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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.
"The oft-repeated reproach that Homer is a liar takes nothing from his effectiveness, he does not need to base his story on historical reality, his reality is powerful enough in itself; it ensnares us, weaving its web around us, and that suffices him. And this "real" world into which we are lured, exists for itself, contains nothing but itself; the Homeric poems conceal nothing, they contain no teaching and no second meaning. Homer can be analyzed, as we have essayed to do here, but he cannot be interpreted." (Auerbach in Mimesis, p. 13)
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
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
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, Poet of the
(1929). Auerbach argued that after Dante myth and legend became
history; he was the first great realist author, "the concrete
individual in his unity and wholeness; in that he has been followed by
all subsequent portrayers of man." Later Harold Bloom elaborated these
lines of thought when he wrote in Shakespeare:
The Invention of the Human (1998) that Shakespeare "invented the
human as we continue to know it." The other major authors and thinkers,
to whom Auerbach showed a lifelong interest, were Vico and
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). 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. . . . he saw the other
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)
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,
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
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
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
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." 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 Auerbach expressed in the essay 'Philology and Weltliteratur' (1952), saying in
the last paragraph, "We must
return, in admittedly altered circumstances, to the knowledge that
prenational medieval culture already possessed: the knowledge that the
spirit [Geist] is not
national. Paupertas and terra aliena:
this or something to this effect." Auerbach concluded his career as the
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."
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 has criticized that Auerbach's concept of realism is contradictory: ". . . the early examples of the uses of realism are quite different from those he uses in the later sections on Stendhal, Balzac, and the Goncourts. He uses the term realism in the book in the most diverse manner, yet still always referring to the "represented reality." (from A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, Volume 7, 1991) 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)