Monday, September 12, 2016

The voyage of Mimesis - some notes

It was our thought last week to stay with Erich Auerbach for one more session. Last time we talked about "Odysseus' Scar," the first chapter of Mimesis. Next time we plan to discuss Chapter 8, "Farinata and Cavalcante."

I intend to put a few notes here this week about Auerbach. He is a ferociously difficult reader to read. He will devote a page to describing the effects produced by a particular word - as he does in Farinata and Cavalcante, for example, with the word "allor," which basically in Italian means "then": 

The second change of scene is managed through the words "Allor surse," in line 52. It seems simpler and less remarkable than the first. What, after all, is more normal than to introduce a sudden new occurrence with the words, "Then it befel . . .? But if we ask ourselves where in pre-Dantean medieval vernacular literature we might find a comparable linguistic maneuver, interrupting the action in course by a dramatically incisive "then," we should, I think, have a long search before us. I for one know of none. Allora at the beginning of a sentence is naturally quite frequent in Italian literature before Dante. It occurs for instance in the stories of the Novellino but with much less force of meaning. Such sharp breaks are in keeping with neither the style nor the time-sense of pre-Dantean narrative, not even with those of the French epics, where ez vos or atant ez vos occurs in a similar though much weaker sense (for example, Roland 413). That even extremely dramatic turnings of the tide of action were handled with stiff circumstantiality may be observed for example in Villehardouin when he relates the intervention of the Doge of Venice at the storming of Constantinople. When his men hesitate to land, the aged and blind Doge orders them upon pain of death to set him ashore first, with the flag of Saint Mark. This the chronicler introduces with the words: or porrez oir estrange proece. Which is just as though Dante, instead of allora, had said, "And then something quite extraordinary happened." The Old French ez vos may serve to point the way as we try to find the correct Latin term for this abruptly intervening "then." For it is not tum or tunc; in many cases it is rather sed or iam. But the real equivalent, which gives the full force, is ecce, or still better et ecce. This is found less frequently in the elevated style than in Plautus, in Cicero's letters, in Apuleius, etc., and especially in the Vulgate. When Abraham takes the knife to sacrifice his son Isaac, we read: et ecce Angelus Domini de caelo clamavit, dicens: Abraham, Abraham. I think this linguistic maneuver, which effects so sharp an interruption, is too harsh to stem from the elevated style of classical Latin; but it corresponds perfectly with the elevated style of the Bible. And furthermore, Dante uses the Biblical et ecce verbatim on another occasion where a state of affairs is interrupted by a sudden, though not quite so dramatic, occurrence (Purg. XXI, 7: ed ecco, si come ne scrive Luca . . . ci apparve . . . after Luke xxiv, I3: et ecce duo ex illis . . .). I am not prepared to state as a certainty that Dante introduced the linguistic maneuver of this abruptly interrupting "then" into the elevated style and that it was a Biblical echo with him. But this much would seem to be certain: at the time Dante wrote, the dramatically arresting "then" was by no means as obvious and generally available as it is today; and he used it more radically than any other medieval writer before him.

But we must also consider the meaning and the sound of the word surse, which Dante uses in at least one other passage with telling effect to describe a sudden emergence (Purg. VI, 72-73: e l'ombra tutta in se romita / surse ver lui . . .). The allor surse of line 52, then, has hardly less weight than the words of Farinata which bring in the first interruption; this allor is one of those paratactic forms which establish a dynamic relationship between the members they connect. The conversation with Farinata is interrupted--once he has heard part of it, Cavalcante cannot wait for it to end, he simply loses his self-control. And the part he plays--his peering expression, his whining words, and his precipitate despair when he sinks back-forms a sharp contrast with Farinata's weighty calm when he resumes speaking after the third shift (11. 73 ff.).

Auerbach's ear, moulded by years of listening to the phrasing and rhythms of poets in several languages, is a Stradivarius, and he is its maestro. In Dante's use of what most would take for a simple, everyday word, he detects tonalities that deepen our appreciation of the dramatic power of this scene.

What makes talking about Auerbach difficult -- aside from the fact that few readers today have half a smidgen of his linguistic competence and cultural awareness -- is that these focused specific passages serve as multi-leveled specimens in an ongoing contemplative conversation that Auerbach is having with 2500 years of literary language, conceived, at times, as one giant developing thing. Not only is all of his reading brought to bear upon single passages, but multiple skeins of arguments branch out from them, often emerging as he moves from the particular -- the allor above -- to statements of a far more general nature.

He says this, for example, shortly after the above passage:
. . . if we start from his predecessors, Dante's language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle. There were great poets among them. But, compared with theirs, his style is so immeasurably richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.
This power, assurance and mastery of various forms then becomes a factor in why Dante's poetry can violate the classical canon of the separation of styles -- a feature which caused Goethe to speak of his "repulsive and often disgusting greatness" -- without departing from the gravitas of a unique sublimity. Take a descriptive statement of this kind:
Themes which cannot possibly be considered sublime in the antique sense turn out to be just that by virtue of his way of molding and ordering them.
It moves -- leaps -- to a far more general claim that seems to include aesthetic judgment, critical distinction, and the hyperbolic evocation of a poetic power that knows no bounds, and owes no fealty to any generic rule, ordering principle, or stylistic norm:
For nowhere could one find so clear an instance of the antagonism of the two traditions -- that of antiquity, with the principle of the separation of styles, and that of the Christian era, with its mingling of styles -- as in Dante's powerful temperament, which is conscious of both because its aspiration toward the tradition of antiquity does not imply for it the possibility of abandoning the other; nowhere does mingling of styles come so close to violation of all style.  (Italics mine).
In a very basic sense, Mimesis is a voyage that takes us from the basic syntax and diction of texts to moments that seem to be contemplating not one passage or poem, but a vast recollection of poems. 

With so much arising from particular close readings, it's more than ordinarily challenging to identify the key articulations of an overarching narrative. We certainly need to be asking: What story is Mimesis telling? Before leaping to facile conceptual formulations, though, careful readers might wish to pause and work through the details.

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