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Literary History and the Sublime in Erich Auerbach's "Mimesis"

Author(s): Robert Doran

Source: New Literary History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring, 2007), pp. 353-369
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Literary History and the Sublime in

Erich Auerbach's Mimesis'"
Robert Doran
Since the early twentieth century, literary history has been
criticized for ignoring the text, or more precisely, for focusing on
the context at the expense of the text.1 Successive waves of critical

orthodoxies?Russian Formalism, New Criticism, Structuralism, Post

Structuralism, New Historicism?have declared it to be either provincial

or irrelevant.2 Despite these attacks, literary history is still considered an
important methodology in continental Europe, particularly in the editing
of the national literature.3 However, in the American academy, which
prizes intellectual innovation over conservation and tradition, literary
history has long been all but moribund.4
In the mid-part of the century, a group of German scholars developed a
new kind of literary history, Romance philology, which distinguished itself

by its combination of astonishing erudition and stylistic interpretation.

The chief exponents of this tradition?Ernst Curtius, Karl Vossler, Leo
Spitzer, and Erich Auerbach?attempted to revitalize literary history by
providing it with a methodology that would rescue it from the pedantry
of nineteenth-century historicism.5 But the intentions of these critics were

also political and humanistic: to valorize a common European tradition

in the wake of the devastation wrought by the Second World War.6
While this group was influential in the United States during the postwar
period, only Auerbach's work has retained its relevance.7 His magnum
opus, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,9, written

during his exile in Turkey and published just after the war, continues
to be widely studied and discussed more than fifty years after its initial
publication.9 There are perhaps several reasons for the success o? Mimesis,
the most obvious being Auerbach's custom of introducing every chapter
with a close reading of a representative work. Auerbach's way of drawing
out the essence of an entire period from the reading of a single text is
a hermeneutic tour de force that has few if any rivals.

* I would like to thank Thomas Beebee and Albert Ascoli for their comments and sugges
tions on this essay, which no doubt improved the finished product.
New Literary History, 2007, 38: 353-369

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But there is another reason for Auerbach's success: his structural ap

proach to literary history.10 Mimesis is the story of realist representation
in language, defined not in ontological terms as a verbal approximation
of reality (correspondence of mind to world: adequatio intellectus et rei),
but in formal and aesthetic terms as the serious presentation of human
reality in its aspects that are most common or ordinary.11 Seriousness, with
respect to the mode of presentation, and everydayness, with respect to what

is presented, are the two fundamental conditions of what Auerbach calls

"realism." Though there is much debate about what Auerbach exactly

means by this term?his distaste for theoretical or conceptual vocabu

lary is well known?the structural import is clear.12 In every instance of
realistic representation, Auerbach uncovers the same underlying pattern:
the mixture of styles, that is, the breakdown of hierarchical divisions of
style and subject matter (elevated style for heroes, kings, and nobles;
comic style for low-born characters). The principal turning points in
the history of realistic representation?sublime realism (the Gospels),
figurai realism (the literature of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages),

contingent realism (the nineteenth-century French novel)?all share

a common structure. Thus Auerbach's vaunted relativism is, I believe,

overdone, not least by Auerbach himself. Discussing his methodology,

Auerbach writes: "Historical relativism ... is a radical relativism, but that
is no reason to fear it. . . . In the historical forms themselves, we gradu
ally learn to find the flexible, always provisional, categories we need."13
This assertion is not borne out by Auerbach's critical practice. Given the
fact that Mimesis is a survey of what goes under the rubric of Auerbach's
conception of realism, rather than a survey of what types of literature
were held to be realistic according to the standards of the period that

produced them (for example, the notion of verisimilitude in French

Neoclassicism), the amplitude of possible variations is restrained under
a unifying thesis imposed from the outside.14
Though the mixture of styles will take on the different forms men
tioned above, its initial definition as the combination of sublimitas and
humilitas in the Gospels will remain valid throughout Auerbach's history.
Auerbach explicitly excludes any interpretation of the mixture of styles
that would enclose realism within the middle or intermediate style.15 He
is aiming toward a concept of high literature, in which realistic genres
such as the novel, traditionally disparaged as formally defective, are re
valued for their profound grasp of the human condition. To achieve this
end, Auerbach seeks to maintain a dynamic tension between the high
and the low, the sublime and the mundane, throughout his exposition
of realistic representation in Western literature. The sublime is thus an
essential element in Auerbach's concept of realism.

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Readers may be somewhat surprised at this assertion, for Auerbach's

use of the sublime in Mimesis has attracted little attention.16 Though the
term "sublime/sublimity" {Erhabene in German, sublimitas in Latin) and
its synonyms, "high," "lofty," and "elevated," can be found throughout
Mimesis and are at the core of his concept of the mixture of styles, Au
erbach is never mentioned in critical discussions of the sublime; nor is
the sublime much of a topic in Auerbach studies.17 The reason for this
oversight, I believe, lies in the impression that for Auerbach the sublime
is not a critico-aesthetic category but simply names a particular style,
the grand or elevated style of the Greek and Latin systems of rhetoric.
Considered in this manner, the term is of little critical interest and can

have no broader implications for Auerbach's conception of realism.

This line of thinking is deficient in two respects. First, it is clear that
Auerbach uses the term sublime {Erhabene) in ways that go far beyond the
stylistic meaning; second, the stylistic meaning is itself misleading due to
Auerbach's rather expansive concept of style, which is often indistinguish
able from what today we would call tone or genre (tragedy, comedy).18
Auerbach's notion of sublimity clearly derives from Longinus's Peri
hypsous {On the Sublime) ,19 and to all appearances is not mediated by eigh

teenth-century discussions of this notion. Though we find only a single

mention of Longinus in Mimesis, Auerbach comments at length on Peri
hypsous in a chapter entitled "Camilla, or, The Rebirth of the Sublime,"20
from his last major work, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin
Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (which Auerbach considered a "supple
ment" to Mimesis). Predictably, Auerbach sees the subject of Longinus's
treatise as the lofty or sublime style: "The most important among the
theorists of the Imperial Age, the unknown author of the Greek treatise
On the Sublime, who probably lived in the first half of the first century AD,

spoke impressively on the matter. The lofty style, he says in substance,

is not, like the middle style, intended to please and persuade but to
fire with enthusiasm and to carry away" {LL 194). This interpretation
of Longinus is peculiar in that it presents itself as a commonplace. It is
as if Auerbach were unaware that the meaning of hypsos in Longinus's
treatise has provoked much debate and little consensus among classicists,
philologists, and critics. Auerbach's fellow philologist Curtius writes: "the
word hypsos means height not sublimity. High literature, great poetry
and prose?that is the subject."21 In his 1899 edition of Peri hypsous, Rhys
Roberts was convinced that "the object of the author is to indicate the
essentials of a noble and impressive style."22 More recently, W. H. Fyfe's
translation of Longinus often renders fogosas "style," again encouraging
the stylistic interpretation of hypsos. However, in his introduction to Fyfe's

translation, D. A. Russell attempts a more nuanced explanation: "nor is

it precisely a style?a charakter or genus dicendi?that is his subject: this is

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better described as a tone of writing, attainable only as a consequence

of a developed intellectual and emotional response to life."23
In fact, this debate is a very old one. It goes back to Boileau's 1674
edition of Peri hypsous and his famous preface, which introduced Longi

nus into European intellectual culture and made le sublime a fashion

able term.24 In his preface Boileau announces that the sublime is not
a type of style corresponding to the categories of classical rhetoric, but

an autonomous notion that allows us to conceptualize moments of

transcendence in the verbal arts: "By the term Sublime, Longinus is not
referring to what the orators call the sublime style, but that which strikes

us as extraordinary and marvelous in discourse and causes a text to up

lift, ravish, and transport the reader. The sublime style always employs
impressive diction; but the Sublime can be found in a single thought,
figure, or turn of phrase."25 Prima facie this reading of Longinus's treatise

would appear to be diametrically opposed to Auerbach's conception.

However, looking closely at Auerbach's chapter on the sublime, we see
that he makes a similar distinction between the true sublime and that
which resembles it only superficially. Near the end of this chapter, he
observes that Longinus's treatise represents a reaction against the type
of elevated style that Auerbach dubs "rhetorical sublimity." He associ
ates this vapid form with Senecan tragedy and the writings of Ovid,
who "allowed himself to be beguiled by rhetorical devices and tricks"
{LL 193). Echoing the well-known concluding section o? Peri hypsous, in
which Longinus attributes the decline of oratory to the decaying moral
character of Roman society, Auerbach argues that the sublime falls into
decadence when it comes under the sway of rhetoric.26 Thus, insofar as
he endeavors to disengage sublimity from rhetoric, Auerbach can be
said to be following Boileau's interpretation of Longinus. For Boileau's
diatribe against style is in fact an attack on rhetoric, which had fallen
into disrepute in seventeenth-century France.27

There are many occasions in Mimesis in which Auerbach explicitly

distinguishes sublimity not only from rhetoric but also from style. For
example, in the first chapter, commenting on the Old Testament, Auer
bach writes: "The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into
the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are
not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable" (M22-23). Here
"sublime" refers to a "realm," a domain of being rather than a category
of style. And in the section in which he discusses the mixture of styles in
the Gospels, Auerbach writes: "These significant passages are concerned
with the thing itself, not with its literary treatment. Sublimitas and humili

tas are here wholly ethico-theological categories, not aesthetico-stylistic

ones" (M 153). Discussing Dante, Auerbach observes: "beside them we

find formulations of the highest sublimity, which are also stylistically

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'sublime' in the antique sense" (M 184). And: "yet there is no denying

that Dante's conception of the sublime differs essentially from that of
his models, in respect to subject matter no less than to stylistic form"
(M 184) .28 In all of these instances, Auerbach shows that he is aware of
a difference between sublimity and the sublime style, even if he does
not theorize "the sublime" in an explicit manner.29
If we look closely at Boileau's preface, we can discern that behind the
separation of style (rhetoric) from sublimity there is a desire to demon
strate a continuity between sacred and secular literature?a procedure
that will also be consequential for Auerbach in Mimesis. Most famously,
Boileau cites Longinus's discussion of the fiat lux ("let there be light"?a
reference to the Old Testament that was unique in a rhetorical treatise
of this era written in Greek) as a prime example of how the sublime
style differed from the sublime proper. "For example: 'with a single word
the sovereign arbiter of nature created light.' This is indeed an example
of the sublime style; nevertheless it is not Sublime. . . . But now, says
God: 'Let there be light, and there was light.' This extraordinary turn
of phrase, which so effectively conveys the obedience of creation to the
words of the creator, is truly sublime and has something divine about
it."30 Boileau's association between divinity and sublimity has the effect
of blurring the category distinction between ancient (pagan) literature
and the Bible. Boileau sacralizes literature even as he rhetoricizes the
Bible. This move would antagonize some members of the clergy, such as
Pierre-Daniel Huet, who attacked Boileau in his Demonstratio evang?lica,
published in 1679.31 What roiled Huet was the implication that the word
of God could be subjected to the methodologies of literary analysis; thus,
according to Huet, the Bible cannot be considered sublime.

One of Auerbach's main objectives in Mimesis is to show how the

aesthetic structure of Biblical texts, namely the Gospels, provides a

model for realistic representation in secular literature. For this reason,

Auerbach is interested in the early polemics surrounding the fiat lux pas
sage in Longinus's treatise. In the context of a discussion of parataxis,

Auerbach writes:

An elevated style operating with paratactic elements is not, in itself, something

new in Europe. The style of the Bible has this characteristic. Here we may recall
the discussion concerning the sublime character [erhabenen Charakters] of the
sentence dixit que Deus: fiat lux, et facta est lux (Genesis 1.3) which Boileau and
Huet carried on in the seventeenth century in connection with the essay On the
Sublime [?ber die Erhabenheit] attributed to Longinus. The sublime [Das Erhabene]
in this sentence from Genesis is not contained in a magnificent display of rolling
periods nor in the splendor of abundant figures of speech but in the impressive
brevity which is in such contrast to the immense content and which for that very
reason has a note of obscurity which fills the listener with a shuddering awe.

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It is precisely the absence of causal connectives, the naked statement of what

happens?the statement which replaces deduction and comprehension by an

amazed beholding that does not even seek to comprehend?which gives the
sentence its grandeur. (M 110)32

Here Auerbach reinterprets Boileau's distinction between the sublime

style and the sublime as a distinction within the elevated style between
the paratactic and the nonparatactic. Auerbach draws a contrast between
"impressive brevity" and the "immense content"; sublimity occurs in
the disparity between what is said and what is signified. However, what
is this opposition between the paratactic and the nonparatactic if not
the difference between the true sublime, the mixture of humility and
height that characterizes Biblical writing, particularly the Gospels, and
the sublime style of pagan literature that consists in grand rhetoric? The
simple style of the Gospels derives from the extensive use of sublime
parataxis. The idea that the simple style can be a sort of grand style is
typical of Auerbach's dialectical intuitions.
When we come to the notion of the "mixture of styles," we are con

fronted with following problem: in what sense are the high and low
styles "mixed." Does this mean that they are fused with one another to
create a level that lies between them? Definitely not. As was remarked
above, Auerbach rejects the idea that the mixture of the high and the
low will result in a sort of middle or intermediate level of style. Nor does

Auerbach mean that the high and low should be mixed in the sense

that they are juxtaposed or arranged in the form of antitheses, as they

are in Shakespeare's plays or Victor Hugo's novels.33 Let us examine the
following passage: "In antique theory, the sublime and elevated style was
called sermo gravis or sublimisr, the low style was sermo remissus or humilis;

the two had to be kept strictly separated. In the world of Christianity,

on the other hand, the two are merged, especially in Christ's Incarna
tion and Passion, which realize and combine sublimitas and humilitas in

overwhelming measure" (M 151). The two styles were previously "sepa

rated" in the sense that one style could not grasp the subject matter that
belonged to the other by convention. Thus the mixture of styles is less
the mixture of one style with another than the relation between style
and content. As Ren? Wellek observes in his often-cited review essay of
Mimesis, the "mixture of styles" is directed against "the hierarchical view
of subject matters for art."34 What Auerbach means, then, is that the usual

correspondence between style and subject matter is broken:

The styles in which it was presented possessed little if any rhetorical culture in the
antique sense; it was sermo piscatorius and yet it was extremely moving and much
more impressive than the most sublime [h?chste] rhetorico-tragical literary work.

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And the most moving account of all was the Passion. That the King of Kings was
treated as a low criminal, that he was mocked, spat upon, whipped, and nailed
to the cross?that story no sooner comes to dominate the consciousness of the
people than it completely destroys the aesthetics of the separation of styles; it
engenders a new elevated [hohen] style, which does not scorn everyday life and
which is ready to absorb the sensorily realistic, even the ugly, the undignified,
the physically base. Or?if anyone prefers to have it the other way around?a
new sermo humilis is born, a low style, such as would probably only be applicable
to comedy, but which now reaches out far beyond its original domain, and
encroaches upon the deepest and the highest [H?chste], the sublime [Erhabene]

and the eternal. (M 72)

One could say that the mixture of the grand and humble styles creates
a new kind of "elevated" style, which is simple (paratactic, for example)
instead of ornate and which deals with everyday subjects; or one could
say the opposite: that a new "low" style is created which "encroaches
upon the deepest and the highest, the sublime and the eternal." It is
clear that Auerbach cannot conceptualize the mixture of styles except
in terms of one of the two opposing poles: a new "elevated" style that
comprehends the everyday; or a low style that contains the sublime. The
"mixture" is in fact a dialectic.35 The realism of the Gospels is produced by

this dynamic tension between opposites, this contamination of elements

that had heretofore been considered mutually exclusive: God and man;
sovereigns and slaves; religious ideas and the humble milieu.
It is thus as a dialectical entity that the sublime functions as a structural

category in Auerbach's scheme. It mediates between the stylistic and

the ethical, the aesthetic and the social, the historical and the political.
Erected around the two major events of Western history, the birth of
Christianity and the French Revolution, Auerbach's Mimesis is as much
a literary history?a history of literature?as it is a narrative of social
evolution. Hayden White speaks of a "two-fold order of changes" that
Auerbach's work addresses: "The manifest story told by Auerbach is of the
twofold order of changes that have taken place in the classical hierarchy
of literary (poetic or discursive) styles (high, middle, and low or humble)
and genres (tragedy, comedy, epic, romance, novel, history, essay, satire)

on the one side, and a social reality in which people are divided into
classes and treated as more or less human and consequently considered
to be more or less worthy of being represented as the subjects of these
styles and genres, on the other."36 The story of realism is the story of the

triumph of the notion of equality and the concomitant notion of human

dignity. As the average person attains a certain mobility with respect to
wealth, power, and social status and becomes more important in terms
of receiving equal treatment under the law and the right to political
representation, he demands serious representation of himself and his

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milieu. Literary history and social history interact through a common

structural force: dehierarchization. The dehierarchization of styles mir
rors the dehierarchization of society. But this dehierarchization is not
mere flattening. Just as the realist mixture of styles does not result in a
middle or intermediate style, the egalitarian society was not supposed to

announce the triumph of mediocrity (public opinion). Here we begin

to perceive the gulf that separates the negative social vision of the nine
teenth-century French novelists from the social achievement that made
their realistic aesthetic possible.
For Auerbach, however, it is not a matter of deciding whether literature

is an expression or instigator of social change. What is important to Auer

bach is how human reality shows itself at a particular moment, and how
this particular moment is related to other moments and to the historical
whole. These relations between part and whole?the very essence of struc
tural analysis?are best described as "figurai," as White argues, rather than
causal, as Frank Ankersmit asserts. Commenting on Auerbach, Ankersmit
writes that "the realist novel has immensely contributed, perhaps more
than any other individual factor, to the psychologization of twentieth
century man and to his readiness to embrace a democratic political order
based on the assumption that all people are equal."37 Even if Ankersmit
were right (and I am dubious about the influence he attributes to novels
that a relatively small portion of the population would have read), this
conclusion is far removed from Auerbach's methodology. In his essay,
"Auerbach's Literary History: Figurai Causation and Modernist Histori
cism," White takes what for Auerbach was a notion with a very specific
application (the figurai realism of the Middle Ages) and transforms it

into a general methodological principle (figurai interpretation). This

methodological principle is indeed the one that animates White's own
work on historical representation, which is why he entitled his most re
cent book Figurai Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. In this manner the

historical or contingent realism of Balzac and Stendhal can be seen as

the figurai fulfillment of the sublime realism of the Gospels: "Historical
things are related to one another as elements of structures of figuration
{Figuralstrukturen). This means that things historical can be apprehended
in their historicity only insofar as they can be grasped as elements of
wholes that, in both their synchronie and diachronic dimensions, are
related to their fulfillments."38 Beyond White's larger point that history
is essentially figurai in nature, the emphasis he places on the "structural"
element in figurai analysis is instructive. The structure of figures is also
a figurai structure. The structure is itself a figure that can leap over the
centuries and find its fulfillment in an unlikely place.

Due to its scope and structuring ambition, Auerbach's Mimesis can

be usefully considered alongside recent work in the history of religion,

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such as Marcel Gauchet's The Disenchantment of the World: A Political His

tory of Religion?9 Like Gauchet, Auerbach can be read as arguing for the
idea that Christianity contains the figure of its undoing. Gauchet says
famously that "Christianity is the religion of the end of religion" ("le
Christianisme est la religion de la sortie de la religion").40 On Gauchet's
account, Christianity contains the secret of the modern secular state: by
bringing transcendence down into the earthly realm of men, Christianity
allowed for a transcendental entity, the State, to emerge, dividing men
into the rulers and the ruled. The State gradually divests itself of any
otherworldly reference in the interest of its own power, hence secular
ism. The structural principle here is that of the sublime: transcendence

within immanence.

In a similar vein, political philosopher Alain Renaut describes how the

Christian idea of equality of all in relation to God first cohered with, but
then eventually triumphed over, the principle of social hierarchy:
It can easily be seen that this principle [of equality of all before God] contained
the seeds of modern individualism: because the principal of equality operated in
relation to God (that is, outside the world), it could thus coexist with a principal
of hierarchy (operating within the world). Medieval Christianity carried on this
ancient dualism, superimposing an otherworldly value of equality on the worldly,
holistic value that structured all social relations. For modern individualism to be
born, it was necessary for the individualistic and universalistic element in Chris
tianity to "contaminate" worldly life, so to speak, to the point that the worldly
and unworldly came to be gradually unified.41

On the aesthetic level, this unification is achieved through the notion of

the sublime, whose rise to prominence parallels the rise of individual
ism. From Auerbach's perspective, the "contamination" of which Renaut
speaks had occurred in exemplary fashion in the mixture of sublimity
and humility in the Gospels. To the extent that this new aesthetic comes
to "dominate the consciousness of the people" (as Auerbach remarked
in a passage quoted above), it has real and not merely literary-stylistic
effects. Thus in the case of the Gospels, the efficient causal and figurai
causal become one; for one can argue that the influence of the Gospels
is primordial for Western civilization: it is both its meaning and its es

The ur-structure of the sublime, the high within the low, travers

all boundaries that separate the domains of the social, the litera

the political, and the religious. Unique among aesthetic concepts, th

sublime connects different regional ontologies with one anothe

fundamental ways; for as we have already discussed, Auerbach is no l

concerned with the sociopolitical developments that form the backd
of his history of realism. For Auerbach, as for Renaut and Gauchet,
Gospels contain "the seeds of modern individualism." The realism of

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Gospels was a function of a reconfiguration in the relationship between

immanence and transcendence. The common realm of Jesus's milieu is
connected to the otherworldly realm of divine transcendence; low-born,
anonymous individuals are represented with dignity and nobility, in effect

performing aesthetically the religious ideas expounded in the text: the

meek will inherit the earth. Sublimity is democratized, or put another
way: the Gospels are an aesthetic realization of the notion of equality.
This aesthetic performative would have profound implications for the
development of modern realism.
The sublime in the figurai realism of the Middle Ages possessed an
essential ambiguity that allowed it to coexist with the feudal system?the
sublimation of Christian caritas into the chivalric romance, for example?
while still tending in the direction of social emancipation. Through the
notion of the figura, Christian thinkers were able to sustain the literal
truth of the New Testament. Efforts to allegorize or otherwise de-realize
the Gospels were rebuffed. Figurai realism was also seen by Christian

authors such as Dante as a way to link Biblical figures to mundane

events, so that those events or people, taken from the world in which
he lived, became themselves figures of Christian ideas (for example, of
conversion and salvation), without negating either their historicity or
their reality. Auerbach notes that "many important critics?and indeed
whole epochs of classicistic taste?have felt ill at ease with Dante's close

ness to the actual in the realm of the sublime" (M 185). This sublime
realism of figures, which had reached perfection in the Commedia, was
the cultural form that was best suited for the dissemination of Christian

thought: Christian populism mixed with sublime transcendence an

nounced a democratic humanism. Hence the title of Auerbach's first
book: Dante, Poet of the Secular World.42 In Mimesis he makes the dialectical

movement explicit: "Dante's work made man's Christian-figural being a

reality, and destroyed it in the very process of making it" (M 202). This
is why Auerbach regards Dante's Commedia as one of the two summits
of the history of realism?the other being the French realist novel of
the nineteenth century.
From a modern perspective, the literary impulses that emerged out of
the social upheaval of the French Revolution represent the most obvious
and spectacular break with the separation of styles (which had returned in
stricter form under the Ancien R?gime). Victor Hugo's preface to Cromwell

agitated for the mixture of the sublime and the grotesque; Stendhal's
Racine et Shakespeare advocated the aesthetic modernity of the latter over
the conservatism of the former; and novels such as Le P?re Goriot and Le
Rouge et le Noir elevated the sentimental novel by lending an existential
weight and historical depth to depictions of everyday life. However, it is
difficult to read Mimesis without concluding that for Auerbach the real

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driving force behind the development of realism, up to and including

its modern form, was the Gospels. As Auerbach writes in the epilogue to
Mimesis: "it was the story of Christ, with its ruthless mixture of everyday

reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy, which had conquered
the classical rule of styles" (A?555).

However much we may wish to read the contingent realism of the

nineteenth century as the aesthetic and social fulfillment of the Gospels,
the status of the sublime becomes problematic. Commenting on Hugo's

preface, Auerbach writes: "in Hugo's formula there is something too

pointedly antithetical; for him it is a matter of mixing the sublime and
the grotesque. These are both extremes of style which give no consid
eration to reality" (M468). This judgment may appear arbitrary, since

Auerbach praises Dante's Commedia precisely for this mixture of the

sublime and the grotesque: "Dante knows no limits in describing with
meticulous care and directness things that are humdrum, grotesque, or
repulsive. Themes which cannot possibly be considered sublime in the
antique sense turn out to be just that by virtue of his way of molding and

ordering them" (M184). One could argue that such exaggerated dialec
tics as those found in Dante are realistic within his particular worldview,
and that within a worldview based on the contingency of life, in which
the role of the transcendental is replaced by the social, the sublime has
less of a place; sharp dialectical contrasts are attenuated; random move

ments are emphasized.

But this solution is not really satisfactory. Auerbach generally tends to
underemphasize the extent to which the sublime plays a structuring role
in the realist authors he admires. One need look only at, for example,
Stendhal's contrast between amour-passion and amour-vanit?, Balzac's
rhetoric of sublimity in Eug?nie Grandet ("Eugenie ?tait sublime, elle ?tait
femme") and Le P?re Goriot ("le p?re Goriot est sublime") .43 Nevertheless,

there are a few passages in which Auerbach appears to recognize that

sublimity is an integral part of his conception of modern realism. Dis
cussing Zola, Auerbach writes: "There is indeed here, beyond all doubt,
great historical tragedy, a mixture of humileand sublimem which, because
of the content, the latter prevails. Statements like Maheu's {si Von avait
plus d'argent on aurait plus d'aise?or ?a finit toujours par des hommes so?ls
et par des filles pleines), not to mention his wife's, have come to be part of

the grand style" (M515; Auerbach's italics). The dialectic of the high
and the low is still the driving force of realistic representation, even in

Zola's grotesque version (naturalism). The sublime "prevails" because

Zola has completely internalized the Christian orientation toward the
victim, which consists in elevating the plight of those who suffer but who

are not responsible for their fate. In the association between the victim
and the sublime (which continues to orient our morality and politics),

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we have come full circle: realism finds its culmination and fulfillment
in the elevation of the humiliated masses that the Gospels first brought
to light.
Auerbach's unease with the sublime in modern realism is a function

of his desire to see realism as the gradual emergence of a historical

sensibility to the exclusion of any transcendental grounding. Contin
gent, historical being-in-the-world replaces the sublime or otherworldly
dimension that had previously supported the existential orientation of
realist representation. Society replaces religion; chance replaces fate:
"neither the antique nor the Christian nor the Shakespearian nor the
Racinian level of conception and expression could easily be transferred
to the new subjects; at first there was some uncertainty in regard to the
kind of serious attitude to be assumed" (M 481). As a critic, Auerbach
too is somewhat uncertain as to how the dialectic of the sublime and

the humble can inform the new historical sensibility that is modern
realism's distinctive marker.
Wellek?who, at the moment Auerbach was writing, represented the
school of "theory" in contradistinction to historicism?sees an irresolv

able conflict between Auerbach's simultaneous commitment to the

existential and the historical in modern realism. How are we to square,
as Auerbach puts it, "the entrance of existential and tragic seriousness
into realism, as we observe it in Stendhal and Balzac" (M481) with the
historical consciousness that distinguishes nineteenth-century French
realism from eighteenth-century English realism? Wellek writes: "Is there
not a contradiction between existence and history? Existence seems to
me by definition unhistorical. . . . Historicism, immersion in social and
political reality, contradicts existentialism.... It is precisely the 'historical'
realism of the French?with its reliance on milieu, moment, race, and
in its later stages in Zola, on a deterministic belief in heredity?which
rejects human freedom and the greatness of man's self-assertion in the
face of history and its forces. It is not tragic, not existential because it is
deterministic and fatalistic."44 For all of his acute insights, I think what
Wellek (and, for that matter, Auerbach) has perhaps missed is the mediat
ing role that the notion of the sublime plays in bridging the gap between
the existential and the historical in modern realism.45 The ahistorical or
structural element is the mixture of styles itself: the dialectic between
sublimitas and humilitas, which underlies all realistic representation in
Auerbach's sense. For it is precisely in the mixture of sublimity with
the everyday that a general human quality of being-in-the-world which
is universal comes to the fore. Thus the sublime is not an artificial con
struct, intended to produce a certain effect, but an essential part of the
concept of the human being as a self-transcending entity who can be
the subject of history. Just as Hegel's dialectic is the structural principle

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that underpins his historical methodology, the dialectic of the sublime

in the mixture of styles is what allows Auerbach's historicism to reach
its figurai fulfillment as literary history.

1 "Literary history has been so preoccupied with the setting of a work of literature that
its attempt at analysis of the works themselves have been slight in comparison with the
enormous efforts expended on the study of environment." Ren? Wellek and Austin War
ren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 139.

2 In fact, Auerbach himself attacks literary history in order to avoid being associated
with its most indefensible aspects: "It is true that many scholars, including some to whom
we owe a great deal, became so absorbed in specialization that they forgot the purpose
of their efforts; but this cannot be taken as an argument against a philosophical outlook
which unfortunately they have lost. It is true, too, that preoccupation with biographical
detail, and above all the endeavor to interpret all literary productions as biographical in
the most literal sense, are exceedingly na?ve and often absurd." Erich Auerbach, Literary
Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton

Univ. Press, 1965), 12 (hereafter cited as LL).

3 One striking contrast between continental Europe and the United States lies in their
different attitudes toward what counts as doctoral research. In France, for example, it is
perfectly acceptable to offer as one's doctoral thesis a critical edition of a text that one has

translated. This would be unacceptable in any American university, where the doctoral dis
sertation must represent an "original contribution" to the existing body of knowledge.
4 This is not to say that historical approaches to literature have not flourished in certain
contexts in the American academy. Scholarly research is always and necessarily "historicist"
in the broadest sense of the term. It would be instructive here to compare the way in which
verbal artifacts are treated with respect to the visual and plastic arts. There are departments
of "Art History" in every major university, and this appellation is ostensibly designed to

distinguish the study of actual works of art from the practice of creating them. But no
literature department is called "Literary History," even though it must in many cases be
separated from "creative writing."
5 As Auerbach notes, Romance philology finds its inspiration in the German historicist
tradition inaugurated by Herder, reaching its zenith in Hegel.
6 Auerbach writes: "European civilization is approaching the term of its existence; its
history as a distinct entity would seem to be at an end, for already it is beginning to be
engulfed in another, more comprehensive unity. Today, however, European civilization is
still a living reality within the range of our perception. Consequently ... we must today
attempt to form a lucid and coherent picture of this civilization and its unity. I have always
tried, more and more resolutely as time went on, to work in this direction, at least in my

approach to the subject matter of philology, namely literary expression" {LL 6).
7 Up until fairly recently, Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948)
was one of the most cited books in humanistic studies; but his magnum opus has largely
been eclipsed by Auerbach's Mimesis.
8 Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R.
Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953). All quotes from Mimesis will refer to
this edition and will be cited in text and notes as M. I have also consulted the German
original: Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirlichkeit in der abenl?ndischen Literatur (T?bingen and Basel:

A. Franke Verlag, 1946). A fiftieth anniversary edition of the English translation was pub

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lished by Princeton University Press in 2003 with a different typeset and pagination, and
a new introduction by Edward Said.
9 On Auerbach's importance and place in literary studies, see, in particular, Geoffrey
Green, Literary Criticism and the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer (Lincoln:

Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1982). See also: Seth Lerer, ed., Literary History and the Challenge
of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996); David

Damrosch, "Auerbach in Exile," Comparative Literature 47, no. 2 (1995): 97-117; Emily
Apter, "Global Translatio: The 'Invention' of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933,"
Critical Inquiry 29, no. 2 (2003): 253-81. Most recently, Auerbach's work has become part
of the debate around postcolonial theory. See Paul Reitter, "Comparative Literature in
Exile: Said and Auerbach," in Exile and Otherness: New Approaches to the Experience of the Nazi

Refugees, ed. Alexander Stephen (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005): 21-30.

10 Auerbach was heavily influenced by the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher
Giambattista Vico, of whom he wrote: "what remains significant in [Vico's thought] is his
idea of the structure of history." Thus Vico's historical methodology in Scienza nuova is at
the origin of the tension between the structural and the historical that permeates?and
perhaps haunts?Auerbach's work in general, and Mimesis in particular. Auerbach offers
a tribute to Vico's influence in his methodological introduction to Literary Language and
Its Public, in which he remarks that Vico's work "remains an irreplaceable prototype" {LL
13) for his own.
11 I should note, however, that the ontological conception of mimesis is not completely
absent from Auerbach's thinking. In the epilogue, which appeared in a subsequent edition
of Mimesis, Auerbach confides that his "original starting point was Plato's discussion in
book 10 of the Republic?mimesis ranking third after truth?in conjunction with Dante's
assertion that in the Commedia he presented true reality" (M554). The relation between
this "starting point" and where he ended up is not really explained.
12 In his introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Mimesis, Said observes that
"from a contemporary standpoint there is something impossibly na?ve, if not outrageous,
that hotly contested terms like 'Western,' 'reality,' and 'representation'?each of which
has recently brought forth literally acres of disputatious prose among critics and philoso
phers?are left to stand on their own, unadorned and unqualified." Said, "Introduction
to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition" of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western
Literature, by Auerbach (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2003), xxxii. Ren? Wellek
is similarly outraged: "I cannot help feeling that Mr. Auerbach's extreme reluctance to
define his terms and to make his suppositions clear from the outset has impaired the ef
fectiveness of the book. It certainly has given rise, to judge from the reviews I have seen,
to an interminable series of misunderstandings. Mr. Auerbach . . . goes so far as to wish
that it had been possible for him not to use 'general expressions' at all, that he had been
able to suggest his idea purely through the presentation of a series of particulars. But this
conception of criticism and scholarship seems an extremely dangerous one. It certainly
would open the door to unlimited idiosyncrasies and would defeat the idea of scholarship
as a transmissible, continuous body of knowledge." Wellek, "Auerbach's Special Realism,"
Kenyon Review 16, no. 2 (1954): 304-5.
13 Thus I think that Frank Ankersmit takes Auerbach too much at his word when he
writes the following: "realism only exists for him in the many variants in which it has shown
itself in the course of the long history investigated in this book; all that we can meaning
fully do is tell the narrative of its history." Ankersmit, Historical Representation (Stanford,

CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2002), 198. This merely begs the question, for one must have a
definition of realism that remains stable over time in order to be able to apply the term
as generally as Auerbach does.
14 Thus it is difficult to square Auerbach's self-understanding of his methodology with
his actual practice, as when he writes the following: "The starting point should not be a

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category which we ourselves impose on the material, to which the material must be fitted,
but a characteristic found in the subject itself, essential to its history, which, when stressed
and developed, clarifies the subject matter in its particularity and other topics in relation
to it" {LL 19). Reading Mimesis as a response to contemporary European realities, Geoffrey

Green observes that "Auerbach was proceeding from certain valued concepts which, far
from being detached and relativistic for him, were urgently important and ideologically
crucial . . . Auerbach attempted to outline the path of past history and then to use his
version of history as a fortress?an arsenal?from which he could wage a passionate and
vehement war against the possible flow of history in his time." Green, Literary Criticism and
the Structures of History, 14-15.

15 This is the way in which Auerbach distinguishes eighteenth- from nineteenth-century

realism. Cf. M 410-11.

16 In fact, when one looks up the term "sublime" in the index of the German or English
edition of Mimesis, no page references are provided. Instead one is referred elsewhere:
"see style, humilitas'' (M562). In the German edition, one is referred to Stilmischung, the
mixture of styles.
17 An exception would be Ankersmit's essay "Why Realism," which I referred to earlier.
(It is reprinted in Historical Representation.) I consider Ankersmit's discussion highly prob
lematic, however, and will return to it later in this essay.

18 In an intriguing essay on Auerbach's reading of Boccaccio, Albert Ascoli notes how

Auerbach's concept of style often becomes fused with content: "for Auerbach, who begins
by insisting that Boccaccio's realism is primarily a rhetorical and stylistic effect, in the end
there is little that separates the 'realism' of style from the natural and eroticized realities
of a newly secular world." Ascoli, "Boccaccio's Auerbach: Holding the Mirror Up to Mime
sis,'" Studi sul Boccaccio 20 (1991-92): 390. Furthermore, the literary-rhetorical concept of
style must be distinguished from the notion of style as "the unity of all the products of an
historical epoch" which, as the "companion piece" to historicism, represents, according
to Auerbach, "the Copernican discovery in the sciences of man" {LL 10). The notion of
style as aesthetic ideology (for example, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Baroque), while it
guides Auerbach's interpretative insights, has relatively little to do with the literary-rhetori
cal meaning that is at the core of Auerbach's conception of realism.
19 Though Longinus's treatise has been traditionally translated as On the Sublime, many
other renditions of the title have been proposed. Monroe Beardsley, in his monumental
history of aesthetics, believes that On Elevation in Poetry would best capture the meaning of
Peri hypsous. Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History (New York:

Macmillan, 1966), 76. In his translation of Longinus, G. M. A. Grube dispenses with the term
sublime altogether! Drawing his inspiration from Welsted's translation of 1712 (London),
which renders the title as On the Sovereign Perfection of Great Writing, Grube translates Peri
hypsous as On Great Writing. Grube notes that not only is sublime a misleading translation
of hypsos, but the word hypsos itself can be misleading, since it was used by Dionysius of

Halicarnassus to describe the grand style. "For the purposes of this translation, we shall
be much closer to the meaning of hypsos and its derivatives and synonyms throughout if
we render them by a quite general word such as 'greatness' or 'great writing' and the
like." Longinus, On Great Writing, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1991),
xi. The use of the word "sublime" in connection with Longinus's treatise only came into
general use after Boileau's translation had been widely disseminated.
20 Interestingly, Auerbach places a quote from Longinus (9.2) at the head of his chapter:
"Sublimity is the echo of elevation of thought" {LL 181).
21 Ernst Curtius, European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983), 398.
22 Longinus, On the Sublime, ed. and trans. W. Rhys Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge

Univ. Press, 1907), 23.

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23 Donald Russell, introduction to On the Sublime, trans. W. H. Fyfe, rev. Russell, in
Aristotle: "Poetics, " Longinus: "On the Sublime, " Demetrius: "On Style, " Loeb Classical Library

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), 153.

24 In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Boileau commanded great
respect and attention among European literati. He was considered an unimpeachable
authority on matters literary, and thus his endorsement of Longinus was enough to propel
the unknown Greek critic into instant notoriety.

25 My translation of: "Il faut donc savoir que par Sublime, Longin n'entend pas ce que
les orateurs appellent le style sublime: mais cet extraordinaire et ce merveilleux qui frappe
dans le discours, et qui fait qu'un ouvrage enl?ve, ravit, transporte. Le style sublime veut
toujours de grands mots; mais le Sublime peut se trouver dans une seule pens?e, dans une
seule figure, dans un seul tour de paroles." Longinus, Trait? du sublime, trans. Boileau, ed.
and intro. Francis Goyet (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1995), 70.
26 Like Longinus, Auerbach's conception of sublimity is ethical at bottom. The mixture
of sublimity and humility demonstrates the moral superiority of the Gospels to pagan
literature, which stems from the democratic conception of man instituted through the
mixture of sublimitas and humilitas.
27 The rejection of ornate or bombastic rhetoric cohered with the stated ideal of simplicity
in neoclassical poetics. Longinus's preference for Atticism over Asianism is transformed in

seventeenth-century France into the quarrel between classicism and the baroque. George
Kennedy observes that "[Longinus's treatise] certainly belongs to the classicizing, Atticizing
movement of this whole period." Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton,

NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), 192. Boileau found in Longinus a powerful ally in his
effort to Atticize French eloquence.
28 Auerbach sees Dante as heralding a rebirth of the sublime; the Divine Comedy represents
a "revival of ancient sublimity in a new creation" {LL 232). However, he also observes that
the "sublime style of antiquity was not revived by pure imitation, but sprang anew from

a new world of which the ancient masters knew nothing" {LL 233). It is the personal
element in Dante, a nascent individualism, enabled by what Auerbach calls figurai real
ism?correspondence between the concrete and the ideal, the historical particular and
the transcendental universal?that makes possible the rebirth of sublimity at the dawn of

the modern age.

29 One could conclude that Auerbach's use of the term sublime is too unreliable to draw
out any theoretical implications. Or one could simply assume that Auerbach has something
particular in mind when he uses the term, which, while never made explicit, is nevertheless

determinant for his thought as a whole.

30 My translation of: "Par exemple, le souverain arbitre de la nature d'une seule parole forma
la lumi?re. Voil? qui est dans le style sublime ; cela n'est pas n?anmoins Sublime. . . . Mais,
Dieu dit: Que la lumi?re se fasse, et la lumi?re se fit. Ce tour extraordinaire d'expression qui

marque si bien l'ob?issance de la cr?ature aux ordres du cr?ateur, est v?ritablement Su

blime, et a quelque chose de divin." Trait? du Sublime, 72.
31 For an excellent discussion of this debate, see Gilles Declercq, "Boileau-Huet: la Que
relle du Fiat lux" Biblio 77 83 (1994): 237-62.
32 Note that Auerbach uses the term sublime much in the same way that Boileau does: "the

sublime in this sentence." The sublime is a substantive, not an adjective referring to the
sentence itself or to its style. In addition, Auerbach makes a gesture toward the subjective
pole of sublimity?its effect on the audience?which was deemed an intrinsic part of the
notion by both Longinus and Boileau: "fills the listener with a shuddering awe."
33 In Macbeth, for instance, the murder of King Duncan is followed immediately by the
comic scene with the porter. I will return to Hugo's aesthetics at the end of this essay.

34 Wellek, "Auerbach's Special Realism," 301.

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35 Auerbach often qualifies his historical methodology as "dialectical," but not in terms
of the mixture of styles: "Romantic historicism created a dialectical conception of man,
dialectical because it was based on a diversity of national individualities; it was profounder
and more realistic than the concept of man put forward by the pure Enlightenment with
its unhistorical and undialectical approach" {LL 5).
36 Hayden White, Figurai Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (Baltimore, MD: Johns

Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999), 98.

37 Ankersmit, Historical Representation, 209.

38 White, Figurai Realism, 99.

39 Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, trans.

Oscar B?rge, fwd. Charles Taylor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997).
40 See, for instance, Gauchet, Disenchantment, 101, where the translator renders the phrase

thus: "A Religion for Departing from Religion."

41 Alain Renaut, The Era of the Individual: A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity, trans.

M. B. Debevoise and Franklin Philip (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997), 34.
42 More literarily, Auerbach's title should be rendered: Dante, Poet of the Earthly World
{Dante als Dichter der irdischen Welt). A new edition of this work has just been published:
Dante, Poet of the Secular World, trans. Ralph Manheim, intro. Michael Dirda (New York:
New York Review of Books, 2007).

43 Honor? de Balzac, Eug?nie Grandet, ed. Eleonore Roy-Reverzy (Paris: Flammarion,

2000), 137, and Le P?re Goriot, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex (Paris: Garnier Fr?res, 1963),


44 Wellek, "Auerbach's Special Realism," 306-7.

45 I believe that Geoffrey Green has it basically right when he asserts that "the value of
the humanistic outlook of Christianity was partially caused by its existential stance: it si
multaneously existed in history and outside of it. Auerbach refers to this quality in what he
terms the sublimity of Genesis 1.3." Green, Literary Criticism and the Structures of History, 48.

But there is still the problem of what to do with contingent (that is, French) realism.

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