Said and the Mythmaking of Auerbach's Mimesis

By Hwang, Hyeryung | CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Said and the Mythmaking of Auerbach's Mimesis


Hwang, Hyeryung, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture


A faulty premise does not always lead to a meaningless conclusion. This statement seems to betray what Erich Auerbach believed when he attempted to define Weltliteratur and the role of philology: "a good point of departure must be exact and objective" ("Philology" 15). When we think about how Edward W. Said based his whole idea of "secular criticism" on so-called "inexact' historical facts, the question around a "non-objective" point of departure becomes complicated. Many scholars have taken issue with Said's mystification of Auerbach's exilic position in constructing his own brand of secular criticism and exhilic humanism. In addition, the philological methodology for comparatists Said had in mind also faded. I revisit the critical discourse on Said's unwitting participation in the mythmaking of Auerbach's Mimesis from a different perspective in the hope that it might give us a reason to rescue philology from its marginalized status in US-American scholarship. What should be learned from Said's mythmaking of Mimesis, I argue, is not the commonly held belief of the impossibility of philology as a discipline of archival facts. Rather, the "mythical rigidity," in Walter Benjamin's words, inherent in Said's reading suggests that philology can be a methodology for historical synthesis. In such a synthesis the dialectical tension between texts and history amounts to an understanding of the text in its historical spirit to the synthesis of "fact" and "truth."

The essence of Said's theory of secular criticism is the refusal to belong to a dominant culture and totalizing forms of critical systems, that is, to remain in "exile." Said suggests Auerbach as the best model of a secular scholar since he had developed his theory from the vantage point of his exile in Istanbul. Mimesis, according to Said, exemplifies the exile's point of view as the ultimate interpretation of European history was written or could be only written outside Auerbach's European homeland which he had to flee because of his Jewish background. Mimesis owed its existence to the very fact of an Oriental viewpoint, a non-Occidental exile and homelessness. And if this is so, then Mimesis itself is not only a reaffirmation of the Western cultural tradition, but also a work built on an alienation from it. Auerbach's attention to the limits of the book's preparation and the obstacles that Auerbach had to face as a philologist are palpable in Auerbach's own postscript in Mimesis, in which he describes his exile in Turkey from 1933 to 1945:

I may also mention that the book was written during the war and at Istanbul, where the libraries are not well equipped for European studies. International communications were impeded; I 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. Hence it is possible and even probable that I overlooked things which I ought to have considered and that I occasionally assert something which modern research disproved or modified ... 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. (557)

It is the multiple ironies of Auerbach's situation to which Said brings us by making "the drama of this little bit of modesty" ("Introduction" 6) his starting point. Said wants us to understand how Auerbach performed an act of cultural survival of the highest importance: not only did he risk superficial writing and being out of date in research, but also "the possibility of not writing and thus falling victim to the concrete dangers of exile; the loss of texts, traditions, continuities that make up the very web of a culture" (Said, "Introduction" 6).

Some scholars criticized Said's misunderstanding of Auerbach's exilic position since then. …

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