115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Is There a "Medieval Sublime'" in Erich Auerbach's Thought?

Robert Doran, University of Rochester

This paper examines how Erich Auerbach sees the role of sublimity in the literature of the Middle Ages. Using his essay "Camilla, or the Rebirth of the Sublime" as its central reference, the paper argues that Auerbach indeed conceives of a distinct “medieval sublime,” despite Auerbach's narrative of a decline of sublimity in the Middle Ages. In fact, Auerbach sees the sublime as one of the defining features of the lofty style of the High Middle Ages, with its focus on courtly love, a “modern” theme that did not exist in Ancient literature. 

Proposal: 

This paper addresses the question of whether the German philologist, Erich Auerbach, ever conceived of a specifically medieval sublime. The main evidence for this proposition is contained in Auerbach's essay "Camilla, or the Rebirth of the Sublime" (collected in Auerbach's Latin Literature and Its Public in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages). From this essay it would appear that Auerbach did in fact conceive of a medieval sublime distinct from the sermo humilis that forms the basis for Auerbach's conception of sublimity in late antiquity and its reincarnation in the mixture of styles (Stilmischung) that undergirds modern realism (as recounted, most famously in Auerbach's magisterial Mimesis). As Auerbach observes in the Camilla essay: “a development that was also present in germ in the poetry of the Provençal troubadours: the elevation of love to a theme worthy of the sublime style, indeed to its principal theme. This is one of the most important developments in the history of European literature” (Auerbach, Literary Language, 215).  Commenting on Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, Auerbach observes, “not only would such intensity of feeling have been inconceivable in the Middle Ages before the days of chivalric love; in connection with such a theme it is not to be met with in antiquity” (Literary Language, 218). 

Thus, for Auerbach the sublime becomes one of the defining features of the literature of the High Middle Ages, with its focus on courtly love, a "modern" theme that did not exist in Ancient literature. This paper therefore explores this concept of a "medieval sublime" in Auerbach, even as it exists in tension with Auerbach's overarching narrative of a decline of sublimity in the Middle Ages (hence its "rebirth" in Dante). The paper will also analyze parallels with Auerbach's treatment of sublimity in Mimesis as well as how Longinus (the author of the first treatise on sublimity) inspires Auerbach's treatment of the medieval sublime through his contrast between ethos (manners) and pathos (strong tragic emotion) in Homer (the Odyssey being exemplary of the former and the Iliad of the latter, for Longinus).

To this end, the author draws on his research on Auerbach in his essay "Literary History and the Sublime in Erich Auerbach's Mimesis" (New Literary History) and his research on the sublime in his monograph The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant (Cambridge UP 2015). 

 

 

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