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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In his 1952 essay “Philology and World History,” Auerbach asserted that “the intellectual and spiritual history of the last several millennia is the history of the human race as it has achieved self-expression. It is with this history that philology concerns itself as a historical discipline.” The task of philology, he held, was to evaluate literature and language in such a way that it might contribute to that history, “and thus to realization of a unified vision of the human race in all its variety.” Auerbach felt this task all the more pressing given “the impoverishment of understanding associated with a concept of education that has no sense of the past”—an impoverishment, he added, that threatens to become “hegemonic.” He also accepted as “inevitable that world culture is in the process of becoming standardized.”  About this, at a time when people are claiming the nation-state an anachronism, he was surely correct. Every time I hear the word “globalization,” I reach for my copy of Mimesis.

The publication of Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach provides an excellent opportunity to witness a master philologist at work. This book includes: five essays on Giambattista Vico, the philosopher of history and an important influence on Auerbach, who translated Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725); four essays on Dante, the subject of Auerbach’s first book (Dante: Poet of the Secular World, 1929); and essays on Montaigne, Pascal, Racine, Rousseau, and Proust. Two of the essays, “Figura” (1938) and “Passio as Passion” (1941), are more traditionally philological in subject matter and treatment. 

In the first of these essays, Auerbach considers the meaning of the word “figura,” its history, and its import in medieval Christian literature, where it denoted foreshadowing and prophecy. The Old Testament, in this regard, was thought to prophesy the New Testament, and Virgil to prophesy Dante. This essay shows, as Auerbach writes, “how a word branches out from its semantic meaning and into a world-historical situation and how the structures that emerge out of this situation can remain effective for many centuries.” 

In his essay on the word “passio,” Auerbach demonstrates how, over the centuries, it elided into the word “passion.” At its inception, passio denoted passiveness and suffering, which is how it was understood in its religious sense—hence, the Passion of Christ—and went on to become associated with erotic passion, or “a heightening of human existence worth pursuing.” In a brilliant essay not in this book titled “La Cour et La Ville” (1951), Auerbach does a similar workup of the changing meaning of the word “public,” setting out its differing meanings at different times. 

Serious scholar though he was, Auerbach was no less impressive as a literary critic. In fewer than six pages, he places, describes, and explains the power of Marcel Proust’s great novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). “Next to it,” writes Auerbach, “all the other works we know seem to be no more than novellas.” Better than anyone I have read, Auerbach is able to convey the experience of reading Proust’s novel:

No story of the centuries past seems so overwhelmingly historical, so covered with patina, so finally and irrevocably over, so mummified, antique, and eternal as the one he gives to us in his representation of Parisian society around 1900 and of the intelligent and sickly young man who inhabits it.

Although Auerbach finds the novel’s astonishing cast of characters ultimately beyond description, he writes: “This chronicle of the inner life flows along with a kind of epic uniformity, for it is only memory and self-examination. The novel is the authentic epic of the soul; truth itself ensnares the reader in a long, sweet dream in which he suffers a great deal, to be sure, but in which he also enjoys a release and sense of calm.” In Search of Lost Time is, in short, a work of “ever-flowing pathos that at once oppresses us and sustains us without end.”