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The march of Humanism

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; Erich Auerbach, translated from the German by Willard R. Trask, with a new introduction by Edward W. Said; Princeton University Press: 580 pp, $19.95 paper

October 26, 2003|Guy Davenport | Guy Davenport, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, is the author, most recently, of "The Death of Picasso."

A library becomes a museum when you read the books. The things to see in a museum have been chosen. People who choose, and can give the reason for their choice, use an ancient Greek word for themselves -- "critic." Critics at their most useful are those who can guide us through a library when we are turning it into a museum by reading the books. They tend to be very special people, these guides to hundreds of books. One of the greatest was the Dane Georg Brandes (1842-1927), whose six-volume "Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature" is as readable as a good novel and as insightful as his later study of Shakespeare that Joyce worked into the library chapter in "Ulysses."

Harry Levin's "The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists," on the French novel from Flaubert to Proust, is another example; Hugh Kenner's "The Pound Era," on 20th century Modernism, is another. Vernon Louis Parrington's "Main Currents in American Thought" demonstrates what happens when the guide to the library falls short of being a fine stylist.

The 20th century gave us three masterful guides through the library, all written while a new barbarity was burning and slaughtering Europe: Johan Huizinga's "The Autumn of the Middle Ages," Ernst Robert Curtius' "European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages" and Erich Auerbach's "Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature." Huizinga died in Holland in 1945, under house arrest by the Nazis. Curtius and Auerbach published their books in Switzerland. Auerbach was Jewish, and Curtius had dedicated his book to the great Jewish Humanist Aby Warburg. Auerbach wrote "Mimesis" in Istanbul, 1,000 miles from his library in Germany. He was allowed to consult books in a Catholic monastery by its librarian, Father Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII). What distinguishes these three books and gives them their status as classic works is that they are readable, written with the authority that comes from deep learning and full of information worth knowing.

Princeton's 50th anniversary edition of "Mimesis" has an introduction by the late literary and cultural critic Edward Said that by itself is worth the price of the book. It's the only preface I know of that I wish were longer, serving as both an analysis of Auerbach and a framework placing him in his scholarly and historical context.

Auerbach's plan is simple: He takes texts, usually quite short, from the full range of the Western canon and discusses them sensitively and thoroughly. He keeps track of two matters: how each writer understands reality and how the aristocratic stance of ancient literature was beguiled by Christianity into depicting the lives of the humble with dignity and understanding. He has an artist's eye. His first text is Odysseus having his feet washed by his old nurse Eurykleia, who recognizes a scar on his leg that she last saw when he was a teenager and thus sees through his disguise; his final text is from "To the Lighthouse," an excerpt in which Mrs. Ramsay is fitting a wool stocking on her son. These images rhyme.

Homer's passage is put beside Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22). Both are utterly archaic texts; we do not know when they were written. Auerbach follows the 18th century philosopher Giambattista Vico in believing that Homer and Genesis survive from a primitive age of oral literature. Homer is expansive and generous; Genesis is terse and economical. Homer interrupts his foot-washing scene to tell how Odysseus got the scar on his leg; the Genesis poet tells his scary episode in 7 1/2 inches of Bible page.

What does Auerbach mean by "reality"? He admits in an epilogue that cinema is infinitely more realistic than prose narrative (forgetting that movies are accompanied by soundtrack music and that acting conventions and Comstockery compromise their claim to realism). He means, however, how aware a narrator is of his world -- what gets attention and description. In narrative, as in graphic art, there is a foreground and a background. There are rhetorical heights and depths. The greatest writers are those who (as Brandes said of Shakespeare) depict the infinitely small and the infinitely large. The extremes of such a range are a precise realism (as when Dante describes a sinner's squint as the look of someone threading a needle) and the grand manner of Racine or Milton.

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