I teach Mimesis, Erich Auerbach’s improbable masterpiece—he wrote it in Istanbul in the 1940s, on the run from the Nazis—whenever I get the chance, even when it seems extraneous to the content of the course. To be honest, I drag him into every classroom, saying, “This is the most important book of the 20th century, so you owe it to yourself to read it, sooner or later.”
Why would anyone make such a preposterous claim, which might well scare undergraduates into thinking the professor is a lunatic? Good question. More important, than, say, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904)? The Great Transformation (1944)? The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944)? The Meaning of History (1949)? Metahistory (1973)?
Or, in a different key, Pragmatism (1907)? Philosophical Investigations (1953)? Being and Time (1927)? The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912)? Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (1947)? The Second Sex (1949)? Gender Trouble (1990)? These are some of the books I teach, so please don’t think this is a list made of arbitrary inclinations.
I also have some fiction in mind—I imagine you do, too—but I won’t detain you except to mention Sister Carrie (1900), The Great Gatsby (1925), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Herzog (1952), Invisible Man (1953), Lolita (1957), The Sot-Weed Factor (1967), Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Beloved (1987). But am I also willing to bet on Mimesis rather than, say, Nausea (1938), The Tin Drum (1959), The Trial (1925), or Jealousy (1957)?
Yeah, I’m still wiling to place the bet, double down even. Mimesis is the most important book of the 20th century. How so?
Somehow, perhaps even consciously, Auerbach actually enacts the argument about form and styles—about how inarticulate narrative principles determine the content of the prose and the story—which he posits as the motor that drives the representation of reality in western literature. Yes, all of it, from Homer to Virginia Woolf. Like Kenneth Burke, Auerbach excavates the unspoken grammar that arranges words into the intelligible sequences we call sentences, then sculpts these predictable sequences into the odd shapes we call stories. He keeps moving from one rhetorical register to another, from impossibly learned observations about Cervantes to comic asides about Augustine. At one point this man of incredible erudition says that the historian’s vocation is harder than any other. That made me laugh. Or cry, I forget which.
I teach Karl Lowith’s Meaning in History, chapter 9, on Augustine, alongside Auerbach’s chapter 3, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” where the fresh, realistic voice of The Confessions emerges to challenge the somber, elevated, classical style of historians like Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus. These historians clung to the conventions that allotted different rhetorical registers to the well-born and the lowly—-according to these conventions, the technique of plain, realistic imitation was fit only for the comic depiction of servants or slaves-—but they described the world of late antiquity with a new sensory awareness and intensity.
Ammianus was a former commander of a Roman Legion who wrote in the mid-to-late fourth century A.D., as a contemporary of Augustine. In fact, they were both whoremongers who visited the same baths; they probably knew each other. But they were worlds apart, even though they knew the same Rome. (The men who would become St. Jerome, and Pelagius the heretic, were on the scene as well, though probably not at the baths.)
In volume 15 of his histories, Ammianus writes of a Roman mob and the arrest of its ringleader with the distant aplomb of his predecessor Tacitus, in a proudly stoic manner that contrasts the seething, mindless mass led by Peter Valvomeres against the steely, virtuous resolve of Leontius, the prefect who accuses him: “sitting in his carriage, with an imposing confidence, he gazed with piercing eyes into the faces of the packed crowd raging all about like serpents.”
In The Confessions, Augustine writes of the same seething mass, but transposes the contest between bloodlust and virtuous repose to a conflict within the same man, his friend Alypius, an avowed Stoic who, when finally exposed to the spectacle of the gladiatorial amphitheater, can’t resist: “directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness.”
As Auerbach then explains in Augustinian rhythms, in a paragraph that also, and not incidentally, has the Hegelian stride of the Lectures on Aesthetics, “And it is not merely a random Alypius whose pride, nay whose inmost being, is thus crushed; it is the entire rational individualistic culture of classical antiquity: Plato and Aristotle, the Stoa and Epicurus. A burning lust has swept them away, in one powerful assault.”
Like I said, that’s Hegel talking, sotto voce. Comedy transcends tragedy when we all become fools, when we know that we know nothing except that what comes next will surprise us—when good and evil aren’t personified or embodied as different characters (Othello v. Iago, Cordelia v. Goneril), but are rather contained by every character, all of us, on stage and off.
Ammianus, the good soldier, clings to a rational individualistic culture, but his hold on it is slipping fast, because the pitiless gaze of his imperial eyes—-the elevated style of classical antiquity—-can’t make sense of the ending that is already upon him: with these narrative formulae in hand, he can describe decadence, deformity, cruelty, idiocy, and treachery in great detail, but he can’t respond to these gruesome circumstances with anything more creative than resignation. That is why Auerbach characterizes this historical moment as a rhetorical crisis:
“From the end of the first century of the Imperial Age something sultry and oppressive appears, a darkening of the atmosphere of life. It is unmistakable in Seneca, and the somber tone of Tacitus’ historical writing has often been noted. But here in Ammianus we find that the process has reached the stage of magical and sensory dehumanization.”
The brutally realistic depiction of a similar darkening is what has reanimated television in our own time, from “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” on toward “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective,” now on view in “Ray Donovan” and “Tin Star.” The difficult men at the heart of these series are, like Ammianus, stoic observers and resolute narrators—-and yes, practitioners—-of spastic violence drained of public or political purpose.
Here is what Auerbach says about this situation, which is now ours:
“Ammianus’ world is very often a caricature of the normal human environment in which we live; very often it is like a bad dream. This is not simply because horrible things happen in it—-treason, torture, persecution, denunciations: such things are prevalent in almost all times and places . . . . What makes Amminanus’ world so oppressive is the lack of any sort of counterbalance. For if it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence.
“Nothing of the sort is to be found in Ammianus. Striking only in the sensory, resigned and as it were paralyzed despite its stubborn rhetorical passion, his manner of writing history nowhere displays anything redeeming, nowhere anything that points to a better future, nowhere a figure or an act about which stirs the refreshing atmosphere of a greater freedom, a greater humanity.” [my italics]
That’s the fundamental difference between Ammianus and Augustine, who witnessed the same decline of the same Roman Empire. The new atmosphere conjured in The Confessions both presupposed and predicted a profound change of moral climate—-something redeeming, something waiting on a distant horizon of nonetheless urgent expectation.
And that’s the fundamental difference between Augustine and us. He had great faith in the mere possibility of redemption. We don’t.
That’s also the difference Auerbach charts in Mimesis. The difference is simple. You can wait on a better world, whereby this life becomes probation for another, better life—maybe you’ll get to heaven—or you can wait on nothing and remake this world—maybe you’ll get it done, and maybe you won’t.
The point is, the words you use will determine both your constituency and your goal. The way you tell the story of the past will create an attitude toward the future, and it will be active or passive. The will to power that drives every narrative, Nietzsche said, is “the instinct for freedom,” but freedom can mean abstention and release from immediate, material circumstances—it can mean freedom from hard choices. It can mean social death.
Augustine himself framed those choices this way, in his words on the Trinity:
“Anyone reading this should travel on with me where we agree; search with me where we are unsure; rejoin me if he finds himself astray; call me back to this path when I go astray. That is how we will find our way together, along the path marked by love, walking with the God who tells us, ‘Look for me, my face is turned toward you.’”
Once upon a time, I offered Mimesis as an Augustinian way of bringing really smart people together, which of course means acknowledging our differences. It was 2009, and I was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library. Smartest people I ever met, four novelists, three historians, one cartoonist, a couple of literary critics, and a translator. Two of my colleagues had proposed to form a book group, and asked that I pick the title for the inaugural session. We read Mimesis, chapter 1. I guess we should have read chapter 3, because our discussion was a disaster. It went something like this.
“Well, who cares, Odysseus, c’mon. Why are we talking about this? Where’s Penelope?”
“He’s got more to say on western literature.”
“Auerbach, you mean?”
“Yeah, we only read the first chapter.”
“I don’t see the point of this. What does antiquity have to say to us?”
“A lot. Like, here’s what we were. Here’s the difference between them and us. Historically speaking. But linguistically, rhetorically as well.”
“This is really retrograde. I mean, the guy is doing literary criticism as if it’s the 1950s.”
“It was the 1950s. Actually, he wrote it in the 40s.”
“But he keeps saying this is modern and that isn’t, where does he get the idea?”
“From Nietzsche, I think, you know, modern subjectivity, an inner to which no outer corresponds, and vice versa, unlike the ancients.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous.”
“Yeah, but it sure as hell informs The Dialectic of Enlightenment.”
“Who cares what Horkheimer and Adorno think anymore?”
“I don’t agree with them, but we gotta pay attention to them, no?”
“I really don’t see the point of this.”
The world had not yet come to an end. But on that day, I gave up on the smart people.