Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Erich Auerbach on Goethe and realism

My messy living room
 Edward Mendelson, in the first of his three talks at Columbia University on Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, mentioned  Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis chapter on Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. I took a look at that chapter, which is entitled “The Brown Stocking” (“Der braune Strumpf” in the German version). As is typical with Auerbach, it is an astonishing close reading of a small episode in Woolf’s novel. There is what Auerbach calls an “exterior occurrence,” which he calls “entirely insignificant” in itself — Mrs. Ramsay is measuring a sock on her son James who will not stand still — while the rest of the episode is devoted almost entirely to “inner processes,” movements in the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay. If you have read Woolf’s novels, you will know about the role that such parentheses play in Woolf’s storytelling, which don’t move the story “forward” much -- action is not the point -- but instead paint the world through a series of changing impressions, all rendered via a point of view. “The Brown Stocking” is the last chapter in Mimesis.

The English-language copy of Mimesis that I own has been in my possession since I was in graduate school at the University of Texas eons ago. Back when I bought the book, I was not so wrapped up with Goethe and noted that the only German text treated by Auerbach was  Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe. After reading the chapter on To the Lighthouse, however, I consulted the index and discovered that Auerbach had some comments on Goethe in two long sections of earlier chapters. One is in the chapter on Shakespeare and deals with the mixing of styles in Germany in the 18th century; the other is in the Schiller chapter. What he said about Goethe interested me so much that when I went to hear Edward Mendelson last evening I stopped at the Columbia library and checked out the German version for comparison.

Felicitas Hoppe on red sofa
Auerbach’s subject, as per the subtitle, is the representation of reality in Western literature (in German: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der Abendländischen Literatur). It begins with the famous chapter entitled “The Scar of Odysseus” (Die Narbe des Odysseus), although the true focus is the superiority of the Biblical account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the representation of earthly reality. In the Schiller chapter, Auerbach elucidates why Germany in the 18th century, despite its overthrowing of French normative poetics, especially as expressed in the earthy depictions of domestic life by Sturm und Drang dramatists, did not evolve a full-fledged realism showing the interaction of the dynamic forces of history with the lives of individuals. Such an interaction was the subject of Schiller’s drama, but Schiller, especially in depicting his villains as out-and-out scoundrels, depriving them of “their inner essence” (ihres inneren Wesens beraubt), resulted not in a realist drama, but melodrama — and propaganda (sehr wohl geeignet, eine starke, gefühlsmäßige politische Wirkung auszulösen). And that was basically where realism in the depiction of contemporary subjects ended.

Goethe, Auerbach contends, endowed as he was with “so much natural talent for grasping the sensory and real” (weil kein anderer Schriftsteller so viel natürliche Anlage zum Ergreifen des Sinnlichen und Wirklichen mitbrachte)— as seen in his early works — might have led the way, but such realism as exists in his later works was applied in a very narrow domain, e.g., in portions of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The “contemporary shuffling of social strata” finds no expression in Goethe. Auerbach writes: Goethe, "the burgher’s son in a class-conscious social order” (der Bürgerssohn aus der ständischen Gesllschaftsordnung) was instead “irresistibly inclined toward harmonious development of his own nature. … He, too, like Wilhelm Meister, sought his own particular way out of his bourgeois class, without concerning himself with whether and how the constitution of society might one day change.” Despite his father’s mistrust, he went to Weimar, where, “within the narrowest frame, [he] created for himself a universal position which was perfectly suited to him.” (For German, see p. 396 of the original.)

These comments helped me in my understanding of Elective Affinities. The “immobility of the social background” in this novel is even stronger than in the Wilhelm Meister novel. In a sense, it might be said that the characters resemble the Homeric ones treated in the first chapter of Mimesis, who, in Auerbach’s memorable phrasing, “wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives.” Change was something that Goethe came to dislike, especially violent, disorderly change, and he simply turned his back on it. A passage in the appendix to his translation of Cellini indicates that Goethe believed that it was only in the flowering of aristocratic cultures that significant individuals could develop unimpeded. The result: “We are left with the conclusion that Goethe never represented the reality of contemporary life dynamically, as the germ of developments in process and in the future.” (Als Ergebnis bleibt, daß Goethe die Wirlichkeit des ihm zeitgenössischen gesellschaftlichen Lebens niemals dynamisch, niemals als Keim werdender und zukünftiger Gestaltungen dargestellt hat.)

(Re the photos here: for some reason Google is not allowing me to import pictures from the internet, even from the Goethezeitportal. Thus, the ones here show the present reality of my life.)

No comments: