Auerbach’s Mimesis

(Veja em Português)

Please bear in mind that Auerbach does an elaborate discussion of syntax, rhetoric, character narrative, style. Contents, meaning, relation to reality, thinking mode are mentioned, but as an accessory. He is more concerned with the language usage as such and  has the merit, for ex. to show that although Italy didn’t exist, it existed as a language, funny though it may seem. It justifies he being here, because Dante kind of invented the Italian language and contributed to the invention of Italy.

I stress that because my general concern with Dante is more to how his idea can influence our interpretation of reality. Although I have a feeling that I write to myself, I cannot avoid mentioning that literary criticism has a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater or throw out the champagne with the cork, i.e, the form is put above the contents.

Additionally, one thing that is taken for granted, but not for me, is that literature can or could represent reality adequately. We are on the verge of beeing sent back to the days before literature, as we know it, with the advent of Internet, because literature only strives on our imagination while reading.  This uses only one sense, maybe a one dimensional communications method, while  Internet is almost three dimensional and access almost all of our senses. Or at least much more than reading and if properly and competently used, is a entirely different game and changes completely our sense of reality.

I’ll make some reflections first using Auerbach’s Mimesis and at the end of this post, I will suggest a perfect example on the possibilities Internet offers us in a Netflix project.

Not to mention that mankind has other cultures besides literature, specially printed on books. Take a look in that discussion to understand what I have in mind.

This is a subject in itself and I will eventually tackle it. For the moment, take a look at the following:

Transition from oral to  written culture


Back to Mimesis, I quote from Wikipedia (because you can’t find it in Portuguese and I will use it to translate:

Repeated here from  The Greek and the Middle Ages point of view as an introduction before exploring what there is of Dante in Mimesis.

Erich Auerbach (November 9, 1892 – October 13, 1957) was   a  German philologist and comparative scholar and critic of literature. His best-known work is Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a history of representation in Western literature from ancient to modern times and frequently cited as a classic in the study of realism in literature.[1]

Mimesis famously opens with a comparison between the way the world is represented in Homer’s Odyssey and the way it appears in the Bible. From these two seminal Western texts, Auerbach builds the foundation for a unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature, including even the Modernist novelists writing at the time Auerbach did his study. (1942/1945)

Mimesis gives an account of the way in which everyday life in its seriousness has been represented by many Western writers, from ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Petronius and Tacitus, early Christian writers such as AugustineMedieval writers such as Chretien de TroyesDante, and BoccaccioRenaissance writers such as MontaigneRabelaisShakespeare and Cervantes, seventeenth-century writers such as Molière and RacineEnlightenment writers such as Voltaire, nineteenth-century writers such as StendhalBalzacFlaubert, and Zola, all the way up to twentieth-century writers such as Proust, and Woolf. Despite his treatment of the many major works, Auerbach apparently did not think he was comprehensive enough, and apologized in the original publication in 1946 explaining that he had access only to the ‘insufficient’ resources available in the library at Istanbul University where he worked.[2] Many scholars consider this relegation to primary texts a happy accident of history, since in their view one of the great strengths of Auerbach’s book is its focus on fine-grained close reading of the original texts rather than an evaluation of critical works.

The mode of literary criticism in which Mimesis operates is often referred to among contemporary critics as historicism, since Auerbach largely regarded the way reality was represented in the literature of various periods to be intimately bound up with social and intellectual conventions of the time in which they were written. Auerbach considered himself a historical perspectivist in the German tradition (he mentioned Hegel in this respect) exploring specific features of stylegrammarsyntax, and diction claims about much broader cultural and historical questions. Of Mimesis, Auerbach wrote that his “purpose is always to write history.”

He is in the same German tradition of philology as Ernst CurtiusLeo Spitzer, and Karl Vossler, having a mastery of many languages and epochs and all-inclusive in its approach, incorporating just about any intellectual endeavor into the discipline of literary criticism.

Auerbach was a Romance language specialist, which explains his admitted bias towards treating texts from French compared to other languages.  Chaucer and Wordsworth are not mentioned even in passing, though Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf are given full chapters and Dickens and Henry Fielding make appearances.

Obviously all that scares up anyone, specially if adding all the languages involved. But you can use it as an Encyclopedia and as a scaffold to explore a perspective on Literature in its capacity to justify itself.

In Mimesis, I found in the cross reference and comment here the following about Dante since I will comment Auerbach’s book on Dante separately:

Farinata and Cavalcante

Perhaps the contents of pages 174/202 is a good example of what has to be balanced when one approaches the reading and comprehension of Dante’s Divine Comedy, more precisely, his Inferno.

Auerbach in his usual method, picks up Farinata and Calcante,  from the 10th canto of the Inferno which begins with Virgil and Dante walking along a secret pathway among flaming chests whose lids stand open. Virgil explains that they are the tombs of heretics and atheists, and promises Dante fulfillment of his hinted wish to communicate with one of the spirits there confined. Farinata pops up reciting O Tosco.

They have a conversation interrupted by the father of Dante’s early friend the poet Guido Cavalcanti. Notice that Dante represents Cavalcanti and Farinata as neighbors in the same tomb in Hell, but without any interaction between them.


Bear in mind that Dante uses 21 lines in this interaction and the whole of his presentation of what happens with those who choose heresy  takes only some 70 lines.  Auerbach himself uses 26 lines in his analysis. Take a look on a modern analysis of that under two sources:

Teodolinda  Barolini coments on canto 10

The University of Texas on canto 10

I can see that the water runs pretty deep, but where is the baby?

Perhaps on what Auerbach says at page 277 and I quote:

“Actually the Christian unity of the cosmos, and the figural preservation of the earthly personality in the divine judgment, led to a very strong concept of the indestructible permanence of the individual (most strongly evident in Dante, but also to be seen elsewhere). And this was first endangered when Christian unity and Christian immortality no longer dominated the European concept of the universe.”

Or what he says in page 321, and I quote:

“With the first dawn of humanism, there began to be a sense that the events of classical history and legend and also those of the Bible were not separated from the present simply by an extent of time but also by completely different conditions of life. Humanism with its program of renewal of antique forms of life and expression creates a historical perspective in depth such as no previous epoch known to us possessed: the humanists see antiquity in historical depth, and, against that background, the dark epochs of the intervening Middle Ages. It makes no difference what errors of conception and interpretation they may have been guilty of in detail-the vision in perspective was gained. From Dante on it is possible to detect traces of such a historical perspective; in the sixteenth century it grows more distinct and more widely known, and even though, as we shall see, the tendency to accept antiquity as an absolute model and to neglect everything pertaining to the intervening centuries threatened to expel historical perspective from men’s consciousness again, it was never successful to the extent of reestablishing the autarchic life natural to antique culture or the historical naivete of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In addition there is in the sixteenth century the effect of the great discoveries which abruptly widened the cultural and geographic horizon and hence also men’s conception of possible forms of human life. The various European peoples came to regard themselves as national entities and hence grew conscious of their distinctive characteristics. Finally the schism in the Church contributed to differentiating various groups of people. In consequence the comparatively simple contrast of Greek or Roman versus barbarian or Christian versus heathen was replaced by a much more complex picture of human society. This did not happen all at once; it was prepared over a long period of time; but in the sixteenth century it progresses by leaps and bounds, adding enormously both to the breadth of perspective and to the number of individuals acquiring it. The world of realities in which men live is changed; it grows broader, richer in possibilities, limitless. And it changes correspondingly when it appears as the subject matter of artistic representation. The sphere of life represented in a particular instance is no longer the only one possible or a part of that only and clearly circumscribed one.”

Or what he says at page 323, not only about Dante, but about the whole context which was changing, specially on the Shakeaspeare saw it:

“..the drama of Christ is no longer the general drama, is no longer the point of confluence of all the streams of human destiny. The new dramatized history has a specific human action as its center, derives its unity from that center, and the road has been opened for an autonomously human tragedy. The great order of the past – Fall, Divine Sacrifice, Last Judgment – recedes, the human drama finds its order within itself; and it is at this point that antique precedent intervenes with plot-complication, crisis, and tragic resolution; the division of the action into acts is from the same source. But the freedom of tragedy, and the realm of man generally, no longer acknowledge the limits of antiquity. The dissolution of medieval Christianity, running its course through a series of great crises, brings out a dynamic need for self-orientation, a will to trace the secret forces of life. Through this need and will, magic and science, the elemental sphere and the moral and human sphere, become mutually related. An immense system of sympathy seems to pervade the universe. Furthermore Christianity had conceived the problems of humanity (good and evil, guilt and destiny) more excitingly, antithetically, and even paradoxically than had antiquity. Even after the solution contained in the drama of original sin and salvation began to lose its validity, the more deeply stirring conception of the problem and the related ideas of the nature of man long remained influential. In Shakespeare’s work the liberated forces show themselves as fully developed yet still permeated with the entire ethical wealth of the past. Not much later the restrictive countermovements gained the upper hand. Protestantism and the Counter Reformation, absolutistic ordering of society and intellectual life, academic and puristic imitation of antiquity, rationalism and scientific empiricism, all operated together to prevent Shakespeare’s freedom in the tragic from continuing to develop after him. Thus Shakespeare’s ethical and intellectual world is much more agitated, multilayered, and, apart from any specific dramatic action, in itself more dramatic than that of antiquity. The very ground on which men move and actions take their course is more unsteady and seems shaken by inner disturbances. There is no stable world as background, but a world which is perpetually reengendering itself out of the most varied forces. No reader or spectator can fail to sense this; but it may not be superfluous to describe the dynamism of Shakespeare’s thought in somewhat greater detail and give an example of it. In antique tragedy the philosophizing is generally undramatic; it is sententious, aphoristic (as by proverbs, for ex.), is abstracted from the action and generalized, is detached from the personage and his fate. In Shakespeare’s plays it becomes personal; it grows directly out of the speaker’s immediate situation and remains connected with it. It is not a result of the experience gained in the action, nor an effective rejoinder in the stychomythia (dialogue in which two characters speak alternate lines of verse, used as a stylistic device in ancient Greek drama); it is dramatic self-scrutiny seeking the right mode and moment for action or doubting the possibility of finding them. When the most revolutionary of the Greek tragic poets, Euripides, attacks the class distinctions between men, he does so in a sententiously constructed verse to the effect that only the name dishonors the slave; otherwise a noble slave is nowise inferior to a free man.”

Dante and Shakeaspeare.

Dante and Shakeaspeare II.

References to Dante in the 17th century

The Netflix project I suggest is Nobel. Besides being a perfect example where a specific human action is centered, its main concern is Evil, which appears completely on its own, i.e., it is something inside of us, and not as an outside projection such as an action of the Devil, or whatever external factor affecting us. Erling Riiser is the 21rst century Dante.

The subject of this series is the kind of thing that moves me in my quest to figure out evil, trying to understand this harsh and absurd reality we are stuck with and above all, try to  control it and see if there is anything that could be done to leave it out or neutralize it.

Last but not least, before we jump to Dante: Poet of the Secular World, it has to be said that above all, Mimesis is highly readable and enjoyable placing Auerbach in a class by itself.



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