It’s generally considered infra dig for a novelist to admit that he’s learned anything from academic literary criticism. The world itself makes for better research, and other novels provide as much in the way of example as one might need. Barnett Newman once said, “Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to the birds,” and having been both bird and birdwatcher, I couldn’t agree more. Criticism is a conversation between critic and reader, to which the artist under consideration can neither add anything interesting nor take away anything useful. Writers’ own remarks on the novel—Flaubert’s letters, say, or Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature—can occasionally be enlightening to anyone sitting down to write a book of his or her own, but studies by professors are entirely beside the point.
Still, every generalization is obnoxious without an exception, and in this instance my own is a long study called Mimesis, written by a man named Erich Auerbach and published 50 years ago—a book familiar enough, I think, in academic circles, but unknown outside them. It deserves a wider audience—the widest possible, I would say, because it offers not just an eminent reading of the Western canon, but a mighty lesson in how to write. Princeton University Press has just reprinted it in an anniversary edition, with an introduction by Edward Said: An appropriate celebration of its semicentennial would see M.F.A. programs dismantled nationwide, with students given copies of Mimesis instead, along with instructions to go home and write as if its author was still around to be impressed.
Auerbach was a German-Jewish philologist who fled to Istanbul in the mid-’30s, where he taught at the state university. It was there, in exile and deprived of a library stocked with the sort of secondary sources that might have bolstered a more academic study, that he wrote Mimesis—an act, in its context, of extraordinary heart and optimism. The book’s aim is to show how literature progressed over the ages toward ever more naturalistic and democratic effects, but the world Auerbach was living in was one of great reactionary setbacks and mass, disastrous lapses of reason and humanity. In an age of inescapable crisis, cast out of his native culture and cut off from his colleagues, he remained patient, thoughtful, and confident—enough so, anyway, to compose 550 pages of magisterial analysis covering Western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf.
Each chapter of Mimesis begins with a short passage from a classic text—the Bible, medieval romances, Dante—and then goes on to pick it apart, showing how its arrangement of clauses and images reveals a subtle structuring of the world and literature’s place in it. The insights and the stately names parade past: Shakespeare, Rabelais, Goethe, Stendhal, and through it all Auerbach’s tone is supremely confident and slightly casual, a display of serene intelligence that never for a moment flags or strikes a false note.
The subtitle of the book is The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which gives you some idea of its scope and ambition. “Real,” of course, is an almost meaningless word in its standard broad use, but Auerbach has a something specific in mind; not the metaphysically real (as opposed to the fantastic) but the socially real—that is, the lives of more or less ordinary people engaged in more or less ordinary activities: the literary equivalent of genre painting.
To be honest, the overarching theme of the book may be its least interesting aspect. Realism of this sort is mostly a phantom concern, from a 21st century perspective anyway; daily life has been a part of our literature for so long that it seems quaint and forced to make a point of it. So, the grand structure of Mimesis is relatively uninspiring; but the readings, chapter by chapter, are magnificent. Time and again, Auerbach demonstrates how literature lives by its details. For example, the first chapter (which is also the mostly widely known and read) compares a fragment of The Odyssey with the tale of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Auerbach’s ultimate goal is an understanding of the contrast between the two cultures’ worldview, and he gets there by dissecting the passages down to their tendons and gristle, the connective tissue from which the body of metaphysics is assembled—the Bible’s use of the word “then,” for example, or Homer’s careful attention to the placement of his characters in space and time.
The book is full of such moments of understanding, such recognitions of what goes into a book, and what can be gotten out of it. A chapter on Dante focuses in part on a single phrase from Inferno, “Da me stesso non vegno”—”Of myself (i.e., of my own free will) I came not”—which Auerbach uses as an emblem of Dante’s reinvention of poetic diction. He goes through a short passage from Montaigne’s Essays almost word by word, showing how Montaigne achieved his air of intimate argument by piling up assertive clauses while leaving out the expected logical connectives (“but,” “therefore,” “because,” and so on), much as one does in a conversation.
What emerges from all this is the idea that prose should be as dense as verse and as welcoming of close reading; that not a paragraph of real writing escapes the context of history; and above all, that style is philosophy, that a decision to use commas where others might use a semicolon, or to elide the word “afterwards,” or to shift narrative perspective twice in a single paragraph, is as momentous as the decision to believe in the infinite, or to act in accord with the Categorical Imperative, or to endorse an inalienable right to privacy. They’re all part of the same will to represent the world: Kings may stand or fall on the point of a period.
To see these things, and more, was Auerbach’s genius; to show it was his calling, and I don’t think a more significant or useful book of criticism has been written in the half-century since Mimesis was published. What’s more, I can’t imagine that anything like it will ever be written again: The river of literature has become too broad, too deep, and too swift. Whether that’s good or bad I can’t say, and I don’t really care: Auerbach’s book is still in print, still available to anyone who wants it, and it ought to continue to find its way out into the world. Because in producing such a rich, strong book on how to read, Auerbach composed a virtual manual on how to write, one I’ve referred back to again and again since the day, almost two decades ago, when I first happened upon it. I’d like to think I would have written the same books if I’d never studied Mimesis, and written them the same way, or nearly so. But I doubt very much that I would have known why.