Erich Auerbach: Mimesis 1

Auerbach on the Iliad and the Old Testament:

We have compared these two texts, and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [Iliad] fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand [Old Testament], certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.

Auerbach lays out all of this schema very quickly in the first chapter, yet so much of it falls so easily from the juxtaposition of the two texts. What struck me was the combination of factors, how Auerbach associates the linear with the behavioral with the well-defined in the Iliad; and in the Old Testament, how he associates the psychological with the tentative and the inchoate, and the problematic. To rephrase his summation, the Iliad presents people as permanently established beings, and the Old Testament portrays them as torn between (religious) ideals for themselves and an uncertain ego/self.

Two associations come to mind. The first is Julian Jaynes and his portrayal of the split, pre-conscious mind devoid of self-conscious doubt, versus the unified mind with an uncommitted consciousness. Utterly implausible as a theory, I still find the analogy compelling.

The second is Alasdair MacIntyre’s version of Nietzsche’s critique of post-Kantian Enlightenment ethics, and MacIntyre’s deployment of it to make an argument in favor of Aristotelian teleological ethics, or (even better!) neo-Thomist ethics. MacIntyre places the starting point of ethical false consciousness at Kant, who, MacIntyre claims, separated the ethical imperative from the concept of “the good life” (cf. Aristotle) and “the good” (cf. Aquinas). In After Virtue he chiefly proposes Aristotelian ethics as a solution, suggesting that the embrace of a defined “good life” as a telos engenders ethical behavior. Elsewhere he seems to find this just as problematic and moves to Aquinas, but I’m more concerned with the Aristotle/Kant distinction.

MacIntyre’s dichotomy between Enlightenment ethical imperatives and Aristotle’s teleological life parallels loosely with the two sides Auerbach identifies in the two ancient works. In the Iliad, characters live out their lives–good and bad–as though by divine force, their characters established by the continued ease with which they fulfill our expectations of their behavior. In the Old Testament, characters are continually struggling with and against the dicta they mystically receive. While these may not be ethically imperative, the characters only avoid the logical gap that MacIntyre identifies in Kant by appealing to the universality of God. Otherwise, they are potentially just as alienated from their ideals as a post-Enlightenment ethicist.

It’s a tenuous connection. But I want to ask why Auerbach identifies such a split in ancient texts while MacIntyre and to some extent Nietzsche locate it at the dawn of modern ethics. Does it have something to do with the fields of literature vs. philosophy? I suspect that the difference in their viewpoints originates in Auerbach’s ability to deal in character and description (and its relation to the foreground/background of literature), while MacIntyre is dealing in intangible imperatives and universals (including the universal of the human and the life).

Both sides are dealing in abstractions, but Auerbach’s abstractions (i.e., characters) are by definition more pluralistic and implicit. It forces him to do more heavy lifting to synthesize a unified thesis, which he accomplishes mostly through an intimidating amount of cross-referencing. MacIntyre gets the philosophical theses for free, but he is consequently more prone to identify single authors as nexuses.

I won’t speculate yet on how this gets them to their respective positions, but I’ve got a few hundred pages left of Mimesis to read. But it’s always inspiring to see someone making a case for literature showing philosophy, even if it takes a book devourer like Auerbach to process it all.