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.
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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. The elliptical Old Testament stories, on the other hand, open up interpretive spaces that admit figurative readings.
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. Indeed, we must go even further. Mimesis goes on to trace the development of Western literature, hopscotching its way across millennia in a series of closely argued yet lucid essays that analyse key texts in which significant formal innovations can be seen to have occurred. It examines the literature of antiquity and the Middle Ages, moving through the contributions of among others Augustine, Dante, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare and Cervantes, to consider the rise of romanticism and the nineteenth century realists, and conclude with the modernists of the early twentieth century.
On one level, then, Mimesis tells the grand story of the democratisation of literary representation. But one of its essential features is the way that its large claims are grounded at every stage in sober, attentive textual analysis. The chronology and the remarkable breadth of vision are not meant to imply that Western literature has progressed in a linear fashion from naivety to sophistication. Nor does the concern with the representation of reality extend to Auerbach positing an objective standard against which individual works might be judged as more or less realistic.
In contrast, the general, which compares, compiles, or differentiates phenomena, ought to be elastic and flexible; to the utmost that this is possible, it ought to fall into line with what is feasible from case to case, and it is to be understood from case to case only from the context. There is not in intellectual history identity and strict conformity to laws, and abstract, reductive concepts falsify or destroy the phenomena.
The arranging must happen in such a way that it allows the individual phenomenon to live and unfold freely. But it also hints at an underlying tension, for there clearly are some rather large concepts and theoretical issues moving beneath the surface of his detailed investigations like shadows in the water. Evident throughout his work is a concern with the question of how we are to conceptualise and engage with history. Indeed, to begin to understand his thought it helps to keep in mind that he regarded his specialist discipline of Romance philology as a form of historical inquiry.
That Mimesis is, in its own understated way, a work of resistance has often been noted. He was born in Berlin in , the same year as Walter Benjamin. He thus belonged to that generation of Europeans who were destined to face the horrors of World War I in which he fought, earning an Iron Cross , and to that generation of German Jews whose adult lives were blighted by the rise of Nazism. Mimesis was, famously, written during some of the darkest days of World War II in Istanbul, where Auerbach was living in exile, having been stripped of his academic post at the University of Marburg in under the Nuremburg laws.
Auerbach shared with many a war-weary European an understandable concern about the ultimate fate of his civilisation. His ideas, which have deep intellectual roots in the German Romantic tradition, strive to be expansive and inclusive. Throughout his writings, he advances what affects to be a grounded, very particular and worldly view — one that would seem to eschew the overt ideological, religious and nationalistic identifications of many of his contemporaries.
Yet his work is drawn to notions of comprehensiveness, universality and ultimacy, and drawn in a revealingly ambivalent way that suggests he felt their importance and oppressiveness with equal force. The uncharacteristically fusty approach does, however, allow him to nail down one of his essential concepts.
By carefully tracing the meaning of the Latin term figura from its earliest usage, Auerbach demonstrates that initially it signified only a material object, but over time acquired additional abstracted connotations.
The idea that an event might have a figural as well as a literal meaning allows history to be conceived as something more than a chronicle of happenings. It raises the possibility that history may not be as Arnold Toynbee is supposed to have quipped just one damn thing after another, but something with a shape and meaning, something with an underlying coherence and purpose, something that invites comprehension on a large scale. The figural interpretation of reality, writes Auerbach, creates a connection between two events or persons in which one signifies not only itself but also the other — and that one is also encompassed or fulfilled by the other.
The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but they both also lie within time as real events or figures. As I have repeatedly emphasised, both figures are part of the ongoing flow of historical life. It was this dual view, in which an event was understood to have occurred in an immediate timebound sense and to occupy a fixed place in an encompassing providential scheme, that enabled the early Christians to co-opt the Jewish Old Testament. The rise of Christianity enshrined this dual understanding of reality in the consciousness of the West.
But — and this is the crucial bit — it is an understanding that is unavoidably conflicted. This is the point at which Auerbach arrives at the intriguing paradox that informs his idiosyncratic version of literary humanism.
As James I. Porter notes in his excellent introduction to Time, History, and Literature, Auerbach suggests that the Christian view of reality has decisively shaped our historical consciousness, that it has oriented us towards a historicised view of things, but that in doing so it has also undermined itself, creating the conditions that have allowed Western civilisation to crawl out from under its universalising claims.
There is a passage near the beginning of his first book, Dante: Poet of the Secular World , in which he compares the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. The parallels have often been noted; for Auerbach, it is the contrast that matters. Jesus, on the other hand, was betrayed by one follower and denied by another; he was tortured and humiliated and forsaken; he died in the midst of disorder and confusion with his promises unfulfilled.
In it the idea is subjected to the problematic character and desperate injustice of earthly happening. The idea of a tragedy about an ordinary man was unthinkable to the ancient Greeks. The death of Jesus upsets this classical order because it was a traumatic event of cosmic significance, yet at the same time it was something that happened to an obscure Jewish tradesman and his small band of ragged followers on the margins of a mighty empire. It was at once momentous and unimportant.
And this is why, taking a long view and not to put too fine a point on it , it took the death of Jesus before we could have Death of a Salesman. And it is this failure that engenders the sense of irresolution that can only make us conscious of the fact that history is one damn thing after another. Whatever revelation it may ultimately have in store for us must remain inaccessible, so long as we remain trapped within a reality that conspicuously refuses to reveal its providential meaning and resolve itself in a coherent fashion.
So the long-term effect of the concept of a divinely ordained universal history, and the antagonism between appearance and reality it engenders, is to throw us back upon the elementary fact of our worldly existence.
It makes our embeddedness in a historically conditioned reality the essence of whatever it might mean to be human. This is crystallised most powerfully for Auerbach in the Divine Comedy. And it is precisely the brilliance with which Dante succeeds both in realising his comprehensive religious vision and in depicting his specific imaginative creations in a vivid and palpable way that highlights what Auerbach sees as the central issue.
Every character the poet encounters on his otherworldly journey occupies a fixed position in a universal scheme that exists beyond time. Yet these characters also retain their individuality — strikingly so — and, as Auerbach demonstrates in a pivotal chapter of Mimesis, this is dependent on their retaining a connection to their earthly, timebound existence. Imitation of reality is imitation of the sensory experience of life on earth — among the most essential characteristics of which would seem to be its possessing a history, its changing and developing.
Whatever degree of freedom the imitating artist may be granted in his work, he cannot be allowed to deprive reality of this characteristic, which is its very essence. Hegel uses the expression in his Lectures on Aesthetics in one of the most beautiful passages ever written on Dante.
It was precisely the Christian idea of the indestructibility of the entire human individual which made this possible for Dante. And it was precisely by producing this effect with such power and so much realism that he opened the way for that aspiration toward autonomy which possesses all earthly existence. In the very heart of the other world, he created a world of earthly beings and passions so powerful that it breaks bounds and proclaims its independence.
There are a number of interesting aspects to this argument. In the first instance, there is the telling paradox that in realising his splendid imaginative vision of an eternal order beyond time, Dante reveals that the idea of a timeless existence is in fact unimaginable, strictly speaking, in the sense that it is incommensurable with any conception of humanity.
The image of man eclipses the image of God. We tend to think of literary representations as creative expressions that are symptomatic of the material conditions and the philosophical assumptions of their time — as reflections of a reality rather than something actively constitutive and generative. Near the end of her influential study The World Republic of Letters , Pascale Casanova observes that the value of literature is commonly defined in opposition to history. His conflation of literature and history is an expression of his fidelity to a Romantic intellectual tradition that grants an active comprehending role to the imagination.
At the same time, he embraces the relativising implications of historicism, rejecting the idea that the literary work can or should be disconnected from its worldly context. In placing the practice of philology at the centre of the humanities, he conceives of the humanities as an area of inquiry dedicated to the possibility of genuine historical — and by extension cross-cultural — understanding.
Underlying his critical view is a belief or perhaps it is a hope that if we read literature with sufficient attentiveness and with enough contextualising knowledge, we can move beyond the limiting and relativising perspective of our own time and place. It is an expansive view, the implications of which become ever more inclusive. The ultimate goal, writes Auerbach, is no less than the realization of a unified vision of the human race in all its variety. This was the actual purpose of philology, beginning with Vico and Herder, and it was thanks to it that philology became the leading method in the humanities.
Yet he maintains that a philology of world literature is possible in principle. And it is on this point that the influence of Vico, who is the subject of the first six essays in Time, History, and Literature, is of particular importance.
Providence is, then, a historical fact. That he had some compelling historical reasons of his own for seeking, in the teeth of facts, some sort of order from the chaos and brutality of history hardly needs emphasising. Yet Auerbach was too scrupulous a scholar to lapse into anything like crude historical determinism.
This is perhaps the most telling paradox of his work. His extraordinary erudition and the great edifice of his scholarship can sometimes seem to be expressing an intimate sense of need. To be able to bear with equanimity what happens generally and to us personally we need to have an intimation of a plan for the sake of which and in the light of whose fulfilment chaos becomes a matter of order.
Emphasis added. Trask Princeton University Press, DeBevoise Harvard University Press, Published August 15,
Earthly happenings: Time, History, and Literature
Trask Princeton: The digressions [in Homer ] are not meant to keep the reader in suspense But Homer —and to this we shall have to return later—knows no background. Nor do psychological processes receive any other treatment: here too nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed. Much that is terrible takes place in the Homeric poems, but it seldom takes place wordlessly: Polyphemus talks to Odysseus; Odysseus talks to the suitors when he begins to kill them; Hector and Achilles talk at length, before battle and after; and no speech is so filled with anger or scorn that the particles which express logical and grammatical connections are lacking or out of place. Whence does he come, whence does he call to Abraham? We are not told.
Odysseus' scar (Auerbach)