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This review is taken from PN Review 54, Volume 13 Number 4, March - April 1987.

AMBIGUOUS ORDER Christopher Prendergast, The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert (CUP) £27.50

In recent years, mimesis, especially as manifested in the 'classic realist' novel of the nineteenth century, has come under strong attack. Classic realism, we are told, seeks to efface the difference between signifier and signified and conceal the absence of the referent. It tries to pass off a partial, contradictory, historically bound representation of reality as universal, unified and timeless. It has the very structure of neurosis, aiming to hide the lack that opens desire and discloses the individual subject as perpetually in process. It entails the banal repetition of the doxa, that stultifying sedimentation of commonplaces, idées reçues and stereotypes by which bourgeois hegemony is maintained. It works to conceal conflicts in the society it depicts and in our own time. It is, in Derrida's phrase, a 'matter for the police', an obtuse apparatus of order. But order, as Christopher Prendergast points out, is a set of arrangements as well as commands; it is indispensable to any coherent human practices. The order of mimesis is not merely repressive.

This fluent, supple, well-informed book argues both for and against mimesis. Prendergast sees the concept of mimesis as inherently ambiguous; to suggest something of this ambiguity, he outlines three views of it: as poison, nausea and health. Plato's Republic sees mimesis as poison: the proliferation of copies infects the state, weakening the proper social and political divisions. But contradictorily, The Republic, in its very mode - its use of dialogue, of personae, of images - employes mimesis. For ...

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