An Auerbachian theory of literary style and social change

Can one deduce a theory of literary style and social change from Erich Auerbach’s book Mimesis? Yes, and not with too much straining.

One could think of a new style as coming into being and becoming settled in four distinct moments.

The First Moment: Doxa. The style (or suite of styles: I will use the singular throughout) ready-to-hand among any group of people can be regarded as its representation of doxa or common sense reality. It would not occur to many Americans to hesitate to say, in the appropriate setting, “Cool, man. That’s awesome.” This style convokes a sense of familiarity and implies a face-to-face relationship among relative equals, something that is unthinkable before the rise of modern democracy. In the first moment, then, a style is a received conceptual schema (“cool,” “man,” “awesome,” etc.) that is appropriately suitable for speaking of a taken-for-granted social reality.

The Second Moment: Alienation & Unintelligibility. A nascent social reality cannot fully present itself in the style of the times. On the one hand, this phenomenon will be invisible or unintelligible relative to any available conceptual schema. On the other hand, for those who are properly attuned to the dissonance, this invisibility or unintelligibility will be registered as a form of unsettledness and displeasure. It is as displeasure with the words we have on hand that this novelty first “appears.” Hence, those of us with a poetic heart “just have the sense” that our words are not doing justice to this vague, indeterminate, emerging something or other and, what’s more, that something else is called for.

The Third Moment: Wellspring. The novel thing “demands” to be fully present in our everyday words. For a fertile period, then, poets will invent different styles, philosophers new concepts (“the state” was one such invention), while play change hands with dissatisfaction. Poems will be written but remain unfinished, incomplete, disappointing. Play resumes with more concepts tried out because social reality will keep half-appearing in the surreptitious manner of slipping the knot.

The Fourth Moment: Reconciliation. After a time and during a new age, whatever styles “win out” will become second nature. A reconciliation will therefore be effected between style and social reality as each receives its due or, in any case, as each is given more of what it’s owed and as we forget our lingering debts.

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