Erich Auerbach and the Reading Public

The full title of Auerbach’s monumental project is Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. It is an examination how writers went about the work of portraying the world around them in a way that was comprehensible and recognizable to their readers. The analysis covers every major stage and stylistic program of the European literary tradition, beginning with the Homeric epics and the Torah and ending with 20th century modernism. Each chapter represents a new development in aesthetic attitude and approach to creative representation. Auerbach chooses a work that is exemplary of its time and surveys the text’s language and theme. It is intended that the text act as an artifact and that it disclose the identity and attributes of the era of which it was a part. As a work of literary criticism, I’d say Mimesis is unexceptional. Auerbach is able to provide unique interpretation for only a few of the text, those that he is most familiar and has made a career writing about. The rest he just reproduces the standard interpretations that are already widely accepted and which offer little besides a starting point for more penetrating analysis. At its worst, Mimesis feels like an undergraduate lecture, albeit an exquisitely composed and unusually erudite undergraduate lecture. I think the work is more interesting and more useful as an historical treatise. Auerbach is able to distill the tastes, attitudes, emotions, manners of speech, and modes of thinking of an entire age into 20 or 30 pages, and he’s perfectly accurate, remarkably effective. His most profound insights have to do not with the texts under consideration but with the people who produced those texts and who read them. Invariably we are talking about an elite class of folk when we are talking about literary audiences. These are individuals who shaped history, who led society from one age to the next. We learn more about the way they thought and how they saw the world by investigating their entertainments and fantasies than we do by studying their achievements and aspirations. There are few better scholars of the European ruling classes than Erich Auerbach. What he has to say about them is endlessly fascinating.

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