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.

But everything is in the practice, Auerbach would say, and he goes even further into tentativeness and experiment:

I see the possibility of success and profit in a method which consists in letting myself be guided by a few motifs which I have worked out gradually and without a specific purpose, and in trying them out on a series of texts which have become familiar and vital to me.

Some would say this isn’t a method at all, and it’s true that the word risks betraying the very practice Auerbach is describing: letting himself be guided, trying out motifs, returning to familiar texts.

But then there is another important feature of criticism he wants us to remember. However Olympian critics may like to seem, they are all persons living in time, located in a particular place, and these are Auerbach’s last words in his 1953 essay:

In the end I asked: how do matters look in the European context? No one today can see such a context from anywhere else today [sic] than precisely from the present, and specifically from the present that is determined by the personal origin, history and education of the viewer. It is better to be consciously than unconsciously time-bound. In many learned writings one finds a kind of objectivity in which, entirely unbeknownst to the composer, modern judgments and prejudices … cry out from every word … Mimesis is quite consciously a book that a particular person, in a particular situation, wrote at the beginning of the 1940s.

‘No one today’ is a curious phrase. Could people do it on other days? Escape the determinations of the present, that is? They thought they could, and if our own historicism is not the final truth about ways of understanding the world, then it is itself just another time-bound perspective. The importance of Dante for Auerbach is that the poet had never heard of historicism. ‘For him the measure of history was not history, but a divine and perfect order of the world.’ This doesn’t make Dante right and historicism wrong, but it does make Dante’s work the ideal challenge to historicist thinking, and we might say the same about the Christian tradition of figural connection as Auerbach sees it. These ways of making sense of the world are powerfully alien to us and that is why we need to understand them, especially because we tend to think of them as abstract or ideological or allegorical. Auerbach’s recurring argument is that they can give us lessons in concreteness – and he thinks no lessons are more urgently needed.

But what is concreteness? This is like asking what Auerbach means by reality. It is asking what he means by reality. Reality is in a first sense whatever exists or takes place, in the world, in the mind. ‘Whatever happens, happens,’ as Jane Newman, the translator of Time, History and Literature shrewdly renders a difficult German phrase. In a second sense it is whatever piece of the actual or lived, the experienced or the deeply needed, that a writer or thinker has found words for, or a painter found images for. It’s possible to miss the real in this sense, to get it wrong, or not care about it. As Auerbach thinks Victor Hugo, for example, doesn’t care about it, he just enjoys mixing ‘the sublime and grotesque’. It’s also possible for the reader or viewer to disagree about whether the real is present or not in any particular set of words or images. I think Auerbach is wrong about Hugo, but that’s because I believe the grotesque illuminates reality in all kinds of ways. And Auerbach’s larger point is that the real takes many forms in time, that a preoccupation with the real will persist across cultures even if those cultures stress quite different objects and instances. In any case, there is no other test except our own encounter with the poem or the painting, and the point of Auerbach’s criticism is not to force this meeting on us, but to give us the best possible chance of having the meeting happen. I’m still trying to work out why I find Auerbach’s reading of Dante so attractive while failing to get over my worries about the very view he so persuasively constructs.

The word ‘earthly’ (irdisch) is perhaps our best clue here. Auerbach uses it everywhere, although it doesn’t appear in the English title of his book on Dante. Porter is right to say that ‘secular’ strikes the wrong note. Dante is not a secular poet, he is a poet of the earthly world. Still, ‘secular’, if we think of its etymology, does anchor him in his century, in untranscended time. I think also that ‘secular’, for an English speaker, may hold off some of the dismissive piety that lurks in ‘earthly’. On at least one occasion, even in Porter’s selection, Newman translates irdisch as ‘secular’.

Conversely, once he has taken care of the title of the Dante book, Ralph Manheim translates irdisch as ‘earthly’. As in ‘the earthly world in all its diversity’ and ‘earthly reality in its true and definitive form’. Auerbach often uses ‘concrete’ in this context. He evokes ‘the life of Christ on earth as a concrete event’, the ‘almost pedantically precise concreteness’ of the punishments in Dante’s hell. Of Dante’s metaphors he says that ‘taken from the concrete, they lead to the concrete’. In these contexts, ‘real’ almost always means ‘particular’: ‘a cry uttered in a real situation’, ‘a single moment of reality’, ‘the extreme particularity of the real situation’.

Dante’s great achievement, for Auerbach, is to elaborate his understanding of ‘a God-given balanced order on earth’ without neglecting the erratic, immediate reality of the inhabitants of that earth. Dante’s order is not a fantasy of dominion, the machinery of a Catholic will to totality, but a structure in which ‘fatelessness’ can be avoided. Heraclitus, quoted in the epigraph to Dante: Poet of the Secular World, said that man’s character was his fate. The heroes in Homer and in the Greek tragedies had fates and finally met them. Then character and fate came apart in later Greek philosophy, Auerbach says, and stayed apart in the West until first Virgil then Dante put them together again. Character and fate: particularity and meaning. In a curious, moving conclusion Auerbach suggests that ‘the unity of character and fate’ survived the break-up of Dante’s world because ‘the historical world acquired a fully immanent autonomy.’ This proposition involves the idea that ‘individual destiny is not meaningless, but is necessarily tragic and significant.’ I don’t know that an autonomous historical world promises us this. It may rather leave to us the task of making whatever meanings we can find. In which case the study of Dante’s ways of creating order may help us more than any allegiance to the order he makes, and perhaps this is what Auerbach is suggesting. Certainly such an approach would allow us to read Dante without being belated believers in the whole scheme or just aesthetes picking out our favourite bits.

An essay from 1921 offers a darker reading of the question. ‘The separation of fate and character in human consciousness’ means that ‘we seek out the justification of our existence and our actions anywhere else than in our fate,’ and if Auerbach is not indulging in a nostalgia he elsewhere condemns, he seems at least to be hoping the future will look more and more like the past, will become a time when ‘the cultural community in which we live takes on a closed form again, one from which it can draw sufficient strength and courage to acknowledge that its destiny is its final arbiter.’ He appears to be saying not that character is fate, or that our fate is a reading of our whole lives, but that fate is what we have to learn to put up with. The idea of closure is too eagerly embraced, and the tone seems inattentive to the ‘countercurrents, ironies and even contradictions’ that Said says characterise so much of the rest of the critical work. Auerbach doesn’t usually urge his moral views on us, but their subtlety and openness become clear in parenthetical remarks. He says the Bible chapter from which Racine took the story of his play Athalie is ‘no more humane because one of the parties to the struggle is in the right’; and we should ‘not despise our enemies all too blindly, even when it is our mission to fight them’. And again: ‘Some individuals … act as if they were charged with assuring that truth will triumph rather than with understanding that our only mission is to fight for it.’

*

In his reply to the critics of Mimesis, Auerbach said they had ‘ascribed to the book, in praise or blame, tendencies that were far removed from me: that the method of the book is sociological, even that the tendency was socialist.’ We can dismiss the charge of socialism, and Auerbach was perhaps right to think that sociology as he knew it in 1953 was a long way from his work. But much of Mimesis, and even more of his other work, is sociological in an interesting, extended sense, since it adds up to a social history based on words, and this is what I take Porter to be getting at when he speaks of ‘mentalities’ (or mentalités, as the Annales School understood them). The first conclusion Auerbach draws from a close reading of a passage in Le Rouge et le noir, involving a conversation about an aristocrat’s salon, is not linguistic but social: French salons are boring under the Restoration and they certainly weren’t that before.

Auerbach ends his essay ‘Figura’ in this way: ‘My aim was to show how a word branches out from its semantic meaning and into a world-historical situation.’ It’s true that here he’s talking about world history from St Paul to the Middle Ages, and society in the modern sense did not exist. But the method of studying words, singly or in clusters, in their changing historical context, straying beyond the ‘purely semantic’ as Auerbach says, works very well for actual societies, like 17th-century France, and Auerbach’s essay ‘La Cour et la ville’ is, among many other things, a brilliant piece of sociology. The court, for example, is not quite the aristocracy or not all the aristocracy, and the town is not the bourgeoisie, or not all the bourgeoisie, and certainly not the people. Auerbach’s conclusion is that ‘the nobility … had ceased to be anything more than the king’s entourage; the bourgeoisie … was also alienated from its original function as an economic class. With their parasitic absence of function and common cultural ideal, la cour et la ville merged into a self-contained, homogenous society.’

That’s a lot to learn from a few key words, and the interest here is precisely in the social distinctions that can be drawn through close attention to language in context. Words are historical witnesses, we uncover their meanings – and see how their meanings shift in time – not by defining them or looking them up in dictionaries but by paying detailed attention to their usage, letting ourselves be guided, as Auerbach says. Which is, not incidentally, how we come to language in the first place. There’s a wonderful passage in Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason about his daughter’s learning the meaning of the word ‘kitty’ or his thinking that she has. His general argument is that there is more to language than knowing the names of things, but his detailed example tells us something else. When his daughter strokes not a cat but a piece of fur and says ‘kitty’, he has to move on from thinking ‘she doesn’t really know what “kitty” means’ to working out all the various things she does mean. She becomes his teacher, and there is no other evidence for her meaning except what he is able to hear.

In a similar way Auerbach shows us, in a 1941 essay, how the word ‘passion’, etymologically related to ‘passivity’, lost its ancient, purely suffering sense and came to signal an active engagement, even a danger, so that Racine can defend it in his preface to his play Bérénice (‘il suffit que … les passions y soient excitées’: ‘It’s enough for the passions to be excited’) and feel he has to apologise for what gets out of control in Phèdre: ‘Les passions n’y sont présentées aux yeux que pour montrer tout le désordre dont elles sont cause’: ‘The passions are presented only in order to show what confusion they cause.’ From object to cause in seven years: this is a miniature form of the word history Auerbach is describing.

The essay ‘Figura’ itself, Auerbach’s best-known work apart from Mimesis, starts with a subtle and learned account of the Latin word’s life, its travel among the meanings ‘shape’, ‘form’, ‘picture’, ‘statue’, ‘plan’, ‘figure of speech’ (figura dicendi in Cicero), and its arrival at the Christian typological usage that is his subject. The attraction of this interpretative method for Auerbach – and here we rejoin his preoccupation with detail and realism – is that it multiplies possibilities without ranking them. ‘Figura is something real and historical that represents and proclaims in advance something else that is also real and historical.’ Thus when Tertullian says the Joshua of the Book of Numbers is ‘a figure of him who was to be’ (figuram futurorum) he is not claiming that Joshua is only a prefiguration of Christ or that Christ is only the fulfilment of an old prophecy. ‘In no way does [Tertullian] want to understand the Old Testament merely allegorically. Rather he believes that it was literally and really true.’ And again ‘Moses is no less real and in the world because he is an umbra or figura of Christ, and Christ … is not an abstract idea.’ This mode of interpretation becomes a tradition in the Middle Ages, Auerbach says, and finds its most ambitious and extensive elaboration in Dante. William Empson has a whole dazzling paragraph on George Herbert’s line ‘Man stole the fruit but I must climb the tree,’ including these sentences:

He [Christ] climbs the tree to repay what was stolen, as if he was putting the apple back; but the phrase in itself implies rather that he is doing the stealing … Either he stole on behalf of man … or he is climbing upwards like Jack on the Beanstalk, and taking his people with him back to heaven. The phrase has an odd humility which makes us see him as the son of the house; possibly Herbert is drawing on the medieval tradition that the Cross was made of the wood of the forbidden trees.

Auerbach talks about the principle again in Mimesis, and although he doesn’t name it as such he also finds it in his essay on Proust, who escapes linear time and logic and yet respects particulars. Auerbach, writing in 1925, when the last volumes of A la recherche were still to appear, said that next to Proust’s work ‘almost all the novels that we know seem to be no more than novellas … the secret and often disregarded links between events take the place of the empirical sequentiality of time.’

A figura is not only figurative. We might assert the same about every good metaphor or analogy, in Proust or George Eliot, say. But that’s only to remind ourselves that the strength of a figure isn’t in the method but in our use of it. I’m persuaded by Auerbach’s account of what Tertullian wanted; not persuaded that every reader of Tertullian has felt this, or that the long tradition of figural interpretation has not included plenty of Christian writers who did understand what they called the Old Testament allegorically. But then Auerbach’s argument is all the more urgent. He is talking about a chance of understanding, not an old obligation, and this is where his interest in figura joins his later work.

The ostensible argument of Mimesis, the one Auerbach himself summarises at the end, is that ‘serious realism’ began with Stendhal and Balzac; and also began earlier, with figural interpretation. It had to begin again because the classical period got in the way, with its hierarchical rules – ‘under no circumstances might a tragic hero appear physically reduced, old, sick, frail.’ ‘However different medieval and modern realism may be, they are at one in this basic attitude’ – a refusal of ‘the doctrine of the levels of style’, that is. It’s a good story but at this point in time (or for this reader) another, more persistent, more poignant story takes over. We hear it in a wonderful phrase about Woolf, who displays ‘the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice’. Here, as with figura, we may need to hear Auerbach’s proposition as a wish rather than a declarative statement. Are there too many moments of reality and life to which we do not surrender ourselves? Or surrender ourselves only with prejudice?

Auerbach’s work is perhaps more a defence of the real, wherever and however it is found, than a record of its repeated discovery or representation. It needs to be defended against all kinds of abstracting and domineering enemies, not least in ourselves, the secret of whose success is memorably evoked in Borges’s postscript to his story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. The date is 1947, a year after the publication of Mimesis, and Borges writes that faced with the invasion of objects from an imaginary planet, ‘reality gave ground on more than one point.’ ‘The truth is that it hankered to give ground. Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate men.’ The timing is significant, but we shouldn’t use the date or the big words to make ourselves feel comfortable. We can lose sight of reality without even trying, and we do it every day.