I shall begin with the first chapter of the book, in which we encounter many of the themes and insights that characterize Auerbach's work. For the opening chapter, Auerbach chooses two very ancient texts, the first from the 8th century B.C., the other from the 6th century B.C. 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 and in a dramatic moment recognizes 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 paired 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. [By the way, Kierkegaard has written an wonderful entire book about this story, but that is another matter.] 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 realized, all is externalized.