Thursday, July 26, 2007

Of Mimics and Mimicry



The Importance of Mimics and Mimicry

As a child I always loved mimics, or those entertainers more commonly called impressionists. From the mid-sixties to the early eighties the famous impressionist Mike Yarwood dominated our television screens. My brothers and I used laugh so much when Yarwood came on. He did famous impressions of Brian Clough (soccer manager), Robin Day (broadcaster), Harold Wilson (the P.M.) and Ted Heath (also P.M.). Lenny Henry, Jim Carrey and the late great Peter Sellers were/are other noteworthy impressionists. Perhaps the greatest series to poke fun was the satirical puppet show called Spitting Image which ran on the UK TV channel ITV from 1984 to 1996. This programme was justifiably famous for its excellent puppet caricatures of The Royal Family.

When I was at school there was always one or two in our class who were good mimics of our teachers. We used love it when they’d get up in those short intervals between change of classes and imitate the out-going or in-coming teacher. The impressionist loved the both the thrill of entertaining his captive audience or running the risk of being caught. These days the students at school still imitate their teachers and they derive a considerable amount of pleasure therefore.

I’d like briefly to return to the Greek word “mimesis” from which the word “mimic” and “mimicry” and indeed the word “mime” takes its origin. Aristotle defines “Mimesis” in his Poetics as “imitation of an action.” This seems very clear-cut indeed, but Aristotle also had in mind what Kearney calls in On Stories “a creative redescription of the world such that hidden patterns and hitherto unexplored meanings can unfold.” (p. 12) In other words the mimic is adding something new, an interpretation of the character, say. I’m thinking now of two or three good mimics we have in Fifth Year at school. I have allowed one or two to mimic several of our staff, including myself, of course – I would not allow it otherwise. I became aware of another aspect of my own self, about how the kids saw me, about how they would exaggerate certain personal characteristics they found funny. There seems to be a need deep inside us to identify with others, to humanise them and to bring them into our own world-picture. For a child to mimic his teacher is natural and good; for an adult to mimic his boss is also healthy.

Kearney points out that both historical and fictional narratives have this “mimetic” function in common. He also points out that those teachers of old who told us that mimesis was where “art holds a mirror up to nature” got the whole thing wrong. Indeed they did. They forgot all about the actor, painter or writer or sculptor who engaged with his/her subject, brought their own unique personal interpretation to whatever was being worked upon. Let’s go back to one of my favourite quotes. It’s from the Talmud and goes: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” In other words we bring our own opinions, biases and prejudices, or in tamer less controversial terms our own interpretation to our subject matter.

Historians as well as novelists, scientists as well as philosophers, mathematicians as well as theologians all bring their own unique interpretations to the subject for debate. Let’s not forget that. There is no direct clinical unbiased road to the “real truth of the matter in itself.”

We learn by imitation, by putting ourselves literally in “the other person’s shoes” and by a feat of our imagination we try to be that other person even for a few moments. In this way while fun could be the immediate result of such acts of imitation, identification with the adult, learning other roles in life are equally, if not more important goals.

By way of finishing this entry today I should like to bring a few disparate threads together. I have already mentioned how Anthony Storr is my favourite psychiatrist and psychotherapist of all time because of his sheer humanity and his passionate and compassionate take on human beings. While Storr argues that psychotherapy can never be one of the pure sciences and criticizes Freud for saying that it is, interestingly he compares psychotherapy with history and the psychotherapist with the historian. Why? Well they are both involved in historical narrative. The historian, who does his utmost to be aware of his own biases and prejudices, and who tries to be as humanly objective as possible, seeks to reach a certain truth about a certain period in history – it’s always going to be an approximation of course. Likewise the psychotherapist is dealing with an historical narrative. The difference is the psychotherapist has the “narrator” there in front of him. By building up a caring and trusting atmosphere the therapist allows the client to tell his/her own story as fully as possible.

Above I've pasted a picture I took of some pupils at school some 4 years back. Many of these lads are excellent mimics!

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