- The Critic as Mime:Wilde's Theoretical Performance1
Such lives do not simply conform to moral precepts or norms in such a way that selves, considered performed or ready-made, fit themselves into a mold that is set forth by the precept.—Judith Butler (2001)
Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it but moulds it to its purpose.—Oscar Wilde (2007b)
Since the beginning of philosophy the theater has been subjected to violent philosophical critiques, which does not mean that the subject who was performing the critical operation could be easily identified. The problematic of the subject has, in fact, always been jointly connected to both theory and the theater, two competing and rivalrous fields which, as their joint etymology suggests, may not be as opposed as they appear to be. Theory (from theorein, to speculate or look at) and theater (from theatron, a place of viewing) are, in fact, two manifestations of the same art, which consists, first of all, in the art of seeing (from thea, a view, a seeing, but also a seat in the theater). Traditionally, as they turned to face each other, theory and the theater have generated reflections in which philosophy and literature, specialists of concepts and specialists of affects, did not simply mirror one another but could turn to critically reflect on each other. As the mirroring effects of the epigraphs that preface this essay suggest, in what follows, I would like to look back to the interplay of this theatrical/theoretical tradition in order to suggest that the forward-looking critical potential of such reflections becomes [End Page 307] apparent if we revisit the Janus-faced concept that started this quarrel in the first place: namely, mimēsis.
Let us briefly recall that in the first and arguably still most influential theoretical condemnation of the theater, the Republic, Plato—via the mask of Socrates—stages a critique of mimesis that is at least double for it has both epistemic and pedagogical implications. On the epistemic side, mimetic spectacles, by which Plato means, primarily, theatrical spectacles such as tragedy and comedy, should be banned from the ideal city because they lie about the gods and represent "shadows" or "phantoms" "at three removes from reality" (Plato 1963b, 599a). Hence the famous critique of mimesis as a deceiving "mirror" in Book 10 of Republic that, despite its transcendental implications in line with Plato's idealist metaphysics, continues to inform translations of mimesis in terms of "representation of reality."2 On the other, pedagogical side, Plato argues that mimetic spectacles should be banned from the ideal city not only because they lie about reality, but also because actors—from which mimesis derives its name (mimēsis, from mimos, actor)—who impersonate a given role on a theatrical stage have the mysterious power to affect and infect the souls of spectators, forming, informing, and transforming their psychic lives. Hence the less famous, yet no less fundamental Platonic realization in Book 3 of Republic, which, for the first time, introduces mimesis on the theoretical scene with the following pedagogical warning: spectators, says Socrates, should "imitate what is appropriate to them… lest from imitation of [things unbecoming] they imbibe the reality" (1963b, 397c). What is at play in this double-faced account of mimesis is thus both a critique of art as realistic representation (imitation of art) and a critique of the subject as a mimetic creature (imitation of life). Consequently, the stakes of this double critique are as ontological as they are pedagogical, as concerned with the true (epistemic) representations of ideal Forms as with the good (psychic) formation of real subjects. For these and other reasons, mimesis remains to this day, an "untranslatable" concept that in-forms (gives form to) both theoretical ideas and theatrical practices.3 One point, however, appears to be clear: this protean conceptual protagonist, Plato says, is the locus of an "ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature" (1963a, 607b; trans. modified) whose effect was to split theatrical and theoretical activities in competing, rivalrous, and antagonistic fields—at least in theory.
And yet, as always with such virulent theoretical quarrels, in practice, the opposition was never as clear...