Erich Auerbach's Mimesis-'Tis Fifty Years Since: A Reassessment

By Calin, William | Style, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Erich Auerbach's Mimesis-'Tis Fifty Years Since: A Reassessment


Calin, William, Style


Recent conferences at Stanford and at Groningen commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis (1946). [1] 'Tis fifty years since--now more than fifty--when appeared the first German edition of a scholarly volume that was recognized immediately to be one of the great books of criticism in our century. [2] Charles Muscatine reviewed the English translation as "one of those rare books that speak to everyone in the literate world" (448); and Ren[acute{e}] Wellek, who had reservations about Mimesis, nonetheless characterized it in 1991 as "a book of such scope and breadth, ranging as it does from Homer to Proust, combining so many methods so skillfully, raising so many questions of theory, history, and criticism, displaying so much erudition, insight and wisdom, that it was hailed as the most important and brilliant book in the field of aesthetics and literary history that had been published in the last fifty years" (113).

Fifty years later, at the end of our century, Auerbach's masterwork has lost little of its luster or even its immediacy. Whatever the criteria--translations of books into English, books in print, paperback editions readily available, sales, symposia, or conference sessions devoted to him, books and articles written about him--it would appear that, in America, as a foreign-language critic Auerbach stands second only to Roland Barthes in terms of continuing presence (Ziolkowski, Lindenberger). Whatever the evolution of our profession in methodology or in the acquisition of knowledge, students and their mentors turn to Auerbach with much the same enthusiasm and sense of discovery or of recovery as in the past. Many of us would say that Mimesis remains the most important single work of criticism in the modern age and, therefore, that Auerbach deserves a place among the handful of supreme literary scholars and critics.

Auerbach, together with Leo Spitzer, Ernst Robert Curtius, Karl Vossler, and Helmut Hatzfeld, form a circle or current of German-language academic criticism--humanist critics--the finest in their day. [3] These German and Austrian scholars combined vast scholarship and historical knowledge with a rare literary sensitivity and imagination; they specialized in all three major romance literatures, from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century; and they authored a rich, extensive corpus of original critical scholarship. Yet whatever their similarities--and there were many--they were scholars grounded in the tradition of classical German-university philology and literary history: each arrived at his own way of writing philology and literary history, i.e., at his own approach.

The method, in Mimesis as in Literary Language and Its Public (1958), is to submit a number of brief excerpts from longer texts to a close reading--stylistic analysis concerning features of grammar, syntax, and diction--that then leads to the consideration of broader questions of culture and society in their historical dimension and that then leads to or includes one of Auerbach's central concerns--the literary public and its social response to texts. Somewhat like Spitzer, Auerbach proceeds, back and forth, from the individual passage in a work of art to the style typical of the age, from the particular text or the page to universal principles. Ultimately, however, Auerbach's version of "the philological circle" transcends Stilforschung [stylistic study] or, rather, juxtaposes and fuses Stilforschung with what Wellek calls "historical sociology," hence Spitzer's complaint ("Development" 446), citing Aurelio Roncaglia, that his colleague was not a stylistician. [4] Because of his work in the historical socio logy of literature, in what W. Wolfgang Holdheim calls historical understanding, Auerbach, unlike Spitzer, is himself aware and makes his readers aware of historical process and change.

Auerbach's mastery of stylistic analysis on the page, as well as of the broader social and historical context, enabled him to appeal to philologists, historians of literature, formalists, and Marxists--pretty much at the same time. …

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