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Auerbach and the Contradictions of Realism

Jacques Rancière

To address the issue of realism in Mimesis I will use the same method
that Erich Auerbach used when he addressed the issue of “the represen-
tation of reality in Western literature.”1 Auerbach gave no preliminary def-
inition of either reality or representation. He started from the “thing itself ”:
two narratives borrowed from two books that had long been given a found-
ing role in the western literary tradition: the Odyssey and the Bible (M, p. 153).
In the same way, I will give no preliminary account of what realism means
to me. I will start by focussing on a narrative: the interpretive narrative of
the first chapter of Mimesis, wherein Auerbach tells us what the two nar-
ratives that he has selected reveal. I hope that, in my case as in Auerbach’s
case, the very development of the analysis will show that starting from “the
thing itself,” and constructing the interpretive categories from this “thing,”
is itself a method with some philosophical and political implications.
The argument of the first chapter is well known. At a highly dramatic
moment in the Odyssey, when Euryclea has just recognized the scar that
identifies her master Ulysses, Homer takes the time to make a long digres-
sion about the history of the wound. With a luxury of adjectives, he de-
scribes to us the visit of the young Odysseus to his uncle Autolycus, Auto-
lycus’s house, the banquet, the sleep and the awakening, the hunt, the
struggle with the boar, and the wound. He does not describe them, how-
ever, as memories in Ulysses’ mind. He describes them in the same tempo-
ral mode as the present washing of his feet by Euryclea. All those events are
on the same level, in the same light; all the feelings of the characters are
made explicit; all the elements of the story are fully externalized so as to

1. See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans.
Willard R. Trask (1946; Princeton, N.J., 2003); hereafter abbreviated M.

Critical Inquiry 44 (Winter 2018)


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228 Jacques Rancière / The Contradictions of Realism
make them palpable and visible without any obscure background; all of
them are perfectly articulated as regards both the narrative connection of
the events and the syntactic order of the sentences. It is a fully opposite sce-
nario that can be observed in another narrative of travel: the travel that God
demands that Abraham make to the place where he must sacrifice his son
Isaac. We don’t know where the protagonists of the scene stand, why God
imposes this ordeal on Abraham, or what Abraham feels about God’s order;
we have no description of the travel, of the servants who go with Abraham
and Isaac, of the place of the sacrifice. There are no descriptive adjectives.
There is only an abstract succession of events expressed in a rudimentary
syntax. Almost everything remains in the background, untold, unexpressed,
unexplained. This lack of light and presence, however, is precisely that which
gives to the characters and situations a depth that the entirely individualized
characters and the objective situations of the Odyssey could not attain. It re-
fers them to a vertical dimension, a historical dimension, exactly opposed
to the overall horizontal connection, in Homer’s epic. Schematic as this sum-
mary may be, it allows us to make two comments that help us outline the
specificity of Auerbach’s method. The first one deals with the very con-
struction of the diptych Odyssey/Bible. That construction might seem to
follow a tradition initiated in the age of enlightenment and developed in
the context of Romanticism and German idealism. That tradition created
a symmetry between the epic, thought of as the book of a people’s life, and
the Bible, thought of as the poetry of the ancient Jews. But Auerbach breaks
the happy concordance that made the religious text and the epic poem equiv-
alent expressions of a people’s life. He shows a radical gap between the two
texts. The point is not about religion or about the people, it is about nar-
ration itself. Homer and the Bible present us with seemingly incompatible
narratives. And it is from that very incompatibility that we have to rethink
the possible link between literature and people.
The second point deals with this incompatibility itself. At first sight the
opposition between the leisurely description of Ulysses’s wound and the
dramatic narration of the sacrifice of Isaac may remind us of an opposition
made, some years before, by another literary theorist dealing with realism
and its political significance. In 1936 Georg Lukács wrote his polemical text
“Narrate or Describe?”2 He too started in medias res by comparing two par-
allel episodes in two novels: a horse race in Émile Zola’s Nana and another
2. See Georg Lukács, “Narrate or Describe?” Writer and Critic, trans. and ed. Arthur Kahn
(London, 1970), pp. 111–48.

Ja cqu e s Ra n ciè re is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of


Paris-VIII, St. Denis.

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2018 229
horse race in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Zola objectively described the
scene with vivid detail; it was a picture from the point of view of a spectator
but also a picture that could have been omitted without damage to the
story. On the contrary, Tolstoy’s horse race was dramatized by the fall of
a protagonist, Vronsky, under the eyes of his lover Anna, who was observed
herself by her husband Karénine. Such was the realistic method that in-
cluded any detail in the whole of an action determined by the interconnec-
tion of active beings in quest of their destiny, an interconnection that, by the
same token, made the reader aware of the broader interconnections of the
social totality. Zola’s descriptive method, on the other hand, was naturalistic.
He presented things, characters, and situations as a collection of details,
separated from the whole that would give them life and meaning. In such
a way the so-called objectivity of naturalism paved the way for the formalistic
and subjectivist dissolution of reality in twentieth-century novels.
Auerbach’s opposition of the leisurely description of Ulysses’s wound to
the intense historical drama of Abraham may seem to echo Lukacs, but it
soon turns out that it completely dismantles its logic. It is no more possible
to tell the right method of the interconnected totality from the wrong method
of the detail.
There are two kinds of totality. There is Homer’s way of adding detail to
detail to build a well-articulated totality: a reality that is defined as such by
the very fact that there is no question as to whether this “reality” is real; in
fact it is self-sufficient. On the other side, the dramatic narration of the sac-
rifice is entirely paratactic, deprived of connections. It is this very lack of
horizontal connections that makes it part of a historical totality, a totality
that the text is unable to construct, that it has to presuppose as a truth. The
opposition is thus an opposition between two totalities, which also entails
several suboppositions and contradictions. On the one hand, the vivid de-
scriptions of the Homeric method, which puts things and events under the
eyes of the reader, have a lesser sensible power than the elusive biblical nar-
ration that leaves almost everything in the dark; on the other hand, the very
gap between the visible of the narrative and the invisible of the historical
drama that gives the latter its sensory power opens a wide space. But the very
emptiness of this space needs to be filled by interpretation whose abstractions
and allegories compromise this concrete power and so on and so forth. The
opposition between the two modes of narration is an opposition between
two totalities. But each presents a lack. The first one lacks depth, and the
second one lacks clarity. Lukacs’s interpretive model, then, is dismantled.
But the same is true for the model that stands at the background of both
Lukacs’s and Auerbach’s interpretations; I mean the Hegelian opposition be-
tween classical art and symbolic art that was also an opposition between two

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230 Jacques Rancière / The Contradictions of Realism
kinds of community. In Auerbach’s interpretation, there is no classicism,
no form of art expressing, through its self-sufficiency, the substantial life
of a community. It is in their insufficiency—Homer’s lack of depth or the
Bible’s lack of clarity—that each mode of narration is related to the life of
a people. From the very beginning, Auerbach makes reality a problem and
locates realism at the crossroads of a multiplicity of diverging or opposite
criteria: vividness of the description; magnitude of the world that it covers;
mundanity of the situations that it describes; capacity for conjuring up the
invisible behind the visible; rationality of the connection of events; power
of the emotions that are conveyed; concordance between a mode of presen-
tation and its object, between the vision of the writer and the society that
gives the writer a position as a writer; and so on. One commentator, for ex-
ample, found twenty-one different meanings of the word realism in the book.
But what is at stake is not so much realism, and how often it is men-
tioned and used in the book, as it is the sense of reality and the ways in
which it perpetually comes into conflict with other senses of reality. Take,
for instance, the ways in which the magical relationship that Ammien Mar-
cellin establishes between the events that he narrates allows him to introduce
for the first time the sensory element into high style. And even the incapacity
of Grégoire de Tours to make any sense of the tortuous history of the rela-
tionships between Sichaire and Chramnesinde still manages to reveal de
Tours’s capacity to express the chaos of the society in which he writes, a
society that has lost at the same time the interpretive patterns of human ac-
tions and its rhetorical forms. In such a way, the history of the representa-
tion of reality, far from any politically oriented teleology, is a trip amongst
various and contradictory senses of reality in which there is always some-
thing gained in compensation for what is lost and something lost in com-
pensation for what is gained.
This chaotic trip, however, is read through a clear grid of oppositions that
is carefully constructed in the first two chapters. The first chapter sets up
the issue of the representation of reality as the tension between two axes: a
horizontal axis on which all situations, events, characters, thoughts, and
feelings are brought to light so as to construct an autonomous, self-sufficient
reality; and a vertical axis that the very gaps, shadows, and disconnections
of the narration conjure up as the background that gives the events their
meaning and the characters their consistency. The way in which the oppo-
sition is set up makes the history of the representation of reality oscil-
late between two scenarios: a scenario of irreducible divergence and a sce-
nario of convergence that adjusts the two axes so as to define a homogeneous
system of coordinates. This indecision is increased further when the sec-
ond chapter puts into play a new pair of opposites that had not been taken

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2018 231
into account by Lukács: the opposition between low and high. The point
is not only to know whether the events are articulated on a horizontal or a
vertical axis. It is to know who can be represented and in what way on this
or that axis. Lukács left this issue aside when he opposed good realism
to bad naturalism. This oblivion was by no means incidental; when he op-
posed narration to description, Lukács was still in line with a hierarchy that
dates back to Aristotle. In the ninth book of the Poetics, Aristotle opposed
poetry, which is an arrangement of actions according to necessity or veri-
similitude, to the chronicle, which merely tells things as they happen, one
after another. This hierarchy between two forms of connection clearly rests
on a hierarchy between two kinds of human beings: those who live in the
noble sphere of action and those who stay in the sphere of prosaic every-
day life. Auerbach did not comment on Aristotle’s distinction, but from the
very beginning he linked the issue of realism with the issue of the con-
nection between a kind of subject and a specific modality of narration. For
him the perfect horizontal connection, the profusion of epithets and the
self-sufficient reality displayed by the Homeric epic, is the expression of an
immobile social hierarchy. The realistic conquest entails the disruption of
this self-sufficient reality and that the well-articulated connections be dis-
rupted by the force of an obscure movement called history. Moreover it en-
tails that the travel into the depths include those who live in the depths of
society, in the obscure world where things happen in the unpoetic way
pinpointed by Aristotle, one after another, day after day. It entails the dis-
ruption of the hierarchical regime of the fiction in which elevated people
deserve the high genres of tragedy and epic and the dignity of the sermo sub-
limis, while ordinary people are doomed to the prosaic genres of comedy
and satire and to the simplicity of the sermo humilis.
In such a way the grid must be complicated: the horizontal connection
ties up with the vertical dimension of a traditional social hierarchy; the egal-
itarian subversion of this vertical hierarchy ties up with another verticality,
the one that plunges the everyday into the hidden forces whose connec-
tion builds the movement of history. This is what appears when we move
from the Old to the New Testament. The indeterminate character of the
man called by God’s order becomes the determinate social character of the
humble Galilean fisherman wrested from his nets by the living predication
of the word made flesh. While Petronius could only represent the new his-
torical character of the emancipated slave in the prosaic genre of the satire,
and Tacitus used the forms of elevated rhetoric to tell the reasons a sol-
diers’ rebellion that he himself considered devoid of any good reason, the
sacred writer locates in the prosaic decor of the everyday an event that ex-
plodes the very distinction between the chronicle of the everyday and the

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232 Jacques Rancière / The Contradictions of Realism
poetic arrangement of noble actions: the birth of an intense spiritual move-
ment in the depths of the low people, a birth witnessed by the very tempest
that takes place in the brain of one of those men who were not supposed to
have a mind made to experience such tempests. What comes forth with Pe-
ter is the character that will be at the center of the literary revolution, the
random individual belonging to the low classes of society who accedes to
the problematic and tragic experience of history. Let us call him the tragic
popular character (see M, p. 491).
The literary conquest of realism then appears to be the conjunction of
two movements connecting surface and depth: the movement that includes
the visible surface of the events within the development of a historical pro-
cess and the movement that brings all people, regardless of their social el-
evation, to an equal surface of visibility. From the very beginning the con-
junction of these two movements proves problematic. In The Flesh of Words
I emphasized the paradox implied by Auerbach’s reading of Peter’s denial: to
make of Peter’s tempest in a skull the starting point of a literary revolution,
Auerbach must deny any “literary” intention in Mark’s narration.3 He must
make it the plain record of what a witness has seen, which means that he
has to leave aside that which gives to the event and to the writing their his-
torical dimension: the fact that Peter’s denial had been announced by Christ
and that it had been announced as the confirmation of the words of Zech-
ariah’s prophecy: “I will hit the shepherd and the cattle will be dispersed”
(Zech. 13:7). The process that gives to the fisherman an interiority that
makes him equal to the noble heroes of epic or tragedy presupposes his be-
longing to the truth of a historical movement of revelation. The two dimen-
sions—the unfolding of a whole historical process and the revelation of the
aptitude of any humble worker to the inner wrenches of tragic heroes—are
strictly interconnected, which also means that the “plain record” of what
happened to Peter in a popular inn is also the demonstration of the truth
of the Old Testament’s prophecy, which means the demonstration of the
truth of the New Testament that accomplishes its prophecies. This part of
the demonstration however is left aside by Auerbach in order to emphasize
the plain physical evidence of the apparition on the stage of universal his-
tory of the random individual becoming a tragic or problematic popular
character. In such a way, the depth of the historical process of the accom-
plishment of truth and the depth of the problematic popular character whose
connection is strictly required start parting with each other from the very
beginning. It is no coincidence that the story that must epitomize the very

3. See Jacques Ranciere, The Flesh of Words, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford, Calif.,
2004), pp. 71–93.

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2018 233
conjunction of the historical revelation and the popular elevation is a story
of denial. In his early text on Dante Alighieri, Auerbach had interpreted
Peter’s denial as evidence of the “contradictory character that dominates the
story of Jesus,” which in fact was the story of a “lamentable failure” for which
the vision of the future spiritual kingdom of God was a compensation.4
Mimesis shifts the focus and emphasizes the positivity of the spiritual rev-
elation whose strength is efficient in the very strength of the denial. But it
does so at the cost of brushing aside the history of the scripture within which
it takes place.
It might be said that the historical process at issue in the case of Peter’s
denial is only a matter of religious belief and that a change occurs when
the movement of history is wrested from the grip of religious teleology and
becomes the scientific interconnection of economic and social forces. At
this point it seems that the rationality of the global historical process, which
is the rationality of class struggle, and the rise of the tragic popular char-
acter coincide in the advent of the great realistic novel, locating this char-
acter at the center of the interconnections of global history. But this is not
what happens. Instead the last chapters of Mimesis make the conjunction
highly problematic. I wish to show this by looking at two chapters, one of
which focuses on the emergence of the modern realistic novel, while the
other focuses on its last accomplishment. The chapter “In the Hôtel de la
Mole” emphasizes the radical turn operated by Stendhal’s The Red and the
Black. In his previous chapter, devoted to Friedrich Schiller and Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe, Auerbach had formulated one among the many
contradictions that get in the way of the development of modern realism:
eighteenth-century Germany had laid the “aesthetic foundation of modern
realism” (M, p. 443). Those foundations had been set up by the new histor-
icist interpretation of the world that shows each epoch as a totality of life,
recognizable “in the familiar setting of popular everyday life” as well as in
the elevated social spheres (M, p. 161). In such a way every present can ap-
pear as a fragment of a global historical process animated by the play of
deep social forces. But this intellectual lead was cancelled by the belated-
ness of the immobile social structure that was at the background of Schil-
ler’s dramas and Goethe’s novels.
I don’t know whether Auerbach was familiar with Karl Marx’s work. But
this relationship between German intellectual advancement and German
social belatedness irresistibly evokes the dilemma spelled out by the young
Marx in his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And

4. Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York, 2007),
pp. 13, 12.

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234 Jacques Rancière / The Contradictions of Realism
it comes as no surprise that, just as it happened in Marx’s text, the solu-
tion to the quandaries of the German head is provided by the activity of the
French heart. Nineteenth-century France played, Auerbach says, the most
important part in the rise and “development of modern realism,” character-
ized by two main features: first, “the serious treatment of everyday reality,
the rise of more extensive and socially inferior human groups to the posi-
tion of subject matter for problematic-existential representation,” then “the
embedding of random [beliebiger] persons and events in the general course
of contemporary history” (M, pp. 472, 491). The story of Julien Sorel, the son
of a carpenter, who, in the wake of the French Revolution that has upset the
whole edifice of social hierarchy, sets out to climb to the top of the social
ladder, seems perfectly fit for initiating the task of the French literary cen-
tury by exactly linking the rise of the plebeian to the dignity of “problem-
atic” “subject matter” of fiction with the description of the transforma-
tions that produce a new society: “Insofar as the serious realism of modern
times cannot represent man otherwise than as embedded in a total reality,
political, social, and economic, which is concrete and constantly evolving . . .
Stendhal is its founder” (M, p. 463).
Convinced as we are in advance by the logic of the demonstration, we
can’t help feeling some perplexity when we look at the example that Auer-
bach chose in order to demonstrate that perfect fit. It is a rather insignificant
discussion in which Sorel expresses the boredom that he feels at attending
the diners at the Marquis de la Môle’s table. Still more disconcerting is the
reason that he gives for the choice of this passage. It would be, he says, “almost
incomprehensible without a most accurate and detailed knowledge of the
political situation, the social stratification, and the economic circumstances
of a perfectly definite historical moment,” the moment of the monarchic res-
toration in France between 1815 and 1830 (M, p. 455). It is a strange argu-
ment. We would expect Auerbach to make the opposite argument: that fic-
tion makes us understand history. But he doesn’t. What makes the case still
stranger is that the historical fact that has to be understood is simply “bore-
dom” (M, p. 455). The boredom that Julien feels, Auerbach tells us, is a spe-
cific historically determined one, the boredom of aristocratic salons in the
time of the Restoration where no interesting subject—either political or ideo-
logical—can be discussed because any such subject would conjure up the
ghost of the recent revolution and the threat of the next one. In such a
way the global, political, economic, and social reality in perpetual evolution
that realistic fiction should allow us to feel in everyday reality is present only
in absentia. The global historical evolution is the absent cause that explains
why no aspect of this evolution can take flesh in the salon of the Marquis de
la Môle. And the young plebeian whose career should reveal the play of the

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2018 235
forces that compose a society reveals only one thing about this society: it’s
boring. Auerbach assumes that this boredom is the feeling that Stendhal
himself, a “son of the ancien régime grande bourgeoisie,” fond of the aristo-
cratic manners and enlightened spirit of the eighteenth-century elites, expe-
rienced before the meanness of the postrevolutionary society and of its “ma-
terial” interests (M, pp. 464, 461). He makes it, in short, another case of the
Franco-German paradox, another case of discrepancy between the move-
ment of society and the movement of thought. I think there is a more in-
teresting way of thinking about boredom by focussing on Stendhal’s char-
acter and fiction rather than on the psychology of their creator. It is not
incidental that this issue of boredom looms over the whole chapter devoted
to the French invention of modern realism. It is also through a scene of ev-
eryday boredom that Auerbach addresses Gustave Flaubert’s realism. The
description of the boring lunchtime in the Bovary house does not seem
however to be very appropriate to “the embedding of random [quelconques]
persons and events in the general course of contemporary history” character-
istic of the nineteenth-century realistic French novel. Or rather there would be
a way of making boredom a core issue in this “embedding” and to make it
socially significant. This would only require a slight shift in focus; what is so-
cially significant is not so much the fact that social life is boring either in the
salons of the declining aristocracy or in the petty-bourgeois provincial small
towns as it is the fact that a carpenter’s son or a farmer’s daughter can expe-
rience boredom. Boredom is a luxury that workers’ sons and farmers’ daugh-
ters normally cannot afford. In passing, there is at least one author who felt
that there was something wrong in this access of workers’ children to the ex-
perience of boredom, an author who started his career at the very moment
when Auerbach was writing Mimesis, namely Clement Greenberg. In his
view, it is this experience that led them to ask for a culture of their own,
the culture of kitsch. Such might be the core of the “tragic” or “problematic”
experience of the sons and daughters of the inferior classes that the new
novel raises to the foreground. Their elevation “to the position of subject
matter for problematic-existential representation” entails a conflation be-
tween two temporalities: the poetic temporality of the arrangement of actions
according to necessity or verisimilitude and the temporality of the chronicle,
the temporality of the events that arrive one after another. The tragic pop-
ular character is a character who experiences the conflict between two tem-
poralities, which has been from the most antique times a conflict between
two forms of life: on the one hand, the form of life of the active men and
women who can conceive great projects and try to achieve them or expe-
rience the free time of leisure as an end in itself; on the other hand, the form
of life of the passive beings whose activity is entrapped in the time of the

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236 Jacques Rancière / The Contradictions of Realism
everyday and whose inactivity can only take the form of the rest between
two efforts. Emma Bovary feels herself entrapped in the ordinary boredom
of the everyday. Sorel, who has set out to get into the world of action, finds
a new kind of boredom in the place where he wishes to deploy his capacity
for action. He will find the solution to the conflict of temporalities in the last
part of the novel. After having devoted his energy gaining knowledge of the
social relationships in order to reach a high position, Julien discovers in his
prison the secret of happiness, which is to give up the will to act, to dedicate
oneself to the enjoyment of reverie, the enjoyment of a doing nothing that is
the privilege of leisure. In the realm of leisure lies the real success, the real
equality that the workers’ children vainly try to attain in the calculations
of social action.
The encounter between the rise of the random individual and the knowl-
edge of the global society results in a divorce. And this divorce also breaks
the logic of the fiction. The normal time of fictional action is the time of a
coincidence between the succession of the events and the unfolding of a causal
logic through which the characters experience the outcomes and the set-
backs of their decisions and of their actions. But between the time of bore-
dom in the salons of the Marquis de la Môle and the time of leisure, reverie,
and passionate love enjoyed by Sorel in the prison, there is a break. Sorel’s
gunshot at Madame de Renal is the most absurd solution to the situation
provoked by her denunciation, and the revival of the passion between the
“murderer” and his victim is the most absurd outcome of this absurd ges-
ture. But this double nonsense is necessary to open a radical breach between
two senses of reality and two temporalities: the temporality determined by
the conflicts between the ends pursued by characters involved in a social sit-
uation and the temporality of leisure, the temporality determined by the pure
enjoyment of a sensible affect disconnected from any social plot of ends and
means. The normal adjustment between time and causality that defines the
logic of fictional action is broken by another matter of time that is the social
core of the affair: the rupture of the hierarchy between the time of the active
men and the time of the passive men. The social content of the narrative ex-
plodes the very logic of the narration. Stendhal must then sacrifice the logic
of narrative action to allow his plebeian character to enjoy the time of excep-
tion, the aristocratic time of leisure. Flaubert takes the opposite stance; he
forbids his character to shift from the time of boredom to the time of lei-
sure. He keeps her entrapped in the universe of the social intrigues in order
to weave the new temporality of the novel: a temporality in which action and
reverie, normal time and time of exception, are no longer separated. Out of
the boring moments of everyday routine and the exceptional moments when
two souls experience the great equality of the impersonal dance of the atoms,

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2018 237
he makes one equal time, the time of writing, the poetic time of what he calls
the great boredom, the great equality of the sentences that the writer and the
reader can enjoy while the character is doomed to live in the time of prosaic
boredom and of the prosaic recipes to escape it—adultery and debts.
Auerbach is obviously not willing to push the play of compensations
through which he interprets the history of realism to that extremity. The
promised land of modern realism that raises the humblest people to the level
of the global historical process is too close to allow the reopening of such
gaps. But the very proximity of the end apparently makes him perceive some-
thing that had not been so far explicit in the development of the book and
the clash of the various senses of reality. The key issue in the whole story
might be time or, more precisely, the possibility given to anybody of an ex-
perience of time cancelling the hierarchical distribution of the forms of life.
This is what explains the strange end of Mimesis. As a matter of fact the book
seems to reach its end at the furthest distance from this global political, eco-
nomic, and social reality that was for Auerbach the final conquest of mod-
ern realism. After having hailed the “great historical tragedy” of Zola’s novels,
which encompass a whole society while definitely abolishing the hierarchy
of styles, Auerbach ends his book—and the whole historical movement of
the literary conquest of reality—with a microscopic scene that takes place
in a social and familial décor apparently disconnected from any global so-
cial reality: the salon of the vacation home of the Ramsay family in Virginia
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (M, p. 515).
This scene displays a random tissue of reverie around the very prosaic
occupation of the housewife, who is trying to measure against the legs of
her youngest son the size of a pair of stockings that she is making for the
son of the lighthouse keeper. The myriad of insignificant material events
and impalpable spiritual events that makes the stuff of Woolf ’s novels might
seem to illustrate to the utmost the formalistic and subjectivist regression that
Lukács stigmatized in 1936. Against this regression, epitomized by James
Joyce’s Ulysses, Lukács extolled the humanist virtue of the great classical nov-
els of Maxim Gorky, Romain Rolland, and Thomas Mann. It seems incon-
ceivable, then, that soon after the Second World War and the Nazi genocide,
the exiled Jewish scholar Auerbach would locate in the narrow circle of an in-
tellectual petty-bourgeois family the last step of the Western conquest of lit-
erary realism.
It appears however that this narrow circle is the perfect place for bring-
ing to the fore the last conquest of modern literature—a conquest that is
both aesthetic and political: the possibility of widening any narrow family
circle so as to make it infinite. In Woolf ’s prose, literature has conquered
what Auerbach calls the “random moment” (see M). I would personally rather

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238 Jacques Rancière / The Contradictions of Realism
translate it as the “any moment whatever.” Any moment in the everyday life
of any character from any class of society appears to have an infinite power
of expansion. The last step in the conquest of literary realism is the aboli-
tion of the hierarchy that had its deepest roots in the literary as well as in the
political tradition: the hierarchy of times and temporalities. It is an egali-
tarian experience of time. The infinite expansion of the circles of time and
thought that move around the knitting of a pair of stockings bears a political
promise that may prove more radical than the promise based on the knowl-
edge of the social connection; the experience of the any moment whatever
is an experience in which the most intimate in an individual life meets the
most common that belongs to everybody.
It is likely that Auerbach chose a story of knitting because this prosaic
activity also provides an appropriate metaphor for the common fabric of
an egalitarian community. But we can find a still better illustration of this
community between the most individual and the most common in an ep-
isode of another novel by Woolf. I am thinking of Mrs. Dalloway and of
Clarissa’s morning walk in London, when the sensations felt by an upper-
class woman hearing the noise of an explosion or looking up at the words
written in smoke by a plane move away from her and draw an undulating
line through which all kinds of people, from all social origins, passing in the
streets, receive an interiority that makes them the participants in a common
life. In the same novel, another walk in the street, that of Clarissa’s former
wooer Peter Walsh, gives to the novelist the opportunity to emphasize the
new experience of time, the new capacity to enjoy the time of inaction that
weaves a new community, freed from the old hierarchy of times that under-
pinned the pyramidal order of the old society. For Lukács the fragmenta-
tion of the outer experience and its absorption in the life of the mind meant
the regression of literature far away from the scene of political understand-
ing and political action. For Auerbach they mean a widening of the field of
experience wherein the individual and the common penetrate each other.
The time of the shower of atoms that falls on any mind at any moment is a
time of coexistence that abolishes the separation between those who live in
the time of causal action and those who live in the time of the chronicle.
That’s why, better than the knowledge of the historical linkage of causes and
effects, it bears the promise of a new common world: “It is still a long way to
a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it
is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and ex-
terior representation of the [any moment whatever] in the lives of different
people” (M, p. 552).
Today, readers may smile at the statement of this humanist faith char-
acteristic of the postwar period, the period of the “family of man” and of

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2018 239
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What interests me how-
ever is different; the faith in the path that leads from the discovery of the
any moment whatever to a future common life may conceal a division lo-
cated in the very simplicity of that moment. This division can be located
very precisely. It lies in the relationship between the whatever that qualifies
the moment and the anyone who can experience that quality. This division
is quite precisely what is staged by the second part of To the Lighthouse.
Auerbach selected a chapter of the first part wherein Mrs. Ramsay is the heart
of the house and the center around which all the circles of the expanded
moment of a multipersonal life gravitate. But in the second part, this multi-
personal life is split in two. On the one hand, there are the impersonal events
that are provoked by little airs in the deserted house or by reflections of light
in the pools on the beach; on the other hand, there are the personal events
that happen to the distant family and are given, here and there, two or three
lines, isolated by square brackets. This is how Mrs. Ramsay, who was the
center of the multipersonal life of the house, is killed inside square brack-
ets. But there is something still more radical than the separation between
the personal and the impersonal; there is their insane fusion when the any-
one feels so much his or her unity with the impersonal that he or she gets
astray from the multipersonal life. Such is the case in The Waves with the
schizophrenia of Rhoda, who fancies that we might “blow so vast a bubble
that the sun might set and rise in it and we might take the blue of midday
and the black of midnight and be cast off and escape from here and now.”5
Such is the case in Mrs. Dalloway with the madness of Septimus, who has
found in the multiple epiphanies of sensory events the revelation of a new
religion of universal love of which he is the prophet. Rhoda and Septimus
are doomed to death—just as Mrs. Ramsay, just as Julien Sorel and Emma
Bovary—as if the conquest of the whatever of sensory equality was forbid-
den to the anyone or the whoever. They are expelled from the promised
land of the egalitarian experience of the random moment and of its infinite
richness. Moreover they are to blame for their expulsion; they proved un-
able to enjoy the impersonality of the random moment. Instead they turned
it into a personal story. Out of a whirlwind of breaths in the air, reflections
of light on rippling water, or little rays of gold around pupils, Bovary wove
a personal story of love that led her to death. In the quivering leaves, the daz-
zling sun, or the rise and fall of sparrows, Septimus read a personal mes-
sage sent to him by God, which ultimately led him to suicide as well. At the
origin of their mistake, there is the same cause: they have got out of their
condition. Woolf makes the point about Septimus’s personal history so as

5. Virginia Woolf, The Waves (New York, 1978), p. 224.

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240 Jacques Rancière / The Contradictions of Realism
to emphasize his kinship with the heroes of nineteenth-century “realistic”
novels. He was, she says, “one of those half-educated, self-educated men
whose education is all learnt from books borrowed from the public libraries,
read in the evening after the day’s work, on the advice of well-known au-
thors consulted by letter.”6 Why add this detail to Septimus’s clinical pic-
ture? The traumatism of the war was enough to account for his madness.
This useless addition points however to the core of the problem: the ran-
dom individuals are alienated from the treasure of the random moment
whose knowledge only belongs to the writers who tell their story. We might
say that the story opened by Peter’s denial ends with another denial. But
the random individual is no more the one who betrays; he or she is the one
who is betrayed. Literature has stolen their power for itself. Auerbach is not
willing to consider this reversal. But, at the same time, one of his compa-
triots, another exiled Jew, Herman Broch, raised from a different angle the
issue of literature’s betrayal or miserliness. The verdict that he pronounced
in The Death of Virgil is that literature is unable to help human beings.
The history of Western literature should have led to the connection of the
two kinds of depth: the depth of the historical process of forces within which
all singular events are connected and the depth of the problematic experi-
ence of anybody at all. Instead it seems to lead to a twofold divorce. On the
one hand, Auerbach, in the last chapter, leaves the great stage of the inter-
connection of the political, economic, and social forces to focus on the power
of expansion encapsulated in the microscopic events that anyone can ex-
perience at any moment whatever in everyday reality. But he can only hail
the promised land where anybody can share the infinite richness of the what-
ever at the price of forgetting the new divorce between the anybody and the
whatever that lies in the core of the modern democratic novel. Of course
this oblivion is not a matter of absentmindedness. Rather it witnesses the
connection between the method of the interpreter and his object. In the
Woolf chapter Auerbach explains how he applied in his reading of litera-
ture the method that was the last conquest of literature itself: the method
that shows the whole in the microcosm of the fragment. This method only
raises one problem; it is the principle of an infinite expansion. The old fic-
tion was based on a solid principle that antique poetics lent to modern so-
cial science: a fiction must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead
the new fiction starts from the middle and its progression consists in wid-
ening it indefinitely. Multipersonal life has no end. But a book, be it a novel
or a theory of the novel, must have an end. This is why Septimus must die;
his deadly madness opposes to the indefinite expansion of life a counter-

6. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York, 1981), p. 84.

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Critical Inquiry / Winter 2018 241
movement leading the novel to his end. This is also why Auerbach must
ignore this countermovement. He must ignore Septimus’s death to lead his
own book to its end and postpone to an indefinite future the promise en-
closed in the random moment, that of a “common life of mankind on earth”
(M, p. 552). For my part, I just tried to reopen the door that he had closed
in order to follow the play of contradictions through which literary realism
both promises and postpones this future.

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