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The Mimetic Fallacy: Why it is easy to misunderstand literature

What makes this picture good?  Certainly it demonstrates an exceptional imitation of perspective, people, and architecture – and this was exactly what the artist Canaletto was trying to achieve.  Canaletto used a pin-hole camera when drafting his work to ensure as close an imitation of reality as he could achieve.  What makes this painting good, is that it is close to reality.  Caneletto was motivated by a desire to imitate reality.  Not the idealised reality of artists before him, who painted their rich patrons to look far more handsome or beautiful that they really were.  No, he wanted to paint reality.  Warts and all.  He used a pin-hole camera to help him make sure he was not ‘airbrushing’ out the bits of reality that didn’t suit him.  He wanted his art to be as much like a photographic record as possible.

But then, what about these paintings?  What makes them good?

Certainly we cannot say of them, as we did of the Canaletto, that they imitate reality accurately.  But then, was what are these artists trying to achieve?  They are painting in a time after the invention of the photograph, so imitating reality is a rather redundant ambition for painting.  If you want something to be like a photograph, just take a photo!  Art no longer has to aim for reality, so it is free to aim for something else.  Something less real.

A photograph cannot, for example, tell us how the wind moves the leaves of the trees and the grass in fluid waves of motion.  But Van Gogh’s painting of trees above distorts the realism of the image with brush strokes which imitate that motion.

A photograph cannot present three-dimensional qualities in a two-dimensional picture.  But Picasso’s blue painting above distorts the dimensions of the figures so that we can see more than one angle of them at the same time.

If Canelatto, Van Gogh and Picasso are all trying to achieve different things, then different things determine their relative success.

How to we measure that success?  Do we evaluate it in terms of whether the artists achieved what they set out to achieve?  Do we evaluate it in terms of whether it meets our personal expectations of what a good painting might be?  Do we evaluate it in terms of the measure of success defined by critics – and if so, which ones?  Those in the time of the artists themselves, or those in our time right now?

One thing is for sure, if we were to measure the success of Picasso’s painting in terms of how closely it imitated reality, then we would not get very far.  Because it doesn’t.  By the same token, if we were to measure the success of Canaletto’s painting in terms of how well it challenges our assumptions about reality, and presents us with a reality that goes beyond the merely visible life around us, then we would get no further.  Because he doesn’t.

The point is that determining merit is a complicated affair, full of so many variables and contextual complexities that determining any ultimate merit is a relatively futile exercise.

Another Example

In Greek warfare, if you could throw a spear and it hit somebody, it would be counted as a success.  The intention is to hit someone with a spear.  The same would not be true of the Olympic games though.  A person would throw a spear in the Olympic games too, but if they hit someone it would be counted as a failure – because that is no longer the aim, and no longer what is intended.

Which is best?  Which is the right criteria for success?  It depends entirely upon the context – and upon the prevalent point of view.

In a time when warfare was common, like ancient Greece or the middle ages in England, the value of a human life was often seen as less than it might be today.  Heroism and valour in battle was valued more highly than the preservation of human life – to die in battle was honourable, and far more noble than dying of something as trivial as old age.  In such a context, the capacity to kill someone with a spear was highly prized.

Today, our attitudes are different.  Human life is valued more highly, and when we hear of another British soldier killed in Afganistan, we do not automatically think that the soldier was fortunate to die in battle (as our medieval predecessors might have).  Instead, we see it as a failure.  As a disaster.

Which is right?

Well, it is tempting to think that the right attitude is the one that we currently have.  We, today, think that death in battle is a failure, but this attitude is based on a time of unprecedented peace in Europe since the end of the second world war, and on unprecedented life-expectancy due to medical advancements.  Our attitudes towards death in battle belong to this present moment in time.  There have been other moments in time, and other attitudes – and there will be others still in the future.  Medieval England certainly did not have the benefit of peace and stability.  In fact, Medieval England was a time of almost perpetual warfare.  It was a time of plague as well.  Life-expectancy was perilously short, and life itself was a fragile and vulnerable thing.

Is it wrong, that in such a time and in such circumstances, people framed attitudes towards death that focused more on the glory of the hereafter?

Evaluation without Judgement

 When it comes to art and literature, we often adopt the view that how we judge the relative merits of a book, or a painting is the right was to judge them.  Hopefully though, what we have discovered from this brief exploration is the importance of context.  By learning more about the contexts – the attitudes, ideas and realities that shaped the world into which art is made – we can come to a much more balanced evaluation of the work itself.

Understanding Ourselves

But we have discovered more than just historical contexts.  We have been challenged to consider our own contexts as well, and in a measured objective way.  In considering the paintings above, we discovered something about what was important about art in the times when they were painted.

But in our instinctive responses to those paintings, we revealed something about what is important about art in our time as well.

Of the three works, two can be reasonably said to be attempting to imitate reality in one way or another.  Canaletto is imitating the appearance of reality, while Van Gogh is imitating the movement of reality. 

There is a word for art which attempts to represent reality like this.  It is the word MIMETIC.  t comes from the Greek word MIMESIS.

Actually, the mimetic instinct is a strong instinct today.  When we go to see a film, we judge the special effects by how realistic they are.  We watch soap opera’s like Eastenders which give the impression of painting a realistic picture of everyday life, and we watch Big Brother or the X-Factor because we think we are watching ‘reality TV’.

For these reasons, when looking at the three paintings by Caneletto, Van Gogh and Picasso, it would be a reasonable guess that of the three it is the Picasso that many of you would have had the most trouble with.  If you were to say, on the basis of your own criteria for success, what was the least effective painting, Picasso might have been your choice – and perhaps the reason for this could be attributed to the fact that of all of them, Picasso’s is the least mimetic.

Things which bend our understanding of reality, are often those which we have the greatest difficulty understanding.

The Mimetic Fallacy

And so finally, we come to our first texts for this module.  Ancient English literature, from Beowulf to Gawain, and from Sir Orfeo to King Arthur, is characterised by a distinct absence of the mimetic instinct.

It is, quite simply, not realistic.

When we read about the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf diving into a pool of water and spending hour after hour there giving battle to a she-demon, or single-handedly defeating a dragon, our instinct is to think how can he hold his breath for so long without drowning?, or but dragon’s don’t really exist!

Similarly, when we read about a Green Knight picking up his severed head from the floor of King Arthur’s court, our instinct is to think oh, come on.  As it!

But this is precisely where we need to appreciate what Derek Brewer refer to as the ‘mimetic fallacy’:  “The mimetic fallacy is based on the belief that actions, people and things can and should be closely imitated in words” (Brewer, 1988. p. 1).

The mimetic worldview which has dominated English literary culture for so long, is – again in Brewer’s words – “no longer self-evidently the true reality” (Brewer, 1988. pp. 2-3).

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