Sunday, May 19, 2019

Auerbach on Voltaire, Goethe, Balzac - we've reached the modern novel - They will then seem most real.

I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them.  They will then seem most real.  (The Good Soldier, 1915, Ford Madox Ford, Part 4.1)

16. “The Interrupted Supper,” Abbé Prévost, Voltaire, the Duc de Saint-Simon.

The French 18th century, with all that drags in.  “In the literature of the eighteenth century tears begin to assume an importance which they had not previously possessed as an independent motif” (397).  Thank goodness for the “light, agile, and as it were appetizing” Voltaire.  It is Rousseau who poisoned everything.

… [Voltaire] is free from the cloudy, contour-blurring, overemotional rhetoric, equally destructive of clear thinking and pure feeling, which came to the fore in the authors of the Enlightenment during the second half of the century and in the authors of the Revolution, which had a still more luxuriant growth in the nineteenth century through the influence of romanticism, and which has continued to produce its loathsome flowers down to our day.  (407)

For Auerbach, romanticism is long regression, a slide away from reality.

The section on the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon introduces, a new theme, historicism, which moves us to:

17. “Miller the Musician,” Schiller and Goethe.

More German literature more generally, really.  This is a complex, subtle chapter that will, for readers of Wuthering Expectations, contain few surprises.  German imaginative literature, in the 19th century, was off in its own world, wrestling with the Ideal while other literary traditions made big moves toward the Real, ironically influenced in many cases by 18th century German historicism (Auerbach calls it “Historism”), meaning that a good novel, for example, is not just set in a specific time and place but is in some important way engages with the setting.  Comments on it, critiques it, whatever.  We take this almost for granted now.  Every Trollope novel I have read does this.  Adalbert Stifter novellas do not.  Roughly speaking.

Auerbach blames Goethe, obviously, such a giant that he is responsible for everything that happens in German literature for a hundred years, but more specifically his response to the French Revolution, “his aversion to everything violent and explosive” (447).  Goethe responds directly to the Revolution, but he does so by shifting towards Classicism, towards some kind of Idealism.  I guess I never wrote about this before, but Nicholas Boyle writes about it in detail in Goethe: The Poet and the Age Volume II: Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803 (2000).

This is an unusual chapter of Mimesis.

18. “In the Hôtel de la Mole,” Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert.

Many readers should probably skip from Chapter 1 to here, since Auerbach writes about modern novels for the last three chapters.  I know, many of you only care about novels.  That is fine.  You are a creature of the age.  You cannot help it.

Here is Auerbach saying what I just said up above:

[Balzac] not only, like Stendhal, places the human beings whose destiny he is seriously relating, in their precisely defined historical and social setting, but also conceives this connection as a necessary one: to him every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities, and fates of men, and at the same time the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelops all its several milieu. (473)

Auerbach has – obviously! – chosen a chunk of the opening of Père Goriot, the long description of the boarding house, as his representative Balzac passage, a landmark in prose fiction.  I have expressed, all over Wuthering Expectations, a lot of skepticism about the value and even the existence of Realism or even so-called “realism,” so it might seem that I do not have much sympathy with Auerbach’s project.  Yet I spend a lot of time quoting writers describing furniture.  But Auerbach is really writing about, as in his subtitle, the “representation of reality.”  It is the representation that is changing so much over the centuries.  It is the representation that matters.

These last chapters could have been their own little book, and one that more people would have read.


  1. In the literature of the eighteenth century tears begin to assume an importance which they had not previously possessed as an independent motif

    Tears are probably what I have grown most tired of in my intensive reading of 19th-century literature. I've come to appreciate the virtues of the stiff upper lip and manly repression of emotion.

  2. It becomes so hard to tell if the tears reflect observed behavior or if they are mostly there because they are the kind of thing one finds in novels. A legacy of the 18th century sentimental novels, and everyone weeping over La nouvelle Héloïse, which I guess was a genuine phenomenon.