Erich Auerbach Doesn’t Get It.

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!


  1. Steven Lubman says

    I have to say that the Golden Ass is one of my all time favorites. The Russian translation is superb – it was done by the poet Mikhail Kuzmin and is immensely enjoyable.

  2. Thanks, I’ve downloaded it and added it to the Kindle you were so instrumental in getting me to buy!

  3. Well, I’m happy to oblige as a typical German with no sense of humour, because I don’t get it either. I see nothing funny in destroying a perfectly good piece of fish that might have made a wonderful dinner.

  4. This is funny german humor.

  5. You know what they say about German humor — it’s no laughing matter.

  6. The Golden Ass collects a lot of stories, myths, and jokes—without a lot of quality control. I recall this gag as one of the book’s weakest, but I would never have mistaken it for anything but a lame joke.

  7. But, um, seriously, it’s a classic gag, like Hat says. It really rings a bell; if not L&H or I&P—maybe Mark Twain? Maybe someone is sending one mouth-watering dish after another back to the kitchen while their companion is starving?

    I imagine the fish get stomped on so that the reader couldn’t imagine Lucius going back to get them.

  8. I wonder what he would make of Hodja Nasreddin jokes which have very similar humour.

  9. Actually, explaining jokes can be very funny. I know no English examples (though I am sure they must exist), but this is one of the most popular Russian sketches ever.

  10. The trope of the wealthy friend/social superior through his arrogance unintentionally making life much worse for his/her friend is very much alive today. I have a suspcion the show “Blackadder” used a very similar joke at some point, at Blackadder’s expense. It also reminds me of Tina Fey’s sense of humor. Apuleius would probably be writing sitcoms if he were alive today.

  11. Ap-you-LEE-us, surely?

  12. You say it your way, I’ll say it mine.

  13. “Maybe someone is sending one mouth-watering dish after another back to the kitchen while their companion is starving?”
    Y, you may be thinking of Petruchio and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Of course, that play has its own problems with being funny or not.

  14. So… what do you consider funny? What are your favorite comedies (novels, movies, whatever)?

  15. Yes!

  16. In defence of German humour, there’s the incomparable Loriot. Some of my favourite sketches:

    Die Jodelschule
    Herren im Bad (this version has English subtitles)
    Feierabend (English subtitles)

    And I had this cartoon on my office wall for years.

  17. Since this is a linguistic blog, one must refer as well to Jerome K. Jerome’s unfortunate Herr Slossenn Boschen (starting about mid-way in the chapter).

  18. OK, there’s this scene from one of the Laurel and Hardy shorts that has me laughing uncontrollably, it’s a dinner party where a lady is trying to eat a cherry with a spoon in a very refined manner, but her tiara keeps falling over her eyes. Also that scene from I soliti ignoti which was also appropriated by Woody Allen, where the bank robbers go to great lengths to dig a tunnel into the bank only to end up in the wrong building (kitchen?).

  19. I’m glad you like Laurel and Hardy — we’ve been watching a lot of them with the grandkids, and they are truly brilliant comedians.

  20. The claim that Germans have no sense of humour is one of my pet peeves. Kafka wrote in German, for a German audience. In Die Verwandlung the set-up is in the first sentence: “Gregor Samsa … fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” Yet “Kafkaesque” means “oppressive or nightmarish” in English. So who lacks the sense of humour?

    (And then there’s always Walter Moers’ “Kleine Arschloch.”)

    Part of the problem, I think, is that for much of the twentieth century, British cultural standards were top-down, and British elites didn’t get black humour. In the late forties (if memory serves), Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay defending the proposition that, yes, Dante did have a sense of humour. The widespread apprehension was that he did not. Yet when I studied Dante in the 80s what struck me was a sense of familiarity, how modern and urban his humour was, how I felt more in common with him than with a lot of writers from subsequent centuries.

    Anyway, the idea that any human community doesn’t have a sense of humour is preposterous on the face of it. To laugh is human.

  21. Yes, that’s why I called it an unfortunate stereotype.

  22. David Marjanović says

    The claim that Germans have no sense of humour is one of my pet peeves. Kafka wrote in German, for a German audience.

    No, the stereotype is specifically about Germany, the country of Günter Jauch – not the whole German language.

    In Die Verwandlung the set-up is in the first sentence: “Gregor Samsa … fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.”

    …That’s not remotely funny, and not meant to be. ~:-|

  23. I agree with both of David’s points.

  24. David, I’m curious, why do you call it “the country of Günther Jauch”? What is it about him that makes him a special example in your eyes?

  25. Quoth WP.en: “Jauch is known for a unique style of informing and entertaining people that is generally considered witty and funny.”

  26. Jongseong Park says

    Traditional English pronunciation for Apuleius would be “ap-you-LEE-us” or “ap-you-LYE-us” as the Latin diphthong ei merged in English with long e or long i. The long a pronunciation is an attempt to bring it closer to the original Latin pronunciation that doesn’t make sense before the Great Vowel Shift, when long a would have been something like the vowel o “palm”.

  27. Oh, come on. Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning transformed into an enormous bug. His stuffy, middle class family in their stuffy, middle class apartment is so ashamed. What will the relatives think? What will the neighbors think? Hide him away where no one will see him. And the loss of their son’s wages! He’s of no use to them anymore. This is a comedy skit, a very barbed one, and a vengeful one, but a skit nonetheless. A “what would transpire if this preposterous thing should happen?” skit.

    Is it more than a comedy? Yes, but the best comedy generally is.

  28. David is correct to make a distinction between “Germans” and “German speakers”. Austrians do have a sense of humor, and the only laugh-out-loud films or TV shows made in the German language I have ever seen have universally been made by Austrians (generally anything with Josef Hader, Roland Düringer or Alfred Dorfer).

    I agree with hector that the “Verwandlung” is certainly comedy in a very dark Bohemian vein. It is not a huge leap to get from Samsa to Svejk.

  29. I’m also with hector. I teach this story every year, and there’s definitely a wave of nervous laughter when Gregor finds himself turned into a huge scarab (not a cockroach) and spends several pages reacting as if he has a touch of the flu. And so on throughout the story. It’s a really savage satire on a dysfunctional family that can’t accept change (which in Egyptian is hpr and represented with a picture of the turner, or scarab).

  30. Traditional English pronunciation for Apuleius would be “ap-you-LEE-us” or “ap-you-LYE-us” as the Latin diphthong ei merged in English with long e or long i.

    Yes, that’s true. I don’t know why I have said “ap-you-LEY-us” all my life; perhaps that was how Brother Auger, my seventh-grade Latin teacher, said it, though I don’t know what occasion he would have had to mention Apuleius. Or maybe it was someone in college? Anyway, I’m too old to change my mumpsimus now.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Die Verwandlung… it’s been a long time since I had to read it, but it came across to me (and apparently everyone else in the class, the teacher included) as just horrifying, the horror of course not so much being the transformation into “a monstrous vermin” but the family’s violent reaction to the new and different person.

    Horror can of course be comedy. I laugh at Two And A Half Men, half of which is pure horror, and the abovementioned Roland Düringer has for example starred in Hinterholz 8, which goes like this: man surrounded by assholes and idiots thoroughly ruins self and family by buying and renovating a house in the remote countryside, the Only Sane Man is his little Trekkie son, and it is hilarious. But I didn’t find any humor in Die Verwandlung.

    David, I’m curious, why do you call it “the country of Günther Jauch”? What is it about him that makes him a special example in your eyes?

    Just embarrassingly unfunny. 🙂

    That’s not to say there aren’t any funny Germans. Loriot was sublime, and then there are Bavarians like Michael “Bully” Herbig and Christoph Süß that reach lofty heights of wit. But if you want to find really painfully unfunny comedians, Germany is the first place to look. *grin*

  32. My-mother-the-German married my-father-the-jokester, but only ever made one joke in her life: when a bunch of philosophy students around her were discussing Entity, she said “Entity? That’s a little German duck.”

    By the time I came along, she was no longer laughing at my father’s jokes, having heard them too often, I guess. Fortunately for me, my wife still laughs at mine.

  33. Yes, but Günther Jauch isn’t a comedian, he’s a journalist and game show host. I mainly see him as the host of the German version of Who wants to be a Millionaire, where he’s just asking the questions in a straightforward manner and not trying to be especially funny. He also has a political talk show now.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Maybe I actually confused him with someone.

  35. David Marjanović says

    Oh no, I didn’t. He often tried to be funny on the millionaire show, and appears to have failed every single time as far as my taste is concerned (though I’m going by second-hand sources).

  36. I watched both the German and other (mostly post-Soviet) countries versions of the show, and I wouldn’t say he’s trying to be laugh-out-loud funny; the thing about him that while in other countries the hosts often seem to be question-asking robots sticking to a formula, he’s interacting more with the guests, sometimes goading them, sometimes helping, sometimes letting themselves make fools of themselves, which makes it a silent kind of fun watching him.
    In general, what people tend to pick on most with him is that he manages to be inoffensive without being bland or jovial; that combination rubs some people the wrong way.

Speak Your Mind