By Jan Baetens
James I. Porter’s “Disfigurations: Erich Auerbach’s Theory of Figura” (Critical Inquiry, vol. 44-1, 2017, pp., 80-113) is one of the best essays I’ve read in recent months. It is a rereading of Erich Auerbach’s seminal study “Figura” of 1938 as well as a vital contribution to the cultural analysis of reading and storytelling, not in the empirical, but in the philosophical sense of the word.
At first sight, “Figura” is a typical philological study on the many meanings of this word and the semantic field it organizes. On a less superficial level, it is a reflection on two conflicting types of reading and interpretation by a German professor, one of the founding fathers of modern comparative literature, who had been forced to abandon his position at the university due to the Nazi anti-Jew laws. In “Figura”, Auerbach mainly distinguishes the allegorical way of reading, which wipes out the concrete historical event told by a story in favor of its symbolic and extra-temporal meaning, and the figural one, which maintains the reality of the historical event while reframing it as the symbolic announcement of some later event. The Christian reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition as a prefiguration of the New Testament is the classic example of such a conflict between allegorical and figural reading and the no-less-classic example of the victory of the figural over the allegorical. The figural will become the hegemonic way of reading between early Christianity, when this type of reading appears, and the Renaissance, when it rapidly vanishes as a dominating type of interpretation (after the Renaissance, the hegemony shifts from figural reading to “realist” reading, in a society whose dominant paradigm is increasingly that of science).
For contemporary readers, however, Auerbach (1892-1957) is not the author of “Figura” but of Mimesis, written in exile between 1942 and 1945. Mimesis, which has never been out of print, is a study of the progressive emergence of “realism” in Western literature, that is of a way of interpreting that emphasizes the literal, not the symbolic meaning of the text, even if the literal meaning is open to debate, and that highlights how stories are rooted in concrete historical and material contexts. Auerbach scholarship generally focuses either on “Figura” or on Mimesis, but rarely brings together both studies, as if the author’s attention had simply shifted from classic philology and symbolic reading to comparative literature and realism. Yet in “Disfigurations”, this is exactly what James I. Porter does: rereading Mimesis in light of “Figura”, not in order to find a dialectic synthesis of the two apparently conflicting poles, but in order to disclose the profound continuity in Auerbach’s thinking as well as the crucial importance of “realism” in the genesis and meaning of Mimesis itself, which was written in exile in Turkey (a then militantly nonreligious state). Auerbach’s great book, Porter argues, should be read not just as a defense of Western realism, but as a reaction against the symbolic –be it figural or, worse, allegorical– that was defended by Nazi philosophy, philology, theology, etc., to delete not only Jewish history and Jewish tradition but the typical way in which the Jewish tradition read its own stories, namely as realist stories deeply rooted in precise historical conditions yet utterly ambivalent and ambiguous –and therefore inevitably open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation and permanently inviting us to question our own relationship to the specific environment in which we are living here and now (including our fundamental incapacity to produce final and fixed meanings).
I must confess that I did not know James I. Porter’s work. Shame on me, but I have the excuse that he is working in a field (critical theory of ancient literature) that is not mine. Thanks to Critical Inquiry, the leading journal in my field, this excuse is now no longer valid, and of course I immediately ordered this book: Erich Auerbach. Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach. Ed. James I. Porter. Trans. Jane O. Newman. Princeton University Press, 2013. I haven’t read it yet, but I already recommend it very warmly!