Who was Erich Auerbach and why is he important?

According to his publisher, Princeton University Press, more than half a century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach‘s classic work, Mimesis, remains a masterpiece of literary criticism. A brilliant display of erudition, wit, and wisdom, his exploration of how great European writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf depicted reality has taught generations how to read Western literature. This new expanded edition includes a substantial essay in introduction by Edward Said as well as an essay, never before translated into English, in which Auerbach responds to his critics.

A German Jew, Auerbach was forced out of his professorship at the University of Marburg in 1935. He left for Turkey, where he taught at the state university in Istanbul. There he wrote Mimesis, publishing it in German after the end of the war. Displaced as he was, Auerbach produced a work of great erudition that contains no footnotes, basing his arguments instead on searching, illuminating readings of key passages from his primary texts. His aim was to show how from antiquity to the twentieth century literature progressed toward ever more naturalistic and democratic forms of representation. This essentially optimistic view of European history now appears as a defensive–and impassioned–response to the inhumanity he saw in the Third Reich. Ranging over works in Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and English, Auerbach used his remarkable skills in philology and comparative literature to refute any narrow form of nationalism or chauvinism, in his own day and ours.

Before his death in 1957, Erich Auerbach, was Sterling Professor of Romance Languages at Yale University.

For many readers, both inside and outside the academy, Mimesis is among the finest works of literary criticism ever written. This Princeton Classics edition includes a substantial introduction by Edward Said as well as an essay in which Auerbach responds to his critics.

The word mimesis literally means “imitation,” “reproduction,” or “duplication” and the concept of mimesis is often attributed to Plato who In the Republic) told of Socrates’ metaphor of the three beds: one bed exists as an idea made by God (the Platonic ideal); one is made by a carpenter, in imitation of God’s idea; one is made by the artist in imitation of the carpenter’s bed. Today, Auerbach’s view tends to prevail: that mimesis involves the representation of the visual appearance of the natural world.

Joseph Epstein nails it in The Ideal of Culture: “Written while the Nazis were marching across Europe, Mimesis a strong reminder of the glory of Western literature, and by extension of Western civilization, and of what is at stake in the battle against those who would simplify, politicize, or otherwise degrade it.”

Given the rapid development of artificial intelligence evolves, it would not surprise me if the concept of mimesis is adjusted again to accommodate what machines can reproduce.

To learn more about Erich Auerbach‘s life and work, please click here.


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