The Magazine

An Uncommon Reader

Erich Auerbach and the understanding of literature.

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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T.S. Eliot thought that the first requisite for being a literary critic is to be very intelligent. The second, I should say, is to have a well-stocked mind, which means having knowledge of literatures and literary traditions other than that into which one was born; possessing several languages; and acquiring a more than nodding acquaintance with history, philosophy, and theology—to be, in brief, learned. To be both highly intelligent and learned is not all that common. Eliot claimed for himself—and this by implication, for he was a modest man—only the former. 

‘Next to [Proust] all the other works we know seem to be no more than novellas.’

‘Next to [Proust] all the other works we know seem to be no more than novellas.’

Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) had both great intelligence and great learning. Born in Germany, Auerbach, along with other Jewish scholars of his time, was another of Adolf Hitler’s intellectual gifts to the United States. After being expelled from his academic post as professor of Romance philology at the University of Marburg during the Nazi purges, he spent 11 years, between 1935 and 1946, at the University of Istanbul. Arriving in the United States in 1947, he first taught at Penn State, was briefly at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and ended his career at Yale. 

While in Istanbul, Auerbach wrote Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which is the greatest single work of literary criticism of the 20th century. Auerbach worked on the book between 1942 and 1945, and it was first published in 1946. Part of the mythos of Mimesis has been that he wrote it without the aid of a serious library. This is somewhat exaggerated. The University of Istanbul was far from academically primitive, and Auerbach was in touch with friends who could send him such literary materials as he required. 

That he didn’t have access to a library that stocked scholarly periodicals probably worked in his book’s favor. Mimesis is a scholarly work unencumbered by footnotes or other critical apparatus. At the close of the penultimate paragraph of the epilogue, Auerbach writes, “[I]t is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.” 

Erich Auerbach was a philologist. Once a standard academic discipline, philology is no longer in currency, let alone in vogue. In its traditional form, philology dealt with the structure—the grammar, syntax, and semantics—of language and its historical development. Philology has always seemed a more Continental than English or American enterprise. In America, scholars who in an earlier era might have taught philology taught, instead, what became known as comparative literature. In time, comparative literature fizzled out, taken over by literary theorists who turned out to be not all that much interested in literature in any language. 

What distinguished philologists and comparativists was their polyglotism. They knew multiple languages, and an article of belief among them was that literary works can only be truly comprehended in the languages in which they were composed. If you read works in translation, you are, from the philological standpoint, a schmoozer, a potzer, a kibbitzer, and fundamentally unserious. In the prologue to his recent Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi, Victor Brombert, who for many years taught comparative literature at Princeton, notes that “in all cases, I have discussed only authors whose works I have read in the original.” 

Erich Auerbach read eight languages: Greek, Latin, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew. In Mimesis he remarks that he scanted a detailed discussion of the rise of realism in Russian literature because “this is impossible when one cannot read the works in their original language.” (I, the reader should know, read Mimesis in the excellent English translation from the German by Willard R. Trask.)