October 11, 1999
Truth and Meaning in the Experiences or Imitations of
Mimesis and Poetry
While establishing parameters for what he believes to be the ideal state in his book the Republic, Plato decides there is no place for poetry and mimesis in his republic and in theory banishes all poets and other imitators. Plato believed that mimesis was so dangerous to an impressionable audience because it is inherently so far removed from truth, specifically the truth found in forms which poetry and other types of imitation are twice removed from. For Plato the poem is an imitation and has no value in and of itself because he believes no true meaning can come from this type of mimesis. At the same time though, Plato states that if poetry is "useful to States and to human life"(29) it will have a value for society. Plato shows that poetry with meaning will be valued when he questions rhetorically "…for we shall surely be gainers if this can be proved, that there is use in poetry as well as delight?"
Attempting to find and prove the value of poetry is an issue central to varying critical theories. One theory that does find value in poetry, yet not necessarily in the mimesis of the poem alone, is reader-response criticism. Similarly to Plato, reader-response critic Stanley Fish challenges the idea that there exists one truth or determinate meaning in the text of a poem. Instead of banishing the poets as Plato does, he finds truth in the mind and experiences of the reader. In reader-response criticism the meaning is no longer abstracted from the truth by mimesis, and therefore not the danger to the State Plato originally viewed to be. For Fish, meaning and truth are removed from the text and found in the reader’s experience and mind; by so doing he challenges the view held by Platonic mimesis that there is no meaning in poetry because real truths are in the forms, inaccessible to the human mind.
One of the main goals of reader-response is establishing the relationship between the reader and poem to create meaning that cannot be found in the text itself. Readers-response also presumes that no one universal meaning can be derived from the text itself. Other types of criticism interpret how to use the text differently, yet pose a similar view of poetry’s value as an "aesthetic experience that can lead to truth"(Bressler 41). Only a reader-response theory finds this truth in the mind of its reader. Stanley Fish is obviously not writing a response to Plato trying to prove the value of poetry to the republic, but similarities can be drawn in how both view the text and establish what constitutes meaning. Unlike other theories, there is no determinate meaning in Plato or Fish’s eye, regardless of text or author.
Plato feels that there is no meaning in mimesis because true meaning is found in the before-mentioned forms. These forms are the creation of a higher power and are "essentially and by nature one only"(Plato 22). Everything in the world has one form and everything else is an imitation of that form. Plato uses the example of a desk to show how replications made by a carpenter are once removed from this form, and although it has the form of a desk, it is not the ideal desk intended by God. Mimesis is one more step removed for Plato who states the example that "the imitative art is an inferior who from intercourse with an inferior has inferior offspring"(26). The artist or the poet is an imitator who "has no knowledge worth mentioning of what he imitates"(25). The artist’s work is not only an imitation, but a bad and inaccurate one at that. For Plato, the human mind encounters poetry as this type of imitation and consequently it has a negative effect.
Fish attacks the idea of determinate meaning in the poem but in a much different way than Plato. Fish specifically attacks the ideas posed by New Criticism, asserting that there is not one specific meaning in a text but many determined by the reader. In Fish’s "Is There a Text in This Class" he uses the title of his article as an example to show how the phrase may have many different meanings depending on context. Fish demonstrates the importance of situation by stating "it is impossible even to think of a sentence independently of a context, and when we are asked to consider a sentence for which no context has been specified, we will automatically hear it in the context in which it has been most often encountered"(310). Fish reasons that words have no determinant meaning, and they are not merely an imitation of one idea on account of meaning changing with every context.
The meanings that do come are the result of shared meanings held by society that change according to context and reader. Sentences emerge in situations where the normative meaning is always obvious or at least accessible, although as Fish states "within another situation that same utterance, no longer the same, will have another normative meaning that will be no less obvious and accessible"(308). The existence of normative meaning makes reader-response actually mean something that may be a universal truth yet is still unique to the reader. These norms of Fish cannot be escaped because "there is never a moment when one believes nothing, when consciousness is innocent of any and all categories of thought, and whatever categories of thought are operative at a given moment will serve as an undoubted ground"(319). Readers always have somewhat of a shared yet original basis for the way they interpret a text.
An article of Fish’s that attacks biographies, helps also to show how reader-response gives a reading not built on understanding and imitation. For Fish, autobiographers are genuine because they "cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not. Autobiographers are authentic necessarily and without effort" ("Minutiae" A27). Readers-response interpretations are authentic in a similar way because the reading is specific to reader despite the set of norms they bring to the text. The way in which the autobiographer communicates is through an established language, however their work is inherently unique. This also relates to the authenticity that is lacking for Plato. For him the reader encounters an imitation and it is only registered as that imitation. In reader-response the uncertainty of meaning in the poem is understood and the experience is authentic without effort.
Plato does not disallow poetry solely on the fact that it is an imitation but also because of the nature of what it represents. Poetry is in opposition to reality, philosophy, and logic and instead represents imitations and illusions that are based on passions in opposition to reason (class discussion). Because Plato wants to get away from the "feminine" traits of poetry and emotions, it seems that he might reject a reader-response theory. Although reader-response cannot change the poetry itself, it does get away from the notion of imitation. Reader-response does not change the actual poetry as Plato might, but instead changes how poetry is read and what it means. What reader-response also does is recognize places for multiple interpretations where "it is the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structure available on the page that should be the object of description" ("Variorum" 979). For Fish, "the reader’s activities are at the center of attention, where they are regarded not as leading to meaning, but as having meaning" (982). The end result is that meaning is unique and not a replication of what another thinks. The reader’s uncertainty helps create the meaning of the poem as well as an understanding of language.
Plato states in Book X of the Republic "if she will only prove her title to exist in a well-ordered State we shall be delighted to receive her—we are very conscious of her charms; but it would not be right on that account to betray the truth"(29). If it has been established that a reader-response interpretation takes poetry out of the realm of mere imitation and into one of meaning created in the reader’s mind, is this then enough for Plato to find truth in, and a new compassion for poetry?
Author of Literary Criticism Charles Bressler comments on what kind of reaction might be expected when he quotes Plato as saying "that watching a play could so inflame the passions of the audience that the viewers would forget that they were rational beings and allow passion, not reason, to rule their actions"(64). It would be quite hard for Plato to reconcile the passionate nature of poetry, but it would also be hard for him to argue that poetry is a twice-removed imitation in a Fish reading where poetry does not betray the truth but instead creates a new one. Poetry would probably still be banned from in an ideal state of Plato’s, but not for the reason that its truths are inaccessible to the reader.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle
River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.
Fish, Stanley. "Interpreting the Variorum." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts And Contemporary
Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 976-990.
Fish, Stanley. "Is There a Text in This Class?" Is There a Text in This Class? The Author Of Interpretive
Communities Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980, 303-21.
Fish, Stanley. "Just Published: Minutiae Without Meaning." New York Times. 7 September 1999: A27.
Plato. Republic. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts And Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter.
2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 976-990.