Wednesday, May 15, 2019

its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity - beginning Erich Auerbach's Mimesis

Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946, tr. Willard Trask) was the final book in my hodgepodge reading of classics of literary criticism.  It’s a great book.  Let’s go through each of the twenty chapters.  From Homer and Genesis in the first chapter to Woolf and Proust in the last.  Mimesis is, among, other things, a literary history.

1. “Odysseus’ Scar,” Homer and Genesis.

Readers of the Odyssey will remember the well-prepared and touching scene in book 19, when Odysseus  has at last come home, the scene in which the old housekeeper Euryclea, who had been his nurse, recognizes him by a scar on his thigh.  (p. 3)

This is the first line of the book; it is not typical.  Every other chapter begins with a long, or sometimes very long, quotation in its original language, the text from which Auerbach launches his sermon.  But why quote Homer?  You remember.

At this point, I have read almost every work Auerbach addresses, which certainly helps me follow along.  I do remember.

The first chapter is as much about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis as it is about Homer.  It is a primal text in comparative literature.  Homer does this; the Genesis author, that.  “It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts” (11).  Homer uses “a definite time” and “a definite place” while in Genesis “time and place are undefined and call for interpretation.”  In Homer, “thoughts and feelings are completely expressed” while in Genesis they “remain unexpressed, only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches.”

Yet both texts are attempts to represent reality.  Different rhetorical devices represent reality in different ways.  Homer merely tries to represent the real, while the Genesis author

… was oriented toward truth.  Woe to the man who did not believe it!  (14)

Although Mimesis is a coherent book, meaning there are transitions from chapter to chapter and arguments that build as the book progresses, every chapter is detachable.  If you want to know about Stendhal, read the Stendhal chapter.  I believe “Odysseus’ Scar” is commonly read on its own. It is a primal example of comparative literature.

2.  “Fortunata,” Petronius, Tacitus, and the Gospel of Mark

Auerbach moves to Rome and Latin, starting with a juicy, digressive page of Trimalchio’s banquet from Satyricon.  It is fiction, in a novel, and in the first person, one character at the banquet describing other characters while inadvertently revealing himself, much like we think fictional narrators do today, and much like we think – I think – people do in reality.  Tacitus is, if anything, behind Petronius.

Auerbach seems to be a believer in progress.  More (representation of) reality is good, less is bad.  Maybe this is a limitation of Mimesis.

The Marxist side of Mimesis comes to the front in this chapter.  Auerbach is interested in how ordinary people are portrayed in literature, how the servants in Homer become more prominent.  How the goofily abstracted shepherds in Tacitus turn into “real” shepherds in Thomas Hardy, say.  My example, not Auerbach’s.  His, in this chapter, is Peter’s denial of Christ in the Gospel of Mark:

A scene like Peter’s denial fits no antique genre.  It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history – and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity. (45)

Progress.  1,900 years and eighteen chapters to go.  I gotta speed this up.


  1. I have read the chapters on works I have read. His chapter on Balzac helped me a good bit. I admit the chapters on authors I have never and I can safely say will never read were over my cultural reach.

  2. This is exciting -- I'm glad you've finally gotten around to it! I well remember the thrill of reading that first chapter; I still haven't read the whole book, but I'm chipping away at it. Perhaps your further posts will inspire more chipping.

  3. I should have written "further chipping," which sounds like the name of an English village.

  4. I found some of the working through of Latin rhetoric tough going but otherwise I was all right. The Balzac, all of the sections on French novels are outstanding.

    The format of this series is in part inspired by Pound's long piece on Henry James. I though you, languagehat, would appreciate that, even if no one else does.

  5. Oh, thanks for reading this before me. I have it sitting on my table and am somewhat intimidated by it. I'll be looking forward to your next posts!

  6. "Somewhat" intimidating is the precise amount of intimidating that this book is. But I became friends with Auerbach more quickly than I had expected. Some chapters are much less difficult than they long - a lot to absorb.