This week in my graduate seminar (for new MA students), as an introduction to literary criticism and theory, we’re reading Erich Auerbach‘s “Odysseus’ Scar,” the first chapter of his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; translated into English in 1953). At the same time, I’ve been working recently on an article engaging the study of world literature, and I’ve been drawn back to Auerbach’s work more generally.
I had several reasons for assigning Auerbach’s chapter, in order to lead our conversation about how to think about “literary criticism” and “theory.” First, I’m using it as a sort of landmark of the genre of literary criticism (focused on deeply canonical texts) to give a sense of one example of a literary interpretation. It’s a model that isn’t explicitly “theoretical” because it’s from an older form of criticism (philology), before the widespread use of “contemporary critical theory” as we now talk about it. We’re also talking about how all scholarship is autobiographical, and what that means for studying literature.
Yet “Odysseus’ Scar” is also seen as such a landmark because it marks a turn toward wide comparativism in literary studies. So I want to ask my students (most of whom should be familiar with theory from undergrad courses) “How is this theoretical?”–as a way to interrogate layers of methodology and theoretical positions even when the “theory” behind the criticism isn’t necessarily made explicit.
Auerbach and his literary criticism have fascinated me for years–since I first read some of his work during my master’s program. Others have written about him and his writings more extensively: most prominently, Edward Said in the introduction to a Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition of the English translation of Mimesis; Kader Konus in her book East West Mimesis: Auerbach in Turkey; and James I. Porter in an introduction to a collection of Auerbach’s selected essays in English (most of them translated by Jane O. Newman). Many other essays and books explore his life and writings from various perspectives.
What interests me, however, are a set of threads that come together in Auerbach’s work that are useful for thinking about literary criticism and medieval studies specifically, both past and present: nationalism, philology, and the study of world literature.
We might start such considerations with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which were pivotal for the blossoming of nationalism and colonialism, as well as philology as the foundation of historical and literary studies. These associations are no surprise, and they form a common narrative in critical examinations of the developing discipline.
Yet Auerbach’s writings demonstrate a shift, an intriguing challenge to the links between nationalism and philology. Porter says it well when he writes:
Auerbach chose the path of neither a well disciplined Romance philologist nor a classical or German philologist, but rather that of a philologist in a more difficult and radical sense, a philologist who took as his object the world at large, while waging his own quiet campaign against intolerance in the highly politicized and increasingly toxic trenches of the contemporary German academy. (xxxvi)
Although he was trained and wrote as a Romance philologist deeply invested in literary history, many of his writings demonstrate a polemical resistance to nationalist mobilizations of philology (see Avihu Zakai’s Erich Auerbach and the Crisis of German Philology: The Humanist Tradition in Peril). He is not coincidentally seen as one of the founding figures of comparativism and world literature—even “a prophet of global literary studies” (Porter x).
Auerbach’s biography is also a part of this story. Indeed, all scholarship is autobiographical. After all, Auerbach was an assimilated Jew living in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. He was forced out of his position as a professor of Romance philology at the University of Marburg in 1935. Not long afterward, he went into exile in Istanbul, Turkey, until he moved to the USA in 1947.
Unsurprisingly, Auerbach hated Nazis and what they stood for generally.
His writings, even from his earliest work, are infused with a resistance to nationalism and racism, especially white supremacy. He took an outward-looking view, in an attempt to consider the wider scope of world literature, cultures, and diversity.
Many studies of Auerbach and his works focus on Mimesis, and for good reason, considering that it is his magnum opus. He even paused in the middle of the first chapter to take aim at the Nazis as a subject of history (19-20). He suggests, “Let the reader think of the history which we are ourselves witnessing” and singles out “the rise of National Socialism in Germany,” by which he means the Nazis (19). He continues with a series of reflections on the complexities of the history of the moment, the necessity of not simplifying such a history. He comes to the climax of this passage when he writes, “the motives of all the interested parties are so complex that the slogans of propaganda can be composed only through the crudest simplification–with the result that friend and foe alike can often employ the same ones” (20). Much of this should resonate with us in our own current moment which we are ourselves witnessing.
As beautiful and compelling as I find Mimesis to be, another of Auerbach’s works also stands out for me, although it is shorter and more focused: his essay “The Philology of World Literature.” Here I want to highlight just a few of the points he threads into this essay.
Much of Auerbach’s impetus for the piece is his own view that, in his own time, diversity was shifting toward “a homogenization of human life the world over,” including an “eclipsing of local traditions… leading to their universal erosion” (253). It is clear that he did not see this as a positive shift. His essay reads as both an elegy about the loss of world diversity and reflections on ways to celebrate what remains of multiculturalism through humanist study.
Auerbach sees the study of world literature as one of the great prospects of literary history. “The idea of world literature that I am proposing here,” he says, “conceives of world literature as a diverse backdrop to a common human fate” (257). He also discusses how he sees this leading to considering, before the flattening of world cultures into a single one, the “last productive moments of variety and difference” (257).
Finally, Auerbach highlights the need to consider the contextual situatedness of literature, history, and humanist endeavors to study them. He writes that, “There is no question that we must learn to understand the whole of history from within the mentality and circumstances of our own times if that history is to become relevant for us” (259). Throughout his essay (and even in Mimesis), he makes clear that history cannot be conceived of without acknowledging our own present, our own politics.
At the same time, Auerbach advocates against nationalism and traditionalist ways of clinging to the past. His final paragraph offers some thoughts to this effect. His ideas are worth quoting here:
Yet, our philological home is the earth. It can no longer be the nation. The most previous 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, to the knowledge that the human spirit itself is not national. (264)
Focused on the prospects of future philological endeavors, he opposes nationalism and its consequences, instead offering a rousing call for embracing diversity and sustained study of world cultures in a wider scope. We would do well to take Auerbach’s lead.