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Imitation and the Power of Story

In the Poetics, Aristotle says:

To imitate is co-natural to human-beings from childhood and in this they differ from other animals because they are the most imitative and produce their first acts of understanding by means of imitation; also, everyone delights in imitations. (Poetics 1448b7-9)

I delight in the imitations of my daughters. I am sure this delight is rooted in the recognition that, as Aristotle says, their imitations are their first acts of understanding, their first attempts to feel their way into the world. But my delight is also an immediate response to their delightful ways of encountering the world.

Hannah is quite the mimic. This morning I awoke to “Daddy. Daaady. Com’on Daddy” and heard an echo of my own repeated calls of “com’on Hannah” on our walks though the neighborhood. Chloe too, with a roll of her eyes, mimics her mother’s playful manner of mockery and shows that she too is hard to impress.
As we were leaving for the grocery store today Chloe and Hannah were going around saying “we’re outta here” after I must have said something to that effect. Part of what makes such mimicry so delightful is that it is like the gift of a mirror that allows you to see yourself differently.
But Aristotle does not have in mind only this sort of mimicry, but also the imitation that belongs to the telling and performance of stories, to the representation of actions in the world of human affairs. And it is here, in the telling and retelling of stories, that Hannah and Chloe clearly seek to find their ways into the complex world of human community.
Strangely enough, they both seem obsessed with stories of tragedy and redemption. Hannah likes to tell this story: “Guy … hit … fall down … Mommy … home,” which, roughly translates as:

Hannah was at the library when a boy hit her and she fell down. The boy’s Mommy made him say he was sorry and then told him they were going home because he was not playing nicely.

We retell this story often, and there is a satisfying sense of justice in it.
DSC_0033.JPGFor her part, Chloe has a battery of stories she wants to hear repeatedly throughout the day. There is the story of Joe Pa who broke his leg while coaching, went to the hospital, but is getting better and, as she often adds, “he’ll be all ready for the fall.”
Or the story of Uncle Hank who was hit by a car when he was a boy, went to the hospital, but recovered in time. Or that of the “old lady” who fell down at a wedding we attended in Chicago last fall and who I helped up to a chair (we tend to leave out the part about her being drunk!). She was taken home and recovered. Or the story of her friend who fell down the stairs of his porch, went to the hospital, but had no significant injuries.
Clearly, there is a theme here, and it has something to do with her attempt to understand human hurt and the capacity for recovery. My first hope for these two little ones is that they never know such hurt, but recognizing this as impossible, my second hope is that a resilient capacity for recovery sustains them through long lives.


  • Sehjan says:

    As the child grows imitations are their first acts of understanding, their first attempts to feel their way into the world. From the childhood to the grown up stage several changes occur. They always try to follow others attitude. During this period a simple thing has great impact on them. So, parents need to be careful at that time.

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