Wuthering Mimesis.

Amateur Reader (Tom) at his blog Wuthering Expectations (see this LH post) is beginning a series of posts about Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which I wrote briefly about here; his first post covers the first two chapters, his second chapters 3-7. In the latter he mentions something I had not noticed, the book’s Francocentrism:

Here I will stop to note that there are sixteen chapters left, and the linguistic division is: two Italian, two English, one German, one Spanish and thus (I will need all of my fingers) ten chapters about French literature. Which sounds about right to me. Auerbach only glances at Russian literature because discussion “is impossible when one cannot read the works in their original language” (Ch. 18, 492), and he completely ignores American literature because he, I don’t know, does not care, however much I would love to read his (imaginary) chapter on Moby-Dick.

Mimesis is half French. And Auerbach, and for that matter the translator, Willard Trask, assumes we all read French. Long passages are translated, but untranslated sentences and phrases are scattered everywhere.

Anyone interested should start following along; I find that Internet Archive has the whole thing available online, which is certainly convenient. I will quote the following passage, of linguistic interest, from chapter 6:

How much more elastic and mobile this language is than that of the chanson de geste, how much more adroitly it prattles on, conveying narrative movements which, though still naive enough, already have far freer play in their variety, can be observed in almost every sentence. Let us take lines 241 to 246 as an example: La la trovai si afeitiee, si bien parlant et anseigniee, de tel sanblant et de tel estre, que mout m’i delitoit a estre, ne ja mes por nul estovoir ne man queïsse removoir. The sentence, linked by la to the preceding one, is a consecutive period. The ascending section has three steps, the third step contains an antithetically constructed summary (sanblant-estre) which reveals a high degree of analytical skill (already a matter of course) in the judgment of character. The descending section is bipartite, and the parts are carefully set off against each other: the first—stating the fact of delight—in the indicative mood; the second—hypothetical—in the subjunctive. Nothing so subtle in structure, and merging with the narrative as a whole so smoothly and without apparent effort, is likely to have occurred in vernacular literatures before the courtly romance. I take this opportunity to observe that in the slow growth of a hypotactically richer and more periodic syntax, a leading role seems to have been played (down to the time of Dante) by consecutive constructions (the sentence quoted on page 100 [p. 95 in my paperback edition — LH] from the Folie Tristan also culminates in a consecutive movement). While other types of modal connection were still comparatively undeveloped, this one flourished and developed characteristic functions of expression which were later lost; the subject has recently been discussed in an interesting study by A. G. Hatcher (Revue des Études Indo-européennes, 2, 30).

How often do you see a reference to Revue des Études Indo-européennes in a work of literary criticism? The passage he cites from the Folie Tristan:

en ki me purreie fier,
quant Ysolt ne me deingne amer,
quant Ysolt a si vil me tient
k’ore de mei ne li suvient?

(In whom can I have confidence, if Ysolt deigns not to love me, if Ysolt considers me so despicable that she does not now remember me?)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I certainly noticed the preponderance of Romance examples in Mimesis (and eventually had my copy permanently borrowed by my French-and-Spanish-major son) but felt that that was just a natural consequence of the fact that he could hardly make his point cogently by analysing stuff he wasn’t familiar with himself; and Auerbach was a professor of Romance Philology.

    If people don’t like his choice of examples they can always write their own ground-breaking works of literary criticism, after all.

  2. Very true, but I don’t think it was a complaint so much as an observation. That doesn’t explain why he totally ignored American literature, however. He was probably just full of the Eurosnob contempt for American culture so prevalent in his day.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think Auerbach at all thought of himself as setting out a showcase of Truly Great Literature in Mimesis. (Nobody would include Ammianus Marcellinus in a World Literature Top Twenty, for all his virtues.)
    Auerbach’s got an agenda, and his examples are chosen to illustrate it. For all I know, he may have had a low opinion of American culture (though I doubt whether so perceptive a critic would actually be so dull); but even if he did, I don’t think it’s possible to conclude that from Mimesis. That would be to mistake the nature of the work.

  4. True, true.

  5. (But I’ll bet he did have a low opinion of American culture, like almost all refugees who washed up on these shores from the European catastrophe — they all sat around moaning about the wasteland they were forced to inhabit while waiting to return to their beloved cafes and literary backbiting. Though sometimes they made an exception for jazz: so delightfully primitive!)

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    One shouldn’t begrudge them the joy of kvetch.

  7. Oh, absolutely not. But one can still resent their hoity-toity intellectualism.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I concede that it would be equally wrong to deny people the pleasure of resenting hoity-toity intellectualism.
    That seems only fair.

  9. David Marjanović says

    He was probably just full of the Eurosnob contempt for American culture so prevalent in his day.

    Not so much contempt, I think, as ignorance that it exists, and failure to imagine that it could exist. There seems to have been a widespread idea that America is simply too young to already have such things.

  10. AJP Crown says

    they all sat around moaning about the wasteland they were forced to inhabit while waiting to return

    No they didn’t! Isherwood and Auden absolutely LOVED California & NY respectively. You mean Adorno, but he was a bastard. Brecht was Brecht, but Fritz Lang stayed on. The artists at Black Mountain (Josef & Anni Albers) and architects (Gropius & Mies) seemed to like it well enough to stay on after the naziness. I bet Mondriaan would have stayed. He loved the jazz.

  11. Bathrobe says

    I notice that he wrote it in Istanbul during the war. Would that have skewed his perspective in some way?

    As for the anti-American snobbery, it’s quite possible that he simply wanted to concentrate on the Old World, uninfluenced by colonial accretions… It does make sense intellectually, although it can’t be denied that it was probably a result of Old-World snobbery.

    I notice that Edward Said wrote the introduction to the new edition. I wonder what Said had to say about a book like this….

  12. Bathrobe says

    Said’s introduction is on-line here:


    As Said points out:

    “He explains in the concluding chapter of Mimesis that, even had he wanted to, he could not have made use of the available scholarly resources, first of all because he was in wartime Istanbul when the book was written and no Western research libraries were accessible for him to consult, second because had he been able to use references from the extremely voluminous secondary literature, the material would have swamped him and he would never have written the book.”

    So that partly answers my question.

    Said’s introduction is sympathetic, respectful, and informative, and is well worth reading. It looks at Auerbach’s roots in the German tradition of study of Romance cultures. He notes:

    “For a German whose specialty was Romance literature this sympathy took on an almost ideological cast, given that there had been a long period of historical enmity between Prussia and France, the most powerful and competitive of its neighbors and antagonists. As a specialist in Romance languages, the German scholar had a choice either to enlist on behalf of Prussian nationalism (as Auerbach did as a soldier during the First World War) and to study “the enemy” with skill and insight as a part of the continuing war effort or, as was the case with the postwar Auerbach and some of his peers, to overcome bellicosity and what we now call “the clash of civilizations” with a welcoming, hospitable attitude of humanistic knowledge designed to realign warring cultures in a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity.”

    He also discusses his Jewishness, Germanness, and Eurocentrism. Even though he worked in America after the war he had a hope to return to Germany.

    Read the introduction for much more.

  13. Bathrobe says

    Another comment swallowed.

    Said’s introduction is online (as a pdf). You can find it if you google it.

    I assume my comment will become visible when Hat gets up in the morning.

  14. Good thing I checked the moderation queue before turning in!

    You mean Adorno, but he was a bastard.

    Yeah, he was my main suspect.

    I bet Mondriaan would have stayed. He loved the jazz.

    And he was who I was thinking of when I talked about jazz. You got me dead to rights.

  15. But in my defense, I despise elitism and react sharply to any whiff of it. Go ahead, put the cuffs on me.

  16. One great document of the complex psychology of expatriation to the United States is Nabokov’s Pnin. Commercial aimed at anyone considering teaching it: I’ve written up a set of notes keyed by page number to the current Vintage edition. If you’d like a PDF, email me at jmorse@hawaii.edu.

  17. AJP Crown says

    Mondrian became on good terms with the jazz musician Thelonious Monk, and when Monk spoke about his music he often did so by referring to the precision with which Mondrian placed a line or applied a colour to the structure of his paintings.
    Others however, were somewhat less enamoured: Miriam Gabo, the wife of the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo, once remarked of Mondrian: he “was a terrible dancer Virginia (Pevsner) hated it and I hated it. We had to take turns dancing with him!”

    I don’t think we’re talking about cultural snobbery here – there’s also the story that Mondrian stopped speaking to Theo Van Doesburg because of TVD’s introduction of an arbitrary diagonal into his work – these people were just very committed to what they were doing. As far as I know Horkheimer thrived in New York. If he was so fond of Europe even Adorno could have stayed at Oxford (on the other hand, he possibly didn’t consider Oxford Europe). Of the two biggest names who remained in England, Wittgenstein & Freud, I bet Freud would have continued to the US if he hadn’t been dying (Witt. of course had been in England on and off since before WW1).

    There may have been a different attitude in the visual arts. Modernism (the Dessau Bauhaus, for example) celebrated machines, Futurism & Vorticism were all about smashing the old culture. The US, Henry Ford, the skyscraper were what the future looked like. Meanwhile Eliot, Henry James a bit earlier, and Ezra Pound were headed in the opposite direction in order to excavate the past.

    I’m sure you remember that feeling when you move to another culture that you don’t necessarily want to blend in; certainly not the whole time. Sometimes you want to meet up with your fellow countrymen and compare notes. It doesn’t make you an elitist.

  18. David Marjanović says

    on the other hand, he possibly didn’t consider Oxford Europe

    Only Britons would ever not consider Oxford Europe.

  19. I’m sure you remember that feeling when you move to another culture that you don’t necessarily want to blend in; certainly not the whole time. Sometimes you want to meet up with your fellow countrymen and compare notes. It doesn’t make you an elitist.

    Of course not. Meeting up with your fellow countrymen and reminiscing about the homeland: not elitism. Meeting up with your fellow countrymen and talking about how vulgar and worthless the country you’re in is: elitism. I grant you I may be making the latter phenomenon more prevalent than it was, but you have to admit it existed.

  20. I mean, when I lived in Taiwan I certainly met up with other expats and lamented the absence of good burgers, but nobody dissed Taiwan or its culture.

  21. AJP Crown says

    Only Britons would ever not consider Oxford Europe.

    Heh. Boris Johnson is on track to be the next PM.

    talking about how vulgar and worthless the country you’re in is:

    Eurotrash. They only like each other.

  22. John Cowan says

    They only like each other.

    I accidentally googled this phrase when I only meant to copy it, and got this (from a 2011 novel):

    “[…] These men I work with every day have all grown up with silver spoons in their mouths, they went to the same schools, talk with the same plummy voices, their families know each other, they’re a tribal clan, they only like each other, trust each other. If they suspected where I came from, what my life has been like, they would know I was an outsider in their cosy world, not one of their old-boy network; they’d turn on me, rip me to pieces. So if you want to ruin me, you only have to repeat to one of them what I just told you [namely that he grew up very poor].”

  23. Ha — very apposite!

  24. AJP Crown says

    They’re fam.

  25. Thanks for writing this. It was a treat to write about Auerbach, however shallowly.

    I had not known about the newer edition or the Said essay, so, again, thanks!

Speak Your Mind