Earthly Happenings


James Ley in The Sydney Review of Books:

‘Odysseus’ Scar’, the opening chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), is a classic of twentieth century literary criticism — a brilliant comparative reading of sections of theOdyssey and the Book of Genesis as foundational texts of Western literature’s two great informing traditions: the Hellenic and the Judaeo-Christian. Auerbach first draws our attention to the moment in book nineteen of theOdyssey, after Odysseus has returned in disguise from his wanderings, when the old servant woman Euryclea notices a scar on his leg and recognises him. At this point in the narrative, there is a long digression that explains how Odysseus came to have the scar (a hunting accident) and how Euryclea is aware of this because she has known him since he was young. Auerbach contrasts this with the biblical story of Abraham, whom God orders to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Here we find a very different style of narrative, notable for its lack of explanatory detail. God speaks to Abraham from a contextless void. Abraham obeys without question. He travels for three days to the place where he is to kill his son, but details of the journey and his state of mind are absent.

Encoded in these contrasting narrative styles, argues Auerbach, are fundamentally different ways of representing and therefore understanding reality. In the Odyssey, as in the Iliad, there is only foreground. Everything is explained and externalised; nothing is allowed to remain obscure. People do not change: they are who they are. Homer’s poetry can thus be analysed but it does not lend itself to reinterpretation. The elliptical Old Testament stories, on the other hand, open up interpretive spaces that admit figurative readings. Their perplexing omissions, which leave their protagonists’ motivations shrouded in mystery, create suspense and psychological intrigue.

So it is the biblical style that anticipates the modern notion of character as a layered psychological phenomenon, something that retains an element of inscrutability and is capable of developing over time. But no less important for Auerbach is the implication of an entirely different conception of history.

More here.