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On Auerbach's Mimesis - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
April 19th, 2004
11:07 pm

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On Auerbach's Mimesis
It's generally considered infra dig for a novelist to admit that he's learned anything from academic literary criticism. The world itself makes for better research, and other novels provide as much in the way of example as one might need. Barnett Newman once said, "Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to the birds," and having been both bird and birdwatcher, I couldn't agree more. Criticism is a conversation between critic and reader, to which the artist under consideration can neither add anything interesting nor take away anything useful. Writers' own remarks on the novel -- Flaubert's letters, say, or Nabokov's Lectures on Literature -- can occasionally be enlightening to anyone sitting down to write a book of his or her own, but studies by professors are entirely beside the point.

Still, every generalization is obnoxious without an exception, and in this instance my own is a long study called Mimesis, written by a man named Erich Auerbach and published 50 years ago -- a book familiar enough, I think, in academic circles, but unknown outside them. It deserves a wider audience -- the widest possible, I would say, because it offers not just an eminent reading of the Western canon, but a mighty lesson in how to write. Princeton University Press has just reprinted it in an anniversary edition, with an introduction by Edward Said: An appropriate celebration of its semicentennial would see M.F.A. programs dismantled nationwide, with students given copies of Mimesis instead, along with instructions to go home and write as if its author was still around to be impressed.
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     --Jim Lewis, "How to Write -- Read Mimesis", Slate Magazine.

Current Mood: inspired
Current Music: Arik Einstein & Shalom Chanoch -- Shablool

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From:marketsquare
Date:April 19th, 2004 04:13 pm (UTC)
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Reading the first chapter of Mimesis was a transformative experience for me. I walked away in awe of an era in which it was still possible to know everything, aspiring to do scholarship that formidable myself. It looks like a long way getting there, but it'll be worth the hike.
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From:ijon
Date:April 19th, 2004 04:22 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I couldn't have said it better myself!
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From:passacaglio
Date:April 19th, 2004 04:49 pm (UTC)
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Where is it found?
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From:ijon
Date:April 19th, 2004 05:10 pm (UTC)
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In any academic library, and at Amazon etc. Mimesis, by Erich Auerbach.

A Hebrew translation exists (the original is in German), but knowledgable sources advise to avoid it like the plague: not only is it translated badly, they say, the translation actually obscures and corrupts meaning on many occasions.
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From:ijon
Date:April 19th, 2004 05:11 pm (UTC)
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Oh, and I have an English copy. I'm using it in the next couple of months, but you're welcome to borrow it later.
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From:emblemparade
Date:April 19th, 2004 05:22 pm (UTC)
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I don't know if you know this, but the literary critic you love to hate, Edward Said, was strongly influenced by Auerbach. He was especially obsessed with the image of Auerbach writing Mimesis in his exile in Istanbul, and saw it most fitting (tragically so) on a many levels. An interesting critique of Said from the left was written by Aijaz Ahmad, in which Ahmad, from an anti-Foucaultian position, argues that Said misunderstood Foucault and hopelessly tried to apply Auerbach's "High Humanism" to Foucaltian historiography. (I would be more sympaethic: Said was an unabashed elitist and self-conscious humanist. He celebrated the best of the Classic world by recognizing its word-systemic nature while criticizing its lapses. But Ahmad has his own agenda -- he coined the term "the Nazification of Israel". I sorely miss Said's much more sober critique.)

(The article is chapter 5 in Ahmad's book, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literature. I have it on file if you wish.)
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From:ijon
Date:April 19th, 2004 05:42 pm (UTC)

Said

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Do I love to hate Said? I know next to nothing of his works, other than some sweeping generalizations about his Orientalism, and so I remain agnostic about the man's thought.

On a personal level, I do despise his despicable degradation into using violence at the Lebanese border, a few years ago. To my mind, it was inexcusable in "a great humanist".

That said, the only thing of his I've read is half his (very long!) introduction to Auerbach's Mimesis, and I found it fair and interesting. I very well may find his works superb.

So, do I love to hate him?

As for Ahmad -- thanks, but I have far more urgent things to read than this unappetizing fellow.
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From:emblemparade
Date:April 19th, 2004 05:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Said

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His "using violence" was throwing rocks across the border. Throwing rocks, during the early stages of the first Intifada, had enormous symbolic success. It did not immediately, logically, or necessarily accompany real violence. Your moralistic condemnation of him, without bothering to understand him, is somewhat charming but anti-intellectual. It's the same attitude that keeps people from reading Nietzche or listening to Wagner, and I'm surprised to hear it coming for you.

Said was the major legacy of Auerbach. I think that if you love Mimesis as much as you claim to, you owe yourself an understanding of its scholarship. You may even be inclined to change your "personal level" (which I assume you are not letting encroach on your academic appreciation).

(I'm not sure what you mean by "humanism", but I use it only in the technical sense -- a reference to the re-engagement of Classical scholarship during the Rennaissance, as a critique of Medieval Scholasticism. That it tended to celebrate life was central, but it also celebrated tragedy, war and violence. In this sense, Said's support of the Palestinian struggle can fit logically in the humanist paradigm.)
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From:ijon
Date:April 19th, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)

Re: Said

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As far as I recall, he threw rocks at manned IDF posts, not just for "symbolic" effect. That's violence against people who were not, at that time, a threat to him or to others. Unjustified, plain and simple. I don't know what I need to understand to be able to judge that act.

I don't need much more than the bare facts to judge Wagner, either: he held some ugly ideas about Judaism and (to a lesser degree) about Jews, and was an egotistical bigot and generally unplesant person. He was also one of the greatest musical geniuses mankind has produced so far, in my opinion, and his musical dramas are among my favorite musical works. I see no problem.

Likewise, as I said, I may turn out to really like Said's works, once I get to know them (and I agree I ought to read his stuff, Auerbach or no Auerbach; time and priorities are the only things keeping me from doing just that, but his time will come, and I need no coaxing on that matter), but I doubt reading his works would make me condone his "symbolic" act of violence.

I certainly include the fruits of Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism in my use of 'humanism' today, and so I certainly mean human rights, sanctity of human life, and liberty, and not "tragedy, war, and violence".
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From:emblemparade
Date:April 19th, 2004 07:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Said

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That's grant, but I see some problems:

1) There is formidable opposition to your appropriation of humanism for the (noble) purpose of pacificsm. There has always been a trend of enobling the "masculine" side of Classical heritage. Note, for example, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is a bitter attack of Christianity's "emasculation" (my word, not Gibbon's) of Roman ideals, which, to him, was a step back in civilization. Gibbon's text was written for British imperial cadet training. It was supposed to educate future Indian administrators. Empire is wholly a humanist project, in its inspiration, method and ideology. War, when turned to the project of liberal empire (as in, Montesquieu's referring to the "empire of reason", at least in some translations) is thus just and glorious.

2. Without a doubt, Said had these things in mind when he threw rocks at Israeli soldiers. Your claim that IDF soldiers were not an immediate threat to him is anything but "plain and simple". They were there to safeguard a kind of empire which he constantly and systematically criticizes, one that has disengaged itself from its past through (self-)deceit (such as Orientalism). This empire is the real source of terror in the world, the real source of violence: Israel's presence in Lebanon was a very real threat. It's like Gibbon fighting for a neo-Roman empire against its enemies (Christianity, or, in Said's case, imperial Zionism and fundemantalist Islam). Who knows, maybe even Auerbach would have approved of throwing rocks at soldiers. Your invoking Wagner is problematic: It is much easier to dissociate music from ideology than politically potent action from ideology. In Said's case, it doesn't make much sense to claim that his work is great while his actions are poor, because they are recognizably intertwined.

3. I'm not sure what you think I meant by "symbolic". I did not mean trivial or ideal. I did mean action in the fullest sense of the term. Like all acts of "terrorism", damage to a specific target was not the goal. Instead, there is a "symbolic" goal of creating a widely seen spectacle (making good use of media technologies). For a while, throwing rocks was a great symbol, employed to powerful effect by Arafat. It was the symbol of a David vs. a Goliath, and one that was essentially (if not practically) non-violent. When throwing rocks stopped making headlines, violence has become the new symbol, but it has serves Palestinians well only in as much it provokes ugly responses from Israel. Said's stand was clearly for the old symbolism, not the new one which he steadfastedly opposed. Perhaps you don't need to understand anything about him to judge him, but that's a high-ground I refuse to take about any issue. For me, the validity of judgment is in proportion to the scope of understanding. What can I say, I'm an Enlightenment kind of guy.

I'm not condoning his stand, because I am a strict faggoty pacifist. But I know that you are not a devout pacifist, that you recognize situations in which war (and not merely violence) is justified. So, I think you should have more sympathy for his point of view.
From:pelig
Date:April 20th, 2004 07:00 am (UTC)

Re: Said

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"Eseesntially (if not practically) non violent"?
Don't you think that's a silly thing to say?

You CAN say it's a symbol that involves a level of violence you are willing to accept, but saying that the violence is not essential but only practical and thus the action is not really a violent one has quite a bit of word-play to it.
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From:emblemparade
Date:April 20th, 2004 10:16 am (UTC)

Re: Said

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Not word play, but perhaps a bit dense, so let me unpack it:

"Essentially" - in that the spirit of the Intifada started ideologically non-violent, at least for the PLO. There were comparisons with Gandhi, and an attempt to show the Palestinian mob as unarmed. The image was one of non-violent protest. They were trying to capitalize on earlier powerful images, such as students facing tanks at Tiananmen Square.

"(if not practically)" - well, mobs are hard to control, and even in the early days of the Intifada we had soldiers hurt. This is something Arafat did mind too much unless it made international news. But also, I am implying that not everyone was trying to appear as a Gandhi. There were factions that didn't give a shit about world media, and saw the Intifada as a potential violence uprising.

So, this is not a question of having violence I am willing to accept or not, because there were rather diverse ways of seeing violence within the Intifada and using it among its practitioners. If you want to ask me my opinion (I haven't given it so far) it's that the Intifada was playing with fire, and it was quite inevitable that things would turn to real violence. Mobs are impossible to control, and a very risky political tool. The "spontaneous outrage" that they represent can quickly backfire. I guess Arafat was hoping for a quick victory. Once things started to drag on, the Intifiada provided space for his political opponents to gain control.

And, just to be clear -- Gandhi employed a symbol of violence, but there was an underlying current of real violence. The message to the Brits was clear: India is a powder keg that will explode in your face, and I have the power to control it. Gandhi was a sophisticated kind of terrorist.

Yo, calling me silly is not a very convincing argument.
From:pelig
Date:April 21st, 2004 10:21 am (UTC)

Re: Said

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But how can you call "David VS Goliath" a non violent image, when this is an image consisting of rocks being thrown?
It's not an image of particularly violent aesthetics, or one the sends a message of violence as such, but the violent act of throwing rocks as a component in it's creation. The image may not focus around it, but the violence is there and is very real.
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From:emblemparade
Date:April 21st, 2004 03:14 pm (UTC)

Re: Said

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"David vs. Goliath" is not a great metaphor (especially because David ends up killing Goliath...).

You're right, and you are saying exactly what I was saying -- symbolically it was an image of non-violence, while practically there definitely was violence.

Not to complicate things too much, but the word "violence" packs a lot in it, too. Sexual harassment can be violence, even if no touching is involved. One can do violence to an idea. And, perhaps quite appropriately, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described any form of education as a form of "symbolic violence". He did not mean that teachers hit students, but that personality and sociality must be destroyed (on a very specific level) in order for ideology to form.

But I simply meant people being physically hurt. The fact, most of this rock throwing started not as an intent to seriously injure Israelis but as a form of protest. If injury was the intent, guns could easily have been used. And, eventually, we got rockets as well. What news cameras didn't get was that a lot of times these rock throwing incidents were very carefully coordinated, that often involved Palestinian snipers on rooftops, and that Israeli soldiers were seriously risking their life and health in confronting these "Davids". That's what I meant by "(if not practically)".
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From:dorable
Date:April 20th, 2004 03:08 am (UTC)
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I am now consumed by intense need to read Mimesis. :)

Thanks for the recommendation.
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