Skip to Main Content

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (New in Paperback)

With a new introduction by Edward W. Said
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 612
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    More than half a century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach's 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.

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4795-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
    (pp. ix-2)
    Edward W. Said

    The influence and enduring reputation of books of criticism are, for the critics who write them and hope to be read for more than one season, dispiritingly short. Since World War Two the sheer volume of books appearing in English has risen to huge numbers, thus further ensuring if not ephemerality, then a relatively short life and hardly any influence at all. Books of criticism have usually come in waves associated with academic trends, most of which are quickly replaced by successive shifts in taste, fashion, or genuine intellectual discovery. Thus only a small number of books seem perennially present...

    (pp. 3-23)

    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. The stranger has won Penelope’s good will; at his request she tells the housekeeper to wash his feet, which, in all old stories, is the first duty of hospitality toward a tired traveler. Euryclea busies herself fetching water and mixing cold with hot, meanwhile speaking sadly of her absent master, who is probably of the same age as...

    (pp. 24-49)

    Non potui amplius quicquam gustare, sed conversus ad eum, ut quam plurima exciperem, longe accersere fabulas coepi sciscitarique, quae esset mulier illa, quae huc atque illuc discurreret. Uxor, inquit, Trimalchionis, Fortunata appellatur, quae nummos modio metitur. Et modo, modo quid fuit? Ignoscet mihi genius tuus, noluisses de manu illius panem accipere. Nunc, nec quid nec quare, in caelum abiit et Trimalchionis topanta est. Ad summam, mero meridie si dixerit illi tenebras esse, credet. Ipse nescit quid habeat, adeo saplutus est; sed haec lupatria providet omnia et ubi non putes. Est sicca, sobria, bonorum consiliorum, est tamen malae linguae, pica pulvinaris....

    (pp. 50-76)

    Ammianus Marcellinus, an officer of high rank and historian, of the fourth century a.d., the extant portions of whose work describe the events between 350 and 380, reports, in chapter 7 of his book 15, a mob riot in Rome. The text runs as follows:

    Dum has exitiorum communium clades suscitat turba feralis, urbem aeternam Leontius regens, multa spectati judicis documenta praebebat, in audiendo celer, in disceptando justissimus, natura benevolus, licet autoritatis causa servandae acer quibusdam videbatur, et inclinatior ad amandum. Prima igitur causa seditionis in eum concitandae vilissima fuit et levis. Philocomum enim aurigam rapi praeceptum, secuta plebs omnis...

    (pp. 77-95)

    The following story is found in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks (7, 47 and 9, 19):

    Gravia tunc inter Toronicos cives bella civilia surrexerunt. Nam Sicharius, Johannis quondam filius, dum ad natal is dominici solemnia apud Montalomagensem vicum cum Austrighysilo reliquosque pagensis celebraret, presbiter loci misit puerum ad aliquorum hominum invitacionem, ut ad do mum eius bibendi gracia venire deberint. Veniente vero puero, unus ex his qui invitabantur, extracto gladio, eum ferire non metuit. Qui statim cecidit et mortuos est. Quod cum Sicharius audisset, qui amicitias cum presbitero retinebat, quod scilicet puer eius fuerit interfectus, arrepta arma ad...

    (pp. 96-122)

    These lines are from the Oxford manuscript of the Chanson de Roland. They relate the appointment of Roland to a dangerous post, that of commander of the rearguard of the Frankish army, which is on its way back through the Pyrenees after the campaign in Spain. The choice is made at the suggestion of Roland’s stepfather Ganelon. The manner of it corresponds to an earlier episode, the choice of Ganelon for the post of Charles’s emissary to Marsilius, King of the Saracens, at the suggestion of Roland (ll. 274ff.). Both occurrences are rooted in an old enmity between the two...

    (pp. 123-142)

    Near the beginning of Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, a courtly romance of the second half of the twelfth century, one of the knights of King Arthur’s court relates an adventure which once befell him. His narrative begins as follows:...

    (pp. 143-173)

    This piece of dialogue occurs in the Mystère d’Adam, a Christmas play from the latter part of the twelfth century, which is extant in a single manuscript. Very little has come down to us from the earliest period of the liturgical drama (or the drama that grew out of the liturgy) in the vernacular, and of that little, the Mystère d’Adam is one of the oldest specimens. The Fall, which occupies the greater part of it (after which there is still room for the murder of Abel and the procession of the prophets announcing Christ’s coming), begins with an unsuccessful...

    (pp. 174-202)

    (“O Tuscan! who through the city of fire goest alive, speaking thus decorously; may it please thee to stop in this place. Thy speech clearly shows thee a native of that noble country, which perhaps I vexed too much.” Suddenly this sound issued from one of the chests: whereat in fear I drew a little closer to my Guide. And he said to me: “Turn thee round; what art thou doing? lo there Farinata! who has raised himself erect; from the girdle upward thou shalt see him all.” Already I had fixed my look on his; and he rose upright...

    (pp. 203-231)

    In a famous novella of the Decameron (4, 2), Boccaccio tells of a man from Imola whose vice and dishonesty had made him a social outcast in his native town, so that he preferred to leave it. He went to Venice, there became a Franciscan monk and even a priest caned himself Frate Alberto, and managed to attract so much attention by striking penances and pious acts and sermons that he was generally regarded as a godly and trustworthy man. Then one day he tells one of his penitents—a particularly stupid and conceited creature, the wife of a merchant...

    (pp. 232-261)

    Antoine de la Sale, a Provençal knight of the late feudal type, soldier, court official, tutor of princes, authority on heraldry and tournaments, was born about 1390 and died after 1461. For the greater part of his life he was in the service of the Anjous, who fought until about 1440 for their Kingdom of Naples but who also held extensive possessions in France. He left them in 1448 to become the tutor of the sons of Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol, who played a significant part in the vicissitudinous relations between the French kings and the dukes of...

    (pp. 262-284)

    In the thirty-second chapter of his second book (which, however, was the first written and published) Rabelais tells how Pantagruel’s army, during the campaign against the people of the Almyrodes (the “Salties”), is surprised on the road by a downpour; how Pantagruel orders them to press close together—he can see above the clouds that it is only a brief shower, and meanwhile he will provide them with shelter. Whereupon he puts out his tongue (seulement à demi), and covers them as a hen covers her chicks. Only the writer himself (je, qui vous fais ces tant veritables contes), who...

    (pp. 285-311)

    Les autres forment l’homme: je le recite; et en représente un particulier bien mal formé, et lequel si j’avoy à façonner de nouveau, je ferois vrayment bien autre qu’il n’est. Meshuy, c’est fait. Or, les traits de ma peinture ne fourvoyent point, quoiqu’ils se changent et diversifient. Le monde n’est qu’une branloire perenne. Toutes choses y branlent sans cesse: la terre, les rochers du Caucase, les pyramides d’Aegypte, et du branle public et du leur. La constance mesme n’est autre chose qu’un branle plus languissant. Je ne puis asseurer mon object; il va trouble et chancelant, d’une yvresse naturelle. Je...

    (pp. 312-333)

    Prince Henry: Before God, I am exceeding weary.

    Poins: Is it come to that? I had thought weariness durst not have attached one of so high blood.

    Prince Henry: Faith, it does me; though it discolours the complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it. Does it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?

    Poins: Why, a prince should not be so loosely studied as to remember so weak a composition.

    Prince Henry: Belike, then, my appetite was not princely got; for, by my troth, I do now remember the poor creature, small beer. But, indeed, these humble considerations...

    (pp. 334-358)

    —Yo no yeo, Sancho, dijo Don Quijote, sino a tres labradoras sobre tres borricos.

    —Ahora me libre Dios del diablo, respondió Sancho; ¿y es posible que tres hacaneas, o como se llaman, blancas como el ampo de la nieve, le parezcan a vuesa merced borricos? Vive el Señor, que me pele estas barbas si tal fuese verdad.

    —Pues yo te digo, Sancho amigo, dijo Don Quijote, que es tan verdad que son borricos o borricas, como yo soy Don Quijote, y tú Sancho Panza: a lo menos a mí tales me parecen.

    —Calle, señor, dijo Sancho, no diga la tal...

    (pp. 359-394)

    The portrait of the faux dévot in the chapter De la mode in La Bruyère’s Caractères contains a number of polemic allusions to Molière’s Tartuffe. The faux dévot, La Bruyère says at once, does not speak of “my hair shirt and my scourge; on the contrary; he would pass for what he is, for a hypocrite, and he wants to pass for what he is not, for a devout man: it is true that he behaves in a way which makes people believe, without his saying so, that he wears a hair shirt and scourges himself.” Later he criticizes Tartuffe’s...

    (pp. 395-433)

    On nous servit à souper. Je me mis à table d’un air fort gai; mais, à la lumière de la chandelle qui était entre elle et moi, je crus apercevoir de la tristesse sur le visage et dans les yeux de rna chère maîtresse. Cette pensée m’en inspira aussi. Je remarquai que ses regards s’attachaient sur moi d’une autre façon qu’ils n’avaient accoutumé. Je ne pouvais démêler si c’était de l’amour ou de la compassion, quoiqu’il me parût que c’était un sentiment doux et languissant. Je la regardai avec la même attention; et peutêtre n’avait-elle pas moins de peine à...

    (pp. 434-453)

    Miller (schnell auf- und abgehend). Einmal für allemal! Der Handel wird ernsthaft. Meine Tochter kommt mit dem Baron ins Geschrei. Mein Haus wird verrufen. Der Präsident bekommt Wind, und kurz und gut, ich biete dem Junker aus.

    Frau Du hast ihn nicht in dein Haus geschwatzt—hast ihm deine Tochter nicht nachgeworfen.

    Miller Hab’ ihn nicht in mein Haus geschwatzt—hab’ ihm’s Mädel nicht nachgeworfen; wer nimmt Notiz davon?—Ich war Herr im Haus. Ich hätt’ meine Tochter mehr koram nehmen sollen. Ich hätt’ dem Major besser auftrumpfen sollen—oder hätt’ gleich alles Seiner Excellenz, dem Herrn Papa stecken sollen....

    (pp. 454-492)

    Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), an ambitious and passionate young man, son of an uneducated petty bourgeois from the Franche-Comté, is conducted by a series of circumstances from the seminary at Besançon, where he has been studying theology, to Paris and the position of secretary to a gentleman of rank, the Marquis de la Mole, whose confidence he gains. Mathilde, the Marquis’s daughter, is a girl of nineteen, witty, spoiled, imaginative, and so arrogant that her own position and circle begin to bore her. The dawning of her passion for her father’s...

    (pp. 493-524)

    In 1864 Edmond and Jules de Goncourt published their novel Germinie Lacerteux, which describes the sexual involvements and the gradual ruin of a maidservant. They wrote the following preface for it:

    Il nous faut demander pardon au public de lui donner ce livre, et l’avertir de ce qu’il y trouvera.

    Le public aime les romans faux: ce roman est un roman vrai.

    Il aime les livres qui font semblant d’aller dans le monde: ce livre vient de la rue.

    Il aime les petites œuvres polissonnes, les mémoires de filles, les confessions d’alcôves, les saletés érotiques, le scandale qui se retrousse...

    (pp. 525-553)

    “And even if it isn’t fine to-morrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay, raising her eyes to glance at William Bankes and Lily Briscoe as they passed, “it will be another day. And now,” she said, thinking that Lily’s charm was her Chinese eyes, aslant in her white, puckered little face, but it would take a clever man to see it, “and now stand up, and let me measure your leg,” for they might go to the Lighthouse after all, and she must see if the stocking did not need to be an inch or two longer in the leg.

    Smiling, for an...

    (pp. 554-558)

    The subject of this book, the interpretation of reality through literary representation or “imitation,” has occupied me for a long time. My original starting point was Plato’s discussion in book 10 of the Republic—mimesis ranking third after truth—in conjunction with Dante’s assertion that in the Commedia he presented true reality. As I studied the various methods of interpreting human events in the literature of Europe, I found my interest becoming more precise and focused. Some guiding ideas began to crystallize, and these I sought to pursue.

    The first of these ideas concerns the doctrine of the ancients regarding...

    (pp. 559-574)
    Erich Auerbach