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Disenchanting Odysseus: Auerbach and Adorno on the Philhellenic Enlightenment

Mathura Umachandran

Erich Auerbach and Theodor Adorno were just two of the many émigrés to flee from Germany in the 1930s, and it was in response to the convulsions of the Second World War that they produced their most influential projects. Auerbach’s Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946) is considered to have laid the foundations of the discipline of comparative literature, while Adorno’s Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947) is the best-known work of the Frankfurt school. This paper examines why both thinkers make the critically significant move of turning to Odysseus to make their arguments about the deep currents of Western culture. Furthermore, it argues that the turn to Odysseus is deeply ambivalent.

Theodor Adorno’s project (with Max Horkheimer) is to come to terms with how humanism culminated in the horror of National Socialism. Thus his turn to antiquity not only identifies the seeds of the Enlightenment rationality there, but also a grim will to power over the nature and self. Odysseus makes a new excursus in the first part of the Dialectic of Enlightenment as the figure around which takes place the first readily identifiable moment of a dialectic between myth and enlightenment. Odysseus ironically becomes a caricature of a Jew: self-mastering, in denial of pleasure, wandering and economically pecunious. I suggest that in this subversion of Odysseus, Adorno seeks to show that the philhellenism he is citing, so critical to the German self-construction of Volk and the basis of the argument for domination, is paradoxically characterized as Jewish.

The figure of Odysseus in ‘Odysseus’ Scar’, the first chapter in Auerbach’s Mimesis, serves a metonymic function, marking out one of two strands of realism that pervade Western literature from antiquity to Virginia Woolf. Auerbach observes a fundamental opposition of poetics in Homer and the Old Testament, and this opposition goes on to structure Western literature. Auerbach’s Odysseus is a man of surface and light, the Homeric poems oriented towards the present and the external. The Old Testament, which fixed the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac as representative, constructs a poetics of spatial obscurity and pyschological depth. Though Auerbach talks of the ‘genius of Homer’ and places him at the head of Western literature, the Greek poet comes off as inadequate in the great gesture that Auerbach has made, and makes compelling: comparison.

Having examined the mechanics of two very different uses of Odysseus, one primarily philosophical, the other philological, I take up the issue of why remake Odysseus at all? I explore the possibility that the ‘classical’ is a problem for both Auerbach and Adorno’s projects. I suggest Adorno’s broader problem behind the argument in ‘Odysseus: myth and enlightenment’ is with classicism as a continually re-inscribed moment of normative and conservative ethics. I argue this from both his extensive engagement with Homer via Odysseus and his stray comments on the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. I consider what work the antipathy towards classicism is doing in the context of ‘culture industry’. In Auerbach’s case, I suggest that though the comparative method still encourages us to think of texts with the status of ‘classic’, it unseats Graeco-Roman antiquity from the definitive articulation it has laid claim to as the major source of ‘the classics’ of the modern world.

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Rejecting the Classics: Rupture and Revolution

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