Study Guide

Erich Auerbach Quotes

When people […] accept the conviction that the meaning of events cannot be grasped in abstract and general forms of cognition and that the material needed to understand it must not be sought exclusively in the upper strata of society and in major political events but also in art, economy, material and intellectual culture, in the depths of the workaday world and its men and women, because it is only there that one can grasp what is unique […] as a piece of history whose everyday depths and total inner structure lay claim to our interest […] [From Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature]

First, my bad on such a long sentence, so let me make up for it here by giving you the reader's digest version. I'm what you might call a detail-oriented critic. The important information in a piece of literature comes in the close-up, the specific detail. Grand abstract ideas are not my thing.

Too many critics focus on the fancy folks in a novel. That's easier to do when you're reading something like A Sentimental Education or House of Mirth, which are stuffed full of fancy people doing fancy things.

But I go against the grain, rooting out the small cultural moments and the insights of the ordinary people. To me, it's the little people who most reflect history: rich people are just rich people, no matter what period they live in.

The essential characteristic of the technique represented by Virginia Woolf is that we are given not merely one person whose consciousness (that is, the impressions it receives) is rendered, but many persons, with frequent shifts from one to the other—in our text [To the Lighthouse], Mrs. Ramsay, "people," Mr. Bankes, in brief interludes James, the Swiss maid in a flash-back, and the nameless ones who speculate over a tear. [From Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature]

Woolf is like the quiet, nebbish girl in class who turns out to be way more interesting than the cute, chatty one. She just requires a little work because her style of writing was an innovative narrative method called stream-of-consciousness, which means you'll be going along reading the thoughts of one character and then without warning, you'll switch to another. Aside from confusing you, this method provides access to the thoughts of a range of people, so one protagonist doesn't dominate the book.

Woolf is interested in the thoughts of everyone, from the babbling madwoman on the streets to the upper crust Tory socialite to the nameless folk whose thoughts drift by and offer a tiny glimpse of life from where they are sitting. Woolf gets real. Talk to her.

[…] regardless of their plausibility, he makes them so clear and palpable that the question of their likelihood arises only on subsequent reflection. […] The view I am taking here is that the portrayal can be convincing regardless of whether such a thing has ever been seen or whether or not is credible […] the art of imitation is to be met with everywhere in Homer, even when he is telling fairy tales, for the unity […] or constancy, of his figure justifies or produces the things that happen to them. [From Dante: Poet of the Secular World]

Mimesis is not simply about a realistic scene in a novel or a painting that seems so real that we can't believe we can't just walk into the world on the canvas. Homer's story can be pretty fantastical—like when Circe tries to turn Odysseus and his men into pigs—but my point is that by creating a consistent world, Homer's Greek epic may be far-fetched, but everything that happens in the story makes sense for that world. Nothing seems extraordinary here, because everything is extraordinary.

It's almost like the opposite of magical realism, where life goes along in a seemingly normal way, and then out of the blue, bizarre things start to happen. In Homer's world, it makes sense that there's a six-headed creature named Scylla. That may not work out so well in a Dickens novel, but it seems realistic in Homer.

Our precision [as philologists…] relates to the particular. The progress of the historical arts in the last two centuries consists above all, […] to dismiss as unhistorical and dilettantish every absolute assessment of the phenomena that is brought in from outside. [From Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature]

People often look confused when I tell them I'm a philologist. They sometimes think I'm a stamp collector, but then I gently remind them that collecting stamps would make me a philatelist. Others have confused me with a philanthropist, and while I do like helping people, I prefer studying the history of language in its context—which is why I am, in fact, a philologist.

I hope I speak for my colleagues when I say that we like the small but significant work that words do. We don't just look at To Kill a Mockingbird and say, "Oh, yeah—that's a book about bigots." We don't like sweeping claims like that. We think there's way more to To Kill a Mockingbird than the plotline about bigotry.

We read books for what each word can tell us about the historical moment in which it was written. Don't try to slap your Marxism or psychoanalysis on a book I'm reading. What you need is in the book itself, not in some theory trying to explain everything away.