Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 37.

Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi + 424. ISBN 0- 691-09258-3. UKú17.95.

Matthew Wright,
Classics, University of Exeter.

This important book is, in several senses, a mixture of old and new. In the first place, six of its twelve chapters are revised and expanded versions of earlier publications, and in general the line of argument will often seem recognizable to those who are already familiar with Halliwell's work. More importantly, though, this book combines discussion of ancient and modern ideas on literary aesthetics, demonstrating a subtlety and scope matched by no existing study. Halliwell shows conclusively that mimesis is neither a quirk of classical critics, nor a subject of only peripheral interest, but a concept which can be located at the very centre of the history of aesthetics.

What is mimesis? The Greek noun (as so often) does not have an exact equivalent in English; and herein, Halliwell argues, lies part of the problem facing the critic. If we rely on a single, simple translation, such as 'imitation', it is tempting to think that the concept itself is straightforward or unitary. But this is far from true. Mimetic artists do not simply 'imitate' reality, and there is more to a successful work of art than verisimilitude alone. The various critics whom Halliwell discusses each understand the word differently. They react against one another's views, but do not even occupy internally consistent positions. Mimesis turns out to be an infinitely complex and shifting concept, which may involve copying, representation, imitation, mirroring, illusion, the representation of reality, or the construction of 'fiction'. In other words, there is no such thing as a 'theory' of mimesis, and it may even be that the concept persists precisely because it is 'intrinsically double- faced and ambiguous' (pp. 22f.).

Throughout the book an important distinction is made between two approaches to mimesis. On the one hand, we encounter the idea that mimesis depicts or reproduces the real world, and on the other hand, there is the idea that mimesis is the creation of an independent, 'fictional' world, which may (in some sense) reveal or embody something of the real world. The first chapter begins by examining Goethe's use of such a distinction (he contrasted das Kunstwahre with das Naturwahre, pp. 2f.) but it soon becomes clear that the two approaches (or variations on them) are found throughout the critical tradition, from Plato onwards. Furthermore, Halliwell believes that one must consider not only the mimetic artists and their work but also, crucially, the impact of those artworks on their audiences. This is because he sees 'the aesthetics of mimesis' as being inseparable from questions of psychology and ethics: How do art, music, and literature affect us, and how do they alter our view of the world and ourselves?

The book is divided into three sections, dealing with (respectively) Plato, Aristotle, and later writers. The two Greek writers get more attention because of their early and influential place within the tradition, but also because their views are (for the most part) better preserved, more explicitly expressed, and easier to discern than those of Epicurus, Philodemus, Plotinus, and others. Nevertheless, it scarcely needs saying that Plato and Aristotle themselves are difficult writers whose views often lack obvious coherence or consistency. Halliwell adopts a different approach with each. In the case of Aristotle, he goes to some lengths to construct a more or less unified position on mimesis, combining disparate passages into a coherent (if complex) argument. In the case of Plato, however, he resists the attempts of other scholars to construct a definitive position, preferring instead to read Plato's writings as a provisional or exploratory series of views.

Because Halliwell's whole approach relies on the identification of ever more subtle, complex, and complicating nuances of meaning, his argument, and his interpretation of the individual writers, resists summary. In a short review one can do no more than briefly sketch the content of each section. In the first, Platonic, section (Chapters 1-4), Halliwell aims to show that Plato's writings rest on an unresolved tension between the two conceptions of mimesis outlined above (the 'world-reflecting' as well as the 'world-creating'), that the famous image of the mirror in Republic 10 does not imply a simple reflective view of mimesis, and that Plato's unease concerning mimetic arts is due largely to their ethical and psychological effects on the audience. But, far from being an outright enemy of the arts, as has often been supposed, Plato emerges as a more ambivalent figure. He is compared, in a picturesque image, to the 'reluctantly withdrawing lover' of Rep. 10. 607e -- a 'romantic puritan', who was deeply influenced by poetry and conditioned by the central role of mousike in Greek society. While in general the effect of artworks on their audiences is thought by Plato to be undesirable, their psychological consequences may be varied: in fact Plato (according to Halliwell) constructs a spectrum of possible responses ranging from detached critical judgement to complete identification. Nevertheless, Plato remains worried by 'dangerous illusionism' (pp. 110f.) as embodied in certain types of poetry above others. Halliwell goes on to argue that Plato was the first writer to develop a concept of 'the Tragic' -- as a distinctively pessimistic, and unattractive, world-view (found in epic as well as tragedy).[[1]] If he is right, one might wonder why Plato never explicitly names or discusses 'the Tragic' as such. Perhaps Halliwell would argue that this is unimportant, since Plato's real meaning so often turns out to be underlying, ironical, or allusive; but there are other reasons for scepticism. It is surprising that no other ancient critic seems to have identified or responded to the idea of 'the Tragic', if it is really so central to Plato's thought; but rather odder is the fact that (as Halliwell himself admits, p. 116; cf. 226) 'the Tragic' is something quite different from classical tragoidia (so where did Plato get the idea from? -- and why call it 'the Tragic'?).

The second section (Chapters 5-8) restates and takes further Halliwell's influential earlier views on Aristotle.[[2]] On Halliwell's reading, Aristotle's position is significantly different from that of Plato, since it is able to combine both the 'world-reflecting' and the 'world-creating' conceptions of mimesis. Halliwell is concerned specifically with the interrelation between pleasure, emotion, and understanding in Aristotle's view of poetic mimesis: thus mimetic pleasures are different from other types of pleasure (pp. 178-86; cf. Poet. 4). According to Aristotle, the genre of tragedy (in particular) affects its audience's understanding of the world through emotion; in this respect Aristotle can be seen as staking out a territory for (tragic) poetry somewhere in between history and philosophy (p. 198). Halliwell proceeds to elaborate on the tragic emotions in the sense of cognitive responses, discussing pity and fear (but, notably, omitting katharsis, p. 206) with reference not only to Aristotle but also to a number of tragedies. The section concludes with a comparison of Aristotle's and Philodemus' approaches to musical mimesis.

The third section (Chapters 9-12) begins by stating the difficulty of assessing the influence of Plato and Aristotle on the later tradition. Another problem is that the Hellenistic and later critics do not all deal explicitly with the question of mimesis at the same length, or in as much depth, as Plato and Aristotle. Accordingly, the overall picture is more patchy, and more emphasis must be placed on the argument from probability -- guesswork, reconstruction, or perceived links between texts (for example, 'for a fuller sense of the kind of readings of poetic texts to which Posidonius' position would have lent itself, we need to turn to Strabo', p. 268). Nevertheless, Halliwell shows that mimesis continued to play a central role in the critical thinking of such writers as Strabo, Philodemus, Plutarch, and the Neoplatonists. As before, despite certain points of convergence, little uniformity is found among conceptions of mimesis and the relationship of art and literature to reality. In the final chapter, Halliwell turns his attention to twentieth-century critics such as Barthes and Derrida, showing that such modern critics often oversimplify the tradition which they attack (by associating mimesis too simply with notions of 'truth').

It will be clear that this is a rich and rewarding book which takes the study of mimetic art to a new level. Halliwell himself is an extremely subtle thinker -- so much so that, just occasionally, one wonders whether his own intellectual outlook comes to take precedence over that of the writers under discussion. On his reading, Plato, Aristotle, and the others invariably emerge as more complex, and their arguments more intricate, than ever before. From time to time, in the absence of clear signals in the texts, Halliwell is led to conjecture what these authors would have said -- had they been as clear-sighted, logical and intellectually coherent as he himself (for example, 'The fact that [the passage under discussion] says nothing . . . is due merely to the concision of Aristotle's argument at that point', p. 202; cf. 134, 207f., 228, 268). Just occasionally one feels, somewhat guiltily, that the ancient authors' meaning might possibly have been more simple, or less coherent, than Halliwell argues. But Halliwell's interpretations are so much more satisfying than any alternative that the feeling quickly subsides.


[[1]] This argument in particular is repeated from Halliwell's earlier essay 'Plato's Repudiation of the Tragic', in M. S. Silk (ed.), Tragedy and the Tragic (Oxford 1996) 332-49.

[[2]] See especially his study of Poetics (London 1986).