Up from Under: A Note on Structural Mimesis by Carter Ratcliff

The screenplay of Sunset Boulevard begins with instructions for the camera, which is to focus on

the actual street sign: SUNSET BOULEVARD, stenciled on a curbstone. In the gutter lie dead leaves, scraps of paper, burnt matches and cigarette butts. It is early morning.

Now the CAMERA leaves the sign and MOVES EAST, the grey asphalt of the street filling the screen . . .


Dragging us into the gutter, the camera presents us with symbols of dereliction, disintegration, and death. Then, as the opening credits roll, it sends us sailing along the pavement of the boulevard, with its “white arrows, speed limit warnings, manhole covers, etc.” Dull reminders of the metropolitan traffic flow. Sirens drift into the sound track and we see police cars careening toward the camera, swerving into a driveway. By now, a voice-over has let us know that something serious is afoot. “A murder has been reported in one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block . . .”

So far, the camera has played the part of a well-positioned onlooker with a flair for prophesy. Before the action began, it gave us a quick look at a few images flavored with the horrors of the story to come. Next, it settled into its familiar task of representing people in action, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle’s Poetics. The people represented by the camera are, of course, actors—members of a cast going through their paces. To act is to mimic—or imitate—things people have done or might possibly do, so a movie is doubly representational: a motion picture of behavior that is itself a kind of picturing. .

Most of us understand all this with no help from Aristotle or any of the later writers who took up his arguments. In some way that has never been fully explicated, everyday rationality includes an intuitive sense of the difference between fiction and non-fiction. At first glance, it looks as if the difference must turn on the question of truth, and it does, but not in a way that that lets us conclude, simply, that non-fiction is true and fiction is false. If that were so, then fictions—Sunset Boulevard, Bacchus in Thebes, and so on—would count as lies. But they do not because, as Sir Philip Sidney observed, the poet “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

The point is that we have no business bringing the question of truth to bear on a work of fiction, though of course we can’t always keep ourselves from saying, for example, that Citizen Kane offers a true insight into the American ego. What we mean is that the movie rings true to our hunches about American egos at their most rampantly ambitious. Likewise, the figure of Hamlet rings true to any number of things: our experience of inward instability, our speculations about the emergence of the modern individual, and much more, including, possibly, our squeamishness about shedding blood—assuming, of course, that we are squeamish about shedding blood. Every image or character rings true or false in a distinctive way for each member of the audience. Our responses to Hamlet are personal and do not require anything like proof to have their full meaning for each of us. Consequently, Hamlet raises no issue of supra-personal, objective truth. To say that a play or movie or novel illuminates the truth is to speak metaphorically. In the straightforward, hard-nosed sense of “truth,” works of fiction are, as Sydney said, neither true nor false. They are interesting or boring, lively or flat, significant or forgettable. If they are significant, it is because they engage us with representations of things that we care about. They are mimetically powerful.

Before I go on, I ought to say something about “mimesis.” From the time of the Renaissance until late in the 18th century, translators usually rendered this Greek word as “imitation.” Later, “representation” was preferred. I will follow this usage, though it is not adequate to the ancient idea of mimesis, which included much that we now would not consider “representational.” Music that Aristotle called mimetic we would call expressive. Of course, expression can be representational. Complications like these are fascinating but beside the present point, which does not require me to us “mimesis.” When I do, it is not in aid of a historical argument but simply as a reminder that the questions I am raising here, in the present tense, have their origins in the distant past.

Talk of mimesis usually refers to images, visual or verbal. T. S. Eliot’s “forgetful snow,” in the first part of The Waste Land, for example, or William Blake’s Urizen, the rigid and oppressive principle of rationality, which he pictures as an old man measuring off the universe with a pair of compasses. These images are not only intelligible. They are persuasive. Still, it would be an error to let them persuade us that they are true. Nor is it true that, when dolphins leap from the sea, they tear the water. Nonetheless, William Butler Yeats’s image of the ancient, “dolphin-torn” Mediterranean makes a sort of sense if one has gotten into the desperate, exalted mood of Byzantium, the poem where this image appears. Images, however, are not the sole means of representation.

Byzantium is a forty-line poem divided into five eight-line stanzas. Ranging in length from three to five iambs, these lines are display an intricate pattern of rhymes: AABBCDDC. Here, then, is a structure at once orderly and complex—fittingly enough, as I see it, for I am in the habit of decorating my large and vague idea of Byzantium with the subordinate ideas of rigid hierarchy and labyrinthine deviousness. However, there is more to say about the structure of Yeats’s poem, for he inflects the complex orderliness of his stanza with any number of nuances—slant rhymes, repetition in place of rhyme, dactyls in place of iambs, truncated iambs, and more. Sometimes, these devices introduce new, narrowly local instances of order, as when a line ending in “handiwork” is followed by a line ending the same word. Repeated end-words halt the flow of the poem. Form freezes up, if only for a moment. Rigidity becomes instability when Yeats leaves certain lines bereft of a syllable or two. With bits of the iambic line missing, the larger architecture of the stanza seems to crumble. Both effects—rigidity and wobbliness—comport well with Yeats’s picture of lifeless, ruined Byzantium. Yet neither effect appears in that picture. They are represented by the structure of the poem, not by its images.

Like Yeats, T. S. Eliot was a modernist suspicious of modernity. Before secularism undermined faith, before democracy challenged monarchy, culture was been unified, and its unity was beautiful—or so Eliot believed, on very little evidence. Nonetheless, he lamented the past, and The Wasteland, abounds with images of modern dissolution, collapse, and centrifugal distress. However, the most powerful images of crisis are in the stanzaic structure of the poem, which dispenses with smooth transitions and nearly every other means of inducing form to cohere. A unified poetic form represents a world shaped by an ideal of harmony. A disjunctive form represents a world indifferent to the ideal or, possibly, the ruin of the ideal itself. In any case, structure is mimetic. It has a representational meaning, however elusive.

Just over a decade before Eliot published The Waste Land, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso pasted carefully cut-out pieces of paper to the surfaces of their paintings. The year was 1912, and by then they had invented Cubism, a style that reduces images of people and things to schematic patterns. It then disassembles the patterns, not entirely but enough to suggest a world of jarring, jostling discontinuities. Limiting themselves to oil paint, Braque and Picasso had become maestros of disjunction. With collage, as their method of pasted paper came to be called, they made disjunction their salient theme. Never before had the unity of the painted surface been so deliberately, so abruptly disrupted. Like Eliot in the 1920s, but not in his elegiac mood, the Cubists were representing a certain quality of modern life.




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Carter Ratcliff

Visual Arts

© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

Up from Under: A Note on Structural Mimesis by Carter Ratcliff

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