Monday, August 12, 2013

The Mirror of Literary Art

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach (1892-1957)

During World War II, Erich Auerbach, a German Jew forced to flee his country and settle, temporarily, in Istanbul, wrote what is, in my opinion, the finest book ever written about literature as an art form.  Not the finest work of literary theory--though an argument can be made that Mimesis is that--and not the finest collection of essays on individual literary works--though I cannot think of a better collection--but the most profound and searching examination of how literature is able to represent--to capture and mirror--human reality.  In twenty chapters Auerbach surveys the course of Western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf and examines, using the tools of comparative philology (what literary study was before it became literary criticism), the linguistic means through which the West's greatest writers have attempted to picture, or intimate, the world in which they lived.  Auerbach, fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, English, Spanish, and Old French, and with a more than passing familiarity with Hebrew, structured each of his chapters around an extensive passage, quoted in the original, translated by him, and then subjected to what is nowadays called a "close reading" but which was, in an earlier tradition of serious literary study, simply a reading.

I happened upon Auerbach in the course of writing a graduate seminar paper on the Chanson de Roland, the great OF epic that commemorates the eighth- century Battle of Roncesvalles.  I had no critical tools which would allow me to understand the style of the poet.  "It's flat," was the best I could do, but Auerbach offered a vocabulary with which to approach this venerable (the first) work of French literature: "The poet explains nothing; and yet the things which happen are stated with a paratactic bluntness which says that everything must happen as it does happen. It could not be otherwise, and there is no need for explanatory connections.  This, as the reader knows, refers not only to the events but also to the views and principles which form the basis of the actions of the persons explanatory discussion is called for...."  Of course.  In a world where principles of action and belief were clear, a poet, even one writing well after the fact, need do no more than state through simple juxtaposition the facts of the case.  "The copious and connected argumentation of which Homer's heroes are so fond is wholly outside of [the Christian knights of the Chanson's] ken."  There are no digressions, "all the categories of life are unambiguous, immutable, fixed in rigid formulations." And beyond the reach of reason.  

I have quoted Auerbach at length to give a sense of his method: his incisive ability to find in literary style evidence not only of an historical view, but a psychological one as well.  Here, for example, is his comment on Dante's style (from Canto Ten of Inferno, the speeches of Farinata degli Uberti as well as of Virgil and Dante):

"The most vital continuity of movement vibrates through the entire passage. Dante has at his disposal an abundance of stylistic devices which no European vernacular before him could equal. And he does not use them singly; he connects them in an uninterrupted relationship  Virgil's encouraging words consist exclusively of principle clauses without any formal connection by conjunctions...But the quick succession, the concise formulation of the individual parts, and their mutual balance [in paired speeches] exhibit to perfection the natural vitality of spoken discourse."

But what does this mean for the "representation of reality"?  Dante, in Auerbach's brilliant reading, succeeds in representing "a mixture of sublimity and triviality which, measured by the standards of antiquity, is monstrous."  Yes, that is exactly right.  Chaucer approaches this odd, but typically medieval marriage of the sublime and the grotesque, but no where, not even in the Troilus, is he able to achieve Dante's comprehensive melding of tragedy and farce.

 Auerbach's twenty essays, each of which might stand alone, survey a remarkably broad collection of works.  My own favorites include his study of Don Quixote ("The Enchanted Dulcinea"), of Henry IV, Part II ("The Weary Prince") [where Auerbach dissects with great precision the "mixed style" of the seventeenth century], and the astonishing reading of Le Rouge et le Noir ("In the Hotel de la Mole") where Auerbach offers this thought: "We may ask ourselves how it came about that modern consciousness of reality began to find literary form for the first time precisely in Henri Beyle of Grenoble."  If anyone else were to write such a sentence I would probably scoff at them; however, Auerbach is persuasive (his chapters are dense with examples), and the argument he makes throughout the 550 pages of Mimesis has long since convinced me--Stendhal did invent modern literary consciousness.

And what does all of this have to do with Talented Readers?  After all, Mimesis falls outside the purview of our concern with discovering lesser known books and their writers.  However, this remarkable homage to literary art demonstrates the depth of meaning, significances, and beauty of literature better than any book I know.  The range and depth and genius of Auerbach, when turned on the Odyssey or Mrs. Dalloway convince me that reading literature is the highest form of philosophizing and perhaps of thinking as well.

Auerbach emigrated to the United States after the War and spent twenty years teaching at Yale before his death in 1957.  He was among that remarkable generation of scholars born at the end of the nineteenth century who transformed our understanding of literature, art, and music by studying in a systematic and highly disciplined way aesthetic forms that had long been the province of dilettantes.  I find the afterword of Mimesis to be moving in its optimism, given the catastrophic circumstances of its composition (not all of which were known to Auerbach as he wrote).

"Nothing now remains but to find him--to find the reader, that is.  I hope that my study will reach its readers--both my friends of former years, if they are still alive, as well as all the others for whom it was intended.  And my it contribute to bring together again those whose love for our western history has serenely persevered."  Written in Istanbul between May 1942 and April 1945.

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature was translated by Willard R. Trask and published by Princeton University Press in 1953.  It is still in print.

George Ovitt, (8/12/13)


1 comment:

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