How has the profession changed since you began teaching literature?
I’ve been practicing literary criticism for more than 60 years. In 1976, I resigned from the once splendid Yale English department, which I had joined in 1955, to protest the decline in aesthetic and cognitive standards in the profession. I became a professor of the humanities, a department of one. I have been the pariah of the profession for the last 45 years.
I maintain canonical standards for the study and appreciation of literature. I practice philology and knowledge of the history of language. I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has. There are fewer and fewer people teaching English, or any other kind of literature, in American universities. Students don’t wish to study garbage and that’s all they’re offered.
Forgive me for sounding so strong on this issue. In fact, I’m tired of this polemic so let us change the subject.
Of all the books you’ve written, The Western Canon arguably made the boldest imprint on the common reader.
I suppose it is true that, facing the decline of a literate audience and desperately trying to battle for canonical standards, my books that have had the widest direct impact were the ones that I addressed to “the common reader” – which was [Samuel] Johnson’s great designation of what a reader should be. I regard myself as a common reader, and I address myself to common readers throughout the world. My books that have made the most impact, and were meant to, are The Western Canon, a huge book called Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, a shorter book called How to Read and Why and an enormous book called Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. But that phase of my work is meant to culminate in my new book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way of Life.
The Greeks and the Irrational
E R DoddsBuy
Now for the books of others, beginning with a look at the literature of antiquity. Tell us about ER Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational.
You asked me to list five books that continue to influence the profession. But, as I made clear to you, I’m not interested in that any more. I’m interested in the books that have influenced me and will go on influencing me – as I work and teach and write – until I die. Those books include The Greeks and the Irrational, which still has an ongoing influence on me, particularly in my study of Yeats, Hart Crane and other great poets.
“I’m a heretic. I like to say, ‘There is no God but God and his name is William Shakespeare.’”
The Greeks and the Irrational is an exploration of the daemon, which is Christianised and reduced to demons or devils. But the daemon was a concept, as Dodds makes beautifully clear, having to do with the creative forces in the individual, which are deeper and more pervasive than what you might want to call the mere conscious. Though it’s not the unconscious in the Freudian sense, the daemon is the creative spirit. It is, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson called it, “the God within”.
Dodds applied the psychological theories of the early 20th century to understanding Greek literature. You undertook a similar endeavour in The Anxiety of Influence. Give us a précis of the theory of literary evolution you developed in that book.
No one knows how he came to Istanbul: whether he caught the Orient Express in Munich or drove from Marburg to Genoa and boarded a ship for Athens. We know that he arrived in September, 1936, and was joined, two months later, by his wife and thirteen-year-old son. We know that he hadn’t wanted to go, and didn’t think that he would stay long. A year earlier, he had told a colleague that Istanbul University was “quite good for a guest performance, but certainly not for long-term work.” As it turned out, he stayed nearly eleven years, three of which were devoted to writing a book that helped define the discipline of comparative literature.
That book, with its totemic one-word title, represented for many of its readers the apex of European humanist criticism. The German edition was published in 1946 and the English translation in 1953, and for decades “Mimesis” was the book that students of comparative literature had to contend with. For one thing, its author, Erich Auerbach, moved effortlessly among eight ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, which probably helped the book live up to its daunting subtitle: “The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.”
“Mimesis” contains twenty chapters, each one anchored to a characteristic passage from a theological or literary work, which is then tested for tone, diction, and syntax, and enfolded within a specific historical context. Auerbach viewed European literature as an evolving pattern of themes, motifs, narrative devices, and Judeo-Christian affiliations; and his book is essentially a history of Western literature in which successive periods are classified by levels of realism fashioned from a specific mingling of styles. Auerbach distinguished the high style of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric from the more psychologically complex phrasing of Hebrew Scripture, which, in turn, was less graphic and immediate than the story of God’s incarnation through the vessel of a lowly carpenter, which forever changed the way man viewed reality. Addressing Peter’s denial of Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, Auerbach finds
something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature. . . . A scene like Peter’s denial fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history.
For Auerbach, a philologist by training, but a historian-philosopher by temperament, literature is always bounded by the writer’s sense of reality, which, at its deepest level, depicts everyday life in all its seriousness. Classical decorum and medieval allegory fell short on this score, but over time the gradual transformation of thought, from the sublime tragedy of the Greeks to the tragic realism of the modern novel, came to define European literature. Style was the great indicator, and it enabled Molière to be as much of a realist as Balzac, though his style was informed by a very different reality.
What gave “Mimesis” ballast for a generation of readers was more than its interpretative ingenuity. Unlike other works of criticism, it had a backstory. Tucked away in Istanbul without the books and periodicals that he needed, Auerbach speculated that “Mimesis” might owe its existence to the “lack of a rich and specialized library.” The legend of the bookless scholar took hold in 1968, when Harry Levin published an essay about the careers of Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, both Jewish philologists who were forced to leave Germany and ended up at American universities. Spitzer, who preceded Auerbach at Istanbul University, laid the groundwork in his own account of a meeting with the dean, who, when asked about the university’s meagre library, had replied, “We don’t bother with books. They burn.” It was this deficit, Levin believed, that forced Auerbach to write “a more original kind of book than he might otherwise have attempted,” to produce “an imaginary museum.”
But “Mimesis” was more than an imaginary museum, as Auerbach himself hinted when he carefully noted that it was written between May, 1942, and April, 1945, as the smoke was rising above Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. For many critics, Auerbach, in recapitulating Western literature from Homer to Woolf, wasn’t just shaking his fist at the forces that drove him into exile; he was, in effect, building the very thing that the Nazis wished to tear down. Geoffrey Green, who devoted a book to Auerbach and Spitzer, concluded that Auerbach saw his work “as a fortress—an arsenal—from which he could wage a passionate and vehement war against the possible flow of history in his time.” And so “Mimesis,” a singularly powerful study of narrative, arrived complete with its own soulful narrative.
Erich Auerbach was born into a well-to-do Berlin family on November 9, 1892. He attended the illustrious Französisches Gymnasium and went on to study law, receiving a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1913. In Heidelberg, he seems to have met Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Jaspers, who undoubtedly fed his interest in literary and philosophical matters. When war broke out, he was sent to the Western Front, where he was wounded in the foot and received the Iron Cross Second Class. Afterward, he gave up law and in 1921 took a doctorate in Romance languages from the University of Greifswald. In 1923, he began a job at the Prussian State Library, in Berlin, and married Marie Mankiewitz, whose family was the largest shareholder in Deutsche Bank. During the next six years, he contributed to scholarly journals, translated Giambattista Vico’s “New Science,” with the assistance of Benedetto Croce, and finished a study of Dante.
Auerbach was made for Dante. Everything about the poet, his work, and his times combined to win Auerbach’s admiration:
The noble style in which the poem is written is a harmony of all the voices that had ever struck [Dante’s] ear. All those voices can be heard in the lines of the Comedy, the Provençal poets and the stil nuovo, the language of Virgil and of Christian hymns, the French epic and the Umbrian Lauds, the terminology of the philosophical schools and the incomparable wealth of the popular vernacular which here for the first time found its way into a poem in the lofty style.
As in much of Auerbach’s work, the erudition is more than a little intimidating. One might know that the stil nuovo refers to a literary movement of the thirteenth century, but who can hum an Umbrian Laud?
Ensconced in the Berlin library, with his family and friends nearby, Auerbach seemed almost envious of the poet, who began the “Commedia” after being exiled from Florence. Exile, he observed, enabled Dante “to correct and overcome that disharmony of fate, not by Stoic asceticism and renunciation, but by taking account of historical events, by mastering them and ordering them in his mind.” On the strength of the book, in 1929 Auerbach was appointed professor of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, assuming the position once held by Spitzer, who was now at the University of Cologne.
Auerbach arrived in Marburg the year after Martin Heidegger left. “He’s a terrible fellow,” he later wrote, “but at least he’s got substance.” Other faculty members also had substance, including Hans-Georg Gadamer and the theologian Rudolf Bultmann. The Auerbachs were happy in Marburg—the intellectual historian Malachi Haim Hacohen says that they regarded these years as “a golden age”—and did not think of leaving, in spite of the fact that Jews were officially barred from the civil service in 1933. As a veteran, Auerbach was exempt, and, like other Jews of the professional class, he kept a low profile, even taking the mandatory pledge of allegiance to Hitler, in September, 1934.
Auerbach was typical of many assimilated Jews in the days of the Weimar Republic. A self-described “Prussian of the Mosaic faith,” he gave his son a Christian name (Clemens) and only had him circumcised, for medical reasons, at the age of fourteen. Not all assimilated Jews are assimilated in the same way. He had fought for his country, and he wanted to remain in it. But, once the Nuremberg Laws were passed, in 1935, Auerbach knew that his own exile had been decreed.
Fortunately, Spitzer, who had decided to immigrate to America, lobbied for Auerbach to be named his successor at Istanbul, and Auerbach found himself competing with other scholars, including Victor Klemperer, for a position that he would have scoffed at a year earlier. Auerbach prevailed, and Klemperer remained in Germany, where he somehow managed to survive. (His diary, “I Will Bear Witness,” caused a sensation in Europe when it was published, in 1998.) Before he was forced to depart from the University of Marburg, Auerbach negotiated an official leave with the possibility of returning after 1941. The idea of permanently settling elsewhere had not yet sunk in.
In Istanbul, he felt isolated but not unhappy. “I am fine here,” he wrote to Walter Benjamin in March, 1937. “Marie and Clemens are reasonably over the flu. . . . The house on the Bosporus is glorious; as far as research goes, my work is entirely primitive, but personally, politically, and administratively it is extremely interesting.” And then, in a place where books were scarce, he produced his book about books.
Not everyone is convinced that “Mimesis” sprang, Athena-like, from Auerbach’s head. Kader Konuk, of the University of Michigan, argues persuasively, in her book “East West Mimesis,” that Istanbul in 1936 was far from an intellectual backwater. It was, in fact, home to a thriving community of scholars who, in addition to their own well-stocked libraries, had access to bookstores and municipal libraries around town. Moreover, Auerbach had colleagues he could talk to and former colleagues who regularly sent him scholarly articles before the war. As Konuk notes in her illuminating account, he could also visit the library at the Dominican monastery of San Pietro di Galata and its set of Jacques-Paul Migne’s “Patrologia Latina_,”_ consisting of hundreds of volumes of commentaries by the Church Fathers, which figured significantly in Auerbach’s work. As for the dean who dispensed with books, it seems that he was actually a bibliophile with some sixteen thousand volumes to his name. As Konuk sees it, Istanbul was a cosmopolitan city where Auerbach “found humanism . . . at the very moment it was being banished from Europe.”
Ultimately, though, exile isn’t about numbers; it’s about displacement. For Levin, exile was “a blessing in disguise,” the very thing to have inspired Auerbach’s conception of “Mimesis.” Fifteen years later, Edward Said, himself something of an exile, reinforced the point: “Mimesis” was not only “a massive reaffirmation of the Western cultural tradition, but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it, a work whose conditions and circumstances of existence are not immediately derived from the culture it describes with such extraordinary insight and brilliance but built rather on an agonizing distance from it.”
Then again, there’s also the distinct possibility that, given Auerbach’s temperament and interests and the ideas already worked out in his “Dante: Poet of the Secular World” and in his long essay “Figura” (published in 1938 and posthumously collected in “Scenes from the Drama of European Literature”), he would have produced something very much like “Mimesis” had he remained in Germany or moved of his own volition to Stockholm or Spokane. Konuk, of course, will have none of this. She insists that Istanbul was more like home than the Berlin of 1942, and that, “in some sense, he found himself at home in exile.”
Another point of dispute centers on Auerbach’s motives. Hacohen, for one, suspects Auerbach of having an antipathy toward his own Jewishness, and wonders why he turned down Martin Buber’s request that he write an introduction to the Hebrew edition of “Mimesis.” In Hacohen’s eyes, Auerbach was “a progressive mandarin” who “made a special effort to ignore” Jews while maintaining an “interplay of proximity and distance facing the Holocaust.” He thinks Auerbach’s silence leads readers to “find clues to the Holocaust” in “Mimesis” where none exist. On the other hand, Earl Jeffrey Richards, who teaches at the University of Wuppertal, in Germany, claims that “Mimesis” is “unified not so much by its stylistic analysis but by its underlying meditation on the Shoah.” He also suggests that Auerbach may have aided Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli—the prelate who had allowed him use of the library at the Dominican monastery, and who later became Pope John XXIII—in his efforts to save Balkan Jews from the Gestapo.
Auerbach himself is no help in sorting through these contesting claims. Although he allowed that “Mimesis” was “quite consciously a book that a particular person, in a particular situation, wrote at the beginning of the 1940s,” he was tight-lipped about his politics and didn’t say much about his wartime experiences. When he mentioned current events in letters, it was usually in the most general terms. “You know me sufficiently . . . to know that I can understand the motives of your political views,” he wrote to the philosopher Erich Rothacker when Rothacker declared support for the National Socialist Party. “But yet it would pain me much . . . if you wanted to deny me the right to be a German.” Not the strongest of words, although it could be argued that he opposed the Reich’s policies in subtler ways.
During the nineteen-thirties, many religious leaders in Germany traduced the Old Testament’s authority, in an attempt to strip Jewish history of its original meaning. In 1933, Cardinal Faulhaber noted (disapprovingly) the widespread sentiment that a “Christianity which still clings to the Old Testament is a Jewish religion, irreconcilable with the spirit of the German people.” In April of 1939, the Godesberg Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church concluded that the Christian faith did not arise from or complete Judaism but “is the unbridgeable religious contradiction to Judaism.” The clergymen who signed the document were, in effect, echoing the Nazi propagandist Alfred Rosenberg, who blasted the Old Testament for turning normal people into “spiritual Jews,” and who claimed that there wasn’t “the slightest reason to believe” that Jesus Christ was of Jewish ancestry.
A Jew in Germany, even an unobservant one, must have been dismayed by all this. And, to some degree, “Figura” was Auerbach’s response. The essay conjures up an interpretation of historical events in which the first event “signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first.” Events in the Old Testament are reaffirmed in their significance when they can be shown to have prefigured events in the New Testament. By tracing the etymology of figura in patristic literature and stressing Augustine’s conception of the Old Testament as “phenomenal prophecy,” Auerbach explored the deep bond between the Old and the New. And, by emphasizing that figural interpretation “had grown out of a definite historical situation, the Christian break with Judaism and the Christian mission among the Gentiles,” he tacitly linked that break with the Nazis’ attempt to despoil Jewish law and theology. The scholars David Weinstein and Avihu Zakai go so far as to describe the essay as part of “Auerbach’s Kulturkampf against the premises of Aryan philology and the spread of Nazi barbarism.”
“Mimesis,” too, may have taken its bearings from German cultural politics. The book’s compelling first chapter, “Odysseus’ Scar,” which contrasts Book 19 of the Odyssey with Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, lays out the differences in attitude and articulation between the Homeric epic and Hebrew Scripture. But because the discussion pivots on the binding of Isaac and Abraham’s reflexive anxiety—one of several Biblical scenes forbidden in German schools—the chapter can also be viewed as Auerbach’s nod to Jewish martyrdom. At least one Auerbach scholar wants to take this even further, claiming that Auerbach was “pressing philology in the direction of something utterly unheard: a new resistant, if implicit, Jewish philology.”
But how to tease apart the Jew and the philologist? No literary critic ever paid such attention to “the strange moral dialectic of Christianity” and its influence on literary style, which for centuries had to juggle the eternal alongside earthly transience. Auerbach may have wanted to upend German philology, but his central concern was the gradual transformation of Christian realism into modern literary realism. If a few veiled references in “Mimesis” or the more explicit words at the end of the first epilogue (“I hope that my study will reach its readers—both my friends of former years, if they are still alive, as well as all the others for whom it was intended”) touch on the tragedy, that’s all they do.
After the war, Auerbach arrived in the United States—teaching first at Pennsylvania State College, then at the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton, and, in 1950, at Yale. He and Marie became U.S. citizens, but he remained, according to his colleague René Wellek, a perpetual émigré, someone whose bags were always packed. Nonetheless, when he was offered a chair at Marburg, in March, 1953, he declined. Auerbach visited Europe in 1956 and spent the following summer in Germany, where he suffered a mild stroke. Upon his return to America, he entered a sanatorium in Wallingford, Connecticut. He died on October 13, 1957, three weeks before his sixty-fifth birthday.
By then, he was, at least by academic standards, famous. When another German philologist, Ernst Robert Curtius, the author of “European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages,” visited the United States, he grumbled that “one hardly hears anything but ‘Mimesis.’ ” The book was praised by Alfred Kazin and Delmore Schwartz, and Lionel Trilling included the first chapter in his 1970 anthology, “Literary Criticism.” In 2003, on the fiftieth anniversary of the English translation, Edward Said wrote an introduction to a new edition, which Terry Eagleton, among the foremost popularizers of literary theory, commended in the London Review of Books.
Since then, a cottage industry has grown up around Auerbach’s œuvre. Until recently, that œuvre consisted primarily of four books—“Dante: Poet of the Secular World,” “Mimesis,” and two posthumous collections published in the late nineteen-fifties. Now there’s a fifth book: “Time, History, and Literature,” edited by James I. Porter and energetically translated by Jane O. Newman, containing twenty essays, only eight of which have previously appeared in English. There are, as one might expect, erudite disquisitions on Dante, Vico, and Herder. But there are also musings on Montaigne (“When he enjoys life, it is himself that Montaigne is enjoying”), Pascal (“Pascal’s hatred of human nature arose from radical Augustinianism”), and Rousseau (“the first who, despite a thoroughly Christian constitution, was no longer able to be a Christian”).
Auerbach is one of those critics whose ideas seem to grow organically from the loam of their narrative soil. We sense this as we follow him on his excursions around the seventeenth century (“Racine and the Passions” or “La Cour et la Ville”), or read his account of the history of Augustine’s sermo humilis, the mode of expression that best conveys the reality of the Passion of Christ. But it’s also true that his immersion in the German philological tradition sometimes makes him resort to knotty, high-sounding formulations that seem to waffle ever so slightly. Said sensed this in Auerbach’s attraction to “the dynamic transformations as well as the deep sedimentations of history.” And this, I think, lies at the heart of Auerbach’s presumed detachment. Deeply influenced by Hegelian idealism, he viewed life on earth as a purposeful unfolding in which the tempo of history is continually roiled by events. So, even as the world changes in front of us, it should be viewed in retrospect, since only then can such changes become part of the tempo.
In a lecture that Auerbach delivered in Turkey about European realism, included in Konuk’s book, he interjects an apparent non sequitur. After observing that the art of realism is leaning toward a depiction of “the life shared in common” by all people, he asserts, “Those who understand this should not be shaken by the tragic events occurring today.” He was speaking in the winter of 1941-42. “History is manifested through catastrophic events and ruptures. That which is being prepared today, that which has been in preparation for a century, is the tragic realism I have discussed, modern realism, the life shared in common which grants the possibility of life to all people on earth.”
Even a great critic must have his critics. The eminent medievalist Charles Muscatine chided Auerbach for blurring “half a dozen medieval realisms,” and Wellek wondered whether his notion of realism was fully consistent. Auerbach tended to undervalue the comic and, consequently, gave short shrift to both Dickens and Thackeray. He neglected American literature entirely, except for a brief allusion to Pearl S. Buck. Moreover, his characterization of realism as the unvarnished reënactment of the common man’s sojourn on earth is oddly restrictive. As Eagleton pointed out, ordinary life is no more real than “courts and country houses,” and “cucumber sandwiches are no less ontologically solid than pie and beans.”
Curiously, for a critic who seemed so buttoned up in his own everyday life, Auerbach wanted us to know that a strong personal element stamped his work, that his own experiences directly led to his “choice of problems, the starting points, the reasoning and the intention” found in his writings. Anyone looking for these experiences, however, is going to be disappointed. Although Auerbach occasionally displays an animus toward a writer, he wasn’t what you’d call an emotionally demonstrative critic. But, because he valued the historical situation of literary works, he thought that we should regard his own work as that of a particular man writing at a particular time.
Perhaps he feared that his reserve, his formality, and his lofty style would cause readers to presume a worldly detachment on his part, even a lack of sympathy for the Jews of Europe. There’s not much pain or outrage in this 1938 assessment of Fascism:
The challenge is not to grasp and digest all the evil that’s happening—that’s not too difficult—but much more to find a point of departure for those historical forces that can be set against it. . . . To seek for them in myself, to track them down in the world, completely absorbs me. The old forces of resistance—churches, democracies, education, economic laws—are useful and effective only if they are renewed and activated through a new force not yet visible to me.
That new force never emerged, and Auerbach could never take solace in the future. He was a Jew outside of Judaism and a German ousted from Germany. His main academic interest—the flow of history through the conduit of Christianity—also attested to his expatriate status as both a critic and a Jew. Even when he regarded Germany as his homeland, he hadn’t felt completely at home. Writing to Walter Benjamin in October, 1935, he refers to the strangeness of his situation at Marburg, where he was “living among people who are not of our origin, and whose conditions are very different—but who, nevertheless, think exactly as we do. This is wonderful, but it implies a temptation for foolishness; the temptation consists in the illusion that there is a ground to build upon.” Such awareness is already a form of exile.
It’s difficult to say when exile began to define him. But, almost twenty years after his book on Dante, he’s still musing on the poet’s ejection from Florence, and the way Dante “never ceased to feel the bitterness of exile, his nostalgia for Florence, and his hatred for her new rulers.” This works both as literal truth and as an obvious analogy to Auerbach himself. “You are to know the bitter taste / of others’ bread,” he quotes, “how salt it is.”
In one of his last essays, “The Philology of World Literature,” Auerbach seems to be reflecting on his own situation, a man caught between the place where he was born and the work that he was born to. “The most precious and necessary thing that philologists inherit may be their national language and culture,” he writes. “But it is only in losing—or overcoming—this inheritance that it can have this effect.” He then cites the twelfth-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor: “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” Auerbach now muses, “Hugh’s intended audience consisted of those individuals whose goal it was to free themselves from their love of this world. But it is also a good path to follow for anyone who desires to secure a proper love for the world.” Who, though, can acquire such love? Auerbach never did; history wouldn’t let him. ♦