Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Auerbach's Shakespeare

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Auerbach's Shakespeare

Article excerpt

IN THE EPILOGUE TO HIS GREAT WORK of literary criticism, Mimesis, Erich Auerbach reflects on the lack of European books and library support for his project. A scholar of Romance languages and literatures, Auerbach had been compelled to leave his post at the University of Marburg because of the growing nazification of the German universities. He had been declared a "full Jew" in October 1935, and his only recourse was to emigrate. German academics had been trickling in to Istanbul, and that city's university had welcomed emigre scholars, not least in part, out of the desire to modernize curricula and research in the wake of Kemal Ataturk's social and political reforms. Auerbach arrived in Istanbul in the summer of 1936, and from 1942 to 1945 he wrote the chapters on western European literature that would become, when published in Berne in 1946, his career-defining study. (1)

He closed this work by remarking that the libraries in Istanbul were "not well equipped for European studies." He had "to dispense with almost all periodicals, with almost all the more recent investigations, and in some cases with reliable critical editions of my texts." Whatever errors that resulted from this "lack of technical literature," should be excused; so, too, should be the fact that his book has no notes. But, "on the other hand it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing." (2)

Readers of Mimesis have long taken this statement at face value. It has been invoked by scholars of the past half century as part of a larger argument about relationships between philology and exile, Jewish intellectualism and European culture, and the very brilliance of Auerbach himself. It has resonated with the remarks of Leo Spitzer, Auerbach's predecessor in Istanbul, who remembered, upon taking up a professorship at Johns Hopkins in 1936, "unfortunately, there were almost no books." (3) It has chimed with the accounts of other European scholars in their Turkish exile, that their removal from the worlds of learning was both physical and bibliographical. (4) It has enhanced Edward Said's intuition that Auerbach himself showed up in Istanbul armed only with a personal library and a prodigious memory. (5) And, for my own work on Auerbach and emigre philology, it has provoked a reflection on the nature of the philological imagination itself: an imagination carved out of the memories of libraries and learning, an imagination resonant not only with the historical reality of the ausgewandert, but with the literary legacy of Shakespeare's Prospero: "Me, poor man!--my library / Was dukedom large enough." (6)

We now know his statements to be misleading. As Kader Konuk has shown in his recent book on Auerbach in Istanbul, libraries did exist. (7) Even though there was nothing like the Prussian State Library in Berlin or the Marburg University collection, there were archives of ancient and medieval manuscripts, museums rich with Greek and Roman artifacts, and a University of Istanbul that offered a more than respectable collection of literatures and scholarship in European languages. There was, too, the Librarie Hachette in Istanbul that stocked French and German books, as well as other bookshops catering to European clientele. And there was, perhaps most remarkably, the monastic library of San Pietro di Galata--overseen by Monsignor Roncalli, the man who would become Pope John XXIII. Auerbach read the Patrologia Latina in its study, and Konuk suggests that, browsing in that archive's shelves, Auerbach came to understand the nature of medieval figurality and patristic analysis. The information Konuk gathers on the libraries, bookstores, and European literary circles of wartime Istanbul undermines "Auerbach's assertion that Mimesis owed its genesis to the lack of 'a rich and specialized library. …

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