Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A look at Auerbach's Mimesis in September

Our next meeting will be the first Wednesday in September - the 7th. But as a number of our group will still be away, instead of jumping right back into, or up to, the Paradiso, we'll spend a session with an essay by a major literary scholar, much of whose work is devoted to the reading of Dante.

The essay is "Odysseus's Scar," which is actually chapter 1 of Erich Auerbach's landmark book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 

From the Amazon blurb:
More than half a century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis remains a masterpiece of literary criticism. A brilliant display of erudition, wit, and wisdom, his exploration of how great European writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf depicted reality has taught generations how to read Western literature.

A German Jew, Auerbach was forced out of his professorship at the University of Marburg in 1935. He left for Turkey, where he taught at the state university in Istanbul. There he wrote Mimesis, publishing it in German after the end of the war. Displaced as he was, Auerbach produced a work of great erudition that contains no footnotes, basing his arguments instead on searching, illuminating readings of key passages from his primary texts. His aim was to show how from antiquity to the twentieth century literature progressed toward ever more naturalistic and democratic forms of representation
The book is readily available in various formats, including the Kindle, but the initial chapter is also available free online here, or as a pdf file for download here. Our interest is twofold: on one hand, Auerbach's argument is that there's a clear and major distinction between the bright world of Homeric art, and the obscure realm characteristic of books of the Old Testament. As we have read works from both traditions, Auerbach's observations are relevant to just about everything we've read at one time or another. 

Here is the basic polarity of the essay:
It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts. On the one hand, externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground; thoughts and feeling completely expressed; events taking place in leisurely fashion and with very little of suspense. On the other hand, the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and “fraught with background.”
A second reason for a look at Auerbach is that his interest in this problem is in part derived from his work on Dante. Before Mimesis, he had published Dante, Poet of the Secular World, an influential reading of the poet. And he later wrote a long essay entitled "Figura" that attempts to work out how Dante and others read the Old Testament in relation to the new. That essay, about 65 pages in length, can be found here or in a collection of essays by Auerbach entitled Time, History and Literature.

A third reason Auerbach is worth some attention is that he was a very good, close reader -- as those who spend some time with Mimesis will quickly see.

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