“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.”
(Keats, J. 1820)
Art and life can be seen as two ends of a double-edged sword that both imitate and enhance each other. Art attempts to imitate and reflect life and thus augments our experience of it while itself being exalted by it. At the same time, individuals inspired by art replicate and apply it on life (thus imitating art) and here again life is made better for allowing the development of art. This relationship between the contrasting ideals can be seen reflected in nineteenth century English literature, particularly in George Eliot’s 1860 classic The Mill on the Floss.
These dynamics between the opposing contrasts is expressed in the philosophical position of anti-mimesis, that is, life imitating art. It is the direct opposite of the Aristotle-inspired ‘mimesis,’ a critical and philosophical term dealing with “imitation, representation, resemblance and presentation of self.” (Gerbauer and Wulf, 1992.) It comes from the Greek word for “to imitate” or “emulate.” Mimesis is, in its contemporary interpretation, the process by which art reflects and reinterpreots the world around it. Originally, in ancient Greece, mimesis was an idea that governed the creation of works of art with correspondence to life (or the physical world) as a model for beauty and truth. After Plato, use of the term mimesis shifted gradually towards literary function (and was subsequently re-interpreted multiple times) until it arrived at the nineteenth century exposition talked about by Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the turn of the nineteenth century as a concept for his Theory of Imagination (1798). He argued in the book that imitation reveals the sameness of process in nature, saying,
“The composition of a poem is among the imitative arts; and that imitation, as opposed to copying, consists either in the interfusion of the same through the radically different, or the different through a base radically the same.”
Coleridge here opposes imitation to copying, referring in “copying to Wordsworth’s (his contemporary and friend) notion that poetry should replicate nature by capturing actual speech (calling it a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility). He proposes instead that the unity of essence is revealed precisely through different materialities of media.
Oscar Wilde was a notable proponent of the anti-mimesis position, who wrote that “Life imitates Art more often than Art imitates Life,” in his essay The Decay of Lying (1889). He wrote under aPlatonic school of thought, claiming that anti-mimesis
“results not merely from life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression, and that art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.”
What is found in life and nature is thus not really there but is what artists have taught people to find there. The effects of beauty and wonder did not exist in life until art invented them, according to Wilde. His anti-mimetic idealism was part of the nineteenth century debate between Romanticism and Realism. (Mc Grath, 1999.) George Bernard Shaw wrote in his preface to Three Plays for Puritans (1897, 1898, 1900),
“I have noticed that when a certain type of feather appears in painting and is admired as beautiful, it presently becomes common in nature so that the Beatrices and Francescas in the picture galleries of one generation come to life as the parlour maids and waitresses of the next.”
and commented that men and women are created by their own fancies in the image of imaginary creatures in his youthful fiction, and that the real world does not therefore exist. He did, however, disagree with some of Wilde’s points, considering most attempts by life to imitate art to be reprehensible, in part because the art people choose to imitate was idealistic and romanticised.
The False Mirror. Magritte.
In The Mill and the Floss (1860), written by Mary Anne Evans under the pseudonym George Eliot, the theme of art and life co-existing as binary contrasts and yet acting as supplements to each other can be seen. The protagonist of the novel, Maggie, has the book The Imitation of Christ (1418-1427, Latin) by Thomas à Kempis gifted to her and is inspired on reading it to renunciate all art and pleasurable activity from her life. This is ironic as a book, which is itself a work of literature and therefore art, is what compelled Maggie to remove all art and enjoyment from her life. Her relationship in the novel with her brother Tom can be compared to this balance of art against life. Maggie is creative, imaginative and passionate while Tom is dull, business-like and deeply rooted in reality; Maggie is spirited and has a flair for histrionics while Tom is pragmatic and placid. This is much like the relationship shared in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch: A Study of Provencal Life (1847) between the protagonist Dorothea Brooke and her husband Edward Casaubon. Dorothea was an idealistic, buoyant and intelligent woman with great aspirations. Edward, however, was a pedantic, elderly man who resented her youthful energy and regarded her ambitions with cold-hearted detachment (as Tom tended to do with Maggie). Brooke represents art in their relationship, undertaking inventive, artistic projects such as redesigning cottages for her uncle’s tenants; Casaubon, though, is representative of life, holding her back in her endeavours. In this way, Eliot portrays the dynamics between art and life in her novels through various inter-character relationships.
At the same time, Tom considers Maggie in The Mill on the Floss to be ‘inconsistent’ while Tom is himself rigid and stubborn (though this arises more from his egotism and personal pride than a constant moral value system to inspire his false sense of righteousness). Neither of the two extremes are, however, ideal and a balance must be struck between the two (unpredictable spontaneity and rigidity in one’s personality), in the same way that an accord between artistic expression and realistic life is essential. The juxtaposition of art against life can be seen in the dynamics of Maggie and Tom’s relationship. When Maggie vows in ‘Book Fourth’ of the novel to give up art and pleasure, her friend and later lover Philip helps her embrace them again and persuades her to bring art and culture back into her life. He makes her realise that art, literature, et cetera are important life experiences, and attempts to show her beauty, love, poetry and art are as sacred and significant as renunciation. He views Maggie as self-important and feels she wants to portray a false image of herself as saintly.
Maggie, who craves praise and appreciation and has sought them her whole life, denunciates art as a pretence. It is an artifice, as she does it merely in order to receive approval, doing subconsciously all she can to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging. Thus, her determination to be unselfish and give up all activities of self-gain stems from her inner selfishness and motive of self-interest. It is, in this way, a paradoxical act, as it is through her ‘selfless’ actions that she is able to feel satisfaction and fulfilment. Critics Gilbert and Gubar refer to her as the “angel of renunciation.” (2000) The novel The Mill on the Floss also employs the device of portraying art as a remedy for suffering. With Philip, for instance, his various cultural talents and interests offer him an outlet or refuge from his struggles and allow him to better cope with hardships.
Additionally, the forest (the Red Deeps) acts as an area where art can thrive, since it is a fantasy-reminiscent land that contains untold wonders and keeps them hidden from society, thus protecting them from reality and life. This area is seen thus as a cross between Shakespeare’s Edenic forest of Arden (As You Like It, published 1623), a space where individuals are able to exercise true freedom, and Edward Thomas’s path from his appropriately titled poem ‘The Path’ (1917) that represents endless remarkableness visible only to the attuned eye (like that of an artist). It is thus the area where art can truly and completely thrive. This forest is ironically first seen at a time when Maggie has just proclaimed she will renunciate and reject all pleasurable activity. However, it is here that, with Philip’s persuasion, she is motivated to take it back up. He lets her know he feels she is deluding herself, saying she is
“shutting [herself] up in a narrow, self-delusive fanaticism, which is only a way of escaping pain by starving into dullness.”
Eliot’s views can thus be seen reflected in this section. Philip’s urging illuminates her thoughts and views to the reader and we can tell the writer believes it alright to enjoy, and that indulging oneself is not a practice to be denounced as negative or sinful. She also feels that it is not right to suppress natural human wishes and urges to indulge in art and pleasure; it is better than a life of control and dullness. This is particularly relevant to her protagonist Maggie who, by nature, craves excess and is passionate and vibrant. For her, craving art is almost like a necessity and this brilliance and vibrancy of hers flashes in her face still, until she draws, in Philip’s opinion, “that veil of dull quiescence over it.” (Eliot, G. Part V, Chapter 3) In addition, art and literature are important as they help individuals in a society relate to others and understand reality (another correlation between art and reality). Art also helps one connect with humanity. It was, at the time, written off as flippant and feminine (which is why Philip was considered feminine, due to his link with the artistic sphere), and Eliot’s disdain over this is evidenced in her work.
The idea of the binary contrasts of art and life is also explored extensively in poetry of the nineteenth century, when the Romantic movement was at its peak- particularly in the genre of poetry. One such poem that examines this theme is poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson’s celebrated ballad The Lady of Shalott (1832). Tennyson, in his poem, represents an artist’s life as being detached from life and reality- separated from the rest of the world- who is still able to portray and comment on life through art. The eponymous Lady of Shalott is depicted by the poet in a sense as an artist, although no one sees her work, in solitary confinement, dying upon exposure to reality. The poem may therefore be read as an allegory (extended metaphor) for the isolation-bound life of an artist. The art of the Lady is what keeps her content (as Philip is kept, in The Mill on the Floss), and in depicting reflections of real life in her work, she struggles to balance herself (as all artists do) between the living world and a private dream (the world of art).The Lady of Shalott becomes, in her death, a work of art herself, viewed by and on display for the people of Camelot. Her death at the end as well as Maggie’s in The Mill on the Floss proves to the reader that, in that time, in order to break the norms of society (such as isolation for the woman and for the artist), one is forced to die. Death is the only way to achieve salvation. The lady’s artistic ventures are brought to light in the lines,
“There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.”
(Tennyson, A. Part II, Lines 37-38)
The theme was also a favourite of poet John Keats, who referenced it in numerous poems- it being a predominant subject of thought amongst his peers. One of Keats’s poems in which the concept of contrasting art against life was visited was Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820). He deals, in the poem, with temperance represented by life as opposed to the permanence that comes with art and its ‘preservative’ properties, so to speak. The poet expresses in the poem his belief that immortality can be attained through art (and representation in art) alone. He writes, addressing the urn he writes of,
“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe.”
(Keats, J. 1820. Lines 46-47)
He muses, while looking upon the urn that he believes has captured for eternity a moment in the lives of ordinary people, that will now last forever due to having been encapsulated on the Grecian vase. Another poem of Keats’s, Ode to a Nightingale (1819), is a meditation on art and life, inspired by a nightingale nesting in the poet’s garden, singing. The bird’s song and the poet’s happiness in it is contrasted with the transient nature of youth, beauty and other elements of human life. (The song of the nightingale is seen as a symbol of art and thus outlasts human life.) The narrator ponders on death and old age, complaining about the approach of old age that is certain for all humans but which art remains unaffected by and thus, which the nightingale need never worry about. Keats therefore treats the binaries of art and life with an unpleasant disposition- holding art on a pedestal that life and reality can never come to. He considers art to be equated with eternity and performance, and life with mortality and transience. Keats also writes about these themes in his other poems, To Autumn (1819) and Bright Star (or Last Sonnet), published posthumously in 1838.
However, it can be said that life cannot exist without art, as in its absence people lead limited, unimaginative, sad lives. One is unable to ‘live’ fully, in the full sense of the world, since a life lacking art in not a not a life at all. This idea is also propounded by Eliot in her novel. She believes that art makes every day existence better and is an emotional outlet or refuge from daily worries and concerns, and from the monotony of life . Simultaneously, though art must be kept detached and distanced from reality, it must always be a reflection of it (and thus of life). Art is thus dependant on society and cannot exist without it, just as life cannot exist in the absence of art. Neither can prevail if the other does not. In the words of John Keats,
“‘Beauty is truth, and truth beauty’- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
(Keats, J. 1820. Lines 49-50.)