Among literary-theoretical concepts, mimesis has one of the longest histories, dating back to Plato and Aristotle. In the twentieth century, discussion of mimesis resulted in a number of highly influential contributions, including Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis and Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative. In this article, we use Ricoeur’s tripartite model of mimesis as a catalyst for a dialogue between unnatural and cognitive approaches to narrative. In the first part, we argue that, as a form of simulation (and not just passive imitation), mimesis is best conceptualized in terms of readers’ mental modeling of narrative texts. We build on work in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics to show how readers understand narrative by building situation models derived from their everyday, embodied experience. However, as unnatural narratology emphasizes, not all narratives are consistent with real-world experience. Thus, in the second part of the essay, we examine and discuss the strategies through which readers can accommodate physical and logical impossibilities in narrative by adapting their situation models. In the final part of the article, we turn to D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, a prototypically “unnatural” novel in that the protagonist’s experience is caused by future events rather than by past ones. Our discussion of this novel shows situation models and interpretive strategies at work, exemplifying our claims and grounding them in a textual example. Through this combination of cognitive models and unnatural theory, we develop a framework for understanding mimesis that moves beyond dichotomies between “natural” and “unnatural” stories.
Mimesis: The Unnatural between Situation Models and Interpretive Strategies
Jan Alber is professor of English literature and cognitive studies at RWTH Aachen University (Germany) and past president of the International Society for the Study of Narrative. He is the author of Narrating the Prison (2007) and Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama (2016). He has received fellowships and research grants from the British Academy, the German Research Foundation, and the Humboldt Foundation. In 2013, the German Association of University Teachers of English awarded him the prize for the best Habilitation written between 2011 and 2013. From 2014 to 2016 he worked as a COFUND (Marie-Curie) Fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (Denmark).
Marco Caracciolo is assistant professor of English and literary theory at Ghent University in Belgium. He leads the ERC Starting Grant project Narrating the Mesh, which investigates the relationship between narrative and scientific models, particularly models that challenge the human-scale world of bodily experience. He is the author of three books, including most recently Strange Narrators in Contemporary Fiction: Explorations in Readers’ Engagement with Characters (2016).
Irina Marchesini is a postdoctoral researcher in contemporary Russian literature at Bologna University, Italy. In 2012 she defended her doctoral thesis, which focused on the concept of character in postmodern, self-conscious Soviet-Russian novels. Her monograph dedicated to this topic appeared in 2018 (Levigati dall’assenza. La costruzione del personaggio nella prosa metafinzionale russo-sovietica). She has published numerous essays on narratology, Vladimir Nabokov, Soviet, and Russian literature and culture. The study of extreme experimental narratives, such as works of Sasha Sokolov, Andrei Bitov, and Nabokov, are among her primary academic interests.