What is concrete?

Michael Wood

  • Time, History and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach by Erich Auerbach, edited by James Porter, translated by Jane Newman
    Princeton, 284 pp, £27.95, December 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 13711 7

Erich Auerbach’s criticism offers a remarkable mixture of caution and daring; it’s very modest and very grand. He doesn’t believe in large, baggy words, at times is sceptical about the very concept of a concept, but he writes about nothing less than ‘the representation of reality in Western literature’, and doesn’t hesitate to make large claims about historical shifts in mood and manner. ‘This is an entirely new and highly significant phenomenon.’ ‘This form of realism achieved the most radical destruction of the separation of styles since antiquity, and brought about the most radical instantiation of tragic realism that has ever been seen.’ Sometimes he gets caution and daring into a single sentence: ‘Such representations had never existed before – or at least not for a long time.’

Auerbach’s great book Mimesis was written in Istanbul during World War Two, published in German in 1946, and in English in 1953; there was an anniversary edition of the translation in 2003, with an introduction by Edward Said. Mimesis is an indispensable point of reference for anyone interested in comparative literature, close reading, theories of realism, long takes on literary history, the possibilities of scholarship without access to a major library, and much else. It changed the way we think about many literary texts and questions, and it still has a great deal to tell us – although it perhaps won’t now quite tell us what it used to. James Porter, the editor of Time, History and Literature, suggests that Auerbach ‘sought to derive something like a history of mentalities under the guise of Romance philology’, and Emily Apter, in Against World Literature (2013), connects his secular theology to that of Walter Benjamin.

Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1892, took a doctorate in law at the University of Heidelberg, served in the army during World War One, took another doctorate in Romance languages at the University of Greifswald, was librarian at the Prussian State Library for some years, and in 1929 was appointed to a chair in Romance philology at the University of Marburg. He was forced to leave this post in 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws made Jews ineligible for employment by the state. After spending the war years in Turkey, he went to America, taught at Pennsylvania State and then at Yale, with a year in between at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

James Porter’s generous selection of Auerbach’s writing apart from Mimesis helps us greatly in thinking about what his critical practice means. The pieces consider a wide spectrum of authors and topics: Dante, Montaigne, Vico, Racine, Pascal, Rousseau, Romanticism, Proust. The dates of original publication run from 1921 to 1958, and 13 of the 20 pieces are earlier than Mimesis. The volume is thus especially useful in reminding us of all Auerbach had done before he came to his best-known book. We may say the same of Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1929), reprinted in 2007 – Said thinks this is ‘in some ways … his most exciting and intense work’. And then there is Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, containing six of Auerbach’s later essays (from 1938 to 1951); three of them appear in Time, History and Literature.

I have borrowed the word ‘daring’ from Porter. One can imagine Auerbach mildly resisting this form of praise while doing everything to earn it. The latest English-language edition of Mimesis reprints a 1953 essay in which he answers his critics and defends his method. The argument, fascinating in its original context, a scholarly journal, seems a little clinging and querulous between the covers of a book, but the text is more than worth including if only for its magnificent conclusion. Auerbach agrees that he has not defined his terms in his book and ‘even that I am not consistent throughout in using them’. This is intentional, because he doesn’t believe ‘conceptualisation’ in literary study can be exact. ‘Our general concepts are poorly differentiable and are undefinable’ – they can even be ‘dangerous’, he says elsewhere. We may think of Nietzsche’s ‘only that which has no history can be defined’:

My effort for exactitude relates to the individual and the concrete … Were it possible, I would not have used any generalising expressions at all, but instead I would have suggested the thought to the reader purely by presenting a sequence of particulars. That is not possible; accordingly I used some much-used terms, like realism and moralism.

There are logical snags here – exactitude and thought are concepts, the result of quite a bit of generalising – but the idea of hinting rather than saying, in literary criticism as well as in novels and poems, is coherent and appealing, and it’s good to remember that there are forms of precision that avoid rather than insist on obvious names.

In the last chapter of Mimesis, Auerbach links his method to that of Virginia Woolf and other 20th-century writers of fiction:

There is greater confidence in syntheses gained through full exploitation of an everyday occurrence than in a chronologically well-ordered total treatment which accompanies the subject from beginning to end … It is possible to compare this technique … with that of certain modern philologists who hold that the interpretation of a few passages from Hamlet, Phèdre or Faust can be made to yield more, and more decisive information about Shakespeare, Racine or Goethe and their times than would a systematic … treatment of their lives and works. Indeed, the present book may be cited as an illustration.

The important words are ‘can be made to yield’, since the doctrine has been much abused since Mimesis was written. Criticism picks passages that aren’t representative and claims that they are. The entire theory that the part will reveal the whole works just as badly for some cases as it works beautifully for others. The New Criticism (in its later days as a pedagogy rather than in the work of its founders) kept the principle of few passages but gave up on the idea of information – and of context and history.

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