MONDAY, AUGUST 1, 2022
The Girl with the Lemonade Stand: Long ago and far away, Erich Auerbach wrote a highly-regarded book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.
Mimesis is still in print. For unknown reasons, our junior year in high school literature class was assigned to read and analyze one part of the difficult text.
What the heck is Mimesis about? The leading authority on the book describes it in this manner:
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (German: Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur ) is a book of literary criticism by Erich Auerbach, and his most well known work. Written while Auerbach was teaching in Istanbul, Turkey, where he fled after being ousted from his professorship in Romance Philology at the University of Marburg by the Nazis in 1935, it was first published in 1946...
Mimesis opens with a comparison between the way the world is represented in Homer’s Odyssey and the way it appears in the Bible. From these two seminal Western texts, Auerbach builds the foundation for a unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature, including even the Modernist novelists writing at the time Auerbach began his study.
A unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature! For the record, it was that very opening chapter, concerning the Odyssey and the Old Testament, with which our class attempted to work, back in one of the last few years before the war in Vietnam fully hit.
That opening chapter is called Odysseus' Scar. In the words of the authority, "Auerbach begins with a close reading of brief excerpts from Homer in which, upon Odysseus’ homecoming, his old nursemaid Euryclea recognizes the hero by the scar on his thigh."
Let it be noted that Odysseus has been forced to return home in disguise, the better to beat back his wife's unruly suitors. Because twenty difficult years have passed, recognition would be extremely difficult if not for the scar on his thigh.
The faithful dog Argos knows him first. When Euryclea performs the ritual washing of feet, she startles at the familiar mark upon this stranger's leg:
she started to bathe her master. Then,
in a flash, she knew the scar—
that old wound
made years ago by a boar's white tusk when Odysseus
went to Parnassus, out to see Autolycus and his sons...
as the old nurse cradled his leg and her hands passed down
she felt it, knew it, suddenly let his foot fall—
down it dropped in the basin—the bronze clanged,
tipping over, spilling water across the floor.
For the record, Odysseus' life is put in danger when he's recognized by this faithful servant. We're offering you the translation by Professor Fagles.
According to Auerbach, the Greeks told their stories—represented reality—in one way; the architects of the Old Testament had a different approach. Over the weekend, those high school days leaped into our heads as we watched The Post, the Oscar-nominated 2017 film.
The Post was being offered for free by On Demand; we decided to give it a look. As we did, we marveled at the childish way Hollywood, at its highest level, had chosen to tell its story—had chosen to represent the reality of our own place and time.
The Post was nominated for Best Picture; it's also heavily larded with silly, improbable slapstick. If the film defines a genre, we'd call it "Saving Democracy Cute." We expect to offer examples as the week proceeds.
Critics praised The Post to the skies. As a guess, that may in part have been in deference to its famous director.
For ourselves, we thought of the Auerbach text as we observed the constant insertion of silly business into what was supposed to be a deeply serious bit of story-telling. We wondered if a culture which chooses to tell its important stories this way can really expect to survive.
The Post offers a somewhat unbalanced account of the way the so-called Pentagon Papers came to be published in 1971. Those top secret, classified documents offered a punishing historical account of the way the United States involved itself in the warfare in Indochina, eventually leading to the war in Vietnam.
The film purports to concern at least two extremely serious topics—the vast importance of a free press, along with the emergence of women in public life during the era in question.
That said, representational clowning is present throughout. That ranges from the messenger boys who keep coming within a whisker of getting run down by New York City taxicabs to the silly parading of The Adorable Ten-Year-Old Who's Running the Lemonade Stand.
True story! As we watched the highly-regarded film, we didn't remember who the director had been. We were so struck by the childish way The Post was representing reality that we put the film on pause and hurried away to check.
As it turns out, the film was directed by the Homer of our time. We were struck by the fact that such an august chronicler of contemporary American culture was telling this allegedly important story in this strangely unserious way.
Also, we thought of the way certain stories are being told, right now today, within the upper-end press corps. We'll admit that the chronicling of "the Secret Service missing texts" came first to mind.
Critics praised The Post to the skies. We were struck by its insistence on a certain lack of seriousness.
At the highest ends of our failing culture, are we able to "represent reality" in a serious way at the present time? Looking at our press corps' story-telling and at its attempts at analysis, we expect to fumble with this question all through the course of the week.
Tomorrow: "Whatever you are feeling is valid"