World Without End

Dante: Poet of the Secular World BY Erich Auerbach. New York Review Books Classics. Paperback 208 pages. $15.

As the millennium drew to its dismal close, George Steiner was asked to choose the best book of the past thousand years. He named the Commedia, saying: “Dante’s totality of poetic form and philosophic thought, of ‘local universality’ and language, remains unrivaled. At a time when the notion of culture and of European culture, in particular, is in doubt, Dante is the sovereign underwriter.”

Steiner is perhaps the last of them: the grand masters of erudition who brought illumination to, and brought to the service of illumination, the histories of words, languages, and literatures, the confluences of their streams and rivers, living and dead, which led to the sea of our vast babble, the low and high of it, the poetry and cadences of it, the hidden bloodlines of it, the all of it.

Ultimately from the Greek philologos, “fond of words,” philology is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “Love of learning and literature; the study of literature, in a wide sense, including grammar, literary criticism and interpretation, the relation of literature and written records to history, etc.; literary or classical scholarship; polite learning.” But what T. S. Eliot describes in Four Quartets as the occupation of poets and saints—“to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time”—has been the profession of true philology as well.

The “forth on the godly sea” with which Ezra Pound begins his Cantos is not just an allusion to the voyage of Odysseus and an echo of the Homeric voice but also a looking out over the breakers of the sea of philology upon which Pound’s long poem was to set sail on its own voyage of discovery.

Tom Phillips, Dante in His Study, 1978, acrylic on canvas.
Tom Phillips, Dante in His Study, 1978, acrylic on canvas.

That sea was still in part uncharted then. The two grand masters of philology had yet to begin the undertakings that established them. Both were slightly younger than Pound. The better known of them, Ernst Robert Curtius, from Alsace, of northern German parents, was born in 1886. Erich Auerbach, a Prussian Jew from Berlin, was born in 1892. To these and others fell the work of elucidating through their own “luminous details” (Pound’s phrase of 1911 and forever) the luminous details that bring poetry and prose to life.

Auerbach became best known for Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), Curtius for European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948). Both massive treatises were published in German by the same Swiss house, A. Francke of Bern. Both first appeared in English in 1953, and both were translated by Willard R. Trask (whose translation of Thomas Mann’s remarkable tale The Black Swan appeared just the following year).

The phrase “massive treatises” does not quite do them right. They are more cathedrals of knowledge and perception in which one might wander entranced forever but that one can never, unlike their makers, fully know. The pursuit of all the riches they hold threatens to consume a lifetime, and in this sense they are daunting, even forbidding.

Curtius sent a copy of European Literature to Eliot, one of the contemporary poets he respected. He knew that Eliot could read German.

“Thank you for your magnificent book,” Eliot wrote back to him in early 1949. “I do not know when I shall ever find time to read the whole of it.”

I was relieved to discover these words after failing to make it much beyond the five-hundredth page of the English translation. In Mimesis, I did not make it that far. But I keep these books nearby, and I return to the cathedrals of them now and again. I found Auerbach’s final book, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, published in 1958, the year after he died, to be easier going.

Curtius and Auerbach were often at theoretical, interpretative, and personal odds. But where they met—like Pound, like Eliot, like Steiner—was Dante, their shared sacred ground of awe and devotion. Both of them, again like Pound, like Eliot, have their entries now in the six-volume Enciclopedia dantesca.

In Grammars of Creation, which was published in 2001, not long after he chose the Commedia as his book of the millennium, George Steiner’s feelings are clarified further:

It is in the spirit and intellect of Dante, more closely than in that of any other Western presence of whom we have certain record, that the three semantic fields of “creation” and “creativity”—the theological, the philosophical, and the poetic—are organically made one. Dante is our meridian. To turn to him is neither academic philology, nor literary criticism nor simple delight, legitimate and fertile as these are. It is to measure with the greatest possible precision the distance from the centre, the length of our current afternoon shadows.

Auerbach’s first book was Dante: Poet of the Secular World. It was published in Berlin in 1929, the same year that Eliot’s Dante was published in London. Auerbach’s book was not translated into English until 1961 and, until now, has been out of print for a long time.

Eliot, in the smaller of the two small books, calls Dante “the most universal of poets” (a sentiment that Steiner still expresses many years later). “In writing of the Divine Comedy I have tried to keep to a few very simple points of which I am convinced. First that the poetry of Dante is the one universal school of style for the writing of poetry in any language.” And, perhaps above all, that “the Divine Comedy is a complete scale of the depths and heights of human emotion; that the Purgatorio and Paradiso are to be read as extensions of the ordinarily very limited human range. Every degree of the feeling of humanity, from lowest to highest,” is to be found in Dante.

This is precisely the judgment at which Auerbach independently arrived, and its importance is plainly and strongly expressed in his subtitle.

Auerbach vividly shows that reality and metaphor are inseparable in Dante’s world: Frogs croak in the evening, a lizard darts across a path, sheep crowd from their enclosure, a wasp withdraws its sting, a dog scratches itself, a cyclone snaps off trees at the trunk, a morning countryside lies under hoarfrost in spring, night falls on the first day of an ocean voyage, a monk receives the confession of a murderer, and on, amid fishes and falcons, until that place where—the words that close the Commedia—love moves the sun and the other stars.

The first part of Auerbach’s book, “Historical Introduction: The Idea of Man in Literature,” traces the background of Dante’s dolce stil nuovo from Homer to Arnaut Daniel. The heart of the matter comes later, with the simple—but, until Auerbach, unseen—fact of Dante’s “striving to involve the whole cosmos in his own experience.” It is this sort of discernment of the previously undiscerned that makes of Auerbach’s Dante a well-woven garland of luminous details.

Auerbach sees, and leads us to see, that in describing the nightmares of Hell, the poet’s “exposition is always orderly and methodical, as in a realistic record, and even where he raises his voice to adjure, even where he arouses sympathy, anger, dread or horror in the reader, he never sacrifices the strictest clarity.”

To Auerbach, the truth is plain, and “in truth the Comedy is a picture of earthly life.” More than six hundred years after the poet’s death, “no imitation of present events can be more real and penetrating than memory in Dante’s Other World.” Underlined here for us is Dante’s own wish, written into the Inferno, that his telling might not be diverse from the fact (“che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso”):

The content of the Comedy is a vision; but what is beheld in the vision is the truth as concrete reality, and hence it is both real and rational.

Dante’s poetry is a constant struggle with the object and the form it demands, a contest of hard with hard, in which the poet is always victorious.

When Pound in his eighty-first year dismissed his Cantos, the labor of half a century, as “a botch,” it was not without awareness of that struggle and the victory won in the cantos of Dante.

Such a struggle is today largely forgotten, largely unknown, largely inconceivable. Auerbach clearly saw this coming. “European civilization is approaching the term of its existence,” he stated bluntly near the end of his own days. We live now in what with a straight face is called the information age. Not enlightenment, not knowledge, surely not wisdom, but bits and bytes of meaningless ephemera. We still have Steiner and, in spirit and works, men such as Auerbach. But most of all, we have Oprah.

It is good to welcome back Auerbach’s Dante. In his fine introduction to this new edition, Michael Dirda says: “It is arguably the best, if not the easiest, short introduction to Dante and his artistry.” That is saying a lot, but it is saying nothing less than the truth.

Nick Tosches is the author, most recently, of King of the Jews (Ecco, 2005).