Life and Art: Oscar Wilde

stairwell spiral - looking over centripetal banisters

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.

Simples‘, right?

Sorry, no. This is Wilde’s take on mimesis, which Wikipedia explains as follows:

Mimesis (Ancient Greek: μίμησις (mīmēsis), from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), “to imitate,” from μῖμος (mimos), “imitator, actor”) is a critical and philosophical term that carries a wide range of meanings, which include imitation, representation, mimicry, imitatio, receptivity, nonsensuous similarity, the act of resembling, the act of expression, and the presentation of the self.[1]In ancient Greece, mimesis was an idea that governed the creation of works of art, in particular, with correspondence to the physical world understood as a model for beauty, truth, and the good. Plato contrasted mimesis, or imitation, with diegesis, or narrative. After Plato, the meaning of mimesis eventually shifted toward a specifically literary function in ancient Greek society, and its use has changed and been reinterpreted many times since then. One of the best-known modern studies of mimesis, understood as a form of realism in the arts, is Erich Auerbach‘s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which opens with a famous comparison between the way the world is represented in Homer‘s Odyssey and the way it appears in the Bible. From these two seminal Western texts, Auerbach builds the foundation for a unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature, including the Modernist novels being written at the time Auerbach began his study.The Frankfurt school critical theorist T. W. Adorno made use of mimesis as a central philosophical term, interpreting it as a way in which works of art embodied a form of reason that was non-repressive and non-violent.[2]Mimesis has been theorised by thinkers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Philip Sidney, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Erich Auerbach, Luce Irigaray, René Girard, Nikolas Kompridis, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Michael Taussig, Merlin Donald, and Homi Bhabha.

Wilde’s position was, in contrast, ‘anti-mimesis’, which Wikipedia explains, partly:

Anti-mimesis is a philosophical position that holds the direct opposite of mimesis. Its most notable proponent is Oscar Wilde, who held in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. In the essay, written as a Platonic dialogue, Wilde holds that such anti-mimesis “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.”.[1][2]Wilde’s antimimetic philosophy has had influence on later writers, including Brian Friel. McGrath places it in a tradition of Irish writing, including Wilde and writers such as Synge and Joyce that “elevate[s] blarney (in the form of linguistic idealism) to aesthetic and philosophical distinction”, noting that Terry Eagleton observes an even longer tradition that stretches “as far back in Irish thought as the ninth-century theology of John Scottus Eriugena” and “the fantastic hyperbole of the ancient sagas”. Wilde’s antimimetic idealism, specifically, McGrath describes to be part of the late nineteenth century debate between Romanticism and Realism.[1]Antimimesis, as set out by Wilde in Decay of Lying is the reverse of the Aristotelian principle of mimesis. Far from art imitating life, as mimesis would hold, Wilde holds that art sets the aesthetic principles by which people perceive life. What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art. Wilde presents the fogs of London as an example, arguing that although “there may have been fogs for centuries in London”, people have only “seen” the “wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and turning houses into shadows” because “poets and painters have taught [people] the loveliness of such effects”. “They did not exist”, asserts Wilde, “till Art had invented them.”.[1]

Still with me? Even the Wikimedia illustration has a complicated (but fascinating) explanation, of which this is part:

Raoul Francé has distinguished seven biotechnical constructional elements: crystal, sphere, cone, plate, strip, rod and spiral (screw); he says that these are the basic technical elements of the whole world (Fig.27). They suffice for all processes, and are sufficient to bring them to their optimum. The constructive application of these elements, in particular the spiral (screw) has led to solutions that are astonishing in their relation to earlier (baroque) aesthetic principles. Today we consciously employ the whole stock of biotechnical elements, and the outcome is new conception of beauty – exemplified by radio towers, chemical plants etc. Quotation from ‘The New Vision’ 1928 fourth revised edition 1947 (translated from the German by Daphne M. Hoffman), page 46. Written by László Moholy-Nagy. Copyright, 1947, by Wittenborn-Schulz, Inc. 38 East 57th street, New York 22, N.Y. Manufactured in the USA by E.L. Hildreth and Co., Brattleboro, Vermont. Reprinted 1949. It seems that we like the emergent constructs, fractal and nested, that arise from iterative computations (evolution, organic growth…). In other words, we appreciate the accumulated computational complexity produced by evolutionary dynamics (genetic and memetic). Henry Markram from EPFL showed videos of the morphologically complex dendritic maps from the 10K neurons in one human cortical column. An IBM BlueGene computer runs at 22 Tera FLOPS to model 10 million dynamic synapses for those 10K neurons. Art imitates life This DNA could be read because of new genome sequencing technology that has become available only in the past few years. The sequencing was conducted by 454 Life Sciences, which recently mapped the genetic code of James Watson, who with Francis Crick identified the double-helix structure of DNA. Preliminary analysis of the Neanderthal genome has identified several critical genes that are similar or different to modern humans. Neanderthals do not appear to have the gene for lactase, which allows adults to digest milk and is common among Europeans and some Africans, but rare elsewhere in the world. ‘Neanderthal genome will unlock secrets of human evolution’, From The Times Online on February 12, 2009 written by Science Editor Mark Henderson, Chicago. Notes on the Labyrinth, DNA and Planetary Alignment The labyrinth is an example of what Gurdjieff called objective magick, a coherent symbol construct capable of working directly on the unconscious mind. Its origins are mysterious, although the maze family of symbols have been traced back over 3500 years in places as diverse as Peru, Arizona, Iceland, Crete, India, Egypt and Sumatra. This symbolic continuity is perhaps our strongest proof of its spiritual coherence and magickal effectiveness. by Vincent Bridges. Copyright: Sangraal – Sacred Geometry and Alchemy, Grassy Branch Loop Sevierville, Tennessee 37876

About layanglicana

Author of books on Calcutta, Delhi and Dar es Salaam, I am now blogging as a lay person about the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. I am also blogging about the effects of World War One on the village of St Mary Bourne, Hampshire.
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2 Responses to Life and Art: Oscar Wilde

  1. truthtrance says:

    You may also enjoy this classic read from Princeton: Mnemosyne: The Parallel Between Literature and the Visual Arts (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1967). Intriguing article.

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