Erich Auerbach (1892–1957) is best known for his magisterial, and majestic, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a book written in Turkey, where the German Jewish scholar had taken refuge from the Nazis, and published in German in 1946. This volume of connected essays opens by contrasting the ancient Greek and Hebrew worldviews, as revealed in the Odyssey and the Old Testament, and ends with a close reading of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In the five hundred or so pages in between Auerbach offers searching analyses of short, illustrative extracts from Petronius, Gregory of Tours, Chrétien de Troyes, Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, Saint-Simon, Schiller, Stendhal, and others. Building on the stylistic quirks, lacunae, and emphases in his carefully chosen authors, Auerbach gradually discloses their underlying suppositions about what art should do and how people and events can be represented in language at a specific moment in history. For example, by analyzing a dinner scene from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, then comparing it with similar short passages in Balzac and Flaubert, Auerbach reveals the foundations of nineteenth-century realism.

To understand such writers, he concludes, we must possess some knowledge of the historical period, of social stratification, economic circumstances, political realities. The use of ordinary people as subjects for tragic art and the “serious treatment of everyday reality” turn out to require a substantial canvas—“the broad and elastic form of the novel.” Auerbach’s masterly interpretation discovers, time after time, an entire world in what at first seems just a small incident. As a work of literary scholarship, Mimesis has been deeply and widely admired, occasionally criticized, and never equaled.

Despite his great breadth of learning, Auerbach regarded himself as primarily a student of romance languages, and of medieval literature in particular. He had been brought up in a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin, taken a law degree at Heidelberg, fought in World War I, and finally decided to devote himself to what was then called romance philology. After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Greifswald with a dissertation on the early Renaissance novella, the young scholar first worked as a librarian, in part so that he could spend an-other half-dozen years or so just reading. Eventually he began to write the occasional scholarly review, then translated Vico’s New Science into German, and finally accepted a professorship at the University of Marburg. Only in 1929, while in his late thirties, did he bring out his first real book, Dante als Dichter der irdischen Welt. Though well received from the beginning, this important study was nonetheless only translated into English—as Dante: Poet of the Secular World—in 1961, doubtless because of the high regard for Mimesis. It is arguably the best, if not the easiest, short introduction to Dante and his artistry.*

What does Auerbach mean by calling the celebrated pilgrim through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven a “poet of the secular world?” In essence, he insists that Dante is a great realist writer, and perhaps the finest. He was the first to consider

man, not as a remote legendary hero, not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical type, but man as we know him in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness; and in that he has been followed by all subsequent portrayers of man, regardless of whether they treated a historical or a mythical or a religious subject, for after Dante myth and legend also became history.

In the centuries since, we may have lost Dante’s sense of Heaven and Hell, but he continues to make us see that individual destiny isn’t meaningless; it is necessarily tragic and significant. He is present at the birth of all modern self-portraiture in lyric poetry, fiction, and memoir.

Of course, we commonly regard Dante as a religious poet, a medieval visionary drawing on vast theological learning. Auerbach wouldn’t deny this. But he stresses that Dante is far more than a dreamy mystic or a versifying schoolman. He truly is a “poet of the secular world,” of our fallen earthly existence, where people laugh and conspire, love and hate, sin and triumph over sin. Even though the people in the afterlife are technically disembodied spirits, they address the poet as distinct, fully human persons. In fact, these shades reveal themselves with a vitality and purity made possible because they are dead. The dross has been burned away and what remains is the essential character. Of these myriad souls, Auerbach writes:

Though the concrete data of their lives and the atmosphere of their personalities are drawn from their former existences on earth, they manifest them here with a completeness, a concentration, an actuality, which they seldom achieved during their term on earth and assuredly never revealed to anyone else.

Consider, for instance, the poet Brunetto Latini, who runs through Hell as though in a race, but, as Dante says, like the one who wins and not the one who loses. Or Ulysses, who inspires his men on their last voyage to travel ever further into the unknown: “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti/ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza“—“You were made not to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Or La Pia, who came from a noble family in Siena and was killed on orders of her husband, who owned a castle in Maremma. Her gentleness and sorrowful sweetness are conveyed in words that Benedetto Croce called “so delicate that they seem to be rather sighed than said” and that T.S. Eliot remembered in The Waste Land:


“Deh, quando tu sarai tornado al mondo

E riposato de la lunga via…

Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;

Siena me fé, desfecemi Maremma:

Salsi colui che ‘nnanellata pria

Disposando m’avea con la sua gemma.”

Pray, when you have returned to the world and have rested from your long journey…remember me, who am la Pia. Siena made me, Maremma unmade me, as he knows who with his ring had plighted me to him in wedlock.

(Translated by Charles S. Singleton)

In short, Auerbach asks us to regard this great poem not just as a “divine” comedy—as Boccaccio dubbed it—but also as a comédie humaine.

Less explicitly, perhaps, he also adds his voice to the revaluation of Dante that marked the period between the two world wars. Many readers in earlier times had regarded the poet as simply “the man who had traveled to Hell.” This romantic, even Gothic-sounding Dante versified a gruesome tour of the afterlife’s torture cells, with snapshots of Ugolino devouring his sons, of Bertran de Born carrying his head like a lantern, of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca whirling together for all eternity. But in the twenty years between the late 1920s and the late 1940s, one important writer after another argued strongly for Dante—even above Shakespeare—as the central figure of European literature, the linchpin of the great classical and Christian traditions of learning and culture.

This is the era of T.S. Eliot’s important essay “Dante” (1929, the same year as Auerbach’s study), which stresses how much the Italian can teach modern poets about economy, directness, and visual precision; of Osip Mandelstam’s dense “Conversation on Dante” (1933), which throws off original observations about the poem’s language and rhetoric with casual bravura; and of Laurence Binyon’s magnificent rendering of the Commedia into English terza rima, partly under the guidance of Ezra Pound (1933 and following). Recall, too, the important 1940s essays by C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams’s mystical The Figure of Beatrice(1943), and Dorothy L. Sayers’s papers on Dante (collected 1954), as well as her popular translation of the Inferno (1949). To this varied company one needs to add Auerbach’s scholarly paean to the Commedia as the crowning literary achievement of European civilization.

To show Dante’s originality, Auerbach opens his book with a concise history of imitation in antiquity, a précis of how early writers depicted people and the world. He points out that Plato’s dialogues—“shot through with movement and actuality”—bring their participants to vivid life in “their innermost individuality.” He notes, too, that Virgil’s Aeneid is, “for the European literature of love, a basic model. Dido suffers more deeply and poignantly than Calypso, and her story is the one example of great sentimental poetry known to the Middle Ages.” Dido lives on the page with an anguished reality.

For Auerbach, though, Christ stands as a turning point in artistic as well as religious history. While the ancient philosophical ideal of ataraxia—the state of serene calm—counsels a stoic indifference to life’s vicissitudes, Christianity asks each of us to engage intensely with this world. Just as God’s son had subjected himself to an earthly destiny and was willing to submit to creaturely suffering, so our own lives, our own “wrestling with evil,” have now become “the foundation of God’s judgment to come.” Our consciousness of sin further encourages focused attention on our unique selves and our specific vices and virtues. The Christian world, consequently, throngs with distinct souls, each finding or losing its way to God. This revolution accounts for the sheer diversity of the characters and personalities shown in the Commedia.

Following this historical background, Auerbach turns next to the impact of Provençal poetry and its Italian analogue, the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style), on Dante’s conception of love. Yet while the troubadours and their followers sang of wispy ladies, more ideal types than human beings, Dante emphasizes the sheer actuality of Beatrice. She is no vague or flowery allegory. Throughout the often memoir-like Vita Nuova (The New Life), the verse (like the prose) is simple, sharp, and clear, an intense zeroing in on the experience of Beatrice and its meaning. For Dante, Auerbach says, each of these early poems “is an authentic event, directly set forth in its unique, contingent, and ephemeral this-worldliness.” Nonetheless, “from personal experience it expands into the universal…to become an immutable vision of reality in general, earthly particularity held fast in the mirror of a timeless eye.”


By now, it should be evident that despite his sometimes abstract Germanic prose and commanding scholarship, Auerbach is writing with passionate directness and immediacy. Periodically he reveals his awe before the beauty of Dante’s imagery, the variety of his characters, the wisdom of his understanding, and the artistry that is able to hold together Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Only after establishing the poet’s distinctive genius does Auerbach devote the remainder of his book—roughly the last two thirds—to the Commedia itself, focusing first on its subject, then on its structure, and last on specific scenes and images.

Auerbach points out that Dante started the poem when he was in exile from Florence and a place in its government and so was relegated to a life of poverty. The Commedia, he observes, would allow Dante to “correct and overcome that disharmony of fate… by taking account of historical events, by mastering them and ordering them in his mind.” Formally, though, the structure of the poem and the richness of its dramatis personae—the work’s character as a summa vitae humanae—reflect the influence of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas insisted that individuality and diversity were theologically necessary. Since the world was made in God’s image, no one species of created things is adequate to reflect the likeness of God. You need them all. In Aquinas’s psychology, Auerbach writes, every soul possesses its own particular, gradually acquired habitus,

an enduring disposition which enriches and modifies the substance; it is the residuum in man’s soul of his soul’s history; for every action, every exertion of the will toward its goal leaves behind a trace, and the modification of the soul through its actions is the habitus. In the Thomist psychology diversities of habitus account for the diversity of human characters; it is the habitus which determines how each empirical man will realize his essence. It illumines the relations between the soul and its acts.

But the habitus only reveals itself over time. As a result, no matter what one’s precise earthly station, each human being must necessarily be a dramatic hero.

Thus when Dante the pilgrim meets various shades in the afterlife, each presents himself “in the attitude and gesture which most fully sum up and most clearly manifest the totality of his habitus.” Even though these souls have already been judged and occupy the places slotted for them in eternity (except for those ascending the mountain of Purgatory), they “are not divested of their earthly character. Their earthly historical character is not even attenuated, but rather held fast in all its intensity and so identified with their ultimate fate.” In fact, Auerbach continues, “the situation and attitude of the souls in the other world is in every way individual and in keeping with their former acts and sufferings on earth.” In short, “their situation in the hereafter is merely a continuation, intensification, and definitive fixation of their situation on earth,” even as “what is most particular and personal in their character and fate is fully preserved.”

Consider, as an example, Dante’s encounter with Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the Ghibelline faction in Florence, and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, a well-to-do member of the rival Guelph faction, both spending eternity in fiery chests for the sins of heresy and atheism. In Mimesis Auerbach carefully analyzes this passage. Farinata speaks with a lofty pride and a disdain for his infernal surroundings and is interested only in discovering what has been happening in Florence; Cavalcante tenderly reveals how much he misses the sweetness of light and the company of his son, the celebrated poet Guido Cavalcanti. Though both these souls suffer the same torments, each remains wholly himself, true to his unique earthly identity. Whatever symbolic significance they may have, it never replaces their sharply individual personalities.

In his chapter about the structure of Dante’s poem, Auerbach discerns three underlying systems. The earth-centered view of the universe of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy accounts for Dante’s general ordering of the underworld, the mountain of Purgatory, and the celestial spheres of Heaven. However, the ethical grading system governing the three realms naturally varies in each: Hell is organized by sinful acts and appropriate punishments, while Purgatory is arranged according to the different evil impulses in need of extirpation and expiation. In Heaven the souls “are ordered according to their good, unperverted dispositions, their just and measured love.” Auerbach neatly observes that “the higher Dante rises, the more universal and impersonal become the souls that appear” (which partly accounts for the striking personality and individuality of the damned). In Paradise, the main gesture of the saved is to “shine with greater or lesser brightness.” Yet Auerbach pointedly insists that “their words encompass their gestures and preserve the character of the earthly man who lived in them and still lives.” In a particularly telling demonstration of the suprahuman love coursing through the celestial realm (specifically, in the so-called Heaven of the Sun, where the Fathers of the Church literally dance for joy), the Dominican Saint Thomas sings the praises of Saint Francis, while the Franciscan Saint Bonaventure speaks admiringly of Saint Dominic.

Along with these physical and ethical systems, Dante also employs a political-historical one, based on the notion that Rome and the Roman Empire possess a special earthly mission. This mission is, more or less, to be a terrestrial mirror of the divine order. Alas, Imperial Rome has crumbled, while papal Rome has grown corrupt and venal and more eager for temporal than spiritual power. That these two institutions have fallen away from God’s purpose explains Dante’s often lacerating remarks about the contemporary church—he consigns Pope Boniface VIII to Hell, even while the man is still alive, and at one point he likens the papacy to a “puttana sciolta,” or “ungirt harlot.” Yet he hopes desperately for the Church’s reform, hence his obsessive interest in Italian politics, as well as his dream of a renewed secular Rome. The Eternal City’s symbolic likeness to the eternal reward of Heaven suggests, too, why Cato the Younger, rather than a major saint, oversees the door of Purgatory. He is the historical Cato, yes, but in his life he stood as a guardian of Rome and so may appropriately figure here as a guardian in the afterworld.

In his final chapters Auerbach discusses some of the scenes and characters in the poem, emphasizing again that it is at heart

a long series of self-portraits, which are so clear and complete that concerning those men, who have long been dead and who lived under such very different conditions from ourselves or who perhaps never lived at all, we know something which often remains hidden from us in our thoughts about ourselves or those with whom we are in daily contact: namely, the simple meaning which dominates and orders their whole existence.

Nearly always, he discovers, that self-revelation builds on the recollection of some definite act or event, and “it is from this act or event that the character’s aura arises.” At one point, for instance, Dante breaks off a bough from a dead tree in Hell and a voice cries out. It is Frederick II’s devoted counselor Pier delle Vigne, damned as a suicide—“unjust against my just self.” Yet Pier delle Vigne, in despair over an accusation of treachery, built his life on service to his earthly lord, and his one real, almost pathetic concern is still to clear his good name:

“E se di voi alcun nel mondo riede,

Conforti la memoria mia, che giace

Ancor del colpo che ‘nvidia le diede.”

And if one of you returns to the world, let him comfort my memory which still lies prostrate from the blow that envy gave it.

(Translated by Charles S. Singleton)

Dante’s instinct for such particularity is further demonstrated by those metaphors, similes, and images that imbue the Commedia with so much of its poetic vitality. In Hell the damned squint through the darkness “come ‘l vecchio sartor fa ne la cruna“—“like an old tailor peering at the eye of his needle.” Souls in Paradise don’t just cluster around:

As in a fish-pond which is still and clear

The fishes draw near to what comes from outside

In such sort that they think their food is there

So thousand splendours, ay, and more beside

I saw drawn toward us….

(Translated by Laurence Binyon)

As Auerbach says, every aspect of earthly life is here in the Commedia, if only in the concentrated power of the poet’s similitudes:

croaking frogs in the evening, a lizard darting across the path, sheep crowding out of their enclosure, a wasp withdrawing its sting, a dog scratching; fishes, falcons, doves, storks; a cyclone snapping off trees at the trunk; a morning countryside in spring, covered with hoarfrost; night falling on the first day of an ocean voyage; a monk receiving the confession of a murderer; a mother saving a child from fire; a lone knight galloping forth; a bewildered peasant in Rome….

Nearly every line of the epic writhes with energy and exertion. “Dante’s poetry is a constant struggle with the object and the form it demands, a contest of hard with hard.” In sum, “reality and superhuman will, order and compelling authority” generate the substance of the Commedia’s style.

In the years after he published Dante: Poet of the Secular World, Auerbach was to deepen his understanding of the Commedia, chiefly through his studies of typology—the interpretative practice by which events in the Old Testament are seen as prophesying or prefiguring those in the New: “The first signifies the second, the second fulfills the first.” Thus Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days is said to represent Christ during the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection. In his most famous single essay, “Figura” (1944, collected in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, 1959), Auerbach stresses that both elements, the original event and the later one which is understood as reenacting it, remain historical and real, fully themselves. Neither is merely symbolic.

He never retreats from this position, which certainly lies at the core of Dante: Poet of the Secular World. When we meet the Old Testament Rahab in heaven, she is unquestionably herself—the harlot who helps Joshua’s spies in the city of Jericho, then marks and safeguards her house with a scarlet cord when the Jews overwhelm and destroy the city. But she also became a figure of the Church. As Auerbach writes in “Typological Symbolism in Medieval Literature”: “Her house alone, with all its inhabitants, escapes perdition, just as the church of the faithful will alone be saved when Christ appears for the last judgment.” That scarlet cord is, of course, the sign of Christ’s redeeming blood.

Both Mimesis and “Figura” were written during Auerbach’s twelve-year tenure at the University of Istanbul. In 1935 the Nazis deprived Jews of their academic posts and he was forced to find a job outside the Reich. (Interestingly, he competed for this position against Victor Klemperer, author of the famous diary of life in Germany during the Nazi era, I Will Bear Witness.) In Istanbul, without access to the research libraries of his youth, Auerbach had to concentrate on the literary texts themselves, and to this deprivation we partly owe the richness and grandeur of Mimesis.

Following the war, in the late 1940s, Auerbach emigrated to America, eventually taking a position at Yale as a professor of romance philology. Harvard Professor Harry Levin remembers him then as “slight and dark, gentle to the point of diffidence, yet lively and engaging in conversation.” During his last years, he largely occupied himself with early medieval literature, some of his researches being published in Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages(1965). In his introduction to that last, and ultimately posthumous, book, Auerbach offers something of a personal credo:

To grasp the special nature of an epoch or a work, to perceive the nature of the relations between works of art and the time in which they were created, is an endless problem which each of us, exerting the utmost concentration, must endeavour to solve for himself and from his own point of view.

Opening with a grand ambition and closing on a more modest sense of what can actually be accomplished, this statement of purpose sounds characteristic of Auerbach and his own assessment of his life’s work. For it is hard to overlook the elegiac tone in so much of his scholarship, inevitably a reflection of the century’s dark middle decades. When he wrote Dante: Poet of the Secular World in 1929, Auerbach recorded something of what European civilization had accomplished just before the barbarians overwhelmed the city of man and God. In still later years, this great humanist grew increasingly convinced, as he wrote in the preface to Literary Language and Its Public, that “European civilization is approaching the term of its existence; its history as a distinct entity would seem to be at an end.”

That seems, for good or ill, more true than ever. Nonetheless, for many ordinary readers as well as learned scholars, Dante continues to stand at the summit of whatever we mean by European civilization and art. Looking back at the poet’s masterpiece, Erich Auerbach rises to his own ecstatic vision of wisdom and beauty:

Thus in truth the Comedy is a picture of earthly life. The human world in all its breadth and depth is gathered into the structure of the hereafter and there it stands: complete, unfalsified, yet encompassed in an eternal order; the confusion of earthly affairs is not concealed or attenuated or immaterialized, but preserved in full evidence and grounded in a plan which embraces it and raises it above all contingency. Doctrine and fantasy, history and myth are woven into an almost inextricable skein…. Once one has succeeded in surveying the whole, the hundred cantos, with their radiant terza rima, their perpetual binding and loosing, reveal the dreamlike lightness and remoteness of a perfection that seems to hover over us like a dance of unearthly figures.

This Issue

January 11, 2007