Monday, May 20, 2019

texts chosen at random - Fench novels, Virginia Woolf, and a lot more - Auerbach says "write your own book!"

Wrapping up Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.  He ends with three chapters on the modern novel, mostly French, but covering a lot of territory.

19. “Germinie Lacerteux,” Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, Zola.

This chapter is by itself a history of the 19th century French novel, repeating some of the ideas of the previous Stendhal / Balzac / Flaubert chapter.   It is too bad that Auerbach begins with the novel that is not read much, but it is too useful for his purposes, since it is about a servant, a maid, which links back to the passage from the Odyssey in Chapter 1.  And the background of Germinie Lacerteux (1865) is useful, hilarious – the longtime servant of the brothers dies and they discover that she had her own life, that she was human, thus inspiring the novel.  How do you represent such a person?  Can a novel be built from “the sensory fascination of the ugly, the repulsive, and the morbid” (499)?  I know, now this sounds ridiculous.  It might have sounded slightly ridiculous at the time to a reader who – but now I am repeating my doubts about Zola’s “ideas.”

Auerbach has great fun with Zola.  “Even today, after half a century the last decades of which have brought us experiences such as Zola never dreamed of, Germinal is still a terrifying book” (512).  So-called Naturalism died off because “there was no one left to vie with him in working capacity, in mastery of the life of the time, in determination and courage” (515).

This chapter is so expansive that it includes significant sections on 19th century German and Russian literature, plus Ibsen.

20. “The Brown Stocking,” Woolf and Proust.

The passage with which Auerbach begins is the longest in Mimesis, three and a half pages of To the Lighthouse (1927) in which Mrs. Ramsay knits a sock and thinks, or maybe just exists.  Auerbach then summarizes the passage, which takes him six pages, or perhaps eight.  Woolf’s text is so compressed that merely describing it expands it.

That is pretty much all Auerbach does with Woolf’s text.  He just looks at it.  Looking at it carefully is a lot of work and source of insight.

When I noted a few posts ago that Mimesis was half French, I was understating, since I was counting this chapter as English, when it is actually half French.  Auerbach moves to Woolf to some passages from Proust, and then wanders freely – Joyce, Hamsun, Mann, Gide.  He writes that he “could never have written anything in the nature of a history of European realism; the material would have swamped me” (548).  Well, the book he did write is quite the substitute.


Auerbach describes his method.  Take some texts – passage, really – from each period and use them as “test cases for my ideas.”  Which texts?  “[T]he great majority of the texts were chosen at random, on the basis of accidental acquaintance and personal preference rather than in view of a definite purpose” (556), which is random in a sense but maybe not in some other senses.  He wishes he had been able to cover more “English, Spanish, and German texts” (557).  He wrote Mimesis in Istanbul, in exile, away from a research library.

As useful as always, the commenters at Languagehat pointed me to Edward Said’s introduction to the 2014 edition of Mimesis.  Said argues that some features of the book are personal responses to the war.  France is a conquered country; Germany is the conqueror.  Auerbach is righting the balance.  Maybe so.

In the end, the reader is left to fill in the gaps, pick his own passages from various languages, and write his own book, possibly in some other form.

Which book should we all read together next?  European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages or what?  What will possibly be as good as Mimesis?


  1. It definitely feels like an affirmation of the values of the Judeo-Christian civilization at a time when it was being destroyed, that too written by a Jew! I was also intrigued and moved in an early chapter where he writes about the gospels of Jesus Christ and the Bible. He treats Bible as any other secular text but his conclusions and interpretations in a way affirm the religious elements of the book.

    I was really bogged down in the middle because I am just so totally ignorant of the medieval history and literature, I don't even have wikipedia level knowledge of the books he discusses there. So I had to skip almost everything there.

    On what to read next, have you read Georg Lukacs? There is some overlap in his work with what Auerbach does here (i.e. representations of common people, history as realism as an onward march of democratic principles, suspicions of romanticism and irrationality etc) but he also takes it into new directions.

  2. I thought it was more like an affirmation of civilization, period.

    Somebody should organize a big medieval readalong, a mix of medieval texts and books about the period. Huizinga then Chrétien then "The Making of the Middle Ages" then, I don't know, Marco Polo. Ibn Battuta. That'd be great.

    I have not read Lukacs. That's a good idea.

  3. I was mainly thinking about the Bible/Genesis chapter, which made a deep impression on me, specially how he contrasts it with the Greek classics in the chapter that just came before. Just on the basis of these two chapters you could see him as an anti-Nietzsche (c.f. Birth of Tragedy) and his work as a defence of judeo-christian aesthetics, contra-Nietzsche.

  4. btw, in case you haven't read this a very entertaining essay on Auerbach by Terry Eagleton

    "or all its formidable erudition, then, there is a fairly simple opposition at work in Mimesis, one more class-based and militant than the universal respect paid to Auerbach by conservative scholars would intimate. Realism is the artistic form that takes the life of the common people with supreme seriousness, in contrast to an ancient or neoclassical art which is static, hierarchical, dehistoricised, elevated, idealist and socially exclusive. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, it is an art which destroys the aura. There is an implied continuity in this respect between Homeric epic and the Third Reich, with its heroic myths, tragic posturing and spurious sublimity. If all this had been argued by a Trotskyist English lecturer at a redbrick English university, rather than by one of the 20th century’s most eminent Romance philologists, it would almost certainly have provoked a clutch of dyspeptic reviews in the learned journals. If you can make such claims in a dozen or so different languages, however, as Auerbach doubtless could, and if like him you know your French heroic epic from your Middle High German one, you are likely to win a more sympathetic hearing."

  5. Auerbach's (accurate) description of the aesthetics of both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels seems so far from Nietzsche's, even as a negative. I would hardly recognize that they are talking about the same thing. I suppose they are not.

    I ma not registered for LRB articles, but this passage just raises doubts. The sublimity in Homer is not spurious. The tragedy is not particularly posturing, whatever that means. What is Eagleton talking about? Plus, that Nazis were cheap myth-makers is not an uncommon idea. Is it? I thought everyone thought that. Nazis like Beethoven, too.

  6. I recently was reading through some essays by Josepth Epstein. His final words on Auerbach are below

    “Mimesis is a book by a man with little interest in theory, setting out definitions, or laying down laws. Yet so suggestive, so rich in understanding and insight, so useful in teaching one how to read more deeply and appreciatively is the book that it is difficult to believe that anyone will ever again have the intellectual resources to write another book about literature anywhere near as powerful. Written while the Nazis were marching across Europe, Mimesis is a strong reminder of the glory of Western literature, and by extension of Western civilization, and of what is at stake in the battle against those who would simplify, politicize, or otherwise degrade it.” Joseph Epstein

  7. Auerbach's intellectual background would be hard to replicate now, as would the conditions in which he wrote the book, thank goodness. The combination of breadth and depth is, for me, almost perfect.

  8. What is Eagleton talking about?

    He's basically saying that conservatives are fooled by the Germanic high-flown scholarship into thinking Auerbach is one of them, whereas if they bothered to read the book and engage with its ideas they'd realize he's on the other side. His details may be fuzzy, but Eagleton is more about intellectual fizz and provocative ideas than scrupulous detail (more French than German, you might say).

  9. That part I got - "Hail,comrade!" It's the guff about Homer and dyspeptic learned journals that seemed so glib,if that word is not too kind.

  10. Eagleton is nothing if not glib. Me, I enjoy a good gulp of glibbery now and again.