Is it possible to grow into a critic of literature? Immediately, the question ought to be revised: is it possible to grow into admiring another reader of literature? The answer is unequivocally yes, just as it is possible to grow into admiration for an author of imaginative literature. The difference lies in the means available for growth: we can learn to appreciate an author partly by means of learning what another reader or critic can teach, by way of scholarship, description, analysis, or sustained dialogue with a text. But there are not many critics who illuminate other critics except implicitly, by way of having learned from them how to attend, ask, analyze, and describe; even teachers are not usually much help in getting us to see why a reader might help us better read.
I’m not such a relativist to suppose that critics are really doing such very different things, when they are true critics: I hold to the notion that criticism is interpretive, but that what its interpretation aims to grasp are the judgments of a work or author, and the conditions of judgments that are contained within each, so as to justify them. More broadly, I suspect critics are attuned, like the authors they write on, to what is bodily in literature, and to the status of literature as representing what is possible in the world, as a means of representing what is real in it (what is possible and what is actual are both part of what is real). We read literature, I suppose, to gain a sufficiently stable, coherent, and robust (awful word) representation of some reality to permit us to make better judgments about our own; it expands our sense of what is real, and it provides a measure of balance by virtue of the range of realities it allows for us to compare.
That said, I also have no doubt that in my experience at least, I’ve been unable to feel fully appreciative of a few critics whose brilliance I don’t doubt in the abstract, but which I’ve doubted in experience—which amounts, in the end, to the same thing. Erich Auerbach is foremost of these. Then, this week, I read the chapter on Racine (and French Classical Tragedy) in Mimesis and I found him immediately and irreplaceably helpful: a while ago, trying to write on Robert Lowell’s translations of Baudelaire, I came across a few claims that baffled me, and that led me to some confused claims and assumptions that lingered in my mind, doing harm to how I read.
The trouble, Lowell and others have agreed, with translating Baudelaire into English is that English lacks precedent and resources for finding equivalents to Baudelaire’s chief quality: his Classical Rhetoric. “Rhetoric” in English poetry comes into bad repute or else muddled repute; the notion of a “Classical” poetry likewise makes little sense in English as a fundamental part of any tradition and is often resurrected in moments of reaction against “Romanticism,” without much soundness, in English at least. Lowell goes further, in a note or letter, and opines that the trouble is Racine: the English have Shakespeare and Milton, but the French have Racine. By that, he means that the French have not only Racine but a tradition that Racine perfects and that remains a standard for poets since.
I half-understood what Lowell meant, but only half, and it was a less important half. Auerbach showed me. By “Classical,” Lowell means that Racine writes in an elevated and rarefied French; by “Rhetorical,” he meant that Racine’s characters addressed themselves to an audience, beyond the audience, beyond even their immediate counterparts on stage. Racine’s French is a sustained style that exists apart from everyday life, ordinary objects, petty feelings; unlike Milton’s English, it aspires to transcend any particular work, or time, or place, to strip itself away from the history of its making and the history it represents, and to offer a timeless diction and syntax, existing in an alternate Parnassian realm to which all poets have recourse and right of passage. (Milton’s “grand style,” with its etymological reinventions, its erudition, its self-conscious artifice, does not have the same effect). His characters do not merely self-dramatize; they dramatize for the universe, for the gods, as Shakespeare’s tragic heroes almost never do, uncertain as they are of their status, unsure, in the throes of their most intense fits of passion, whether they stand alongside or far beneath them.
Auerbach on Racine’s rhetoric:
What all these quotations bring out is the extreme exaltation of the tragic personage. Be it a prince who abandons himself to his love in his cabinet superbe et solitaire after saying to his retinue, que l’on me laisse; or be it a princess going aboard a ship which awaits her…the tragic personage is always in a sublime posture, in the foreground, surrounded by utensils, retinue, people, landscape, and universe, as by so many trophies of victory which serve it or are at its disposal. In this posture the tragic personage abandons itself to its princely passions. And the most impressive stylistic effects of this sort are those in which whole countries, continents, or even the universe appear as spectator, witness, background, or echo of the princely emotion.
And on the elevated style:
In the tragedies of French classicism, as will be self-evident after all that has been said, the strictest seclusion of the tragic personages and the tragic action from everything below them prevails. Even the prince’s immediate entourage is drawn upon only for a few figures indispensable to the action, or confidants; everyone else is on. The people are referred to but rarely and only in the most general terms. Details of everyday living, references to sleeping, eating and drinking, the weather, landscape, and time of day are almost completely absent; and when they do occur they are fused into the sublime style. The fact that no common word, no current term for any objects of daily use, is permitted, is generally known as a result of the violent polemic with which the Romanticists attached this style and of which the most vigorous and witty expression is probably found in Victor Hugo’s poem, Reponse a un acte d’accusation (in the Contemplations). From the almost too eloquent verses in which Hugo describes his revolt against the classical ideal of the sublime I have always remembered one as especially characteristic: “On entendit un roi dire: Quelle heure est-il?” Anything of the sort (In happens in Hugo’s Hernani) would in fact be completely incompatible with the sublime style of Racine.
In this sublimity which secludes and isolates them the tragic princes and princesses abandon themselves to their passions. Only the most important considerations, freed from the turmoil of everyday life, cleansed of its odor and flavor, penetrate their souls, which are thus wholly free for the greatest and strongest emotions.
The princely rank of these tragic personages and their concomitant exaltation have become part of their natural being, inseparable from their substance, and they appear before even God or death in the princely posture which is theirs by right; quite in a contrast to the “creatural” conception which we attempted to describe in our chapter on the fifteenth century. Yet it would be quite wrong if, as the romanticists sometimes did, we were to deny them everything natural and human, immediate and simple. At least in the case of Racine such a judgment betrays an utter lack of understanding. His characters are completely and exemplarily natural and human—only their emotion-charged and exemplarily human lives are lived on an exalted level, which to them has become normal. And indeed, at times it occurs that their very exaltation yields the most enchanting and profoundly human effects.
Reading these passages the other night, I felt genuine regret for having long owned and long been unable to properly read Auerbach’s criticism, mistakenly taking it to be in some way other than the criticism that most interested me: the close attentiveness, imaginative, iconoclastic, and proliferative readings of Empson, Davie, Ricks. But what Auerbach writes in these passages is essential criticism, as great as anything that any other critic I know in the twentieth century has written, in the sense that I cannot now imagine trying to write on Baudelaire’s rhetoric without them.
I have some sense of what I found difficult in Auerbach—it was not, I think, that he declines the New Critical revels in ambiguity (since I would count Empson or Davie or Ricks among the New Critics), but that he writes with a detachment that I found puzzling. Empson is not much inclined to make value judgments on works of literature, but he does so, and he frequently strikes the note of a moralist about the subjects of the literary works. But Ricks, Davie, Hill, Carne-Ross, Eliot…the other critics who first moved me…they all do. Reading them, I was (and am) persuaded that literature matters; that the difference of a word mean something beyond the formal perfection of a poem. I did not find that, could not find that, in Auerbach, even though I see now that it is there.
The trouble, of course, was history, and my cramped and warped sense of it. “I just wish he wouldn’t ignore history,” a professor of mine said of Christopher Ricks’ criticism, after lauding The Force of Poetry as the best book for grad students who want to learn how to read closely. But then what did that mean? And besides, Davie and Empson refer to history, to the politics of the world, to the traditions of faith and reason in which authors writes, to biography and the lived experience within and beyond literature. There too, I thought was history in some of Ricks’ criticism. Admittedly none of it looked like the historical criticism of many Marxist critics (of Fredric Jameson), of cultural studies, or of the Oxbridge and UK style of historicizing whereby authors are often reduced to recorders of cultural change or else intellectuals participating in past debates via works of literature. But I found little of that compelling, in so far as little of it did much for me to see why it made a work of literature any more or less interesting; in so far as little of it seemed to work into the intelligence of a work or author (or even era). And biography I found, and find, too dully arbitrary and trivial to illuminate much beyond dinner table conversation.
At the same time, I could not articulate much what the critics I liked were doing: making value judgments, yes, but not only that. They were not certainly providing “readings,” and I liked them the more for it. They were doing something interpretive, especially Empson, but not interpretive in the same was as Lacanian or Marxist critics, say…and they were not really belle-lettres critics, thank god. Some of the reason for the breakthrough with Auerbach has perhaps been because I can now reconcile his work to theirs, while admiring its very different scope and inheritance: the notion of interpreting the judgments of an author and how those judgments contain the conditions of their judgments has been liberating. And Auerbach can very much be seen to be doing the same thing.
What I can appreciate about him, now, though, that I could not before, is that he is able, because of his erudition, but also because of his imagination, to historicize the conditions of judgments. Here we are back to the old stumbling block: where does history get into criticism? Auerbach’s answer, never spelled out, I would suggest to be the following: among the judgments an author makes are judgments about their own historical standing. To properly assess the conditions of judgment that get within a work of literature, it is necessary to understand what authors think of history, of their place in history, or their identity in relation to what has come before and what will come after. Among the reasons literature changes is that authors view human history differently across time, understanding differently what history is, and what a span of time means for a human life; Auerbach is able, with few peers, to explicate how a sense of history gets into a work of literature. Under the inspiration of Vico, Auerbach’s historicism means acknowledging that an understanding of what is real at a given time will also include within itself an understanding of history itself, which is susceptible to change. “Reality” or a “world” is held together, constituted, by its own orientation within and towards history (sometimes erupting in debate on common grounds; other times more harmonized).
Mimesis is carried forward by two great concerns: one, a scale of language from the low to the high; the other, a sustained attention to the body as a subject matter cutting across time, by which comparisons between authors, between styles, between registers is possible. But both of those are enlisted in the exploration of how authors represent the “world” where the world is, axiomatically, understood as containing an awareness of its own past and present. And both of Auerbach’s concerns, a scale of styles and the body, are in turn defined and made meaningful by Auerbach’s implicit sense of a world as being “that which thinks itself historically.” The body’s significance, for instance, is altered as a Christian creatural realism gives way in the Renaissance, in part because of a fading Christian historical framework; in another case, the scars of the Ancient Greek warrior have a meaning in terms of an honor code that is itself understood historically, ensuring fame beyond the tomb.
More intriguingly, Auerbach’s tripartite scale of verbal registers, from the low to the high, is not only a borrowing from Roman rhetoric, but contains within itself different possibilities of significance; when Racine, for instance, employs an elevated style, he elevates himself beyond the contingencies of one historical instant, as the low, particular to time and place, does not. Style itself becomes a means for establishing a historical vantage point—and that, I think, is not true only of Racine, but for the elevated style in general. When a critic praises Geoffrey Hill for being able to manage to move between the high, middle, and low styles with ease, the praise does not refer to virtuosic but void technique; it refers to a range of imaginative and intellectual movement.
Mimesis is not literary history; it is literary criticism; it seeks to make sense of how authors get within their judgments the conditions of their judgments—but it takes as fundamental the belief that those judgments, and their conditions, are not only historical, but concern history. In the greatest works of literature, we can see historical awareness as a constitutive aspect of reality; the representation of the body as history.
I said that I find Auerbach helpful. He is because he makes us aware of just what must be recovered when we read, of just how much there is to interpret, and of the barriers that stand between us and the past: not barriers of dress or custom alone, but of self-understanding, since self is itself a nexus across time, which finds order as history.
Grasping that much about Erich Auerbach, I can grasp also how profoundly ethical his criticism, like all of the best criticism is, admiring virtue across divides in time, for the reason that virtue itself must always live within and constitute itself against, the threat of time’s divisions:
All this is serious and fundamental enough; it is much too high for the sermo humilis as understood in antique theory, and yet it could not be expressed in an elevated rhetorical style, without any concrete portrayal of the everyday; the mixture of styles is creatural and Christian. But the attitude is no longer Christian and medieval. One hesitates to call it antique either; for that, it is too rooted in the realm of the concrete. And still another point must here be considered. Montagine’s emancipation from the Christian conceptual schema did not—despite his exactly knowledge and continuous study of antique culture—simply put him back among the ideas and conditions among which men of his sort had lived in the days of Cicero and Plutarch. His newly acquired freedom was much more exciting, much more of the historical moment, directly connected with the feeling of insecurity. The disconcerting abundance of phenomena which now claimed the attention of men seemed overwhelming. The world—both outer world and inner world—seemed immense, boundless, incomprehensible. The need to orient oneself in it seemed hard to satisfy and yet urgent. True enough, all the important and at times as it were more than life-sized personages of his century, Montaigne is the calmest. He has enough of substance and elasticity in himself, he possesses a natural moderation, and has little need of security since it always reestablishes itself spontaneously within him. He is further helped by his resignedly negative attitude toward the study of nature, his unswerving aspiration toward nothing but his own self. However, his book manifests the excitement which sprang from the sudden and tremendous enrichment of the world picture and from the presentiment of the yet untapped possibilities the world contained. And—still more significant—among all his contemporaries he had the clearest conception of the problem of man’s self-orientation; that is, the task of making oneself at home in existence without fixed points of support. I him for the first time, man’s life—the random personal life as a whole—becomes problematic in the modern sense. That is all one dares to say. His irony, his dislike of big words, his calm way of being profoundly at ease with himself, prevent him from pushing on beyond the limits of the problematic and into the realm of the tragic, which is already unmistakably apparent in let us say the work of Michelangelo and which, during the generation following Montaigne’s, is to break through in literary form in several places in Europe. It has often been said that the tragic was unknown to the Christian Middle Ages. It might be more exact to put it that for the Middle Ages the tragic was contained in the tragedy of Christ. (The expression “tragedy of Christ” is no modern license. It finds support in Boethius and in Honorius Augustodunensis.) But now the tragic appears as the highly personal tragedy of the individual, and moreover, compared with antiquity, as far less restricted by traditional ideas of the limits of fate, the cosmos, natural forces, political forms, and man’s inner being. We said before that the tragic is not yet to be found in Montaigne’s work; he shuns it. He is too dispassionate, too unrhetorical, too ironic, and indeed too easy-going, if this term can be used in a dignified sense. He conceives himself too calmly, despite all his probing into his own insecurity. Whether this is a weakness or a strength is a question I shall not try to answer. In any case, this peculiar equilibrium of his being prevents the tragic, the possibility of which is inherent in his image of man, from coming to expression in his work.
Hardly opposed to the criticism I’ve enjoyed most, this is the ground on which it ought to proceed, a solidity and naturalness of understanding that represents critical knowledge at its truest. In it, the study of literature is realized and validated at once; it gets within itself the conditions of its judgment.