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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Auerbach’s knowledge of the historical circumstances under which literary works were written allowed him exceptional insights into how these works came into being. He characterizes Rousseau, for example, by stating that “of the men who are well known in European intellectual history, [he] is the first who, despite a thoroughly Christian constitution, was no longer able to be a Christian.” In intellectual circles, the Enlightenment of the second half of the 18th century had scotched the notion of original sin, and with it the belief in evil, thus freeing writers of the time to believe in the more preposterous notion of the perfectibility of human beings. Rousseau, Auerbach notes, “could no longer find a place in any Christian church, and also failed to found a new one.” 

Michel de Montaigne was, for Auerbach, the first generalist in literature, and next to him every other important figure in the 16th century was “a mere specialist.” Montaigne claimed to write for himself; yet in doing so, he created an educated public: It was Montaigne, Auerbach writes, who “created a community of lay-people and his book became the lay book par excellence.” The pleasure one takes in reading Montaigne is unique; his work is neither aesthetic nor didactic, nor always logical in direction, but is nevertheless always compelling. It is the pleasure of witnessing a man beholden to no one, never lapsing into cliché or bromide, writing truthfully about life, and never forgetting its ineluctable conclusion. Auerbach formulates the message of Montaigne thus: 

I am alone, I have to die. This world is not my home, I am only passing through, but where I have come from and where I am headed—I do not know. What is the only thing that is mine? My self.

Montaigne also gets a chapter in the center of Mimesis. The book is divided into 20 chapters, each illustrating the advance of literature as it finds ways of capturing more and more of the actuality of life. Auerbach averred that his “purpose is always to write history,” but literary history usually confines itself to a period or is conducted within national borders. In Mimesis, Auerbach covers nearly 3,000 years and vast stretches of Western literature. English literature tends to get short shrift, and American literature isn’t even mentioned; yet somehow one scarcely notices.

While realism is Auerbach’s subject, he doesn’t provide an elaborate or exact definition of it. In traditional literary studies, realism comes down to works of literature that deal with common, often even inarticulate, people and their struggles and inchoate desires. One thinks of Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser. Auerbach’s idea of realism is simultaneously much more widely gauged and cuts much deeper. Realism, for him, stresses the actuality of peoples’ lives and the way in which literature, through the art of mimesis, raised man (as Auerbach writes in his book on Dante) “out of the two-dimensional unreality of a remote dreamland or philosophical abstraction, and moved him into the historical area in which he really lives.”

In Mimesis, Auerbach demonstrates why, at certain periods, writers were not able to deal with many social questions and psychological problems that later became central to literature. They weren’t able to, in part, because they didn’t have the stylistic resources to do so; in part, because entire sectors of the population were considered out-of-bounds to literature. One of Auerbach’s most suggestive chapters is on the rise of Christianity, with its emphasis on the drama of salvation that included kings and peasants and everyone in between. Before Christianity, literature was the equivalent of a chess game played only among kings, queens, and knights. 

Literature, unlike science, does not operate on a script of progress, every day in every way getting better and better. Yet history is far from negligible in literature. Auerbach understood that precursors made the existence of great works possible, and that great works, in their turn, extended the literary possibilities for successors. Mimesis is a dazzling exercise in tracing this phenomenon. 

The first of Auerbach’s 20 chapters, “Odysseus’ Scar,” takes up two passages, one from The Odyssey, the second from the Old Testament, through which he demonstrates that, unlike characters in the Old Testament, characters in Homer do not develop. Hector remains Hector and Achilles remains Achilles; but Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob undergo radical changes over their lengthy lives.

Classical literature, for all its strength and beauty, excluded social or historical explanations for the behavior of its characters. Classical historians—Tacitus, for example, whom Auerbach rightly considers “a great artist”—were much more interested in vice and virtue than in political forces and general ideas. Like kings, classical poets and dramatists, writing from on high, looked down upon their subjects. Their ethical and rhetorical approach, Auerbach writes, is “incompatible with a conception in which reality is a development of forces” acting upon individuals. In classical literature, order, clarity, and dramatic impact take precedence over the sometimes scruffy, but often interesting, details of quotidian life. The elevation inherent in classical style, the words available to classical writers, and the syntactical limitations on their deployment made it impossible to write about everyday things in a natural way. 

Auerbach’s method in Mimesis is to choose a passage a paragraph or two long from an important or representative literary work and examine how it is made. An example is Emma Bovary’s discomfort, bordering on disgust, regarding her husband’s slow and methodical eating habits. These are passages that, Auerbach writes, “contain the whole.” With his customary brilliance at comparison and making connections, Auerbach denotes how these passages signify the expansion or retardation of literary sensibility. Mimesis recounts the story of how literature went from Priam to Proust, from an invocation to the gods to Mrs. Ramsay’s stream of consciousness while darning a pair of brown socks. 

Making literary judgments in an authoritative yet never dogmatic way, Auerbach does riff-like analyses of the boundaries that history, at different times, set on literary works. “Augustine,” he writes, “masters the stylistic contrast of classical and Christian worldview.” Gregory of Tours’s language “is but imperfectly equipped to organize facts .  .  . but things come to Gregory directly; he no longer need force them into the straitjacket of an elevated style.” Of the figures in the Chanson de Roland, he notes that they “have no reality; they have only signification.” Francis of Assisi, along with being a saint, was “a great poet .  .  . an instinctive master of the art of acting out his own being, [who] was the first to awaken the dramatic powers of Italian feeling and of the Italian language.” Voltaire’s genius is for tempo. The Duc de Saint-Simon, in his all-inclusive method, his “synthesis of a human being which is so entirely free from traditional harmonizing, which presses so unswervingly on from the random data of the phenomenon itself to the ultimate depths of existence,” is a writer at least a century ahead of his time. 

After Don Quixote, Auerbach writes, “so universal and multilayered, so noncritical and nonproblematical gaiety in the portrayal of everyday reality has not been attempted again in European letters.” The tradition of knightly adventure and chivalric romance, which Cervantes devastatingly satirized in his great novel, had exerted “a restrictive influence upon literary realism, .  .  . [for] courtly culture was decidedly unfavorable to the development of a literary art which should apprehend reality in its full breadth and depth.” Once Don Quixote came into the world, the genre of courtly romance could no longer be written with a straight face. 

Dante is the key figure in Mimesis, because Auerbach felt his stylistic advances were such that “we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.” Dante was the great bridge between the medieval and modern worlds: He gave us,” Auerbach writes, “for the first time in literature, the history of man’s inner life and unfolding.” His presuppositions may have been Christian, harking back to Thomas Aquinas, but his poetry was thoroughly modern. 

Dante was a writer of the highest skill: His language was precise, his metaphors were elegantly concrete, and his masterly syntax allowed him to form sentences of sublime construction. Here is Auerbach, not in Mimesis but in Dante: Poet of the Secular World, describing what the poet achieved in the Divine Comedy:

Nearly every line of the Comedy reveals enormous exertion; the language writhes and rebels in the hard fetters of rhyme and meter; the form of certain lines and sentences suggests a man frozen or petrified in a peculiarly unnatural position: they are monumentally clear and expressive, but strange, terrifying and superhuman. That is why Dante is associated with Michelangelo in the popular mind. 

Cervantes and Dante were literary geniuses, and no one, not even so brilliant a critic and scholar as Erich Auerbach, can account for genius. Cervantes and Dante greatly advanced the history of realism in literature; other literary geniuses—Marcel Proust, James Joyce—did not. Shakespeare’s genius is admitted, but being sui generis, his influence on realism was less than significant—so much the worse for realism, some might say. Auerbach avers that “Shakespeare embraces reality but he transcends it.” 

Modern realism sets in for Auerbach in 19th-century France, with Stendhal and Balzac, both of whom used “contemporary political and social conditions as the context” for their novels: “Insofar as the serious realism of modern times cannot represent man otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic, which is concrete and constantly evolving—as is the case today in any novel or film—Stendhal is its founder.” Auerbach favors the realism of Stendhal and Balzac over that of Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert. Of the novels of Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, Auerbach writes that they exhibit “something narrow, something oppressively close.” The novels of Émile Zola, “one of the very few authors .  .  . who created their work out of problems of the age,” in Auerbach’s mind, marks the apogee of realism for the 19th century. Auerbach is, perhaps, too high on Zola, and predicts (thus far mistakenly) that “his stature will increase as we attain distance from his age and its problems—the more so because he was the last of the great French realists.”  

Moving into the modern—really, the modernist—era: Proust, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf may not be realists in the strict sense of the term, but the development of realism made it possible for these authors to concentrate in the richest possible detail on the interior lives of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, and Mesdames Ramsay and Dalloway. 

Mimesis is a book by a man with little interest in theory, setting out definitions, or laying down laws. Yet so suggestive, so rich in understanding and insight, so useful in teaching one how to read more deeply and appreciatively is the book that it is difficult to believe that anyone will ever again have the intellectual resources to write another book about literature anywhere near as powerful. Written while the Nazis were marching across Europe, Mimesis is a strong reminder of the glory of Western literature, and by extension of Western civilization, and of what is at stake in the battle against those who would simplify, politicize, or otherwise degrade it. 

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor, is the author, most recently, of A Literary Education and Other Essays