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Time, History and Literature

By Richard Marshall.

Eric Auerbach, Time, History, and Literature, Princeton University Press 2013

“Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), best known for his classic literary study Mimesis, is celebrated today as a founder of comparative literature, a forerunner of secular criticism, and a prophet of global literary studies. Yet the true depth of Auerbach’s thinking and writing remains unplumbed. Time, History, and Literature presents a wide selection of Auerbach’s essays, many of which are little known outside the German-speaking world. Of the twenty essays culled for this volume from the full length of his career, twelve have never appeared in English before, and one is being published for the first time.

Foregrounded in this major new collection are Auerbach’s complex relationship to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, his philosophy of time and history, and his theory of human ethics and responsible action. Auerbach effectively charts out the difficult discovery, in the wake of Christianity, of the sensuous, the earthly, and the human and social worlds. A number of the essays reflect Auerbach’s responses to an increasingly hostile National Socialist environment. These writings offer a challenging model of intellectual engagement, one that remains as compelling today as it was in Auerbach’s own time.”

James I. Porter is professor of classics and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future and The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece. Jane O. Newman is professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. Her books include The Intervention of Philology and Benjamin’s Library.’ They’ve put together a terrific book.

Stewart Home makes some smart historicist negotiations in a recent interview, nimbly jumping around to gesture towards a subtle critique:

“In some ways I think I’m clearly fitting into the notion of post-modernism, it’s hard to describe a post-modern novel but you know it when you see it. This break between modernism and post-modernism is ridiculous, it’s like punk and arguing over who the first punk band were? The Troggs? You could go back to The Kingsmen, Link Wray, whatever, you can always trace it back further because genre is socially negotiated and has shifting boundaries, but I always saw post-modernism as a continuation of, rather than a break from, modernism, a reversal of polarity, its not actually that different, reversal but continuation.”

“For example like with Warhol’s celebration of capitalist culture, if you aren’t actually into capitalism Warhol makes a pretty good critique of it too, and I’d rather have a post-modern novel than a return to naturalism and realism, who needs a 19th century novel in the 21st century.” The quick dismissal of Naturalism and Realism at the end there hangs a little away from the flexibility of his initial comments, inviting some further agile historicist thoughts. Home’s 19th century Realism, I’m guessing, is one to be understood as a recipe of materialism, capitalism, socialism, industrialization, empirical science and positivism generally. But perhaps by adding a new ingredient the sharp distinction between his po-mo 21st century writing and the 19th Century Realists becomes less easy to fix because Realism becomes something new.

Erich Auerbach would have thought so. His work tracks the development of the sensuous, human and earthy in the European mind and links this to the evolution of a historical consciousness. In this way his work is at an angle to but in the same territory as Max Weber and the line of great historicist thinkers mapped out in Frederick Beiser’s magisterial ‘The German Historicist Tradition.’ Historicism there is defined ‘along the lines of Ernst Troeltsch, who first introduced the word in its modern sense…’ as ‘…the fundamental historicisation of all our thinking about man, his culture and his values.’ Beiser clarifies: ‘ Roughly, to historicise our thinking means to recognize that everything in the human world – culture, values, institutions, practices, rationality – is made of history, so that nothing has an eternal form, permanent essence or constant identity which transcends historical change.’

Auerbach points out that conditions usually signaled as the prerequisites of the new 19th century Realists were in place round about 1830. But Stendhal and Balzac, often noted as the first Realist novelists, had novels appearing before 1830. They predated ‘Positivists’ such as Compte, Renan and Taine. And anyway, notes Auerbach, in France there had been a Realist tradition in comedy since Moliere. On top of that, Sorel, Scarron, Furetiere and Lesage were eighteenth centrury Realist novelists. They just didn’t gain the significance of the nineteenth century bunch.

What this indicates is that Realism has a saturated reality that too schematized a view will dry out and kill, and the reason the 19th century Realists gained traction was because of an ingredient that the earlier bunch had missed out. For Auerbach the importance of Stendhal and Balzac is that they depicted lives in their earthy richness, not to entertain upper class snobs or give local colour, humour or moralistic-didactic effect to their stories. Their Realism embedded the tragic within the everyday. In so doing they removed the tragic from the realm of the Gods, monarchs, aristocrats and their heroes. It transformed a realm that had until then only been considered base and comic into one where tragedy was alive and raw. Auerbach writes: ‘ … the concrete manifestations of Romantic irony as they now came to the fore in Germany now appear in a new light, at first as a detour, but then, once they have been given their due, as capable of illuminating authentic reality… what we see emerging in nineteenth century Realism is something entirely new. Here, everydayness does not merely interrupt tragedy. Rather, it is the very home of the tragic itself.’ By foregrounding tragedy in this way as being the decisive ingredient of 19th century Realism it’s possible to project forwards into the twentieth century and understand modernists such as Joyce, Eliot and Beckett as Realists too. The screaming agonies of a Bacon oil or a Beckett drama execute high-water mark depictions of tragedy at home in everyday life.

Auerbach’s essay ‘Romanticism and Realism’ steps back in the opposite historical direction to make the contrast between Realism and Romanticism less easy because of this new ingredient. And we can then loop the whole together, developing Home’s sassy ‘reversal but continuation’ idea, by picking up Racine and noting that, for the young Sam Beckett, Racine was an inspiration. Racine was rejected by both the Romantics and the Classicists. For Auerbach Racine was engaged in a cult of the passions, embedded in a critical battle between religious and secular forces that continues into Modernism and po mo as a creative tension that Auerbach labels ‘tragic realism.’

Racine requires that we believe ‘… in the unsurmountability, indeed, the finality and virtually transcendent solemnity of the life of desire.’ There is no redemptive moment, no sense of a god of goodness, rather, for example, ‘In ‘Athelie’, God is Lord not because he is good, but because he is sovereign.’ The tragedies in Racine are tragedies that refuse God and fate, refuse submissiveness to anything outside of a truly human but struggling human passion. The wriggling worm of humanity on the Cimambue Cross vibrates with a biological keening loudness, a humanity screaming and screaming into the deaf universe, repeated in Francis Bacon’s Study of Valezquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, repeated in Beckett’s retake of King Lear ‘Endgame’, repeating as a tragic and historical time. In Racine it is a wintery loudness that acknowledges the terribleness of life whilst asserting an existence that has handed itself over to nothing more than passion.

Racine in his dark masterpieces changes forever the contours of the tragic and places it within an earthy, lived arena that is stern, blood-thirsty, with far-out instincts beyond the reach of his contemporary audiences, perhaps further out from even our own. It was this that we can imagine attracted Beckett. Racine discovered intense feelings that refused deeper, more personal and more intimate relations with fate. Racine finds a psychological excess going further in kind and degree than anything else that had gone before, something that gets switched back in Beckett in a Homean process of ‘reversal but continuation.’ Racine creates a new being and through his poetic sensibility the enormity of passion exaggerates personality until it bursts into what Auerbach brilliantly describes as ‘ a pronounced and vaguely covetous sense of their own personal worth and integrity.’ The modern human hums through Racine with a dignity and sense of self grounded on instinctual life, a sensuality that moulds characters through the dramatic situations in which they find themselves and nothing more.

Racine expands our notion of the modern Anonymous. His characters are mysterious and obscure, just as our contemporaries are and just as we are to ourselves. We inhabit general figurations rather than individual forms. Special characteristics are duplicated and mirrored so we are all just typical. Because of this our Racinean contemporaries are unearthly and irreal and remote, recalling the lines of Eliot;
‘Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.’

We are empty vessels in which our passions become autonomous and sublime. Auerbach notes that Racine’s discovery of passions as autonomous ‘reappeared in the novel only in an extremely diluted form’ and he was right until now, when in, say, the po-mo works of Home we are given sight of a Racine-like novel form, a kind of formalist authoritarianism embedding nothing else but powerful vitality grounded on the continuity of instinctual life in deadly battle with bourgeois holier-than-thou humility. In Beckett we can see Racine transposed from an Absolutist age into modernity, and Auerbach’s notion of tragic realism seems to easily span the Modernism/post-mo landscape.

Auerbach is best known for his study of ‘Mimesis’ published in 1946. But his interests are wider. According to a brilliant introductory essay by James Porter ‘… Auerbach restlessly sought to establish nothing less than an intellectual – or better yet, spiritual (he often calls it inner) – history of the Western European mind as it lunged into contemporary modernity.’ The key author is Dante, the writer who seems to have embodied all the elements of this change.

Auerbach sees Dante making two discoveries: the individual ‘living’ person, and a novel ‘vision of reality.’ Dante’s poem is a turning point in history: ‘… though the Divine Comedy describes the state of souls after death, its subject, in the last analysis, remains earthly life in all its complexity; everything that happens below or in the heavens above relates to human drama here on earth.’ Auerbach’s approach contrasts with those that before him saw Dante as an unwavering Thomist dogmatist whose work bore no link to reality, ‘because Dante had so styled his poem’s contents with his imagination as to cut them off entirely from all “earthly existence” and virtually from all other forms of cultural expression as well.’ Instead, Auerbach found a Dante whose whole poetic sensibility was of the earth, of feeling, of real history and prophesies of real futures.

Auerbach located in Dante a profound cultural change where ‘… the indestructibility of the whole historical and individual man turns against the divine order… and obscures it. The image of man eclipses the image of God. Dante’s work realized the Christian-figural essence of man, and destroyed it in the very process of realizing it.’ Here is another version of ‘reversal and continuation’, an extreme form that knows that the paradoxical realities embedded in religion are secular truths – and vice versa. To speak them threatens to erase everything, or walk you back to the start again for another attempt. The echo of Beckett’s ‘Worstward Ho’ howls into this: ‘All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Auerbach performs a series of ‘dark and riveting readings’ to complete a vision of secularization starting in the latter half of the twelfth century. Auerbach saw that it was in the ‘impeccably devout mind of Dante’ that the secular turn took place, rather than from some Godless somewhere else. The earthly life is an essential part of the Christian project and the figure of the Christ as a historical figure already contains the earthly. In this approach he is retracing Hegel’s reading of Dante. And Bacon’s Study of Pope Innocent X echoes a similar strategy.

Auerbach was also deeply influenced by Vico and read him as an antidote to Hegelian speculativeness and universalisation. However, he disagreed with both Hegel and Vico that history was a providential force. History for Auerbach is ‘riddled with uncertainties.’ Wisdom comes from accepting these uncertainties. Auerbach identified two ruptures in history: the devaluation of Judaism by Christianity, then the de-Christianisation of Christianity from both within and without. He sees both as being states where a deep, vertical sense of meaning is ruptured through an horizontal notion of historical change. Pre-Judaic pagan antiquity is depthless (despite the exceptions such as Sophoclean tragedy) and post-Enlightenment modernity equally. In both moments of rupture, religious insecurity is replaced by earthly, sensuous and secular sources of value, returning favours and running backwards as well as forwards in heady paraconsistent, dialetheistic glee.

For Auerbach, Christianity absorbed the Judaic tradition of reinterpretation ‘with incomparably greater boldness’ than Judaism ever did. Christianity developed the Judaic insight of the historical conception of the world and its attempt to organize it into a single coherent transcendental order. Christianity fell because of ‘the antagonism between sensory appearance and meaning, an antagonism which permeates the early, and indeed the whole, Christian view of reality’. This antagonism brought Christianity into being and also ended it: ‘The figural interpretation of history emerged unqualifiedly victorious. Yet it was no fully adequate substitute for the lost comprehension of rational, continuous, earthly connections between things, and it could not be applied to any random occurrence, although of course there was no dearth of attempts to submit everything that happened to an interpretation directly from above. Such attempts were bound to founder on the multiplicity of events and the unfathomableness of the divine councils. And so vast regions of events remained without any principle by which they might be classified and comprehended – especially after the fall of the Roman Empire … It was a very long time before the germs contained in Christian thought (the mixture of styles, a deep insight into the processes of becoming), sustained by the sensuality of peoples who were not yet exhausted, could take with all their vigor’ he writes in ‘Mimesis’.

What replaced it was a culture ‘richer, deeper, and more dangerous than pagan antiquity’s culture of the person, for it inherited from the Christian religion from which it sprang and which it finally overcame a sense of disquiet and a drive towards excessiveness.’ The excessiveness rests in its quest for a compensation for its fundamental lack – hence its need for a Final Judgment and the Promised Beyond. Humanity is caught between competing cultural forces reflecting competing instincts: lived earthly sensuous existence and life on the one hand and the need for meaning and significance beyond such contingencies of historical life on the other. Can the depths of meaningfulness be sensuous and immediate? The horizontal earth bound life of ‘one damned thing after the next’, its contingent, accidental nature seems to eradicate depth and purpose. It tires us, evades shape and eludes need. History is anti-teleological. It seems a descent from a vertical plain is required for that sense of sublime meaning to off-set the horrors of time and history. Auerbach senses that the horizontal and the vertical plains are entwined without either gaining an upper hand. In Dante, in Racine, Auerbach glimpsed sensibilities that gripped this tragic situation.

This indeed is the tragic formula for understand humanity for Auerbach. ‘In those rare moments when this coincidence of self and reality is either intimated or made concrete, be this in the Old Testament or in the Passion of Christ or in such writers as Dante, Proust, or Virginia Woolf, the result is what Auerbach calls “tragic realism”’ summarises Porter in his essay. It is at the moment when the vertical meaningful depth and the horizontal lived earthiness coincide that mimesis is achieved. As later restated by Foucault, Auerbach calls this the ‘problematisation’ of the ordinary where mimesis becomes ‘… the representation of the essential unity of a character with its fate in all their blinding reality and luminous “evidence” , as revealed in a singular act of the self.’ Such communications are rare. They are tragic because ‘they signal their own self-consuming fragility, and their own passing.’ Lucretius in ‘On The Nature Of Things’ writes about puddles of water in cracks on the pavement reflecting the sky ‘ so that you seem to look down on the clouds and the heavens, and you discern bodies hidden in the sky beneath the earth, miraculously.’ Porter’s sensationally good essay recalls this as a metaphor for the sublimity of the tragic realism of mimesis.

At moments of tragic realism ‘style’, understood as a meaningful criterion of anything at all, is wrecked and can’t mean anything at all. At these moments (witness St Paul or Balzac) ‘forces of individualism, historicism, and lyricism… rise up against the past as with a common will to embrace the world in all its concrete immanence and to experience the world’s spirit through its living body’ writes Auerbach in ‘Romanticism and Realism.’ Ethics replaces religious morality but it is based on uncertainty and the ‘tragic paradoxes’ of ‘dwindling faith.’ ‘Particularity is all-decisive. Character and fate are one, and the fate of the autonomous self lies in its freedom of choice. The self was created by God in all of its particularity, but the freedom to decide is left entirely up to the self’ he writes in ‘On the Anniversary Celebration of Dante’ in another passage that recalls his reading of Hegel.

Auerbach sees history redeeming itself not through providence and fate but through its own momentum. Humanity learns from what went before. History for Auerbach (and Vico and Chladenius and Hegel) takes its meaning from the responsibilities it learns from being aware of itself, that by understanding previous events and the way they reach into the present we are given fragile glimpses of the vertical and sublime meanings we crave. Their fragility and brevity insist on their being tragic because so rare and inevitably doomed.

Of the great realist, non-religious writer Montaigne he writes: ‘ Montaigne’s unity of mind and body has its roots in Christian-cultural anthropology… It is the basis of his realistic introspection; without it, the latter [his realism] would be inconceivable.’ Chains of conceptual independencies are crucial to understanding history. As well as doing this, Porter writes: ‘Auerbach is at the same time tracing something like the historical grounding of autonomous – in Vico’s sense, man-made – ethical consciousness and human agency.’ It is with this insight that Auerbach would have engaged with philosopher Alex Rosenberg’s assertion that the contemporary reality and its future are so different from the past that history is no longer useful. Auerbach links our very notion of self and understanding with our historical sensibilities. To lose history would be to lose ourselves.

History also brings a sense of the potential violence at the heart of humanity and its absence of tenderness. Vico imagined poetic primitive peoples, people living before civilization and dreamed civilization developing as a set of immediate responses to their fears about the world. ‘Their fantastical sense of divinity , which is completely bound up with sensible ideas, creates a god for every act of existence, which is to say a personified institution, the concept of an imagined person, the universale fantastico’ he writes in ‘Vico and Herder.’ Auerbach was attracted to Vico’s speculative fantasy about pre-civilization and its use of imagination but didn’t indulge in this strategy himself. His approach is more nuanced by modernity, as his references to Montaigne, Baudelaire and Woolf indicate. But he also respected the psychological realism of Vico’s vision, which he considered reflected Vico’s own psychology. In ‘Vico and the Idea of Philology’ he writes: ‘It bears remembering that Vico did not understand what to be common to all people as in any way a matter of education or progressive enlightenment. Rather, what all human beings hold in common is the entirety of historical reality, in all its greateness and horror.’ That ‘greateness and horror’ distinguishes Vico’s vision from any sense of a harmless or pretty secular humanism. He continues: ‘ Not only did he see historical humanity in their totality; he also saw that he was himself a human being and that it made him human to understand them. But Vico did not create the human race in his own likeness; he did not see himself in the other. Rather, he saw the other in himself. He discovered himself , as a human, in history, and the long buried forces of our common nature stood revealed to him. This was Vico’s humanity, something far more profound – and far more perilous – than what we normally associate with the word. Nevertheless – or perhaps, precisely for this reason – it was Vico who discovered our common humanity, and held it fast.’

Auerbach chose Romance philology over German or classical philology. Yet he remained German in his habits of thought even though resistant to the highly politicized and ‘increasingly toxic trenches of the contemporary German academy’, as Porter puts it. His engagement with the Judao-Christian tradition was mutilayered and based on an interest of bracketing Christian dogma with historical determinants, an analysis based on ‘… a maximum of freedom from preconceptions about the world and all other dogmatic commitments.’ His mimetic objects are not ‘example[s] of a dogma but image[s] of the world… To be sure… such freedom is not easy to gain or to keep… [I]t requires self-criticism and fearlessness far more than a worldview. But in historical inquiry, even the greatest and most cherished forms with which individuals have sought to express some absolute truth become a threat to one’s judgement the moment one subscribes to them.’ His interest in Judao-Christianity is therefore a matter of understanding the European subject across millennia, as Porter says, ‘… through its deepest underlying paradoxes and tensions, and the ways in which these were both internalized and given literary expression.’

This is exemplified through his understanding of Dante and Vergil in terms of the tragic paradox whereby; ‘ The all-encompassing crux of the poem’s significance is this: our earthly and historical world in its true and eternal form is a manifestation of God’s judgement… the poem comprises the entirety of objective life: the eternal condition of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; and on this indestructible foundation the figures of the real world move in their particular character, or rather, they have moved and now in their being and action are frozen and are eternal themselves in the arms of eternal justice. While the Homeric heroes have been made permanent in our memories by the muse, these characters have produced their situation for themselves as individuals, and are eternal in themselves, not in our ideas.’ Auerbach responds to the psychopathology of the modern soul with rich sensitivity and the contrast between the Homer and Dante enriches our understanding of another great philologist, Nietzsche. Nietzsche understood the Homeric as an alternative to the Christianised and asceticised European world. Auerbach’s reading brings the profound new element of the tragic within asceticism to enrich Nietzsche’s insight.

Auerbach writes about the emergence of the person as an autonomous category, as Porter puts it, ‘ … responsible for her own inner integrity and well-being, and on the basis of which she could, and still can, enter into ethical relations with others.’ In ‘Passio as Passion’ he examines how the term ‘Passio’ entered the modern lexicon via several conceptual transformations, bringing new behaviours. Montaigne is the figure whom he sees capturing the modern sensibility, the first modern author to complete Dante’s project of writing for a vernacular public and lay readership as ‘the voice of the world.’ Montaigne’s essays are ‘a symptom of his existence.’ Montaigne’s existence is understood phenomenologically (what he experienced and what it felt like to be Montaigne), historically (as sensed through accidental circumstances ) and in the ethical sense of being a gift. Montaigne is the first modern, ‘on the very edge of the abyss’, self absorbed, self scrutinizing and introspective. Proust is the last, exemplifying ‘… the pathos of the earthly course of events, a real, ever-flowing, inexhaustible pathos that at once oppresses and sustains us without end.’ With Racine Auerbach sees someone staging the conflict between Christianity and secularism. On Racine’s ‘Athalie’ he writes, ‘ Displaying not even a trace of the traditions of a living essence of Christianity, the play is based on a horrific chapter of the Old Testament that has been dragged out of its dark corner into the light, a chapter that becomes no more humane just because one of the parties to the struggle is in the right.’ He follows this with the statement we quoted earlier: ‘ In ‘Athelie’, God is Lord not because he is good, but because he is sovereign. There is no redemptive moment.’

[Photo: Divulgação]

He also wrote to conceive a new Jewish philology. In this he traced another source of instability and antagonism alongside that of the earthly and the transcendental, the flesh and the spirit. This was the Jewishness of Christianity. Figural interpretation is where the ground of any redemptive future resides in an actual historical past. Read this way, Christianity cannot ever erase its Jewish origins even as it seeks to transcend those origins. By contrast, allegorical readings of the Old Testament attempt to erase the Old Testament through abstraction and mystification. ‘Figura’ was written in 1936-7 but its themes are found earlier, for example, in his 1921 thesis ‘On the Technique of the early Renaissance Novella in Italy and France’ whose thesis was that ‘… the subject of the novella is invariably society itself, and for that reason its object is the form that life here on earth assumes as a whole… The novella stands unremittingly in the very midst of time and place; it is a piece of history itself’ and it ‘… must be realistic, inasmuch as it accepts the foundations of empirical reality as a given, [and is] not founded on metaphysics.’

Etymologically ‘figura’ means ‘three-dimensional shape.’ Terence first attested to it when talking about an unusually shaped face. Fictura is a special feature of figura. This word ‘expresses something animated and lively, open-ended and playful.’ Why is the history of the development of this word important for Auerbach? Because ‘… even if it is chance, it is significant … for the idea of something that is new and appears for the first time, of something that creates change in things that normally resist change, marks the entire history of the world.’ Three authors, Varro, Lucretius and Cicero’ are important in this history. Varro was the first to use the term as a grammatical term, changing it to also mean the sensible, perceptible external shape of an object. It designated something that was perceived by the senses, it then was a grammatical, ‘even a musical and choreographical form’ alongside the original meaning of three-dimensionality. Lucrecius developed it to mean the transition from original to copy. Simulacra, imagines, effigias are linked in Lucrecius, who also conjures up the idea of figura as meaning a ‘dream image’ and ‘a shadow of the dead.’ Cicero developed this further in his philosophical, legal, political and rhetorical work. He used the word in reference to people and is most important for introducing the materialist concept of the term into learned discourse. By the end of the republican period figura had a fixed place in philosophical and learned discourse.

Poets used it to create the associations of transformations, shape-shifting and dream images. Catullus writes; ‘ For what kind of human figure is there which I had not?’; Propertius writes ‘Oft did I praise the varied beauty of thy blending charms’; Vergil of ‘shapes that flit, ‘tis said, when death is past’ and of course Ovid. ‘Throughout Ovid’s work , figure is animated, changeable, variable, and prone to deception’ writes Auerbach. The architect Vitruvius uses it to signify an architectural and three-dimensional shape where rather than illusion or transformation he means ‘creating a similarity in form.’ In Quintilian it became a rhetorical term as he develops his theory of tropes and figures. Trope is narrower than figure, referring only to non-literal uses of words and phrases. Figures can be formed from words in their proper meaning. Speech acts that are constructed artfully and deliberately are figures. Later figura became the generic term that included tropes, metaphors, synocdoches (eg blade for sword), metonymies (God Mars for War), antonomasia (Pelides for Achilles) the hidden allusion in its different forms etc.

Tertullian uses figura as something peculiarly Christian where it signifies ‘something real and historical that represents and proclaims in advance something else that is also real and historical.’ By the fourth century figura and its associated interpretive method was being fully developed by Latin Church writers. North and South were figures of life and death, day and night as figures of true and false faith. In Origen and others (such as Philo) the figura was used to refer to something more spiritual, allegorized and abstracted from concrete historicity. Augustine was important in bringing figura back to its historical, earthly sense, a pagan idol, a dream figure, vision, mathematical formula and historically real prophesy. Augustine rejects the purely allegorical interpretive approach.

In the Middle Ages Dante’s poetry is described as a true umbra, a shadow of the truth. This suggests figura was Dante’s theory of inspiration. Auerbach suggests that ‘… we can say in Europe , the figurative method goes back to Christian influences, the allegorical to ancient pagan ones, and that the first is applied for the most part to Christian materials, the second, rather, to ancient ones’ but then admits that this is too neat and in the High Middle Ages ‘ the Sybils, Vergil, and the figures of the Aeneid, indeed, even the characters from the cycles of mythic sagas from Brittany (Galahad in the Quest del Saint Graal, for example) were absorbed into figurative readings.’

SJ Fowler’s poem ‘Benedict IX, elected Pope at the age of ten, shocked the sensibilities of the pagan age’ from his ‘Red Museum’ collection is a fiercely brilliant example of a contemporary poet working sensuous vigor into death, echoing Capaneo in ‘Inferno 14’ ‘I am in death as I was in life’, refusing the ascetic demand to sacrifice particularity even when in these vast poetic vaults of fantastic prodigousness. Fowler’s collection first strikes a reader as the imaginings of a cunning Gothic primitive, presenting a massive net of barbarian gothic figura. He’s picking up unmediated vital forces and threading them with legacies of late antiquity coupled with ideas and fantasies frozen in time immemorial to swarm across the page like their own ghastly phantoms. His voices span that gulf between allegory and history where, as Schelling says about Dante, individuals ‘… become timeless because of the positions in which the poet has placed them, positions that are themselves timeless.’ The grim sculptural visions Fowler achieves are a result of the synthesis of a vernacular pulse plus the imperishable spheres of locality as vivid and tragic as he judges necessary. Fowler is our contemporary tragic realist poet, capable of infusing passion with erotic hum as well as Auerbach’s ‘zealous and domineering egoism… ambition… gloire.’

The last stanza of ‘Canados’ from the same collection is this:

‘We are not a drought,
We need an artificial lake.
I have a book I would like to sell you, he says.
He whips back his long grey coat;
Its buttons stitched in blue thread,
And from within produces a book
As deep as a ribcage.’

I like to think the book is Dante but it’s just as likely to be some woman who, as in the Bowie song, ‘makes you feel so lonely you could die.’ The goal is not to enjoy individual details in quiet contemplation but to get caught up in the dynamic movement of the plenum like a fish in a net, struggling for a last astonishment.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 10th, 2014.