If Erich Auerbach's Mimesis is generally considered a landmark in twentieth-century literary criticism and an originary text for the modern practice of comparative literature, then this is despite the fact that its profound interpretive structures and hermeneutic consequences still remain to be truly read. This essay proposes that there is a complex theory of reading to be found in Mimesis and that it is one of the most exemplary models of literary hermeneutics in modern criticism. To discern this theory of reading, however, one must go against the dominant tendency in recent critical readings of Mimesis. This tendency, originating in the work of Edward Said and practiced in some form or another by nearly all of Auerbach's critics of the last three decades, is to contextualize the writing of Mimesis and to explain its seemingly ungainly form in terms of the specific particularities of the time and place of the work's composition. What Auerbach famously called the “incomparable historical vantage point” of his exile in Istanbul, these critics argue, has inextricably shaped the contours of his work as a critic.
This essay suggests that focusing on exile as Auerbach's most important legacy avoids the real work of reading Mimesis and the interpretive strategies it contains, and that such a reading requires bracketing the historical conditions of his work's composition, a story with an easy appeal to pathos. To truly discern the significance of Auerbach's contribution to our field, one must first and foremost read him reading. This essay attempts to demonstrate three essentially interrelated points that might begin to salvage Auerbach's criticism from its obscured place in the literary critical canon. The first of these points is that throughout his entire corpus Auerbach does in fact construct a specific method for literary understanding. Second, this hermeneutics stems from his decades-long preoccupation with figural interpretation, the essentially Christian mode of reading that he traces from late Roman antiquity through the Middle Ages. Third, there emerges out of his “figural hermeneutics” a thoroughly modernist critical point of view, one whose understanding of mimesis depends upon the structure of figural understanding rather than any naïve doctrine of literary realism. Mimesis, as it gradually emerges out of Auerbach's hermeneutics, is a figure of language.