Erich Auerbach (OW-ur-bahk) was one of the most influential and thought-provoking literary critics of the twentieth century. As a high school student in Berlin, he received a solid education in German, French, and Latin. In 1913 he defended his doctoral dissertation on jurisprudence at the University of Heidelberg. During World War I, he served in the German army. After his return to civilian life, Auerbach decided against practicing law and instead undertook the study of romance philology. In 1921 he completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Griefswald on literary techniques in French and Italian short stories from the early Renaissance.
Throughout his long and distinguished academic career, Auerbach maintained a serious interest in philology, stylistics, and the influence of the classical traditions on French and Italian writers. He published important scholarly works in his native German as well as in Italian, French, and English. His mastery of many languages enabled him to make insightful comments on the interrelationships among the literatures of different countries.
In the 1920’s Auerbach worked as a librarian in the Prussian State Library in Berlin. In 1929 he published an important study on Dante Alighieri, and this book resulted in his appointment to the chair of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, where he taught from 1929 until 1935. In analyzing Dante’s writings in Italian and Latin, Auerbach combined a rigorous philological approach with interpretative criticism. Auerbach stressed the dangers of anachronistic explanations of Dante’s works. Auerbach showed that one must discover the meanings of key terms and concepts for Dante’s learned contemporaries in order not to misjudge Dante’s true originality. His research on Dante convinced Auerbach that each period in European literature had developed a unique form of creativity which literary historians needed to recognize and appreciate. Auerbach believed that flexibility and cultural relativism were essential for literary criticism.
Auerbach’s intellectual and moral commitment to tolerance would soon be severely tested. In 1935 he and other Jewish professors were dismissed from German universities by the Nazis. In 1936 Auerbach and his family fled to Turkey. For the next eleven years Auerbach taught French and Italian in Istanbul. Although Auerbach accepted this necessary exile with dignity, at first he felt a sense of alienation in Turkey because he did not know its culture or language. He nevertheless learned Turkish and became greatly admired by his colleagues and students there.
Between May, 1942, and April, 1945, Auerbach wrote his critical masterpiece, Mimesis. Each of the twenty chapters in Mimesis is an extended stylistic and historical analysis of a specific literary passage. Each chapter combines stylistics and historical philology with a thoughtful discussion of the cultural, social, and aesthetic value systems which constituted the unique traits of specific periods in European literary history. The breadth of Mimesis is extraordinary. Auerbach makes insightful comments on the cultural movements and traditions which produced such diverse writers as Homer, Chrétien de Troyes, François Rabelais, Molière, Friedrich Schiller, Stendhal, and Virginia Woolf. He demonstrates that flexibility and an acceptance of cultural diversity are essential for meaningful literary criticism.
Auerbach realized that his method, which combined stylistics with historical and interpretative criticism, could easily be applied to many important authors and literary movements which he had not discussed in Mimesis. The twenty chapters in Mimesis made readers more sensitive to the artistry by which writers presented their own perception of reality and defined the basic aesthetic and ethical beliefs of their cultures. Mimesis enriched the reader’s understanding of the rich diversity and complexity in European literature.
After the Allied forces liberated the...
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