plato argues that a poet is not a maker but a copier–not of reality but of another copy. Aristotle also says that art is imitation, or imitation of human action or attitudes. Plato’s dialogue suggests that with the nature of imitation, poetry, thus, becomes inferior knowledge; however, Aristotle seems to feel that imitation is great.

Aristotle argues that tragedy is imitation of action, complete with certain magnitude. The audience watches, and the catharsis effects the purgation of emotions. Because of this imitation action, it actually has a power to make the audience feel things, even though the audience is not performing the action themselves. This can be a real experience even if it is vicarious. Consequently, the poet does not merely copy reality but copies human action, although that may not be ideal human action. The emphasis becomes imitation as crafting not on the copy. The poet becomes a copier, and when artfully done, a craftsman. In the end, Plato (in the search for reality in the essence) attempts to locate the essence outside, Aristotle argues that reality is in the form/idea/essence of the thing—in the objects of the world—so we look inside.


The postmodernist Jean Baudrillard brings the argument full circle in his belief of the hyperreal, which is “more real than any reality could be, and thus suck the life out of actual events” (Richter 1926). Modern societies are organized around production as well as “simulacrum, a word that denotes representation but also carries the sense of a counterfeit, sham, or fake” because “Simulacra seem to have referents (real phenomena they refer to), but they are merely pretend representations that mark the absence, not the existence of the objects they purport to represent” (Leitch 1554). However, “[humans] are so precoded, so filled from the very start with the images of what we desire, that we process our relation to the world completely through those images” (1554), as evident in the Iconoclasts, who were not “able to believe that images only occulted or masked the Platonic Idea of God” and realized that art were “not images, such as the original model would have made them, but actually perfect simulacra” (1559). In a very Neitzschean way, Baudrillard states, “One can live with the idea of a distorted truth” (1559). Yet for the Iconoclasts, the icon was substituted “for the pure and intelligible Idea of God” (1559).

Similarly, Disneyland is “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation” (1564), becoming “an elaborately artificial land created precisely to convince us that our ‘real’ lives are real” (1555). Yet one could wonder where to find what is real. One can only find reality on the very fringes of hyperreality. This is why the parking lot at Disneyland becomes so important. For Baudrillard, when people leave Disneyland and arrive at the parking lot, they realize their collective illusion. Their reality is that they are utterly alone, abandoned, and isolated from each other. The nostalgia for reality is evident. The Platonic idea becomes better, still holding out reality for us, although we still live in realm of images. Baudrillard even lists “the successive phases of the image: (1) the reflection of a basic reality; (2) it masks and perverts a basic reality; (3) it masks the absence of a basic reality, and; (4) it bears no reality to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (1560).


The postmodernists, such as Baudrillard, dissolved the basis of what was considered to be literary versus non-literary. Everything and anything becomes literary—just as Disneyland becomes fair game for analysis in Baudrillard’s argument. Baudrillard’s perception of humanity leaves little room for hope of escaping the hyperreal; however, Dr. David H. Richter of the University of Chicago asks how “Baudrillard is about his own implicit position outside the world of make-believe he describes” because “If Baudrillard had gotten outside, and seen through . . ., then isn’t it a nightmare from which we can all wake up?” (Richter 1927). Perhaps we, the readers, could wake up from the nightmare of hyperrealities or mimesis.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Buckler, William E. “Building a Bulwark Against Despair ‘The Critic as Artist’.” English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 32.3 (1989): 278–89. EBSCO Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.

Heller, Erich. The Importance of Nietzsche: Ten Essays. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. Print.

Kilbred, Declan. “Oscar Wilde; the resurgence of lying.” The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Ed. Peter Raby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Nehamas, Alexander. “Pity and Fear in the Rhetoric and the Poetics.” Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Eds. David J. Furley and Alexander Nehamas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, Print.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.


Mimetic Criticism; or, Plato’s Influence Upon Theorists Then and Now

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