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2 - Beyond Auerbach: Homeric Narrative and the Epic of Gilgamesh

from PART I - DEFINING THE GREEK TRADITION

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2014

Johannes Haubold
Affiliation:
University of Durham
Douglas Cairns
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh, UK
Ruth Scodel
Affiliation:
University of Michigan, USA
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Summary

INTRODUCTION

One of the most ambitious attempts to define ancient Greek narrative, and one of the most influential to date, is Erich Auerbach's book Mimesis. In the famous opening chapter, written in Istanbul in 1942, Auerbach argues that Homeric narrative is all surface and illuminated detail, whereas the Hebrew Bible is elliptic, deep and demanding of its reader. To this day, Mimesis informs what modern readers see as characteristic of Homeric narrative, and of classical Greek literature more generally: for that reason alone, it seems important to revisit it in this volume. I would like to take the opportunity to consider how well Auerbach's work has stood the test of time; and to reflect on what it can tell us about the nature of this collection: what does it mean to define Greek narrative? I begin by looking at how Auerbach's vision of Homeric narrative emerges from what he himself called ‘the particular situation’ in which he conceived it. I then sketch out what I see as the circumstances in which, some sixty-five years after Auerbach, we find ourselves engaged in a similar set of questions.

HOMER AND THE BIBLE

On a superficial reading, the opening chapter of Auerbach's Mimesis presents itself as a fairly straightforward exploration of Homeric narrative technique. Auerbach looks at a specific passage in Odyssey 19: the disguised Odysseus has entered his palace and is having his feet bathed by his old maid-servant, Eurycleia. Eurycleia notices a scar which Odysseus acquired as a young man, while hunting with his grandfather Autolycus. The scar serves as a mark of recognition throughout the Odyssey, but here it threatens to give away Odysseus’ identity at an inopportune time: the hero reacts by clasping Eurycleia’s throat and swearing her to silence.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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