Category: Auerbach, Erich

perspective enters the picture (quote)

Erich Auerbach’s MIMESIS, pp. 321-22

With the first dawn of humanism, there began to be a sense that the events of classical history and legend and also those of the Bible were not separated from the present simply by an extent of time but also by completely different conditions of life. Humanism with its program of renewal of antique forms of life and expression creates a historical perspective in depth such as no previous epoch known to us possessed: the humanists see antiquity in historical depth, and, against that background, the dark epochs of the intervening Middle Ages. It makes no difference what errors of conception and interpretation they may have been guilty of in detail — the vision in perspective was gained. From Dante on it is possible to detect traces of such a historical perspective from men’s consciousness again, it was never successful to the extent of reestablishing the autarchic life natural to antique culture or the historical naïveté of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In addition there is in the sixteenth century the effect of the great discoveries which abruptly widened the cultural and geographic horizon and hence also men’s conception of possible forms of human life. The various European peoples came to regard themselves as national entities and hence grew conscious of their distinctive characteristics. finally the schism in the Church contributed to differentiating various groups of people. In consequence the comparatively simple contrast of Greek or Roman versus barbarian or Christian versus heathen was replaced by a much more complex picture of human society. This did not happen all at once; it was prepared over a long period of  time; but in the sixteenth century it progresses by leaps and bounds, adding enormously both to the breadth of perspective and to the number of individuals acquiring it. The world of realities in which men live is changed; it grows broader, richer in possibilities, limitless. And it changes correspondingly when it appears as the subject mater of artistic representation. The sphere of life represented in a particular instance is no longer the only one possible or a part of that only and clearly circumscribed one. Very often there is a switch from one sphere to another, and even in cases where this does not occur, we are able to discern as the basis of the representation a freer consciousness embracing an unlimited world. We have commented upon this in connection with Boccaccio and especially in connection with Rabelais; we could also have done so in connection with Montaigne. In Elizabethan tragedy and particularly in Shakespeare, perspective consciousness has become a matter of course, although it is neither very precise nor uniformly expressed. Shakespeare and the authors of his generation sometime s have erroneous ideas about foreign lands and cultures; they sometimes intentionally mingle contemporary scenes and allusions with a foreign theme, as for example the observations on the London stage in Hamlet. Quite often Shakespeare makes the setting of a play some fairyland only loosely connected with real times and places. But this too is only a playing upon the perspective view. Consciousness of the manifold conditions of human life is a fact with him, and he can take it for granted on the part of his audience.

history becomes legend, legend becomes myth (quote)

Erich Auerbach’s MIMESIS, pp. 19-20

Even where the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous, by the repetition of well-known standard motives, typical patterns and themes, though neglect of clear details of time and place, and the like, it is generally quickly recognizable by its composition. It runs far too smoothly. All cross-currents, all friction, all that is casual, secondary to the main events and themes, everything unresolved, truncated, and uncertain, which confuses the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors, has disappeared. The historical event which we witness, or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it, runs much more variously, contradictory, and confusedly; not until it has produced results in a definite domain are we able, with their help, to classify it to a certain extent; and how often the order to which we think we have attained becomes doubtful again,, how often we ask ourselves if the data before us have not led us to a far too simple classification of the original events! Legend arranges its material in a simple and straightforward way; it detaches it from its contemporary historical context, so that the latter will not confuse it; it knows only outlined men who act from few and simple motives and the continuity of whose feelings and actions remains uninterrupted. In the legends of martyrs, for example, a stiff-necked and fanatical victim; and a situation so complicated — that is to say, so real and historical — as that in which the “persecutor” Pliny finds himself in his celebrated letter to Trajan on the subject of the Christians, is unfit for legend. And that is still a comparatively simple case. Let the reader think of the history which we ourselves are witnessing; anyone who, for example, evaluates the behavior of individual men and groups of men at the time of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, or the behavior of individual peoples and states before and during the war, will feel how difficult it is to represent historical themes in general, and how unfit they are for legend; the historical comprises a great number of contradictory motives in each individual, a hesitation and ambiguous groping on the part of groups; only seldom (as in the last war) does a more or less plain situation is subject to division below the surface, is indeed almost constantly in danger of losing its simplicity; and the motives of all interested parties are so complex that the slogans of propaganda can be composed only through the crudest simplification — with the result that friend and foe alike can often employ the same ones. To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend.