Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Erich Auerbach

Quote of the Day

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If every man affords material and occasion enough for the development of the complete moral philosophy, then a precise and sincere self-analysis of any random individual is directly justified…And one’s own life, the life to whose movements one must listen, is always a random life, for it is simply one of the millions of variants of the possibilities of human existence in general.

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis

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December 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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May 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The writing in the dust

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A few days ago, I found myself thinking at length about what might well be the most moving passage in the entire Bible. It’s the scene in the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus, bring forward a woman taken in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned according to the law, only to hear him respond: “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone.” After the other onlookers drift off one by one, embarrassed, leaving just the woman behind, Jesus asks if anyone has condemned her. When she answers no, he says: “I don’t condemn you either. You’re free to go, but from now on, no more sinning.” (The story was memorably, if freely, adapted as one of the most powerful scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) In The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar writes of the passage:

The earliest ancient manuscripts of John do not have it, and modern scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel…An impartial evaluation of the story has been impeded by its preservation as part of the Gospel of John…The fundamental question is whether this anecdote is a fragment that survived from an otherwise unknown gospel. Had it been discovered as a separate piece of papyrus, it would have attracted serious scholarly attention in its own right.

In the end, the seminar endorses it mildly, less as a real incident than as a reflection of what we know about Jesus himself, and the companion volume The Five Gospels includes the remarkable line: “While the Fellows agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done.”

I feel the same way. But I haven’t even mentioned the one detail that has always struck me—and many other readers—the most. When the Pharisees first pose their question, Jesus doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he stoops down and silently draws on the ground with his finger. He responds only after they insist on a reply, and then he bends down to write in the dust again. It’s impossible to read this without wondering what he might have been writing, and nearly three centuries ago, the biblical commentator Matthew Henry did as good a job of summarizing the possibilities as anyone could:

It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing…Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so. Jerome and Ambrose suppose he wrote, Let the names of these wicked men be written in the dust. Others this, The earth accuses the earth, but the judgment is mine. Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once.

That last line seems reasonable enough, and Henry concludes: “He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider?”

And the passage, authentic or not, is also precious as one of the few everyday actions of Jesus that have been passed down to us. I’ve spoken elsewhere of a gospel of nouns and verbs, but nearly all of it occurs in Jesus’s words, not in descriptions of him preserved by others. Jesus writes on the ground; he falls asleep in a boat; he feels hungry; he breaks bread and pours wine; he weeps. There isn’t much more. Part of this reflects the fact that the gospels emerged from an oral tradition, but it also testifies to its debt to its literary predecessors. In his great book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach writes of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac:

In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the servingmen, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose “early in the morning” and “went unto” the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told…It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

At first glance, this style might seem primitive compared to that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but as Auerbach points out, its effect on its audience goes much deeper than what we find in Homer:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. 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…Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This is the tradition to which Jesus—a historical person who feels much closer to many of us than the distant, shadowy figure of Abraham—was subordinated by the author of the gospels. As a literary strategy, it was a masterstroke, and it went a long way toward enabling Jesus to strike up an existence in the inner lives of so many. (Which doesn’t mean that its virtues are obvious. Norman Mailer once said of the gospels: “Where you don’t have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story.”) It also means, for better or worse, that Jesus can mean all things to all people. We no longer see him clearly, and he’s being used even as I write this to justify all forms of belief and behavior. My version of him is no more legitimate than that of anyone else. But I prefer to believe in the man who drew that line in the sand.

Half of our life’s way

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Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Seven hundred and fifty years ago, Dante Alighieri was born. We know this because in The Divine Comedy—which explicitly takes place in the year 1300—Dante states that he had traveled “half of our life’s way” at the time of his journey. Based on the Biblical allotment of threescore and seven years, this would make him thirty-five as the poem begins, implying that he was born in 1265. His exact birthday is unknown, although Dante, as usual, leaves a few tantalizing clues for interpreters. He once told a friend that he was born in May, and based on a reference in Paradiso to the constellation of Gemini, which he notes was in the sky “when I first felt the air of Tuscany,” we can narrow it down even further. Commentators have tried ever since to pin down a specific date, most recently on the Paris Review blog, in which Damion Searls makes a convincing case for May 26, based on internal evidence from the rest of the poem. Still, we don’t know for sure. And while I’m aware that this is just wishful thinking, I’d like to believe that it might be May 31. Why? Because that’s my birthday, too.

In fact, I turned thirty-five yesterday, so the fact that this year also marks Dante’s sesquiquincentenary strikes me as personally significant. I’m well aware that there’s nothing more boring than reading someone else’s thoughts on a particular birthday: if you haven’t reached that age yet, you can hardly sympathize, and if you’re older, the last thing you want to hear is someone younger brooding over the meaning of it all. Yet I’ve been more conscious of this particular birthday than usual. Dante has been important to me ever since I read The Divine Comedy in a course taught by Lino Pertile in my freshman year of college, and at the time, his journey felt like the most vivid allegory that I’d ever encountered for my own progress through life. We all feel charged with significance in our late teens and early twenties, and looking back, I can smile a little at how readily I identified myself with one of the two greatest poets the western tradition has produced. But I never quite shook the sense that, like Dante, I was waiting for a Virgil to appear, and that my life would be spent preparing to answer that call when it came. So even if this birthday doesn’t represent the halfway point in my life, on some level, it feels like it does.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Dante wasn’t thirty-five when he wrote The Divine Comedy, of course: he seems to have begun drafting the poem around 1308, or eight years after the end of its internal narrative, and continued to labor on it for the next twelve years. Placing the journey earlier in his own life was a conscious poetic strategy. As with other works of encyclopedic fiction, setting it in the recent past allows Dante to prophesy accurately about events that have yet to occur within the poem’s timeline, notably his own exile, which lends credibility to the other predictions he makes. As it happened, one big prediction turned out to be wrong: he died at fifty-six, not seventy, which means that he was well past the midpoint of his own lifespan at the time the poem begins. Obviously, there’s no way that he could have known this—although he speaks with such prophetic authority elsewhere that it seems slightly surprising. But it’s also hard for us to imagine him outliving the poem’s completion. More than any other writer I know, Dante is his major work: it’s all but impossible to separate Dante the Pilgrim from the poet who constructs the seven circles of Hell. And when the poem was done, so was he.

Which feels like a lesson for all of us. It can be easy to forget that Dante’s poem was, in part, a reaction to the fact that his life had not gone as he had planned. As Erich Auerbach puts it so unforgettably:

Beyond a doubt [Dante] was the wisest, most resolute man of his time; according to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.

The Divine Comedy was an effort to create, in poetry, the kind of order that he sought but failed to find in his own life. All authors do this to some extent; what sets Dante apart was how brilliantly he succeeded. His poem endures as the events of his time have not, and to the extent that we still care at all about the Gulephs, the Ghibellines, and the Florentine politics of that era, it’s because Dante put them in a poem. (Countless figures of that period, both friends and enemies, endure only because he consigned them to a few lines of torment or redemption.) Dante never ruled, at least not in the way he wanted, but he lives for us in a way that no ruler ever will. Whether or not this provided him with any consolation is unclear—but it consoles me. A human life makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.

Written by nevalalee

June 1, 2015 at 10:09 am

The better part of valor

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This morning, I published an essay in The Daily Beast on Karl Rove’s curious affection for the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a connection that I’ve found intriguing ever since Rove mentioned it two years ago in a Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair. Borges, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising, to say the least, to find myself agreeing with Rove on something so fundamental. It’s also hard to imagine two men who have less in common. While Rove jumped with both feet into a political career, and was cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks before he was out of college, Borges survived the Peron regime largely by keeping his head down, and in later years seemed pointedly detached from events in Argentina. It’s a mistake to think of him as an entirely apolitical writer—few authors of his time wrote more eloquently against the rise of Nazism—but it’s clear that for much of his life, he just wanted to be left alone. As a result, he’s been criticized, and not without reason, for literally turning a blind eye on the atrocities of the Dirty War, claiming that his loss of eyesight made it impossible to read the newspapers.

This policy of avoidance is one that we often see in the greatest writers, who prudently decline to engage in politics, often for reasons of survival. Shakespeare was more than willing, when the occasion demanded it, to serve as the master of revels for the crown, but as Harold Bloom points out, he carefully avoided any treatment of the political controversies of his time, perhaps mindful of the cautionary fate of Christopher Marlowe. Discretion, as Falstaff advises us, is the better part of valor, and also of poetry, at least if the poet wants to settle into a comfortable retirement in Stratford. Dante, Shakespeare’s only peer among Western poets, might seem like an exception to the rule—he certainly didn’t shy away from political attacks—but his most passionate jeremiads were composed far from Florence. “Beyond a doubt he was the wisest, most resolute man of his time,” Erich Auerbach writes. “According to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.”

Borges, too, chose exile, spending his declining years overseas, and finally died in Geneva. It’s a pattern that we see repeatedly in the lives of major poets and artists, especially those who emerge from nations with a history of political strife. The great works of encyclopedic fiction, as Edward Mendelson reminds us, tend to be written beyond the borders of the countries they document so vividly: the closing words of Ulysses, the encyclopedia of Dublin, are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” This is partly the product of sensible caution, but it’s also a professional necessity. Most creative work is founded on solitude, quiet, and a prudent detachment from the world, and any degree of immersion in politics tends to destroy the delicate thread of thought necessary for artistic production. Even when writers are tempted by worldly power, they’re usually well aware of the consequences. Norman Mailer, writing of his doomed run for mayor of New York, observes of himself, in the third person: “He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.”

In the end, as Mailer notes acidly, “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” Which is all for the best—otherwise, we never would have gotten The Executioner’s Song or Of a Fire on the Moon, not to mention Ancient Evenings, which is the sort of foolhardy masterpiece, written over the course of a decade, that could only be written by a man whose political ambitions have been otherwise frustrated. Besides, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, novelists don’t make good politicians. And their work is often the better for it. In the case of Borges, there’s no question that much of what makes him great—his obsession with ideas, his receptivity to the structures of speculative fiction, his lifelong dialogue with all of world literature—arose from this tactical refusal to engage in politics. Unable or unwilling to criticize the government, he turned instead to a life of ideas, leaving behind a body of extraordinary fiction defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. And I don’t think any sympathetic reader would want it any other way.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 1, 2012 at 7:30 am

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The true origins of Don Quixote

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Whatever [Cervantes’s] intention may have been…it most certainly did not consciously and from the beginning propose to create a relationship like that between Don Quijote and Sancho Panza as we see it after having read the novel. Rather, the two figures were first a single vision, and what finally developed from them—singly and together—arose gradually, as the result of hundreds of individual ideas, as the result of hundreds of situations in which Cervantes puts them and to which they react on the spur of the moment, as the result of the inexhaustible, ever-fresh power of the poetic imagination.

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2012 at 9:50 am

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