The Material Increasingly Masters the Stylistic Intent

I just reread Erich Auerbach's Mimesis. In this book Auerbach develops an amazingly powerful way of combining close reading and distant reading. He closely analyzes a chunk of text, then steps back to ask, what about this writing would have been inconceivable a century or so earlier? Again and again, this technique enables him to draw surprising observations that one feels should have been obvious. An amazing demonstration of how much can be legitimately read between the lines, Mimesis leaves me with the feeling that, whatever a text purports to be about, it's its style that's truly informationally rich.

Here's Auerbach on Ammianus, a fourth century Roman historian:

“... he definitely belongs to the tradition of the antique historians in the elevated style, who look down from above and judge by moral standards, and who never make conscious and intentional use of the technique of realistic imitation because they scorn it as fit only for the low comic style. The particular form of this tradition, which seems to have been especially favored in late Roman times (it is already embodied in Sallust, but especially in Tacitus), is very strongly stoic in temper; it delights in choosing exceptionally somber subjects, which reveal a high degree of moral corruption, and then sharply contrasting them with its ideal concept of original simplicity, purity, and virtue. This is the pattern which Ammianus obviously wants to follow, as appear from many passages of his work in which he cites deeds and sayings of earlier times in moralistic contrast. But from the very beginning we sense – and, in Ammianus, the impression becomes unmistakable – that in this tradition the material increasingly masters the stylistic intent, until it finally overwhelms it and forces the style, with its pretension to reserve and refinement, to adapt itself to the content, so that diction and syntax, torn between the somber realism of the content and the unrealistically refined tendency of the style, begin to change and become inharmonious, overburdened, and harsh. The diction grows mannered; the constructions begin, as it were, to writhe and twist. The equable elegance is disturbed; the refined reserve gives way to a somber pomp; and, against its will as it were, the style renders a greater sensoriousness than would originally have become compatible with gravitas, yet gravitas itself is by no means lost, but on the contrary is heightened. The elevated style become hyperpathetic and gruesome, becomes pictorial and sensorial.”

Rather as if making a medical diagnosis, Auerbach depicts an old tradition wrenched into new shapes by the pressure of great historical forces. I'm left with the strange suspicion that one can make cross-cultural generalizations about late Imperial style -- a lot of what Auerbach says about Ammianus seems to me also to apply to late Imperial English writers like Evelyn Waugh.

Alasdair Gray wrote, “Work as if you were in the early days of a better nation.” But if Auerbach's right, this may be -- for writers at least -- an impossible injunction...

Scroll to Top