Coming to Terms with Greek Terms (2)

In this pair we are dealing with one term that you may encounter but are less likely to actually use in your own critical writing, and another that you might actually find usable.  Either way, your knowledge of these ‘terms of art’ can work to expand your sense of how to talk (or hear others talk) about the way literary works are constructed and operate.

The first term is mimesis.  Both Plato and Aristotle employed this term, not in precisely the same way, but both connecting it to imitation and to action. Through the years the term has bounced around through much critical argument with many refinements. You will encounter such names as Brecht and Lukacs, Auerbach and Frye, and perhaps a better acquaintance with those writers awaits you if you pursue further literary study.  For us now, within the context of the IB, it’s likely that our encounter with, and possibly usage is best articulated by H. Porter Abbott in his work on narrative where he takes us back to the two Greeks:

According to Plato, mimesis is one of the two ways to convey a narrative, the other being diegesis.*

Here Abbott brings up the fact that for Plato, plays convey an action by mimesis (characters acting out the story)as opposed to diegesis where the action is conveyed through various ways of telling the story.

Abbott goes on:

Aristotle (Plato’s student) used the term ‘mimesis’ as simply the imitation of an action and included in it both modes of narrative representation.

Whichever of these positions you wish to take, the etymology of the Greek term is imitation. So you will have some sense of the term when and if you encounter it.  However, Plato does lead us on to the second, and possibly more useful term: diegesis.  This critical term has been found to have helpful relevance to IB classes on novels and short stories.  (More about mimesis and its usage in the next post)

‘Diagesis’ can be used to refer to all the things (characters, events) in the world of the novel as told to us by the narrator. Things, however, that we learn about that do not come directly from the primary narrative voice, are called ‘extra-diagetic.’ Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provides one of the best examples of where these two terms are usefully employed. Marlow tells about events in which he participates and he is a diegetic narrator. But we learn of the story of his adventures through the extra-diegetic narrator to whom Marlow tells his story and who tells it to the readers.

Now, there are many elaborations of these terms and you can pursue them on the web. But whether or not these terms deliver aids you can actually use in your own critical writing will depend on texts you are studying or will need to write about.  At the very least, it’s hoped that when you encounter them, they won’t be semantic blanks for you: words without context or meaning.

*H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge, 2002)

 

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