Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) was a German Jew trained in the German philological tradition. Forced to flee Germany, he spent the war years in Istanbul, where he wrote his greatest work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. After the war, Auerbach came to the United States, where, from 1950 to his death, he was a professor at Yale.
Mimesis is a series of twenty chapters, organized chronologically, each of which is a separate essay, capable of standing alone. Each essay begins with an extended passage [in the original followed by a translation] from a work of the Judeo-Christian Graeco-Roman literary tradition, which Auerbach then subjects to an intense linguistic, literary, and philosophical analysis. The only exception to this pattern is in the earliest chapters, in which neither the Greek of the Odyssey, nor the Hebrew of the Old Testament nor the Aramaic of the New Testament is reproduced. In many, but not all, of the chapters, the initial passage is paired with a contrasting passage from the same period drawn from a very different literary/philological style.
The greatness of Mimesis is in the extraordinary detail of the several analyses, but there are certain overarching themes that it is good to be aware of as one reads through the book. The first, and most important, theme is the connection between the purely syntactic linguistic resources of the language being used by the author of the passage under examination and the nature of social reality that the author seeks to capture and communicate. Thus, for example, the extremely limited syntactic resources on which the author of the 12th century Chanson de Roland is able to draw results in [or perhaps, is paralleled by] the very blunt, un-nuanced representation of the motivation of Roland and the other characters of the Chanson. [Although the text is 12th century, and reflects the Chivalric ideals of the time, it refers, of course, to events that took place much earlier.] Two centuries later, when Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, he had available to him in early Italian extraordinarily rich syntactic devices that permitted him to capture the motivations and perceptions of a number of characters from different and even incompatible perspectives, all within the same sentences. When I speak of "syntactic devices," I mean such things as subordinate clauses, if-then constructions, manipulations of tense to capture complex temporal relations, and so forth.
This general idea of the relation between linguistic structures and conceptions of social reality is central to the first chapter of my little book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, and I think it is fair to say that I was drawing heavily on what I learned from Auerbach when I wrote it, for all that I do not explicitly credit him. Drawing on the English Metaphysical Poets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for inspiration, I argued that the rich use of irony and metaphor that distinguishes the early chapters of Capital were Marx's way of capturing the mystifications of social reality embodied in commodity production. The idea was that since Marx believed that social reality is genuinely mystified, even for theorists like himself who have intellectually penetrated that mystification, he needed a language that could at one and the same time convey the persuasiveness of the social surfaces -- of equal exchange in a free market, of workers as legally free partners in a wage bargain with capitalists -- and yet also capture the underlying reality of exploitation and the crippling distortion of the humanity of the workers. His highly inflected metaphors and endless literary references were not extraneous aesthetic embellishments of a story equally well capable of being told in plain English or German, but in fact the necessary literary devices for capturing the complex social reality.
A second theme that plays an important role, in the early chapters especially, is the distinction between high and low literary styles, paralleling the social distinctions of the milieu being represented. All of us are familiar with this distinction from Shakespeare's plays, in which a scene of the most intense seriousness, involving well-born characters, is followed by a scene of comic buffoonery involving peasants or servants or common soldiers. Auerbach demonstrates quite dramatically that one of the most powerful and revolutionary features of the texts of the New Testament is a mixture of high and low styles that would have been impossible either in the classical Greek literature or in the Roman literature of the first several centuries of this era.
In this Appreciation, it goes without saying that I shall not attempt to summarize, or even make reference to, all or most of the twenty essays. Rather, I shall focus on several, drawn principally from earliest portion of the book, to convey something of the complexity and penetration of Auerbach's discussion. As always, my goal is to entice you to seek out the book for yourselves.