13 February, 2008

Mimesis - "Odysseus' Scar"

One of the "big books" here on campus - at least in the professors' circles - is Erich Auerbach's Mimesis , which discusses, as the subtitle says "the representation of reality in Western literature." I recently had to read chapter one, “Odysseus’ Scar”, for a theology class, and it's quite interesting. Here Auerbach contrasts the literary styles of the Homeric epic and Hebrew Scripture, demonstrating the vastly different means through which each work depicts reality.

Whereas the Homeric epic lays out a panorama of life, meticulously recreating events in detail, the Old Testament focuses on select aspects of events and characters that relate directly to a specific message. Comparing the scene when Odysseus’ nurse, Eurykleia, recognizes her master to the scene of Abraham’s journey up the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Auerbach points out that the Homeric poem “scrupulously externalize[s]” the minutest thoughts, actions, and feelings of the characters. The Homeric approach brings each facet of the legend - Eurykleia's reaction, Odysseus' gestures in silencing her, etc - to the foreground of the tale.In contrast, the Abraham narrative directly recounts only scattered details of the episode - God's command, Abraham's prompt response. The brand of actions highlighted in Abraham’s story all center around a single theme – his unswerving obedience to God’s will - and the paucity of detail makes the few, seemingly minor, details which are included, such as the fact that the journey took three days, take on a significance that would be lost in Homer.

Much of this has to do with the aim of each narrative. Homer wrote a legend, in which the present is paramount and details simply add to the spectacle of the story. It is a good story, but Hebraic Scripture purports (and to us, is) more than a mere story. The Old Testament's primary aim is to present a single truth about the nature of man’s relationship with God and its development through the ages. The immediacy of events in Homer, together with the relative consistency of personality in the characters stands in contrast to the Old Testament. There, everything is fraught with the background story of salvation history (as the authors then understood it) while anticipating the fulfillment of this history in future generations. The personal development of individuals' relationships with God is of primary importance as well, considering that such relationships are exactly what drive the story of God's dialogue with men. We hardly expect to see the Abraham who descends from the mountain with his son unchanged by the experience, and indeed, we see a profound development in Abraham's relation with God, reflected by a renewed covenant. "Because you have done this, and not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you...by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen 22:16-19.

Because of its purpose, gestures and words in Genesis aren’t depicted randomly – things that are not pertinent to the message of the story are hushed. Every word is there for a purpose and deserves attention when interpreting the passage. Though Homer’s tale explores many questions man has about existence just by its quality as a story, Auerbach says, such is not its direct aim. The Biblical authors sought to reveal divine truth and to comprehend recognize how it is that God interacts with the human race.

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