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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
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Friday, January 13, 2012

ERICH AUERBACH MIMESIS: AN APPRECIATION PART THREE

Auerbach invites us to contrast this with the terrifying story of God's commandment to sacrifice Isaac.  The previous Chapter, Genesis 21, tells the story of the miracle by which the seventy-year old Sarah conceives, and bears Abraham a son, Isaac.  This is not simply some story of domestic happiness.  It is through Isaac that God will fulfill his promise to Abraham to make him to be fruitful and to multiply.  Isaac is to be the son who founds a nation.
Genesis 22 begins abruptly and ominously. 
What on earth are we to make of this passage?  Absolutely nothing in the preceding has prepared us for it.  Auerbach's gloss is worth quoting at length [as is everything else in the book, alas.]  "Even this opening startles us when we come to it from Homer.  Where are the two speakers?  We are not told.  The reader, however, knows that they are not normally to be found together in one place on earth, that one of them, God, in order to speak to Abraham, must come from somewhere, must enter the earthly realm from unknown heights or depths.  Whence does he come, whence does he call to Abraham?  We are not told.  He does not come, like Zeus or Poseidon, from the Aethopians, where he has been enjoying a sacrificial feast.  Nor are we told anything of his reasons for tempting Abraham so terribly."  Note, the temptation is that Abraham, out of love for his only son, through whom the divine promise of multitudes will be fulfilled, might fail to obey God's command.  As Auerbach says at the conclusion of the paragraph from which I have been quoting, "The concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things."

Like God, Abraham's position, his location, is unspecified.  Is he indoors, out of doors, alone, surrounded by his tribe?  It seems not to matter.  Nor are we given any details at all of the three day journey that brings him and his son to the place of sacrifice.  Both God and Abraham are multi-dimensional.  There is a foreground, what is presented in the story, and there are depths and complexities that cannot possibly be contained within any single account.  God, of course, is a transcendent figure only a part of which can ever be presented to man.  But Abraham too is more than merely a man with a son whom he loves.  Abraham is a prophet, the father of nations.  He plays a role in a metaphysical story that stretches from Creation to the End of Times. 

As Auerbach says, "the relation of the Elohist to the truth of his story remains a far more passionate and definite one than is Homer's relation.... The Bible's claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer's, it is tyrannical -- it excludes all other claims.  The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historical true reality -- it insists that it is the only true world, is destined for autocracy.... The Scripture stories do not, like Homer's, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us -- they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels."

There is much, much more in Auerbach's analysis of these two passages in his opening chapter, but this is enough, I hope, to convey some sense of the richness and power of his treatment of them.  Consider just the last point I quoted him as making.  Any fair minded reader, I think, must agree that Homer's work is far better crafted, as a literary work of art, than the rather abrupt, jumbled together, barely sketched in narratives of Genesis.  There are, to be sure, later Books of the Old Testament that achieve a higher level of literary art -- one thinks of Psalms, or The Book of Job, among others.  But the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, of Noah and his three sons, of the Tower of Babel, of Jacob and Esau [or of Cain and Abel] have the power to terrify us, to seize us by the scruff of the neck and shake us until we tremble, that nothing in Homer can match.

The key to Auerbach's analysis, he tells us in many different ways, is the relationship between the totally different conceptions of the structure of reality that underlie the two passages, and the language with which Homer and the Elohist tell their stories.  What is not said in the Genesis story is as significant as what is said in the Odyssey. 

As Auerbach proceeds, slowly and with enormous patience, through the entire sweep of the development of Western literature, we see the literary resources crafted by the writers of one era being carried forward and deployed in ever more complex fashion until, by the time he has reached the familiar terrain of the Nineteenth Century novel, we have some appreciation of how much lies beneath the surface in the novels of Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust [the last chapter.]

Tomorrow I shall turn to Chapter Two of Mimesis, in which Auerbach contrasts two passages from First Century A.D. Rome -- one by the comic author Petronius, the other by the great Roman historian Tacitus -- with a passage from the Gospels written at roughly the same time.  Once I have completed my account of what unfolds in that chapter, I shall leave off this hopeless task of trying to convey the many dimensions of Auerbach's great work, and leave it to you to explore the rest of it on your own.

3 comments:

Michael said...

Because it's always nice to send you interesting links, I wonder if you have any thoughts on this:
http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/ndf_black_politics.php

Bennett said...

When Auerbach fled Germany, he had to leave behind all his notes and papers. These included the nearly-finished "Mimesis." In Istanbul he had none of it and re-wrote the book afresh.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Bennett, I thought I recalled something like that, but wasn't sure. Extraordinary!