Mimesis, imitatio, and hexis.

Tobias Gregory’s “Don’t break that fiddle” (LRB, 19 November 2020; archived) is a review essay about literary imitation, a topic that has long fascinated me (cf. Axe Handles, Love and Theft, Against My Will, Mimesis); I’ll quote some good bits and let you head for the links if you want more:

How is imitation taught and learned? Is it like apprenticeship to a master, a matter of acquiring skill through practice? How would the apprenticeship model work if your master wrote in another language, time and place? Is imitation a phase, to be practised by a beginner and then dispensed with? How, as a reader or critic, do you identify, evaluate and discuss literary imitation? Does it require a demonstrable verbal resemblance between old and new? How can you tell when imitation is intentional, or when a precursor’s influence has crept in unbidden? Does it matter? On what grounds do you judge whether the imitating author has produced a living child or a lifeless portrait?

These are some of the questions that a history of literary imitation will explore. It is an enormous subject. Even if you want to stick to literature – a hard enough category to circumscribe – you can’t. Plato and Aristotle, whose discussions of mimesis started the ball rolling, were concerned with the way poets imitated reality, rather than their imitation of other authors. That somewhat narrower question emerged from the Roman rhetorical tradition, which is why literary imitation has usually been denoted by the Latin imitatio rather than the Greek mimesis. But the boundary between the broader and narrower senses has never been firm, and the history of literary imitation has always been bound up with the histories of philosophy, rhetoric and education. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca, Quintilian, Petrarch and Erasmus will figure in any serious treatment, and from there it’s up for grabs. A different book could be written for each modern vernacular literature that bears the influence of classical antiquity. A thorough account will include both theory and practice: critical and philosophical writing on imitation, and the way authors have actually gone about it. Books, articles, whole careers have been devoted to studying particular cases: Virgil imitating Homer, or Renaissance humanists imitating Cicero, or English Romantics imitating Milton, or modern novelists trying not to imitate Joyce. A historian of imitation has to survey this vast body of scholarship without becoming overwhelmed. […]

It’s not an easy story to summarise. The word mimesis was ‘extremely complex in sense from its earliest recorded occurrences’; there was no ur-meaning. Plato, who rejected poetry as an imitation of imitations of the Forms, had a notoriously flexible idea of what ‘imitation’ meant. The shift from mimesis to imitatio was first brought about by rhetoricians, Hellenistic and then Roman. Greek philosophers were vague about mimesis; Roman rhetoricians were metaphorical about imitatio. The art of rhetoric included precepts, which could be codified; it also required practice, gained by following the example of a master rhetor. As Quintilian put it in the Institutes of Oratory: ‘But these rules of style, while part of the student’s theoretical knowledge, are not in themselves sufficient to give him oratorical power (vim). In addition he will require that assured facility which the Greeks call hexis.’ This understanding of imitation as building hexis or gradually acquired skill was the salient one for Roman rhetoricians.

In the next great shift, imitating a living master gave way to imitating texts. This possibility had existed for the Romans: Quintilian advocated the imitation of Cicero, who had been dead for more than a century when he wrote. But with Renaissance humanism textual imitation became the norm, and since the texts the humanists put forward as objects of imitation were above all those of classical antiquity, the question of how to imitate at a temporal and cultural distance gained new prominence. ‘Adaptive imitation’ favoured treating your precursor as a transhistorical spirit or ‘subjunctive principle’: the idea was to write as Cicero, Horace or Virgil would write, were they here now. […]

The 18th century saw a shift from imitation as a practice to ‘imitations’, which could mean freely adaptive works such as Pope’s Imitations of Horace, satirical poems in the Horatian tradition about 1730s England. Or ‘imitations’ could refer to particular instances of verbal correspondence, what we now call ‘allusions’, such as Milton’s ‘Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’, which alludes to Ariosto’s ‘Cosa non detta in prosa mai, né in rima’. We have now come to see imitation and originality as opposed. In place of the ancient imitative ideal whereby old and new works were ontological equals – like Seneca’s parent and child – we have substituted originals and replicants, reality and simulacrum. […]

Modern scholarship often restricts the study of imitation to verbal correspondence or allusion. Burrow points out that most ancient and Renaissance writers understood imitation more broadly, and his book is mainly interested in these broader senses. His favourite is Quintilian’s idea of imitation as the development of hexis. That Quintilian reaches for a Greek term here is part of the point: hexis is not easy to define. You know it when you see it. It is the practised ease with which a surgeon makes an incision, or a paleographer reads a manuscript, or a French baker slashes each baguette before it goes in the oven. It’s a matter of doing, not knowing, and it is gained gradually, through imitative practice.

‘What has tended to be marginalised in the more recent history of imitation,’ [Colin] Burrow writes [in Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity], ‘is the aspect of it that was most central to the rhetorical tradition. That is the view that the imitator learns from an exemplum a practice rather than a series of texts or a sequence of words, and that the end of imitation is the acquisition of a habituated skill, rather than a specific set of actions or phrases.’ It is true that we no longer think of imitation this way. That is not to say that we have marginalised the idea of gradually acquired skill. Versions of hexis are everywhere, by other names. Musicians practise, athletes train, artisans take apprenticeships. ‘Practice makes perfect’ is proverbial, and the idea that mastery comes gradually through hard work is familiar to the point of banality. […]

Burrow thinks we overvalue originality and undervalue imitation. Our tendency to oppose the two produces anxieties that might be alleviated by reclaiming the old, active sense of hexis […] The change Burrow calls for would merely require a bit of conceptual irredentism: extending a familiar idea (of the gradually acquired skill) back into a concept (imitation) where it used to belong. It would restore the view that imitation is an essential part of the creative process, not antithetical to it. It would emphasise what becoming a writer has in common with becoming a plumber or hairdresser or sushi chef. It would support a view of authorship like John Gregory Dunne’s, who described writing for a living as ‘a job, like laying pipe’.

There’s much more, and towards the end there’s some genteel bashing of Harold Bloom, which warmed my heart. To take some LH-worthy trivia: mimesis is in the OED (first citation 1550), while imitatio and hexis are not; the Latin vim, accusative singular of vīs ‘strength, energy,’ may or may not be the source of English vim ‘liveliness or energy; enthusiasm’ according to the OED (but definitely is according to AHD); and hexis is Greek ἕξις, a noun derived from ἔχω (ékhō) ‘have.’


  1. John Emerson says

    A little far afield, maybe, but per Clifford Geertz, in Indonesia and in Malay cultures generally art is expected to be imitation, and the best art is an imitation of an admired work which is in some way even better than the admired work — a little more detailed or complex, a little faster, a little smoother, etc. From what I’ve read, troubador poetry is about the same — not all, but many of the poems are about the same thing, but the later poets are trying to top the earlier ones.

    Even farther afield, in East Asia and in the West Coast of the US there’s a phenomenon called the Filipino cover band. These bands exclusively do imitations of the top 40 tunes of the day. The one I know about here in Portland was a family trade, and every brother and sister and cousin of the family is able to sing and play one or several instruments (a bit like the Jackson family maybe).

    I heard about this more than 20 years ago and have no idea whether these bands survived into the era of rap, electronica, etc.

  2. John Emerson says

    “Gan, offhandedly, puts the number of Filipino musicians working overseas at 120,000. A few admittedly unscientific calculations — assuming an average of 4 members per band, 3 sets per night, 6 nights per week, 52 weeks per year — justify the following estimate: this Filipino diaspora is responsible for satisfying an appetite for some 388 million songs a year. It is to assuage this hunger that Jackson Gan founded First Class Professionals.


  3. Amazing, thanks for that!

  4. Trond Engen says

    Thus, hexis is what we in Norwegian would call håndlag. also used metaphorically for every sort of skill from writing poetry over political dealmaking to a police officer’s ability to de-escalate violent incidents.

    A synonym of håndlag with a more narrow meaning “acquired practical ability” is tek < Eng. ‘take’. Få teken på noe “Acquire by practice the abilty to do something”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen English ‘take’ used like that; if so it would be an exact parallel of hexis.

  5. Quite so, and a nice parallel.

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