Erich Auerbach and the understanding of literature. Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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.
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.)
'We have our blind spots and we have our dogmas and we've got our crazy folks.'7:17 AM, Mar 12, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
President Obama knows that his time is almost up. It's a point he's making to liberal Democratic donors to get them to donate generously in this year's mid-term election.
'It Makes Economic Sense for a Woman to Have More Than One Husband.'8:22 AM, Jan 20, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
In an article published a couple days ago, Time magazine endorses "Polyandry," which Merriam-Webster defines as "the state or practice of having more than one husband or male mate at one time."
"It Makes Economic Sense for a Woman to Have More Than One Husband," reads the article's headline. The sub-headline reads, "By pooling male resources, polyandry improves household incomes and combats child poverty."
Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The media have been pretty down on Obama recently. Or rather, the media have been about as critical as they’re ever going to be. Case in point, The Scrapbook was a bit taken aback when we saw last week’s Time cover. Vladimir Putin’s visage is glowering against a stark background, and the cover line is brutal: “America’s weak and waffling. Russia’s rich and resurgent—and its leader doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him.”
8:24 AM, Sep 16, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
Time has put Vladimir Putin on the covers of various editions of its September 16, 2013 magazine, distributed across the world. It's appearing almost everywhere -- in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.
Everywhere, that is, except for one location: Time magazines in America.
Americans are being treated to a special cover story claiming "It's Time To Pay College Athletes."
7:36 AM, Jun 14, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes explained the Obama administration's decision to step up action in Syria.
10:44 AM, Aug 24, 2012 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Plagiarism is not a crime in any legal code, but among people who make their living with words, there is no deeper offense. The plagiarist has not just stolen the work of another writer; he has used it to disguise his own inadequacy. It is a symptom of -laziness, to be sure; but above all, it’s a crime of arrogance.
12:38 PM, Aug 21, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
Newsweek's cover this week is decidedly not favorable to President Obama:
And, so today, President Obama is giving an exclusive interview to Newsweek's main rival, Time magazine.
11:49 AM, Jun 15, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
How convenient! How coincidental! Time magazine put its latest issue to bed on Wednesday evening—and 36 hours later the Obama administration announced that it would be using "prosecutorial discretion" not to deport young illegal immigrants who "do not present a risk to national security or public safety."
Adults may not know whether the Constitution matters, but thankfully some students do.12:00 PM, Jul 4, 2011 • By TONY WOODLIEF
Time magazine is nothing if not direct. Featuring a picture of the Constitution, the bottom half of which has been run through a shredder, today’s cover asks: “Does it Still Matter?”
Inside the magazine, Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel spends nearly 5,000 words explaining that it kind of does, except when it doesn’t, though who is to say when, exactly, because it doesn’t tell us anything specific about terrorists and health care and collateralized debt.
But it can be done. 12:22 PM, Jun 21, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
One of the tertiary benefits to Iraq's surge -- aside from the military victory -- was the birth of a group of military thinkers informally called the COINdistinas.
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