ROME—Standard dictionary definitions of the word of ancient Greek origin, mimesis, relate the word to imitation, representation, mimicry, similarity, the act of resembling and of expression. Today, mimesis has more to do with literary and societal functions.
I recently read a study of mimesis as a form of realism in the arts, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Published in 1946, the book was written while Auerbach was in exile from Nazi Germany in Istanbul, which, for me, means that the writer of this magnificent work must have had also political objectives in mind.
Auerbach’s Mimesis opens with the famous comparison between the ways the world is represented in Homer’s Odyssey and in the book of Genesis in the Bible. From these two texts, the author builds his unified theory of representation that spans the history of the Western world. Homer, for example, does not omit minor but telling details about people, events and objects, while Moses regularly startles the reader with the sudden appearances and representations that one must simply take as given.
I have turned to this work as a gambit in order to demonstrate that at least 95 percent of Americans are right not to feel represented by their government, a government allegedly elected in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. The phrase that opens the United States Constitution, WE THE PEOPLE, rings in today’s context like God’s one word to Abraham: “Abraham!” which is shorn of all references as to where or who He is.
Abraham, about whom the Bible reader knows practically nothing, who is to be ordered to sacrifice his son, Isaac, answers simply: “Behold me. Here I am.”
Plato in The Republic has Socrates warn about the difficulty of ever attaining real truth. Socrates’ metaphor of the three beds illustrates the problem of the degeneration from the ideal to the banal: the first bed made by God is the Platonic ideal; a carpenter then makes a second bed in imitation of that ideal bed; and the artist subsequently makes a third bed in imitation of the carpenter’s imitation of the ideal bed. Subsequent imitators then capture less and less of the ideal. They might graze the reality of a carpenter making a bed or of an artist painting a carpenter making a bed, but they can never attain the true ideal of the original creation.
In the same way a poetic framer of a Constitution may depict images of the virtue of a person, of a people, but can never attain the reality of just who, where and how The People are. Obviously, the framers of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights never conceived of, nor even searched for, the reality of The People. Nor of Democracy itself for that matter. As far as they were concerned both could have been mere legend.
The American nation’s fathers created a Republic, the nature of which would mutate/degenerate over time. Democracy had nothing to do with the issue. In those revolutionary times in America and Europe, the words The People rang heavenly, like an imitation of the most beautiful music.
The bourgeoisie, already then in control, relied on trusty, well-worn images imitated over and again until the words themselves, The People, Democracy, Freedom, already in those times, were so far removed from reality as to be false. It was all a game of legend and make-believe, created by means of repetition: The People, Democracy, Freedom.
Today, as then, a chasm separates The People from the clique of their rulers, the corporate state. As Auerbach points out, real, historical themes (and real events) are actually unfit for true representation. Slogans of propaganda are instead concocted through the crudest simplification, destined from the start to be distant from the truth.
For example, the word Democracy does not appear in the 4,400 words of one of the shortest Constitutions ever written, the Constitution of the United States of America. That nation, “our” nation, is a Constitutional Republic. The USA therefore, one should remember, does not have a monopoly on the word Democracy. In fact, it has no just claim to possess the Democracy that it so loves to export and jam down the throats of other peoples. Several years ago, I read a study of the degree of Democracy in the world’s democratic countries, based on a number of criteria denoting the quality of Democracy in each. The United States of North America ranked number 16, the German Republic number 1.
Today, Republics abound in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Islamic world, Asia. Libya is a Republic. The official name of North Korea is The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Iran is a Republic. The Haiti of Papa Doc Duvalier was a Republic. The list goes on and on to include corrupt and bloody dictatorships and foreign-dominated, anti-democratic states. Many republics have little or no relationship whatsoever to the concept of Democracy.
Mimesis is thus much more than a certain adjustment of reality by a certain amount of exaggeration, as one observer has noted, in which the nature of the object undergoes minimal change. In its full meaning, mimesis frames real and true reality in such a way that underscores that the existing named concept, so modified, so warped, corrupted and debased, such as The People and Democracy and Freedom, are simply not real. The concepts have become fraud and lie, the paraphernalia of legend and propaganda.
Senior editor and European correspondent of The Greanville Post and Cyrano’s Journal Online Gaither Stewart writes from Rome. His new book, “Lily Pad Roll,” part of a trilogy of spy novels with a US foreign policy intrigue background, will be published sometime later this year. The first part, “The Trojan Spy,” is available from Amazon.