Erich Auerbach (November 9, 1892 - October 13, 1957) was a German philologist and comparative scholar and critic of literature. His best-known work is Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a history of representation in Western literature from ancient to modern times. The term "philology" describes the study of a language together with its literature and the historical and cultural contexts that are indispensable for an understanding of the literary works and other culturally significant texts. Philology, thus, comprises the study of the grammar, rhetoric, history, interpretation of authors, and critical traditions associated with a given language.
Auerbach, who was Jewish, was trained in the German philological tradition and would eventually become, along with Leo Spitzer, one of its best-known scholars. After participating as a combatant in World War I, he earned a doctorate in 1921 and in 1929, became a member of the philology faculty at the University of Marburg, publishing a well-received study entitled, Dante: Poet of the Secular World. With the rise of National Socialism, however, Auerbach was forced to vacate his position in 1935. Exiled from Germany, he took up residence in Istanbul, Turkey, where he wrote Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, generally considered his masterwork.
He moved to the United States in 1947, teaching at Pennsylvania State University and then working at the Institute for Advanced Study. He was made a Professor of Romance philology at Yale University in 1950, a position he held until his death in 1957. While at Yale, he supervised the doctoral work of Fredric Jameson, noted Marxist literary critic.
Auerbach's reputation is largely based on his seminal work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Written while Auerbach was teaching in Istanbul, Turkey, where he fled after being ousted from his professorship in Romance Philology at the University of Marburg by the Nazis in 1935, Mimesis famously opens with a comparison between the way the world is represented in Homer’s Odyssey and the way it appears in the Bible. From these two seminal Western texts, Auerbach builds the foundation for a unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature, including even the Modernist novelists writing at the time Auerbach began his study.
Mimesis gives an account of the way in which everyday life in its seriousness has been represented by many Western writers, from ancient Greek and Roman writers Petronius, early Christian writers such as Augustine, Renaissance writers Boccaccio, Montaigne, and Rabelais, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, eighteenth and nineteenth century writers Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola, all the way up to nineteenth and twentieth century writers such as Proust and Woolf. Despite his treatment of the many major works, Auerbach apparently did not think he was comprehensive enough, and apologized in the original publication in 1946, explaining that he had access only to the "insufficient" resources available in the library at Istanbul University where he worked. Many scholars consider this relegation to primary texts a happy accident of history, since in their view one of the great strengths of Auerbach’s book is its focus on fine-grained close reading of the original texts rather than an evaluation of the critical literature.
The mode of literary criticism in which Mimesis operates is often referred to among contemporary critics as historicism. Historicism is the view that ideas and theories should be seen within their historical context, as part of a larger system to which the idea or theory is related. Auerbach historicist approach largely regarded the way reality is represented in the literature of various periods to be intimately bound up with social and intellectual conventions of the time in which they were written. Auerbach considered himself a historical perspectivist in the German tradition (he mentioned Hegel in this respect) extrapolating from specific features of style, grammar, syntax, and diction, claims about much broader cultural and historical questions. He is in the same German tradition of philology as Ernst Robert Curtius, Leo Spitzer, and Karl Vossler, having a mastery of many languages and epochs and all-inclusive in its approach, incorporating just about any intellectual endeavor into the discipline of literary criticism. Of Mimesis, Auerbach wrote that his "purpose is always to write history." Nonetheless, Auerbach was a Romance language specialist, displaying an admitted bias towards texts from French compared to other languages. Chaucer and Wordsworth are not mentioned even in passing.
By far the most frequently reprinted chapter is chapter one, "Odysseus’ Scar," in which Auerbach compares the scene in book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus finally returns home from his two decades of warring and journeying, to Genesis 22:1, the story of The Binding of Isaac. It examines the differences between the two types of realism embodied by Homer's Odyssey and the Old Testament. Highlighting the psychological transparency and consistency of the characters in the Odyssey as against what he regards as the psychological depth of the figures in the Old Testament, Auerbach suggests that the Old Testament gives a more historical impression than the Odyssey, which he classifies as closer to legend in which all details are leisurely fleshed out and all actions occur in a simple present—indeed even flashbacks are narrated in the present tense. It is in the context of this comparison that Auerbach draws his famous conclusion that the Bible’s claim to truth is "tyrannical," since its many omissions establish the insistence that "it is the only real world."
According to Auerbach, the Old Testament and the Odyssey are “in their opposition…basic types” of ancient epic literature. While the former can be various and arbitrary, multi-layered in its characterization of people and events, the latter is the epitome of detailed, organized, and logical storytelling.
Although he acknowledged that both works exercised an enormous influence over subsequent Western literature, Auerbach held that the true motivation behind the representations of reality in both the Bible and the Odyssey lay outside aesthetic considerations. For Homer, it lay in the desire of the poet to "represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts." For the Elohist, it was belief in a religion, and the desire not to mimic reality, but to convey truth. The two works were written for very different purposes; the Odyssey, as a piece of entertainment, aims only to "make us forget our own reality for a few hours," while the Bible, as religious doctrine, tyrannically seeks to "make us fit our own life into its world."
In the essay, Auerbach begins with a close reading of brief excerpts from both the works, beginning with the scene from Homer in which, upon Odysseus’ homecoming, Euryclea recognizes the hero by the scar on his foot. Auerbach notes here the clarity and orderliness of Homer's verse, as well as the tidy comparative, causal, and temporal relationships articulated by Homer's precise syntactical constructions. As an example, he also points out how, with the careful insertion of a flashback "retarding element" (term coined by Goethe and Schiller) into the middle of the story, Homer creates a relaxing excursion to defer suspense. By keeping the focus always on the present narrative, the "procession of phenomena" that Homer presents always remains illuminated in the foreground, even as the story itself jumps back and forth between times and locations.
In contrast, Auerbach's next close reading, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice from the Book of Genesis, reveals a style of realism that is "fraught with background" and full of omissions. Unlike Homer's style, in which everything is illuminated, the Elohist leaves unsaid any detail that does not pertain to the story's purpose. Conversely, what is said is thereby always loaded with meaning, creating an effect of accumulating suspense. Auerbach contrasts this with the realistic style of the Odyssey, one in which "even when the most terrible things are occurring…details prevent the reader from concentrating exclusively on a present crisis."
In the latter half of the essay, Auerbach switches to a point-by-point comparison of the two works:
The tyranny of truth: Truth has no bearing on the relevance of Homer's stories, because the stories are "realistic" enough to be self-sufficient in their own copy of reality. On the other hand, whether or not the Bible is used for its original purpose has everything to do with its perceived relation to truth. Looking at it from another point of view, The Odyssey is a story very limited in the scope of its consequences; thus, it is consequently not difficult to resolve one's personal truth with the truth of the Odyssey. The Bible, on the other hand, lays a "tyrannical" claim on all truth from Creation to the Last Days, and as a result is very difficult to reconcile with one's sense of truth. In fact, Auerbach believes this to be one reason why interpretation of The Bible has had become so abstract.
Representation of heroes: The Odyssey's heroes seem to change very little both inwardly and outwardly, even under duress. Perhaps as a result of the oral tradition in which Homer's work were originally created, the characters can be always summed up with a few apt epithets. Achilles' actions are always characterized by his courage and his pride, while Odysseus exemplifies versatility and foresightedness. On the other hand, characters of the Bible like Jacob and Job are irrevocably changed by the trials they undergo.
History versus legend: The Odyssey is told like a legend; it is a little too convenient, too streamlined a narrative, and its characters are all "clearly outlined" men with "few and simple motives." In The Bible, reality is represented more like history—filled with ambiguity, confusion, and contradictory motives. Auerbach's essay demonstrates how the economy of language in the Biblical account paradoxically creates a greater psychological depth.
Several common critical objections to Auerbach’s essay have been that the passages he chose for close reading were not sufficiently representative of the two texts. Some scholars maintain, instead, that the poetry (rather than the prose) of the Old Testament would be more appropriate for comparison to Homer's verse.
Unsurprisingly, much of the criticism of this essay has come from classicists, many of them finding Auerbach's reading of The Odyssey overly simplistic. Another argument is that Auerbach failed to take into account that The Odyssey is a written record of an oral work, and therefore what it represents is not the story of Odysseus, but rather a telling of the story of Odysseus. Such an interpretation would perhaps partly account for the work’s thoroughly-articulated and background-less style.
Although Auerbach explicitly states in his essay that he chose the particular texts of the Odyssey and the Old Testament because of their subsequent influence on Western literature, some scholars have questioned whether he may also have had political motivations for writing a piece comparing a sacred Jewish text to the Greek one, perhaps using it as an analogy for the conflict between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Aryan Nazism flourishing in Europe at the time of its writing.
Auerbach's legacy is largely built on the influence of his master work. Not known for its organization, Mimesis is almost universally respected for its penetrating insights on the particular works it addresses but is frequently criticized for what is sometimes regarded as its lack of a single overarching claim. For this reason, individual chapters of the book are often read independently. Most critics, however, find it hard to fault Auerbach for this and instead praise his sprawling approach for its reveling in the complexities of each work and epoch without resorting to generalities and reductionism. Auerbach's work, like the Formalists and the New Critics, helped to change the face of literary criticism, focusing the critical endeavor on a close reading and scrutiny of texts and how they came into existence, rather than the author's psychology or the contemporaneous historical and social issues addressed by the text.
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