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boundary 2 31.2 (2004) 11-34

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Erich Auerbach, Critic of the Earthly World

. . . human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them to give birth to themselves.
—Gabriel García Márquez

The influence and enduring reputation of books of criticism are, for the critics who write them and hope to be read for more than one season, dispiritingly short. Since World War Two the sheer volume of books appearing in English has risen to huge numbers, thus further ensuring if not ephemerality, then a relatively short life and hardly any influence at all. Books of criticism have usually come in waves associated with academic trends, most of which are quickly replaced by successive shifts in taste, fashion, or genuine intellectual discovery. Thus only a small number of books seem perennially present and, by comparison with the vast majority of their counterparts, to have an amazing staying power. Certainly this is true of Erich Auerbach's magisterial Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, [End Page 11] published by Princeton University Press exactly fifty years ago in a satisfyingly readable English translation by Willard R. Trask.

As one can immediately judge by its subtitle, Auerbach's book is by far the largest in scope and ambition out of all the other important critical works of the past half century. Its range covers literary masterpieces from Homer and the Old Testament right through to Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, although as Auerbach says apologetically at the end of the book, for reasons of space he had to leave out a great deal of medieval literature as well as some crucial modern writers like Pascal and Baudelaire. He was to treat the former in his last, posthumously published book, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, the latter in various journals and a collection of his essays, Scenes from the Drama of European Literature. In all these works Auerbach preserves the same essayistic style of criticism, beginning each chapter with a long quotation from a specific work cited in the original language, followed immediately by a serviceable translation (German in the original Mimesis, first published in Bern in 1946; English in most of his subsequent work), out of which a detailed explication de texte unfolds at a leisurely and ruminative pace; this in turns develops into a set of memorable comments about the relationship between the rhetorical style of the passage and its socio-political context, a feat that Auerbach manages with a minimum of fuss and with virtually no learned references. He explains in the concluding chapter of Mimesis that, even had he wanted to, he could not have made use of the available scholarly resources, first of all because he was in wartime Istanbul when the book was written and no Western research libraries were accessible for him to consult, second because had he been able to use references from the extremely voluminous secondary literature, the material would have swamped him and he would never have written the book. Thus along with the primary texts that he had with him, Auerbach relied mainly on memory and what seems like an infallible interpretive skill for elucidating relationships between books and the world they belonged to.

Even in English translation, the hallmark of Auerbach's style is an unruffled, at times even lofty and supremely calm, tone conveying a combination of quiet erudition allied with an overridingly patient and loving confidence in his mission as scholar and philologist. But who was he, and what sort of background and training did he have that enabled him to produce such work of truly outstanding influence and longevity? By the time Mimesis appeared in English he was already sixty-one, the son of a German Jewish family residing in Berlin, the city of his birth in 1892. By all accounts he [End Page 12] received a classic Prussian education, graduating from that city's renowned Französisches Gymnasium, an elite high...


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