Thursday, May 16, 2019

Auerbach in the Middle Ages - It is a reawakening of the directly sensible

We’re enjoying Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a chapter at a time, but more briefly than yesterday.

3. “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” Ammianus Marcellinus, The Golden Ass, Augustine’s Confessions

Late Classical Latin, with three genres, history, a novel, and something truly new, Augustine’s memoir.  “Equally at home in the world of classical rhetoric and in that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he may well have been the first to become conscious of the problem of the stylistic contrast between the two worlds” (72-3), between classical and Christian prose.  That is the kind of thing that is likely to be wrong, but it sounds right to me.

With Ammianus, who I have not otherwise read, Auerbach introduces the idea of Baroque prose.  “With glittering words and pompously distorted constructions language begins to depict the distorted, gory, and spectral reality of the age” (57).  Or else the writer is just goofing around with language.  We can debate this and swing back and forth for the next two millennia.

4. “Sicharius and Chramnesindus,” Gregory of Tours

A complete change has taken place since the days of Ammanius and Augustine.  Of course, as has often been observed, it is a decadence, a decline in culture and verbal disposition, but it is not only that.  It is a reawakening of the directly sensible.  (93-4)

Gregory’s Latin may stink, but he can tell a punchy story.

Now we skip five hundred years, because “so few texts that can be used for our investigation have survived from his period and indeed from the entire half of the second millennium” (95).  We’re not supposed to call this the Dark Ages anymore, but Auerbach is right.

5. “Roland against Ganelon,” The Song of Roland

Here I will stop to note that there are sixteen chapters left, and the linguistic division is: two Italian, two English, one German, one Spanish and thus (I will need all of my fingers) ten chapters about French literature.  Which sounds about right to me.  Auerbach only glances at Russian literature because discussion “is impossible when one cannot read the works in their original language” (Ch. 18, 492), and he completely ignores American literature because he, I don’t know, does not care, however much I would love to read his (imaginary) chapter on Moby-Dick.

Mimesis is half French.  And Auerbach, and for that matter the translator, Willard Trask, assumes we all read French.  Long passages are translated, but untranslated sentences and phrases are scattered everywhere.

6.  “The Knight Sets Forth,” Chrétien de Troyes

As marvelous as the Arthurian romances of Chrétien may be, to Auerbach they are a regression, a move away from the depiction of reality.  In a familiar move, he criticizes the world-building of the Arthurian romances.  How does the economy work?  Who is paying for all of these isolated enchanted castles?  Not that he is wrong, but it is amusing.

7.  “Adam and Eve,” a 12th century French Christmas play, Mystère d'Adam, plus texts by Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi

 I’ll just note that Auerbach assumes no one has read the play, since he describes it in some detail, but of course everyone knows the basic story.

With the help of mystery plays and writerly saints, we are on our way to Dante and Shakespeare.


  1. It's frustrating: I can't find my copy of Mimesis. Think it went on the charity shop pile, it was so long since I'd dipped into it. Or maybe it's in a box in the garage. It was one of the first texts I bought when starting postgrad medieval studies, and it blew me away. His erudition is daunting, and his partiality is uncompromising, as I recall. Odd choice of mystery play, when there are so many of interest, not least the English (and Cornish) ones.

  2. It is 40 years since I read Auerbach.
    You might enjoy Scholes and Kellogg as well?

    Regards from a rather dull and overcast day in Dublin, Ireland
    Maria Buckley

  3. I quoted you and a chunk of Auerbach here:

  4. Yes, I likely would enjoy The Nature of Narrative. Thanks for the recommendation! I am now researching it. The novel most frequently mentioned in it is Tom Jones. Makes sense.

    I found it even odder that Auerbach bothers to visit the damp island off the coast of France at all, honestly. The Shakespeare chapter is one of the shortest in Mimesis.

  5. How enjoyable to be featured on languagehat. As usual, the comments were immediately interesting.