3/19/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

Michael Ducker
15 min readMar 19, 2021


This week I have Erich Auerbach’s classic book of literary criticism, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Let’s resume where we left off. In Rabelais, we see the treatment of a contemporary theme: that of the discovery of a new world and “all the astonishment, the widening horizons and change in the world picture” that follow (269). This motif of the representation of reality — that is, the literary representation of content from the real, contemporary world — is one to which Auerbach returns time and again. Along with the motif of what we might call the dialectic of the separation of styles, this is one of the through-lines in Mimesis. While Rabelais may develop the theme comically and fantastically — the scene that Auerbach begins with is, after all, one that takes place in a giant’s mouth — he nevertheless “gives himself the possibility of developing a realistic scene of everyday life” (271). And what is more, Rabelais manages to depict such scenes in a mixture of styles that is alternatively grotesque, popular, matter-of-fact, and philosophical. Finally, Rabelais furthers the development of the creatural realism that Auerbach brought into focus in his discussion of de la Sale.

Whereas in de la Sale and his contemporaries, creatural realism was used as a sign of the earthly body’s inferiority to the eternal orders, in Rabelais is takes on a novel meaning: “the vitalistic-dynamic triumph of the physical body and its functions” (276). Rather than an event for misery, the body becomes a joyous site for Rabelais to express his love of life in prose. It is this “triumphant earthly life which calls forth [Rabelais’] realistic and super-realistic mimesis” (276). Nevertheless, the comedic tone of Rabelais’ work means that for all the forward movement we find in it in terms of bodily, worldly motifs; for all the realism we find in his pages and all the mixing of styles deployed in its service — we are still not in the realm “of the everyday with tragic seriousness” whose history Auerbach is tracing.

Such a bodily, earthly, realistic mimesis achieves more profound seriousness in the essays of Michel de Montaigne. In the French essayist’s work, we see a non-dualistic conception of the body and mind that serves as the basis of realistic introspection. That this is in non-fictional prose is largely sidestepped by Auerbach. While elsewhere in Mimesis, he denies that he approaches literature sociologically, it is clear that mimesis develops in literature only through what Bakhtin would call dialogism. That is to say, styles and techniques are not rarefied bits of inspiration. They are, instead, the product of ongoing dialogues between text and text, text and world. Indeed, Montaigne is of interest to Auerbach not only based on his non-dualism and realism but also insofar as “he writes the first work of lay introspection” and achieves the generalized intellectual refinements that will later play so important a role in the courtly culture of France (308). One last point on Montaigne’s method: it is also random. He understands human life as embedded in random, societal forces; for this reason, any randomly selected moment or theme can be depicted in realistic seriousness. Montaigne allows creatural realism to break “through the Christian frame within which it arose” (310). He embeds man’s body and mind in this world, subject to all the randomness of life, and depicts in a mixture of styles that is just as rooted in the concreteness of reality as the life it represents.

Auerbach’s discussion of Shakespeare follows. Shakespeare is restricted by class, confining the sublime and the tragic to the upper classes. Nevertheless, we find in his work the most profound mixing of styles so far: even his most tragic characters contain comic elements, and his most comedic scenes can give way to tragedy and seriousness. He is also writing in a time and place where “the Christian-figural schema [has] lost its hold.” As a result, we see in Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama “the first specifically modern form of tragedy” in which “the hero’s individual character plays a much greater part in shaping his destiny” (318):

“In Elizabethan tragedy we are in most cases confronted not with purely natural character but with character already formed by birth, situation in life, and prehistory (that is, by fate) — character in which fate has already had a great share before it fulfills itself in the form of a specific tragic conflict. The latter is often only the occasion which releases a tragic situation” (320).

Thus, tragedy and realism begin to merge, expanding the reservoir of dramatic possibilities. The social and historical is now properly understood as the basis for dramatic, serious, and tragic happenings. Shakespeare exploits this emergent possibility perhaps better than anyone. His plays are full of “inner entanglements which result from given condition,” including not only “milieu but even the landscape, even the spirits of the dead and other supernatural beings” (322). We have finally left behind medieval Christianity and entered the age of historical and social consciousness, full of incipient knowledge of the forces that shape reality.

(Almost parenthetically, Auerbach advances a strange thesis regarding Shakespeare. Despite the intense and varied realism of his work, Shakespeare’s “purpose goes far beyond the representation of reality in its merely earthly coherence; he embraces reality but he transcends it” (327). He seems to be gesturing towards what later critics have identified as the metatextual — or proto-post-modern — element in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Auerbach adduces Prospero’s closing monologue in The Tempest: “we are such stuff/As dreams are made of, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” For Auerbach, this is evidence that Shakespeare’s plays advance “into the realm of the fairy tale, of playful fancy, or of the supernatural and demonic” (328). Auerbach is a bit unclear on what the upshot of all of this is, but his basic point seems to be that Shakespeare incessantly refines realism into art. Although he is more realistic — and although he rarely appears to reject reality — than all those who came before him, he is not content to represent it either for the sake of realism itself or for didactic or political purposes.)

The triumph of Shakespeare shall not last in Europe, and soon “the restrictive countermovements gained the upper hand” (324). Before he can advance to the counterrevolution of French classicism, however, Auerbach feels the need to address Cervantes. However, this chapter on Don Quixote feels extraneous. It seems to have been written to correct in advance critics who might criticize his dismissal of its relevance to developing the motifs that he is following. To briefly summarize: although Don Quixote is an excellent, artful book from the epoch in which modern, tragic realism arose, it is nevertheless irrelevant due to its constant playfulness and gaiety:

“[Cervantes] found the order of reality in play. It is no longer the play of Everyman, which provides fixed norms for the judgment of good and evil. That was still so in La Celestina. Now things are no longer so simply. Cervantes undertakes to pass judgement only in matters concerning his profession as a writer. So far as the secular world is concerned, we are all sinners; God will see to it that evil is punished and good rewards. Here on earth the order of the unsurveyable is to be found in play. However arduous it may be to survey and judge phenomena, before the mad knight of La Mancha they turn into a dance of gay and diverting confusion” (358).

Note how far we are from Lukacs’ discussion of the book in The Theory of the Novel! In that text, Cervantes’ book is the first in which world and spirit finally come back into contact. Its gaiety and irony are, in that sense, the first steps towards the realistic novel. But that is a discussion for another time.

His Spanish detour concludes, Auerbach turns his attention — sharpened to a critical point — to the French classicists. This is not an era of realism and humanism in drama but an age of moralists. In sharp contrast to the broadly democratic audience of Shakespeare, French classicism’s audience was addressed to the small, elite minority of the monarchic courts, gathered about the personage of the King, the forms available to the playwright contract. Molière’s critical, satirical plays are “entirely moralistic; that is to say, [they accept] the prevailing structure of society, takes for granted its justification, permanence, and general validity, and castigates the excesses occurring within its limits as ridiculous” (365). Meanwhile, the realistic personages of the people depicted are eschewed in favor of those who are conceived according to rationalistic principles as reasonable, upright, or emotional. In a bizarre perversion of classical theater, the separation of styles and unity of action is taken to completely non-realistic extremes. The body in all its creatural realism is banished from the stage, treated only in vaguely erotic tones. In short, “The classic tragedy of the French represents the ultimate extreme in the separation of styles, in the severance of the tragic from the everyday and real, attained by European literature” (387). If judged against the standards of the time, we may find something redeeming in these plays. Yet, we can only see their artfulness if we understand them as artificially constrained.

French classicism, in all its artificiality, waylays the development of European realism. We see its hold begin to give away only gradually. In the Enlightenment novels of Voltaire, for instance, its influence can still be seen in his a priori subjection of reality to rationalistic, propagandic schema; in the Abbé Prévost, meanwhile, realism only enters the stage for sentimental and erotic titillation. In both cases, serious realism is instrumentalized for other ends. And while a mixing of styles does occur in the work of both these writers, “it does not go far of very deep either in its everyday realism or its seriousness. It continues the aesthetic tradition of classicism inasmuch as its realism remains always pleasant. Tragic and creatural penetration and historical involvement are avoided” (411). Only in the memoirs of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon do we genuinely find a precursor for modern European realism. As a detailed observer of court life, Saint-Simon attempts to grasp his milieu’s events in their social context. He does so, moreover, in a manner that is serious, problematic, and “transcends the purely moralistic in order to penetrate into the profondeurs opaques of our nature” (431). The historical, sociological, deeply interpretive nature and style of his writing is such that he loosens the stranglehold of court culture on literary art from within.

Before continuing in his story of the rise of the realistic French novel, Auerbach stops in the territory of his native language, examining the German writing of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While the work of writers such as Schiller moves towards realism, such realism remains inadequate. Attempts to grasp individual destiny in the context of contemporary reality are made, but ultimately the middle-class nature of such writing: it remains “wedded to the personal, the domestic, the touching, and the sentimental,” unable to “relinquish them” (441). The Sturm und Drang movement writers give a sublime voice to such a middle-class genre without ultimately transcending its limited scope. There is realism here, but it is of a limited sort. As such, “the trend of German literature […] turned away from realism in the sense of a concrete portrayal of contemporary political and economic conditions” (443). Auerbach locates the cause of all this in the territorial fragmentation of Germany. The resulting parochial worldview remains unable to represent the full social complexity of life in a realistic fashion. Ironically, all this occurs while at the same time as the rise of what Auerbach calls “Historism” in German intellectual circles. The historical consciousness of this movement saw human history as the unfolding interplay of forces and trends which could be complexly grasped. The present, meanwhile, could be seen as “a piece of history whose everyday depths and total inner structure lay claim to our interest both in their origins and in the direction taken by their development” (444). Such an intellectual condition spread throughout German — and, indeed, European — life and would have been conducive to the development of German realism. Even Goethe could not complete such a task. It would take the French novelists of the 19th century to give literary shape to such a conception of history and life.

Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola: these four French novelists brought realist literature to maturity in the 19th century. Stendhal founds “the serious realism of modern times [that] cannot represent man otherwise than as embedded in a total reality, political, social and economic, which is concrete and constantly evolving” (463). As a worldly and ultimately disappointed son of an aristocratic family during the Napoleonic era, Stendhal’s fortune rose and fall with the French Emperor’s fate. The result was that Stendhal aged into the knowledge of both the social complexities of France and an acute awareness that he did not belong in it. He translated this into his artful novels, full of tragic seriousness and problematic historical realism. Although, as we have said, historically-bound, Stendhal’s realism was not quite intellectualized (i.e., not akin to historism) but born of a romantic disillusion. Closer to reality than Stendhal, Auerbach argues, was Balzac, who consciously attempted to raise the novel of manner to philosophical history (477). In Balzac, we find not only historical consciousness but historical self-consciousness. In his writing, Balzac finds a “justification [for] all stylistic genres and levels in works” of an historical nature. Since it is a project of historical representation and interpretation, Balzac seems to say; writing must not be bounded by the rules of the separation of styles. Indeed, this attitude calls for “the gradual development of an entirely new kind of serious or, if one prefers, elevated style” (481). Stendhal and Balzac represent, for Auerbach, the first generation of French realism; Flaubert and Zola will represent the second, the continuity between the two men interrupted only by the decadents.

“In Flaubert realism becomes impartial, impersonal, and objective” (482). So begins Auerbach’s discussion of the most famous writer of France’s 19th century. In discussing Madame Bovary, Auerbach carefully explains how Flaubert achieves a non-naturalistic representation of consciousness. While later novelists will represent consciousness in its precise, often immature flow, Flaubert gives “mature expression” to the subjectivity of Emma Bovary (484). He does so by carefully choosing events and sequences from her life and translating them into literary language. His writing displays a faith in events, a conviction that the narrator need not comment judgmentally on, or even fully explicate, the nature of the events narrated. By careful manipulation of language and the level of style in accordance with event, meaning jumps from the page into the mind of the reader: “every event, if one can express it purely and completely, interprets itself and the person involved far better and more completely than any opinions or judgment appended to it could do” (486). Flaubert’s “objective seriousness” goes beyond that of his predecessors and their romantic anxieties, producing literature that genuinely addresses the world in a realistic, mature fashion.

This realism does not rise without interruption. In the latter half of the 19th century, there arises in France a literary movement advocating art for art’s sake. Auerbach traces this movement’s origin back to the relationship between the public and the artist that existed at the time. Lacking public readership and dependent upon the patronage of elite clients, these writers found themselves bitterly distanced from mass culture. This allowed for the cultivation of a literature in which style and taste were valued above all. While this did not necessarily entail a complete disconnect from the events of the day, it could not represent public life as such. If the Goncourt brothers depicted a scandalous world of French prostitution and sexual exploitation, it was not as a social problem to be realistically depicted, but as a shocking scene to be appreciated for its alterity to the masses’ tastes. Such writing, Auerbach argues, demands that “subjects treated to be made manifest with sensory vigor and, further, in a new, not yet outworn form which will reveal the writer’s distinctive character” (503). It is only in Zola that this ugliness of the social realm in all its scandalous details was reclaimed by realist literature. He depicts the squalor of the working class not as a refined object of pleasure for the avant-garde, but as a “truth [that] is at the same time a summons to action in terms of social reform” (512). The method of art for art’s sake gives way to a realist art for action’s sake. And in service of this, all levels of style and all forms of sensory, complex realism are permissible.

Auerbach closes out his discussion of 19th-century realism with some perfunctory remarks on developments in Germany (“It yielded no subject matter for a realism so generally national, so materially modern, so intent upon an analysis of the emerging destiny of European society, as the realism of France” (516)) and Russia (“it is based on a Christian and traditionally patriarchal concept of the creatural dignity of every human individual regardless of social rank and position, and hence that it is fundamentally related rather to old-Christian than to modern occidental realism” (521). Auerbach dedicates a single paragraph to England, admitting that the country held some important realists but sidestepping any discussion of them. And he devotes a single paragraph to Scandinavia, which can be summarized as follows: Ibsen was influential, but he was boring, and his influence is waning. In case my opinion is not clear, I find this section of the book incredibly disappointing. While I don’t expect Auerbach to treat every nation’s literature with the learnedness and sensitivity with which he treats Dante, the clipped and occasionally borderline racist disregard he has for non-Romance literatures can be frustrating. At any rate, he finally turns his attention to an English novelist in the final chapter (epilogue excepted) of Mimesis.

Auerbach selects Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as his case study for the conclusion of his motifs in the modernist era. Moreover, he narrows in on the passage in which Mrs. Ramsay measures a stocking against her son’s leg, noting the intensity and diversity that Woolf puts into this little scene. In Woolf, the narrator of the 19th-century novel has disappeared. Now, “almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousness of the dramatis personae” (534). While writers before Woolf had written subjective novels — often in the first-person, narrated by an eccentric — there stand few, if any, novels before modernism which we are given the consciousness in this fashion. Auerbach distinguishes the 19th-century method from the 20th-century method as follows (the emphases are mine):

“The design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times) is important in the modern technique which we are here examining. It basically differentiates it from the unipersonal subjectivism which allows only a single and generally a very unusual person to make himself heard and admits only that one person’s way of looking at reality. In terms of literary history, to be sure, there are close connections between the two methods of representing consciousness — the unipersonal subjective method and the multipersonal method with synthesis as its aim. The latter developed from the former, and there are works in which the two overlap” (536).

The latter technique represents a forward step in the development of realism. With this modernist method, maximally realistic exploration of consciousness can be explored without an a priori, rationalistic schema imposed. Such works submit “much more than was done in earlier realistic works, to the random contingency of real phenomena” (538). Time, consciousness, perspective, psychology — the modernist technique has a realistic advantage in its representation of all of these. After explaining the technique and exploring its life among other European novelists — such as Proust, Joyce, and Mann — Auerbach concludes by spectacularly pulling back the curtain.

If these novelists display a “confidence that in any random fragment plucked from the course of a life at any time the totality of its fate is contained and can portrayed,” then Auerbach’s philological method is that of a European realist. For he too has proceeded not by minimalizing historical data, imposing rationalist regimes, or adjudicating categories. Instead, he has seen “the possibility of success and profit in a method which consists in letting myself be guided by a few motifs which I have worked out gradually and without a specific purpose, and in trying them out on a series of texts which have become familiar and vital to me in the course of my philological activity” (548). By this method, he has tried not only to uncover some truth about the history of Western literature. He has also tried to show the things shared in common by mankind, to show that the distances between nations are not so vast. Indeed, there is unity and dignity in realistically approaching reality and searching for all its richness. Although he admits that in some of these novels, he finds a cynicism and a mere reflection without emphasis of the chaos of European society at the time, it is not hard to see why such a method and conviction would appeal to an exiled German Jew during World War II. He concludes on a humanistic note that I will let ring out to close this reading review:

“It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior actions, to the reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be trending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarning of the approaching unification and simplification (552–553).

I will give some final thoughts next week.

Until then,

Michael Ducker