Philosophy of the Novel VII: Auerbach and the Novel in Literary Criticism

(Summary of a research project unlikely to be realised in the form articulated, but which is guiding current projects. For earlier posts in this series, see posts of October 8th, 7th, 6th,  3rd and  27th August)

Vico had a decisive presence in twentieth century thought on the novel through Eric Auerbach, who translated the New Science in to German early in his career, also writing a paper on Vico’s influence on Herder. Auerbach’s book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature marks Auerbach’s presence as a thinker about the nature of narrative as imitative fiction, referring to epic and novelistic aspects from Homer and the Hebrew Bible to the twentieth century.

That comparison is itself quite true to Vico, since the New Science  has at its heart a differentiation between the gentile ancient world largely explored with reference to Homer and the history of the ancient Jews. The Biblical Jews were directly guided by God through history, and Greek history, like all gentile history moved through a mixture of natural forces and divine providence. The comparison Auerbach makes between Homer and the Hebrew Bible implicitly follows that distinction.

Explicit comments about Vico are very limited in Mimesis. The chapter will explain the implicit presence of Vico and expand on Auerbach’s direct remarks, such as his suggestion of  tension in Vico between a decorous conformist surface and a more disruptive inner nature of his thought focusing on the role of force. In this way we can see now Vico can both be located in a conservative Enlightenment and a proto-Nietzschean concern with violence in history, which informs Auerbach’s view of the tensions within mimetic fiction.  This will include discussion of Auerbach’s direct remarks on Vico elsewhere with regard to Herder and with regard to Dante, and the general way in which Auerbach transforms and preserves Vico’s ideas in twentieth century literary criticism and theory.

The argument will then move onto a consideration of the continuation of that transmission, and transformation, through Edward Said’s comments on Vico and on Auerbach, particularly in Beginnings. Said’s comments emphasise a continuous reflection on the limits of human consciousness and knowledge in Vico, which is necessarily a self-critical way in which Vico creates his ow view of human history and literature.

In doing so Said, suggests the relevance of Vico to both twentieth century literature and literary criticism, with regard to the self-reflective nature of interpretation of the constructs of  human history, and the ways that may enter into literary creation, particularly for the novel, which is the modern form most relevant to Vico’s historical scope and his focus on Homer.  This will be compared with the kind of historical thinking about literature influence by Vico, to be found in Hyden White.

The more philosophical aspects of Vico’s thoughts on philology, rhetoric, history, and interpretation will be explored with reference to Gadamer’s discussion of Vico in Truth and Method, concentrating on the connections with Gadamer’s aesthetics and the consequences for understanding the novel as a hermeneutic form and as an object of hermeneutics. Brief but significant remarks of Foucault and Derrida on Vico will also be taken up in this consideration of the philosophical status of the novel. Their remarks can partly be found in Discipline and Punish and Of Grammatology, texts with a very big influence on literary studies The comparison of Foucault and Derrida with Gadamer itself sets up a contrast between interpretation as concerned with force and conflict, and interpretation as concerned with a more consensualist  harmonising view of interpretative possibilities.

Given that Vico reflects on Homer and on the status of interpretative sciences in this way, with reference to a  divinely ordained order and with regard to force and inconsistency, all of this adds to the way that Vico continues to influence understanding of the novel, through a tendency of his New Science to be very literary in form as well as in preoccupations. The discussion of Vico’s direct and indirect influence serves as a unifying point for discussion of twentieth centıry literary criticism and literary aesthetics. The ways in which is influential will be fully discussed, but as a starting point for the discussion of the differing ways Auerbach, Said, Gadamer, Foucault, and Derrida, contribute to understanding of the novel. Exploration of these figures will allow a full investigation of the status of hermeneutics, deconstruction, genealogy, and historicism in thinking about literature and the genre of the novel.


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