Because Mimesis is organized as a series of disparate examinations of specific texts, arranged so as to present a chronological sweep through Western literature, it may not be readily apparent to all readers what Auerbach’s critical principles are. Nevertheless, the careful student of the work will discern Auerbach’s method of scholarly analysis long before the author makes it clear in his own words. Late in his study, he notes that he has found success in “a method which consists in letting myself by guided by a few motifs which I have worked out gradually.” He goes on to say that he tries these motifs out on a series of texts which have become familiar to him in the course of his philological activity.
Auerbach is principally a philologist, interested in the way language works. Every investigation of a text begins with an examination of its language: the words, the syntax, the construction of paragraphs, the juxtaposition of words and phrases, the use of dialogue and narration. Throughout, he engages in a process of induction: Specific texts are analyzed so that general principles may arise. Auerbach undertakes frequent comparison and contrast to show the inevitable similarities of technique that join realists of different centuries in their attempts to portray the world around them, or he exposes the limitations which their environments placed on their attempts to reduce the experiences of everyday life into writing. His underlying assumption is that the analysis of a key scene will give insight into the work as a whole; he assumes that the text is all of a piece, and that attitudes toward the subject and techniques of...
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While the notion of the mimetic as a principle of literature goes back to classical sources, specifically Aristotle, Auerbach is seen more properly to stand in a line of German philologists that reaches back to the nineteenth century, when modern philological scholarship began to rise in prominence in the European university community. The tradition actually has its roots in biblical exegesis, especially that form of study practiced by students of the Talmud, whose detailed analyses of specific texts of the Bible and associated commentaries survived for centuries and became the foundation for literary scholarship in a variety of forms. One reviewer has called Auerbach’s work one of those “in the finest European tradition,” that of the early twentieth century linguistic critics Karl Vossler, Leo Spitzer, and Benedetto Croce; for such men, “Europe is a constant interrogation whose literature is ever to be questioned anew, insistently.”
In some ways, Auerbach’s Mimesis shares the techniques of the New Critics, whose method of close textual analysis held the field in literary studies for almost half a century beginning in the 1920’s, especially in the United States. Where Auerbach differs from such critics is in his willingness to see an interaction between the text and the world which it represents, a real world that exists outside it but impinges—through the consciousness of the artist—to give the work, for better or worse, its particular shape and sense of immediacy. Going far beyond the practice of textual analysis for its own sake, Auerbach’s work is, in the opinion of another reviewer, the product of “a mind capable of making great and penetrating analyses of the nature of the human spirit as revealed in language and literature.”