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A Glimpse of Unplumbed Depths

Discovering a life-animating, universe-size work of literary criticism of the sort that can’t be written anymore (currently shelved in the “Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor” at the San Francisco Public Library)
DISCUSSED
Fearless Graduate Students, Astroturf, Essential Inner Forces, Embarrassed Glee, Tintin in Tibet, Swashbuckling, The Old Testament, Homeric Greek, Glittering Sobriety, Spiritscience, Don Quixote’s QuestingTurkish Universities, The Third Reich, X-Men, Books with Long Titles
by Annie Julia Wyman
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Glimpse of Unplumbed Depths

Annie Julia Wyman
16 Snaps

Mimesis: The Rep­resentation of Reality in ­Western Literature: a relatively long title for a very long book. A pretty long, pretty boring, typically colonified title redolent of the very boring-est academic writing (boring at least for those readers who don’t have a professional interest in, for example, Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700–1850, or even, somewhat more excitingly, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh). There are those of us who claim not to be terrified by such titles, fearless graduate students that we are—since our careers usually depend on producing them—but the fact remains that most readers and writers secretly despise them. They seem to signify not only overspecialization but some kind of hideous buildup, an intricate, inescapable clotting in the way we think and communicate to others what we’re thinking about.

So I was terrified by Mimesis, its title and its heft, fearless Stanford graduate student that I was—and the fact of the matter is that the thing stuns me still. It is the very longest, most dignified, patient, and heart-rending work of intellect and soul I have ever encountered. Hyperbole may be the preserve of the young writer, a condition of semi-adolescent spirit not unlike that of a high-school quarter­back pointing up at the Big Man in sheer giddy idiocy post last-minute game-winning touchdown, when the floodlights in the podunk stadium still look like burning stars and the Astroturf still feels like the surface of an enormous planet whose inhabitants have been allowed, oh my god, an unfathomability of valor, of excellence for which one’s heart could not ever be prepared—but in this ephebe’s opinion Erich Auerbach earns his superlatives. His book is not a planet, Astroturfed or otherwise. It is a universe.

The range, the depth of Auer­bach’s argument is staggering in and of itself. In just over five hundred pages he attempts a coherent account of the stylistic mechanisms operating behind the written depiction of human life from Homer to Virginia Woolf. Along the way he hits the Old Testament (Genesis), Petronius, Tacitus, Ammianus, Ovid, the New Testament (Jerome, Job), Augustine, the Chanson de Roland, a handful of Provençal stories about Adam and Eve, Dante, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, La Bruyère, Racine, St. Simon, the Goncourts, Schiller, Goethe, Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Proust—to name only those to whom he dedicates at least a half chapter. Plus he reads them in their original language (Greek, Latin, Provençal, Old French, Spanish, English, German, etc.), and he keeps at least one eye on each ­writer’s cultural and historical context.

The goal of this massive erudition is, simply­ put, to better understand what it means to be alive—what truths, what hardships, what triumphs are specific to as well as shared by each moment of human existence. In life and history as Auer­bach sees it, universal meaning “must not be sought exclusively in the upper strata of society and in major political events but also in art, economy, material and intellectual culture, in the depths of the workaday world and its men and women, because it is only there that one can grasp what is unique, what is animated by inner forces.”

But I can’t pretend that Auerbach’s argument, whether in its granularity, its sweep, even in its fundamental relation to the development of all kinds of progressive literary criticism after World War II, both inside and outside the academy, is why I wanted to write about Mimesis. The book is almost never taught anymore, even in comparative literature departments, though the more famous chapters are sometimes anthologized. Ideas about universal meaning and essential inner forces—about humanism, anthropocentrism (both not so much universal as Western), etc.—have taken their rightful knocks. Most people, academics or otherwise, don’t believe in them anymore.

Why write about Mimesis, then? Well. It’s just that I am very afraid that these days no one ever says—sort of offhand but with the kind of stiff sweet embarrassed glee one might bring to the recounting of a first kiss, even a lost virginity—This book gave me joy.

 

II.

I read Mimesis as part of an independent study in literary criticism that can’t be written anymore—the kind of seemingly eccentric, electric performances that thinkers as diverse as William Empson and Roland Barthes and Theodor Adorno left as their gifts to what has since become a much stodgier discipline. I was in my last quarter of my masters program, I was overloaded with other work, and if it hadn’t been for my weekly foray into the strenuous glimmering of Seven Types of Ambiguity or Minima Moralia, I might have gone under.

But as might be obvious from the first paragraph of this essay, when the time came I was less than excited to crack open my Auerbach. My professor—a straw-haired, round-shouldered mutterer whose eyes sometimes start up from his desk or the wall or whatever he’s staring at and spark at the same instant that his head sets itself to bobbing like mad and words come out of him that just shock the perception—had for once deadened my enthusiasm. We’d just finished S/Z—which brags the briefest, sexiest title in the semiological canon—and now I had a week to plow through another Something: The Somethingness of Something-Else at Some-Historical-Moment-or-Another when I was already reading four or five in other seminars. With Mimesis I was expecting to do no better than plow, than underline and dogear and then mutter through our session without ever lifting my eyes from my notes.

Or I would have done those things, if Amazon could have sent me a copy in time. My professor assigned it a week or so in advance of our regular Thursday meeting, but then it was some kind of school holiday and then I wanted to visit some friends in Los Angeles and then there was some movie I wanted to see (X-Men ­Origins: Wolverine) after that and then all of a sudden I sat down to order the book and realized it was Monday. I had three days.

The Stanford library has two copies of Mimesis—one uncirculating, one checked out until November of next year. The San Francisco Public Library has two as well. One is missing. The other is a third printing from 1971, also uncirculating but fifty miles closer to my apartment than the Stanford copy; it lives with the other valuable tomes in the Special Collections Room on the sixth floor of the main branch on Grove, up near where the light streams in pure and somehow fragrant through the apex of that nautilus dome. The Special Collections Room is an unbelievable treat, a secret; it is almost always empty and silent and still, save for the gorgeous bursts of color on the naked pages of the illuminated manuscripts in the glass cases lining the aisles.

An old librarian with two pairs of reading glasses dangling from her neck brought me my decidedly unfunny tome (I write unfunny because the book is cataloged in the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor, which I can’t even begin to explain). I had a double handful of sharpened pencils—special collections rooms around the world have the best free ­pencils—and a notebook. I cleared my throat—I don’t know why I always clear my throat before beginning to read silently, but I do—and then a little boy, maybe seven years old, came in and asked the librarian, “Can I see all the Tintins?” This old woman grumbled a little and then brought him out a stack of treasures as tall as he was and he sat down near me and began reading aloud.

His voice was high and piercing and he made no effort to keep quiet. The librarian, who had taken out a pack of cards and was playing solitaire on her desk—I wanted to say, you know, your computer can do that for you, and much more discreetly—was totally oblivious. It was all I could to do to keep myself from heading over to the boy and leaning down and saying to him, Excuse me, but this is supposed to be a quiet room, so I’m very sorry but can we just skip to Tintin in Tibet, the one with the teddy bear and the pickaxe and the lost Chinese friend and the St. Elmo’s Fire? That’s my favorite and we’ve only got a little while before somebody else comes in here and gets huffy and tries to shut us down.

But such pleasures would have to wait for another, sweeter afternoon when swashbuckling—not The Representation of Reality in Western Literature—was the order of the day. I flipped open Mimesis and fiddled with the flyleaf. Onionskin. I turned the page. Eight-point type. I squeezed my eyes shut and then fixed them on the first word of the many many many thousands before me.

Auerbach begins by differentiating between the bright, neat articulations of Homeric style and the deep mystery of the Old Testament. By the third page, I knew that I was in rare company: Auerbach reads like a writer; each word, each sentence, each syntactical swoop and stop is scrutinized for its effect and reproduced in an effortlessly complex prose.

On page three or so, he describes the Odyssey as follows:

The separate elements of a phenomenon are most clearly placed in relation to one another; a large number of conjunctions, adverbs, particles, and other syntactical tools, all clearly circumscribed and delicately differentiated in meaning, delimit persons, things and portions of incidents in respect to one another, and at the same time bring them together in a continuous and ever flexible connection; like the separate phenomena themselves, their relationships—their temporal, local, causal, final, consecutive, comparative, concessive, antithetical, and conditional limitations—are brought to light in perfect fullness; so that a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half-­illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.

This is good, I thought. Um, this is real good. The contours of that sentence wrap perfectly around its content; the “procession of phenomena” described in Homeric Greek reemerges in Auerbach’s syntax, persisting even through translation from German into English. The first list—an oh-so-orderly menagerie of the parts of speech—links so neatly with the second, with an almost giddy exhibition of ­every possible relation between those parts of speech. Together they precisely form a “continuous and ever flexible connection.” The fluidity of the thought, its glittering sobriety! And the coyness—what provocation, to end a sentence about clarity with “a glimpse of unplumbed depths.”

The little boy kept reading and I kept reading, too, and his voice rose up and around the manuscripts in their glass houses and I touched not one of those sharpened pencils for three hours.

 

III.

Back in the first half of the twentieth century there were people on this planet who could read seven or eight or twenty languages. These were the philologists, mostly German and Austrian, recipients of the finest gymnasium educations—which, of course, conjures up the sheer feats of athleticism performed by literal gymnasts. In the center of the field house, Auerbach performs an entirely new interpretation of Chaucer on the much-pounded floor of Middle English criticism. Then, on the tangly rings of British modernism he gives us a series of hermeneutic somersaults rivaled only by yesterday’s magnificent flip-flops along the narrow, leathery beam that is Tacitus.

Auerbach and his philologist friends practiced what was called Geisteswissenschaft—in Edward Said’s rather clunky phraseology, “knowledge of the products of mind or spirit.” A better translation might be simply “spiritscience.” Geisteswissenschaft is a kind of semi-intuitive, semi-intellectual activity requiring supreme academic preparation in linguistics and historical context. Etymology is at the root of the philological, mind-spirit-knowledge-o-logical ­endeavor—literally, to love the language so well that its smallest particles blossom into a more integrated, complex understanding of work, author, and world.

NYU Professor of French and Comparative Literature ­Emily Apter calls this “word histories as world histories,” but it is also, essentially and perhaps most interestingly, a coupling, a friendship, a love relationship. As Said writes, the long-dead author and the insanely brainy philologist become “friendly, respectful spirits trying to understand each other” in “sympathetic dialogue… across ages and cultures.”

This isn’t as fluffy as it sounds. It’s refreshing, even, when so many humanities programs, particularly at the undergraduate level, have taken to defending literary criticism as a science—when teaching students to “analyze” has become more important than teaching them that literature is worthy of love. And, of course, true love can be nasty—­Auerbach dubs Ovid “full of fear, lust and silliness,” and takes Cervantes to task as an inferior craftsman, implying that perhaps the most famous novel of all time was, in terms of social realism, a huge step backward, since it does no work to critique or even portray in any detail the brutal feudal system that makes Don ­Quixote’s questing and Sancho Panza’s toadying possible.

Nor is Mimesis—despite those heartwarming love relationships, despite the excellence of the prose—an easy read. Each chapter begins with either a long excerpt from a primary text followed by a translation, or with a short historical preamble immediately followed by a long excerpt from a primary text followed by a translation—Auerbach always forces the reader to immerse herself in the writing in question before he begins his own reading. Here, he seems to be saying, what do you think? This is at first flattering, seemingly very generous—but after two or three chapters it can induce severe nail-chewing and frowning and other such symptoms of intellectual despair. Let me say only that it very quickly became apparent that I do not possess even the makings of the most junior philologist. Approaching, say, a chunk of Shakespeare, I had to work myself up to my own ama­teurish conclusions, all the while knowing they were going to be blown apart.

But if, as heretofore claimed, Auerbach is such a great writer—so magnificently capable of complexity and clarity in the same breathless instant—why would he allow his readers such insecurity? Leaving even the bravest reader on uncertain footing thirteen times, at the beginning of each new chapter, is certainly not the way to tempt anyone through five hundred pages—unless that anyone is a lonely, self-conscious young someone at the top of the SFPL, someone who remembers that books are, as Sartre said somewhere or other, long letters to unknown friends, and clings to that half-remembered, probably misremembered maxim as a sign that by falling silent from time to time, Auerbach offers his readers—his friends—not insecurity but profound respect; taken with a little confidence, a little grit, the book reveals itself as a bracing dialogue between Auerbach’s and our own experience of literature.

Which is obvious—but there’s more to it than that. At the end of Mimesis, Auerbach admits that “a systematic and complete history of realism” would have been “impossible” and labels his own language, even in its patient complexity, a system of “unusual and clumsy terminology.” Only connect, says Forster, and insecurity, lacunae, uncertainty are exactly what make us feel the urgency of his command—it is only at the edges of such self-induced muddle, when all is clumsy, amateurish, impossible, and our reassuring conclusions are blown apart, that we feel we are or can or need to be a part of something larger, some higher system. Unplumbed depths must surround the blaze of the lights above—so that we can look up and judge their glory, wince at their brilliance, point skyward.

 

IV.

“For if it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence.”

Auerbach did, in fact, know everything horrible—much more horrible things than a lonely somebody for whom Tintin and Howards End represent meaningful indices of personal identity. Auerbach’s world, like ours, was one in which human beings seemed intent on proving just how much inhumanity they were capable of. The seeming naïveté in the passage above is a direct, life-­affirming response to world war and to atrocity, a word that means not so much these days unless the people who use it know, as Auerbach did, how to speak—or at least try to speak—joy when they feel it.

In 1936, Auerbach arrived in Turkey to take over the direction of the University of Istanbul from Leo Spitzer, a friend and fellow philologist. At the time, Atatürk’s modernization projects were in full swing, the westernization or Romanization of higher education included. In 1933, a Swiss flunky named Malche had been given the task of evaluating Turkish universities. He reported that they were backward, inferior, etc., and recommended a new university system with professors from “Berlin, Leipzig, Paris or Chicago.” Hundreds of invitations were sent out across Europe; most of those who accepted were Germans and Austrians—including Spitzer and Auerbach—displaced by the rise of the Third Reich.

Auerbach was an exile, a German Jew who found himself in a land not quite Western, not quite Eastern. He had been cast out by burgeoning German nationalism, then granted a measure of security and the opportunity to teach by burgeoning Turkish nationalism. Auerbach never exactly reconciled his position at the University of Istanbul with that particular para­dox (unlike Spitzer, who eventually wrote a long, moving essay on how much he loved learning Turkish). Auerbach led groundbreaking work in Western philology and advised students who were working on Eastern literature, but he never learned the languages they spoke. Perhaps this is a sign of prejudice, but the fact remains that Istanbul, where Mimesis was written, was not his home in any sense of the word. His mind and his heart lingered somewhere behind him, a thousand miles to the west.

Various scholars have various ideas about how difficult an experience exile may have been for Auerbach; Istanbul during and after World War II was a cosmopolitan capital, an East–West crossroads frequented by the likes of Béla Bartók, Bruno Taut, Leon Trotsky, and, later, James Baldwin, Sir Steven Runciman, and ­Michel de Certeau. But the fact remains that Mimesis expresses a deeply felt lack—of resources, of community, of a beloved homeland and culture now overwhelmed by murder and indifference to murder. Odysseus, the epic wanderer, opens the book, and is immediately joined by Abraham, who earns Auerbach’s most tender treatment: “It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right or left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.”

Mimesis’s epilogue is often called melancholic, and rightly; Auerbach lists almost all his book’s flaws, catalogs all the critical tasks he should have liked to undertake—and then writes: “But the difficulties were too great…. I may also mention that the book was written during the war and at Istanbul, where the libraries are not well-equipped for European studies. International communications were impeded; I had to dispense with almost all periodicals, with almost all the more recent investigations, and in some cases with reliable critical editions of my texts. Hence it is possible and even probable that I overlooked things which I ought to have considered.…”

If Auerbach had had access to more books, perhaps his work would have been more thorough. Perhaps he would have been able to include scads and scads of helpful footnotes and could have initiated an extended engagement with other critics and the reams and reams of scholarship on each of the authors he chose. “On the other hand,” he writes in Mimesis’s penultimate paragraph, “it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library.” He explains that if he had had the opportunity to read everything that had been written on the texts he chose to examine, he “might never have reached the point of writing.” (The book’s epigraph is Andrew Marvell’s yearnsome “Had we but world enough, and time.”)

Plainly put, Mimesis is a monumental, doomed effort—but it is my feeling that its failure is also its essence, its force, the gravity that secures its magnificence. It is a world, a universe of bright articulation and semi-submerged darkness—monumental and also a momunent. Without some deep loss—represented by the immolation of Jewish culture in the Third Reich, the growth of fascism, and Auerbach’s own immersion in an unfamiliar world—such a work would not be possible.

On the last day of my time with Mimesis—the third day I spent up near the top of the nautilus dome in the silence and screaming color of the SFPL Special Collections—I made it to “The Brown Stocking,” Auerbach’s chapter on À la recherche du temps perdu and To the Lighthouse. The Proust excerpt he chooses is one of the more famous, perhaps second only to the thing about the cookie and the maiden aunt. The young narrator, suffering from one of his typical bouts of neurasthenia, wants his dear mother to tuck him into bed one last time. He stands in awe before his tyrannical father—who has just, quite surprisingly, allowed the boy’s mother to sleep in his room to quiet him—on the staircase of their family home:

Je restai sans oser faire un mouvement; il était encore devant nous, grand, dans sa robe de nuit blanche sus le cachemire de l’Inde violet et rose qu’il nouait autour de sa tête depuis qu’il avait des névralgies, avec le geste d’Abraham dans la gravure d’après Benozzo Gozzoli que m’avait donné M. Swann, disant à Hagar, qu’elle a à se départir du côté d’Isaac.

I stood there, not daring to move; he was still confronting us, an immense figure in his white nightshirt, crowned with the pink and violet scarf of Indian cashmere in which, since he had begun to suffer from neuralgia, he used to tie up his head, standing like Abraham in the engraving after Benozzo Gozzoli which M. Swann had given me, telling Hagar that she must tear herself away from Isaac.

I include such a significant chunk above because it never hurts to read a little Proust—and I include the French as well, exactly as it appears in Mimesis, because it contains a killing error. Disant à Hagar? Telling Hagar she must tear herself from Isaac? Isaac’s mother was Sarah, not this Hagar person.

After the delicacy, the tenderness (even when transmuted to biting critique) with which he treats every other author in the book, Auerbach reaches in and manipulates Proust—not only in his translation but in the original. Needless to say, this is an unforgivable trespass. Not only does it violate any dialogue between friendly spirits in a moment of sneaky proso­popoeia—he talks over Proust, and he doesn’t excuse or explain himself, which is not only unethical but downright rude. He misrepresents À la recherche; his substitution changes the tenor of the passage. The heavy, threatening atmosphere that emanates from the implied violence of the sacrifice in the engraving disappears and is replaced by something stranger and even stronger.

You see, Hagar was Abraham’s second wife, the mother of ­Ishmael—Ishmael the first, the quintessential wandering Jew, Ishmael who became a Muslim prophet, Ishmael who is the conduit between the Western Judeo-Christian tradition and Eastern Islam. Auerbach’s error is not so much an error as a heartbreaking fudge—it makes the narrator of the passage as much Ishmael as Isaac, as much exile as sacrifice—as much Erich as Marcel. A new motif emerges: isolation, loneliness, and the simultaneous redemption of the same—a half-concealed bridging of two worlds by a writer who had found himself lodged between them.

At that point I stopped reading. I looked up. I was alone in the reading room. I felt alone, I felt how perfect and painful it is to be alone, and then I felt that I was not alone. Um, this is beautiful, I thought. This is very beautiful.

I would risk writing that this is what art does—not that it is necessarily autobiographical but that it appropriates, it expresses without apology and without proper permission. It is a violation, a rupture—an unwanted first kiss that nonetheless shocks the heart into a swifter, sweeter beat.

I did check a French edition of À la recherche (the SFPL has four copies in the international literature division on the third floor) to make sure I wasn’t misremembering my Old Testament or my Proust. Disant à Sarah is the correct phrase. Which is to say that Mimesis is not a book of criticism; it gives us the joy that comes in recognizing another’s suffering and the great beauty by which they have expressed and thereby surpassed it, even for a moment, even for one tiny, seemingly invisible moment.

But what happened to Mimesis, and to Auerbach? The book is dying out; as mentioned above, it’s seldom taught, though the fiftieth anniversary of its publication in English sparked a series of conferences, several collections of essays, and a new edition of the book with an introduction by Said.

Auerbach himself left Turkey in 1947 for the United States, where he took a position at Yale. He began the work of establishing comparative literature as we now know it: the study of different national and cultural literatures in relatively broad perspective. At Yale he supervised Fredric Jameson’s thesis, and it was through the work of Jameson and his colleagues that comparative literature became a departmental presence in many, though certainly not most, American universities. The comparativists have succeeded the philologists.

Jameson, like Hayden White, like Bruce Robbins, has been called a rock star in my presence (White wears a diamond earring the size of a pea). The comparativists are famous in all the ways academic critics can be famous these days, with their swagger, their vinegar, their various intellectual beefs. They are, of course, very important; Jameson in particular is a sort of galaxy of his own. I only wish every once in a while they didn’t loom quite so large, so that we could see, just for a little while, the artistry, the vulnerability their predecessors possessed.

That is to say, Auerbach does something Jameson can’t and won’t: he misquotes Proust, executes his beautiful fault, and then writes, twenty pages later, “Hence it is possible and even probable that I overlooked things which I ought to have considered….” Such coyness, such provocation, to end a book of startling insight with a self-­effacing admission of oversight and error—when it is a seeming error that makes the book more stunning than one thought possible. The only response is to be irritated, to be charmed, to be consoled, and to turn from the last page to the first and search again, through all the book’s intellectual brilliance, for the moments when that light is paired with an ingenious artful depth. Some books, once opened, ought never to be shut—oh, had we but world enough and time.

When Mimesis does end, it ends with a wish: “Nothing now remains but to find him—to find the reader, that is.” I finished my three days at the SFPL and I went to my regular Thursday meeting and my professor and I muttered at each other such words of enthusiasm that my face hurt, my heart hurt, my head hurt in a perfect and all-embracing way, and I had a funny feeling, somewhat stupidly put, that this was the kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life. 

He said, So did you check? Has anybody else noticed the Proust thing? And I said, I dunno. I should have checked. I didn’t have time. I hope so.

I hadn’t checked. Which was embarrassing. But sometimes, when there are no X-Men movies playing, I can be a good student. So I went home and searched the usual academic databases, and at least one other scholar—David Damrosch, author of the aforementioned The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh—had noticed the Proust thing. And learning that was almost as good a feeling as learning that a first kiss will of course be followed by a second, and a third—that the startling pleasures that come so infrequently in our lives do in fact repeat themselves, and are shared.

Find the reader—find him—well, there are at least two or three of us, Erich—in fact, I am certain that there are thousands and thousands of us, with our Tintins, our sharpened pencils, our professorships, our unfair prejudices against books with long titles about the politics of insurance in America, our brains and lusts and sillinesses and nearly—but not quite!—empty reading rooms, and for now and forever that is enough. 

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