Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

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Encyclopedia
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature is a book of literary criticism
Literary criticism
Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals...

 by Erich Auerbach
Erich Auerbach
Erich Auerbach was a philologist and comparative scholar and critic of literature. His best-known work is Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a history of representation in Western literature from ancient to modern times.-Biography:Auerbach, who was Jewish, was born in...

, and his most well known work. Written while Auerbach was teaching in Istanbul
Istanbul
Istanbul , historically known as Byzantium and Constantinople , is the largest city of Turkey. Istanbul metropolitan province had 13.26 million people living in it as of December, 2010, which is 18% of Turkey's population and the 3rd largest metropolitan area in Europe after London and...

, Turkey
Turkey
Turkey , known officially as the Republic of Turkey , is a Eurasian country located in Western Asia and in East Thrace in Southeastern Europe...

, where he fled after being ousted from his professorship in Romance Philology
Philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

 at the University of Marburg by the Nazis in 1935, it was first published in 1946 by A. Francke Verlag.

Mimesis famously opens with a comparison between the way the world is represented in Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

’s Odyssey
Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

and the way it appears in the Bible
Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

. From these two seminal Western
Western culture
Western culture, sometimes equated with Western civilization or European civilization, refers to cultures of European origin and is used very broadly to refer to a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, religious beliefs, political systems, and specific artifacts and...

 texts, Auerbach builds the foundation for a unified theory of representation
Representation (arts)
Representation is the use of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation that people organize the world and reality through the act of naming its elements...

 that spans the entire history of Western literature, including even the Modernist novelists writing at the time Auerbach began his study.

Overview


Mimesis gives an account of the way in which everyday life
Everyday Life
Everyday Life is the first solo album made by Life MC of the British Hip Hop group Phi Life Cypher....

 in its seriousness has been represented by many Western writers, from ancient Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 and Roman
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 writers such as Petronius
Petronius
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.-Life:...

 and Tacitus
Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

, early Christian
Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

 writers such as Augustine
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo , also known as Augustine, St. Augustine, St. Austin, St. Augoustinos, Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed, was Bishop of Hippo Regius . He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province...

, Medieval writers such as Chretien de Troyes
Chrétien de Troyes
Chrétien de Troyes was a French poet and trouvère who flourished in the late 12th century. Perhaps he named himself Christian of Troyes in contrast to the illustrious Rashi, also of Troyes...

 and Dante
DANTE
Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that plans, builds and operates the international networks that interconnect the various national research and education networks in Europe and surrounding regions...

, Renaissance
Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 writers such as Boccaccio
Giovanni Boccaccio
Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author and poet, a friend, student, and correspondent of Petrarch, an important Renaissance humanist and the author of a number of notable works including the Decameron, On Famous Women, and his poetry in the Italian vernacular...

, Montaigne, Rabelais, Shakespeare and Cervantes
Cervantes
-People:*Alfonso J. Cervantes , mayor of St. Louis, Missouri*Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, 16th-century man of letters*Ignacio Cervantes, Cuban composer*Jorge Cervantes, a world-renowned expert on indoor, outdoor, and greenhouse cannabis cultivation...

, seventeenth-century writers such as Molière
Molière
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature...

 and Racine
Jean Racine
Jean Racine , baptismal name Jean-Baptiste Racine , was a French dramatist, one of the "Big Three" of 17th-century France , and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition...

, Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 writers such as Voltaire
Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...

, nineteenth-century writers such as Stendhal
Stendhal
Marie-Henri Beyle , better known by his pen name Stendhal, was a 19th-century French writer. Known for his acute analysis of his characters' psychology, he is considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism in his two novels Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme...

, Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola
Émile Zola
Émile François Zola was a French writer, the most important exemplar of the literary school of naturalism and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism...

, all the way up to twentieth-century writers such as Proust, and Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English author, essayist, publisher, and writer of short stories, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century....

. Despite his treatment of the many major works, Auerbach apparently did not think he was comprehensive enough, and apologized in the original publication in 1946 explaining that he had access only to the 'insufficient' resources available in the library at Istanbul University
Istanbul University
Istanbul University is a Turkish university located in Istanbul. The main campus is adjacent to Beyazıt Square.- Synopsis :A madrasa, a religious school, was established sometime in the 15th century after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. An institution of higher education named the...

 where he worked. Many scholars consider this relegation to primary texts a happy accident of history, since in their view one of the great strengths of Auerbach’s book is its focus on fine-grained close reading of the original texts rather than an evaluation of critical works.

The mode of literary criticism in which Mimesis operates is often referred to among contemporary critics as historicism
Historicism
Historicism is a mode of thinking that assigns a central and basic significance to a specific context, such as historical period, geographical place and local culture. As such it is in contrast to individualist theories of knowledges such as empiricism and rationalism, which neglect the role of...

, since Auerbach largely regarded the way reality was represented in the literature of various periods to be intimately bound up with social and intellectual conventions of the time in which they were written. Auerbach considered himself a historical perspectivist in the German tradition (he mentioned Hegel in this respect) extrapolating from specific features of style
Literary genre
A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary technique, tone, content, or even length. Genre should not be confused with age category, by which literature may be classified as either adult, young-adult, or children's. They also must not be confused...

, grammar
Grammar
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics,...

, syntax
Syntax
In linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages....

, and diction
Diction
Diction , in its original, primary meaning, refers to the writer's or the speaker's distinctive vocabulary choices and style of expression in a poem or story...

 claims about much broader cultural and historical questions. Of Mimesis, Auerbach wrote that his "purpose is always to write history."

He is in the same German tradition of philology
Philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

 as Ernst Curtius
Ernst Robert Curtius
Ernst Robert Curtius was a German literary scholar, a philologist and Romance language literary critic....

, Leo Spitzer
Leo Spitzer
Leo Spitzer was an Austrian Romanist and Hispanist, and an influential and prolific literary critic. He was known for his emphasis on stylistics....

, and Karl Vossler
Karl Vossler
Karl Vossler was a German linguist and scholar, and a leading Romanist. Vossler was known for his interest in Italian thought, and as a follower of Benedetto Croce. He declared his support of the German military by signing the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three in 1914.-Notes:...

, having a mastery of many languages and epochs and all-inclusive in its approach, incorporating just about any intellectual endeavor into the discipline of literary criticism.

Auerbach was a Romance language specialist, which explains his admitted bias towards treating texts from French compared to other languages. Chaucer and Wordsworth are not mentioned even in passing though Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English author, essayist, publisher, and writer of short stories, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century....

 are given full chapters and Dickens and Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding was an English novelist and dramatist known for his rich earthy humour and satirical prowess, and as the author of the novel Tom Jones....

 make appearances.

Chapters

# Chapter title Main works discussed
1 Odysseus' Scar
Odysseus' scar (Auerbach)
"Odysseus' Scar" is the first chapter of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a collection of essays by German-Jewish philologist Erich Auerbach charting out the development of representations of reality in literature. It examines the differences between the two types of...

 
Odyssey
Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

by Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

 and Genesis 22:1
2 Fortunata Satyricon
Satyricon
Satyricon is a Latin work of fiction in a mixture of prose and poetry. It is believed to have been written by Gaius Petronius, though the manuscript tradition identifies the author as a certain Titus Petronius...

by Petronius
Petronius
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.-Life:...

3 The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres Res Gestae by Ammianus Marcellinus
Ammianus Marcellinus
Ammianus Marcellinus was a fourth-century Roman historian. He wrote the penultimate major historical account surviving from Antiquity...

4 Sicharius and Chramnesindus History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours
Gregory of Tours
Saint Gregory of Tours was a Gallo-Roman historian and Bishop of Tours, which made him a leading prelate of Gaul. He was born Georgius Florentius, later adding the name Gregorius in honour of his maternal great-grandfather...

5 Roland Against Ganelon Chanson de Roland
6 The Knight Sets Forth Yvain by Chrétien de Troyes
Chrétien de Troyes
Chrétien de Troyes was a French poet and trouvère who flourished in the late 12th century. Perhaps he named himself Christian of Troyes in contrast to the illustrious Rashi, also of Troyes...

7 Adam and Eve Mystère d'Adam
8 Farinata and Cavalcante Inferno
Inferno (Dante)
Inferno is the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through what is largely the medieval concept of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. In the poem, Hell is depicted as...

, The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature...

by Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri
Durante degli Alighieri, mononymously referred to as Dante , was an Italian poet, prose writer, literary theorist, moral philosopher, and political thinker. He is best known for the monumental epic poem La commedia, later named La divina commedia ...

9 Frate Alberto The Decameron
The Decameron
The Decameron, also called Prince Galehaut is a 14th-century medieval allegory by Giovanni Boccaccio, told as a frame story encompassing 100 tales by ten young people....

by Giovanni Boccaccio
Giovanni Boccaccio
Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author and poet, a friend, student, and correspondent of Petrarch, an important Renaissance humanist and the author of a number of notable works including the Decameron, On Famous Women, and his poetry in the Italian vernacular...

10 Madame Du Chastel Le Réconfort de Madame du Fresne by Antoine de la Sale
Antoine de la Sale
Antoine de la Sale or la Salle was a French writer.-Family and Early Years:He was born in Provence, probably at Arles, the illegitimate son of Bernardon de la Salle, a celebrated Gascon mercenary, mentioned in Froissart's Chronicles. His mother was a peasant, Perrinette Damendel.-At the Court of...

11 The World in Pantagruel's Mouth Gargantua and Pantagruel
Gargantua and Pantagruel
The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel is a connected series of five novels written in the 16th century by François Rabelais. It is the story of two giants, a father and his son and their adventures, written in an amusing, extravagant, satirical vein...

by François Rabelais
François Rabelais
François Rabelais was a major French Renaissance writer, doctor, Renaissance humanist, monk and Greek scholar. He has historically been regarded as a writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, bawdy jokes and songs...

12 L'Humaine Condition Essays by Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne
Lord Michel Eyquem de Montaigne , February 28, 1533 – September 13, 1592, was one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, known for popularising the essay as a literary genre and is popularly thought of as the father of Modern Skepticism...

13 The Weary Prince Henry IV, Parts 1
Henry IV, Part 1
Henry IV, Part 1 is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written no later than 1597. It is the second play in Shakespeare's tetralogy dealing with the successive reigns of Richard II, Henry IV , and Henry V...

 and 2
Henry IV, Part 2
Henry IV, Part 2 is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed written between 1596 and 1599. It is the third part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1 and succeeded by Henry V.-Sources:...

by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

14 The Enchanted Dulcinea Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was a Spanish novelist, poet, and playwright. His magnum opus, Don Quixote, considered the first modern novel, is a classic of Western literature, and is regarded amongst the best works of fiction ever written...

15 The Faux Dévot Tartuffe
Tartuffe
Tartuffe is a comedy by Molière. It is one of his most famous plays.-History:Molière wrote Tartuffe in 1664...

by Molière
Molière
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature...

16 The Interrupted Supper Manon Lescaut
Manon Lescaut
Manon Lescaut is a short novel by French author Abbé Prévost. Published in 1731, it is the seventh and final volume of Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité . It was controversial in its time and was banned in France upon publication...

by Abbé Prévost
17 Miller the Musician Luise Miller by Friedrich Schiller
Friedrich Schiller
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright. During the last seventeen years of his life , Schiller struck up a productive, if complicated, friendship with already famous and influential Johann Wolfgang von Goethe...

18 In the Hôtel de la Mole The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black
Le Rouge et le Noir , 1830, by Stendhal, is a historical psychological novel in two volumes, chronicling a provincial young man’s attempts to socially rise beyond his plebeian upbringing with a combination of talent and hard work, deception and hypocrisy — yet who ultimately allows his passions to...

by Stendhal
Stendhal
Marie-Henri Beyle , better known by his pen name Stendhal, was a 19th-century French writer. Known for his acute analysis of his characters' psychology, he is considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism in his two novels Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme...

 and Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary is Gustave Flaubert's first published novel and is considered his masterpiece. The story focuses on a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life...

by Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert was a French writer who is counted among the greatest Western novelists. He is known especially for his first published novel, Madame Bovary , and for his scrupulous devotion to his art and style.-Early life and education:Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen,...

19 Germinie Lacerteux Germinie Lacerteux by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt
Goncourt brothers
The Goncourt brothers were Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt , both French naturalist writers. They formed a partnership that "is possibly unique in literary history...

 and Germinal by Emile Zola
Émile Zola
Émile François Zola was a French writer, the most important exemplar of the literary school of naturalism and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism...

20 The Brown Stocking To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse is a novel by Virginia Woolf. A novel set on the Ramsays and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920, it skilfully manipulates temporal and psychological elements....

by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English author, essayist, publisher, and writer of short stories, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century....

 and In Search of Lost Time
In Search of Lost Time
In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past is a novel in seven volumes by Marcel Proust. His most prominent work, it is popularly known for its considerable length and the notion of involuntary memory, the most famous example being the "episode of the madeleine." The novel is widely...

by Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust
Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental À la recherche du temps perdu...


Position and evaluation of rhetoric


To the consternation of his colleague, Ernst Curtius, Auerbach's work is marked by an openly anti-rhetorical position. Classical writers such as Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

, Tacitus
Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

 and Petronius
Petronius
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.-Life:...

, as well as Medieval theologians (except St. Augustine
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo , also known as Augustine, St. Augustine, St. Austin, St. Augoustinos, Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed, was Bishop of Hippo Regius . He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province...

) and writers of the seventeenth century like Racine
Jean Racine
Jean Racine , baptismal name Jean-Baptiste Racine , was a French dramatist, one of the "Big Three" of 17th-century France , and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition...

 are criticized for adherence to the rhetorical doctrine of "styles" with their corresponding subject matters: the low style's association with the comedic and the popular classes, and the elevated style's association with the tragic, the historic and the heroic. Auerbach sees the Bible as opposing this rhetorical doctrine in its serious and poignant portrayals of common folk and their encounter with the divine. As Auerbach notes in chapter two when discussing the New Testament:

But the spirit of rhetoric—a spirit which classified subjects in genera and invested every subject with a specific form of style as one garment becoming it in virtue of its nature [i.e. lower classes with the farcical low-style, upper classes with the tragic, the historic and the sublime elevated-style]--could not extend its dominion to them [the Bible writers] for the simple reason that their subject would not fit into any of the known genres. A scene like Peter's denial fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history—and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.


The Bible will ultimately be responsible for the "mixed style" of Christian rhetoric, a style that is described by Auerbach in chapter seven as the "antithetical fusion" or "merging" of the high and low style. The model is Christ's Incarnation
Incarnation
Incarnation literally means embodied in flesh or taking on flesh. It refers to the conception and birth of a sentient creature who is the material manifestation of an entity, god or force whose original nature is immaterial....

 as both sublimitas and humilitas. This mixture ultimately leads to a "popular realism" seen in the religious plays and sermons of the 12th Century. Auerbach also discusses the development of an intermediate or middle style due to Medieval influences from the Bible and Courtly Love
Courtly love
Courtly love was a medieval European conception of nobly and chivalrously expressing love and admiration. Generally, courtly love was secret and between members of the nobility. It was also generally not practiced between husband and wife....

 (see chapters nine and fifteen on Boccaccio and Molière
Molière
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature...

). This development of an intermediate and then ultimately another "mixed style" (Shakespeare, Hugo) leads to what Auerbach calls the "modern realism" of the nineteenth-century (see chapter nineteen on Flaubert).

Auerbach champions writers during periods under the sway of rhetorical forms of writing like Gregory of Tours
Gregory of Tours
Saint Gregory of Tours was a Gallo-Roman historian and Bishop of Tours, which made him a leading prelate of Gaul. He was born Georgius Florentius, later adding the name Gregorius in honour of his maternal great-grandfather...

 and St. Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi was an Italian Catholic friar and preacher. He founded the men's Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis. St...

, whose Latin was poor and whose rhetorical education was minimal, but who were still able to convey vivid expression and feeling. He also champions the diarist Saint-Simon
Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon
Louis de Rouvroy commonly known as Saint-Simon was a French soldier, diplomatist and writer of memoirs, was born in Paris...

 who wrote about the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century French court. Completely free of the absolute constraints of style found in a Racine or the superficial use of reality as found in a Prévost
Antoine François Prévost
Antoine François Prévost , usually known simply as the Abbé Prévost, was a French author and novelist.- Life and works :...

 or a Voltaire
Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...

, Auerbach finds in his surprising portraits of court life the precursor of Proust (an admirer) and Zola
Émile Zola
Émile François Zola was a French writer, the most important exemplar of the literary school of naturalism and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism...

.

Critical reception


Mimesis is almost universally respected for its penetrating insights on the particular works it addresses but is frequently criticized for what is sometimes regarded as its lack of a single overarching claim. For this reason, individual chapters of the book are often read independently. This is unfortunate since Auerbach is clearly trying to present the tensions and pull of these two "styles" (the rhetorical and the Biblical/realist) during various periods under discussion, ultimately resulting in the rise of "modern realism." Most critics praise his sprawling approach for its reveling in the complexities of each work and epoch
Epoch (reference date)
In the fields of chronology and periodization, an epoch is an instance in time chosen as the origin of a particular era. The "epoch" then serves as a reference point from which time is measured...

 without resorting to generalities and reductionism
Reductionism
Reductionism can mean either an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can...

. However, a work of this complexity comes with problems of its own. Auerbach has the habit sometimes of using a minor work as a representation of an era, such as upholding the obscure Antoine de la Sale as representative of the inferiority of Medieval prose literature while ignoring monuments like the Prose Lancelot or Prose Tristan
Prose Tristan
The Prose Tristan is an adaptation of the Tristan and Iseult story into a long prose romance, and the first to tie the subject entirely into the arc of the Arthurian legend...

.

By far the most frequently reprinted chapter is chapter one, "Odysseus' Scar
Odysseus' scar (Auerbach)
"Odysseus' Scar" is the first chapter of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a collection of essays by German-Jewish philologist Erich Auerbach charting out the development of representations of reality in literature. It examines the differences between the two types of...

" in which Auerbach compares the scene in book 19 of Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

’s Odyssey
Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

, when Odysseus
Odysseus
Odysseus or Ulysses was a legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer's epic poem the Odyssey. Odysseus also plays a key role in Homer's Iliad and other works in the Epic Cycle....

 finally returns home from his two decades of warring and journeying, to Genesis 22:1, the story of The Binding of Isaac
Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac Akedah or Akeidat Yitzchak in Hebrew and Dhabih in Arabic, is a story from the Hebrew Bible in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah...

. Highlighting the rhetorically determined simplicity of characters in the Odyssey (what he calls the "external") against what he regards as the psychological depth of the figures in the Old Testament
Old Testament
The Old Testament, of which Christians hold different views, is a Christian term for the religious writings of ancient Israel held sacred and inspired by Christians which overlaps with the 24-book canon of the Masoretic Text of Judaism...

, Auerbach suggests that the Old Testament gives a more powerful and historical impression than the Odyssey, which he classifies as closer to "legend" in which all details are leisurely fleshed out and all actions occur in a simple present – indeed even flashbacks are narrated in the present tense.

Auerbach summarizes his comparison of the texts as follows:

The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [The Odyssey 's] fully externalized description, uniform illustration, 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 [in the 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 concludes by arguing that the "full development" of these two styles, the rhetorical tradition with its constraints on representing reality and the Biblical or "realist" tradition with its engagement of everyday experience, exercised a "determining influence upon the representation of reality in European literature."

It is in the context of this comparison between the Biblical and the Homeric that Auerbach draws his famous conclusion that the Bible’s claim to truth is "tyrannical," since

What he [the writer of the Old Testament] produced then, was not primarily oriented towards "realism" (if he succeeded in being realistic, it was merely a means, not an end): it was oriented to truth.


However, by the time Auerbach treats the work of Flaubert we have come full circle. Like the Biblical writers whose faith in the so called "tyrannical" truth of God produces an authentic expression of reality, Flaubert's "faith in the truth of language" (ch. 18) likewise represents an "an entire human experience."