Georgia O'Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1

Erich Auerbach: Mimesis (In-Person)

Instructor: Danielle Drori
BISR Central
68 Jay Street, #425
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Written in exile from Nazi Germany, with few books beyond the cherished classics the author packed in a bag, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis attempts nothing less than a comprehensive explanation for how the whole of Western literature “works”—from Homer and the Old Testament to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. With an imaginative sympathy that belied the surrounding calamity of World War II, Auerbach felt it possible to enter, from his time and place, into the lives and epochs of long-dead writers, to reconstruct from extant texts and political and social history the spirit (Geist) of an age and the ways its authors tried to “mimic” reality. For Auerbach, the history of Western literature is the push-pull between two modes of representation: externalization, in which all phenomena is laid bare; and opacity, in which “certain parts [are] brought into high relief, others left obscure.” Out of their use and development emerges the arc of Western treatments of reality and its representation, which, as Auerbach argues, tends toward realism, naturalism, and a more democratic understanding of the world. But, what are the ways by which writers represent the world, and how have they changed, developed, and even regressed over time? What connects Genesis to Stendhal to Woolf as members of the so-called Western literary tradition? And why, for Auerbach, is the study of Western mimesis revealing, not of Western exceptionalism, but of the content of universal humanism, of a global “common fate” that emerges out of our “diverse backgrounds?”

This course is a deep dive into Auerbach’s Mimesis, an attempt to understand Auerbach’s project writ large—and why it remains so fundamental to contemporary literary studies—as well grapple with his individualized readings of canonical authors. How does Auerbach contrast Homer and Genesis, and why do the two set the template for all ensuing Western attempts at literary representation? How has our understanding of both reality and what it means to represent it changed over time? And what do they have to do with what Auerbach calls “the spirit of the age?” How can we situate Auerbach within the Western philosophical and philological tradition? And how does Auerbach’s historicism contrast with contemporary post-structuralist and deconstructive approaches to literary text? What are we to do, what can we do, with Auerbach’s construction of “Western literature,” on the one hand, and “World Literature,” on the other? In addition to Auerbach’s work, we will read excerpts from the canonical works he analyzes, as well as critical engagements with Auerbach’s claims, notably by Edward Said, George Steiner, and Emily Apter.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
May 14 — June 04, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

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