Professor of Exile: Edward Said’s Misreading of Erich Auerbach

By | Aug 10, 2014
Arts & Culture, Latest
Mimesis by Erich Auerbach 50th Anniversary Edition

k50   by Avihu Zakai

Edward Said (1935-2003), Palestinian-American scholar, activist, and for many years Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, had a deep interest in the close connection between literature and exile, a subject that occupied much of his life of the mind since the time he was a graduate student at Harvard in the late fifties.

Said’s overarching goal in many of his studies is to relate the experience of exilic displacement, a theme that stems from his own displacement from Palestine. “The novelty of our time,” he wrote in the introduction to Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2000), is “that so many individuals have experienced the uprooting and dislocations that have made them expatriate and exiles.” He aligned himself with such exiled intellectuals as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, who “in their use of language provoked their readers into an awareness of how language is about experience and not just about itself. For if you feel you cannot take for granted the luxury of long residence, habitual environment, native idiom, and you must somehow compensate for these things, what you write necessarily bears a unique freight of anxiety, elaborateness, perhaps even overstatement.”

In fact Said often accused modern literary critics of attempting “to escape from experience” in their studies, thus transforming “text” into “something almost metaphysically isolated from experience” and in that way “reduced and in many instances eliminated the messier precincts of ‘life’ and historical experience.” The one exception to this is in his approach to the writings of the German-Jewish philologist and literary critic Erich Auerbach (1892-1957). Auerbach is best known for his history of representation in Western literature, Mimesis, which he wrote in Istanbul after being exiled from Nazi Germany. In discussing his works, Said gives no sense of the historical, ideological and philological context within which the famous philologist wrote his works, while nevertheless acknowledging that Auerbach always referred to the “social environment” of a given writer.

Ample evidence of Said’s approach abound. In his 1983 book The World, the Text, and the Critic all that Said mentioned in his discussion of Mimesis was that Auerbach was “a Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe.” Likewise, in the 1984 essay “Reflections on Exile,” which probably best reflects Said’s views on exile, he noted only in passing that “Auerbach spent the war years in exile in Turkey.” Nothing further was mentioned on the possible influence of such an agonizing ordeal of exilic displacement.

The same applies even more seriously to Said’s introduction to the Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition of Mimesis (2003), which merely mentioned Auerbach’s education in Germany and later his exile from Nazi Germany. No attempt was made however to enlighten the reader about possible intrinsic connection neither between Mimesis and concrete historical circumstances, nor of German ideological and philological trends, such as Nazism, Fascism and Aryan philology, which could have contributed to the evolution of Auerbach’s masterpiece. The lack of such an important historical and ideological context may lead obviously to serious distortions of the content and form of Auerbach’s works. Failing to see the intrinsic connection between Mimesis and the time and place it was written, Said strangely claimed that this book “is in many ways a mere calm affirmation of the unity and dignity of European literature in all its multiplicity and dynamism.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

One may wonder why Said, who was so sensitive to the suffering and existential state of exile, was not assiduously attending as well to Auerbach’s ordeal and how it may affect his works written in exile. On the contrary, Said had a tendency to strip some intellectual exiles—such as Auerbach or Theodore Adorno (1903-1969)—of the historical and ideological context which led to their displacement and profoundly influenced their works written in exile. He constantly referenced “historical experience” because “experience, and in particular the experience of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire” leads, in literature, “to the invigorating presence of a banished or forgotten reality which in the past two hundred years has dominated human existence in an enormous variety of ways.”  And it is precisely “this general and particular experience” that Said’s “criticism and scholarship” is trying “to reclaim, understand, and situate,” though not with regard to Auerbach.

Instead Said chosen to fashion Auerbach in the role of “the intellectual as an exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.” But Auerbach’s aim was not merely “to speak the truth to power,” but rather and more practically to save the Western Judeo-Christian humanist tradition from the menace of Nazi barbarism.

Historian Saul Friedländer asserts in The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 that Nazism tried to eradicate “any trace of ‘Jewishness,’ any sign of ‘Jewish spirit,’ any remnant of Jewish presence (real or imaginary) from politics, society, culture, and history.” For example, the Deutsche Christen, the Nazi wing of the Evangelical Church, organized a mass rally in the Berlin Sportpalast in November 1933 and resolved: “We expect our national Churches to shake themselves free of all that is un-German, in particular the Old Testament and its Jewish morality and rewards.” In April 1939, the Godesberg Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church proclaimed: “Christian faith is the unbridgeable religious contradiction to Judaism.” A month later, the Institute for the Study and Eradication of the Jewish Influence on German Church Life was created.

In this broad historical and ideological context, Mimesis as well as Auerbach’s essay on “Figura” were aimed to restore the centrality of the Old Testament to Western culture and civilization, after Nazi historiography and Aryan philology strove to exclude the Jewish Bible from Christian history in general and German culture and life in particular. Both works begin from the premise that the Old Testament is inscribed in the form and content of Western civilization and draw on Christian figural interpretation of history—the view that Old Testament events and persons prefigure events and persons in the New Testament. These works were not only literary studies but polemics. The first defends the Old Testament’s validity from erasure; the second shows how its revolutionary view of history shaped Western culture’s sense of time and vision of history. “Figura” is not a “technical essay,” and Mimesis is no “calm affirmation.”

Said’s misunderstandings abound. In the essay “History, Literature, and Geography,” he wrote that Mimesis “makes no concrete attempt to connect the chapters with one another.” In fact, each chapter explicitly traces the evolution of the written presentation and representation of reality. Note that Auerbach uses the Hegelian concept, “reality,” which encompasses reason, history, and truth, and opposes it to the flight from reason that supported Nazi bigotry and the confusion of culture with Blood, Volk, and Soil. Listen to Alfred Rosenberg, chief ideologist of the Nazi party: “Today, a new belief is arising: the Mythus of the blood; the belief that the godly essence of man itself is to be defended through the blood; that belief which embodied the clearest knowledge that the Nordic race represents that Mysterium which has overthrown and replaced the old sacraments” (The Myth of the 20th Century, 1930). Listen now to Auerbach: “Let the reader think of the history which we are ourselves 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 last war, will feel how difficult it is to represent historical themes in general, and how unfit they are for legend” (Mimesis).

Another misstep can be seen in his choice of cover illustration for the anniversary edition—the central panel of Max Beckmann’s 1932 triptych “Departure,” with heroic noble characters sitting on a boat. Beckmann, who fled Germany in 1937, explains its meaning: “The King and Queen, Man and Woman, are taken to another shore by a boatsman whom they do not know, he wears a mask, it is the mysterious figure taking us to a mysterious land … The King and Queen have freed themselves of the tortures of life—they have overcome them. The Queen carries the greatest treasure—Freedom—as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters—it is the departure, the new start.” In Auerbach’s words, the main theme of Mimesis is not kings and queens but “the rise of more extensive and socially inferior human groups to the position of subject matter for problematic-existential representation.” His first chapter opposes mythic heroes to the complex human struggles reported in the Old Testament. William Calin, who studied with Auerbach at Yale and was his assistant, wrote me: “The paperback edition of Mimesis came out while I was Auerbach’s research assistant. I remember his speaking on the telephone with the publisher. He wanted the Christ of Amiens as the cover illustration, and insisted that Christ’s hands should appear in the picture. Which was done.”

Said surely knew that, in contrast to the common view, according to which Mimesis’s literary space extends from Homer to Virginia Woolf, Auerbach sets his history of European literature “from Genesis all the way to Virginia Woolf.” This clearly reveals his main aim: Classical Greek myths, legends and heroes did not inaugurate Western culture’s representation of reality.

Said also strangely overlooked the date when Auerbach began to write Mimesis. The year 1942 was crucial in terms of the survival of Western humanist civilization in face of the alarming victories of the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht in Russia and North Africa. In the same year other German-speaking Jewish exiles began writing their grand humanist defenses of Western civilization, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Ernst Cassirer’s The Myth of the State, and Hans Baron’s The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, and Thomas Mann conceived his novel Dr. Faustus, alluding to the legendary necromancer—a composer, or Germany—who bargains for power with Satan. Such writers struggled to establish their own bulwarks against Nazism, while Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish writer, committed suicide in Brazil when he felt that “the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself.

Auerbach’s Mimesis therefore should be considered as one among many attempts by exiles to salvage European humanist culture from Nazism. But among these Jewish intellectual exiles, Auerbach’s fate was the most precarious. Had Rommel overcome the British Army in North Africa, the road to the destruction, not only of Jewish Palestine, but of the haven in Istanbul, would have been open. Had the German Army not been stopped in Stalingrad, the road to Turkey from the north would have been open. In 1942, the Nazism that he had eluded in Germany threatened to engulf him again in Istanbul.

The extent to which he was aware of these critical military threats can be seen in a letter written in summer 1946, when he described in his aloof, reserved way some of the deep fears and anxieties he was suffering four years earlier: “Things have gone well for us against all odds. The new order [Nazi German Army] did not reach these straits; that really says it all. We have lived in our apartment and suffered nothing but small discomfort and fear: until the end of [19]42 it looked very bad, but then the clouds gradually withdrew,” he wrote. He had more than enough reasons to begin writing his apology for Western humanism in May 1942, when his own personal fate and that of the whole of Europe were endangered. Mimesis should be considered one of many attempts by exiles to salvage their culture from Nazism. In “Philology and Weltliteratur” (1952), Auerbach cited Hugo of St. Victor (c. 1096-1141), a monk from Saxony, on detachment from the world:

“It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about invisible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”

According to Said, Auerbach “cited this passage as a model for anyone wishing to transcend national and provincial limits” (Reflections). However, Auerbach goes on to urge readers to “return, in admittedly altered circumstances, to the knowledge that pre-national medieval culture already possessed: the knowledge that the Geist [spirit] is not national” (17). Auerbach wants to dissociate Geist, our humanist tradition, from the smarmy Kultur of National Socialism, not nationalism itself. Said was decisive in creating “narratives of oppression,” and in epitomizing them as well. Thus it seems that his obsession with Western “narratives of oppression” led him to ignore their content and form within the West, when another exiled scholar composed them.

Professor Avihu Zakai, Department of History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of eight books and over one hundred articles. 

One thought on “Professor of Exile: Edward Said’s Misreading of Erich Auerbach

  1. Conor McCarthy says:

    Dear Professor Zakai

    I enjoyed your essay above on Said, Auerbach, and exile. However, I think you are in some error – only some – in saying that Said neglected Auerbach’s specific experience of exile during WW2 and its influence on the composition of Mimesis. In the opening essay of Said’s book The World, the Text, and the Critic – the essay is called ‘Secular Criticism’ – Said does give an account of Auerbach’s exile in Istanbul, the necessity of his flight because of Nazi oppression and persecution, and the fact that this led to Auerbach to write Mimesis as an act of ‘civilizational survival’. Said, in fact, admires enormously Auerbach’s turning of his exile into a massive and brilliant intellectual recovery.

    In fact, if Said is to be faulted, it’s that he possibly exaggerates Auerbach’s plight in Istanbul. Auerbach, and Leo Spitzer, while exiled from the German intellectual context that was so important to them, nevertheless lived reasonably safely and comfortably in Istanbul. Said does not sufficiently investigate the specifics of Auerbach’s years in Istanbul.

    Also – surely you can’t fault Said for the cover illustration of the Princeton fiftieth anniversary edition of Mimesis!!! The chances are that he had very little influence over the cover choice, and that that rather rested with Auerbach’s estate.

    Best wishes

    Conor McCarthy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.