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Monday, July 23, 2012

* The Poet as Match-Maker: R. K. Sen on "Mimesis"

Dr. Ramendra Kumar Sen, former Professor and Head of the Department of English, Calcutta University, had delivered the Eighth Mohini Mohan Bhattacharya Memorial Lecture on “Mimesis”. These lectures of the late professor were published by Syamaprasad College, Kolkata. I am grateful to Mr. Sudipta Munshi, who brought it to my notice. Prof. Sen takes the Platonic doctrine of eros as the background of mimesis, discussing the Aristotelian doctrine of “horme” and following it with its mythical treatment in the Latin Middle Ages, for his exposition of the differences between Plato and Aristotle in their attitudes to poetry.

Plato’s “burning denunciation” of poetry as an imitative art is found in his Republic. It has been seen that, for Plato, poetry belongs to the world of Sensibles, the world of ordinary human beings who strive for immortality by procreating their own kind. There is also the world of Ideas whose inhabitants have been the likes of Homer and Hesoid, who also strive for immortality, though not by being pregnant in body but by being pregnant in soul. According to Prof Sen, poetry belongs to the intermediate world of the Sensibles and the Ideas.

The concept of the intermediate has its mythic origin in Symposium, where Plato depicts Eros as the intermediate between man and God. Eros, who is neither purely divine nor purely human, who brings two people together, is the mediator between man and the Divine life, drawing imperfect towards the perfect, the mortal towards immortality. In fact, Plato’s Republic has “Allegory of the Cave”, where he depicts a man who has been living away from light, who presumes shadows of horses to be real but when he sees a statue of a horse he sees something “more real”. This something “more real” is the intermediate. Poetry and fine arts belong to this intermediate world of light and darkness.

Aristotle did have a Platonic period but “imitation” or “mimesis” is specifically a Platonic term. Aristotle distinguishes poetry from other arts because it is the modified forms of the words, the changes of language, and not what the words mean, which constitute poetry. Unlike Plato, he did not believe that form is independent of matter. Aristotle in his teleological outlook uses the term “horme” or “strive” as the substitute for Platonic eros (eggs strive to become chickens, acorns strive to become oak trees, heavy bodies strive to reach the centre of the earth). The means or lexis constantly strive to reach the Form or Idea. The union of the means and the Form is the result of the eros, which dominated Platonic dialogues. Thus, Aristotelian mimesis as imitation or a mere copy is farthest from truth.

In Martianus Capella’s mediaeval allegorical text The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Philology (skill in the use of language) strives for union with Mercury, like the Aristotelian means, which strive for union with the Idea. Mimesis should better be interpreted as “birth” through the union of Idea and means, Mercury and Philology. In this sense, the poet is not the maker, the father, but only the match-maker in this marriage.