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.
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
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,...
(The entire section is 1,577 words.)