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Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition) [Paperback]

Erich Auerbach , Willard R. Trask
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Book Description

27 April 2003

A half-century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis still stands as a monumental achievement in literary criticism. A brilliant display of erudition, wit, and wisdom, his exploration of how great European writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf depicted reality has taught generations how to read Western literature. This new expanded edition includes a substantial essay in introduction by Edward Said as well as an essay, never before translated into English, in which Auerbach responds to his critics.

A German Jew, Auerbach was forced out of his professorship at the University of Marburg in 1935. He left for Turkey, where he taught at the state university in Istanbul. There he wrote Mimesis, publishing it in German after the end of the war. Displaced as he was, Auerbach produced a work of great erudition that contains no footnotes, basing his arguments instead on searching, illuminating readings of key passages from his primary texts. His aim was to show how from antiquity to the twentieth century literature progressed toward ever more naturalistic and democratic forms of representation. This essentially optimistic view of European history now appears as a defensive--and impassioned--response to the inhumanity he saw in the Third Reich. Ranging over works in Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and English, Auerbach used his remarkable skills in philology and comparative literature to refute any narrow form of nationalism or chauvinism, in his own day and ours.

For many readers, both inside and outside the academy, Mimesis is among the finest works of literary criticism ever written.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 616 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition edition (27 April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069111336X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691113364
  • Product Dimensions: 3.3 x 15.9 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 358,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"The compass and the richness of the book can hardly be exaggerated. This is true too of the originality of Mr. Auerbach's critical method which is at once encyclopedic and microscopic, combining the disciplines of philology, literary criticism, and history."--The New York Times

"One of the most important and readable books in literary criticism of the past 15 years . . . The author, beginning with Homer and the Bible, traces the imitation of life in literature through the ages . . .touching upon every major literary figure in western culture on the way."--Publishers Weekly

"One of the great works of literary scholarship. . . . Auerbach's method . . . is to fasten with fastidious sensitivity on some stray phrase or passage in order to unpack from it a wealth of historical insight. It is his combination of scholarly erudition and critical astuteness which is most remarkable."--Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books

"Written with the authority that comes from deep learning and full of information worth knowing. Princeton's 50th anniversary edition of Mimesis has an introduction by the late literary and cultural critic Edward Said that by itself is worth the price of the book. It's the only preface I know of that I wish were longer, serving as both an analysis of Auerbach and a ramework placing him in his scholarly and historical context. . . . Princeton's reissue of Mimesis is both timely and symbolic."--Guy Davenport, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"[Mimesis] offers not just an eminent reading of the Western canon, but a mighty lesson on how to write. . . . I don't think a more significant or useful book of criticism has been written in the half-century since Mimesis was published. What's more, I can't imagine that anything like it will ever be written again. . . . [In] producing such a rich, strong book on how to read, Auerbach composed a virtual manual on how to write, one I've referred back to again and again since the day, almost two decades ago, when I first happened upon it."--Jim Lewis, Slate Magazine

From the Inside Flap

"To describe Mimesis as a classic is to offer something of a dismissive understatement, which conveys nothing of the excitement of this book, as fresh and direct, as untechnical, as when it first appeared. To say that it constitutes virtually a history of Western literature is to omit adding that it writes that history in a way that is still new and stimulating, with nothing of the manual about it, a synchronic kind of history with which we are only just now catching up. It is also important to stress the novel relationship Auerbach establishes between sentence or syntax and narrative form; and the world-wide democratic perspective in which he framed his work which has only become visible since globalization. Mimesis is certainly one of the half dozen most important literary-critical works of the twentieth century."--Fredric R. Jameson

"Written in exile, from what Auerbach called with grave irony his 'incomparable historical vantage point,' Mimesis is a magnificent achievement. For me, as for many others, this hugely ambitious, wise account of the representation of reality in Western literature, at once a celebration and a lament, is one of the essential works of literary criticism."--Stephen Greenblatt

"Every student of literature should know Mimesis, arguably the single greatest work of 20th-century criticism. How do writers--from Homer and Dante to Stendhal and Virginia Woolf--depict the world? To explore this question, Erich Auerbach brings to bear the authority of truly encyclopedic learning and the persuasiveness of a supple, humane literary intelligence. Yes, Mimesis is magisterial, but it is also thrilling to read, inspiring, and more relevant than ever: A masterpiece."--Michael Dirda

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
In Mimesis, Auerbach offers his views on the representation of reality in literature, and the importance of learning about the world around us from literature. He uses many different literary sources in his book drawing on references from many works of western literature from Homer and The Old Testament by way of Dante and many other writers, to Virginia Woolf and Emile Zola. The aspects of the book are the ways in which Auerbach considers not just situations and experiences but also individual characters and places and the reality of their representation. He also comments on the way in which authors should have an understanding of their characters and hence an input into the reality of these characters. Auerbach's success with his arguments is the way in which he knows exactly when to change his points and thus keep the reader's attention, and how he makes clear concise points to reinforce his deductions from well explained and provided examples. (Not the easiest thing to do in literary theory studies!) He carefully balances one author's style against another's and hence provides each sides positive points. Essentially he deals with the aspect of reality vs. the sublime and comes to some interesting and intelligent conclusions.
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If you want to get into the world of criticism, this is the book to start with. It clears your mind.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
147 of 152 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Indelible Interpretation of How People See Their World 14 Jun 2000
By mholesh - Published on Amazon.com
In the 30 odd years since I read this book it has never been far from my thoughts. It has changed my understanding of how people think and how they look at their world. I cannot do true justice its impact.
We are apt to think that people are the same wherever and whenever they lived. This is probably a legacy of our democratic, universalistic heritage. It is also what gets us in trouble when we get involved abroad in changing other nations and their societies. Auerbach shows us that humankind is not and has not been alike in its thoughts, aspirations and character but has distinctly changed and varied over time and place.
By closely reading, analyzing and comparing texts of different periods through time, the author demonstrates how the structure of language interacts with the structure of thought, how the way one writes delimits ones vision. This is a more radical thought than its converse that the way we think affects how we write. To Auerbach, an early medieval religious writer, because of the way that Late Latin worked, could not think the way a classical author could. This seems intuitively wrong to a person who has knowledge of one language, but if you have ever tried to translate anything beyond the simplest sentence, you can appreciate what Auerbach means. This is one of those books that stay with you for a lifetime.
75 of 81 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You simply cannot be a literary critic without reading this 3 Sep 2003
By F. P. Barbieri - Published on Amazon.com
To paraphrase JOhn Lennon: evereybody's talking about Marxism and Modernism, Structuralism and sociologism, this-ism and that-ism; all I am saying, is give the narrative a chance. That is really what this greatest critic of all time - a man who is to literary criticism what Beethoven is to music, or Tocqueville to history, or Shakespeare to English poetry - ever did. Only he armed himselv with such a broad and wide-ranging array of different interpretative approaches, that he was always able to extract more, and more diverse, meanings, from any significant passage; and that not by illegitimately stretching the content to cover areas the writer had never conceived of, but simply by bringing out what already was there. His account of a passage in Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, ought to be read by every historian of the late Roman Empire to understand what really was happening to that ancient civilization in the fourth century; as should his reading of a short story by Boccaccio (together, I would say, with Chesterton's magnificent essay on Chaucer) to understand the spirit that was awakening at the height of the Middle Ages. And this book is just as broad as it is sharp; just as it manages to pierce to the very heart of a single well-chosen subject, so too it covers the most extraordinary range of subjects, from the beginning of our culture (Homer and the book of Genesis) to high modernity (Proust), from the obscure (a stunning review of a bloody sixth-century anecdote by Gregory bishop of Tours) to the famous (Shakespeare). It is the finest book of literary criticism and history ever written, not only on account of its keen penetration and insight, but also of its enormous and wide-ranging learning, that allows the reader access to almost every century and every area of our Western heritage.
54 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Representing Reality 27 Dec 2001
By Bill Engel - Published on Amazon.com
Beginning with episodes in Homer and the Bible, this amazing study concludes by analyzing passages in Woolf and Proust. To echo Rene Wellek's assessment: it is a book of such scope and depth....it combines so many methods so skillfully, it raises so many questions of theory, history and criticism, it displays so much erudition, insight and wisdom.... I returned to this book after being out of graduate school for twenty years (where it was already out of fashion in most English departments but read with care by all students of Comparative literature), and it is so much better this time around. The essay on Fortuna continues to resonate with timely warnings, and what I once admired about "Odysseus' Scar" is even more luminous after my recent rereading of the book.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant and archetypal look at literature 4 Nov 1998
By mark a woodruff - Published on Amazon.com
Altho published in the 50's, the chapters on genesis, and his (refreshing) "construction" of how Western literature changed with uderlying philosophical assumtions is a classic. The best is his technique of using examples, from the bible to Shakespear, which perfectly demonstrates his theory. The book is deep but not difficult to read. His style is conversive and the theoretical concept is nailed down with passages from literary works. I highly reccomend it, especially the first 4 chapters, for anyone who wants to connect and see a synthesis of western classics they've read.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The history of how Reality is presented in Western Literature 18 Jun 2006
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
'Mimesis' is arguably the most important piece of Literary Criticism written in the twentieth century. Auerbach's opening chapter 'Odysseus Scar' in which he compares Chapter 19 of the 'Odyssey' with the Akeda , Chapter 22.1 of Genesis is the foundation from which he goes on to read the whole history of Representation in Western Literature. In that first chapter he contrasts the clearness and descriptive richness, the surface brilliance of the 'Odyssey' with the enigmatic, fragmented, deep- backgrounded mysterious narrative of 'Genesis'. These two basic 'Western' texts are used to provide a reading of the theory of representation in Western literature that spans its whole historical span.

"Revealing the system of conventions that produce "a lifelike illusion of some 'real' world outside the text by processes of selection, exclusion, description, and manners of addressing the reader," Auerbach sets up conclusions about how literature, the world, and literature's place in the world were understood in each work and historical period." ( Wikipedia)

Auerbach reads from the Bible and Odysseus through the great works of Western Literature down to the masterworks of his own day.

He wrote this book in Istanbul when in exile from Nazi Germany. He lacked many of the sources he might have used, and thus concentrated more on providing a close reading of the great works he discusses.
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