The historiographical status of Erich Auerbach’s theory of figural interpretation, which he develops in “Figura” (1938) and Mimesis (1946), is complex. In its insistence on the fundamental historicity of its objects—of both the figure and its fulfillment—it carries forth the historicist paradigms of Giambattista Vico and G. W. F. Hegel, yet in its assertion of figural relations that traverse the historical continuum beyond historical causation, figural interpretation troubles prevailing nineteenth-century models of historiography. Analyzing Auerbach’s turn to the seriality of figures in his late essay “Typological Motifs” (1953), the present article argues that the temporality of serial repetition provides a key to understanding the antihistoricist elements of Auerbach’s historiography, which breaks with the messianic logic of progressive fulfillment. Contextualizing Auerbach’s theory of the figure in relation to the historiographical innovations of Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg, the revival of seriality in modernist aesthetics, and the narrative forms of twentieth-century literature, it argues that Auerbach’s work was shaped more significantly by modernist aesthetics and culture than has hitherto been recognized. Far from merely secularizing figural interpretation by subtracting its transcendent referent, Auerbach’s insight into the seriality of the figure provides an indication of what figurality might look like under the conditions of modernity.
Michael McGillen; Erich Auerbach and the Seriality of the Figure. New German Critique 1 February 2018; 45 (1 (133)): 111–154. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0094033X-4269874
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