Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Four pieces on Auerbach

Time, History and Literature gathers a substantial number of previously uncollected essays by the German critical philologist Erich Auerbach. Published by Princeton in 2013, the essays were translated by Jane O. Newman, with an introduction by James I. Porter.

For those interested in becoming better acquainted with Auerbach, below are links to four essays that explore his work. 

Earthly Happenings - James Ley, Sydney Review

By carefully tracing the meaning of the Latin term figura from its earliest usage, Auerbach demonstrates that initially it signified only a material object, but over time acquired additional abstracted connotations. For Auerbach, the duality of the term — the way it comes to embrace both materiality and abstraction — is related to the conflict he identifies in the Judaeo-Christian tradition between the ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ perspectives. The idea that an event might have a figural as well as a literal meaning allows history to be conceived as something more than a chronicle of happenings. It raises the possibility that history may not be (as Arnold Toynbee is supposed to have quipped) just one damn thing after another, but something with a shape and meaning, something with an underlying coherence and purpose, something that invites comprehension on a large scale. 
The figural interpretation of reality, writes Auerbach,
creates a connection between two events or persons in which one signifies not only itself but also the other — and that one is also encompassed or fulfilled by the other. The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but they both also lie within time as real events or figures. As I have repeatedly emphasised, both figures are part of the ongoing flow of historical life.

Arthur Krystal, "The Book of Books: Erich Auerbach and the Making of Mimesis"
“Mimesis,” too, may have taken its bearings from German cultural politics. The book’s compelling first chapter, “Odysseus’ Scar,” which contrasts Book 19 of the Odyssey with Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, lays out the differences in attitude and articulation between the Homeric epic and Hebrew Scripture. But because the discussion pivots on the binding of Isaac and Abraham’s reflexive anxiety—one of several Biblical scenes forbidden in German schools—the chapter can also be viewed as Auerbach’s nod to Jewish martyrdom. At least one Auerbach scholar wants to take this even further, claiming that Auerbach was “pressing philology in the direction of something utterly unheard: a new resistant, if implicit, Jewish philology.”

Edward Said, Introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Mimesis
Auerbach's choice of Dante to represent the second seminal moment in Western literary history is made to seem breathtakingly appropriate. Read slowly and reflectively, chapter 8 of Mimesis, "Farinata and Cavalcante," is one of the great moments in modern critical literature, a masterly, almost vertiginous embodiment of Auerbach's own ideas about Dante: that the Divine Comedy synthesized the timeless and the historical because of Dante's genius, and that Dante's use of the demotic (or vulgar) Italian language in a sense enabled the creation of what we have come to call literature.
James I. Porter, Introduction to Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach

A superb, in-depth look at Auerbach's far-reaching insights into literary language and its relation to culture, history, and our sense of ourselves.

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