Mimesis (from μιμεîσθαι) is a critical and philosophical term that carries a wide range of meanings, including: imitation, representation, mimicry, imitatio, nonsensuous similarity, the act of resembling, the act of expression, and the presentation of the self.
In developing this in Book X, Plato tells of Socrates' metaphor of the three beds: one bed exists as an idea made by God (the Platonic ideal); one is made by the carpenter, in imitation of God's idea; one is made by the artist in imitation of the carpenter’s.
So the artist's bed is thrice removed from the truth. The copiers only touch on a small part of things as they really are, where a bed may appear differently from various points of view, looked at obliquely or directly, or differently again in a mirror. So painters or poets, though they may paint or describe a carpenter or any other maker of things, know nothing of the carpenter's (the craftsman’s) art, and though the better painters or poets they are, the more faithfully their works of art will resemble the reality of the carpenter making a bed, nonetheless the imitators will still not attain the truth (of God's creation).
The poets, beginning with Homer, far from improving and educating humanity, do not possess the knowledge of craftsmen and are mere imitators who copy again and again images of virtue and rhapsodise about them, but never reach the truth in the way the superior philosophers do.
Similar to Plato's writings about mimesis, Aristotle also defined mimesis as the perfection and imitation of nature. Art is not only imitation but also the use of mathematical ideas and symmetry in the search for the perfect, the timeless, and contrasting Being with becoming. Nature is full of change, decay, and cycles, but art can also search for what is everlasting and the first causes of natural phenomena. Aristotle wrote about the idea of four causes in nature. The first formal cause being like a blueprint, or an immortal idea. The second cause is the material, or what a thing is made out of. The third cause is the process and the agent, in which the artist or creator makes the thing. The fourth cause is the good, or the purpose and end of a thing, known as telos. Aristotle's Poetics is often referred to as the counterpart to this Platonic conception of poetry. Poetics is his treatise on the subject of mimesis. Aristotle was not against literature as such; he stated that human beings are mimetic beings, feeling an urge to create texts (art) that reflect and represent reality.
Aristotle considered it important that there be a certain distance between the work of art on the one hand and life on the other; we draw knowledge and consolation from tragedies only because they do not happen to us. Without this distance, tragedy could not give rise to catharsis. However, it is equally important that the text causes the audience to identify with the characters and the events in the text, and unless this identification occurs, it does not touch us, as an audience. Aristotle holds that it is through simulated representation, mimesis, that we respond to the acting on the stage which is conveying to us what the characters feel, so that we may empathize with them in this way through the mimetic form of dramatic roleplay. It is the task of the dramatist to produce the tragic enactment in order to accomplish this empathy by means of what is taking place on stage.
In short, catharsis can only be achieved if we see something that is both recognizable and distant. Aristotle argued that literature is more interesting as a means of learning than history, because history deals with specific facts that have happened, and which are contingent, whereas literature, although sometimes based on history, deals with events that could have taken place, or ought to have taken place.
Aristotle thought of drama as being "an imitation of an action," that of tragedy as of "falling from a higher to a lower estate", and so being removed to a less ideal situation in more tragic circumstances than before. He posited the characters in tragedy as being better than the average human being, and those of comedy as being worse.
Michael Davis, a translator and commentator of Aristotle writes:
At first glance, mimesis seems to be a stylizing of reality in which the ordinary features of our world are brought into focus by a certain exaggeration, the relationship of the imitation to the object it imitates being something like the relationship of dancing to walking. Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes. (The Poetry of Philosophy, p.3)
Michael Taussig, the anthropologist, in his book Mimesis and Alterity looks at the way people from one culture adopt another's nature and culture (mimesis), at the same time as distancing themselves from it (alterity). He describes how a legendary tribe, the 'white Indians', or Cuna, have adopted in various representations figures and images reminiscent of the white people they encountered in the past (without acknowledging doing so).
Taussig, however, criticises anthropology for reducing yet another culture , that of the Cuna, for having been so impressed by their exotic (and superior) technologies of the Whites, that they raised them to the status of Gods. To Taussig, this reductionism is suspect, and he argues thus from both sides in his Mimesis and Alterity, to see values in the anthropologists' perspective, at the same time as defending the independence of a lived culture from anthropological reductionism. (Taussig 1993:47,48)
It was also Plato and Aristotle who contrasted mimesis with diegesis (Greek διήγησις). Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of directly-represented action that is enacted. Diegesis, however, is the telling of the story by a narrator; the author narrates action indirectly and describes what is in the characters' minds and emotions. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from above in the form of commenting on the action or the characters.
In Book III of his Republic (c.373BCE), the ancient Greek philosopher Plato examines the 'style' of 'poetry' (the term includes comedy, tragedy, epic and lyric poetry): All types narrate events, he argues, but by differing means. He distinguishes between narration or report (diegesis) and imitation or representation (mimesis). Tragedy and comedy, he goes on to explain, are wholly imitative types; the dithyramb is wholly narrative; and their combination is found in epic poetry. When reporting or narrating, "the poet is speaking in his own person; he never leads us to suppose that he is any one else"; when imitating, the poet produces an "assimilation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture". In dramatic texts, the poet never speaks directly; in narrative texts, the poet speaks as his or herself.
In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argues that kinds of 'poetry' (the term includes drama, flute music, and lyre music for Aristotle) may be differentiated in three ways: according to their medium, according to their objects, and according to their mode or 'manner' (section I); "For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration—in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged—or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us" (section III).
Though they conceive of mimesis in quite different ways, its relation with diegesis is identical in Plato's and Aristotle's formulations; one represents, the other reports; one embodies, the other narrates; one transforms, the other indicates; one knows only a continuous present, the other looks back on a past.
In the arts, mimesis is considered by some to be re-presenting the human emotions in new ways and thus representing to the onlooker, listener or reader the inherent nature of these emotions and the psychological truth of the work of art.
Mimesis is thus thought by some to be a means of perceiving the emotions of the characters on stage or in the book; or the truth of the figures as they appear in sculpture or in painting; or the emotions as they are being configured in music, and of their being recognised by the onlooker as part of their human condition.
Mimesis as opposed to catharsis are two basic notions on which Freud relies to explain the psychological intricacy of the relation between the author and his work, the hero and the reader/spectator as the process of literary creation is akin to that of dreaming awake. Charles Mauron starts from this fundamental theory to propose a structured method to analyse the unconscious roots and purpose of artistic creation. Identification and empathy are unconscious dynamic processes that account for the acting out of taboos. The creator and the reader/spectator symbolically identify and expurgate similar repressed desires, whether they be biographical or archetypal. Thus, when we read about Proust's oral emotions reminding him of his aunt Leonie, we share a similar affect. The hero is but an avatar of the artist's double.
A significant example of the intuitive use of this poetic function is the pantomime or play-within-the-play in Shakespeare's Hamlet: the acknowledged aim is to provoke Claudius and expose his guilt. But at the same time, this will be the only action Hamlet will be able to take: it dramatizes his inner conflict: through it, he both achieves the murderous desire and identifies with the murderer.
In sculpture, mimesis manifests the three-dimensional plasticity of an image an onlooker has with which he can empathize within a given situation. In Rodin's The Kiss, for example, the protective arms of the male and seeming trustfulness of the female figure enclosed within her partner's limbs, down to the stance of their feet, is a position all humans would recognize immediately in that the trust and truth that permeates the erotic element of the statue is that which is entailed in the relationship of any man and woman in a similar situation.
In Picasso's Guernica, the artist re-presents the destruction of life and the terror it causes in a way this kind of cubistic image lends itself to most dramatically. The fractured details of the composition, the tortured faces, the screams that may be almost audibly imagined, the terrified horse, the bull, the dismembered limbs: all these things help to make the picture most memorable for the truth it brings to the observer. However, the face of the woman holding a light may be seen either as a face of stoic resignation throwing light on the devastation, or a face of luciferous evil swooping in malevolent satisfaction.
In Beethoven's 6th Symphony (the Pastoral), music re-presents the various stages of a stay in the country, of a person's emotions and moods that are metamorphosed into movements of music most faithfully corresponding to these emotions. Thus, the pleasurable anticipation on arrival in the country; the various happy scenes of their associating with countryfolk; a shepherd's song; birdsongs; a storm and the thankfulness after it is over; all will be observed and recognised readily by the audience.
This usage can be traced back to the essay Crimes Against Mimesis.