Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature
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Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (German: Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur) is a book of literary criticism by Erich Auerbach, and his most well known work. 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, it was first published in 1946 by A. Francke Verlag.
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 such as Petronius and Tacitus, early Christian writers such as Augustine, Medieval writers such as Chretien de Troyes, Dante, and Boccaccio, Renaissance writers such as Montaigne, Rabelais, Shakespeare and Cervantes, seventeenth-century writers such as Molière and Racine, Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, nineteenth-century writers such as Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola, all the way up to 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 critical works.
The mode of literary criticism in which Mimesis operates is often referred to among contemporary critics as historicism, since Auerbach largely regarded the way reality was 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) exploring specific features of style, grammar, syntax, and diction claims about much broader cultural and historical questions. Of Mimesis, Auerbach wrote that his "purpose is always to write history."
He is in the same German tradition of philology as Ernst 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.
Auerbach was a Romance language specialist, which explains his admitted bias towards treating texts from French compared to other languages. Chaucer and Wordsworth are not mentioned even in passing, though Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf are given full chapters and Dickens and Henry Fielding make appearances.
Position and evaluation of rhetoric
To the consternation of his colleague, Ernst Curtius, Auerbach's work is marked by an openly anti-rhetorical position. Classical writers such as Homer, Tacitus and Petronius, as well as Medieval theologians (except St. Augustine), and writers of the seventeenth century, like Racine, are criticized for adherence to the rhetorical doctrine of "styles" with their corresponding subject matters: the low style's association with the comedic and the popular classes, and the elevated style's association with the tragic, the historic and the heroic. Auerbach sees the Bible as opposing this rhetorical doctrine in its serious and poignant portrayals of common folk and their encounter with the divine. As Auerbach notes in chapter two when discussing the New Testament:
But the spirit of rhetoric—a spirit which classified subjects in genera and invested every subject with a specific form of style as one garment becoming it in virtue of its nature [i.e. lower classes with the farcical low-style, upper classes with the tragic, the historic and the sublime elevated-style]—could not extend its dominion to them [the Bible writers] for the simple reason that their subject would not fit into any of the known genres. A scene like Peter's denial fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history—and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.
The Bible will ultimately be responsible for the "mixed style" of Christian rhetoric, a style that is described by Auerbach in chapter seven as the "antithetical fusion" or "merging" of the high and low style. The model is Christ's Incarnation as both sublimitas and humilitas. This mixture ultimately leads to a "popular realism" seen in the religious plays and sermons of the 12th Century. Auerbach also discusses the development of an intermediate or middle style due to Medieval influences from the Bible and Courtly Love (see chapters nine and fifteen on Boccaccio and Molière). This development of an intermediate and then ultimately another "mixed style" (Shakespeare, Hugo) leads to what Auerbach calls the "modern realism" of the nineteenth-century (see chapter nineteen on Flaubert).
Auerbach champions writers during periods under the sway of rhetorical forms of writing like Gregory of Tours and St. Francis of Assisi, whose Latin was poor and whose rhetorical education was minimal, but who were still able to convey vivid expression and feeling. He also champions the diarist Saint-Simon who wrote about the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century French court. Completely free of the absolute constraints of style found in Racine or the superficial use of reality found in Prévost or Voltaire, Saint-Simon's portraits of court life are considered by Auerbach, somewhat surprisingly, to be the precursor of Proust (an admirer of Saint-Simon) and Zola.
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 praise his sprawling approach for its reveling in the complexities of each work and epoch without resorting to generalities and reductionism. However, a work of this complexity comes with problems of its own. Auerbach has the habit sometimes of using a minor work as a representation of an era, such as upholding the obscure Antoine de la Sale as representative of the inferiority of Medieval prose literature while ignoring monuments like the Prose Lancelot or Prose Tristan.
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, the story of The Binding of Isaac. Highlighting the rhetorically determined simplicity of characters in the Odyssey (what he calls the "external") against what he regards as the psychological depth of the figures in the Old Testament, Auerbach suggests that the Old Testament gives a more powerful and 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.
Auerbach summarizes his comparison of the texts as follows:
The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [The Odyssey 's] fully externalized description, uniform illustration, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand [in the Old Testament], certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, "background" quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.
Auerbach concludes by arguing that the "full development" of these two styles, the rhetorical tradition with its constraints on representing reality and the Biblical or "realist" tradition with its engagement of everyday experience, exercised a "determining influence upon the representation of reality in European literature."
It is in the context of this comparison between the Biblical and the Homeric that Auerbach draws his famous conclusion that the Bible’s claim to truth is "tyrannical," since
What he [the writer of the Old Testament] produced then, was not primarily oriented towards "realism" (if he succeeded in being realistic, it was merely a means, not an end): it was oriented to truth.
However, by the time Auerbach treats the work of Flaubert we have come full circle. Like the Biblical writers whose faith in the so-called "tyrannical" truth of God produces an authentic expression of reality, Flaubert's "faith in the truth of language" (ch. 18) likewise represents "an entire human experience."
- Auerbach, Erich (2007). "Rev. of Scholarship in Times of Extremes: Letters of Erich Auerbach (1933–46), on the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Death". PMLA. Modern Language Association. 122 (3): 742–62. doi:10.1632/pmla.2007.122.3.742. ISSN 0030-8129.
- Auerbach, Erich (1953). Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Willard R. Trask (trans.). Princeton: Princeton UP. ISBN 0-691-01269-5. 557.
- Auerbach, Erich (1953). Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Willard R. Trask (trans.). Princeton: Princeton UP. ISBN 0-691-01269-5. 45.
- Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Trans. Willard Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Bakker, Egbert. "Mimesis as Performance: Rereading Auerbach’s First Chapter." Poetics Today 20.1 (1999): 11–26.
- Baldick, Chris. “Realism.” Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 184.
- Bremmer, Jan. "Erich Auerbach and His Mimesis." Poetics Today 20.1 (1999): 3–10.
- Calin, William. "Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis – ’Tis Fifty Years Since: A Reassessment." Style 33.3 (1999): 463–74.
- Doran, Robert. "Literary History and the Sublime in Erich Auerbach´s Mimesis." New Literary History 38.2 (2007): 353–69.
- Green, Geoffrey. "Erich Auerbach." Literary Criticism & the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach & Leo Spitzer. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
- Holmes, Jonathan, and Streete, Adrian, eds. Refiguring Mimesis: Representation in Early Modern Literature. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2005.
- Holquist, Michael. “Erich Auerbach and the Fate of Philology Today.” Poetics Today 20.1 (1999): 77-91.
- Landauer, Carl. "Mimesis and Erich Auerbach’s Self-Mythologizing." German Studies Review 11.1 (1988): 83-96.
- Lerer, Seth. Literary History and the Challenge of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
- Nuttall, A. D.. "New Impressions V: Auerbach’s Mimesis." Essays in Criticism 54.1 (2004): 60-74.
- "The Book of Books: Erich Auerbach and the making of Mimesis", by Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker (Dec. 9, 2013)