Ed­ward Mendelson

Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Crit­i­cism: How to Think About Art, Plea­sure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott This Thing We Call Lit­er­a­ture by Arthur Krys­tal Mime­sis: The Representation of Re­al­ity in West­ern Lit­er­a­ture by Erich Auer­bach

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ed­ward Mendelson

Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Crit­i­cism: How to Think About Art, Plea­sure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott.

Pen­guin, 291 pp., $17.00 (pa­per)

This Thing We Call Lit­er­a­ture by Arthur Krys­tal.

Ox­ford Univer­sity Press,

136 pp., $26.95

Mime­sis:

The Representation of Re­al­ity in West­ern Lit­er­a­ture by Erich Auer­bach, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Wil­lard R. Trask, with an in­tro­duc­tion by

Ed­ward W. Said.

Prince­ton Univer­sity Press,

579 pp., $24.95 (pa­per)

Two lu­cid and in­tel­li­gent books, A.O. Scott’s Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Crit­i­cism and Arthur Krys­tal’s This Thing We Call Lit­er­a­ture, ex­plore the same com­plex theme: crit­i­cism as a pub­lic art and a pub­lic ser­vice, per­formed, how­ever, by crit­ics who speak for them­selves, ad­dress­ing in­di­vid­ual read­ers, not a col­lec­tive pub­lic. Both books draw maps of the dis­puted bor­der be­tween pop­u­lar and elite cul­ture and find ways to cross it with­out pre­tend­ing it doesn’t ex­ist.

Scott is a news­pa­per critic, Krys­tal a free­lance es­say­ist. Both are tempted by nostal­gia for a mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury era be­fore books and ideas lost sta­tus and ex­cite­ment. Each writes out­side the acad­emy but cares about what hap­pens inside, and each laments (in Scott’s words) “the nor­mal­iza­tion and stan­dard­iza­tion” of aca­demic crit­i­cism that treats works of lit­er­a­ture as prod­ucts of so­cial con­flicts, eco­nomic pres­sures, or other im­per­sonal forces op­er­at­ing un­con­sciously through lan­guage. Each re­sists nostal­gia by find­ing ways to think about books and art with re­newed ur­gency.

1.

Scott’s ti­tle, Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Crit­i­cism, al­ludes iron­i­cally to the old DuPont slo­gan that, un­til drug cul­ture co-opted it, promised bet­ter liv­ing through chem­istry. The book it­self ig­nores the irony. It praises crit­i­cism for of­fer­ing read­ers a bet­ter life by alert­ing them to the direct, per­sonal de­mands that art makes on any­one who lis­tens. At the heart of the book is the con­clu­sion of Rilke’s son­net about a statue in the Lou­vre, “An­tique Torso of Apollo,” a sen­tence, spo­ken by the poem or the statue, com­mand­ing poet and reader: “You must change your life.”

Scott re­views films for The New York Times. His em­bar­rass­ment at ex­pli­cat­ing Kung Fu Panda II while pre­fer­ring Rilke emerges in the whim­si­cally dif­fi­dent Q-and-A ex­changes that out­line his ar­gu­ment. The book got its start, A tells Q, when the ac­tor Sa­muel L. Jack­son, of­fended by Scott’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the su­per­hero movie The Avengers as a mere “A.T.M.,” pro­voked “one of those ab­surd and hy­per­ac­tive Internet squalls” by tweet­ing: “AO Scott needs a new job! . . . One he can AC­TU­ALLY do!” After­ward, Scott, still in his job, be­gan plan­ning a book “ask­ing just what the job of the critic is, and how it might AC­TU­ALLY be done.” “A critic,” he writes, “is a per­son whose in­ter­est can help to activate the in­ter­est of oth­ers.” His ideal critic uses what­ever knowl­edge, taste, and wis­dom can be brought to the task, but cares less about pass­ing judg­ment than about un­der­stand­ing the par­tic­u­lar ways that a work speaks to one viewer or one reader. Scott doesn’t much like Marina Abramović’s per­for­mance art, in which (for ex­am­ple) she stares across a ta­ble at mu­seum vis­i­tors and many of them start weep­ing, but it en­cap­su­lates his theme: we “go to an art mu­seum to find con­nec­tion with an­other soul.”

For Scott, the critic best un­der­stands a work when the work seems to un­der­stand the critic, when the con­nec­tion is mu­tual:

What Ed­mund Wil­son called the shock of recog­ni­tion is equally the thrill of be­ing rec­og­nized, an un­canny, im­pos­si­bly but un­de­ni­ably re­cip­ro­cal bond that leaps across gaps of logic, his­tory, and cul­ture.

This way of think­ing would sound naive in a grad­u­ate sem­i­nar, but it has no­table an­tecedents. Vir­ginia Woolf wrote:

The writer must get in touch with his reader by putting be­fore him some­thing which he rec­og­nizes, which there­fore stim­u­lates his imag­i­na­tion, and makes him will­ing to co­op­er­ate in the far more dif­fi­cult busi­ness of in­ti­macy.

W. H. Au­den, think­ing along sim­i­lar lines, dis­tin­guished be­tween merely con­sum­able “read­ing mat­ter” and a “Book,” which is any “piece of writ­ing which one does not read but is read by.” A Book, in read­ing you, knows you in­ti­mately, per­haps bet­ter than you know your­self.

Scott’s book is less an act of crit­i­cism than a de­fense of crit­i­cism il­lus­trated by ex­am­ples. Ex­plain­ing that a critic who hopes “to activate the in­ter­est of oth­ers” does not want oth­ers’ in­ter­est to du­pli­cate his own, he cites Philip Larkin’s poem, “Rea­sons for At­ten­dance.” Alone out­side a jazz club, Larkin hears mu­sic speak­ing to his soli­tude:

What calls me is that lifted, rough-tongued bell

(Art, if you like) whose in­di­vid­ual sound

In­sists I too am in­di­vid­ual.

Inside, the cou­ples dancing sex­ily hear some­thing dif­fer­ent:

It speaks; I hear; oth­ers may hear as well,

But not for me, nor I for them . . . Like any­one at­tend­ing to the per­sonal voice of art, any­one en­gag­ing in Woolf’s “dif­fi­cult busi­ness of in­ti­macy,” Scott re­sists be­ing treated as an object to be se­duced or ma­nip­u­lated. A few months ago in the Times, he was pro­voked by the lat­est Star Wars spinoff to voice the same com­plaint he made about The Avengers. Rogue One merely fills in the plot of the Star Wars saga, ig­nor­ing “the eth­i­cal and strate­gic prob­lems” raised by its own story:

Pop­u­lar art—Star Wars in­cluded— has of­ten proved it­self ca­pa­ble of ex­plor­ing these kinds of ques­tions [about ends and means] with clar­ity, vigor and even a mea­sure of nu­ance. But Rogue One has no such am­bi­tions, no will to per­suade the au­di­ence of any­thing other than the con­tin­ued strength of the brand. It doesn’t so much preach to the choir as pro­pa­gan­dize to the cap­tives.

Like Larkin hear­ing mu­sic in­sist that he too is in­di­vid­ual, Scott wants to re­spond will­fully, ac­tively, to works that say some­thing worth re­spond­ing to. What is wrong with Rogue One is that it lacks even the “will to per­suade.” Con­versely, what for Scott is wrong with aca­demic crit­i­cism is that it lacks the will to re­spond. In aca­demic life “the nor­mal­iza­tion and stan­dard­iza­tion of in­tel­lec­tual ac­tiv­ity is the goal,” and aca­demic crit­i­cism projects onto the arts its own abstract cat­e­gories, its com­mit­ment to gen­er­al­iz­ing the­o­ries. Scott’s brief his­tory of its meth­ods cites Lionel Trilling’s com­plaint in 1961 that col­lege class­rooms re­duce lit­er­a­ture’s an­ar­chic and per­sonal en­er­gies to mere “tech­ni­cal­ity.” A more re­cent method of re­duc­ing lit­er­a­ture to im­per­sonal nor­mal­ity, not men­tioned by Scott but con­sis­tent with his his­tor­i­cal ac­count, is the aca­demic habit of speak­ing about works of art as in­stances of (in Pierre Bour­dieu’s phrase) “cul­tural pro­duc­tion,” partly gen­er­ated by in­vol­un­tary so­cial en­er­gies, and made not as per­sonal ut­ter­ance but for com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage in a shared cul­ture.

Scott in­sists oth­er­wise, start­ing on his first page, where his open­ing epi­graph is a long quo­ta­tion from Os­car Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.” One theme of his book is that it is through the act of un­der­stand­ing art that the critic, too, be­comes an artist. A critic’s vo­ca­tion starts in the youth­ful, awed en­thu­si­asm of a mere fan; his ex­cite­ment then pro­vokes him to learn the his­tory and method that shaped the art that first ex­cited him. This “trans­for­ma­tion of awe into un­der­stand­ing” also in­volves, for the critic, “the claim­ing of a share of imag­i­na­tive power.” Per­ceiv­ing the unique value of a work, he finds and cre­ates unique value within him­self. In read­ing as in ev­ery­thing else, a sense of this qual­ity in both par­ties, the reader and the work be­ing read, is a pre­con­di­tion for in­ti­macy.

In much con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, per­haps in re­ac­tion to the erup­tion of self­ex­pos­ing me­moirs and dec­la­ra­tions of “iden­tity,” any claim to a per­sonal view­point has come to seem em­bar­rass­ingly ego­cen­tric or ag­gres­sive. (This may ex­plain the epi­demic in cur­rent speech of self-dep­re­cat­ing you knows and likes.) Yet in all hu­man re­la­tions, a per­sonal per­spec­tive makes in­ti­macy pos­si­ble by pro­vid­ing a rough sur­face to hold on to. Alan Bennett wrote: “I clung far too long to the no­tion that shy­ness was a virtue and not, as I came too late to see, a bore.” A critic who stops feel­ing shy about his own view­point can see more tellingly and ac­cu­rately than the critic who ef­faces him­self by adopt­ing a gen­eral or the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive. Ob­jec­tive views—as in re­cent “his­to­ries of read­ing” that ex­plain books as in­stru­ments of so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­trol, or as use­ful ob­jects for pro­vid­ing de­sir­able feel­ings or sta­tus—tend to triv­i­al­ize art. In­stead, Scott writes:

The in­tractable ques­tions that flicker around the edges of our con­tem­pla­tion are best ad­dressed by at­tend­ing to the play of par­tic­u­lar im­pres­sions and ex­am­ples. If we pause to fig­ure out what is hap­pen­ing be­fore our eyes, we may yet catch a glimpse of that rare, per­haps myth­i­cal bird, the sub­jec­tive uni­ver­sal.

The “sub­jec­tive uni­ver­sal” was Kant’s phrase for aes­thetic judg­ment, which ev­ery­one makes in­di­vid­u­ally, but in the con­vic­tion that ev­ery­one else would agree.

Scott’s book is a de­fense of crit­i­cism, and, like most re­cent de­fenses of art and the hu­man­i­ties, it sounds at times as if its au­thor had tac­itly ac­knowl­edged de­feat. His chap­ters about pub­lic mat­ters have an ele­giac tone: mu­se­ums have be­come sites of con­sump­tion; crit­i­cism has lost sta­tus in the digital age. But he is never ele­giac when writ­ing about his

pri­vate ex­cite­ment at watch­ing Bring­ing Up Baby or read­ing Rilke. These chap­ters jus­tify the art of crit­i­cism less through Scott’s ar­gu­ments than by the force and clar­ity of his voice.

2.

Arthur Krys­tal’s fourth col­lec­tion, This Thing We Call Lit­er­a­ture, gath­ers ten es­says on a dou­ble sub­ject: the spe­cial di­a­logue that con­nects one reader with one au­thor, and what all such di­a­logues have in com­mon:

So it comes down, as it must, to one reader read­ing, one per­son who un­der­stands that he or she, while alone, is still part of a select so­ci­ety, a gallery of like-minded read­ers who, though they may dis­agree about this or that book, know that lit­er­a­ture mat­ters in a way that life mat­ters.

Krys­tal has writ­ten a Hol­ly­wood screen­play and shrewd, street­wise es­says for Harper’s and The New Yorker about type­writ­ers, apho­risms, and du­els, but here he cares most about the in­tel­lec­tual life of the univer­sity and its in­flu­ence out­side. Half of this book ap­peared in The Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion. Krys­tal re­calls an in­tel­lec­tual world once dom­i­nated by Trilling, who wrote in 1942: “What gods were to the an­cients at war, ideas are to us.” In to­day’s “shrink­ing world of ideas,” Krys­tal writes, “the lib­eral arts...are not where the ac­tion is,” and lit­er­ary and po­lit­i­cal ideas have lost their old cul­tural sta­tus to bi­o­log­i­cal the­o­ries that trace ideas back to elec­tri­cal im­pulses ex­changed among neu­rons, and to so­cial the­o­ries that ex­pose the clan­des­tine bias and per­va­sive cul­tural forces that un­con­sciously shape those ideas. Trilling, Krys­tal writes, was “pos­sessed by lit­er­a­ture,” con­stantly ask­ing (in Krys­tal’s para­phrase): “What is it that lit­er­a­ture de­pends on for its ef­fect?” Forty years af­ter Trilling’s death, Krys­tal asks this same ques­tion while re­port­ing on re­cent aca­demic dogma that de­nies any qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ence be­tween “high lit­er­a­ture” and “genre lit­er­a­ture” such as thrillers, scifi, and ro­mance. Distinc­tions still mat­ter, Krys­tal de­cides, but distinc­tions among gen­res mat­ter less than distinc­tions among au­thors who, what­ever genre they choose, write with a lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­ity and those who do not. Krys­tal’s long­est chap­ter is a por­trait of the great­est critic-artist of the past cen­tury: the Ger­man-born philol­o­gist Erich Auer­bach, revered though gen­er­ally un­read in the acad­emy, and al­most un­known out­side it. Auer­bach, in Krys­tal’s per­sua­sive read­ing, cared less about ques­tions like Trilling’s about the mean­ing of lit­er­a­ture in gen­eral than about the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of in­di­vid­ual au­thors, lo­cal cul­tures, and his­tor­i­cal eras, and about his own per­spec­tive on them. Auer­bach’s Mime­sis (1946) is sub­ti­tled The Representation of Re­al­ity in West­ern Lit­er­a­ture, and al­most ev­ery­one who wrote about the book as­sumed that its sub­ject was “re­al­ism” as an idea or a move­ment—some­what like Trilling’s fo­cus on “moral re­al­ism.” But Auer­bach cared about the spe­cific ways in which in­di­vid­ual writ­ers from Homer to Vir­ginia Woolf shaped and se­lected the re­al­ity they per­ceived. His book, he in­sisted, was some­thing ten­ta­tive, chang­ing, and in­com­plete. “It seems to me” is one of the char­ac­ter­is­tic phrases—in Mime­sis he starts us­ing it in the fifth para­graph—through which he takes per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for a read­ing of Homer, Dante, or Cer­vantes that he knows is un­prov­able.

For Auer­bach, Krys­tal writes, what mat­ters in lit­er­a­ture is in­sep­a­ra­ble from each in­di­vid­ual reader’s “chang­ing re­la­tion to the world,” a re­la­tion that evolves from mo­ment to mo­ment and across thou­sands of years of lit­er­a­ture. “Auer­bach was noth­ing less than a philoso­pher of self­hood, a philol­o­gist whose fo­cus on et­y­mol­ogy and style was the means to de­ter­mine an his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of the hu­man con­di­tion.” The in­ten­si­fy­ing force of Auer­bach’s prose dis­si­pates in brief ex­tracts, but one of Krys­tal’s quo­ta­tions cap­tures the tone:

When peo­ple re­al­ize that epochs and so­ci­eties are not to be judged in terms of a pat­tern con­cept of what is de­sir­able ab­so­lutely speak­ing but rather in ev­ery case in terms of their own premises;...when... they come to de­velop a sense of his­tor­i­cal dy­nam­ics, of the in­com­pa­ra­bil­ity of his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­ena and of their con­stant in­ner mo­bil­ity; when they come to ap­pre­ci­ate the vi­tal unity of in­di­vid­ual epochs . . . ; when, fi­nally, they ac­cept the con­vic­tion that the mean­ing of events can­not be grasped in abstract and gen­eral forms of cog­ni­tion . . . but also in art, econ­omy, ma­te­rial and in­tel­lec­tual cul­ture, in the depths of the worka­day world and its men and women, be­cause it is only there that one can grasp what is unique, what is an­i­mated by in­ner forces . . . : then it is to be ex­pected that those in­sights will also be trans­ferred to the present and that . . . the present too will be seen as in­com­pa­ra­ble and unique . . . .

Krys­tal com­ments:

What we have here is the work of an un­re­pen­tant Marx­ist critic, an elit­ist bour­geois critic, and a critic of the An­nales school; and if we look else­where in Mime­sis and in the es­says, we’ll also find the archetype critic, the aes­thetic-form critic, and the critic whose “pur­pose is al­ways to write his­tory.”

All these ap­proaches come to­gether in Auer­bach’s dis­tinc­tive sen­si­bil­ity, his style of ex­po­si­tion and ar­gu­ment, his rest­less way of try­ing out what­ever in­tel­lec­tual and his­tor­i­cal ap­proach

might be use­ful for the mat­ter at hand. His work, he said, is “a chal­lenge to the reader’s will to in­ter­pre­tive syn­the­sis,” by pur­su­ing in­stead “not one or­der and one in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but many.”

Much of Krys­tal’s book, like Scott’s, is ele­giac. The mid-cen­tury pro­po­nents of gen­eral ideas of cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture have faded, and the ideas have faded with them. In strik­ing con­trast, Krys­tal’s es­say on Auer­bach cel­e­brates a way of read­ing that seems peren­ni­ally and im­me­di­ately present: in Auer­bach’s phrase about a soul in Dante’s par­adise, “a liv­ing re­al­ity.” Krys­tal’s es­say achieves crit­i­cism’s most use­ful task: it sends a reader back to an au­thor with re­newed ex­cite­ment.

3.

Erich Auer­bach was born in Ber­lin in 1892, earned a law de­gree in 1913, worked for the Prus­sian State Li­brary in the 1920s, be­came a pro­fes­sor at Mar­burg in 1929, then at Is­tan­bul in wartime ex­ile when he wrote Mime­sis, fi­nally at Yale un­til his death in 1957. His first book, Dante, Poet of the Sec­u­lar World (1929), writ­ten while he worked as a li­brar­ian, is so vivid and ex­cited that it seems to have been writ­ten yes­ter­day. Its theme—Auer­bach’s life­long theme—is the dig­nity and depth of the self, a “con­stant” in Euro­pean cul­ture,

which has come down un­changed through all the meta­mor­phoses of re­li­gious and philo­soph­i­cal forms, and which is first dis­cernible in Dante; namely, the idea . . . that in­di­vid­ual des­tiny is not mean­ing­less, but is nec­es­sar­ily tragic and sig­nif­i­cant, and that the whole world con­text is re­vealed in it.

Ev­ery­one’s self­hood gives ac­cess to all the world. Auer­bach as­so­ci­ates this idea with mod­ern Euro­pean cul­ture, but adds that it “was al­ready present in an­cient mime­sis.” (The Greek word means the im­i­ta­tion of re­al­ity in art and lit­er­a­ture.) Even in Homer, the self was the en­cy­clo­pe­dia of the world, and Auer­bach’s phrase “an­cient mime­sis” is the germ of his mas­ter­work. Auer­bach por­trays Dante dis­cov­er­ing the pur­pose and am­bi­tion that is­sued in the Com­me­dia. Poverty and ex­ile pro­voked him to in­ward tri­umphs: “not by Stoic as­ceti­cism and re­nun­ci­a­tion, but by tak­ing ac­count of his­tor­i­cal events, by mas­ter­ing them and or­der­ing them in his mind—that was the task to which his char­ac­ter drove him.” This is also, un­mis­tak­ably, Auer­bach’s self­por­trait as he dis­cov­ers—long be­fore imag­in­ing his own ex­ile—his am­bi­tion to master and or­der his­tor­i­cal events in his mind. Auer­bach rec­og­nized Dante as in­fin­itely greater than him­self, but, as in Scott’s phrase about the critic grow­ing into his vo­ca­tion, he claimed a share of Dante’s imag­i­na­tive power. Mime­sis is a vast, rapid panorama of Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture in twenty sharply fo­cused chap­ters, start­ing with the Odyssey, end­ing with To the Light­house. Its learned style con­ceals ex­u­ber­ant artistry. One ex­am­ple: Auer­bach’s meta­phoric phrase “Napoleon’s fall threw Stend­hal out of the sad­dle” al­ludes to the mo­ment in Le Rouge et le Noir when Julien Sorel, newly in­stalled in the aris­to­cratic house­hold where his hero Napoleon’s name can­not be spo­ken, lit­er­ally is thrown from the sad­dle. Al­most ev­ery chap­ter in Mime­sis be­gins with one or two ex­tended quo­ta­tions, fol­lowed by philo­log­i­cal ac­counts of no­table words; then by dis­cus­sions of var­i­ous other lit­er­ary, his­tor­i­cal, and so­ci­o­log­i­cal mat­ters. The chap­ter on Stend­hal, for ex­am­ple, de­ploys bi­og­ra­phy, per­sonal psy­chol­ogy, and eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal, and re­li­gious his­tory to ex­plain the re­pressed boredom of aris­to­cratic life that makes Julien’s en­ergy so exciting to the Mar­quis’s daugh­ter. Auer­bach al­ways tries, “in­so­far as that is still pos­si­ble, to at­tain a clear un­der­stand­ing of what the work meant to its au­thor and his con­tem­po­raries.” To in­ter­pret the past ac­cord­ing to a mod­ern the­ory, he wrote, is “un­his­tor­i­cal and dilet­tan­tish.”

For Auer­bach, a critic could un­der­stand a past au­thor’s unique per­spec­tive only from a unique per­spec­tive of his own. When an en­vi­ous ri­val, Ernst Robert Cur­tius, re­futed the “the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct” of Mime­sis, Auer­bach replied that his book “is no the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct; it aims to of­fer a view.” If pos­si­ble, he “would not have used any gen­er­al­iz­ing ex­pres­sions at all.” He did not use words like re­al­ism and moral­ism to evoke gen­eral ideas: those words “should ac­quire their mean­ing only from the con­text, and in fact from the par­tic­u­lar con­text.”

Many aca­demic crit­ics re­fused to be­lieve what Auer­bach said about Mime­sis. The book was in­ter­preted not only as a study of “re­al­ism” but also, through its choice of ex­am­ples, as ei­ther pro- or anti-Ger­man (it was a mis­take, Auer­bach replied, to at­tribute his se­lec­tion to any “pref­er­ences or aver­sions of a fun­da­men­tal kind”), and as a re­flec­tion on his Jewish­ness—for some crit­ics, a cel­e­bra­tion of it, for oth­ers, a re­jec­tion. “There’s some­thing al­most com­i­cal in this clash of opin­ion,” Krys­tal ob­serves. But the clash is in­evitable in an aca­demic cul­ture that per­ceives a writer as em­body­ing some gen­eral ten­dency or cat­e­gory, not as a ge­nius speak­ing for him­self.

In scale and am­bi­tion, Mime­sis is Auer­bach’s Com­me­dia. Dante’s jour­ney be­gins in hellish alien­ation, pro­ceeds through pur­ga­to­rial hu­mil­ity, and cul­mi­nates in par­adisal har­mony. Auer­bach’s jour­ney be­gins in the de­tached ob­jec­tive re­al­ity that he found in the Odyssey; he pro­ceeds through the world-chang­ing ef­fects of Peter’s de­nial and re­pen­tance in the Gospels, the uni­ver­sal sig­nif­i­cance of a fish­er­man’s in­ner life; and he ar­rives at last—via Boc­cac­cio, Ra­belais, Shake­speare, Schiller—at the sym­pa­thetic in­ward­ness of To the Light­house. As Auer­bach had done ear­lier with Dante, now he iden­ti­fies him­self with Vir­ginia Woolf. Her method, he writes, is part of a mod­ern shift of em­pha­sis, a new sense

that in any ran­dom frag­ment plucked from the course of a life at any time the to­tal­ity of its fate is con­tained and can be por­trayed . . . . It is pos­si­ble to com­pare this tech­nique of mod­ern writ­ers with that of cer­tain mod­ern philol­o­gists who hold that the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a few pas­sages...can be made to yield more, and more de­ci­sive

in­for­ma­tion . . . than would a sys­tem­atic and chrono­log­i­cal treat­ment . . . . In­deed, the present book may be cited as an il­lus­tra­tion.

He shares Woolf’s ten­ta­tive vi­sion of re­al­ity. He writes about his au­thors as she writes about Mrs. Ram­say, as “some­one who doubts, won­ders, hes­i­tates, as though the truth about her char­ac­ters were not bet­ter known to her than it is to them or to the reader.” And he notes “a sim­i­lar­ity” be­tween her method and Dante’s: both use con­cen­trated mo­ments of thought and speech— in the course of three con­sec­u­tive days in the Com­me­dia, two sep­a­rated days in To the Light­house—to por­tray life in its whole­ness and sig­nif­i­cance.

In a long, im­pas­sioned para­graph he praises Woolf’s method and jus­ti­fies his own:

The things that hap­pen to a few in­di­vid­u­als in the course of a few min­utes, hours, or pos­si­bly even days—these one can hope to re­port with rea­son­able com­plete­ness. And here...one comes upon the or­der and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of life which arise from life it­self: that is, those which grow up in the in­di­vid­u­als them­selves, which are to be dis­cerned in their thoughts, their con­scious­ness, and in a more con­cealed form in their words and ac­tions. For there is al­ways go­ing on within us a process of for­mu­la­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tion whose sub­ject mat­ter is our own self. We are con­stantly en­deav­or­ing to give mean­ing and or­der to our lives . . . , to our sur­round­ings, the world in which we live.

In a later es­say, Auer­bach para­phrases the eigh­teenth-cen­tury his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of Gi­ambat­tista Vico, who wrote that we un­der­stand thoughts and acts from the re­mote past through their con­tin­u­ing pres­ence in “the po­ten­tial­i­ties (Vico’s term is mod­i­fi­cazioni) of our own hu­man mind.” Auer­bach uses Vico’s term again, a few pages later, about his own acts of in­ter­pre­ta­tion: “What we un­der­stand and love in a work is a hu­man ex­is­tence, a pos­si­bil­ity of ‘mod­i­fi­ca­tions’ within our­selves.” In any lit­er­ary work that he loved, Auer­bach heard a vari­a­tion of what Rilke’s son­net said: You have po­ten­tial­i­ties within your­self; you can change your life. In his great es­say “Figura,” Auer­bach made clear that his way of in­ter­pret­ing books de­rived from a me­dieval way of think­ing about per­sons that Dante had dra­ma­tized in the Com­me­dia. Hu­man be­ings, in this view, were unique selves at par­tic­u­lar mo­ments of his­tory who were also, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, ve­hi­cles of divine, uni­ver­sal rev­e­la­tion. Their unique­ness did not dis­solve into sym­bol or al­le­gory; the more you per­ceived their par­tic­u­lar­ity, the more you un­der­stood their sig­nif­i­cance. For Auer­bach, as for Vir­ginia Woolf, this dou­ble sense of hu­man mean­ing had lost the su­per­nat­u­ral sanc­tion that it had for Dante, but it de­rived ul­ti­mately from the re­li­gious doc­trine of Christ’s dou­ble na­ture, si­mul­ta­ne­ously mor­tal and divine. Al­most ev­ery­thing Auer­bach wrote con­tains frag­ments of an ex­act in­ner pic­ture of him­self. Like the souls in the Com­me­dia, he re­vealed much in a few sen­tences: his demo­cratic fas­ci­na­tion with ev­ery­day life, com­mon lan­guage, pop­u­lar art, and “the el­e­men­tary things which men in gen­eral [die Men­schen] have in com­mon”; his an­noy­ance at pedants, ide­o­logues, and “ar­ro­gant ra­tio­nal­ism”; his con­vic­tion (vis­i­ble in his es­say on Pas­cal) that the in­jus­tices he com­mits de­serve more of his at­ten­tion than the in­jus­tices he suf­fers; his plea­sure (ex­pressed as he de­scribes the mar­riage of Poverty and St. Fran­cis in the Par­adiso) in an earthy, unide­al­iz­ing sex­ual imag­i­na­tion. In a typ­i­cal sen­tence, af­ter de­scrib­ing the con­trast­ing his­tor­i­cal set­tings in which Mon­taigne and Pas­cal came to dif­fer­ent views of so­cial cus­tom—Mon­taigne tol­er­ant, Pas­cal ap­palled—Auer­bach wrote: “Still, I be­lieve it was Pas­cal’s char­ac­ter more than the his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances that led him” to think as he did. “My own ex­pe­ri­ence,” Auer­bach wrote, “is re­spon­si­ble for the choice of prob­lems, the start­ing points, the rea­son­ing and the in­ten­tion ex­pressed in my writ­ings.” He grounded his work in the re­al­i­ties of emo­tion. He wrote that the clas­sic hier­ar­chy of styles, from high tragic to low grotesque, though much dis­puted, “cor­re­sponds to hu­man feel­ing, in Europe at least; it can­not be ar­gued away.” Yet, he con­tin­ued, hier­ar­chy can also be trans­formed by hu­man feel­ing. In mod­ern lit­er­a­ture, as in Peter’s de­nial, low sub­jects could have tragic dig­nity: “The sub­ject mat­ter be­came se­ri­ous and great through the in­ten­tion of those who gave it form.” Auer­bach wrote for read­ers who val­ued their own in­ner ex­pe­ri­ence. The only “ap­proval” he sought was “the con­sent (which is bound to be vari­able and never com­plete) of those who have ar­rived at sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence by other paths, so that my ex­pe­ri­ence may serve to clar­ify, to com­ple­ment, and per­haps to stim­u­late theirs.”

In the in­tro­duc­tion to his post­hu­mous last book, Lit­er­ary Lan­guage and Its Pub­lic in Late Latin An­tiq­uity and in the Mid­dle Ages (1958), Auer­bach wrote that de­spite its “sin­gle­ness of pur­pose,” the book—which filled a large gap in the his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity of Mime­sis—re­mained “a se­ries of frag­ments.” It was “still in search of its theme.” He con­cluded: “Per­haps its read­ers will help in the search; per­haps one of them, by giv­ing more pre­cise and ef­fec­tive ex­pres­sion to what I have tried to say, will find the theme.” In this last sen­tence that he wrote for pub­li­ca­tion, he hoped for one reader to con­sent to the dif­fi­cult busi­ness of in­ti­macy and know him bet­ter than he knew him­self.

—In mem­ory of Robert B. Sil­vers

A.O. Scott, Brook­lyn, Oc­to­ber 2015

Vir­ginia Woolf

Erich Auer­bach

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