Auerbach’s Simplicity: ‘A Keen Eye for the Obvious’



It is easy to forget: criticism is, first and foremost, writing. 


By Dr. Christopher Warley
Professor of Renaissance Literature and Critical Theory
University of Toronto


“A good writer must write in such a way that one infers from the text what he intended to express. That is not easy.” So declared Erich Auerbach in his “Epilegomena to Mimesis,” a short piece he wrote responding to some of his critics.  He is not talking about Augustine, Dante, or Flaubert here. He is describing his own style—or rather, his own effort at creating a style that conveys what he wants to convey. As reader, Auerbach has what M.H. Abrams once called the prerequisite of all criticism: a keen eye for the obvious. But that eye isn’t enough—you also have to be able to communicate that obviousness, make it obvious in your writing, make someone else see how a chapter from To the Lighthouse makes sense. It is easy to forget: criticism is, first and foremost, writing.

Auerbach spent an enormous amount of time thinking about his own style. He worked very hard at making his writing convey what he intended—“the subtle flair for artistry and its techniques,” in Leo Spitzer’s words, that always characterized Auerbach’s writing. That subtle flair has sometimes worked against Auerbach: he is still occasionally described—very recently— as lacking theoretical sophistication. But his style was the result of a great deal of work. Two writers in particular stand out as models: Virgil and Dante. In an early essay, Auerbach remarks that what Dante learns from Virgil is “simplicity”—how to absorb thoughts into the “very substance of the poem”; in a late essay, he points to Virgil’s description of Camilla as a perfect example of classical poetry because it is a “quiet, self-contained, pure unreflecting epiphany.” Everything about Camilla is embodied in every word Virgil puts down about her. He makes Camilla obvious.  Mimesis is, among other things, Auerbach’s effort at writing his own mix of classical formal perfection with a Christian stress on the everyday. The argument of his great book about style is contained in his own style, a style which strives for (even though it does not always achieve) simplicity, but which also wishes to be—this is the intention that I find Auerbach wishes to express—a quiet, self-contained, pure unreflecting epiphany of the everyday.

Here is a small example. Chapter Ten is among the less read chapters of Mimesis. Auerbach mostly discusses Antoine de la Sale, whose style is addicted to a medieval class pomp associated with legal writing and chivalry: most egregious, most honorable, most noble—today, you might think of a professor who keeps reminding you what schools she went to, what fellowships she won, what invited talks she gave. But la Sale is also obsessed with a stress on bodily sensations that he inherits from Christian writing, which always has a streak (it comes and goes over the years) of hatred of the flesh and the world. The result? The “highest respect for man’s class insignia” in la Sale is, writes Auerbach, coupled with “no respect whatever for man himself as soon as he is divested of them. Beneath them there is nothing but the flesh, which age and  illness will ravage until death and putrefaction destroy it” (249-250). Out of this unpromising and dreary combination comes one of the most stunning moments in all of Auerbach’s book: his reading of Madame du Chastel.

The story la Sale tells is of Seigneur du Chastel, who commands the fortress at Brest, currently under siege by Edward the Black Prince. Chastel’s thirteen-year-old son is given as hostage while negotiations ensue. They go badly, Edward demands the fortress or he will execute the boy, and Chastel, alone with his wife at night, “breaks down and completely abandons himself to his despair” (233). He begs his wife to tell him what to do. Eventually she renounces the boy. You have to read the speech. I am intentionally not trying to do it justice here.

But, as one student remarked to me, Auerbach’s reading of the speech may be even more remarkable, and more moving. He has a keen eye for the obvious in the interactions of the couple. Madame “puts [her husband] under the necessity of as it were ordering her to express her views, which means that she reinstates him, albeit only outwardly, in his accustomed position of leadership and responsibility” (245). She plays the subordinate woman, which she is not at all, to make him back into a lord which he is not at the moment, having abandoned himself to his own grief. But the political situation demands he become an honorable lord again; the boy is lost no matter what, and Madame knows it and must convey this to her husband.  “It is hard,” writes Auerbach, “to decide what is most praiseworthy in this speech, its self-effacement or its self-control, its goodness or its clarity” (245).

How does Auerbach convey that goodness and clarity, the self-effacement and self-control of Madame du Chastel?

Children, she says, are more the children of their mothers, who carried them and gave birth to them and suckled them, than of their fathers.  Our son is more my son than yours; and yet I now renounce all my love of him as though I had never had him; I sacrifice my love for him; for we can have other children, but if your honor is lost, it cannot be recovered. (245)

The writing makes the reading. Auerbach switches from a third-person paraphrase to a first-person account. “She says” becomes “our son”; “my son”; “I now renounce all my love of him”; “we can have other children.” This change makes Madame’s speech come alive. It is no longer simply a strange, late-medieval moment. The son is your son, the life is your life, and the agony is your agony. This is not a past safely cordoned off in scholarly detachment—it lives and throbs in the present sentence. With that vivacity, Auerbach conveys something almost incredible that happens here. Madame du Chastel remains entirely within the stylistic tics of la Sale, and so does Auerbach. Madame never steps out of the role of obedient wife; she is in fact declaring a respect for honor, and a diminution of the flesh, so strong that she is willing to try to forget about her thirteen-year-old boy (whose brutal death la Sale narrates with pornographic precision). And yet, she sounds nothing like the tired class-language of la Sale. Her embrace of Christianity somehow sidesteps its hatred of the flesh and the world. Her speech is calculating and insidious, but with a quiet dignity that renounces worldly ambition as a dutiful Christian wife while also announcing in every syllable a love of her husband and the world. She is a pure epiphany. Unexpectedly, a world changes. There can be more children, and we are not too old.

It is not only a matter of the impressiveness of Madame du Chastel. Auerbach is making a theoretical argument with his style about what, exactly, historical criticism amounts to. His change of pronouns addresses the most difficult challenge of historical writing: describing how one thing turns into something else; stressing that the same thing will happen to you, that you too are a piece of history. Against both Christianity and the classical world of class pomp, Auerbach’s historicism insists that the world is not always the same thing, that it changes and develops in unpredictable and astonishing ways. Life changes: that is the constant argument of the German professor in Istanbul, writing as the catastrophe of the second world war unfolds around him. An impossible political situation will change, and “if we do not find pleasant things,” as Voltaire writes in Candide, “we will at least find new things.” A style dedicated to a particular world-view, to medieval honor and to Christian hatred of flesh, suddenly opens on to a different world when Madame du Chastel speaks. And when Auerbach changes pronouns, that difference redoubles out of the page. This shift has been carefully set up by Auerbach: the next chapter of Mimesis details Rabelais’ celebration of the body and his proliferation of possible worlds.  With Madame du Chastel’s speech, or perhaps with Auerbach’s change of pronouns, the Renaissance is born.  The world that seemed unchanging, permanent, brutal, suddenly turns into something else; and that Renaissance happens as well in the pages of Mimesis.  In Auerbach’s book, life is reborn through style.

What could be more simple and more obvious, it seems, than the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the birth and rebirth of human life in history? The task of literary criticism must be to make such pure epiphanies as obvious as possible—to learn Auerbach’s art of simplicity.


Originally published by Arcade: Literature, the Humanities, and the World under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.

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