by Erich Auerbach

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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 presentation remain constant throughout the work. That is certainly a large set of assumptions; yet as one reads this detailed study, one senses that Auerbach knows of what he speaks.

Though he may be hesitant to offer clean-cut definitions, it becomes clear that Auerbach equates “realism” with a vernacular presentation of sensory experiences, distinguished from the stylized presentation of many classical authors (even Homer is guilty of limited vision in this respect). Representing reality demands that the artist be open to all subjects and to all forms of treatment; his interest in life must be wide-ranging. He faults the writers of the classical tradition (and those of the Enlightenment as well) for stressing the importance of eternal truths and moral dicta at the expense of exploring the commonplace. Such writers deal almost exclusively with the upper classes, ignoring the multitudes whose lives form the milieu in which the actions of great men and women take place.

Auerbach insists that an accurate representation of reality must involve the artist in dealing with the social, economic, and political issues of his day. Hence, he can fault even Cervantes because “Don Quijote’s adventures never reveal any of the basic problems of the society of the time.” He gives high marks to the modern realists because in their works “real everyday occurrences in a low social stratum . . . are taken very seriously” and because these events “are accurately and profoundly set in a definite period of contemporary history.” Absent from any direct commentary, however, is his view of the degree of mimesis present in the best historical novels.

Much of the analysis goes beyond literary or philological criticism, however, to examine the cultural and historical forces that shaped a writer’s view of the world and his understanding of his role as a literary artist. Auerbach demonstrates his commonsense understanding of such forces in his discussions of medieval man’s concept of time and of the importance of the otherworld, and in his analysis of the French Revolution as a catalyst for spurring mankind to rethink the role of the individual in society. Auerbach uses his investigations of literature to explore the way in which a people thought, to display their understanding of and attitudes toward human nature, and to reveal their metaphysics. Few scholars have attempted such a broad study; fewer still have succeeded in the way Auerbach has in making readers understand the power of literature.

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Critical Context