Study Guide

Erich Auerbach Influences

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The Odyssey

The opening chapter of Mimesis gets physical. In other words, it's primarily about that scar on the thigh of the Odysseus. You may be wondering what in tarnation Odysseus's thigh has to do with representations of reality.

It's all about timing.

In the Odyssey, the pace of the opening discussion of Odysseus's scar is slow, especially by the standards of today's reader). Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say Homer lets these events unfold in real time, but… his syntax (the order and choice of words) creates pauses that say, "Hey, pay attention." Homer makes the most of the moment, and his leisurely pace makes the moment that much more poignant.

To me, this is mimesis is in the sense that importance given to a specific moment. It's like a long, lingering close-up that allows us to savor every detail in real time. (This is definitely not Jerry Bruckheimer's Odyssey.)

Genesis 22:1

Here's another epic story: the megadrama of Abraham's (almost) sacrifice of his son to God. Unlike Odysseus, the biblical language gives only the necessary information: it's like a newspaper article to The Odyssey's slow foreign-film style. In Genesis, we simply know what God is asking Abraham to do, and it is no small favor.

In Genesis 22:1, there's no lingering on the appearance of people or things. There are no distractions. Genesis 22:1 gives us very little to sink our teeth into. Basically, God just says "Jump," and Abraham has to respond, "How high?" The point is that Abraham is supposed to do this pretty much without thinking—he's supposed to be so obedient that he would do anything, immediately, for God—so it makes sense that we're not really given any details here.


I've worked hard to show how some authors present people as, well, people. Most people pick up Dante's Inferno thinking that the 14th-century author's idea of the Fourth Ring of Hell bears absolutely no resemblance to a world full of real housewives and chemical weapons. I saw Mimesis as a chance to bring readers around to the recognition that hell may be just a little more familiar than they like. The ideas in The Inferno stand the test of time.

I say that Dante was onto some fresh ideas about old material. Everyone back then knew about hell, and they probably expected at least a little bit of punishment from the Christian God. I merely pointed out that Dante presented a more realistic and human version of people's experiences of and anxieties about God. Dante didn't give us wooden historical people; he gave us people experiencing some real-life problems.

Virginia Woolf

Some people are afraid of Virginia Woolf—and for good reason. Her high modernist stream-of-consciousness style of writing can be a little inaccessible. But Woolf was also a master of the human detail. If you look past all of the disjointed inner thoughts of her characters and the constant switching up of narrators, you'll find realistic human beings living in their moment.

Woolf's books look at the details of life for people of all classes, circumstances, and mindsets. That's why I spend so much time looking at things in her books like the weather or a wool stocking. Having these petty little items and preoccupations make the characters in her book seem real.

Marcel Proust

If you don't already know about the madeleine, well, I'm here to let you know that when Marcel tastes that delightful French cookie in In Search of Lost Time, he is overcome by memories. That one cookie takes him back and reminds him of his dear Mamma and all the time he spent with her. For Proust, that madeleine is the essence of human memory. It's such a small detail, but Proust shows that even a tiny little detail can contain something big and essential.

For the curious, other literary works I discuss in Mimesis include: Satyricon by Petronius; Annals by Tacitus; Res Gestae by Ammianus Marcellinus; History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours; Chanson de Roland; Yvain by Chrétien de Troyes; Mystere d'Adam; The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri; The Decameron by Boccaccio; Le Réconfort de Madame du Fresne by Antoine de la Sale; Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais; Essays by Michel de Montaigne; Henry IV, Parts 1and2 by William Shakespeare; Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes; Tartuffe by Molière; Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost; Luise Miller by Friedrich Schiller; The Red and the Black by Stendhal; Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; Germinie Lacerteaux by Edmond and Jules de Goncort; and Germinal by Émile Zola.

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