Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

German philologist Erich Auerbach's 1946 work of literary criticism, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, in large part led to his being acclaimed as "the father of comparative literature." The structure of his text reveals Auerbach's interest in juxtaposing literary works and looking at what those texts exhibit concerning the sociocultural moment in which they were produced. The book is divided into 20 chapters, each of which is devoted to two major literary works. The first chapter examines Homer's Odyssey and the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. Major differences here, for example, include the psychological complexity of the characters, and the varying levels of historicity.

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Auerbach is concerned primarily with the history of realism in literature. Auerbach specifically examines to what extent literary works approach realism. He identifies a "mixed style" of realism exemplified by Scripture and then later taken up by Shakespeare. Implicit in Auerbach's criticism is that the literature is to an appreciable extent representative of the period in which it was produced.

Auerbach also appreciates and evaluates writers' attention to feeling. Specifically, he commends writers who display characters with deep psychological motivations. Additionally, Auerbach's literary criticism is commendable for the scope of genres and span of time represented by the works he considers (ranging from Homer's pre-Classical Aegean to the Modernist work of Virginia Woolf). Overall, Auerbach is a seminal figure in Western literary criticism.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1241

Erich Auerbach tackles a formidable topic in his scholarly investigation of the concept of mimesis. The Greek word, translated literally as “imitation,” means for the literary scholar the method by which a writer imitates the real world around him and conveys a sense of that world to the reader. Central to any analysis of the concept is the identification of those elements of the narrative that transmit the sensory environment in which the action takes place. Auerbach offers the following description of the technical function of mimesis in a writer’s work:Imitation of reality is imitation of the sensory experience of life on earth—among the most essential characteristics of which would seem to be its possessing a history, its changing and developing. Whatever degree of freedom the imitating artist may be granted in his work, he cannot be allowed to deprive reality of this characteristic.

His study of the concept leads him to explore a wide range of literary works, from the writings of the ancient Greeks through almost all Western literature to examples from twentieth century stream-of-consciousness novelists. Wherever he looks, he searches for “representations of everyday life,” to discover ways “in which that life is treated seriously, in terms of human and social problems” or in terms of “its tragic complications.”

Auerbach seeks to answer four key questions: What style best represents reality? What is the opposite of mimesis—fantasy, farce, rhetoric? What elements of realism influence the artist who writes intentionally nonrealistic literature? What cultural, historical, or literary phenomena affect the writer’s attitudes toward contemporary reality and determine his obligation to represent it faithfully?

To formulate a comprehensive response, Auerbach scours the great works of Western literature—and many not-so-famous ones as well. Individual chapters highlight key passages from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.); works by Roman writers Petronius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and historian Gregory of Tours; the Chanson de Roland; Chretien de Troyes’s Yvain (c. 1177-1181); Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320); and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1351). His examination of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment takes him to scenes from works by Antoine de Sales, Francois Rabelais, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Moliere, and the Abbe Prevost. The writings of Friedrich Schiller, Stendhal, and the Goncourt brothers (Edmond and Jules de Goncourt), as well as passages from Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, serve him as examples of the way the concept of reality is dealt with by artists of the nineteenth century, the era in which the modern concept of realism emerges. A lengthy examination of a scene from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) offers him a text to demonstrate what happens to the concept of reality in the hands of men and women who are his contemporaries.

In his exploration of Homer in the first chapter, Auerbach sets forth the problem he sees in representing reality. Homer’s Odyssey presents an immediate, sensory experience, but it does not deal with the commonplace in a serious way. In contrast, Auerbach notes how the Bible treats common subjects seriously; however, the authors of the Books of the Bible show no interest in details of sensory experience, concentrating instead on the ability of their stories to illustrate some larger theme or serve some moral purpose. These are only some of the limitations he finds in classical texts. His examination of Roman writers shows how the lower classes are treated only in comic fashion, never as the subjects of serious or possibly tragic literature.

Compounding the problem is the insistence of classical authors on isolating particular styles as appropriate for discussing certain subjects. Hence, the high style is reserved for discussing the nobility—and for writing tragedy. Conversely, the low, colloquial style is the appropriate vehicle for comedy—and for dealing with the lower classes. The history of antiquity is essentially rhetorical, a mode of presentation antithetical to mimesis, since it ignores sensory experience in favor of stylistic flourish and finesse in argumentation. What he calls the biblical tradition exists side by side with this classical outlook, working at cross purposes with it, stressing the importance of the commonplace. In fact, Auerbach attributes the gradual dissolution of the separation of styles to the emergence and final triumph of Christianity, which conferred dignity on the common man.

Nevertheless, the rise of the courtly tradition in the Middle Ages, with its emphasis on idealism and its conscious rejection of the everyday in favor of the faraway, was a powerful force for restraining writers’ tendencies to treat everyday reality seriously. The rise of the Renaissance gave impetus to artists’ inclinations to present the world around them fully and without moral judgment, but the emergence of neoclassicism in Europe, especially in France, returned the idea of the ideal to prominence in society and hence in literature as well; the plays of Jean Racine and Moliere stress the universal elements of mankind at the expense of representing real-life Frenchmen.

Not until the hegemony of style is broken—which happens infrequently for over two millennia—does Auerbach discover that serious attempts at realism come to dominate the literary scene. He identifies the emergence of modern realism with a single figure: Marie-Henri Beyle, who under the pen name Stendhal wrote the first truly realistic works in Western literature. His followers—Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, the Goncourts, Zola—brought the art of mimesis to its zenith. At least, that is what these artists thought; the writers of the twentieth century, armed with the tools of psychoanalysis, began to portray a reality that earlier writers could only imply, the reality of personality, which emerges as a result of many unconscious desires and fears. For the moderns, the apprehension of reality becomes a more complex activity; at the same time, the “moment” becomes more important, as these writers perceive that any man or woman, at any instant in life, can be the subject of interest and an example of the way the real world works upon the human consciousness.

What may seem astonishing to readers is that Auerbach deals with all the texts he selects for examination in the original language in which they were written— Homeric Greek, classical or medieval Latin, old French, Italian, Spanish, German, contemporary French, and English. The technique is important because Auerbach’s starting point for his study is with language; he must deal with the original medium of the artist if he is to make a point about the way style and word choice convey or mask reality, and to do so by resorting to translation would vitiate the force of his argument. Ironically, he finds that he must forgo “discussing the rise of modern Russian realism” because such analysis “is impossible when one cannot read the works in their original language.” Those readers who rely on a translation of Auerbach must pause momentarily to reflect on their limitations to appreciate the significance of his undertaking.

The English-language translation of Mimesis by Willard Trask runs to 576 pages; two paperback editions have made the text available to readers who still find this criticism as lively and intriguing as Rosemond Tuve, who wrote of Mimesis in an article in The Yale Review published a decade after the work appeared in German that the book remains “extraordinarily valuable”—not only because it is full of scholarly observations that expand the reader’s understanding of literature but also because it is “interesting,” an “old-fashioned” virtue that makes the book a pleasure to read.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108

Barrett, William. Review in Saturday Review. XXXVII (March 20, 1954), p. 21.

Boyd, John D. The Function of Mimesis and Its Decline, 1968.

Holdheim, Wolfgang. “Auerbach’s Mimesis as Historical Understanding,” in Clio. X (Winter, 1981), pp. 143-154.

Hughes, Serge. Review in Commonweal. LIX (February 5, 1954), p. 454.

Landauer, Carl. “Mimesis and Eric Auerbach’s Self-Mythologizing,” in German Studies Review. XI (February, 1988), pp. 83-96.

Lyons, John D., and Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. Mimesis: From Mirror to Method, Augustine to Descartes, 1982.

Morrison, Karl F. The Mimetic Tradition of Reform in the West, 1982.

Schwartz, Delmore. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LVIII (November 29, 1953), p. 40.

Tuve, Rosemond. Review in The Yale Review. XLIII (Summer, 1954), pp. 619-622.

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