Mimesis, not mimicry
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968); David Carroll, “Mimesis Reconsidered: Literature, History, Ideology,” Diacritics (Summer 1975), pp.5-12; Geoffrey Green, Literary Criticism and the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982); Literary History and the Challenges of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach, ed. Seth Lerer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
Auerbach is not much in favor these days. He represents a criticism associated with the defense of the Western heritage in an age when history is seen by many as complicit with the repression of minorities, women, and emerging literatures and cultures. There is, however, an “Auerbach question” relevant to all our current controversies concerning the canon, identity politics, nationalisms and cultural criticism, which I will address here on the fiftieth anniversary of Mimesis’s first publication.
First, Mimesis stands today as the premier monument to literary criticism in exile. Second, it continues to be a manual for those of us who remain interested in the relation between literature and daily life: how major works help us understand and conceptualize the riddle of being in the world without having, like the heroes in novels, plays and poems, the privilege of a quest, hubris, catastrophe, and lyricism. About Literary History and the Challenges of Philology there is much to say, because the book is less about Auerbach or his work than about his legacy, and I will show that this is generally a problem with Auerbach literature: to discuss any aspect of Auerbach’s work means to discuss what we think our current literary heritage should be according to Mimesis.
While many scholars and nonscholars have heard of Auerbach, few have read him closely enough to be able to discuss his work in a sustained, general argument about literature, culture or even education-a point driven home by most of the papers in the Lerer volume, the majority of which concentrate on only that part of Mimesis that resonates with the contributor’s own field of expertise, and pay awkward, almost embarrassed respect to the book’s faint postmodern potential.1 The reason for this general unease may be that any discussion of a dead senior white male critic (though a Jewish refugee), especially one educated in the patriarchal tradition of nineteenth-century German scholarship, today, when the very concept of representation is on trial as a cliche constitutive of European cultural hegemony, is made to appear pointless. The anachronism is obviously unfair, and like all anachronisms, informed by ignorance-in this case, ignorance of Auerbach’s broad contribution to our understanding of literature. Indeed most people remain unaware that Auerbach wrote more than one book. Mimesis, ironically less a classical monograph than what now could pass for a postmodern montage of texts and commentaries, has remained our obsessive, though elusive, monomemory.
The rest matters little, pace Jan Ziolkowski’s new (Princeton, 1993) scholarly reissue of Auerbach’s Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a book that makes explicit what Mimesis only implicitly suggests: that the roots of a theory of representation are located not in the Modern World, but in the Middle Ages proper, and that Mimesis and its narrative of representation is a story of cultural recovery, made possible by the Romantic restoration of the Middle Ages from critical and readerly exile. The break much touted by the Humanists between their own time of restoration and the concept of a dark period of the Middle Ages, which endured past Voltaire and the philosophes until the last reaches of the Enlightenment and into the nineteenth century, is in fact the moot point of Mimesis ‘s twenty five hundred year-long segue. With Auerbach the Middle Ages are not simply a time of passage, to be reinserted into an historical sequence, missing until Burckhardt, Michelet and Vossler; they are the cornerstone of a history of the Western tradition, which European Modernism needs to uncover and whose implications-especially nationalism-it must reexamine.
Besides his book Literary Language, Auerbach also wrote many other, lesserknown pieces of particular and general critical interest, foremost among them his article “Figura,” often referenced yet rarely discussed in detail, and, one suspects, largely unread-again perhaps because of the times (the article was originally published in Dantestudien in 1944 in Istanbul) or simply because the references of “figura” ( figuration,” “figural,” and its cognate “creatural”) are so rich and textured in Mimesis that the common reader, swept along by Auerbach’s powerful storytelling, forgets that Mimesis is in fact the end-product of a conceptual, historical, philosophical inquiry that occupied all of Auerbach’s long scholarly life.2 There are actually two “figuras” in Auerbach. There is the metacritical concept that helps redeploy philology at the intersection of historical diachronic and perspectival synchronic lines, and the rhetorical device that triggers audience recognition of an “intrahistorical” phenomenon. For instance, in the Mimesis chapter “The Blue Stocking,” the fragments of conversation Mrs. Dalloway overhears or remembers as she is busy darning her son’s stocking allow Auerbach to theorize about a new, absolutely modern representation of the everyday sufficiently detached from the present to give the reader the feeling that s/he is reading a story that has its roots not in a determinate past-the coming to historical consciousness of women writers in post-World War I upper class Britain in a time of male escapism (Joyce, Lawrence, Durrell) and devastation (the loss of the Rupert Brooke generation)-but in an ahistorical, exemplary present, Virginia Woolfs story being about fiction’s ultimate goal, the mild shock of a seamless, albeit fragmentary present in an endless between-the-wars period. In “Figura” Auerbach makes it clear that “figura” is not simply a narrative tool whose function is to unify historical time but a device for cracking open, in a moment reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s apocalypse, the predicament of useless words for an as yet unrealized existence left for others to understand, frozen words” (paroles gelees), once uttered by lost tribes and recovered many years later by Rabelais’s travelers to the New World.
Mimesis’s subtitle-“The Representation of Reality in Western Literature”-suggests that the whole title is less a definition on the model of X=Y than a general question about the meaning of definition itself. Is a book supposed to represent reality? And if so, what does the term “representation” (Darstellung) mean? Is the book a study of how a certain Western reality, which we are supposed to know, has been represented, given this form or that? A metaphorical form, as when Auerbach shows how the French memoirist Saint-Simon earned his reputation as a historian of Classical French mores by weaving superficial traits into an intermingling of “body and spirit which sometimes grasps the innermost essence of the whole” (p.423)? Or an allegorical form, as when Dante is able to show that the characters he and Virgil visit in Inferno are not simply details in a world of unchanging punishment and castigation, but also individuals who once had the opportunity to choose their destiny and now bear witness to what made their life what it was and have to take responsibility for it (p.197)? Or is Mimesis instead an investigation into the meaningof representation? What does it mean to represent? Does it mean to show something as a symbol of something else? But how does a symbol work? Does it reveal the truth or does it persuade us that we should take it as the truth? When Ulysses’ scar reveals the hero’s identity to his nurse, it also makes us believe that the hero has arrived home and that what the bard is telling us is true. If this is the case, then representation is less about truth than about belief. The oft-repeated reproach that Homer is a liar in no way diminishes his effectiveness, Auerbach argues.3
A philosophical question also arises. Is it possible to discuss a book like Auerbach’s, which is about legacy, without considering the legacy of the book? There is a hermeneutic circle concerning Auerbach in general and Mimesis in particular. One can’t discuss the book without discussing its influence, because it is assumed that the book has had influence in the first place, and because Mimesis is probably the first book to have raised the question of influence not only as integral to the history of periods and genres but also, in Eliot’s and the Modernists’ sense of the evolution, alongside a changing literary history, of an equally changing literary criticism. Also important is the question of whether the study of this influence is essentially the business of philologists-whether Mimesis is writing a brief for philology, or what kind of discipline philology is in the first place. Much of the criticism and assessment of Auerbach can be divided into two types. First, given the extraordinary scope of his opus, encompassing the breadth of the European tradition from the Classics to the Modernists, and of Mimesis in particular, and because Mimesis articulates so well the master narrative of the great books of the Western world, Auerbach can still stimulate a broad, non-philological debate about the canon. Second, postmodernists have recently lodged another criticism against the kind of book Mimesis appears to be. Following David Carroll’s early lead, they argue that it is an unexamined product of the Platonic tradition that stitches most of Western culture together. On one hand, Mimesis makes reality develop historically thanks to the learned narrator’s mastery of the encyclopedic yet continuous scholarly narrative that gives it shape, and on the other it is clear that this narrative is less an interpretation and critique of some preexisting reality, a mentality, a state of things, class struggle or cultural evolution, than a story, like any other story, committed to its origins and anxious to proclaim and protect its legitimacy, and highlighted in this case by the continuity of a post-Latinate Western culture and the consolidation of a cultivated reading public.
But rather little has been said about what makes Mimesis so profoundly relevant to our present political, scholarly and pedagogical predicament. In our search for a multicultural education that would accommodate our country’s changing demographics, what form and level of general education would be required to enable students to read the texts selected by Auerbach and to understand the arguments he makes about them? Perhaps Mimesis could be used in teaching undergraduate and graduate students the need for a greater understanding of the power and play of language, rhetoric, and genres, lest we fail to understand our own historical circumstances. Perhaps Auerbach’s argument that Medieval authors are in the main capable of representing everyday life only in a low-styled, comic or farcical template only mirrors our own inability to account for changes in the postmodern era and, worse yet, our incompetence with regard to educating the population at large (professors don’t teach, students can’t write, and many more simply can’t read).
To be sure, everybody remembers the famous circumstances under which the book was conceived. Auerbach wrote in Istanbul, without the usual scholarly resources, the footnoteless book that continues to impress generations of scholars and lay readers. And yet, despite the general accolades accorded the book by the public at large, most literary and cultural critics have remained surprisingly cool to the project of Mimesis. Mimesis has had two receptions. It was unanimously acclaimed in the fifties when it appeared in the United States (typically, perhaps, a French translation was not available until 1968), and it has been revisited again recently in the countless debates about the canon and the place of philology among the disciplines. But the first reception, with its praise for the masterful synopsis of literary history, was a harbinger of the second with its anxious reexamination of the methodology of the book, and the second, a throwback to the firstperhaps much in the same way that most of the scenes explicated by Auerbach are meant to reflect and mirror one another: not only from chapter to chapter, but inside each chapter, as the author busily interweaves scholarly analysis of the text with a reflection on the interpretive tradition privileging the text. The author was in exile when he wrote his book, and the book was published in Switzerland because it could not have been published in Germany before the end of the war. Rene Wellek, who, like Auerbach, ended up at Yale, and Leo Spitzer, Auerbach’s former colleague at Marburg, both of whom preceded him in America, considered the book historical in form only and lacking in conceptual, phenomenological-philosophical, perspective. They claimed that Mimesis’s weakness was that its author was pursuing an existential inquiry into the individual soul (much like the young Lukacs of Theory of the Novel, who later acknowledged the overly metaphysical and insufficiently historical style of his speculation and embraced a more historical form of critical narrative). The criticism endured, because Auerbach’s “weak” historicism, which was a problem for his critical contemporaries, continues to bother postmodern critics for whom the phenomenological conception of history was problematic to begin with. If history must be seen, and if the function of literature is to articulate this vision so that phenomena can be seized in their full presence, the resistance of Auerbach’s own colleagues to the trappings of a narrative based on “inner” history and “self-expression” appears to be the first symptom of the deterioration of the historical paradigm after Modernism. Ironically, however, the criticism has reversed itself in the twenty years since Mimesis was first tested against postmodernism. When a deconstructor like David Carroll, in his Diacritics review, takes Auerbach to task for expecting too much from an uncritical historicism, his critique, connected with early postmodernist goals (how to face up to the deterioriation of historical materialism without adducing a new countersystem of deeper but unearned historical truth), unwittingly aligns itself with Auerbach’s more conservative detractors. Both the Hegelian critique of the past turning into the future and that of the sensory, and ultimately “supplementary,” nature of all our representations, measured within the range of the history of the reception of Mimesis in the last fifty years, collapse both sides of the historical debate: historical narratives are only literary and linguistic, and, conversely, their structure and style, their “ornament,” is subject to the historical changes of perspective introduced into the language by previous word usage, syntax and semantics. We now know that history is merely a trope. But the trope can also be viewed in its historical development.
Mimesis is a book of exile. Exile is significant in Mimesis not only because the author wrote it far away from home and under duress, but also because the book, seen as vouching for a sort of education and culture now deemed superfluous, and which is no longer in demand, remains strangely alone: not forgotten, but a vast curio, a period piece outside the mainstream consensus on what culture is supposed to represent, the philological skills it requires for understanding its story and interpretation. Among Auerbach’s books, Mimesis stands alone as one of those Thucydidian monuments for “ever,” the ruins of a culture and an education one views from afar but for which one has very little use, primarily because reading the texts of this culture requires a philological competence no longer taught and, despite the fine training of a few distinguished medievalists, very much in disuse today.
Mimesis is truly one of the great books on the shelf, and the thumbnail reviews on the back cover of the Princeton paperback are full of unrestrained admiration. Alfred Kazin exclaims in The American Scholar: “there is no other work in contemporary literary criticism known to me that is comparable [to Mimesis] in scope, in analytical and historical richness.” That the editors and sales managers at Princeton should have decided to top their advance reviews with a quotation from The American Scholar, not, despite its name, a specialized scholarly journal, is interesting. The American Scholar (the journal of the Association of Phi Beta Kappa) presents scholarship to the nonscholarly world but also brings us back to the forties and the fifties, when the burgeoning of the American educational system under the G.I. Bill familiarized a wider public with the concept of a generalized higher education and also with the idea that scholars fulfill a central role in the body politic of Western democracy and that the university is a place where scholarship is active and vibrant. At Princeton, as at Columbia, Chicago, Harvard and other places, there was a broad consensus on what constituted the history of literature. To be an educated undergraduate was to have a reading list of major works always at hand. At the graduate level, the typical dissertation still followed the model of the “life and work” of so-and-so, although there was a growing tendency, under the influence of the New Criticism, to focus on specific texts, forms and genres as representative of periods in literary history, without privileging individual authors or biographies.
Among the other reviewers are the poet Delmore Schwartz in the New York Times Book Review, and Rene Wellek in the Kenyon Review. Schwartz is awed by the scope of the narrative, its “compass” and “richness.” He speaks for the educated who believe in the continuity of a narrative of the great Western books. His comments suggest that such a history is actually constructed on an anthology of episodes, passages, and vignettes analyzed in detail by a critic who then composes the proper landscape where all these will fit. This is less a fixed view of the canon as a static repository than a compositional view of it, in the etymological sense that a history of literature is an aggregate of discrete histories, a puzzle made of fragments collected over a long period of time. As Auerbach explains in his epilogue, his project was not to write a book on European realism, starting from definitions and then moving on to exemplary books: embarking on that project would have been futile because the author clearly saw that he would probably have gotten bogged down in one definition after another. Instead Auerbach claims that his approach was more random. He selected texts that appealed to him for one reason or another, found out, while writing on them, why he liked them, and from this derived the narrative that now seems so encyclopedically complete. As Schwartz makes clear, if there is a canon, it is based on a sequence, and that sequence eventually accords with the taste or competence of its readers. Thus while Schwartz dutifully mentions all the “great” writers, he omits the two who at the beginning of the book actually launch Auerbach on his project of studying the deterioriation of Latinity and the adaptation of a Western language: Ammianus Marcellinus and Gregory of Tours. He also, surprisingly, omits Shakespeare, though the episode of the “Weary Prince” is central to the book because it anchors a discussion on the representation of Renaissance daily life as an essential component of modern literature. It is skipped by Schwartz because his Shakespearean culture does not include that particular view.4
Wellek’s precis (from a review published in the Kenyon Review, where the translation of Chapter 8 originally appeared in the United States) is more professorial. The Kenyon Review was at the time the organ of the New Criticism, which sought to foreground the literary or, as we would say today, the “writerly” experience of the text. A poetic or literary text must be read first for itself. It is a linguistic and stylistic structure, incorporating many discrete layers (Auerbach’s “Schichten”) of interpretation which the critic must exhume in his or her strategic excavation of the text. Wellek, who had his own reservations about Mimesis, underscores the fact that the book “combines so many methods so skillfully” and raises “questions of history, theory and criticism.” The comment suggests that the function of a scholarly work is to advance criticism and interpretation, not to memorialize the texts themselves. For Wellek, Mimesis becomes the rallying cry for those who wish to develop their own canonical history of Western literature but are more concerned about criticism than they are about the texts themselves. Wellek lauds Auerbach’s “erudition and wisdom,” but his comments are really geared to the development of a critical perspective setting up the “field of aesthetics and literary history,” without which literature couldn’t begin to exist. Mimesis, he also suggests, makes for the first time the powerful argument that a continuity from the Classics to the Moderns is based on the notion that literature as such cannot exist without the body of criticism that sets it in a multilayered perspective. Mimesis thus does two things. It brings us back to the texts with a revisionist, new humanistic perspective: nothing can equal reading the texts in the original and commenting on the constraints of their language. And it teaches us how to view literature in the context of a narrative that is only loosely historical, examines its own prejudices (Auerbach constantly returns to the difficulty of keeping the “figura” alive), and makes its own choices within a given body of works.
Let us also note that a few chapters of Mimesis were originally published in Partisan Review, the premier intellectual journal of the times, involved in the debates of the Cold War and seeking to assert a criticism that would advance the influence of the generalist liberal intellectual. Phillips and Trilling, the Partisan Review promoters, and their colleagues, felt that while erudition was necessary and useful and, as in Auerbach’s case, educationally dazzling, the intellectual’s task was to develop the kind of discourse that makes literature relevant to a society’s moral, political and philosophical problems.
These reviews thus suggest not only that Mimesis was immediately recognized as an influential work but also that it helped promote a discussion on influence begun by T.S Eliot, and reticulated this discussion to the main body of Western works at a time when, because of the turmoil of war and destruction, the question was not whether there was a canon but whether it could endure. But Mimesis goes farther than the theories about tradition and the individual talent. While Eliot articulated a view that urged reading modernist works in the perspective of tradition, Auerbach formulated the view of tradition that accommodated the individual talent in the first place. Today, in the age of New Historicism and theories of the reader’s response and communities of reading, Mimesis remains a beacon to professors and graduate students in exile seeking to bridge the gap between specialized knowledge and general education.
What books are comparable to Mimesis today? Harold Bloom has written enormously about the canon. But his focus is so wide, his personal interests so diverse, that it is difficult to compare him with Auerbach, about whose personal life we also know so little. Today, when memoir fever rages, one of Mimesis’s great strengths is that, despite the extraordinary circumstances under which it was written, it manages a strong authorial voice without ever being a memoir. It is an idiosyncratic scholarly work with a broad popular appeal. But compared with the great modernists’ books that raise the question of modernity (Eliot’s, Benda’s, Malraux’s, Huxley’s) or those that seek to measure the vast new ideological divide between today’s partisan interests (Allan Bloom’s or Camille Paglia’s), Mimesis is not only distinguished by a complex critical argument sustaining a masterful storytelling narrative; it is also not a polemical book. It remains above the fray, seeming to welcome reevaluations and adjustments to new forms of literacy. In our age of virtual representation, Mimesis can be read like an immense web page of connections in which key words and texts are queried for metameanings while the main page stands and the main narrative goes on expanding in the readers’ minds.
Moreover, Mimesis can serve today as a tool for understanding late developing cultures. In the mind of its critics, the Western tradition is unified, regulated and packaged for an education that is no longer relevant. But in fact much of Mimesis’s story is that Western culture is by and large a “late developing culture,” which took more than a millenium to begin to free itself from the weight of its own ancestry. In other words, one could consider European culture to be in exile or captive to the strictures of a high Latinate culture, the trappings of which it had mostly reconstructed in its own imagination. Mimesis represents less the continuous saga of great works articulated in sequence and anthologized than the predicament of a culture that never comes into its own but must constantly work out the credits and debits of its patrimony. Auerbach’s careful review of Patristic literature bears this out: the development of Christianity results from “prefigurations” in the Old Testament (Adam’s sleep is a prefiguration of Christ’s death).
The exilic quality of Mimesis owes much to the Viconian conviction that, while everything knowable in the world is the product of human imagination and human language, it is in the constant reevaluation of the conditions of daily living that the problematics of aesthetic distance appears: the differences it modulates between texts and audiences, between the consciousness of one’s own existential position and the difficulty of a language that transforms what it defines even as it defines it. In this context, Auerbach’s analysis of a passage of Henry Vin his chapter The Weary Prince is exemplary. Auerbach argues that in the course of the sixteenth century the Christian schema guaranteeing redemption and salvation, along with the political compact between the Church and the State, crumble as the map of Europe is redrawn by the Hapsburg monarchy, and the condottieri and potentates divide up Italy between themselves around the Papal estate. While Humanistic narrators, wanting to be more faithful to the grain of daily life, free their characters from the strictures of tragedy or the epic with their random events unfolding on stage, those characters remain captive to the narrator’s greater capacity to describe the milieu, his ability to encompass more of the world (Shakespeare sets his dramas in Scandinavia, Italy, Egypt), and his determination to provide his audience with varied, albeit contradictory perspectives. The lands may be imaginary (Prospero’s island), the news of battles contrived for the moment (King Lear, Richard III), but the variety of perspectives and the contradiction between the perspectives (Othello’s, lago’s) are real. Such multiple perspectives give the scene staged an immediacy and scope that require constant readjustment on the part of the spectator: “there is no stable world as background, but a world which is perpetually reengendering itself out of the most varied forces” (p.324).
In an age where the exile mentality has become something of a requirement for authors seeking to establish their credentials of split allegiance and subjectivity, Auerbach’s own brand of exile is interesting. Some of the best writers of the twentieth century have written in exile (the American expatriates, South African writers, as well as exiles in their own country like Nora Zeale Hurston or Antonio Gramsci); but more often than not an exile today is someone from a minority background or a displaced person from the “developing world” who now resides in an industrialized society and can provide a different perspective on the history of various colonialisms and postcolonialisms. Thus Salman Rushdie uses the picaresque tradition to highlight the role of religion, nationalism and literature in the construction of imaginary transnational individuals and communities. But although Auerbach was an exile in the older sense of the term, i.e., someone banished to a foreign land or a refugee, his criticism, developed before the advent of postcolonialist and feminist critiques, was meant not to realign or deconstruct a humanist tradition in order to privilege discrete narratives of freedom and resistance, but mainly to reassert a broadly defined Western literary practice, in which a properly rehistoricized humanism, all too narrowly reduced to a perspective on the European Renaissance, could be given new life in the face of global threats to all manner of cultural expressions.5 This exilic stand, then, is one in which a scholar without his library attempts to collect the pieces of it extant in his memory and arrange them into an orderly narrative-a daunting task, since much of what the author has to say is actually determined by the random choices of his memory and the special conditions of his exile. Forced to flee a culture of book burning and physical violence, Auerbach argues for reconsidering the history of a struggle, the struggle of Western culture to accommodate “reality.” Because the book’s main goal is to construct and to use a canon already under attack, this should perhaps be called the reverse exile of someone reconstructing from the fringes the patches that connect with a lost center. In many ways, Auerbach thus inaugurated in the 1940s the kind of criticism that culminated years later in Geoffrey Hartmann’s postmodern Criticism in the Wilderness: the models are in doubt, the political pressures are immense; nothing is left for the posthumanist intellectual but to cobble his own narrative from the remains of an accursed history.
Mimesis is exilic in yet another way. It symbolizes a writer’s exile from professional, scholarly philology with its apparatus of libraries, dictionaries, and thesauri. Auerbach’s writing escapes the curse of the footnote. First, no footnotes were practical because of the conditions under which he was working. Libraries were poorly equipped and interlibrary loan was not an option. Second, as he mentions in the epilogue, he didn’t offer theories of “realism” and then try to show in detail how the texts he chose justified those theories. Some choices did have to be made; texts had to correspond to distinct periods in European history and literature, and that in itself in the end presented intractable problems regarding the periodicity inherent in all literary categories: how does one separate one period from another? And some of the major canonical texts of Western literature are indeed featured in Mimesis: Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Stendhal, Virginia Woolf. Auerbach was one of the first to understand the value of Woolf’s contribution to narrative modes, long before feminist critics discovered that she provided an alternative both to traditional masculinist narratives and to the Joycean stream of consciousness. But some of the texts could have been not selected. Although the analysis and interpretation of passages is sometimes so powerful that one is left with the impression that the texts chosen had to be included, there was no compelling reason to select Ammianus Marcellinus, Gregory of Tours, Antoyne de la Sale’s Madame du Chastel or the Goncourt brothers’Germinie Lacerteux rather than, say, Ausonius or Augustine, Flaubert or Fontane. But the issue is moot. Although each of Mimesis ‘s chapters focuses on one major selection, they all burst at the seams as Auerbach invariably brings other texts to bear on his analysis in order to complete his historical perspective. For instance, Flaubert, arguably the most important nineteenth-century writer and central to the history of realism, is not given his own chapter, his “niche.” While a discussion of Flaubert takes place in the context of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, the chapter’s focus remains on Stendhal because Auerbach got so involved with Stendhal and the beginning of what he calls tragic “historism” that in order not to interrupt his narrative flow and continue to be broadly historical by making reference to all major European authors (he apologizes for not including Dostoevsky because he was unable to read him in the original), Auerbach had to make short shrift of distinct authorial categories. Flaubert couldn’t get a separate chapter, nor perhaps could Zola. Moreover, there was something provocative and stimulating about selecting Germinie Lacerteux instead of Flaubert’s Bovary: it suggests that in a more inclusive cultural perspective history of literature is made as much from minor as major works. The Goncourts’ works bring up questions of representation and subjective interpretation: issues of gender (the question of an author’s masculinism), parody (the question of feminine adornment and mascarade) and ideology (the question of taste and bon got).
Mimesis antedates our discussions of minor authors and cultures. It brings books in from the cold. It also helps us understand how a book, subtly criticized for being merely a series of critical vignettes, less a synthesis than a compendiumthough the Latin root pend suggests direction, angle, weight, and focus-so bothered Spitzer and other critics impatient with the lack of an ideological perspective reviewing more tangible periodic economic and social data as they relate to the study of literature. Since then, of course, the determinacy of historical narratives has been put in doubt, and from Foucault to de Man history is to be extracted, under very limited conditions, from particular episodes. By linking his argument with specific sayings, the critic isolates stages of discourse formation, uses of figures, and tropes that show how texts are as much caught up in describing themselves as they are in describing external situations. It was on these premises that Mimesis was attacked twenty years ago by David Carroll in his Diacritics piece. Carroll argued that Auerbach seemed to be doing two things at once. On one hand, he sought to provide a detailed analysis of texts fitting an overall conceptual framework the texts themselves could help justify, and yet, through his analysis of the texts of Late Latinity, Auerbach only demonstrated in fact that every language always reaches its own level of incompetence: the texts he had selected merely helped us understand how the story that people wanted to tell was in more ways than one constrained by the culture, as writers, feeling that words were lacking to express the reality around them, had to do the best they could with the language at their disposal. And Carroll argued, on the other hand, that in setting forth his historical argument about an evolving and increasingly sophisticated mimesis, Auerbach used a concept of historical development and transcendence that did not enter the Western horizon until much later, after Hegel and the Romantics, and which conflicted, moreover, with his own desire to use texts randomly. Overall, because he couldn’t ultimately reconcile these two approaches, the historical and the random, Carroll seems to suggest, Auerbach felt he had to “theorize” his random approach, in effect passing off his own tastes in literary matters as philosophical choices. Unlike Carroll, however, I doubt that Auerbach meant to use the word random in a sense that suggests aestheticism or eclecticism. If Auerbach’s approach is at all random, it is because, despite the fact that he always practices a kind of analysis that is extremely focused and limited to a particular text, he doesn’t believe that only certain parts of certain texts can demonstrate a general truth. What could be interpreted as an effort to compensate with an exhaustive analysis for the limited scope of the subject matter must also be interpreted as the critic’s (Auerbach’s) desire to experiment with different texts within the continuum of history.6
Carroll’s second criticism is that Mimesis privileges a very old (Platonic) and simplistic relationship of image and reality based on an implicit hierarchy between (original) spoken and (derived) written words. In this metaphysical context, Carroll argues, a text’s value is determined by a belief in the constancy of such concepts as self, interpretation, and even “motifs,” the latter being selected by a critic imprisoned in his own hermeneutic circle. But while, with its detailed analysis, Mimesis emphasizes the complexity of levels at which one event, one person can be understood, in the end the book is catholic in scope, and this catholicity remains its main yet ambiguous quality. It encompasses multiple levels of description and makes the point, as we would say today, that writing and reading are constitutive of our world: to the extent that we can describe the world, then, in a way already prefigured by Vico, we’ve already made this world.
Finally, Carroll argues that most of Auerbach’s descriptions privilege the visual and thus articulate an objectivity which is nothing other than the process of visualizing events and men. History is only a panorama served up by literature. This last criticism has a strange ring to it because, after more than twenty years of deconstructive practice in the United States, Auerbach’s privileging of separate subjects at the moment they are reading their texts is in fact very much in the spirit of a deconstruction that produces, through splits and ruptures, the inner multiplicity of the subject.
Auerbach’s other enduring contribution remains his meditation on the problematics of everyday life. In a memorable, random quotation from Madame Bovary (in which Emma and Charles are eating a lonely dinner together, this ritual being for Emma part of the unbearable heaviness of living with Charles, which will eventually lead her to suicide), Auerbach emphasizes that Flaubert’s restraint is actually his way of indicating to the reader the limit of the expressible, the sayable. What do you say about a life where nothing is happening? Sometimes the quotidian comes in the form of a report, a proces-verbal. At such moments the shock of seeing something reported flatly without frills gives the reader a consciousness of time passing and the difficulty that human beings experience in simply being alive. Emma’s story is that there is no story to tell, but in this lack resides the great tragedy of modern realism: in telling the story of the characters, the narrator imprisons them in it. Auerbach adroitly shows that the dreariness of the daily life in the provinces is brought about by a clear choice on the writer’s part. Flaubert isolates certain parts or certain fragments of interiors, of dress and speech, that compel us to interpret life in a certain way. In other words, Auerbach understood, long before the critics of late twentieth-century identity politics, that there is no such thing as “dailiness,” the random flow of days and hours, which awaits its narrator. All dailiness can be interpreted only in the context of a specific meaning or lack thereof, through which the “reality” of a particular situation is understood.
Today, however, our prevailing uncertainty is less about reality than about literature itself. Because of the extraordinary attention given popular culture, the prestige of the great books has faded, and literature seems to be of no use by itself. It exists to justify a political ideal, to legitimize a claim (Latino literature, Gay literature, African-American literature-one might want to ask whether there is also room for Italian-American literature or Jewish-American literature). Auerbach’s merit is to have located literature at the nexus of two discourses: grave, sublime discourse, inherited from Antiquity, in which transparency of being, aesthetic distance, is all that counts in the delivery of a story, and low or “humble” discourse [sermo humilis], in which the narrator takes leave of solemn figures and speeches in order to better gain the favor of his diverse, i.e., largely uneducated, audience. This nexus is historically located at the firm center of Mimesis, in the Middle Ages, when it is not clear what is going to happen to the Classical heritage. Literature is being redefined without the accoutrements of a Mediterranean Classical and a uniquely Roman way of retaining power by assimilating as well as being assimilated. As the Lerer volume iakes clear, it is not by chance that the Jew who emigrated to Istanbul and then to the United States, because he had to flee the horrors of a disintegrating democracy, was very interested in those times in the history of the West when most of the people had neither the education nor the resources to express a culture rooted in their living conditions. As Lerer puts it in his introduction:
What I am suggesting . . . and what several of the essays in this collection have sought to argue, is that Auerbach’s sense of the tensions in the history of literature is as much linguistic as stylistic: that, instead of seeking that synthesis between sermo humilis and sermo sublimis as the keystone of the western cultural experience, we might productively find its tensions in the radical shifts of spoken dialects and the ossification of literary forms that mark so much of western literature. The fissures noted in the final essay of Literary Language and its Public, entitled “The Western Public and Its Language,” show us a Europe in which “a time had dawned and would long endure when the leading classes of society possessed neither education nor books nor even a language in which they could have expressed a culture rooted in their actual living condition. (p.5)
In the truest sense, then, Mimesis is humanistic because it relies on the concept of now very old but authentic texts whose ongoing reinterpretation fulfills the need of any civilization to “preserve from the ravages of time” the works that constitute its spiritual heritage. In our days when the subject is essentially a political animal and the context is repression, system, struggle and power, Auerbach offers the possibility of reading some of the great texts of the West as expressions of a contradiction. The universe is basically meaningless in its acts of god, its violence and the injustice that comes with one’s given station in life. But to the extent that individuals can find meaning in resisting those odds and also in not being limited to the condition of someone trapped by his or her tragic fate, the texts in which they can find this meaning are symbolic of their own life struggle. Culture is struggle, the struggle to make everyday life meaningful. To look over the whole panorama of Mimesis is less to contemplate the level prospect of the great books than to understand how the subject of writing is actually the reading subject educating itself to existence and survival; how the story told is less interesting than the existential significance of the individual being constituted by the struggles. And precisely because it seeks to depict the story of those struggles, the literature of Mimesis is always, as Costa-Lima, one of the contributors to the Lehrer volume, puts it, “in a state of predicament.”
What can we expect the average reader to learn from Mimesis today? The question doesn’t make much sense because we would find ourselves hard-pressed to decide what constitutes an average reader today. It wouldn’t be much easier to define a “learned” reader, either. Someone who knows the Classics. But most of the professors teaching Medieval literature today have only scant knowledge of Latin, and still less of Greek or Medieval Latin. Let us agree, then, that the form of Mimesis is both Classical, antique even, and Modern. Mimesis is antiquated in that it proposes texts without introduction, to be explicated by the author later. It is a little like reading the Classics in the Loeb collection. Today we do not approach texts in this manner. We articulate a thesis, we seek exempla, and then our conclusion, if there is one, includes literature. The texts are not primary but secondary. Again, the form of Mimesis remains modern, however, in that the book selects and treats random passages which it manipulates, adducing other texts as proof of topical interest. So Mimesis is not a scholarly text, yet one must pay attention or the nuances will be lost. When, in the famous story of Peter Valvomeres, Auerbach compares the style of Ammianus Marcellinus and that of Tacitus and then adjoins a sample from Augustine’s Civitas Dei, the comparison between Tacitus’s dignified aesthetic distance and Ammianus’s coarse gestural manner is lost-until the reader understands that the Joycean wealth of examples is, in Auerbach’s very own manner, itself proof of the irresistible pull of the unconnected language which signals the death of Classicism, and thus constitutes the drama of someone like Augustine, for whom the main problem was to reconcile the dizzying succession of places and times with the unity of an uninterrupted sequence of events.
In the end, however, there is no Auerbach, no Mimesis without philology, as Steven Nichols aptly puts it in his essay “Philology in Auerbach’s Drama of (Literary) History”: “To make philology a key to history, to equate it with philosophy, seemed to some a threat to the disciplinary boundaries that confined philology narrowly to establishing texts, to editing them, and to studying historical languages” (p.67). And the publication of the Lerer volume makes it clear that one of the tasks at hand is to evaluate Mimesis with the tools of philology. That many of the writers in the volume have an interest in the Middle Ages is interesting, if only because philology is the discipline without which an understanding of the Middle Ages is impossible. It is also interesting that this filtering of philology through the Middle Ages is relatively recent. It is only since the end of the nineteenth century and the development of Comparative and Romance linguistics in Germany in particular that philology has come to encompass Latinity, not simply as a manifestation in the transformation of language but also as an indicator of social and cultural changes. Lerer notes in his introduction that while Auerbach, influenced by the tradition of Geistesgeschichte and the interest in the function of literature as the prime shaper of cultural development, insists on “deploying” the resources of philology close to the texts at hand, his other interest is to show that writers are essentially promoters of social and cultural change because they are acutely “aware of language change and linguistic variety: it could be said that they were philologists themselves”(p.4). Auerbach thus represents the second wave of a European humanism that had begun with the Renaissance and stopped shortly thereafter. The Montaigne to whom he devotes his beautiful chapter on “L’Humaine condition” confessed in the Essays that he couldn’t read Greek and had forgotten the Latin of his childhood.
The problem with most philology has always been one of evolution. The hope of great Humanists like Erasmus had been to popularize the literature of the Ancients by cleaning up the translations and revising the commentaries: in essence, by re-enacting a world which, in fact, had never existed. Today, as Lerer points out, the philologist is no longer the one who makes the text ready in some sort of “editorial toilette” so that it can be used by others but the one who uses the resources of his science to palpate the language in its diachronic evolution. One can show the variations in phonetics, spelling, syntax and semantics; one can show how styles arise and then perish; but the problem is now, more than ever, how to interpret those changes. For instance, the vast divide that separates courtly from epic literature cannot be explained simply by the disappearance of certain terms and the appearance of others: the term “vassalage,” referring to the feudal principle that is so important in the Song of Roland, is absent from famous romances like Cliges or Lancelot, while in those same texts the term “corteisie,” referring to the essence of courtly culture, makes its powerful debut. Linguistic remarks are not enough. One must be able to show that changes in vocabulary are supported by usage evidence-in this sense the philologist remains the critic in closest rapport to the text-and indicate a sea change in the perception of the world.
Now what justifies this sea change? Are philologists speculating on a historical evolution which they derive from this statistical evidence or do they prognosticate through a “backshadowing” process what went on in the “mentalite” of the time? There is a very good example of this in the chapter “The Knight Sets Forth,” where after having adduced the “technical” evidence, Auerbach proposes that the real explanation for the introduction of “corteisie” in the epic and for its later expansion in courtly poetry (where the goal of going on a quest for a lady is no longer considered in the historical context of an education, an Ausbildung extending over years of training and prowess, but in that, crucial for Mimesis, of the cultural construction of The Divine Comedy) is in fact that of a new cultural journey: the “avanture.” The introduction of this term allows Auerbach to reach back to the Romance by beginning to separate the courtly from the epic, but also to reach forward to modern times, by making the reader understand the different kind of modernity that is involved in the articulation of “avanture,” which, in turn, becomes the guiding spirit of the whole book. Today, readers of Mimesis may complain that they are made to travel through once familiar territory where the signposts have now been removed or become obsolete (it is questionable whether shifts in vocabulary that occurred in the past can now be viewed from the privileged position of a philologist using modernity as a terminus ad quem in a natural, evolutionary perspective); but they have to admire the boldness of the author who, working from his fragile Turkish refuge, much like the first clerics, commentators and copyists of the Middle Ages, rebuilds a bridge to those forbidding places to which privileged access has forever been lost. Relying on the texture and layering of critical upon creative language and narrative, Auerbach is, like the archeologists, the grammarians, the storytellers of the past, the hermeneut who guides us through our own dark ages and the bitter lessons learned by those to whom, through our own discursive poverty, we can only refer as others.
Having learned from the Zeitgeist and wary of applying closure to the review of a book that remains, I think, open to the future of literature, I want to offer three postcripts to this Festschrift.
First, Auerbach has very little use for the lyric. For Auerbach the lyric is not interesting because it doesn’t permit a discussion of what must ultimately come to the fore in the discussion of any literature: how does literature contribute to the understanding of daily life? In this context, then, the speculations of the German and French Romantics are interesting only to the extent that they themselves were instrumental in delivering to us the Hegelian principle of the redemption of the end by the beginning, and the ensuing concept of “creatural figuration,” which takes the reader away from pure factual determinacy into a history of expectations and fulfillments. Critics like Brownlee point to the fact that this fulfillment theory mirrors the “providential” prospect of the Middle Ages, where interpreters, caught in a world predetermined (to salvation or death), seek solace and comfort in the fact that they have a relationship with their past and that this relationship guarantees their future. They also try to show that this providential relationship can be articulated only at the cost of expropriating certain other tendencies or even “mentalites.” For instance, Brownlee argues that Auerbach’s insistence on the natural organic aspects of the figuration he is imposing on the multilayered development of European courtly culture prevents him from seeing the complications and contradictions that a “figural” view of reality makes simple.
In this respect, it might be interesting to compare Auerbach’s own figural perspective with that of certain postmodern critics, for whom “figurality” is endemic to literature. For instance, Paul de Man and his disciples are always anxious to show that it was precisely in the lyric, because it implied no mirroring of a consensual apriori reality, that the predicament, not the fulfillment, of a historical period appeared. That there is a link between the two strands of criticism, the Hegelian phenomenological one of Auerbach and the post-Hegelian one of the deconstructors, is suggested by Costa Lima in his interesting piece on the uses of literary criticism after the fragmentation of self. Perhaps, Costa Lima argues, mimesis is not merely a reproduction (“figura”) in the text of something that was already accepted as natural at the time (in this sense, the “avanture” of the knight is perfectly natural, and the author of the Romance doesn’t seem surprised by his own ability to speak of things he doesn’t himself understand: Why is there only one knight? Why is he treated well? How does his host know who he is?), but something which in the beauty and apparent fulfillment of its naturalness or creaturality, only points to the difficulty in “the valuation of the individual subject” (p.60).
Finally, one could ask about the guiding principle of selection in Mimesis: how is it, for instance, that there is no room in Mimesis for poets of the English Renaissance? No room either for the English or German Romantics? The answer is that Auerbach is a Romanist, and the kind of history he proposes is not only essentially German and Romanistic but also constrained by the linguistic relation between Latin and the Romance languages. It also demonstrates the relevance of Latinate Romance traditions to the evolution of modern European culture. The view of history and literary history Auerbach proposes is essentially that of the French Enlightenment, although there is a curious mixture of German and French influence. The concept of the Spanish and especially the French languages as directly related to and derived from Latin, which allows the philologist to deploy his technical expertise in the field and to segment periods, is mitigated by an approach informed by an aspiration to an anthropological view of the world, as conceived by Herder and the partisans of one primal, overarching, volkisch experience for all readers.
University of California, Davis
1 There are numerous examples of this de rigueur ritual throughout the Lerer book, all of which would provide fascinating material for a reflexive anthropology of philological criticism in the age of postmodernism: the putative masters of literary critical narrative, now contested or displaced, revisit their own discipline, furtively, almost sub rosa. The canon is suddenly shy, it seems. See Kevin Brownlee’s contribution to Lerer’s volume, pp. 156-175.
2 Reprinted in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, foreword by Paolo Valesio, Minneapolis (University of Minnesota Press),1984, pp.11-76.
3 Some of these questions are raised by Brownlee: “On the face of it, Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendlaendischen Literatur is a historical treatment of the ways in which “reality” [Wirklichkeit] has been “presented” [dargestellte] in western “literary” discourse. But the subject of this history, named in the title as mimesis (imitation), is not to be understood as the effort to produce a verbal mirror-image of some extraverbal reality. Rather, Auerbach writes the history of mimesis as the story of the development of a specific kind of figuration; and he seeks to document-by offering a series of specific examples-the transformations in the dominant modes of mimesis-as-figuration in Western literary discourse from the time of the Evangelists to the middle of the twentieth century” (132).
4 It is more than a coincidence that Delmore Schwartz’s words were chosen for the back cover of the Princeton edition. In 1953, Schwartz was trying to machinate his way into the Princeton English Department where he had at least the support of the Chair, Carlos Baker, and the rest is told in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. The mad plotting came to naught. But this “avanture,” the Auerbachian model of which I explain later, takes away nothing from Schwartz’s impressed characterization of Mimesis. In the end, it is to Auerbach’s credit that his book would be admired by Irving Howe’s “buckshoe Humanists” and by an American Rimbaud trying to solve his own emotional problems at the typewriter. See James Atlas, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of An American Poet (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977), pp.297-324.
5 Naturally, given the present anti-humanist climate and the favor enjoyed by postcolonial discourses, rehistoricizing this humanism may prove a daunting task in the face of Fanon’s sarcasms against the Greco-Roman pedestal-“All those speeches seem like a collection of dead words; those values which seemed to uplift the soul are revealed as worthless, simply because they have nothing to do with the concrete conflict in which people are engaged” (The Wretched of the Earth [London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1965], p.38)-and Homi Bhabha’s attack against a “stable unitary assumption of collectivity” (“Signs Taken for Wonders,” Critical Inquiry 12 , pp.144-165). Yet those sarcasms and the critique of an illusory center of civility and post-Latinity are caught in the contradiction they wish to “exorbitate”: it is only at the cost of becoming involved with mimesis as an already adulterated Platonism that one can enjoy the privileges of parody and mimickry. Outrageous as it may seem, subaltern” speech from an Indian subcontinent now translated in the United States is no different from Gregory of Tours’ recycled narrative in a Frankish Gaul refusing to abdicate its meaningless colonial Latin. But discussing this would require another article. And the problem of exile antedates all these discussions anyway.
6 Auerbach’s exact text is the following: “The method of interpretation gives the interpreter a certain leeway. He can choose and emphasize as he pleases. It must naturally be possible to find what he claims in the text. My interpretations are no doubt guided by a specific purpose. Yet this purpose assumed form only as I went along, playing as it were with my texts, and for long stretches of my way I have been guided only by the texts themselves. Furthermore, the great majority of the texts were chosen at random, on the basis of accidental acquaintance and personal preference rather than in view of a definite purpose. Studies of this kind do not deal with laws but with trends and tendencies, which cross and complement one another in the most varied ways. I was by no means interested merely in presenting what would serve my purpose in the narrowest sense; on the contrary, it was my endeavor to accommodate multiplex data and to make my formulations correspondingly elastic.” (“Epilogue,” p.556).
The German term “beliebige” (“auch sind die Texte in ihrer grossen Mehrzahl ganz beliebige”) and the rest of the passage imply “accidental encounter,” but, while admitting to personal preference, Auerbach clearly does not mean that it follows from this admission that the whole book is a personal statement tainted by subjectivism. What he says is that the randomness of the encounter allowed him, as narrator, to explore the multiple applications of his own critical narrative (Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der Abendlaendischen Literatur [Frankfurt: Francke, 1967], p. 517.)
Copyright Comparative Literature Spring 1997
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