High Mimetic/ low mimetic
The word "mimetic" refers to the art of imitation. In The Odyssey the bard says, " Sing through me Muse the ways of life." According to Homer, art imitates life. In our conversations about The Iliad we have acknowledged that Homer gives us a holistic and complex view of the "work of war." War is rage. War is idealism. We learn of the arrogance of a King and the frenzy of the warriors brought on by Ares. We see what happens to civility and morality when the heroic code is corrupted by greed and self-aggrandizement. We see the decadence and carnage that results when the chain of military command collapses. War is piracy; war is duty. Strife and chaos walk upright with glory and honor personified on the bloody fields outside the walls of Troy. And War is graphic. We see the Diomedes' spear hit Pandarus:
"and it split the archer's nose between the eyes--/
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze/
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw/
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin./
--Book 5, lines 332-335
In Homer, we also live in the literary whorls of the extended simile which create palatable perspectives where death is distant and romantic and wounds are glorious, the high mimetic divine and mortal fodder of the gods at play and at odds with each other. The idealism-war poetry and the graphic-war poetry polarize and overlap as our perspectives soar like an eagle and root in the dirt like a mole.
For the purpose of study, I offer a basic division of Homer's art between high mimetic and low mimetic. High mimetic depicts the awesome beauty of war. High mimetic poetry and imagery salutes our highest aspirations. War is fought for noble and moral reasons. A phrase once offered by Colin Powell captures this notion: "Just Cause." And with just cause, reluctant heroes charge up Iwo Jima Hill, like John Wayne, for god and country and King. Death has real moral significance because death represents the soldier's ultimate sacrifice for just cause and the preservation of a precious way of life endangered by foreign savagery.
Here is Homer's high mimetic description of the dark blood spurting from Menelaus' wound: Pandarus'arrow in Book 4:
Picture a woman dyeing ivory blood red . . .
a Carian or Maeonian staining a horse's cheekpiece,
and it's stored away in a vault and troops of riders
long to sport the ornament, true, but there it lies
at a king's splendor, kept and prized twice over__
his team's adornment, his driver's pride and glory.
So now, Menelaus, the fresh blood went staining down
your sturdy things, your shins and well-turned ankles.
The simile does more than establish a likeness between A and B, it goes on--an extended simile--to describe B in detail, and some of the details are not like A at all. Yet Homer suggests points of convergence below the surface that make comments on the broader aspects of each warrior's situation and war in general. In such juxtaposition of imagery, Homer is able to invite the ideology of war, if you will, by making connections between domestic agrarian life and the life of the warrior. War is also made more natural through such comparisons: "tussling over the corpse as lions up on the mountain ridges over a fresh killed stag."
--page 159. Book 4, lines 489-496
--page 519. Book 20, lines 554-569
--page 542. Book 22, line 31-38.
The Effect of High Mimetic Imagery:
Consider the implications of high mimetic imagery in Homer's epic and, for the purpose of ongoing study this semester, the implications of high mimetic imagery in Hollywood films.
Yes, the ancient bard says that "Art imitates life," but if we apply Aristotle's notion of reversal (Poetics) then we also learn the "Life imitates art." At this moment we are confronted with the politics of art as propaganda.
Powers of Persuasion---words, posters, and films waged a constant battle for the hearts and minds of American citizenry in WW II.
Low mimetic imagery often engenders antiwar sentiment because it conveys horror and absurdity, endless slaughter for the sake of nothing at all. Low mimetic perspectives suggest that indeed War may have no moral meaning; war creates a wasteland of corpses where men, women, children, and animals all die at the hands of soldiers turned murderers. In low mimetic mythmaking, soldiers are not necessarily less heroic, but even the best of men feel the seductive pull of the savage beast within. Low mimetic perspectives are the writings of the war correspondent hunkered down in the rice field in Vietnam. In Hollywood, low mimetic films represent attitudes of despair--Oliver Stone's Platoon and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket enshrine the work of war as either imperialism and piracy or just plain fucked up inhumanity, a reality defines by misery and stupidity where previous systems of order and righteousness no longer exist.
Achilles senses this abyss of meaninglessness when the embassy, in Book 9, attempts to seduce him back into the fight.
No lasting thanks in the long run
for warring with our enemies, on and on, no end?
One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down in Death,
the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.
And what's laid up for me, what pittance? Nothing--
Like a mother bird hurrying morsels back
to her unfledged young--whatever she can catch--
but it's all starvation wages for herself.
Meaning in war is elusive. For Achilles the death of his dearest friend Patroclus in Book 16 gives him a reason to fight. This reason perhaps embodies the best of high mimetic ideology--camaraderie and love. But Achilles bypasses the simile (as a literary troupe) where warriors fight like lions for honor and glory; Achilles becomes a lion, war as metaphor, personified at the bestial core of uncharted rage and slaughter.
Robert E. Lee said, "It is well that War is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." In Homer we get the widescreen epic explanation of Lee's words. Yet in Lee we see something of a homage to peace. In Homer, I am not so certain, for Achilles' choice to fight and die for the sake of vengeance alone is, in the end, Homer's choice as well. In my web page Thucydides on War, Thucydides tells us that war "may be pronounced on the evidence of what it accomplishes, to have been inferior to its renown and to the current opinion about it formed under the tuition of the poets." The historian is suggesting that poets will sugar-coat reality, exalt what in relatity should be reproached. War as poetry is seductive. War in Hollywood, depending on time and place, can be either seductive and thus high-mimetic or encased in the bitterness and misery of a twisted smile, the master of pathos thus low mimetic.