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).
The first passage of Chapter Two is an extended monologue placed by the author, Petronius, in the mouth of one of the guests at a feast being hosted by a parvenu businessman named Trimalchio. The passage is gossipy, circumstantial, full of detail about the backgrounds, pretensions, successes and failures of the other guests seated around the table. Very much in the manner to which we have become accustomed in modern novels, the speaker unconsciously reveals himself, and unintentionally places himself perfectly in the social and economic milieu of which the host, Trimalchio, is a prominent and successful example. (Compare the way in which Becky Sharp reveals herself through her narration in Thackery’s Vanity Fair.) The discourse is vulgar, chatty, and entirely interior to the scene the speaker is describing. The following passage by Auerbach gives some sense of the thrust of his analysis:
Petronius does not say: This is so. Instead he lets an “I,” who is identical neither with himself nor yet with the feigned narrator Encolpius, turn the spotlight of his perception on the company at table – a highly artful procedure in perspective, a sort of twofold mirroring, which I dare not say is unique in antique literature as it has come down to us, but which is most unusual there. In outward form this procedure is certainly nothing new, for of course throughout antique literature characters speak of their experiences and impressions. But nowhere, except in this passage by Petronius, do we have, on the one hand, the most intense subjectivity, which is even heightened by individuality of language, and, on the other hand, an objective intent – for the aim is an objective description of the company at table, including the speaker, through a subjective procedure.
But, Auerbach argues, the convention of the separation of styles makes it impossible for an author like Petronius to discuss anything serious, let alone tragic, concerning the sorts of characters who are attending Trimalchio’s feast. They can only be the subject of comic portrayals, regardless of how accurate and penetrating Petronius’ anatomisation of their character flaws, aspirations, and social origins. What is even more interesting, to my way of thinking, Auerbach notes that although the world portrayed by Petronius is in constant turmoil, with some getting rich quickly, others just as quickly losing their fortunes and falling to the status of slaves, it is, from the point of view of modern social and economic theory, a static world. Individuals rise and fall, but Petronius has no sense of the deeper and longer acting social forces that might be transforming the entire social world, not merely the fortunes of this or that actor in that world.
The same is true of the next passage Auerbach considers, a speech by a rebellious member of the Roman legions by the Roman historian Tacitus. Because Tacitus is a great literary artist, the speech is powerful and effective as a set piece. But although the occasion for the speech is a moment of the greatest uncertainty in the young Roman empire – namely, the death of the first Emperor, Augustus (the speaker, Percennius, is protesting the low wages, long service, and harsh treatment meted out to the common soldiers in the legions) – Tacitus has no sense of or interest in moving historical forces that may bring about changes in the Empire.
After quoting two modern historians of ancient Rome, one of whom, Rostovtzeff, is one of my very favourite historiographers, Auerbach says:
what [both statements] express goes back to the same peculiarity of the ancients’ way of viewing things; it does not see forces, it sees vices and virtues, successes and mistakes… an aristocratic reluctance to become involved with growth processes in the depths, for these processes are felt to be both vulgar and orgiastically lawless.
What Petronius and Tacitus lack, in common with the other Greek and Roman writers of antiquity, Auerbach suggests, is the idea of historical forces moving beneath the surface, forces of which Trimalchio’s dinner party or Percennius’ rebellious speech are merely symptoms or expressions. This is an idea with which we are now quite familiar, and in the novels of Stendahl or Tolstoy or indeed Austen, it finds expression either explicitly or by implication. We might imagine that it would be necessary to jump across many centuries to find a passage that shows us far-reaching forces beginning to stir beneath the surface. But Auerbach locates a passage contemporaneous with Petronius and Tacitus in which something very like this finds expression – the passage in the Gospels in which the Apostle Peter thrice denies Jesus. Jesus, you will recall, has been arrested, and his disciples have been allowed to slip away undetained. But Peter follows Jesus and the officers to the high court, showing uncommon courage. Once there, he is challenged several times to admit that he is one of Jesus’ group, and three times he denies that he is.
As Auerbach makes clear, this is a situation that simply could not be satisfactorily rendered by Greek or Latin authors. First of all, the participants – Peter, a young woman who confronts him, the soldiers, indeed Jesus Himself – are common people of the lowest social order, and the strict separation of styles forbids that anything tragic or momentous or of world-historical importance should be portrayed as involving them in any essential way. As Auerbach rather nicely puts it, “viewed superficially the thing is a police action and its consequences; it takes place entirely among everyday men and women of the common people; anything of the sort would be thought in antique terms only as farce or comedy.” And yet, Peter’s situation is of the most profound significance possible. What is more, this is the man on whom Jesus has chosen to found His church. This is St. Peter, the first Pope, the man from whom flowed an institution that transformed first the Roman Empire and then all of the Western world.
There is much, much more in Auerbach’s analysis of the passage that I simply do not have the space or the energy to capture. But the central idea I want to leave you with is this: The thoroughly modern sociological/historical idea of deep-moving long-running social, economic, and political movements that transform a society – the idea on which Marx’s theories are built, and that finds expression as well in the writings of every great modern social theorist – finds its first primitive powerful expression in these New Testament passages. Originally, the transformations are metaphysical or theological, and are imposed from outside the social order by God – the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. But the violation of the principle of the Separation of Styles, the presentation of subterranean movements among the common people that will eventually burst forth into world-historical significance, the literary and conceptual possibility of a thoroughly secular deployment of these same ideas in the works of Marx and others – all of this is prefigured in the New Testament two thousand years ago.