Blog Post

Auerbach's Languages

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

For the last five years I have been working on a project on the idea of the Renaissance in the work of Erich Auerbach. I have discovered that there is a peculiar irony in the scholarship: the author whose signature phrase was the “serious representation of daily life” has been regularly treated as a decorous academic aristocrat: Mount Auerbach, the Virgil of criticism.  One of the pleasures of research has been, in contrast, discovering an Auerbach of daily life. Kader Konuk’s study of Auerbach in Istanbul has helped give some texture to his biography in wartime Istanbul (despite the old story, there were, in fact, books). What interests me more, though, is the daily life of his critical writing, so to speak—the quotidian in his style and in his arguments. One thing I am trying to do with the study of the Renaissance is draw out the mix of decorum and quotidian in Auerbach’s writing style. Peering beneath the polish of Auerbach’s critical art, reading him as less a master than a master of a mixed style, reveals an academic regularly struggling to figure out what his thesis is—that is, reveals a person in history, not above history.  

That struggle applies to something Auerbach is justly famous for—his mastery of languages. His command of languages has often made Auerbach seem inimitable. Auerbach knew German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, English, Spanish, Provençal, and probably a few others (not counting the many medieval versions and dialects of all of these), and he knew them all very well. But his language proficiency was hardly effortless. In October 1949, his second year in the United States, Auerbach gave the very first of what would come to be called the Gauss seminars at Princeton (the topics were Pascal, Baudelaire, and Flaubert; the story comes from a memoir by Robert Fitzgerald). During the q&a at the second lecture, someone in the audience remarked that an artist “always had formed material on his hands, was stuck with it.” “Stuck with it?” asked Auerbach, “all polite attention but puzzled by the idiom” (28).   

This sort of moment reminds me why I like Auerbach so much—it is the type of scene he himself was so good at reading. In April 1948, Auerbach wrote to Benedetto Croce from “The Pennsylvania State College” (Auerbach’s first teaching position in the United States; he’d left Istanbul for America with no secure employment, though he received offers to return to Germany), in part to tell Croce he has sent him a copy of Mimesis. But, adds Auerbach, “vedo bene che non trova tempo, con tanto lavoro, nella nona decade della Sua bella vita, di leggere un volume di 500 pagine”; “but I know that you won’t find time, with so much work, in the ninth decade of your beautiful life, to read a 500 page book.” A very charming sentence, but Auerbach is worried it doesn’t sound quite right:

Scusi, prego, il mio ‘cativo stile.’ Da quindici anni, parlo tutte le lingue—scrivo in tedesco, francese, italiano, inglese, latino—ho insegnato in francese a Istanbul, vi ho parlato ogni giorno quattro o cinque lingue—persino un po’ di turco—ed adesso ho da insegnare in inglese. E di tutta questa ‘poliglotnia’ ho imperato che non si può saper bene una lingua sola, la lingua materna.

Please excuse my “terrible style.” For fifteen years, I’ve been speaking all the languages—I write in German, French, Italian, English, Latin—I taught in French in Istanbul, I spoke four or five languages everyday—even a little Turkish—and now I have to teach in English.  And in all this “polyglotness” I have learned that you can only know well one language alone, your mother tongue.

Auerbach has received some criticism that he was too Eurocentric (these are not “tutte le lingue”), that he wasn’t interested enough in Turkey, that he kept writing all his research in German after he’d moved to the United States. But it is not unlike the young Milton proclaiming “Hail native language”: you only say what you want to say, to the extent that you ever can, in the language that made you into yourself. Auerbach knew a lot of languages, but, in the end, even he knew only one, the one that, as Milton puts it, “Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak.”  

That sentiment appears elsewhere in his correspondence with Croce (sixty letters survive), which was conducted entirely in Italian, with one crucial exception. Over the course of twenty-five years, they formed what seems to have been a close, if professional, friendship. From beginning to end, they were both great fans of Vico—the relationship began in the 1920s, with Auerbach, a largely unknown librarian in Berlin (but with powerful academic advisors), writing to Croce about the publication and translation of Croce’s book on Vico. In these early letters, Auerbach is at times painfully obsequious, or at least overly polite. He learns at one point that Croce will be in Berlin, and he writes (it is in italics in the edited version): “I am always at your disposal if you have need of me. I am at the library every day until 3pm, and then almost always at home.” (letter 18) The correspondence ends in 1952, with Auerbach writing a simple, touching note to Croce’s widow: “his was one of the most beautiful lives with which I’ve had acquaintance” (letter 61).  

The relationship was sometimes tense, and the stress manifests itself in the one notable linguistic shift. Auerbach writes on 18 December 1928 that he has sent a copy of his first book, Dante als Dichter der irdischen Welt, to Croce, but Auerbach is clearly nervous: he mentions the book only in the middle of the letter. A week later—Christmas Day, 1928—Auerbach writes to Croce again. He has received a letter (apparently lost), in which Croce must have written something sharply critical about Auerbach’s book (did Croce really read it that fast?).  The letter begins by declaring, in Italian, “Please permit me to write today in German.” Auerbach then proceeds, in German, to explain that the main point of his book is on page 108 in the paragraph that starts, “Allein die Menschen” (page 86 in the English version, if you are interested) and that the argument is both the fruit of, and an absolute opposition to, Croce’s writing on poetry and expression. I should add that he also says, in German, that it is more of an honor to be refuted by Croce than to be praised by someone else; and Auerbach inserts into his German a phrase in Greek that, to the best guess of experts in the classics department at Toronto, makes no sense at all (whether the fault of Auerbach or the editor of the correspondence, who knows). When Croce’s review finally comes out, Auerbach writes again, in Italian, and is remarkably chipper. “Thanks for your most friendly review! I expected your opposition, but not the courtesy with which you expressed it.” Maybe too chipper: others have not found Croce’s review very courteous—Riccardo Castellana calls it “una vera e propria stroncatura,”—a real trashing. To me Croce’s review sounds a little petty, but often fair, and it is clear that Auerbach took his criticism very seriously.  Still, when it came to defending (or simply repeating) his thesis, Auerbach did not trust to Italian. You only have one mother tongue, and to defend himself he turned back to it.

Auerbach probably felt more comfortable writing in French than Italian. In May 1936, for instance, he wrote to Giulio Bertoni, the editor of the Italian journal Archivum romanicum, about putting together a festschrift for Leo Spitzer. Bertoni was friends with Spitzer, and Archivum romanicum was one of the only journals in which German Jewish authors could publish.  Complicated times: the journal was funded in part by Mussolini. But Auerbach wrote to Bertoni in French, not Italian. He apologized for doing so on the grounds that it was the language he was speaking everyday in Geneva, where Auerbach was practicing speaking in preparation for his move to Istanbul, where he would teach in French. When he wrote to Bertoni two years later (April 1938) to offer his essay “Figura” for publication, Auerbach again wrote in French: “je l’ai écrits en allemand et avant de le traduire je cherche un moyen de le publier en allemand, puisque la traduction serait assez difficile à faire”; “I wrote it in German and before translating it I am looking for a way to publish it in German, given that the translation would be rather difficult to do.” He does not add what language he was thinking of translating it into, but I imagine it was Italian. Unsurprisingly, Bertoni accepted it in German (a common language in Archivum romanicum). But imagine what “Figura” would look like were it originally published in Italian, rather than simply in an Italian journal. 

I don’t mean to overemphasize Auerbach’s language troubles; they are, in some respects, a sign of his astonishing auto-didacticism. His languages are less a result of his training than his temperament, his urge to learn what he needed to learn in order to write what he wanted to write… in German. And the occasional slips in his letters to Croce (he gets the odd preposition wrong) might be taken as signs that you do not need to be a specialist, or be perfect, to make a point. I had had a fantasy that the reason there are only two chapters in Mimesis on English language writers (Shakespeare and Woolf) was that English was Auerbach’s worst language; when Harry Levin met Auerbach in Cambridge, MA in fall 1947, they spoke mostly French. But then I heard an audio recording that has resurfaced of Auerbach delivering a lecture on Dante—in English—at Penn State just a few months later, in March 1948.  Auerbach spoke English very, very well. Apparently, he learned fast.

The best part of the recording? Hearing him read passages in Dante’s Tuscan: he sings them. A mixed-style on the page and on audio tape, and the result is the image of the man eclipses the image of the God. That eclipse in Dante, Auerbach argued in Mimesis, was the inauguration of the Renaissance.  There is the Auerbach that interests me.

Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.