cunning & resourceful
Mimesis has been on my list of books to read for quite some time. The notion that it was written from memory, without access to a present library of familiar reference books appealed to me. So of course when I saw a copy of Auerbach’s book on Dante at the library, it seemed a pleasant way to ease in to reading Mimesis.
The trouble started on page two. In a discussion of characterisation in Homer (and who does not love a discussion of the peculiar character of heroes in Homer?) Auerbach says the following:
Homer’s inventive gift carries within it a conviction that neither observation nor reason can wholly justify, although everything in his work supports it; the conviction that every character is at the root of his own particular fate and that he will inevitably incur the fate that is appropriate to him. But this means appropriate to him as a whole not, not to any one of his attributes […] What can be represented in poetic terms and what demands belief on the part of the reader, is not that good things happen to a good man and brave things to a brave man, but that the fate of Achilles is Achillean; the epithets δῖος, ‘godlike’, and πολυμῆτις [sic], ‘astute’, carry meaning only for those who know what they contain of Achilles’ character (2).
This is well enough as far as it goes, except that the second epithet contains nothing of Achilles’ character – for Achilles is a fellow who is swift with regard to his feet, not his intellect.1 Indeed, πολύμητις is, rather famously, a characteristic of Odysseus, a man who differed somewhat significantly from lion-hearted Achilles in terms of aptitudes and personality.
Now I grant you this a book about Dante, but this sort of lazy lack of accuracy (or checking up) on details about rather famous literary characters does not bode well for the correctness of the references in Mimesis, since our author did not see fit to check such things even when he did have access to a reference library; but perhaps the book does not rely on close and careful reading. Time will tell.
- I will say nothing of the misplaced accent.