Speaking Volumes: Mimesis

July 12, 1996

John Fuegi on Erich Auerbach's Mimesis .

It seems madly improbable that Mimesis should have been written at all. Its author was a German-Jewish intellectual and it was written in German in Istanbul between May 1942 and April 1945 as the Nazis sought to eradicate every Jew they could reach. Erich Auerbach worked with a score of original texts in many languages, but, cut off by the war, he had neither the panoply of bibliographies of that day, nor, of course, the online data that feeds to satiety the modems and consciousness of our day.

I first came across Mimesis in the mid-1960s. I was swept up by its beauty, its common sense and its ability to range across cultures with ease. I was astonished at its apparent simplicity, a lucidity that enabled one to see into depths not glimpsed before. Like the subject of its first chapter, the Odyssey, it begins in the middle of things, no preamble, just very fine writing, about a literary text. It goes on to comment in a style unburdened by cant, on passages, some humorous, some moving, from Latin, French, English, Italian, Spanish and, yes, despite the time of its composition, German writing, to end on one passage - that section in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse where Mrs Ramsay measures, against the leg of her son, the wool stocking she is knitting.

Mimesis remains germane as one grieves at the seeming intransigence of human conflict, be it Bosnia, Ireland, race or gender relations. Amid the tortured post- this or that current-ism of much critical discourse, it is most encouraging to know profundity and lucidity can share the same habitation.

Mimesis is an essay on the humane, of people, regardless of the language they speak, their social class, their gender. Through Auerbach's loving analysis and the texts themselves, we glimpse life as a Jesuit, or as an exile from one's beloved native land, or life under siege, losing your only child, or the gradual ruin of a French female servant, or of a couple with each in their own way wondering about weather and a planned trip to a lighthouse, a journey that will not happen in the lifetime of one of them.

The chapter on To The Lighthouse ends the book because, as Auerbach clearly saw, Woolf brought something new and valuable, something the Joyce of Ulysses, of "blatant and painful cynicism" and "uninterpretable symbolism", did not. Provocatively, for Auerbach, it is Woolf, not Joyce, who best links the cultural chain back some 2,600 years to the time when writing reached Europe and the Greek world.

At the edge of Europe, directly across from Asia Minor and the ruins of oft-destroyed Troy, in the spring of 1945 as Hitler ended his life in a bunker in Berlin, the exiled German-Jewish scholar wrote: "It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible." Mimesis reminds us of a time when peaceful solutions across cultures, ethnic divisions, gender, even religions, seemed within our grasp. Is this no longer so?

John Fuegi is professor of comparative Germanic and Slavic literature, University of Maryland.

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