Saturday, May 18, 2019

Erich Auerbach on Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, etc. - the lyrico-everyday polyphony

Erich Auerbach has gotten to (early) modern literature.  Things should roar along now.

11. “The World in Pantagruel’s Mouth,” Rabelais, obviously.

Pantagruel is a giant, so big that there are people and cities and so on in his mouth. Maybe you are living in Pantagruel’s mouth right now!  We are in a sense a long ways from a “representation of reality,” but of course the great fun of the conceit is the realistic portrayal of human civilization in a fantastic context.  As far as Auerbach’s running themes, we get the increased role of ordinary people in literature, the mixing of styles, and one of the greatest examples of what I call baroque prose, but Auerbach calls “his lyrico-everyday polyphony” (282), a phrase I would adopt if I thought anyone would understand it.

Auerbach wonders if Rabelais really belongs in Mimesis (282 again), except that he is so much fun.  Who would want to omit him?

12.  “L’Humaine Condition,” Montaigne.

Maybe Auerbach should have omitted this one (and published it separately – it is a wonderful essay).  Montaigne offers an extreme case for Auerbach, a “random life” presented in great detail.  For  a page number, see 298, 299, and many others – the word “random” recurs frequently.

13.  “The Weary Prince,” Shakespeare, specifically Henry IV, Pt. 2, but ranging widely, and then Goethe.

In the last few chapters, Auerbach has been concerned that the mixing of styles and levels, Classical and Christian, low and high, is good for comedy and personal essays, but destroys tragedy.   In this chapter, he works in the other direction.

“I open a volume of Shakespeare at random and come across [a bit of Macbeth]” (325) – this is, really, Auerbach’s method.  Start with a passage - any passage - and move outwards.

Auerbach is open about Shakespeare’s “often unrealistic style” (327).  Shakespeare is another example of a baroque style, really, a writer almost too concerned, for Auerbach’s purposes, with linguistic play.  But Shakespeare does everything, so here he is.  How tired we all are of Shakespeare doing everything.

Speaking of which.

14.  “The Enchanted Dulcinea,” Don Quixote, starting with one of the endless great bits of Part 2.

It is possible that I have read so much about Don Quixote that Auerbach’s chapter just looks like one more terrific essay about Don Quixote.  I hope I never tire of reading about Don Quixote.

15.  “The Faux Devot,” Jean de La Bruyère, Molière, Corneille, Racine.

Or the unmixed style, the return to Classicism, especially Racine’s attempt to find a pure form of the tragic style in French, so pure that it strips away much of what Auerbach finds valuable – detail, sociology, anything but the most intense psychology.  “[I]t is comparable with the isolating procedure used in modern scientific experiments to create the most favorable conditions; the phenomenon is observed with no disturbing factors and in unbroken continuity” (383).

Even Molière is surprisingly narrow.  It has struck me as I have read through him in French – his easier prose plays, still, but there are a number of those – how limited his range and rhetoric are compared to Shakespeare.  I would not subject many writers to a comparison with Shakespeare, but Molière can handle it.  The thing he does is perfect of its kind.

I just blasted through Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Molière.  Ridiculous.  Next: the novel.  Exciting!


  1. I should really get around to Don Quixote; I read part of it in high school, but I was only a high school student, and I should read the whole thing... but I have a copy in Spanish, and I theoretically read Spanish, and I quail at the time and effort involved. I had the same problem with Proust, but I solved it by reading the whole thing to my (non-Francophone) wife in translation.

    Molière, Corneille, Racine

    I had the inestimable benefit of studying French with the ferocious Mme Ruegg ("pas un mot d'anglais!!"), who gave us a thorough classical French education, complete with dictées and plenty of Molière/Corneille/Racine. (For our senior play we wanted to do Cyrano, which outraged her -- Rostand was far too modern for her.) As a result I am in that small respect a true Frenchman: I can recite chunks of Racine with appropriate devotion and spiritual uplift, with no rebellious thoughts about his limitations.

  2. Now that I am really working on my French and reading in French, it has completely scrambled or let's say "postponed" my study of French literature. So I know what you mean.

    My understanding is that there has been a long-term shift in the French curriculum, with more Molière and less Racine. But there is still plenty of Racine. Molière writes for the quotation of lines, Racine for the recitation of passages.

  3. There's a recent article by Zeynep Tufekci explaining The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones: "it's because the storytelling style changed from sociological to" a more limited "psychological" one. So it's interesting to see that Racine could be accused of being limited in a similar way. Racine. Limited.

    C'était pendant l'horreur d'une profonde nuit.
    Ma mère Jézabel devant moi s'est montrée,
    Comme au jour de sa mort pompeusement parée.
    Ses malheurs n'avaient point abattu sa fierté ;
    Même elle avait encore cet éclat emprunté
    Dont elle eut soin de peindre et d'orner son visage,
    Pour réparer des ans l'irréparable outrage.
    Tremble, m'a-t-elle dit, fille digne de moi ;
    Le cruel Dieu des Juifs l'emporte aussi sur toi.
    Je te plains de tomber dans ses mains redoutables,
    «Ma fille». En achevant ces mots épouvantables,
    Son ombre vers mon lit a paru se baisser ;
    Et moi je lui tendais les mains pour l'embrasser,
    Mais je n'ai plus trouvé qu'un horrible mélange
    D'os et de chairs meurtris et traînés dans la fange,
    Des lambeaux pleins de sang et des membres affreux
    Que des chiens dévorants se disputaient entre eux.

  4. That Racine passage is not exactly Fernand Braudel.