Imitation and its Discontents

Freedberg, David A.

With only a few qualifications, classical scholars now generally accept the view that the word mimesis derives ultimately from a theatrical, dramaturgical or musical context.1 In the Rhesus, Dolon says he will put on a wolfskin and imitate the fourfooted gait of a wolf: »tetra- poun mimesomai lukou keleuthon« (207-208); while the Edöni in Aeschylus' lost play of that name speak in voices like bullroarers, imitating the sound of bulls: »taurophthonggoi (...) mimoi«. »The instrument itself is not seen, it is only heard 'pothen ek aphanous', from some unseen place or another. One cannot actually see what is imitated, nor even, in this case, the instrument of imitation. The mimos is an actor, or a theatrical performance; pan- tomime, as we know, is frivolous. From the beginning imitation is false. Instead of con- veying reality directly, it is predicated on the interposition of a screen between reality and the effects of representation. Since reality is hidden, we can never tell what is true about imitation. We can never discover the truth in painting: nor, for that matter, in any other imitative form, whether in poetry, rhetoric, or music.

In the case of the bullroarer, as Gerald Else pointed out, »its puny appearance is out of all proportion to its dreadful sound«.3 This is why whenever it is used for a ritual purpose "the irrefrageable law is that it must not be seen" as in Australia and in the early Dionysiac rites. In ethnology just as in the history of art, the power of imitation is in direct propor- tion to the degree of its success in suppressing its own means.

But yet another aspect of imitation arises from its theatrical origins. The word mimos was hardly ever used by the 5th-century tragedians because it was the name of a Sicilian dramatic genre, and of one which gave an unvarnished picture of life, usually low life.5 This, at least, is one of the prime reasons for the infrequency of the word in classical tragic literature, but it is this context that provides us with a clue to one of the sources of the re- current view that imitation, reality, and vulgar and low forms go together. The tragedians avoided the word because they, like other Athenians, must have felt it to be both foreign and vulgar.


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Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
August 24, 2022