My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[Elsewhere in the literary blogosphere—do people still say “blogosphere”?—Tom at Wuthering Expectations has wrapped up an informative and fun reading of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.
This book was important to me at a phase in my reading life and still influences me with its modeling of how to intuit a whole way of life from an attention to literary style. It took on a mystique for me when I was 19: the professor of my James Joyce class, where we spent 12 weeks reading Ulysses, pronounced Mimesis one of the only three works of literary criticism actually worth buying—though he didn’t say, and we somehow didn’t ask, what the other two were!
Why didn’t Mimesis make it into my personal canon, focused as that was on criticism and theory? It shadows that canon: I first read “Odysseus’ Scar” (Mimesis‘s classic first chapter) in the same undergraduate course where I was assigned Barthes’s S/Z, and I was the assigned the whole book—to which, not yet fatigued by academe, I added ridiculously copious annotations, pictured below—in the same graduate seminar where we read Lukács’s Theory of the Novel.
In that seminar, though, the professor presented Auerbach as more or less of an orthodox Marxist, not so different from late-period Lukács in his political and aesthetic priorities, if less committed to the jargon, so perhaps I came to find him too predictable, too focused on a restricted definition of realism, on literature as having to do the work of social thought exclusively.
Auerbach’s own “canon” isn’t mine: he extols the Hebrew Bible and Dante and the 19th-century French novel; and I like those, but I love Athenian tragedy and Shakespeare and the 19th-century Russian and American novel more. Since Auerbach was far more learned than I will ever be—and, for that matter, suffered more than I ever have—perhaps his canon deserves to prevail over mine.
Anyway, as my contribution to the Auerbach discourse, I offer below the image a review I published in the Fall 2014 print edition of Rain Taxi; its subject is the Auerbach essay collection Time, History, and Literature (Princeton UP, 2013), but I spend a lot of time on Mimesis and what it means. Please enjoy.]
The German-Jewish scholar Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) is known mainly as the author of one book: the magisterial classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (first published in German in 1946 and in Willard R. Trask’s English translation in 1953). This new collection of essays, translated by Jane O. Newman and edited by James I. Porter, should deepen our appreciation for Auerbach’s eventful life and intellectual accomplishment. Porter’s lucid and comprehensive introduction situates Auerbach in his difficult century: he trained as a Romance philologist after fighting for Germany in the Great War, but then was forced into exile in 1935 by Nazi race laws. He lived in Istanbul during World War II, where he famously wrote Mimesis without the aid of the scholarly resources to which he would have had access in Germany, and then emigrated to the United States, where he spent his last decade researching and teaching at Penn State, Princeton, and Yale.
Auerbach identified himself with the intellectual tradition of philology. The traditional meaning of “philology,” Porter says, connotes “the love of words and literature manifested through the study of texts, their language, meaning, transmission, classification, translation, and so on” (xvii). But Porter insists that Auerbach meant something far more ambitious by this word: a patient scholarly labor of historical interpretation through language with the goal of intuitively grasping—and the sensuous implication of “grasping” is key for Auerbach—the entire worldview of a great author or a historical period in all its experiential intensity and variety. Following Porter’s introduction, then, the best place to begin with this superb collection is the end. The last piece in the book, a late essay of 1952 called “The Philology of World Literature,” sets out the mission of the philologist as Auerbach conceives it.
The result of the philologist’s labor would be, Auerbach hoped, “the realization of a unified vision of the human race in all its variety” (254). This ideal challenges the genocidal Nazi ideology that sent Auerbach into exile, but it also reproves the scientistic and culturally-leveling Cold War period, in which, Auerbach writes, “standardization is spreading, whether it follows the Euro-American or Soviet-Bolshevist pattern” (253). Against the flattening of cultures by new technologies and communications systems, Auerbach argues that the mere accumulation of information will never achieve the philologist’s humanist goal; while philologists must have the correct information—a command of the languages they’re studying and a comprehensive understanding of history for a start—they must ultimately rely on “personal intuition” if they want to write lasting and meaningful books (260). The philologist should aim to produce not only a learned or informative text but one that will “also appear to the reader to be a work of art” (260).
Auerbach succeeded at making philology an art in its own right: Mimesis is generally held by scholars to be one of the few indispensable works of twentieth-century literary criticism, a book that can rest on the shelf without embarrassment beside such other modern achievements of the synoptic literary imagination as Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time. While Time, History, and Literature is a valuable book, it will most richly reward the reader familiar with Auerbach’s masterpiece.
Mimesis is perhaps more famous for its method than for its argument. Auerbach begins each chapter with a brief text of about a page or so (and always in the original language) from a literary work. By analyzing this passage—its syntax, diction, imagery, and figurative devices—Auerbach reconstructs the entire concept of human life communicated by the work as a whole. Moving from Homer and the Hebrew Bible to Proust and Woolf across twenty chapters and three millennia, Auerbach creates from his chosen literary excerpts a grand history of European attempts to capture life in language. It is clear why this critical method appeals to so many different constituencies in academic literary studies, from conservative defenders of the traditional literary canon to Marxist and postcolonial cultural historians: by wedding close textual analysis to historiography, Auerbach vindicates the work of literary interpretation from the charge that it does not produce reliable knowledge. If Auerbach can glean so much understanding of medieval Christianity’s role in European intellectual history from Dante’s use of hypotactic constructions, then the close reading of literary texts deserves a central place in the modern university.
Mimesis also has a literary-critical case to make, and its thesis—more contentious than it may at first appear—is given nuance and context by the essays in Time, History, and Literature. In Mimesis, Auerbach states that “what we are tracing is the combination of the everyday with tragic seriousness” (Mimesis 282). He celebrates a tendency in European literature to break the stylistic hierarchy, derived from Greek and Roman poetics, according to which quotidian or lower-class life is treated comically, while tragic grandeur is reserved for stories of monarchs and other social elites. This ethical and political priority—the product of Auerbach’s own “personal intuition”—entails a standard of aesthetic value. Auerbach accordingly praises works that lavish tragic sublimity on common life, from the Hebrew Bible to the Divine Comedy to the realist novels of Stendhal, while he tends to be colder toward texts or periods he judges to conform to the stylistic hierarchy (Homer, Petronius) or to evade reality through excessive fantasy or subjectivity (Arthurian romances, Don Quixote, German Romanticism, modernism).
The essays gathered in Time, History, and Literature provide the necessary philosophical background to Auerbach’s preference for realist seriousness. The collection’s first section is devoted to the eighteenth-century Neapolitan jurist and philosopher Giambattista Vico, whom Auerbach regards as the precursor of his own philological practice. Vico pioneered a method of secular historical interpretation according to which human beings can, through intuitive study, understand human history as a totality of intelligible relations. Despite his secularity, Vico rejected the ahistorical Cartesian rationalism of the early Enlightenment and became instead, as Auerbach writes, “the founder of aesthetics as the science of precognitive expression”—in other words, one of the first to create historical knowledge from literary and artistic interpretation (17). Focused on reconstructing through literary and linguistic learning the vital complexity of human events, Vico’s worldly poetics granted Auerbach both a method and an emphasis.
The collection’s following two sections are organized by vast themes—“Time and Temporality in Literature” and “Passionate Subjects”—but are perhaps better grouped according to topic. Auerbach’s four essays on Dante are moving in their earnest praise of the medieval poet. For Auerbach, Dante’s great book sacralizes the everyday more than any other. The Divine Comedy is a thoroughly realistic depiction of many legendary and historical persons in all their physical and psychological particularity; but these figures from life are elevated into sublimity by the poet’s placement of them in their proper role within the organization of the spiritual universe. Dante, writes Auerbach, “projected his earthly surroundings into the realm of eternity” (122). One of the collection’s most densely philological essays, “Figura,” elaborates on Dantean poetics. Auerbach explains that figura is a literary trope distinct from allegory, in which a concrete object or image stands in for a spiritual meaning; with figura, by contrast, two entirely earthly objects or images immanently signify and fulfill each other, incarnating a higher meaning within historical time, just as Dante’s characters literally embody spiritual states.
Auerbach’s essays on post-medieval figures—Montaigne, Pascal, Racine, Rousseau, Proust—test his methods in varied intellectual circumstances. It is not surprising that Auerbach would praise Montaigne for his earthy vitalism (“Neither a poet nor a scholar, he is, rather, an author of books…a writer”), but he unexpectedly finds affinities among more classical or austere authors, discovering in Racine a poet of passion and in Pascal an embattled and original political sensibility (204). In the dazzling essay “Romanticism and Realism,” Auerbach even traces the emergence of the realist novel not to the modern prestige of experimental science, but rather to Romanticism’s “discovery…that reality is in a state of perpetual becoming, and that there is nothing but life all around us” (154). Auerbach’s own ability to discover—usually in a few short pages—the value of apparently uncongenial writers and periods testifies to the merit of his philological practice. Far from a dusty discipline, philology allows Auerbach to explore more and more of the life that surrounds him.
Auerbach based his model of world literature on sensitive and well-informed interpretations of the major literary, religious, and philosophical traditions, including those outside the West; this is an ideal yet to be realized. As he argues in “The Philology of World Literature”: “We are already threatened…by the impoverishment of understanding associated with a concept of education that has no sense of the past. It is not just that this impoverishment already exists; it actually threatens to become hegemonic” (256). Hegemonic it has become—even among Ph.D.s in the humanities (and I include myself in this indictment), few today possess the linguistic and historical knowledge to fulfill Auerbach’s mandate for the philologist. These essays’ recovery of history through the reading of literature could therefore not be more timely in the challenge it offers to the dominant attitudes of our technophilic and anti-aesthetic time.