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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Fiftieth-Anniversary edition by Erich Auerbach, translated by Willard R. Trask, special introduction by Edward W. Said (Princeton University Press) Fifty years later, at the at the beginning of a new century, Auerbach's masterwork has lost little of its luster or even its immediacy. Whatever the criteria--translations of books into English, books in print, paperback editions readily available, sales, symposia, or conference sessions devoted to him, books and articles written about him--it would appear that, in America, as a foreign-language critic Auerbach stands second only to Roland Barthes in terms of continuing presence. Many would say that Mimesis remains the most important single work of criticism in the modern age and, therefore, that Auerbach deserves a place among the handful of supreme literary scholars and critics.

Auerbach, together with Leo Spitzer, Ernst Robert Curtius, Karl Vossler, and Helmut Hatzfeld, form a circle or current of German-language academic criticism--humanist critics--the finest in their day. These German and Austrian scholars combined vast scholarship and historical knowledge with a rare literary sensitivity and imagination; they specialized in all three major romance literatures, from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century; and they authored a rich, extensive corpus of original critical scholarship. Yet whatever their similarities--and there were many--they were scholars grounded in the tradition of classical German-university philology and literary history: each arrived at his own way of writing philology and literary history, i.e., at his own approach.

The method, in Mimesis as in Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (1958), is to submit a number of brief excerpts from longer texts to a close reading--stylistic analysis concerning features of grammar, syntax, and diction--that then leads to the consideration of broader questions of culture and society in their historical dimension and that then leads to or includes one of Auerbach's central concerns--the literary public and its social response to texts. Somewhat like Spitzer, Auerbach proceeds, back and forth, from the individual passage in a work of art to the style typical of the age, from the particular text or the page to universal principles. Ultimately, however, Auerbach's version of "the philological circle" transcends Stilforschung [stylistic study] or, rather, juxtaposes and fuses Stilforschung with what Wellek calls "historical sociology," hence Spitzer's complaint, citing Aurelio Roncaglia, that his colleague was not a stylistician. Because of his work in the historical sociology of literature, in what W. Wolfgang Holdheim calls historical understanding, Auerbach, unlike Spitzer, is himself aware and makes his readers aware of historical process and change.

Auerbach's mastery of stylistic analysis on the page, as well as of the broader social and historical context, enabled him to appeal to philologists, historians of literature, formalists, and Marxists--pretty much at the same time. The close reading and the exaltation of a tradition of great books explain why the impact of Mimesis in the United States did not wane over the decades of New Criticism, structuralism, and deconstruction; whereas the history of literary publics explains why, when the book was finally in 1977 translated into French, it was hailed in Paris as Marxist sociocritique.

Auerbach has always been a favorite of medievalists. This is true for a number of reasons. First of all, as stated earlier, like Spitzer, Curtius, Vossler, and Hatzfeld, he was a medievalist and a modernist; he was both, throughout his career. Secondly, influenced by Vico and the founders of German historicism, Auerbach committed himself totally to what he calls historical perspectivism. Historical perspectivism holds that each epoch and civilization has its own possibilities of aesthetic perfection. The universally human is to be perceived in the finest works of each epoch, manifest in a form or style unique to it. It is his credo, as a child of historicism, to appreciate the culture of all periods as part of a universal human condition. Thus he stands at the farthest possible distance from what Lee Patterson designates as Whig literary history, whose adepts, for example, praised Dante and Chaucer for being nonmedieval, that is, for allegedly anticipating our modern psychological portrayal of character and our modern social democracy.

Assuming that we are allowed to count Gregory of Tours as medieval, seven of the original nineteen chapters of Mimesis (it later became seven of twenty; the Cervantes chapter was written for and first published in the Spanish edition in 1950) are devoted to the Middle Ages. The medieval centuries, their varying styles, publics,`and mental attitudes, as variety and multiplicity, not a single, simple medievalness, are offered maximum scrutiny that treats Western culture as a whole, one in which the Middle Ages occupies a place of honor. In addition, like Spitzer, Auerbach was committed to a single methodology--his own--which he applied to the medieval and the modern equally, and which produced similar results across the centuries.

His powerful, concrete representation of reality in Dante was because of figura and because of a second collapse of the hierarchy of styles re-established by French classicism, to fuel a tradition of realism in the modern centuries culminating in Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Zola. Modern realism allows for the lower classes and their social concerns to be depicted as and in historical reality, in the dynamic concreteness of history, their unique historical peculiarity, and also allows that they be treated not as comedy but with depth and the problematic seriousness of tragedy, the tragic seriousness heretofore reserved to Virgil's Aeneas and Racine's Nero. Now, the French novelists' achievement in endowing the humble and the quotidian with the dynamic concreteness of history, that is, with historical significance and with high tragic seriousness, occurs as a modern secular replication of Dante and as a cultural phenomenon that could occur only in the West because of Christian figura and because of the (now broken) hierarchy of styles. Thus, the medieval is not depicted simply as a precursor of or introduction to the modern. Instead, with two summits-Dante and the nineteenth-century French novel--the two periods exist in a structure of dynamic tension wherein the modern is shaped by the medieval and is a direct outgrowth of it. Hayden White has even proposed that this structure is figural, a secular, aesthetic figural pattern of the history of literature according to which the medieval foreshadows the modern, which then fulfills the medieval.

Auerbach made major contributions to the criticism of early literature and of the modern. His starting points--the three styles and figura--became genuine methodologies in their own right (rhetorical criticism, typological criticism), exploited now by two generations of scholars. His readings of the Song of Roland, of fifteenth-century prose, and, of course, of Dante continue to have an impact. They are still regularly cited today. The same is true for the Old and New Testaments. The same is true for the essay on Don Quixote, which launched a revisionist current in Cervantes studies, emphasizing the comic in reaction to the then dominant quasi-existential high seriousness of the Unamuno school; and for the essay on Zola, which was one of the first examples of sociocritique to counter the orthodox Marxist belittlement of Zola compared to Balzac. The fact that, at the end of his life, Auerbach made such a commitment to French literature, from the Eneas to Baudelaire, gives the lie to the assertion, heard now and then, that the master's primary concern was always for things Italian. On the contrary, Auerbach was a genuine romance philologist; his field was Romanistik. While lacking some of the range of Curtius and Spitzer, he nonetheless gave major, continuing attention to French, Italian, and Latin, each over a period of centuries. Despite the cavil from susceptible teachers of English such as Robert Gorham Davis and, for that matter, Wellek, Mimesis offers a legitimate and fair reading of the central tradition in the literature of our civilization.

Were one to criticize Mimesis, half a century later, it would not be for Auerbach's overall vision of literature or his approach(es). They hold up. Nor would it be for his commitment to a tradition of great books and the high culture that they nourish. One can express, however, some reservations about the reading of individual texts.  Brilliant, provocative, and partial as they are and would have to be, Auerbach's readings can be, or over the past five decades actually have been, nuanced and enriched by those who come after. To cite some medieval examples, today most of us would deem the Song of Roland, Yvain, and the fabliaux deeper, more complex, and more problematic, according to Auerbach's own criteria for the representation of reality, than he recognized them to be in 1946. In addition, we could propose other texts from roughly the same time frame and genre or mode--Raoul de Cambrai or Girart de Roussillon, Beroul's Tristan, Thomas's Tristan, or the Prose Lancelot, and the Roman de Renart . These manifest significantly greater historicity, density, and concreteness. These observations on the early medieval are applicable also to the books of Antiquity and the books of post-medieval modernity.

Thus, today we have a more complete and problematic picture of Homer, or the century of Voltaire and Rousseau than Auerbach did. This picture is due in part to the torrent of criticism devoted to all the major writers since the 1950s. Our discipline is progressive. Literary criticism resembles the sciences in that we build upon the discoveries of our predecessors just as our successors will build upon ours. Given that, in some sense of the term, we see further than Boileau, Sainte-Beuve, and Arnold, so also we see further than F.O. Matthiessen and Auerbach. The medieval cliché is apt in this context: we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

A second explanation lies in the nature of what it means to write literary history. Here we should recall Auerbach's commitment to Vichian historical perspectivism and to history as such. As much as any of the great critics of our century, he was sensitive to historical process and evolution. He said: “My purpose is always to write history.” He is not compiling a series of essays or an encyclopedia. He writes literary history.. Therefore, despite the historical perspectivism, despite the particular, unique beauty of each time and place, given the narrative of figural realism, Dante and the nineteenth-century French novel embody or fulfill the representation of reality in ways that other authors and genres do not. Those works that precede Dante or that lead up to Balzac will inevitably be faulted, in one sense or another, for not quite being Dante or Balzac. Perhaps for this reason and this reason alone Auerbach's readings of single texts do not hold up as well as Spitzer's, for Spitzer never published a book of literary history but, instead, collections of discrete critical and linguistic essays, to write a book of literary history you have to be willing to pay the price of being historizied. The relative distortion of certain books, easily correctable, is a small price to pay for Auerbach' s masterwork and the master narrative that it structures.

Throughout the history of Western culture, from Homer to Proust and beyond, there have always been Greeks and there have always been barbarians. The tension between them constitutes one of the more exciting chapters in that history. One legacy of Auerbach is showing that humankind always has a choice, and that the result is three thousand years of culture--a culture which, thanks to the historicism that he so honored, now not only is but also is known.

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