by Dean John R. Rosenberg
Some months ago on a warm and impressionistic autumn morning—sun glued to surfaces and colors amiably blended—I explored the gardens of the Rodin Museum in Paris. It is a place of remembered poses: the thick-browed Thinker hunched over a conundrum; The Three Shades above The Gates of Hell, pointing and presiding; and that burgher of Calais on the left, right arm raised, right hand twisted just so, strange and balletic, perhaps suggesting the hand of Lorenzo di Medici as carved by Michelangelo, or of Christ in El Greco’s Trinity. Tourists posed self-consciously in front of the bronze icons and imitated the statues’ manners, while a friend (always a lover?) photographed the moment. I imagined those photos on a desk or mantel: here am I, pensive as The Thinker, or as self-sacrificing as the famished burgher who resists oppression going on now 700 years. We like to be like, if only on the surface and in the moment. The fleeting photographic interludes of the passersby parodied the form of Rodin’s figures and missed their substance—carefree life imitating art carelessly.
We imitate daily in the way we dress, how we talk (that we talk), the way we parent, how we fill and empty our days: we live and learn mostly by imitation. Often we imitate or mimic without thinking (“Their manners are so apish,” wrote Shakespeare). Occasionally we imitate mockingly, an especially cruel form of commentary in that we a take a fragment of a person and posit it as the whole. The world of advertising invites us to fashion ourselves after the models it places before us; then we don’t worship the graven image, we seek to become it.
A humanities education is a sanctuary housing an infinite progression of niches, each one holding a statue, each statue bearing the label imitatores mei estote (“be imitators of me,” see 1 Cor. 4:16). To the right is Socrates and next to him Confucius. There stand Augustine and Averroës and Abélard, who is staring off into the distance. On the left, Penelope and Arachne weave their destinies. Madame Bovary stands opposite Don Quixote—their glances meet and we wonder. In the basement we spy Lady Macbeth setting the table for a late supper with Don Juan, and high in the vault Icarus looks down a bit anxiously. Pretenders all.
The educated mind discerns whom to imitate.
Art, like life, doesn’t curate cleanly: good and bad examples fill the same space and occasionally swap roles. We admire Achilles’s courage until we discover it is stoked by anger, or perhaps we tolerate the fury because it sometimes looks like leadership. Depressive Abraham frets over the crisis in his own house while saving a nation, while the Peter of Matthew 26 peers out from the early-morning shadows at the Petros we met 10 chapters before. In early-modern painting, the mirror was a symbol for stable imitation. The image in the mirror depended on the thing in front of it—object and artifact inseparably bound. Vermeer painted The Music Lesson and placed an aspiring musician in front of a mirror, but the mirror didn’t accurately reflect the model, and our optimism for imitation as an aesthetic and ethical program begins to fracture. Through a glass (mirror) darkly . . .
When the young David O. McKay returned from a tour to Scotland’s Stirling Castle and encountered the phrase carved on a lintel, “what e’er thou art, act well thy part,” he discovered the theatrum mundi motif—the world as stage, in which we all are actors (imitators) playing parts assigned to us, sticking closely to the script when we play well. The idea behind this medieval motif was that the play would soon end, our masks would fall off, and the Author would judge our performance. Today scripts abound and there are roles aplenty; many think that the play is all there is, and that the Author is dead. What to do?