artistic purpose. On the contrary, it was rooted from the beginning in the character of Jewish-Christian literature; it was graphically and harshly dramatized through God’s incarnation in a human being of the humblest social station, through his existence on earth amid humble everyday people and conditions, and through his Passion which, judged by earthly standards, was ignominious; and it naturally came to have … a most decisive bearing upon man’s conception of the tragic and the sublime. Peter, whose personal account may be assumed to have been the basis of the story, was a fisherman from Galilee, of humblest background and humblest education. … From the humdrum existence of his daily life, Peter is called to the most tremendous role. Here, like everything else to do with Jesus’ arrest, his appearance on the stage — viewed in the world-historical continuity of the Roman Empire — is nothing but a provincial incident, an insignificant local occurrence, noted by none but those directly involved. Yet how tremendous it is, viewed in relation to the life a fisherman from the Sea of Galilee normally lives … (41-42).
Auerbach then goes on unhurriedly to detail the “pendulation” or swings in Peter’s soul between sublimity and fear, faith and doubt, courage and defeat in order to show that those experiences are radically incompatible with “the sublime style of classical antique literature.” This still leaves the question of why such a passage moves us, given thatin classical literature it would appear only as farce or comedy. “Because it portrays something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature. What we witness is the awakening of ‘a new heart and a new spirit.’ All this applies not only to Peter’s denial but also to every other occurrence which is related in the New Testament” (42-43). What Auerbach enables us to see here is “a world which on the one hand is entirely real, average, identifiable as to place, time, and circumstances, but which on the other hand is shaken in its very foundations, is transforming and renewing itself before our eyes” (43).
Christianity shatters the classical balance between high and low styles, just as Jesus’ life destroys the separation between the sublime and the everyday. What is set in motion, as a result, is the search for a new literary pact between writer and reader, a new synthesis or mingling between style and interpretation that will be adequate to the disturbing volatility of worldly events in the much grander setting opened up by Christ’s historical presence. To this end, St. Augustine’s enormous accomplishment, linked as he was to the classical world by education, was to have been the first to realize that classical antiquity had been superseded by a different world requiring a new sermo humilis , or as Auerbach puts it, “a low style, such as would properly only be applicable to comedy, but which now reaches out far beyond its original domain, and encroaches upon the deepest and the highest, the sublime and the eternal” (72). The problem then becomes how to relate the discursive, sequential events of human history to each other within the new figural dispensation that has triumphed conclusively over its predecessor, and then to find a language adequate to such a task, once, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was no longer the lingua franca of Europe.
Auerbach’s choice of Dante to represent the second seminal moment in Western literary history is made to seem breathtakingly appropriate. Read slowly and reflectively, chapter 8 of Mimesis , “Farinata and Cavalcante,” is one of the great moments in modern critical literature, a masterly, almost vertiginous embodiment of Auerbach’s