On Reading, Part IV: Mimetic Criticism

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:11 AM

This is a continuation of my series on literary criticism and Biblical hermeneutics. You can find the previous pieces of the series here: I. Old Historicism, II. New Criticism, III.1. Reader Response, III.2. Reader Response Cont'd..

So far, you can see the progression we have made from the strong objective belief in authorial intent and historical influence, as it appeared in the Historicism, to the even stronger sense of the text as an objective reality of its own in the New Criticism, to the strong subjectivism that followed in Reader Response. I was inclined to skip over Mimeticism — which has some close ties with Reader Response — despite the fact that I find it interesting, because I have not spent as much time studying it as I would have liked to prior to commenting, and because I am anxious to move on to our next stop, Deconstructionism.

But, in Covenant Theology today the lecture outline contained a quote from Erich Auerbach's Mimesis and I decided I had to at least mention Auerbach's school as we continue this survey.

Mimetic criticism focuses on the text as that which portrays reality. There is a heavily Platonic sense to this critical school in at least some forms, given its sense that literature can illumine reality better than what we normally think of as “real life” can. The common analogy being Plato's Cave: if our experience is the flickering shadows on the cave wall, literature is perhaps looking in the pond outside the cave and seeing the sun reflected with relative clarity.

For some reason, my fascination with Mimetic Criticism has been largely in applying its principles to a Jungian archetypal model. Though Jung's ideas usually show up in Reader Response, it is my assertion that they fit perhaps better here, for my interest is in seeing how the author, reflecting on reality, creates the text, and not nearly as much on how the reader responds to the text. The archetypal figures do not just come out of the readers imagination to be imposed on the characters of the text, rather they exist in the text. Hamlet would not evoke archetypal inspired responses in readers if he did not fit the characteristics of the tragic hero to begin with. In a sense, to return to the New Criticism, we might say there is such a thing as an objective correlative — an objective feature of the text — which evokes the archetypal recognition in the reader.

Thinking about Auerbach reminds me of another point I find interesting with Mimeticism, however, and this one is more closely related to Biblical hermeneutics. While as a good Thomist (to the extent that Thomism does not impinge on my Barthian tendencies) I view too much emphasis on Plato to the exclusion of Aristotle as a bad thing indeed, I think the notion of the realm of the ideal forms is somewhat compatible with the Christian notion of God. If we follow Barth's emphasis on the self-revelation of God and the fullness of revelation in Christ Jesus, then it may make sense to say that the Bible, as the clearest witness to that revelation, points from lesser to greater views of reality. Furthermore, natural revelation (such as it functions at all) fits well the analogy of the shadows on a cave: it gives a highly distorted view of the true reality. Nevertheless, even fallen creation reflects the original Word of God, by which it exists.

While we want to be careful to avoid Platonic dualism in the church, I think this perspective need not lead us to that point. We do not want to say we are trapped in a lesser physical revelation, but rather that the created world is in its entirety a witness to God that is lesser not because it is bad, but rather because it is not direct. The true self-revelation of God in Christ is a direct viewing of the Creator by creation rather than merely a view of reflections.

Obviously, there is a lot of potential applications in theology to the basic framework of Mimeticism — I am not by any means doing it justice. But it is at least worth mentioning on the “Attractions Next Exit” sign, so that you may get off and explore it more fully before we pass it up en route to the bigger and more recent stops on the itinerary.

Gratitude and credit is due in large part to Dr. Ana Schnellman of Lindenwood University for the basic understanding of Mimeticism off of which I am working. Don't blame her, however, for my Jungian musings, those are my own reader responses to the ideas of this school.

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