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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics

 

ID Mimesis

ID Mimesis: Mimesis and the Middle Ages: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach

Course Convenor: Dr Mark Chinca (mgc1000@cam.ac.uk), Section of German & Dutch

The late Edward Said once described Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis as a “work of truly outstanding influence and longevity.” First published in 1946, the book is still a major reference point in comparative literature studies, having survived (as Said notes) countless changes of critical paradigm.

For medievalists, Mimesis is essential reading on two counts. First, for its brilliant individual readings of canonical works and authors, each one making an important statement that continues to shape our response today. Second, Auerbach’s account of the transformations of codes of literary representation assigns a prime role to the Middle Ages: they are one of two epochs in the history of western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf (the other is modernity) that practiced a “serious realism” capable of “represent[ing] the most everyday phenomena of reality in a serious and significant context.”

Six seminars will consider Auerbach’s readings of specific medieval works and, just as importantly, interrogate the historical and theoretical pedigree of his guiding concepts: figural realism, stylistic mixing, perspectivism, and the notion of mimesis itself. They will additionally press the question of the relevance of Mimesis for our critical practice as medievalists today. Auerbach has often been accused of insufficient methodological rigor, and it is true that Mimesis doesn’t offer a definition of literature or set of interpretive tools we can extract and appropriate for our own purposes. On the other hand, Auerbach’s privileging of the fragmentary, his distrust of totalizing categories, his emphasis on the contingency and provisionalness of meaning—all qualities which incidentally he also attributes to medieval literary aesthetics—are features that resonate with the current “philological turn” in literary studies.

All assigned readings from Auerbach will be in English. Students are expected in their essays to demonstrate a reading competence in at least one medieval language.

Preliminary Reading:

Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New and expanded edition, with an introduction by Edward W. Said. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Preferably read the whole book, but if time is short, read at least Chapters 5–10, which discuss medieval literature, also Chapter 20 (on modernism, but with an important statement by Auerbach about his approach) and the Epilogue. 

 

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