Erich Auerbach's Mimesis as a Meditation on the Shoah

By Richards, Earl Jeffrey | German Politics and Society, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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Erich Auerbach's Mimesis as a Meditation on the Shoah


Richards, Earl Jeffrey, German Politics and Society


Within the enormous body of critical writings dedicated to literary works devoted to the Shoah, the possibility of its very representation and the problems arising in the potential deformation of memory are frequent topics. In light of these issues, it might be helpful to examine a well-known work of literary scholarship, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, written between May 1942 and April 1945, as a potentially overlooked example of a highly sublimated allegorical meditation on the contemporary murder of Europe's Jews. Auerbach's classic work, which explicitly takes literary representation as its central theme, seems to use carefully and subtly selected examples from western literature as figures for current events.

Modern readers, such as Paul Bove, Seth Lehrer, and Jesse Gellrich, have detected a contemporary "subtext" in Auerbach's work. Their suggestive comments have not been taken far enough, probably because Rent Wellek, the great historian of European literary criticism, rejected them in the following terms: "It seems to me wrong to stress the topicality of the book, which is written sine ira et studio [without anger and with attentiveness]. Auerbach is of course clearly aware of historical forces and of the evolution of mankind."(1) True, there is no anger in Auerbach. While his literary critical approach admits no anger, it is acutely sensitive to the primary importance of the original historical situation of both the text and its interpretator. Ultimately he challenges his readers to reconstruct the context of his work.

Auerbach is perhaps better known to students of Romance literatures than to Germanists since his scholarship concentrates largely on medieval Latin, French, and Italian works. Yet it is difficult to categorize Auerbach's scholarship, though it is considered utterly exemplary of the best in stylistic analysis with a keen sense of the original sociological context of literary composition. Within the last five years, there has been an enormous renewal of interest in Auerbach's work in Germany. The reception of his work outside of Germany, while often insightful, has largely ignored the work's specific German intellectual roots.

Nevertheless, as he himself noted somewhat elusively, Mimesis is a very German work. Behind this coy observation lies the mystery of this work. In 1953 he explained laconically the very topical context in which he had written it: "Mimesis is quite consciously a book that a certain individual in a certain situation wrote in the early 1940s." Moreover, he notes, another objection has been that his "portrayal was much too time-bound and excessively determined by the present. But this was my intention."(2) This typically reticent observation on Auerbach's part has enormous implications in the current debate about the exploitation of the Holocaust after 1967,(3) for it indirectly documents the indifference toward the murder of Europe's Jews that was ultimately its own point of departure.

Who, then, was Auerbach as he wrote Mimesis? What was his situation in the early 1940s? The answer to these questions leads to a surprising and perhaps, at first view, improbable result: Auerbach's masterful history of the literary representation of reality revolves around the simultaneous impossibility of representing contemporary history. Auerbach's seemingly idiosyncratic selection of texts, the self-consciously fragmentary nature of his presentation, refer in an extraordinarily oblique and sublimated fashion to the events that he was witnessing, events that, while reported in neutral and Allied newspapers, led at best to a tepid response from the non-Jewish public. In the epilogue to Mimesis, Auerbach notes, again ever so laconically, that his book, now complete, must only find its readers, "nothing now remains but to find him--to find the reader that is. I hope that my study will reach its readers--both my friends of former years, if they are still alive, as well as all the others for whom it was intended.

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