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Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

4.22  ·  Rating Details ·  2,273 Ratings  ·  86 Reviews
One of the most significant works of literary criticism of this century, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis undertakes a new and profound approach to major moments in Western literature. More than a work of literary criticism, this study is filled with insights into the Western imagination and Western culture itself, in its repeated attempts to master and control reality and experie ...more
Paperback, 498 pages
Published 1957 by Doubleday Anchor (first published 1946)
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Mimesis is an astonishing look at the history of Western literature, remarkable not only for its discussion of nearly everything between the Odyssey and Proust, but also how he has something original to say about all of these.

All of these essays would work on their own, and be respected pieces in their fields. The first chapter, Odysseus' scar, is still used by classicists today. Each chapter benefits from close readings of the texts, and extensive quotations in the original language. But the wh
Jim Coughenour
Maybe the most impressive work of literary criticism ever written, not least because of the circumstances under which it was composed: Auerbach, a German philologist fired by the Nazis for being a Jew, in exile in an Istanbul library as European civilization destroyed itself — re-imagining the literature that had given it birth. The book's insights are inexhaustible. I've returned to it again and again for 30 years.

Mar 02, 2014 Bruce rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fleeing the Nazis in 1935, the noted German philologist and scholar of comparative literature and criticism Erick Auerbach settled in Istanbul where, without access to his extensive library, he wrote Mimesis – The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a prime example of what subsequent scholars have come to call historicism. This is an amazing book, as fascinating as it is dense, as provocative in its ideas as it is impressive. For the interested reader I would suggest beginning with ...more
Sep 21, 2008 Leslie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This thing blew my mind.
Studying the progressive combination of tragic seriousness with the everyday.

Odysseus' Scar: We are ever foregrounded in the present. No such thing as flashbacks in the characters' minds; the narrator leaves aside the present narrative to tell a past narrative. It is not therefore a multi-layered telling (as is common in modern fiction) but a simple movement on a linear surface line.

... progressive awareness of social strata, the backgrounded figural meaning, etc...

... Farinate and Cavalcante: W
I read this in a reading/discussion group with Dr. Richard Stivers, Dr. James Van Der Laan, Rochelle Stivers, and Brian Simpson while in Normal at ISU and finished 18 months after moving to Urbana.

We read a chapter a month (basically) and also read whichever book went along with that chapter. I am not sure when we started but it took us a couple of years. Before reading the final chapter and Woolf's To the Lighthouse we read several other books from around that time frame that were not covered b
This book is encompassing and mind-bending in that specifically unique way that will make some people revere it like a religious text and will drive other people absolutely nuts.

As you can see from all the stars I threw at it in my rating, I lean more towards the former camp. I can very much understand why/how someone would wind up disagreeing with Auerbach's thesis (and even more so with his methodology in getting there), but at the same time this book has such an open, ambitious, and kind of
Andrew Sydlik
Oct 10, 2010 Andrew Sydlik rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I may or may not return to this; I only I had to read selected chapters for a class: the chapters on Odysseus and the Hebrew Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and the last three (18 and 19, whose starting points are Stendhal and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s Germinie Lacerteux respectively, are more or less surveys of 18th century French Romanticism and emerging realism, touching also upon Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola; 20 looks at Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, while also looking at ...more
Víctor Sampayo
Feb 12, 2015 Víctor Sampayo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
La erudición de Erich Aurebach en las lenguas románicas se demuestra en este libro que busca explorar los orígenes de la tradición literaria —y de la forma en que se ha escrito sobre la realidad— en Occidente. El ambicioso análisis comprende más de 3 mil años de textos y está articulado por una comparativa que va desde la antigüedad clásica al modernismo; es decir, desde Homero, la Biblia, algunos historiadores romanos, San Agustín, Bocaccio, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, hasta Voltai ...more
Mar 29, 2010 Andrew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A biggun' in literary criticism. Auerbach's book is a series of discussions about discrete works, progressing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. I felt like I was prepared to dive into this book based on my high-school curriculum and some more recent "Great Books" remedial reading (Dante).

The book doesn't so much lay out a theory of literary criticism, but instead provides examples of how Auerbach reads and thinks about reading. He stays very close to the text of every work he selects, so you won't
Nancy Burns
I tried yet again to read another chapter in this book...but
time invested does not deliver enough rendement.
This book is considered a masterpiece of literary criticism.
I am leaving this book after 8 chapters...unfinished. It is just not for me.
Next book literary criticism will be by Northrop Frye.
His writing is ' more down to earth' so this mere mortal can understand what he is saying!
Every essay I've read so far has been really interesting (which is only three). I've enjoyed the first one "Odysseus's Scar" the most. I'd never really thought to look at the Bible's narrative structure in contrast to Homer (I mean, why would I?) but I found the patterns that he pointed out were actually really useful in thinking about fiction (and the back and forth in the way people think about fiction over the centuries, ie: the stuff I studied for Comps). For a theory book especially, this i ...more
Jan 03, 2014 Barry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Reading and thinking about Ranciere's Aisthesis has led me to return to Auerbach's Mimesis, which I read many years ago, and this reaffirms my intuition that Mimesis is still the pinnacle of literary criticism/history/theory/whatever you want to call it.
Jun 29, 2014 Dayla rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all classic literature professors
Recommended to Dayla by: Professor Tim Aubry
The title, Mimesis, is very insightful just by itself. The idea put forth by Auerbach is that literature is an imitation of the contemporary society from which it was spawned. The protagonist's feelings, mental agility, ability to think beyond the foreground is all very well "painted" in the literature itself.

In reading reviews of Mimesis, I came across Benjamin Walter's 1953 analysis of the book, in which he makes a comparison between Plato's skeptical and hostile feelings toward mimesis (read
Oct 07, 2010 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I wish I had more time and intelligence at my disposal to fully drink from Auerbach's well. His analysis and comparison of various literary texts and what it reveals about the societies that produced them yield enormous fruit, with much of it out of my reach.

My only complaint is that, while he draws great insights out of Biblical texts, he is unnecessarily polemical in ways that are not important to his argument. For example, when discussing Genesis he talks of 'The Elohist writes' (referring t
Mateo R.
Interesantísimo (por lo menos para mí, que estudio Letras) lo que escribe Auerbach, no lo había leído. En el "club de lectura" en el que estoy tocaba un fragmento del primer capítulo y me lo comí todo (el capítulo) entero. Me gustó mucho cómo describe las diferencias estilísticas de los textos homéricos y los bíblicos. La Biblia la leí 3 veces (bah, 2, la primera fue una versión abreviada), pero hace mucho, cuando estaba decidiendo mis creencias. Siempre he querido releerla como a un relato épic ...more
Aug 11, 2012 Parke rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the greatest works of criticism in the 20th century and he did it without almost any access to books, notes, or anything else. The part on Odysseus's scar is legendary (excuse the pun.) This man loved books and so he ingested them for future reference. His commitment to reading closely for the details that shine is something all too lost in most of today's quickreads.
Jun 06, 2016 James rated it it was amazing
We are on a philological deep dive. We enter upon the primitive then progress and deteriorate back to the primitive: the unexpressed insights in western literature drive us ahead to self-understanding. Simply stated, the history of Western representations of reality are of personal curiosity, knowledge, and inheritance.

The poems of Homer delight us with "battles and passions, adventures and perils" of finite existence in the material world. Into that concrete world, the ancient literature revea
Nov 08, 2011 Seana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was why I read Mimesis. I sure am glad I did. It's only been a few years now, but it's probably time I read it again.
Justin Lau
Oct 12, 2016 Justin Lau rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Only read the first chapter, 'Odysseus' Scar', a brilliant essay about differing representations of reality in Homer's 'Odyssey' and the Old Testament.
Mar 02, 2014 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Critiquing Auerbach’s critical survey of Western literature is well beyond my capabilities. This philologist, capable of reading several different languages, selects passages from almost two dozen works in their original languages. He not only reads them and dissects them; he places his ear next to them. He listens to the syntax. And he hears the beat of Western literature. A rhythmic evolution. As the title stolidly asserts, a transformation to mimesis. Auerbach is “looking for representations ...more
Rex Deverell
Feb 06, 2014 Rex Deverell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those magisterial books tracking the development of literature. Auerbach explores each stage of the way poets and authors through the ages conveyed what they took to be reality. Each chapter begins with a reading from literature of the period. Auerbach, beginning with the Homer and the Bible down to Virginia Woolf. Even the way the book is written bears out his theme - that, more and more, everything in literature - style, subject and theme - has become about everything else. It's ...more
Antonis Michailidis
Ένα πολύ απαιτητικό βιβλίο που απαιτεί γνώση της ευρωπαϊκής λογοτεχνίας. Μόλις το ολοκληρώσεις, είσαι διαφορετικός άνθρωπος.
Aug 29, 2012 Fania rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Still masterly, in the better sense. The first chapter is mind-bending, in the better sense again.
Vincent Flock
Jan 22, 2008 Vincent Flock rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Literature students,history students
Someone who reads Mimesis and expects an orderly treatise with a very particular and all-encompassing claim may be a bit frustrated by Auerbach's tendency to linger on the specific examples and works that he cites and his occasional tangents and loose organization... but others will find that the insights he provides for these works are piercing and erudite and that, though there is no clearly stated thesis to encapsulate the evolution of representation over the centuries, one still leaves with ...more
Nov 26, 2012 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this book in the Seminary bookstore when I was in grad school, and it piqued my interest from the first few pages where Auerbach compared Homer's view of reality in the recognition of Odysseus by the scar he bore to that of the Biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. His skill was in close reading of the texts, allowing the language to convey its meaning without recourse to outside authority. Throughout the book, from ancient stories to the modern writers of his own time in the e ...more
Ann Michael
This book was written by a German scholar versed in many languages, mostly ancient (or middle-era, ie 14th c French) who exiled himself from Germany during WWII and spent the time--apparently--reading and thinking about how art learned to imitate life.

It's excellent but not for everyone--much more of a scholarly read and too academic for many contemporary readers, I'm guessing. Nonetheless, I found his arguments generally quite readable...some dense grammatical-rhetorical jargon notwithstanding.
Feb 22, 2015 sologdin rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-theory
one of the great works of philology/literary criticism in world history. opens with a famous reading of homer and the hebrew scripture, and builds it episodically through history, culminating in To the Lighthouse, which is perhaps as it should be.

Written while on the run from the NSDAP and without his library (though not without a library, as folk history has it), has as its purpose tracing the "complete emancipation" from the doctrine of the ancients regarding literary representation, one whic
Oct 19, 2016 Dj rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: have
Even though Auerbach was a revolutionary in his search for reality in western literature, the book is outdated and difficult to read if you are not sufficient in Latin, Italian and German.

I definitely recommend this text if you want to learn more about the writing styles of the best authors who have every lived. Auerbach himself though, is sometimes difficult to follow and difficult to understand.
Gilbert Wesley Purdy
A sampling of the progress of realism in literature from The Odyssey to Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. Each major work is explored through an extended representative quote in the original language and in English translation. (It is not clear that all editions included the translations. This one, however, does.) Related works both from the time and from modern scholarship are brought into each discussion.

Mimesis is not only filled with remarkable insights on the works Auerbach chooses as exe
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German philologist Erich Auerbach served as professor of Romance philology at Marburg University (1929-35), taught at the Turkish State University in Istanbul (1936-47), and became professor of French and Romance philology at Yale University in 1950. He published several books and many papers on Dante, Medieval Latin literature, methods of historical criticism, and the influence of Christian symbo ...more
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“The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.” 4 likes
“Abraham’s actions are explained not only by what is happening to him at the moment, nor yet only by his character (as Achilles’ actions by his courage and his pride, and Odysseus’ by his versatility and foresightedness), but by his previous history; he remembers, he is constantly conscious of, what God has promised him and what God has already accomplished for him—his soul is torn between desperate rebellion and hopeful expectation; his silent obedience is multilayered, has background. Such a problematic psychological situation as this is impossible for any of the Homeric heroes, whose destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly.” 4 likes
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