Erich Auerbach: Literature v. Thought

September 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Erich Auerbach spent a decade chasing representations of reality in literature, while avoiding having to face his own as an exile from his native land under Nazism. The product was Mimesis (1946), a comprehensive survey that spans many of the ever-canonical works of literature from the narrow perspective of expressive reality. Most chapters focus on the mixing of genres and voices as well as the defense of corporeal experience to create a dimensionally rich world picture. Others focus on the concept of the serious & its reception in European history or on the increasing acts of psychologizing characters.

This month we celebrate yet another edition of Mimesis, more handsome perhaps than all preceding English copies & now including Auerbach’s response to some of his early critics [Epilegomena to Mimesis, available in translation for the first time]. Although the Willard R. Trask translation is retained, for which readers will no doubt be grateful, the subtitle has been altered from The Representation of Reality in Western Literature to The Representation of Reality in Western Thought. The revision works in opposition to the original German. Have the parametres of literature changed in the 57 years since first publication? No. We would continue to call all of the studied texts “literary”, even Montaigne’s essays which — of all the close readings by Auerbach — is the likeliest candidate for exclusion. Perhaps it is a question of “high literature”, then? That could be, although this would only partially satisfy the philosophic condition of writing Mimesis, summarized by Robert Doran as twofold: “Seriousness, with respect to the mode of representation, & everydayness, with respect to what is presented, are the[…] fundamental conditions of what Auerbach calls ‘realism'” (354). Auerbach’s readers take him too seriously to make this fatal mistake. A more satisfying reasoning could be one of inclusion; the editors may feel that the breadth & nature of the study could have a wider readership still. [Here, the inclusionary argument is also an economic one.]

The method of Auerbach pertains to the now largely dead school of Romance Philology, perhaps most easily likened to modern Near Eastern Studies. The fields marry a close interpretation of raw data with a wide range of sources, literary & ordinary, constructed & cultural. It is an admirable methodology that relies on  complex & in-depth understanding; it is quite anti-intuitive to modern aesthetics of speeding through information & producing hurried conclusions [let’s call this, so as to accentuate its low nutritional value, ‘fast-food for thought’]. We seem, at present, to struggle with a stumbling proliferation of voices in academia, but fewer words. This is true for literary studies, at least. Thus we reprint Auerbach.

The study of literature is an archaeology of the world’s understanding of its inhabitants & their actions; it is taking each work as an attempt, in its own way, to document the immutable aspect of humanity.

I find in Auerbach the embodiment of a generous reader, one that gives great care & thought to the books & world he studies — so much so, that his writing is full of admirable affection & incomparable (infallible!) detail. The sentiment realized by the Andrew Marvell epigraph in Mimesis — “Had we but world enough & time…” — describes the ideal untiring pursuit of the scholar, unhurried but experienced.

As the reader can see, I have responded emotionally to Auerbach’s magnum opus. In awe. This is by no means an exceptional answer to Mimesis; even Edward Said swoons at  “the hallmark of Auerbach’s style[:] an unruffled, at times even lofty and supremely calm, tone conveying a combination of quiet erudition allied with an overridingly patient and loving confidence in his mission as scholar and philologist” (Introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition). Carl Landauer would call this the result of Auerbach’s self-mythologizing. Landauer is neither a generous nor a careful reader. He makes an article around the notion that Auerbach’s work actively denies “Germanness” but is only & cannot but be a product of the German preoccupations. Auerbach confessed to as much himself in the Epilegomena: his oeuvre “arose from the themes and methods of German intellectual history and philology; it would be conceivable in no other tradition than in that of German romanticism and Hegel”. Nevertheless, Landauer is not wrong to say that while “[t]he general experience of the reader is delight in Auerbach’s individual studies & awe in the presence of a work of such breadth, but also [follows] a certain lack of clarity in discerning the basic meaning of Auerbach’s study” (83).

The breadth & focus on individualization are the two most important factors in exhibiting the fond humanism that underlies Auerbach’s writing. This is the second joy of reading Mimesis, never better documented than by Terry Eagleton in 2007, “realism is in the broadest sense a matter of the vernacular. It is the artistic word for a warm-hearted populist humanism. It is thus an anti-Fascist poetics, rather as for [Mikhail] Bakhtin it was an anti-Stalinist one. Mimesis is among other things its author’s response to those who drove him into exile” (Pork Chops & Pineapples). It is another critic of the same year that takes this thought to its ultimate conclusion, however. Robert Doran writes on the presence of the sublime in Auerbach’s work, appearing in its mixed guise in the gospels most importantly — an innovation that would allow the complexity of the human condition, at once corporeal & celestial, to be evoked in writing. “Auerbach’s unease with the sublime in modern realism is a function of his desire to see realism as the gradual emergence of a historical sensibility to the exclusion of any transcendental grounding” (364). His political agenda, textually scarcely present save for in the choices of studied works, is one for political responsibility without the delusion. It would seem this is what we cling to most in his thinking, & not his analyses or methods.

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