Auerbach, Erich

Assigned: Auerbach, Erich. From Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,Chapter 1. “Odysseus’ Scar” (956-73). Also read the editors’ introduction (954-56).

From Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946)

Chapter 1. Odysseus’ Scar

1. On 956-58 (“Readers of the Odyssey will remember…”), Erich Auerbach describes the moment in Book 19 of the Odyssey in which the housekeeper Euryclea recognizes Odysseus by the scar on his thigh. How does he characterize Homer’s style in narrating this tense incident, both in terms of detail and the manner in which Homer handles time? (957) What does Auerbach think of the common notion that this style is meant to increase the suspense of such scenes? (957 bottom-958) How does he characterize what he believes is “the true cause” (958 bottom) for which Homer takes so long to detail what another poet might perhaps get through more succinctly?

2. On 959-60 (“The excursus upon the origin…”), Auerbach focuses on Homer’s foreground-intensive narrative style in still more detail. What insight does he draw from the precise placement of the long excursus (digression) on Odysseus’ scar? How is the passage significant with regard to Homer’s handling of psychology and time, and why does it matter that the excursus begins not with Odysseus reflecting on how he got the scar but rather at the moment when Euryclea recognizes it?

3. On 960-63 (“The genius of the Homeric style…”), Auerbach switches focus to the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. What significant differences in style does he delineate in this biblical text by way of comparison to Homer’s Odyssey? Why, according to Auerbach, would it be incorrect to suggest that the stylistic differences stem from the Hebrews’ notions about God? (961) How does the Bible deal with Abraham, Isaac, God, and the temporal and spatial qualities of the story—what are we told, and what are we not told? (961-62) Then, too, what does the story of Abraham and Isaac teach us about “the significance of the descriptive adjectives and digressions of the Homeric poems” (963)?

4. On 963-65 (“It would be difficult, then, to imagine…”), how does Auerbach expand on his concept of the “background” (963 bottom) that we find in texts like the Old Testament and not in Homer? What is “background,” and how does it add layers of complexity to a given story, including particularly the psychology of the characters who populate that story? What examples from the Old Testament, in addition to the Abraham and Isaac story, does Auerbach offer in support of his claims about the depths of biblical psychology and history? (964)

5. On 965 (“The Homeric poems, then, though…”), how does Auerbach describe the “highest aim” of Homer’s two epics in terms of what they want to deliver to listeners or readers? Why doesn’t it matter for the achievement of this aim that everyone knows Homer is only recounting fables, not historical truth? Finally, when Auerbach says, “Homer can be analyzed […] but he cannot be interpreted,” why can’t the Odyssey or the Iliad be interpreted?

6. On 965-67 (“It is all very different in…”), how does Auerbach explain the great difference in aims respecting the readership of the Old Testament in comparison to Homeric epic? What imperious demands do biblical stories like that of Abraham and Isaac make on the author and readers alike? In what sense, according to Auerbach, is the Bible’s “claim to truth” actually “tyrannical” (966)? Why, as well, is biblical narrative so open to perpetual interpretation? How does this kind of narrative go so far as to try to “overcome” (966) the reality we bring to the text?

7. On 967-69 (“As a result of this claim…”), Auerbach describes a further responsibility that biblical narrative takes upon itself: it proposes to incorporate all other histories in the world into its own framework; in essence, the grand story told by the Bible swallows up all other stories. How, in turn, does that imperative call upon biblical narrative to make “a constant interpretative change in its own content” (967)? How does this imperative also dictate that the Bible is a much less unified document than Homeric epic, and how does it leverage a “vertical connection” (968) to cancel the negative effects of such disunity or looseness of structure?

8. On 969-71 (“Homer remains within the legendary…”), Auerbach discusses the broad contrast between the historicity of Old Testament narrative as opposed to the legendary quality of Homeric epic. How can we tell in terms of stylistic features and handling of content that the Bible is treating much of its material as possessing historical validity? (969-70) In what ways, according to Auerbach, does the recounting of legendary material differ from the recounting of what is believed by the authors to be historical material? How does Auerbach’s statement, “To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend” (970) aptly sum up the points he makes from pages 969-71 about narrating history versus legend?

9. On 971-72 (“With the more profound historicity…”), what key point does Auerbach make about the difference between Homer’s idea of “the elevated style and of the sublime” (971) and the Bible’s way of dealing with those elements? Why does the Old Testament render “the sublime and the everyday” (972) virtually inseparable, while Homer generally insists upon keeping them distinct?

10. On 972-73 (“We have compared these two texts…”), how does Auerbach sum up his purpose in having so carefully compared the respective styles of Homer and the Old Testament? What understanding of European literature in its great variety does he suggest his comparative analysis will make possible?

11. General question: In our selection from Mimesis, Erich Auerbach starkly contrasts the full, entirely externalized descriptive style used by Homer in the Odyssey with the enigmatic, otherworldly approach taken by the writer of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. Auerbach declares at the end of the selection that his purpose has been to initiate “an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture” (972). The Norton editors point out that while Auerbach certainly engages in “close reading,” his purpose is not that of formalism with its focus on decontextualized, self-contained texts; instead, he “scrutinizes and compares the dynamics of cultural styles” (955). To encapsulate Auerbach’s excellent observations on two fundamental styles, while we can analyze Homer’s eventful, thing-crammed epics, we must interpret the Bible’s often austere, symbolically charged stories. Explain the differences between “analysis” and “interpretation,” and try to explain, too, which of these two ways of representing reality you find most appealing, and why.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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