Erich Auerbach and the Secular World
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Erich Auerbach and the Secular World

Literary Criticism, Historiography, Post-Colonial Theory and Beyond

Jon Nixon

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eBook - ePub

Erich Auerbach and the Secular World

Literary Criticism, Historiography, Post-Colonial Theory and Beyond

Jon Nixon

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Auerbach was one of the foremost literary critics of the 20th century whose work has relevance within the fields of literary criticism, historiography and postcolonial theory. The opening chapter of this book explains how he understood the task of interpretation and his role as an interpreter. The following chapter outlines the important phases in his life with reference to the writers and thinkers who influenced him in his thinking and practice. The central chapters of the book focus on specific themes in his work: the historical grounding of the 'figural' imagination; the relation between the secular and the sacred; the emergence of tragic realism; and the notion of 'inner history' as a defining feature of early 20th-cenntury modernism. The final two chapters focus on broader issues relating to the development of Auerbach's understanding of the development of an educated readership within Europe and of his concerns regarding the emergence of what he terms 'a world literature'.

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1 The Interpretive Task

DOI: 10.4324/9781003058601-2
Eric Auerbach was in many ways a reluctant interpreter. He saw as his prime task an unravelling of the entangled relation between a literary text and the social and historical context within which it was first produced and received. Having read Auerbach, one cannot simply blunder into interpreting a work of literature. One has to approach it tentatively and in full awareness of one’s own historical positioning in relation to the historical location of the text. Auerbach himself approached this task through his absorption in philology – a field of study which focuses on the meaning of words and their etymology and on language as the basis of human understanding. Against the background of Nazism and its attempted appropriation of philology, he insisted on the importance of humanistic scholarship. In doing so, he challenges future generations of readers and interpreters to acknowledge both the relativity of their own historical perspective and the historical grounding of the literature they seek to understand.

Acknowledging the Past

The groundwork of Auerbach’s thinking about the representation of reality in Western literature was laid in the interwar period of the 1920s and the 1930s: the final splintering of the German Social Democratic Party on the issue of support for WWI, the aftermath of the abortive post-WWI German Revolution in the midst of an economic crisis following the Versailles Treaty of June 1919, and the securing of autocratic power by Hitler and his Nazi henchmen following the 1933 Reichstag fire in Berlin. Auerbach, as a middle-class Jewish intellectual and academic, was writing against this ideological and politically oppressive background, a background of populist rhetoric that drew on the deep resentments and aggression fermented by an unaccountable regime that had no regard for the truth or for human rights and that was based on a deterministic view of history as culminating in the final and invincible victory of the master race.
Auerbach did not write directly and explicitly against that regime. But through his work, he deliberately traces a radically different understanding of history, an understanding based not on the chronology of external events or exclusively on the inner history of those events, but on the conjuncture of external events with the experience of human beings in specific situations. What he was primarily concerned with was the way in which that conjuncture has been represented – and interpreted – in what he terms the ‘Western Literature’ of the last two millennia. By ‘Western Literature’ he meant in the main ‘European Literature’, the literature of continental Europe with some references to Northern Europe. It was the history of the self-representation of the lived experience of this region that was his prime concern.
He traced that history through a detailed study of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the Tuscan poet who was the subject of Auerbach’s postdoctoral thesis; Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), the Naples-born philosopher of history, portions of whose work Auerbach translated into German; and Marcel Proust (1871–1922), the French novelist, critic and essayist whose major work Auerbach was engaging with throughout the 1920s and the 1930s. These were his guides and mentors throughout the pre-WWII years: his defence against a culture of nationalism and cultural exclusivity; against the idea of historical determinism and a predetermined historical endpoint; against what Victor Klemperer (2013), a German Jewish linguist who survived WWII, described as the use of words by the Nazis as ‘tiny doses of arsenic’ (p. 12) that ‘permeated the flesh and blood of the people through idioms and sentence structures that were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously’ (p. 15).
Auerbach upheld the value of interpreting the past on its own historical terms and not according to our contemporary ideological persuasions, moral predispositions or ethical aspirations. The past – as it is passed down to us in memory, recorded testimony and earlier written histories – is to be respected on its own terms and according to the context in which those memories, recorded testimonies and earlier histories were produced. Is that a form of relativism? Perhaps. But it is also an acknowledgement that there is no ahistorical vantage point from which to view either the past, present or future. We – like the texts we seek to interpret – are located in particular historical circumstances which shape our understanding not only of those particular circumstances but of the human world. They bend the interpretive arc back onto the subject in a reflexive process of self-reflection, a process that is paradoxical in its insistence on the need to acknowledge the historical grounding of the text (the past is there in another country) and the need to view the past as forever layered into our present (the past as forever here).
W.H. Sebald, in his essayistic and semi-fictional novel Austerlitz, voiced through the eponymous protagonist the idea that past experience is always with us as part of our lived reality:
as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them.
(Sebald, 2011, 144)
Later in the novel, Austerlitz elaborated on that earlier insight when he suggested – tentatively, as always – that ‘all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last’ (pp. 359–360).
The past is, paradoxically, both chronologically distinct from the here and now and lodged within the experience of the chronological present. We need to know that an event was indisputably in the past while acknowledging its unignorable impact on human experience – and external events – in the present. Although Mimesis was written against the tragedy of mid-20th-century Europe, Auerbach does not forefront that tragedy. But it reveals itself indirectly as an ever-present backdrop to that work and directly through occasional but highly significant references to the context under which it was composed. In spite of attempts by Kader Konuk (2010) and others to downplay the impact of his exilic experience, he was nevertheless a Jewish scholar in exile and at grave risk of Nazi persecution.
The totalitarian ideologues of the 20th century were based on a denial of these historiographical niceties. They shaped the past in the image of their own imagined and fictionalised futures, and in so doing, created hugely damaging narratives of national identity and destiny. Nazism and the Final Solution, as Hayden White writes, ‘must be viewed as manifesting only one story, as being emplottable in one way only, and as signifying only one kind of meaning’ (White, 1999, 28). The past – for Nazism and Stalinism – was simply dragooned into the service of an unimaginable future rendered imaginable through the falsification of the past. (See Frank Dikötter’s, 2019, history of ‘the cult of the personality’ for a chilling exposé of the workings of totalitarian dictatorship in the 20th century.) The ideologies of the 21st century are no less chilling in their increasing inflection towards patriotic nostalgia: the idea of an antique and unquestionable order based on religion, ethnicity or nationhood.
In a 21st-century world increasingly besotted by ideologues – particularly those of a popularist and demagogic persuasion – we are much in need of interpreters: those who use language truthfully and examine it honestly and who accept the slow and sometimes labyrinthine byways of human history. As Auerbach showed, interpretation requires tact and humility; a sense of the sovereignty of language. He was a sophisticated interpreter of Western literature, but always a cautious, tactful and at times almost a reluctant critic. His stylistic register was one of quiet resistance. ‘The starting point’, as he puts it:
should not be a category which we ourselves impose on the material, to which the material must be fitted, but a characteristic found in the subject itself, essential to its history, which, when stressed and developed, clarifies the subject matter in its particularity and other topics in relation to it.
(LLP, 19)
Interpretation, as Auerbach practiced it, is grounded in the identification of the historical origins of both the subject and object of interpretation: how is this particular text or that particular utterance located historically – located, that is, within its own unique time, its own place of production and within a particular nexus of cultural interconnections? And how does the historical location of the interpreter influence her or his horizon of understanding in respect of the object of interpretation?
Auerbach found within the philological and hermeneutical traditions within which he had been educated a sense of how understanding the parts relies upon an understanding of the whole and how understanding the whole depends on the understanding of its constituent elements: the famous hermeneutical circle. How is the stanza to be understood except with reference to the poetic construction as a whole? How are we to understand a chapter of a novel without some sense of the entire narrative structure? And – to further complicate the matter – how is the textual integrity of the literary work as a whole to be understood within its time-bound and place-bound context?
Auerbach’s work is guided by the notion of hermeneutical circularity, whereby the anticipated whole is implicit in each of its parts and each of those parts foreshadows a constantly deferred grasp of the meaning of the whole. Understanding, in other words, is a process of cumulative fore-understandings: understanding-not-yet-finished. This notion lies at the heart of Auerbach’s interpretive approach to literary texts – particularly in his magnum opus Mimesis – whereby a single section of a single text is interpreted in such a way as to illuminate the particular text in its entirety, while folding that interpretation into the broader historical context of what he terms ‘Western literature’. That broader context then opens up the possibility of a further prefiguration and foreshadowing of what Auerbach termed ‘world literature’: diasporic, exilic and deeply transgressive in its crossing and recrossing of national and cultural boundaries.
But that broader frame of reference, in turn, opens up a crucial and highly topical methodological and epistemological problem: a problem which becomes ever more pressing within a world that – culturally, ecologically, sociologically and politically – is defined by its increasing plurality and isolationism, interconnectivity and discontinuity, inclusivity and exclusivity. How can we break into the hermeneutical circle? If everything relates to everything else – part to whole, whole to context, local to global – on what basis do we find a point of entry? How do we find a starting point? ‘How can we’, as Edward Said (1985, 43) put it, ‘while necessarily submitting to the incessant flux of experience, insert (as we do) our reflections on beginning(s) into that flux’? This is an urgent and pressing problem in a world of increasing plurality and global complexity. Auerbach did not provide a theoretical answer to the question, but he identifies the crucial issue: what he calls his primary point of departure – his Ansatzpunkt, his beginning.
To begin – to locate a point of entry into the complexity of the text in all its historical density – is the primary hermeneutical problem.

Questioning History

‘My purpose is always to write history’, wrote Auerbach in his retrospective analysis of his own work: ‘Consequently I never approach a text as an isolated phenomenon; I address a question to it, and my question, not the text, is my primary point of departure’ (LLP, 20). The question, as conceived by Auerbach, provides a hermeneutical searchlight: a focal point around which particulars can be amassed and the overall meaning gradually revealed. ‘The extraordinary success of Mimesis’, writes Edward Said (1985, 69), ‘is considerably the result of the questions he asks of the text’. This emphasis on the question as the originating point of interpretive inquiry – Auerbach’s Ansatzpunkt – is a major preoccupation with philosophers of Auerbach’s generation, as evidenced in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s insistence on ‘the hermeneutic priority of the question’ and also in R.G. Collingwood’s emphasis on ‘the logic of question and answer’ (see Collingwood, 1978, 29–43; Gadamer, 2004, 356–371). The question is the means by which the interpreter enters the hermeneutical circle.
One such question is to be found in Chapter 1 of Mimesis, in which Auerbach contrasts what he calls the ‘externalised form’ of the Homeric epic with the style of the Old Testament account of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham, obedient to the will of God, seeks to sacrifice his son Isaac, but is finally absolved of the requirement to carry out this act of obedience to God’s will by God’s last minute reprieve. Auerbach’s critical observation is that within the Homeric epic, ‘the basic impulse of the style’ is ‘to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations’. Never, argues Auerbach, ‘is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths’. Everything is ‘in the foreground – that is, in a local and temporal present which is absolute’ (M, 6–7).
Unlike the Homeric epic – the Old Testament account of Abraham and Isaac, through its ‘silent progress through the indeterminate and the contingent’ journey towards the place of sacrifice, suggests an interiority: ‘[t]he personages speak in the bible story too, but their speech does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalise thoughts – on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed’ (M, 10–11). The Old Testament account leaves open the possibility of interpretive intervention and creative reinterpretation and invites an engagement with what remains unsaid: ‘certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation … and preoccupation with the p...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title Page
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
  7. Table of Contents
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. Note to Readers
  10. Introduction: Why Auerbach Matters – and Why Now
  11. 1 The Interpretive Task
  12. 2 Outlines of a Life
  13. 3 Figural Imagination
  14. 4 The Spiritual and the Secular
  15. 5 Tragic Realism
  16. 6 Inner History
  17. 7 An Educated Public
  18. 8 Widening Horizons
  19. Coda: Learning from Auerbach
  20. Appendix: Chronology of Auerbach’s Life and Works
  21. References
  22. Index
Stili delle citazioni per Erich Auerbach and the Secular World

APA 6 Citation

Nixon, J. (2022). Erich Auerbach and the Secular World (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2022)

Chicago Citation

Nixon, Jon. (2022) 2022. Erich Auerbach and the Secular World. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Nixon, J. (2022) Erich Auerbach and the Secular World. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Nixon, Jon. Erich Auerbach and the Secular World. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2022. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.