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Mimesis by Erich Auerbach
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Mimesis (1942)

by Erich Auerbach

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1,992136,164 (4.15)1 / 21
A half-century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis still stands as a monumental achievement in 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. For many readers, both inside and outside the academy, Mimesis is among the finest works of literary criticism ever written.… (more)
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Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach (Author) (1942)

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» See also 21 mentions

English (7)  Swedish (3)  Italian (3)  All languages (13)
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Not for the layman. ( )
  KENNERLYDAN | Jul 11, 2021 |
"Odysseus' Scar" : external vs internal reality, physical vs psychological space, legend vs truth in Homeric poetry and the Bible, and what this means for us now. ( )
1 vote melanierisch | Oct 25, 2020 |
An iconic but really unreadable work that I think point to the current dissolution of literature and the higher education of literature; a kind of writing that portends to say much but in the end says nothing about writing and imagination. All this was supported by Mellon money (Bollingen Foundation) and translated by one of the 20th century giants of translation, Willard Trask. ( )
1 vote JayLivernois | Jan 21, 2019 |
This is one of the epics of lit crit, and another of those books that I used excerpts from as a student and have been meaning to read in full ever since. I ended up reading it on Scribd in the English translation by Willard Trask, which is probably not the ideal way, but turned out to be agreeable enough.

It's a work of vast scope, looking at the development of literary realism from Homer to Virginia Woolf, by way of twenty chapter-length case studies covering different periods, each of which looks in close detail at one or two passages from literary texts. Auerbach wrote it while in exile from Nazi persecution in Istanbul during World War II. As he explains in an afterword, he would probably never have attempted something so wide-ranging if he hadn't been stranded in a place without the sort of library facilities he was accustomed to. As it was, he had to work without extensive preliminary research into scholarly work in the field, and he came up with the idea of following a small number of connected themes through a series of texts he was already thoroughly familiar with.

He doesn't claim that his choice of texts is anything but arbitrary and personal, so it isn't really fair to play "what's in and what's out" with his selection, much as we would like to. He does comment on some of the most obvious omissions - Ibsen and the Russians, for instance, are out because he wants to work only on original texts - but there are others he never mentions. How did he come to leave out Chaucer and Sterne, for instance? And Dickens!

I got the feeling that there was a certain amount of (very understandable) anti-German sentiment affecting the choice of texts too. Goethe and Schiller are brought in only to be hauled over the coals for being too conservative, and most other 19th century German writers are dismissed as too provincial. Thomas Mann is mentioned favourably but only as a kind of passing gesture, and Kleist, who might have made an interesting counterpart to Stendhal, is overlooked completely.

The "original language" aspect is a large part of the fun. We are presented with texts in several varieties of Latin and French, in Provençal, in Spanish, in medieval Italian, in English and in German. Fortunately the Trask translation includes some sort of translation of each piece into English, with the help of which anyone with a basic understanding of Romance languages ought to be able at least to pick their way through most of the texts. (Oddly enough, ch.1 doesn't reproduce the two texts being discussed: presumably he assumed that anyone capable of reading Greek and Hebrew would have the Odyssey and Genesis Ch.22 within easy reach anyway?)

What's really wonderful about the case studies is the way that he manages to approach each of the texts he examines with a degree of assurance, knowledge and affection that would normally be enough to convince any reader that it could only come from someone who has spent his entire career studying just that period and that author in particular. Yet he can do it as convincingly for Dante as he does for To the lighthouse; he's as comfortable with the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes as with the courtly memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon. And not only does he convince you that he knows his way around these texts exceptionally well, but he also manages to convince you, as reader, that you are also clever enough to understand how the style and structure of these passages can be unpacked to reveal how these writers carried out their task of representing the world on paper.

Everyone who's looked at ch.1 in the course of their studies knows about the conflict which Auerbach sees as going on in Western literature between the stable, rather conservative ways of representation coming from classical Greek and Latin rhetoric and the much more dynamic and subversive world-pictures arising from the Jewish and Christian religious texts. Auerbach, of course, is very much anti-rhetoric. He approves of authors who explore the random, arbitrary nature of the real world and tut-tuts at those who like to keep everything at its proper level of style.

Definitely a challenging and satisfying book to read, but it's also one that is likely to leave you with a much higher TBR pile than you started with... ( )
3 vote thorold | Mar 3, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (57 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Auerbach, ErichAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Roncaglia, AurelioIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Said, EdwardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Trask, Willard R.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Had we but world enough and time...

-Andrew Marvell
Dedication
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Readers of the Odyssey will remember the well-prepared and touching scene in book 19, when Odysseus has at last come home, the scene in which the old housekeeper Euryclea, who had been his nurse, recognizes him by a scar on his thigh.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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A half-century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis still stands as a monumental achievement in 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. For many readers, both inside and outside the academy, Mimesis is among the finest works of literary criticism ever written.

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