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Erich Auerbach (1892-1957)


German philologist, educator, critic, and literary historian, originally trained as a lawyer. Erich Auerbach's most famous book is Mimesis (1946), an account of the genesis of the novel. It was written during WW II in Istanbul, where Auerbach had escaped from Nazi Germany. Since its appearance it has been one the most widely read scholarly works on literary history and criticism. 

"If the text of the Biblical narrative, then, is so greatly in need of interpretation on the basis of its own content, its claim to absolute authority forces it still further in the same direction. Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements m its structure of universal history. This becomes increasingly difficult the further our historical environment is removed from that of the Biblical books; and if these nevertheless maintain their claim to absolute authority, it is inevitable that they themselves be adapted through interpretative transformation. ." (Mimesis: The Reprentation of Reality in Western Literature, translated from the German by Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953, p. 15)

Erich Auerbach was born in Berlin into an upper-middle class family of assimilated Jews. His father was a prosperous merchant. Auerbach grew up in privileged circumstances in Charlottenburg, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. At the French gymnasium, an elite school, he underwent a training in classical studies and in reading and writing French. In 1913 Auerbach received a Doctor of Law degree from the University of Heidelberg, where got to know several members of the Max Weber circle. His thesis was entitled Die Teilnahme in den Vorarbeiten zu einem neuen Strafgesetzbuch. During World War I Auerbach served in the German army on the Western Front. He was wounded in the foot and limped for the rest of his life. For his services, Auerbach was decorated with an Iron Cross (2nd Class).

Even before the war Auerbach renounced law for literature. He changed disciplines and earned his doctorate in Romance philology from the University of Greifswald in 1921, where his advicer Erhard Lommatzsch had moved. His dissertation was entitled Zur Technik der Frührenaissancenovelle in Italien und Frankreich. In 1922 he married Marie Mankiewitz, whose family was the largest private shareholder of the Deutsche Bank. They had one son, Clemens; he was not circumcised at birth. Marie's younger sister married  Raoul Hausmann, a founding member of the Dada movement in Berlin.

From 1923 to 1929 Auerbach served as a librarian of the Prussian State Library in Berlin, spending these years just reading, translating Giambattista Vico's Scienza nuova, and writing his first book of Dante. After a paper on Vico in 1922, Auerbach's German translation Scienza nuova appeared in 1924 and then in 1927 his translation of Croce's introduction to Vico.

At the age of thirty-seven, Auerbach was appointed the chair of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, succeeding Leo Spitzer, who had moved to Cologne.

Auerbach spent only six years as a professor in Germany. To keep his job, he took the oath of allegiance to Hitler in 1934. In Marburg he gained recognition with his work Dante als Dichter der iridischen Welt (1929). Auerbach argued that Dante was our first great realist author and the first to configure "man, not as a remote legendary hero, not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical reality, but man as we know him in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness . . . " (Dante: Poet of the Secular World, translated by Ralph Manheim, The University of Chicago Press, 1961, p. 175) Later Harold Bloom elaborated these lines of thought when he wrote in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) that "I join Johnsonian tradition in arguing, nearly four centuries after Shakespeare, that he went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it." (Ibid., p. xviii) The other major authors and thinkers, to whom Auerbach showed a lifelong interest, were Vico and Benedetto Croce.

Following Hitler's election as chancellor of German in 1933, a law was passed which would make impossible for Jews to hold official positions. Aurbach was dismissed by the Nazis in 1935. The last essay Auerbach published before his emigration was 'Giambattista Vico und die Idee der Philologie' (1936, Gianbattista Vico and the Idea of Philology). He emphasized that in the center of Vico's conception of mankind was that "what all human beings hold in common is the entirety of historical reality, in all its greatness and its horror. Not only did he see historical individuals in their totality; he also saw that he was himself a human being and that it made human to understand them. But Vico did not create the human race in his own likeness; he did not see himself in the other. Rather, he saw the other in himself." (Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 35)

With a letter from Croce, and support of Spitzer, Auerbach went to Istanbul to teach at the Istanbul State University. His wife Maria and son Clemens followed him a little bit later. With them came sixty-odd cases of books. Like other German émigrés, the Auerbachs settled in the suburb of Bebek. In a letter to Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), exiled in Paris, Auerbach said that Istanbul is "still a fundamentally Hellenistic city, for the Arab, Armenian, Jewish, and the now dominant Turkish element, too, all meld or coexist in an entity that is likely held together by the old Hellenistic kind of cosmopolitanism." (East-West Mimesis: Auerbach in Turkey by Kader Konuk, 2010, p. 56)

Being a foreign scholar, the university paid Auerbach a higher salary than to Turkish professors. In the academic year 1939-1940, he delivered a lecture on Dante's Commedia. It was a risky move. The work was banned in the Ottoman Empire, because Dante had placed the Prophet Muhammad in the Inferno, to suffer there eternally. "While I on seeing him was all intent, / he looked at me, and opening with his hands / his breast, he said: "See now how I am cloven! /  Behold how torn apart Mahomet is!" (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume I: Inferno, translated with commentary by Courtney Langdon, 1918, p. 115 )

Between May 1942 and April 1945, Auerbach composed his most famous work, Mimesis, which was first published in Berne, Switzerland, in 1946, and seven years later in English by Princeton University Press. Throughout his stay in Turkey, Auerbach's mindset remained Eurocentric. Moreover, the libraries which he used to conduct his research, contained mostly books in European languages. There were also two German-language bookshops in the city.

Mimesis was written in opposition to Nazi barbarism to defend the story of Western humanism. Noteworthy, when Auerbach opened the first chapter of his book with an analysis of the scene in Homer's Odyssey, in which Eurykleia recognizes the hero's scar, he never mentions anywhere that the epic had links to Asia Minor.

". . . Erich Auerbach’s great study of the genesis of realistic representation, Mimesis (1946), combining philology with a European tradition of Geistesgeschichte, demonstrated that style itself was socially and historically conditioned. Just as Montaigne had argued that each man bears the whole form of the human condition, Auerbach showed how local details of syntax, description, and dialogue could be understood in historical terms, for writers of each period constructed reality in different configurations of language." (The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 7: Modernism and the New Criticism, edited by A. Walton Litz, Louis Menand and Lawrence Rainey, 2008, p. 338)

The American thinker and literary critic Edward W. Said, for whom Auerbach represented a major figure of an alternative, secular humanism, has stated: "No reader of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, one of the most admired and influential books of literary criticism ever written, has failed to be impressed by the circumstances of the book's actual writing." (The World, the Text, and the Critic by Edward W. Said, 1983, p. 5)  No boubt, the working conditions in exile were not ideal: Auerbach did not get into his hands all the literature he needed, but he received help from many people, such as Cardinal Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), who provided him with access to the rich library at the Dominican monastery of San Pietro de Galata (St. Peter and Paul).

Commenting upon his isolation (which he, as a matter of fact, exaggerated), Auerbach remrked in the 'Epilogue' to Mimesis: "On the other hand it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. 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." (Ibid., p. 557) Two smaller studies dating from this period appeared in Finland in the journal Neuphilologische Mitteilungen.

In 1947 Auerbach moved to the United States. Having been cast out of Europe, he  decided not to return to the divided Germany. For a short period, Auerbach was employed as a teacher at Pennsylvania State University. Due to a preexisting heart problem, he had to leave because he could not be insured by the university's insurance company.

Before Auerbach was appointed (with the help of Erwin Panofsky) Professor of French and Romance philology at Yale University, he spent a year, upon the invitation by Robert Oppenheimer, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1949-50. When he was offered a chair the University of Marburg, he declined. His alienation from the modern world, which had invented the most dangerous forms of nationalism, Auerbach expressed in the essay 'The Philology of World Literature' (1952), saying in the last paragraph: "Yes, our philological home is the earth. It can no longer be the nation. The most precious and necessary thing that philologists inherit may be their national language and culture. But it is only in losing—or overcoming—this inheritance that it can have this effect. We must now return—albeit under different conditions—to what the pre-nation-state culture of the Middle Ages already possessed, the knowledge the the human spirit is not itself national." (Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, p. 264) Auerbach concluded his career as the first Sterling Professor of Romance Philology at Yale.

In the last years of his life, Auerbach was becoming a legendary figure in the U.S. academic community: "Jew by birth (Israélite de naissance), agnoctic by formation and cast of mind, painter of Greco-Roman culture and reader of the Church Fathers and Dante, [Auerbach] seemed to us to embody the precious qualities of the European humanist of the time of Lessing, Herder and Goethe". (Henri Peyre, in 'Typology and the Holocaust: Erich Auerbach and Judeo-Christian Europe' by Malachi Haim Hacohen, in Central European Jewish Émigrés and the Shaping of Postwar Culture: Studies in Memory of Lilian Furst (1931-2009), edited by Julie Mell and Malachi Hacohen, 2014, p. 73) Auerbach died in Gaylord Sanatorium, Wallingford, Connecticut, on October 13, 1957. In his final book, Literary Language & Its Public in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (1958), he stated, "My purpose is always to write history." 

Mimesis focused on changing conceptions of reality as they are reflected in literary history. Auerbach's point of view constantly moves between the content and analysis of the language and such questions as the difference between the high and low style. The word "mimesis" has almost the same meaning as "mime," but is broadly translated as "imitation." Auerbach starts from Homer and continues throught the texts of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, etc. ending with such writers as Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. Often he first focuses on stylistic analysis and interpretations of meaning, and from these comments he moves to broader observations on social history and culture. Although Auerbach analyzes writers' attitudes toward reality, he does not rush to give the reader his own definition of the concept "realism." Auerbach's idea is to approach the subject from different angles, through writers and a selection of excerpts from wide variety of texts, mostly from France and Italy. From Scandinavian writers Ibsen is settled with a few sentences and about Russian realism Auerbach writes: ". . . remembering it came into its own only during the nineteenth century and indeed only during the second half of it, we cannot escape the observation that it is based on a Christian and traditionally patriarchal concept of the creatural dignity of every human being regardless of social rank and position, and hence that it is fundamentally related to old-Christian than to modern occidental realism. The enlightened, active bourgeoisie, with its assumption of economic and intellectual leadership, which everywhere else underlay modern culture in general and modern realism in particular, seems to have scarcely existed in Russia." (Ibid., p. 521)

According to Auerbach, Stendhal and Balzac broke the rigid separation of stylistic levels, dating from classical antiquity, in which the low, comic mode was reserved for the description of ordinary, everyday reality, and tragic, the problematic, the serious within everyday life was depicted in the high style. But before these French writers, who did not separate the serious and the realistic, the unification of styles was seen in Dante's Commedia. Christ's passion, in which the low and the sublime were combined, broke down the hierarchical rules of literary depiction for the first time. Modern realistic view of the world was fully developed in the character of Julien Sorel from Stendhal's novel The Red and the Black (1830) – Sorel's tragic life is deeply connected with the historical, social, and political conditions of the period.

René Wellek criticized in A History of Modern Criticism: Volume 7, German, Russian, and Eastern European Criticism, 1900-1950 (1991) Auerbach's concept of realism: the early examples of the uses of realism are quite different from those used in the later sections. Also the concept of mimesis has been defined in many ways in contemporary aesthetics, referring sometimes to the inner world of consciousness. Against the view of the novel as a realistic representation of human experience, structuralists and deconstructionists have emphasized the self-referentiality of all literature. Auerbach himself insisted, that the New Criticism was a threat to scholarship.

For further reading: Erich Auerbach and the Secular World: Literary Criticism, Historiography, Post-colonial Theory and Beyond by Jon Nixon (2022); Erich Auerbach - Kulturphilosoph im Exil by Matthias Bormuth (2020); Erich Auerbach e Walter Benjamin tra figura e Jetztzeit: una considerazione teologico-politica by Leonardo Arigone (2020); Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity: The World According to Auerbach, Tanpınar, and Edib by E. Khayyat (2019); 'Old Testament Realism in the Writings of Erich Auerbach' by James I. Porter, in Jews and the Ends of Theory, edited by Shai Ginsburg, Martin Land, and Jonathan Boyarin (2019); The Pen Confronts the Sword: Exiled German Scholars Challenge Nazism by Avihu Zakai (2018); 'Erich Auerbach and the Crisis of German Philology,' in Jewish Exiles and European Thought in the Shadow of the Third Reich: Baron, Popper, Strauss, Auerbach by David Weinstein and Avihu Zakai (2017); 'Auerbach at Saints Peter and Paul: Mimesis as Figural Autobiography' by James Adam Redfield, in Domenicani a Costantinopoli prima e dopo l’impero ottomano: Storie, immaginie documenti d’archivio, edited by Claudio Monge and Silvia Pedone (2017); Erich Auerbach and the Crisis of German Philology by Avihu Zakai (2016); 'Erich Auerbach: The Critic in Exile,' in This Thing We Call Literature by Arthur Krystal (2016); 'Typology and the Holocaust: Erich Auerbach  and Judeo-Christian Europe' by Malachi Haim Hacohen, in Religions 3 (2012); East-West Mimesis: Auerbach in Turkey by Kader Konuk (2010); 'Introduction to Erich Auerbach "Passio as Passion"' by Martin Elsky, in Criticism, 43:3 (2001); 'Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority' by Aamir R. Mufti, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998); Literary History and the Challenge of Philology, edited by Seth Lerer (1996); A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950: Volume 7, by René Wellek (1991); Literary Criticism and the Structures of History by G. Green (1982) 

Selected works:

  • Die Teilnahme in den Vorarbeiten zu einem neuen Strafgesetzbuch, 1913
  • Zur Technik der Frührenaissancenovelle in Italien und Frankreich, 1921 (doctoral thesis)
  • Giambattista Vico: Die neue Wissenschaft, 1924 (introduction and translation)
  • Dante als Dichter der iridischen Welt, 1929
    - Dante, Poet of the Secular World (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1961)
  • Vico und Herder, 1932 (in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geschichte)
  • Der Schriftsteller Montaigne, 1932
  • Giambattista Vico und die Idee der Philologie, 1936
  • Figura, 1938 (in Archivum Romanicum 22)
  • Passio als Leidenschaft, 1941 (in Criticism 43)
  • Über Pascals politische Theorie, 1941 (in Vier Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der französischen Bildung, 1951)
  • Franz von Assisi in der Komödie, 1944 (in Neue Dantestudien)
  • Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abenländischen Literatur, 1946 (2nd ed. 1959)
    - Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (translated by Willard R. Trask, 1953)
    - Mimesis: todellisuudenkuvaus länsimaisessa kirjallisuudessa (suomentanut Oili Suominen, 1992)
  • Vico and aesthetic historicism, 1948 (in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism)
  • Introducion aux études de philologie romane, 1949
    - Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature (translated by Guy Daniels, 1961)
  • Vier Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der französischen Bildung, 1951
    - 'On the Political Theory of Pascal,' 'La Cour et la Ville,' 'The Aesthetic Dignity of the "Fleurs du Mal"' (translated by Ralph Manheim, in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, 1959) 
  • 'Philologie der Weltliteratur,' 1952 (in Weltliteratur: Festgabe für Fritz Strich zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Walter Muschg and E. Staiger)
    - 'Philology and Weltliteratur' (translated by Edward and Marie Said, in Centennial Review, 1969)
    - Maailmankirjallisuuuden filologia (suom. Harry Lönnroth ja Taina Vanharanta, 2018)
  • Typological Symbolism in Medieval Literature, 1952 (in Yale French Studies)
  • Vico und der Volksgest, 1955 (in Wirtschaft und Kultursystem; Alexander Rüstow zum 70. Geburtstag)
  • Literatursprache und Publikum in der lateinischen Spätantike und im Mittelalter, 1958
    - Literary Language & Its Public in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1965)
  • Vico's Contribution to Literary Criticism, 1958 (in Studia Philologica et Litteraria in Honorem L. Spitzer, edited by A. G. Hatcher & K. L. Selig)
  • Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, 1959 (foreword by Paolo Valesio)
  • Gesammelte Aufsätze zur romanischen Philologie, 1967
  • Erich Auerbachs Briefe an Martin Hellweg (1939-1950), 1997 (edited by Martin Vialon)
  • Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature - New and Expanded Edition, 2003 (with a new introduction by Edward W. Said)
  • Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, 2014 (edited and with an introduction by James I. Porter; translated by Jane O. Newman)

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