The Book of Books: Erich Auerbach and the Making of “Mimesis”
The New Yorker, Dec. 2, 2013No one knows how he came to Istanbul: whether he caught the Orient Express in Munich or drove from Marburg to Genoa and boarded a ship for Athens. We know that he arrived in September, 1936, and was joined, two months later, by his wife and thirteen-year-old son. We know that he hadn’t wanted to go, and didn’t think that he would stay long. A year earlier, he had told a colleague that Istanbul University was “quite good for a guest performance, but certainly not for long-term work.” As it turned out, he stayed nearly eleven years, three of which were devoted to writing a book that helped define the discipline of comparative literature.That book, with its totemic one-word title, represented for many of its readers the apex of European humanist criticism. The German edition was published in 1946 and the English translation in 1953, and for decades “Mimesis” was the book that students of comparative literature had to contend with. For one thing, its author, Erich Auerbach, moved effortlessly among eight ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, which probably helped the book live up to its daunting subtitle: “The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.”
“Mimesis” contains twenty chapters, each one anchored to a characteristic passage from a theological or literary work, which is then tested for tone, diction, and syntax, and enfolded within a specific historical context. Auerbach viewed European literature as an evolving pattern of themes, motifs, narrative devices, and Judeo- Christian affiliations; and his book is essentially a history of Western literature in which successive periods are classified by levels of realism fashioned from a specific mingling of styles. Auerbach distinguished the high style of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric from the more psychologically complex phrasing of Hebrew Scripture, which, in turn, was less graphic and immediate than the story of God’s incarnation through the vessel of a lowly carpenter, which forever changed the way man viewed reality.
Addressing Peter’s denial of Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, Auerbach finds something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature. . . . A scene like Peter’s denial fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Earthly Happenings: Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach
Sydney Review of Books, Aug. 15, 2014
Odysseus’ Scar’, the opening chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), is a classic of twentieth century literary criticism — a brilliant comparative reading of sections of the Odyssey and the Book of Genesis as foundational texts of Western literature’s two great informing traditions: the Hellenic and the Judaeo-Christian.
Auerbach first draws our attention to the moment in book nineteen of the Odyssey, after Odysseus has returned in disguise from his wanderings, when the old servant woman Euryclea notices a scar on his leg and recognises him. At this point in the narrative, there is a long digression that explains how Odysseus came to have the scar (a hunting accident) and how Euryclea is aware of this because she has known him since he was young. Auerbach contrasts this with the biblical story of Abraham, whom God orders to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Here we find a very different style of narrative, notable for its lack of explanatory detail. God speaks to Abraham from a contextless void. Abraham obeys without question. He travels for three days to the place where he is to kill his son, but details of the journey and his state of mind are absent.
Encoded in these contrasting narrative styles, argues Auerbach, are fundamentally different ways of representing and therefore understanding reality. In the Odyssey, as in the Iliad, there is only foreground. Everything is explained and externalised; nothing is allowed to remain obscure. People do not change: they are who they are. Homer’s poetry can thus be analysed but it does not lend itself to reinterpretation. The elliptical Old Testament stories, on the other hand, open up interpretive spaces that admit figurative readings. Their perplexing omissions, which leave their protagonists’ motivations shrouded in mystery, create suspense and psychological intrigue.
So it is the biblical style that anticipates the modern notion of character as a layered psychological phenomenon, something that retains an element of inscrutability and is capable of developing over time. But no less important for Auerbach is the implication of an entirely different conception of history. All the action in Homer takes place on a horizontal plane: time is experienced on a human scale; events are either connected in a logical way or they are not connected at all. In the Old Testament stories, however, meaning is a function of the vertical imposition of God as a supra-historical creator and ultimate bestower of significance. They assume a ‘universal religio-historical perspective which gives individual stories their general meaning and purpose’. Their religious intent ‘involves an absolute claim to historical truth’. Auerbach reserves some of his strongest language to describe this imposition and draw the contrast in the sharpest of terms: … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Typology and the Holocaust: Erich Auerbach and Judeo-Christian Europe
Malachi Haim Hacohen
Religions, July 17, 2012
Among the Jewish émigrés who sought sanctuary in World War II on the outskirts of the old continent, in Istanbul University, was literary historian and philologist Erich Auerbach (1892–1957), author of the monumental Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946) [1,2]. In 1947, he immigrated to the U.S. and sent Mimesis to an admired German author, Thomas Mann, who was commuting between his U.S. war refuge in Palisades Heights and his postwar European one in Ascona, Switzerland.
“Mimesis’ central theme, European realism, has the greatest attraction for me,” responded Mann in 1949. “Your approach, treating [realism] historically and tracking the everlasting artistic disposition for it through the centuries carries a pedagogical message.” .
Neither of them spoke openly about the Holocaust. Ironically, Mann resurrected biblical myth to respond to Nazi racial one, whereas Auerbach saw Mann‘s realism, and biblical insistence on truth as opposed to classical myth, as the only proper response. But both questioned the German humanist focus on the classical and the claim to ownership over it, and both resurrected the Hebrew Bible to challenge the hegemony of the classical heritage in German culture. In ways often underappreciated, secular German and Jewish intellectuals responded to National Socialism by reaffirming a Judeo-Christian Western tradition [4,5].
2. Vico and Dante:
A Jewish Cultural Protestant in Weimar Germany Born to an affluent and German acculturated Berlin Jewish family, Auerbach grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Charlottenburg, and attended the French gymnasium (französisches Gymnasium), first established by Huguenot exiles and now carrying on French cultural traditions.
Auerbach was by no means an accomplished student, but republican France became his second Heimat and his future pursuit of romance languages owed much to this early French exposure. Son of a jurist, he pursued law, earning a doctoral degree from Heidelberg in 1913. In Heidelberg, he apparently made the acquaintance of several members of the Max Weber circle, including Georg Lukàcs, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Jaspers [6,7]. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Professor of Exile: Edward Said’s Misreading of Erich Auerbach
Moment, August 10, 2014
Edward Said (1935-2003), Palestinian-American scholar, activist, and for many years Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, had a deep interest in the close connection between literature and exile, a subject that occupied much of his life of the mind since the time he was a graduate student at Harvard in the late fifties.
Said’s overarching goal in many of his studies is to relate the experience of exilic displacement, a theme that stems from his own displacement from Palestine. “The novelty of our time,” he wrote in the introduction to Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2000), is “that so many individuals have experienced the uprooting and dislocations that have made them expatriate and exiles.” He aligned himself with such exiled intellectuals as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, who “in their use of language provoked their readers into an awareness of how language is about experience and not just about itself. For if you feel you cannot take for granted the luxury of long residence, habitual environment, native idiom, and you must somehow compensate for these things, what you write necessarily bears a unique freight of anxiety, elaborateness, perhaps even overstatement.”
In fact Said often accused modern literary critics of attempting “to escape from experience” in their studies, thus transforming “text” into “something almost metaphysically isolated from experience” and in that way “reduced and in many instances eliminated the messier precincts of ‘life’ and historical experience.” The one exception to this is in his approach to the writings of the German-Jewish philologist and literary critic Erich Auerbach (1892-1957). Auerbach is best known for his history of representation in Western literature, Mimesis, which he wrote in Istanbul after being exiled from Nazi Germany. In discussing his works, Said gives no sense of the historical, ideological and philological context within which the famous philologist wrote his works, while nevertheless acknowledging that Auerbach always referred to the “social environment” of a given writer. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis | Biography and Methodology | Literary Theory: The Nature of Writing, YouTube, June 13, 2018 — Erich Auerbach is often called the father of comparative literature. This literary theorist and Romance philologist has been very influential in helping scholars understand the history of literary style.
Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis | Chapter 1 | Homer and the Old Testament: The Nature of Writing, YouTube, Sept. 21, 2018 –– Erich Auerbach is often called the father of comparative literature. This literary theorist and Romance philologist has been very influential in helping scholars understand the history of literary style. Auerbach’s book Mimesis (1946) was a groundbreaking study of realism, and in this video series we’ll take you through the main aspects of his argument.
Global Translation: The “Invention” of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933: Emily Apter, Feb. 27, 2019 –– In many ways, the rush to globalize the literary canon in recent years may be viewed as the “comp-lit-ization” of national literatures throughout the humanities.
Mimesis as anti-Figura: Jan Baetens, Cultural Studies Leuven, Oct. 25, 2017 — At first sight, “Figura” is a typical philological study on the many meanings of this word and the semantic field it organizes.
Auerbach’s Simplicity: Christopher Warley, Arcade, Sept. 11, 2018 — “A good writer must write in such a way that one infers from the text what he intended to express. That is not easy.” So declared Erich Auerbach in his “Epilegomena to Mimesis,” a short piece he wrote responding to some of his critics.
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