Dante: The Supreme Realist

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,…

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