So I’m hand-coding an EPUB file to salvage a badly-OCRed and not-much-better auto-converted PDF, because these are the things I do when I can’t sleep or write and I decide it’s better to do something constructive and thoughtful rather than brainless but I only have the firepower to, like, delete a whole bunch of excessive line breaks one after the other while I read the text.
The book is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which you might or might not remember I wrote about a couple years ago in a Longshot essay called “Hero’s Welcome.” It’s a favorite of mine. I’m cleaning up the introduction, written by the great and now-late Palestinian scholar of comparative literature Edward Said. Then Said pulls this long quote from Auerbach’s book, taken from a little chapter on Schiller’s 1780s play Luise Millerin, a petit-bourgeois tragedy you’ve probably never heard of.
And b’gosh, for Auerbach, writing a book on the history of European literature, from exile in Istanbul, as World War 2 is crashing all around him, the quote is everything:
Basically, the way in which we view human life and society is the same whether we are concerned with things of the past or things of the present. A change in our manner of viewing history will of necessity soon be transferred to our manner of viewing current conditions. When people realize that epochs and societies are not to be judged in terms of a pattern concept of what is desirable absolutely speaking but rather in every case in terms of their own premises; when people reckon among such premises not only natural factors like climate and soil but also the intellectual and historical factors; when, in other words, they come to develop a sense of historical dynamics, of the incomparability of historical phenomena and of their constant inner mobility; when they come to appreciate the vital unity of individual epochs, so that each epoch appears as a whole whose character is reflected in each of its manifestations; when, finally, they accept the conviction that the meaning of events cannot be grasped in abstract and general forms of cognition and that the material needed to understand it must not be sought exclusively in the upper strata of society and in major political events but also in art, economy, material and intellectual culture, in the depths of the workaday world and its men and women, because it is only there that one can grasp what is unique, what is animated by inner forces, and what, in both a more concrete and a more profound sense, is universally valid: then it is to be expected that those insights will also be transferred to the present and that, in consequence, the present too will be seen as incomparable and unique, as animated by inner forces and in a constant state of development; in other words, as a piece of history whose everyday depths and total inner structure lay claim to our interest both in their origins and in the direction taken by their development (443-444).
Now this in turn reminds me of a lovingly-written and well-thought essay by Joshua Rothman on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina appearing a week ago at The New Yorker’s website. This, too, digs into something similarly human and inspiring, both bounded and boundless:
Tolstoy, when he wrote the novel, was thinking about love in a different way [from a typical love story]: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random.
Those thoughts aren’t very romantic, but they are Tolstoyan. When he turned to “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy didn’t simply leave behind the themes of “War and Peace.” Instead, he found a way of thinking about many of same issues that had always interested him—fate, chance, our powerlessness against circumstances and our determination to change them—in a different context.
For the titular Anna, love is a disaster. She runs smack into the limits of what is possible specific to her time and place. She struggles against them, but the universe is indifferent to her heroism. Her limits are just as real as the prohibitions laid down by the gods of Ancient Greece, but there’s no oracle to announce them, with or without room for irony. These gods roll dice; these gods leave seams. Rothman:
In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin writes that, for Tolstoy, wisdom consists in the ability “to grasp what human will and human reason can do, and what they cannot.” The only way to find those limits is to struggle against them, but gently, with the goal of finding and accepting them. You can’t think your way to the limits. You have to feel your way, learning through experience and suffering. And there is a risk in experimenting with what will and will not work in life, which is that it might not work. You might move to New York to pursue your dreams, and end up with no career to speak of. You might think you can wait to find the perfect spouse, but wait too long, and end up alone. You might think you can have that affair and still have the love of your spouse and children—but you may be mistaken about what’s possible, and lose everything.
Can you think your way through time and recognize yourself on the other side, not through a false sense of universal humanity but through the textures of lived experience? Can you encounter the dark miracle we have chosen to christen “literature”?