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Keith Oatley, Ph.D.
Keith Oatley Ph.D.

Does Art Imitate Life?

Fictional characters seem real, but they are of the mind

The idea that art may imitate life is at least as old as Aristotle's Poetics, the book that-in the West at least-is the most widely recommended text on how to write fiction. It's even recommended by screenwriters to screenwriters.

The idea of imitation comes from the central concept of Poetics: mimesis, which is about the relation of a piece of fiction to the world. In English, it is almost always translated as imitation, mirroring, copying, or some such. Stephen Halliwell, however, has shown that this was just one family of meanings of mimesis. A second family of meanings was something like simulation or world-making, which for fiction is arguably more important. This is what Halliwell says.

Reduced to a schematic but nonetheless instructive dichotomy, these varieties of mimetic theory and attitude can be described as encapsulating a difference between a "world-reflecting" [conception] (for which the mirror has been a common though far from straightforward metaphorical emblem), and, on the other side, a "world simulating" or "world creating" conception of artistic representation (p. 22).

In an 1884 magazine article entitled "The art of the novel," Henry James wrote that a novel is "a direct impression of life." Without saying so explicitly, he was going for the first of Aristotle's meanings of mimesis, the one in general circulation. Robert Louis Stevenson disagreed in a reply that he called: "A humble remonstrance." Here's part of what he wrote.

Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician (p. 182).

Although James was the famous novelist and Stevenson merely the author of children's stories like Treasure Island, it was James who was wrong and Stevenson who was right.

In Treasure Island, Stevenson created one of literature's most memorable characters, Long John Silver. Here is how he is introduced.

His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham-plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling (p. 75).

The idea of Silver came from someone Stevenson knew, G.A. Henley, the author of the famous poem "Invictus" (click here) a man who was large and impressive, who was vigorous although maimed, and remarkably stoical about the pain he was in much of the time. But Long John Silver wasn't a copy or impression. He and the world in which he lived were "artificially made," imagined in such a way as to "catch the ear." Like all successful literary characters, he comes alive as an abstract being who inhabits not the real world but the minds of those who read the story or see it as a movie.

Aristotle (c. 330 BC). Poetics (G. E. Else, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press (1970).
Halliwell, S. (2002). The aesthetics of mimesis: Ancient texts and modern problems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
James, H. (1884). The art of fiction. Longman's Magazine, September, Reprinted in The Portable Henry James (1951) (Ed. M.D. Zabel) New York: Viking, (pp. 1391-1418).
Stevenson, R. L. (1883). Treasure Island. New York: Simon & Schuster (reprinted 2000).
Stevenson, R. L. (1884). A humble remonstrance. Longman's Magazine, December, Reprinted in R.L. Stevenson Essays and Poems (1992) (Ed. C. Harman) London: Dent Everyman's Library (pp. 1179-1188).

About the Author
Keith Oatley, Ph.D.

Keith Oatley is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, researcher on the psychology of fiction, and author of three novels.

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