Auerbach & East-West Mimesis

by Said Dağlı

On Erich Auerbach and a book about him written by Kader Konuk, East West Mimesis – Auerbach in Turkey, Said Dağlı has written a recommendation. Said talked about exile, literature and the early republican era of Turkey.

East West Mimesis, one of the most influential contemporary studies on Auerbach and Turkey’s modernization process, was written by Kader Konuk and published by Stanford University Press, in 2010. Can Evren has translated it into Turkish and Metis has published the Turkish version in 2013. This book focuses on the experiences of Auerbach during his exile in Istanbul and questions the general understanding of the conditions in which Auerbach wrote his book, Mimesis. But it also provides a unique way of looking to the relationship between the immigrants who fled from Nazi Germany to Istanbul and the premature republic’s trials to become a modern and humanist western civilization. Thus, East West Mimesis is a must-read for not only scholars of literary disciplines but also researchers who want to have a wider perspective on the birth of Turkish Republic.

Erich Auerbach

Erich Auerbach was a German scholar who worked on Romanic languages and literature, in specific, Dante Alighieri. He can be defined as a philologist and critic of literature. He was a faculty member at the University of Marburg before the rise of the national socialism. Due to his Jewish origins he had to flee from Germany and visited the homeland of Alighieri. Then he found a job as the chairman of the Foreign Languages School at Istanbul University. He arrived in Istanbul in 1936 and continued his mission at the university until 1947. During his stay in Turkey he wrote his impressive book on the European history of literature, called Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Emily Apter and some other literary comparatists argue that this book was a milestone for the discipline of Comparative Literature.

Erich Auerbach
Erich Auerbach

Edward Said highlights the difficulties that Auerbach had faced in Istanbul. Said argues that it was a remarkable success because of not only its content but also the conditions in which Auerbach wrote it. One of the main challenges for Auerbach was the lack of academic sources: books, magazines, collections, etc. According to Said, the best assistant for Auerbach was his memory. Otherwise he couldn’t be able to write such a book covers the history of European literature for nearly a millennium without proper libraries and collections.

However, Kader Konuk disagrees. She mainly argues that Auerbach was able to write such a book not despite of the conditions but with the help of them. It’s a weak argument, according to her, to say that there were no books and collections in Istanbul at that time. Her investigations reveal the fact that what Auerbach couldn’t access was not the vast majority of books and collections. He wasn’t able to access only the contemporary works of his colleagues. Furthermore, she argues that the isolation of Auerbach from the western world enabled him to look its history from a wider perspective, thus, to write the Mimesis.

Kader Konuk’s Study

Beside this debate, East West Mimesis opens a window to the young republic and investigate its efforts on westernization in the context of mimesis and mimicry. Auerbach was not the only German-Jewish scholar who was employed by the Turkish Republic. Leo Spitzer, Alexander Rüstow, Ernst von Aster, Hans Reichbach, etc. was also invited to and employed by Turkey for a practical reason. Young republic wanted western scholars to secularize its education but didn’t want them to pursue activities according to their national interests. These outcasts were the perfect choices as they represent the Europe but don’t have a good relationship with their governments. Kader Konuk analyzes the effects of these scholars and the German society in Istanbul on Turkish humanist intellect and concludes that there was a mutual interaction between them. German scholars have influenced and was influenced by their surroundings in Istanbul.

Kader Konuk
Kader Konuk

For those who want to follow an academic career on literary studies, East West Mimesis is essential as it expands the horizons. Yet, it is also a prominent work to understand the dynamics of the early republican era of Turkey. Therefore, I recommend for all students of history, Turkish studies, political science, international relations, etc. to read at least the introduction of Konuk’s book. If it is possible, the whole book should be read.

Note for those who are curious: East West Mimesis also appends two of Auerbach’s Lectures in Turkey: “Realism in Europe in Nineteenth Century” and “Literature and War” given in 1941-1942.


Kader Konuk, Doğu Batı Mimesis – Auerbach Türkiye’de, Metis Yayınları, 2013: Istanbul.

Kader Konuk, East West Mimesis – Auerbach in Turkey, Stanford University Press, 2010: Stanford-California.

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