April 19th, 2004

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.

     --Jim Lewis, "How to Write -- Read Mimesis", Slate Magazine.
  • Current Music
    Arik Einstein & Shalom Chanoch -- Shablool