Mimesis and the Aesthetic Experience

Essay by R.Cronk

Greek tragedy and the history of Western art grew out of the ritual recital of epic poems that took place during the Dionysian festivals of ancient Greece. Specifically, Nietzsche attributes the birth of tragedy to the mimetic experience of the chorus.

Mimesis was "the primary dramatic phenomenon: projecting oneself outside oneself and then acting as though one had really entered another body, another character." (Nietzsche) When the bard chanted his poem he became the character portrayed. The situation became 'real' for the poet and the chorus. "The dithyrambic chorus ... is a chorus of the transformed, who have forgotten their civil past and social rank, who have become timeless servants of their god and live outside all social spheres." (Nietzsche) Freud states: "A primary group of this kind is a number of individuals who have substituted one and the same object for their ego."

In the transitional period between totemic mythologies and the Socratic world view, the mimetic experiences of the bard and chorus were instrumental to both the actualization of ethical consciousness and its reunion with the 'superhuman cosmology' of classical mythology. The intense ontological presence missing in ethical consciousness was regained during the transformative experiences of the Dionysian festival. In its original context mimesis denoted a transformative copy that carried the essence (being) of its referent. Antithetical to the modern objective view, the transformative nature of mimesis is best understood through the metaphysical framing of Plato. The Platonic diatribe diametrically opposed mimetic transformation. Plato saw mimesis as an assault on the intellect and damaging to the control of the rational mind. In his view: in the mimetic experience the participant subjected himself to madness.

Plato declared that all poetry is mimesis. "All good poets, epic as well as lyric, composed their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.... There is no invention in him until he is inspired and out of his senses." This image of the poet is reiterated by Jaynes: "Poets then, around 400 BC were comparable in mentality to the oracles of the same period and went through a similar psychological transformation (possession) when they performed." Even in modern history, creative inspiration is seen as "the invasion of the artist by an outside power." (Osborne) It is not until the beginning of Romanticism that inspiration is seen as originating within the unconscious.

For Plato, it was the idea and not the physical thing that contained essential being. He associated beingness with the idea as a quality of mind. As the essence of reality became anchored in the ideal realm, mimesis lost its ontological ground, and transcendent knowledge gave way to logical explanation.

For the mythopoeic mind the pastiche held the aura of its referent. The imitation did not represent the thing but was the thing and replaced the thing's immediate presence. "In the tobacco smoke rising from a pipe the mythical consciousness sees neither a mere symbol nor a mere instrument for making rain -- it sees the tangible image of a cloud and in this image the thing itself, the desired rain." (Cassirer) Likewise, when the artist brought the idea into being he did not manufacture a product, instead he let presence 'radiantly appear.' The mythopoeic Greek, swayed by the radiant presence of the image, reacted as if it were the real thing.

A modern analogy of the mimetic transformation can be drawn to the Catholic Eucharist where the Wafer and Wine are changed by 'mystical transubstantiation' into the Body and Blood. It sounds good in ceremony but in contemporary society the participant believes that the Wafer and Wine only represent the Body and Blood. We no longer believe in transformations of this type.

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche defines two states of perception as aesthetic. The "two artistic deities of the Greeks, Apollo and Dionysos ... represent to me, most vividly and concretely, two radically dissimilar realms of art." The distinction is between the sublime (Dionysos) and beauty (Apollo), or rapture and dream, or to quote Heidegger on Nietzsche, between "holy passion and sober representation." For Nietzsche, Dionysos symbolized the universal, Apollo symbolized individuated art. "To understand the tragic myth we must see it as Dionysian wisdom made concrete through Apollonian artifice."

When Socrates influenced the young tragic poet Plato to drop poetry and turn to dialectic prose, it marked the beginning of the modern era in the arts. 'Cold paradoxical ideas' and 'fiery emotions' were the rational poet's equivalent to 'Apollonian contemplation' (dreamlike) and 'Dionysian transports' (mimesis). "The Apollonian tendency now appears disguised as logical schematism." (Nietzsche) The stage was set for the Socratic law of aesthetics: 'beauty is sensible,' and 'knowledge is virtuous.' Art became a medium for actualizing the ethical diachronic self. "Apollo demands self-control, a knowledge of self.... The aesthetic necessity of beauty is accompanied by the imperative, 'Know thyself'."

Nietzsche relates the Apollonian tendency to post-epic poetry, plastic illusion and contemplative art. The Kantian concept of beauty as the 'pleasure of reflection' is Apollonian. Modern art's 'presence,' and its pervasive influence on us, presupposes Apollonian order and echoes the 'Dionysian transport.' To whatever extent the apprehension of beauty overwhelms us is a measure of the Dionysian element. Dionysian rapture is the central quality in art. "Rapture is the basic mood; beauty does the attuning." (Heidegger on Nietzsche) Behind the Apollonian contemplation and appreciation of Modern art lies the enigma of the Dionysian transport. During the aesthetic experience the conscious 'I' shifts, lapses or transcends via 'drunken revelry' into another state -- that of Dionysian rapture or aesthetic ecstasy.

The Dionysian aspect is in the experience. It includes the drunkard's visions in the D.T.'s zone as well as the listener lost in music, the action painter lost in process and the mimesis of the Greek chorus. The impact of the confrontation, the immediacy and strength of the illusion, is Dionysian. It is in the ineffable content of our first impression, realized as a temporary loss of self. The Dionysian aspect of the aesthetic experience allows psychic energy that is normally barred from escape to flow out and include the object of perception. This mimetic identification with the art object is realized as the 'felt' quality of the aesthetic emotion. In the rare occasion of the meaningful art experience, consciousness transcends the reasoned expectations of the ego for an intensified ontological experience and a heightened awareness of the art object. The aesthetic experience displays both tendencies recognized by Nietzsche. These can be characterized as the merging of self and other (Dionysian) and the resulting recognition of formal gestalts and contextual references (Apollonian).

Nietzsche saw the Dionysian spirit reborn in classical music. The same impulse is given life, in a somewhat adulterated form, in the Rock and Roll music of the past four decades. The tendency is to lose oneself in the music; 'to feel the beat.' The psychological swing toward the Dionysian tendency during the cultural flourish of the 1960's found its enduring embodiment in Rock music.

Nietzsche concluded that the transcendent experience of art pulled man from the clutches of nihilism. The Dionysian transformation, while disruptive to ego-consciousness, is the means for resolving the existential paradox. The gap between self-knowledge and ethical action, between 'merely animal and animal transcending,' (Maslow) between being both man and God, between is and ought, between actuality and potentiality, is bridged during the aesthetic experience. Art forces a comparison of the previously unknown (unconscious) and the known (conscious) and momentarily releases the viewer from the existential burden (guilt) of not knowing.

With an ascetic emphasis on reductive logic and historical context, recent aesthetic theories have reduced the combined impulse that gives meaning to art to the Apollonian perspective alone. Art has degenerated from the omnipotent tragedy of the Greeks to a watered-down facsimile at the service of the intellect -- from the manifestation of transpersonal cultural myths to the personification of feeble egos. People no longer trust their feelings, and need the logic of the word to direct their course.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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