Monday, 1 March 2010


I'm reading the great Erich Auerbach's superlative Dante: Poet of the Secular World. On every page, I keep coming across passages of enormous insight and beauty, written with a luminous depth of knowledge and heritage of rumination which would be unusual in a youngish scholar these days. Auerbach was 37 when it was published, some 17 years before his extraordinary Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature, one of the most important critical books of all time, emerged.

In the world of letters one comes across a very few people who seem simply to have read everything: Bloom, Bowra, Sontag, Tony Nuttall, and a small number of others. I often reflect that there must have been a historical point (or points) when the literal achievement of that task---universal reading---became humanly impossible, at the moment when the volume of written matter in the West became such that even if you read all day from adolescence until death over a normal lifetime you would not be able to get through it all. (The last person reputed to have 'read everything' in this sense is sometimes argued to be Coleridge.) It must have been impossible in late Antiquity too, but we have lost so much of the writing of the classical world that it is now certainly possible to have read pretty much all the literature (note the rider) that survives.

Here are some particularly good bits from Auerbach's beautiful study.

On Virgil:

This peasant's son from northern Italy, whom the most reserved of his contemporaries and even the political leaders of the day regarded as a favourite of nature and looked upon with a kind of loving awe, combined a deep attachment to the Italian soil with the highest culture of his time. Those two elements were so fused in him that his rural traditionalism seems to be the quintessence of a perfect culture, while his cultivation gives the impression of a profound natural wisdom, at once earthy and divine.

On the Gospels:

And the story of Christ revealed not only the intensity of personal life but also its diversity and the wealth of its forms, for it transcended the limits of ancient mimetic aesthetics. Here man has lost his earthly dignity: everything can happen to him, and the classical division of genres has vanished; the distiction between the sublime and the vulgar style exists no longer. In the Gospels, as in ancient comedy, real persons of all classes make their appearance: fishermen and kings, high priests, publicans and harlots participate in the action; and neither do those of exalted rank act in the style of classical tragedy, no do the lowly behave as in a farce; quite on the contrary, all social and aesthetic limits have been effaced.

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