Art, as defined by Plato in his paradigmatic work The Republic, serves both as a definition qua definition - a way of telling us what art should be in and of itself - and as an exemplar of other aspects of society. Plato was fundamentally concerned with the relationship between the world and art (including all media of art) because he argued passionately that the true purpose of literature was a mimetic one. Art should, in other worlds, imitate life in all things and as closely as possible. (Aristotle, one of Plato's students, would extend this idea of Plato's even farther.) This paper examines how Plato's understanding of the form and function of art can help us to situate the epistemological stance of Gothic Victorian literature - a set of literary endeavors that was also deeply committed to the mimetic, although not precisely in the way that Plato outlined.
We should begin by laying out, albeit in abbreviated form, Plato's understanding of artistic mimesis. For Plato, deviations from mimesis in artworks were to be considered to be flaws in the work of art. This to us might seem to be a very limited definition of the range of art, but it is not without merit. Such a definition emphasizes the importance of craft, of the skill of the individual who is trying to re-create the world (which to many seems a perfect creation and so absolutely worthy of copying). Nature's glory or the gods' design is a wondrous thing, and when Aristotle urged writers and other artists to copy it he was arguing not only for mimesis (and perhaps not even primarily for mimesis at all) but for an insistence upon the highest standards. No artist, he argued, should ever try for less than perfection, and as perfection lies in the world all around us the proper study, subject and goal of the artist is that world.
This argument that art should attempt to recreate as closely as possible the world around us is, of course, not the only model of art that there is. It should not, however, be dismissed out of hand: It may sound quaintly old-fashioned, but much of what Plato was arguing was reborn in Marxist and post-structural notions of literature such as those put forth by Adorno and Cixous. Such critics argue that it literature must be aware of and responsive to the realities of the world. Not because the world has been perfectly formed by the gods (as Plato would have argued) but because the world has been so badly sullied by humans. A mimetic literature is thus, for these Moderns, an act of revolution, a breaking of hegemonic bonds.
But Plato, in defining art, was interested both in defining the proper purpose of art and in making a more general statement about the nature of the relationship between the world and artifacts produced by people. Thus there is an important parallel in The Republic between the way in Plato defines art and the ways that he defines morality.
Plato argues that if there are in fact no true moral principles, then the necessity of a person's upholding any particular set of moral precepts, or of morality at all, becomes a problematic assertion. If we are all simply making up moral codes as we go along, adapting our morality to meet the cultural and social demands of our particular point in history, then any argument about the overriding importance of any moral code is greatly attenuated. One of the reasons that most of us are moral is that we believe that moral codes transcend history and culture: Some things are always right and that is why we make personal sacrifices to abide by a moral code. In other words, the purpose of art is to mirror the reality of the world; the purpose of morality is also to mirror the reality of the world.
Plato makes just such an argument in laying out his model of moral realism. Moral realism for Plato - and this is a model that is widely incorporated into religious and moral systems since the classical world. Moral realism is the idea that moral precepts are in fact "real," that they have an objectively true element to them that is distinct from human emotions or the conventions and values of any one society, just as art can actually mirror reality rather than merely reflect the stylistic conventions of a particular culture.
Art, like morals and morality, for Plato existed in an ideal form. This form may become distorted as it is translated into the real world with its imperfect, shifting shadows of the forms. But this does not in any way mean that the forms themselves are not both perfect and possessed of an objective reality beyond particular cultural or social conditions. Plato's response to those that would attempt to subvert such a system is twofold: First, that it cannot be subverted by the actions of any individual and, secondly, that we should not try to do so because any such attempt at subversion on our part would only limit our own chance to see the world in its true brilliance.
There are, of course, problems between Plato's concepts of morality and art and our own, postmodern versions of them. Although one might like to think that there is a single set of moral precepts that would provide justice to everyone in a society throughout all that is left of human history, when one actually begins trying to create such a system, the difficulties of doing so become immediately clear. In the same way, art that seems realistic to one age will seem mannered and artificial to another.
Plato argues that art -like justice, like morality - should be rooted in nature (i.e. In physis) rather than in convention (i.e. In nomos). Art that is rooted in nomos must necessarily fail the test of mimesis (or art itself, according to Plato's definition) in the same way that justice or morality that is rooted in nomos rather than in physis has already failed.
This emphasis on the reality of the ideal is something that seems contradictory to us as well as simply improbable. (Although, as we shall explore below, it was not a contradiction to the creators of Gothic literature). We understand both systems of justice and schools of art as being forms of artifice - important systems of artifice, some of the most important elements of civilization. But we recognize that both justice and art are historically specific in a way that Plato denies. Art for Plato is a way of connecting to the absolute, the ideal, even the divine. For us they are ways of connecting to the best that each age has to offer. For Plato, art was a part of the independently existing world of ideal forms, the highest of which was the ideal of pure beauty. To the extent that art imitated the perfection of the ideal world, art helped us to understand the nature of the ideal. Art was thus a tool for knowledge of the ideal, a way to connect us to that glittering world outside of the cave.
We may now turn to the ways in which the world of the 19th-century Gothic novel confirmed (even if in many cases unknowingly) to the precepts laid down by Plato. The world of 19th England was one in flux, in which a number of traditional certainties had been cast aside. Society was becoming once and forever unhinged from its traditional agrarian base, and in this process people were losing the compass points that had guided their ancestors for generations. The world for the resident of the Victorian era was at once vaster and more frightening, more full of discoveries to be made than it had been since the Age of Exploration.
The 19th century was a century in which science substantially expanded human capabilities of understanding the workings of the world in which we live. People had better telescopes and better microscopes, and above all they had better scientific knowledge that helped them to assess and understand the new discoveries that were being made.
Charles Darwin epitomizes both of these types of voyages - the kind into the (to Europeans) unknown lands and the voyage into scientific understanding. Darwin demonstrated that we might change the very meaning of the world in which we lived and our understanding of our own place in it through the act of observation. The use of the full range human senses became extraordinarily to those living in such an age, an age in which the most extraordinary things might at any moment be discovered and, through their discovery change the nature of reality.
Certainly Darwin's discoveries had a substantial effect on the writers of his age. But it is tempting to argue that the influence did not travel only in one direction. It may well have been that Darwin was able to see more clearly the nature of…