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  • The Soul of Poetry Redefined: Vacillations of Mimesis from Aristotle to Romanticism by Mats Malm
  • Nicholas Morgan
Mats Malm, The Soul of Poetry Redefined: Vacillations of Mimesis from Aristotle to Romanticism (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen 2012) 256 pp.

As the title of this book indicates, Mats Malm addresses almost the entire history of mimesis, stopping only at the nineteenth century. Much ink has been spilled on the topic of representation and imitation since antiquity, and any number of books could be written on even the smallest subsections of Malm’s book. Rather than focus on any particular approach to mimesis, Malm overviews the “vacillations” of the concept in the work of thinkers including Aristotle, Averroes, and a number of Renaissance philosophers. This book, then, intends to join a select grouping of important texts, such as Eric Auerbach’s famous Mimesis, that examine both the nature of art, especially poetry, and its historical evolution. The ambition of this book is to be lauded, and yet for a short work of 193 pages before notes, some loss of depth is inevitable. Much hangs in the balance between overwhelmingly specific accounts of the evolution of the aesthetic and accounts that are too sweeping and thus loose any chance of local insight: it seems at once that the concept of mimesis as Malm [End Page 301] describes it has always been so vague as to preclude the meaningfulness of any account of Aristotle’s poetics that would seek to assimilate it to a larger aesthetics or perfectly rigidify its meaning. Yet simultaneously much is surely lost in attending to broad changes in aesthetic thinking (or poetics, as Malm sometimes puts it, indicating an uneasy relation between the work of Aristotelian poetics and aesthetics at large) by gesturing toward paradoxically localized debates that are quickly passed over: one emerges from this study both with an understanding of general principles in the history of mimesis, an awareness of the intense arguments that surrounded mimesis at general points in its history, and a confusion as to the import of this divisiveness. Malm’s historicity sits in a productively antagonistic relationship with the apparently a priori principles each historical thinker engages. Thus the claim to an aesthetics understood as ahistorical is itself historicized; if there is one way to differentiate this account of mimetic poetry from that of classic accounts such as Auerbach’s, aside from the genuine strength of its claims, it is precisely by pointing to this emphatic historicity. Chapter 2 in particular deals with the complex process by which Aristotle was transmitted and preserved in Arabic thought; Averroës, Malm shows, attempted a reading of Aristotle’s poetics suited primarily to the Arabic lyric poetry he knew, whereas Aristotle’s discourse was originally directed to Greek tragedy and, to a lesser extent, epic. Thus when Aristotle’s idea of mimesis resurfaces in western medieval and Renaissance thought it is deeply influenced by the (mis)application to lyric, a conceptual confusion that productively underwrote many subsequent attempts to understand poetic representation, especially in the romantic era. And yet it is precisely in this manner that many of the convergences and divergences Malm narrates become finally a simple tug-of-war between either historically “correct” (i.e. tragic or epic) applications of mimesis against “incorrect” lyric applications. But more, surely, is at stake then the relative reading or misreading of Aristotle.

In the first chapter, Malm clearly elucidates some of Aristotle’s ideas about mimesis and carefully draws out conclusions which he suggests imply the logical extent of what can be assumed about mimesis from the original philosophical texts. Malm’s way of phrasing this debate points to its more formalist interest by highlighting an Aristotelian paradox: is mimesis the representation of a thing, or the creation of a representation of a thing? This subtle distinction guides the subsequent correct and incorrect readings of Aristotle: for Aristotle, the primary “soul of poetry” was “mimesis-representation,” and the secondary quality “mimesis-composition” (or the creation of a poetic representation of the imaginative “mimesis-representation”). Later thinkers such as Averoess reprioritized mimesis-composition as “the soul of poetry.” These distinctions are useful and fascinating...


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pp. 301-303
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