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Sunday, April 26, 2015


I launched this blog in 2007 and began posting seriously in 2009.  In 2010, in a fury of activity lasting several months, I wrote and posted a Memoir that eventually turned into a 261,000 word Autobiography.  When I had exhausted the literary possibilities of my own life, I turned to more promising subjects, creating "tutorials" as a vehicle for on-line professorial pontificating.  The tutorials, which ranged in length from 20,000 to 30,000 words, gave place to Mini-Tutorials.  These in turn were followed by what I called "Appreciations" -- brief commentaries on books I had particularly liked, intended to encourage my readers to take a look at them for themselves. 

One of the Appreciations with which I was particularly pleased concerned a great work of humanist scholarship, Mimesis by Erich Auerbach.  I have decided to re-post it now, in the hope that there are more recent visitors to this blog who may find it of interest.

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, organised 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 Greco-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 extreme limitation of the 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.

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.

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, will be followed by a scene of comic buffoonery involving peasants or servants. 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.

It goes without saying that I shall not attempt to summarise, or even make reference to, all or most of the twenty essays. Rather, I shall focus on several, drawn principally from the earliest portion of the book, to convey something of the complexity and penetration of Auerbach’s discussion.

I shall begin with the first chapter of the book, in which we encounter many of the themes and insights that characterise Auerbach’s work. For the opening chapter, Auerbach chooses two very ancient texts, the first from the 8th century BC, the other from the 6th century BC. The first text is the famous “recognition” scene from the Odyssey. As you will recall (at least, I hope you will recall), at the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus sets out with his followers to return to Ithaca and his wife and son, but for one reason and another, it takes him ten years to complete the journey. He is presumed dead, and a number of suitors are vying for the hand of his widow, Penelope, and for Odysseus’ wealth and position. Odysseus shows up at his home disguised as a wanderer, and is put in charge of a servant who was, when he was young, his nurse. She washes his feet (I think I am recalling this correctly) and in a dramatic moment recognises a scar on his leg as that of her old master, Odysseus. Odysseus warns her to remain silent about her discovery for the moment so that he can study the interactions between his wife and the band of importunate suitors.

This passage is contrasted by Auerbach with an equally famous passage from Genesis 22:1 in which God speaks to Abraham and commands him to make a sacrifice of his only begotten son, Isaac.[i] Abraham obeys, and sets out to the place of sacrifice with Isaac, but at the last moment, as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, he sees a ram caught in the bushes, and substitutes it for his son.

These are equally dramatic passages, but they are treated linguistically by their authors, Auerbach argues, in utterly different ways that reveal to us the completely different conceptions of reality of the Homeric Greeks and the Old Testament Hebrews. It is very, very difficult to capture the subtlety and richness of Auerbach’s discussion without resorting to endless lengthy quotes. The central points of his analysis of the Homeric passage, as I understand him, are these:

The scene “is scrupulously externalized and narrated in leisurely fashion…  Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible.” One of the key notions here is expressed by the word “externalized.” We are these days (after the literary evolution that Mimesis is designed to explicate) accustomed to distinctions between the inner and outer, the visible and the hidden. The motivations of a character – her hopes, desires, fears, beliefs, anticipations, understandings and misunderstandings – may all be communicated by hints and nods, with revealing turns of phrase, as much by what is not said on the page as what is. But all of this is foreign to Homer. As Auerbach notes, even as Achilles and Hector fight to the death, they utter speeches that express their inner feelings. The key to the Recognition scene, the “McGuffin” as stage buffs would call it, is the old scar on Odysseus’ leg. Once the maid, Euryclea, spots it, she knows that the stranger is her old master. A modern author would not want to slow down the action, or release the tension, by devoting line after line to an explanation of the origin of the scar. Either the modern author would prepare the way for the Recognition by inserting an account of the scar earlier in the text, so that the reader understands its significance instantaneously, or else such an author would leave the scar unexplained, relying on the reader to fill in the blanks. But Homer, Auerbach notes, enters into a complete and unhurried account of the hunting expedition on which Odysseus acquired the scar. The effect, deliberate, Auerbach is sure, is to drain the moment of its tension. In a Homeric text, all is on the surface, all is fully realised, all is externalised.

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 fulfil 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.

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, [here] I [am].

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only [son] Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

 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.


[i] By the way, Kierkegaard has written a wonderful entire book about this story, but that is another matter.

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