I keep a copy of Erich Auerbach‘s Mimesis (see this post) beside my bed; it makes perfect nighttime reading, since it consists largely of bite-sized excerpts of various works in the original and in translation with shortish discussions of each. I am in awe of Auerbach, but one doesn’t like to be too intimidated, so I hugely enjoyed discovering a chink in his armor (comparable to the pleasure I took in Nabokov’s mistaking Khazars for Hazaras). It doesn’t affect the acuity of his scholarship, but it brings him down to earth a bit.
In chapter 3, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” after discussing a quote from Ammianus Marcellinus (whose name I pronounce in the good old pre-reform way “ammy-EY-nus marse-LYE-nus”) he turns to Apuleius (“apyou-LEY-us”) and a passage from his Metamorphoses (aka The Golden Ass) in which Lucius, the narrator, describes bargaining for some fish for dinner at the market and then running into his old friend Pythias, who has come up in the world; after insisting Lucius tell him how much he paid for the fish, he marches up to the little old man (seniculum) who had sold them, loudly abuses him, and concludes “But this must not pass unpunished. No—I shall show you how evil-doers are punished under my administration.” He dumps the basket on the ground and has his servant step on the fish and grind his heels into them (ac pedibus suis totos obterere). He then turns to Lucius and says “That was quite a disgrace for the old man; I think I shall let it go at that.” Lucius resumes his interrupted journey to the baths, reflecting “Through the energetic intervention of my smart fellow student I had lost both my money and my supper” (prudentis condiscipuli valido consilio et nummis simul privatus et cena).
Now, that’s a genuinely funny story (I never expected this book to make me laugh!); I can see it, transposed a bit, working its magic in either Laurel & Hardy or Ilf & Petrov. But almost as funny is Auerbach’s indignantly bewildered response:
No doubt there have been and are readers who simply laugh over this story and consider it a farce, a mere joke. But I do not believe that is quite enough. The behavior of Lucius’ long-lost friend, of whom we are told nothing except that they had just been reunited, is either wilfully malicious (which he had no reason to be) or insane (but there is no reference to his not being quite right in his mind). We cannot avoid the impression of a half silly, half spectral distortion of ordinary, average occurrences in human life. The friend has been delighted by the unexpected encounter; he has offered his services and actually insisted on being of help. Yet without the slightest concern for the consequences of his action, he robs Lucius of his supper and his money. As for the fishmonger’s punishment, there is no such thing; he still has his money. And if I am not mistaken, Pythias urges Lucius to leave the market place, because the dealers will not sell him anything after such an incident and might actually attempt to wreak vengeance upon him. The whole affair, with all its silliness, is carefully calculated to fool Lucius and play him a mean trick—but for what purpose and to what end? Is it silliness, is it malice, is it insanity? The silliness of it cannot prevent the reader from feeling bewildered and disturbed. And what a strangely unpleasant, foul, and somehow sadistic idea—that of the fish being trodden to pulp on the pavement of the market place by order of the law!
This is exactly the kind of thing that gives rise to the unfortunate stereotype of Germans as having no sense of humor. I imagine a series “Erich Auerbach Explains Jokes”: “Now, in this story we have a priest, a rabbi, and a horse walking into a bar. In the first place, an establishment devoted to the sale of intoxicating beverages is not a seemly venue for men of the cloth, but far worse is the presence of the horse. What is the horse doing there? Has it become addicted to alcohol by some cruel whim of its owner? Is it being forced into a room not suited for it, where its presence will surely be unwelcome, merely for the convenience of one of the men, who prefers to ride home and perhaps likes to keep his horse in sight at all times?” Etc. I tell you, it’ll be as big a hit as Mystery Science Theater 3000!