Geoffrey Green Photo.JPG

Dr. Geoffrey Green is professor of literature at San Francisco State University and he serves on the board of the Humanities and Education Research Association (HERA). I’ve invited him to discuss one of his research emphases, the work of philologist Erich Auerbach, one of Istanbul’s most prominent émigré thinkers during the early Turkish Republic period. Dr. Green has published various academic studies on Erich Auerbach including a book titled Literary Criticism and the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer (1). In his introduction to Auerbach’s tome, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Thought, Edward Said cited professor Green’s book as “an important book on Auerbach” (2, 3). Dr. Green has also written numerous articles on Auerbach’s methodology and significance, one of which is titled “‘Clearer Awareness of the … Crisis’: Erich Auerbach's Radical Relativism and the ‘Wealth of Conflicts’ of the Historical Imperative’” and is forthcoming in September of 2018 in a collection of essays entitled Fault Lines of Modernity: The Fractures and Repairs of Religion, Ethics and Literature, published by Bloomsbury (4). Please also see his essay “Erich Auerbach and the ‘Inner Dream’ of Transcendence” (5). And, thanks to Professor Green’s course in Theory of Literature, I was first introduced to Auerbach’s Mimesis, written during Auerbach's time in exile in Istanbul. At the time, I had no idea I would return to it from the perspective of an expat living in Istanbul. I heartily thank Dr. Green for accepting my invitation for this interview on his thoughts about Auerbach in general, and with an emphasis on his role in Istanbul in particular.

Erica: In discussing the work of Auerbach, you have written, “There is no literary historian more worthy of our attention.” How has Auerbach’s work inspired, confounded, or influenced your own research?

Geoffrey: Auerbach first interested me for his magisterial work of literary history, Mimesis. My interest deepened as I envisioned him as a writer in exile, as part of my book on Auerbach and Spitzer. With both of these important literary critics, I attempted to contextualize their work in relation to history and their involuntary exile, first to Istanbul, and then to the United States. More recently, as I have returned to Auerbach’s work, I have seen key points of convergence with his friend, Walter Benjamin, as well as a proleptic quality in Auerbach’s work that anticipates our contemporary state of modernity, especially globalization.

Erica: Today, Auerbach’s work might be most well known in the field of comparative literature. Could you outline his significance in this area?

Geoffrey: Auerbach, as a Romance philologist, was practicing what we would now refer to as comparative literature. His significance for comparative literature lies not only in the great value of his critical observations, but in his enduring syntheses–his audacious attempt to place literature in an historical, political, social, philosophical–as well as literary–thematic arc.

Erica: As a scholar of Jewish descent escaping Nazi Germany, Erich Auerbach became an émigré in Istanbul in 1935 after being forced to quit his position as professor at the University of Marburg. He filled a position as Chair of Western languages and literature at Istanbul University thanks to a recommendation by his esteemed colleague, Leo Spitzer, who was leaving Istanbul University to accept a position at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. You have noted in your book Literary Criticism and the Structures of History, that Auerbach brought the critical concerns that he had begun to pursue in Europe. To what extent do you think this displacement from the epicenter of his concerns influenced his work?

Geoffrey: I think his exile was crucial in a number of ways. First of all, it changed his perspective on his earlier critical concerns. As he describes in Mimesis, his earlier book on Dante did not enable him to understand entirely the implications of figural interpretation (6). Wherein “Figura” (1939) focuses in a more traditional comparativist method on this literary interpretive device, it also establishes a convergent commentary and critique on Nazi Aryanization and the cultural responses to it, as I describe in my book with the example of Cardinal Faulhaber. In exile and with the outbreak of war, Auerbach (and the world’s) circumstances are now more urgent and compelling. We see his persistent desire in Mimesis for his readers to conceive of earlier historical literary texts from a perspective that brings in recent history as an attempt, as Hamlet expresses it, to “speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.” In my reading of Mimesis, Auerbach is not only examining the development of realistic literary representation, but also developing a dialog with the political ideologies of his time: he declares firmly for the need of western humanities and the arts to be preserved, but he also describes with great insight the manner in which fascism contrives a cult derived from myth that represents an egregious marginalization of diversity, an intolerance of diversity that, in our contemporary usage, we would conceive as rendering humans as “others,” even denying some human groups their status as human beings.

Erica: During his time in Istanbul, Auerbach wrote one of the most influential texts of literary criticism in the twentieth century, and one that is attributed as a foundational text in the field of comparative literature: Mimesis. This work in the field of philology studies European history vis-à-vis literature across a broad period of time. It covers texts from ancient Greece all of the way to the early twentieth century. What do you consider the lasting impact of this text?

Geoffrey: In addition to the enduring value of Auerbach’s great literary synthesis, I find the work to be exemplary for Auerbach’s willingness to write literary history with an individualized writerly voice, to situate himself within his historical interpretations, to implicate himself and his readers in the issues of historical change, and his inspiring attempt to write a new type of literary history, one not inundated with scholarly references and notes.

Erica: As I understand from your interpretation in Literary Criticism and the Structures of History, Auerbach’s Mimesis, Auerbach subtly and incisively challenged the contemporary totalitarian influences. Such influences limit human faculties for expression and interpretation. You have called his interpretive stance “radical relativism.” Could you describe what you mean by this?   

Geoffrey: Radical relativism is Auerbach’s own term. In order to understand art most authentically, Auerbach formulates the idea of an “extreme” or “radical relativism” (radikaler Relativismus), relative both to the “understanding historian as well as the phenomena to be understood.” According to Auerbach, in the process of such interpretation, the historian “does not become incapable of judging; he learns what judging means.” He also uses the term “extreme relativism” for this process.

Erica: Some of the mystique surrounding Auerbach’s writing of Mimesis derives from the claim that it was written without access to any suitable library. Scholar and literary critic Kader Konuk refutes the notion that Istanbul of the early Republic period was a complete backwater region sealed off from Europe. She notes that although Auerbach himself seemed to promote the idea that he lacked a library, it proves an exaggeration. She provides a detailed description of the textual sources that were available to Auerbach at the time he wrote Mimesis in her book, East West Mimesis: Auerbach in Turkey (7). Nevertheless, you’ve asserted that Auerbach’s work had to become more general, based on the lack of a comprehensive and detailed library like he was accustomed to. Do you think Auerbach’s “lack of a suitable library” compromised his ultimately well-received work, Mimesis?

Geoffrey: Although there is no question of the value of Kader Konuk’s study, what I think is important is the way an individual forced into exile would internalize the obstacles to normalcy that had previously facilitated productive work. Rather than the lack of library facilities, we might stress that the facilities were not what would have been used had one not been forced into exile. We need to keep in mind that Leo Spitzer, who preceded Auerbach into exile in Istanbul, provided his own account of the resources, and it echoes Auerbach’s in the sense of the exile feeling deprived–of an individuality of spirit, on being able to be oneself in a familiar manner. In a 1952 interview, Spitzer recounts putting it to a dean at the university, “there were almost no books,” and the dean’s reply, according to Spitzer, was that books were not significant since they were so easily combustible.

Erica: According to Kader Konuk, Erich Auerbach joined Istanbul University during the early years of the Turkish Republic, when educational reforms embraced secular modernism by adopting European models of education (East West, 33). While writing against the grain of Germany’s specific forms of totalitarianism, Auerbach simultaneously took part in a history-effacing experiment by the Turkish Republic which sought to adopt European humanism in its universities. In doing so, Turkey aimed to dismantle the influence of the pan-Islamic culture of Ottoman Empire in this period, in favor of modernist nation-building that entailed its own forms of ethnic and religious exclusions to promote a newly conceived vision of “Turkishness.” This national identity simultaneously struggled to utilize forms of European democracy, while guarding distinction from them. Auerbach remained cognizant of this complex position of his host country and balked at the rapid change while criticizing its language reform. Naturally, as someone invested in preserving and revealing historical potency, he noted the danger of uprooting linguistic traditions in a letter he wrote to Walter Benjamin (8). As a result, Auerbach’s position as a teacher and lecturer among students undergoing this transformation did not align with an ideal form of reception for his work, as the country adopted a merely conditional embrace of Western thought. How do you think Auerbach responded to these complexities present in his immediate surroundings?

Geoffrey: I think Auerbach’s later work, especially “The Philology of World Literature” (1952) enunciates his nuanced position on many of these important issues more expressively than I might be able to venture an opinion on his behalf (9).

Erica: To add another layer of complexity, Auerbach was not fully isolated from the influence of Nazi Germany while living in Istanbul. As a guest in Turkey, Auerbach’s contract stipulated that he remain at a remove from politics. He had to formally adopt a publicly non-critical stance with regards to both Germany and Turkey, in order to maintain his academic position. It wasn’t until 1944, just one year before the end of the war that Turkey officially joined the Allies against Nazi Germany. This meant that during most of the period that Auerbach resided in Turkey, he was never fully removed from the influence of Nazi supporters. Istanbul University hired several scholars who were Nazi supporters and the German émigré community of Istanbul represented no official political opposition to the regime. This meant that though Auerbach kept a safe distance from Nazi Germany in Istanbul, he remained exposed to the looming threat posed by informants and racism against Jewish people. Do you feel that Auerbach’s secularism itself was a product of this climate and historical period?

Geoffrey: I think the degree to which in Mimesis he brings in contemporary political developments speaks to Auerbach’s sense of urgency, of feeling as a literary historian the need to stake out a position on what human values are at stake during the conflagration of the war. However, the book derived from his more detached and non-critical lectures in Istanbul, the posthumous Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature: Latin, French, Spanish, Provencal, Italian (1961), provides us with a sense of what may have been his more public stance while in Istanbul of negotiating these challenging currents (10).

Erica: In a sense, Auerbach’s ideal readership appears to have been diminishing in his lifetime. It was perhaps limited to a few serious scholars whom he counted among his friends. Auerbach was a scholar of philology and so-called European humanism, which sat at the cross-roads of history, linguistics and literature. These were fields only accessible to poly-linguists with a rigorous depth of knowledge in the classics by way of first-language readings. His method remained elitist in a sense, though his work concerned the representation of inclusive forms of reality that bridged high and low spheres. What significance lies in this seeming contradiction between form and function?  

Geoffrey: I don’t think Auerbach’s readership diminished during his lifetime. The publication of Mimesis in 1946 and its translation into English in 1953 brought his unique and masterly volume to much wider audience than would ever have read his individual philological studies in scholarly journals. Mimesis has never been out of print since its original publication. What did change, in my view, was the willingness of readers in the 1950s and 1960s to view Auerbach’s work in the manner he had urged, as “a book that a particular person, in a particular situation, wrote at the beginning of the 1940s”–that is, to view this work on literary history in a manner that considered and contextualized its own position in history. Whether as a result of the shift in orientation from the threat of fascism to that of communism, or due to the popularity of literary formalism and its American version, “the new criticism,” Auerbach’s Mimesis was often characterized–and praised–as a volume of particular individual studies. I wrote Literary Criticism and the Structures of History partly in response to this overly formalistic view of Auerbach, who had himself emphasized, “my purpose is to write history.” Today that initial post-war perspective on Auerbach has changed dramatically, and that change incorporates a vast diversity of positions and interpretive readings.

Erica: Mimesis was published in German in Switzerland in 1946, and translated into English by Willard Trask in 1953. As far as I know, the full text still has not been made fully available in Turkish, though some critical summaries such as Mimesis’i Okumaya Başlarken: Erich Auerbach - Batı Edebiyatında Gerçekliğin Temsili by Fatma Erkman Akerson exist (11). Yet, many of Auerbach’s students became influential cultural thinkers in Turkey. If Mimesis were to be made fully available in translation in Turkey today, would it still prove relevant?

Geoffrey: Most certainly. Why wouldn’t Turkish readers be interested in a timely and timeless study, one of only a handful of masterworks in the field of literary criticism, that would not have been possible without Turkey’s providing of a safe haven for an émigré, and whose unique circumstances enabled Auerbach to write it?

Erica: A lingering question arises with regards to the problematic faced by Turkey regarding the influence of the West, as a culture that defines itself to varying degrees according to both Eastern and Western influences. One might even say it “wavers” between these two zones of influence. Though Auerbach himself experienced life in the early Turkish Republic, his subject matter upheld the binary of East and West through the lens of European philology, which inherently implies the exclusion of Eastern, Orientalist and Islamic literary sources. Nevertheless, Turkey inhabits an “in between” zone with strong historical and political ties to both “East” and “West.” Therefore, we might question to what extent does the largely Eurocentric work of Auerbach still hold relevance for approaches to comparative literature in our time, specifically for a region at the cultural and geographical intersection of two (historically) mutually exclusive philological traditions?

Geoffrey: Although Auerbach was by training a Romance philologist (that is, his field of study was Western literature), he emphasized (in his 1952 essay “The Philology of World Literature”) that “our philological home is the earth: it can no longer be the nation.” I agree with Edward Said that Auerbach is a “man with a mission”:  the “possibility of understanding inimical and perhaps even hostile others despite the bellicosity of modern cultures and nationalisms, and the optimism with which one could enter into the inner life of a distant author or historical epoch even with a healthy awareness of one’s limitations of perspective” (Introduction to Mimesis, xvi).

Erica: Finally, How does interpreting Auerbach’s role as a scholar help us to contemplate or envision the future of humanities as a sphere of study?

Geoffrey: Auerbach’s work provides us with an affirmation and a reminder of the humanistic values that are essential to a civilized world–empathy, idealism, the belief that human beings are able to understand each other through artistic communication. His voice inspires us to continue to strive to advocate passionately in its behalf–as he did so eloquently.


(1) Green, Geoffrey. Literary Criticism and the Structures of History: Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

(2) Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur. 7th ed. Munich: Franke, 1987. (Orig. publ. Istanbul, 1946; Auerbach’s English translation: Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953].)

(3) Said, Edward. Introduction.  Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

(4) Green, Geoffrey. “Erich Auerbach and the ‘Inner Dream’ of Transcendence,” in Literary History and the Challenge of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach, ed. Seth Lehrer. Stanford, CA :  Stanford University Press. in Seth Lerer (1996), 214 – 26, 295–6.

(5)  Green, Geoffrey. “‘Clearer Awareness of the … Crisis’: Erich Auerbach's Radical Relativism and the ‘Wealth of Conflicts’ of the Historical Imperative,” in Fault Lines of Modernity: The Fractures and Repairs of Religion, Ethics and Literature, ed. Kitty Millet and Dorothy Figuera. New York: Bloomsbury, forthcoming Sept. 2018. 

(6) Auerbach, Erich. Dante: Poet of the Secular World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

(7) Konuk, Kader. East West Mimesis: Auerbach in Turkey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. 

(8) Auerbach, Erich to Walter Benjamin, “Letter 8,” December 12, 1936, in “Scholarship in Times of Extremes: Letters of Erich Auerbach (1933-46), on the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Death,” Ed. Martin Elsky, Martin Vialon and Robert Stein in PMLA, Vol. 122, No. 3  (May, 2007), pp. 742-762. 

(9) Auerbach, Erich. “The Philology of World Literature,” in Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, ed. James I. Porter, trans. Jame O. Newman, 253-266. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 

(10) Auerbach, Erich. Romance Languages and Literature: Latin, French, Spanish, Provencal, Italian. Trans. Guy Daniels. New York: Capricorn Books: 1961.

(11) Akerson, Fatma Erkman. Mimesis’i Okumaya Başlarken: Erich Auerbach - Batı Edebiyatında Gerçekliğin Temsili. Istanbul: İthaki Yayınları, 2015.