Friday, May 17, 2019

More is packed into this passage than in any of the others we have so far discussed in this book - Dante's miracle and its consequences

An “earnest and likeable” student has asked Professor Joseph Epstein for a post-graduation reading list.  He fears his Northwestern University education was inadequate.

An obvious answer would have been to tell him to read the Bible straight through – something I myself have never done – and then proceed to read the Iliad and the Odyssey back to back.  Yet this advice, I felt, would only have depressed him; and contemplating it briefly, sound though it was as advice, I had to admit that it depressed me a little too.  (“p. 34, “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan,” in Once More Around the Block, 1987)

Epstein’s actual advice can be found in this oldie.  Still, the Bible, the Odyssey – I mean, they are going to come up again.  For example, in Mimesis:

8. “Farinata and Cavalcante,” Dante

Auerbach is a real Dante specialist, so he does not need to wander too far from the exemplary passage he chooses.  It does everything.  “More is packed into this passage than in any of the others we have so far discussed in this book…” (178).

Some praise: “But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle” (182).  The divergent Classical and Christian tracks suddenly converge in Hell, in Dante’s rhetoric and language as much as in his big, wild theological system.  The mixing of styles is going to be a running theme for the rest of Mimesis.  In Dante, “nowhere does mingling of styles come so close to violation of all style” (185).

I am pulling out phrases that have some punch, but they are almost always supported by a paragraph or more of evidence.  As evidence of the Dantean linguistic miracle, Auerbach spends a page working on the Dante’s use of the word da, a preposition.

If it is funny that a book on the “representation of reality” hinges on a poet wandering around Hell with a ghost, first, Auerbach finds it funny too, and second, reality has many sides.  “More accurately than antique literature was ever able to present it, we are given to see, in the realm of timeless being, the history of man’s inner life and unfolding” (202).

9. “Frate Alberto”, Boccaccio and some earlier tales for the purpose of contrast

The idea here is that there is a medieval genre of short, funny, pathetic, improving, or obscene tales.  Why are the ones in Decameron any better?  The mixing of styles, especially rhetorical levels, allowing a greater emphasis on sensory detail and characters who are ordinary people.  “Boccaccio’s characters live on earth and only on earth” (224).  But it is his rhetorical skill that allows them to live at all.

It sometimes seems like Auerbach’s is steering the book towards the modern novel, towards Proust.

10.  “Madame du Chastel,” Antoine de la Sale and a bit of Fifteen Joys of Marriage

Narrative passages that are “literary representations of a night conversation between a married couple” (250), one of which is about a wife wanting a new dress. The texts are from the 15th century, but they still feel medieval.  French has not caught up with Boccaccio’s Italian.  But the next chapter is about Rabelais.  Oh yeah!

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