Blog Post

Scholar's Tales

Graphic by Michelle Jia and Wikipedia (I)

I have been reading Geoffrey Hartman’s A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe.  By “intellectual journey” Hartman means something like an autobiographical bibliography—it is full of stories surrounding his writing. I started reading it mostly for Hartman’s memories of Erich Auerbach, with whose work I have become a little infatuated.  The connection between the two of them might not be completely obvious at first, but a moment’s reflection makes it clear why Hartman dedicated his 1964 Wordsworth’s Poetry to the memory of Auerbach.  They are two of the great immanent readers of the twentieth century, who both move elegantly but determinedly back and forth between the micro-movement of a text and the macro-movement of a history.  Hartman’s tale doesn’t disappoint.  Beyond his recollection of a “gemütlich conversation every fortnight” in which Frau Auerbach always asked the young Hartman if he’d like a “a drop of rum” in his tea, there are a number of very short passages that get to the heart of both Auerbach’s work and the more nagging problem of the vague sense of autobiography that you feel lurking somewhere in Mimesis long before you hit the famous Epilogue.  After describing the two broad concepts Auerbach deploys, the doctrine of the levels of style, and Christian figural typology, Hartman remarks that “[w]hat makes both concepts moving and persuasive beyond the remarkable learning backing them up is that the first implies a sense of decorum or ‘aesthetic dignity’ one always felt in Auerbach as a person, while the second implicates, as a wonderful essay on ‘Philologie der Weltliterature’ makes clear, his own historical situation.”  The tension throughout Mimesis between an urge to hold on to a classical conception of aesthetic and human dignity meets the “historical situation” of the twentieth century: the transformation of Christian creaturalism into (the good version) modern conceptions of universal equality (legal, social, though rarely economic) and (the bad version) the commodification of human life itself.  If you insist everyone is (or should be) equal, can “dignity” exist at all?  In short, how can people be both equal and dignified, when, in the “historical situation” that he finds himself in, Auerbach seems to insist that both of those things must, somehow, be true?  Reading Mimesis, I can’t help but feel that it is his ability to write through this conundrum that gives the book much of its bite.  If Hartman is right (he usually is), it was also the central paradox of Auerbach’s life.

I was reminded of Hartman while reading Gordon Teskey’s remarkable analysis of biography, poetry, and theory in the most recent Spenser Review.  Teskey (at the urging of David Lee Miller) thinks through the links between recent biographies (by Benoît Peeters and Andrew Hadfield) of Derrida and Spenser, two authors whose urge to sprawl make it at times difficult to imagine that there could have been a single “life” holding them together as people.  Teskey thinks about this singularity as the “convergence” of philosophy and poetry: is there a moment when those two are, finally, the same thing, in the philosophical poetry of Spenser, or the poetic philosophy of Derrida?  In both, the violence of undermining something like what Auerbach calls decorum and dignity is obvious: “The practice of such universal overturning,” writes Teskey, “the practice of deconstruction, would be undiscriminatingly violent—and it would be so not in practice, by accident, as it were, but in principle, on purpose.”  Spenser, on the other hand, tries to cling to decorum, but he constantly delays his journey to integral meaning.  If the violence of Derrida emerges through the indiscriminate violence against hierarchy, the violence of Spenser emerges through the dedication to a hierarchy that never arrives.  Here is how Teskey puts it:  “The Mutabilitie Cantos arrive where Glas starts: at the agony of system. As Jove to Mutabilitie, so Hegel to Genet. The great difference is that Glas is on course for a burial, and funeral rites, in obedience to the tolling of its bell; and The Faerie Queene is on course to a marriage, even if the groom, Artegal—like Arthur himself—is already being mourned.”  Marriage or funeral?  Perhaps that is a more poetic way of putting the political-philosophical dilemma of Mimesis: dignity or equality?

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