Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Theodore Ziolkowski, Minos and the Moderns: Cretan Myth in Twentieth-century Literature and Art. Classical Presences. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 173. ISBN 9780195336917. $55.00.
Constanze Güthenke, Princeton University (

Table of Contents

In this slim, elegant book Ziolkowski creates a panoramic map of Cretan myth in the first half of the twentieth century and of its reception across the arts. Building momentum from the observation that the mythology accruing around Crete and its prehistoric and pre-classical Minoan culture sees a remarkable peak in reception across Europe from around the turn of the century, Ziolkowski catalogues a wide range of artistic engagements with those Cretan figures, and links them back to a straightforward exposition of Modernist aesthetics and its programmatic interests. The main protagonists of this roll call are Europa, Theseus and the Minotaur, the women of Minos's clan (Pasiphae, Ariadne and Phaedra), and the pair of Daedalus and Icarus.

The Introduction first contextualizes Crete's newly discovered materiality around 1900 and the fascination with those archaic figures of Cretan myth as "a vehicle of thoroughly modern concerns" (24). It then branches out to offer a well-wrought summary of the aesthetic and historical concerns of Modernism and its relation to myth as a means of giving shape and meaning to a contemporary panorama of anxiety, speed, and anarchy. The tentacles of this artistic approach reach back into the preoccupation of the late nineteenth century with the irrational as a formative part of ancient Greek culture and by extension an operator of Western civilization and its discontents; and they reach across to the manifestation of such a pre-classical world in the spectacular excavations carried out in Crete during the same period.

Heinrich Schliemann's excavations of prehistorical sites at Troy and Mycenae in the 1860s and 70s, reported almost in real time to a wide European audience, and the nature of their visually unusual finds had predated only by a decade the beginnings of large archaeological projects in Crete. Federico Halbherr's excavations there at Gortyn in the 1880s were in turn followed by the work of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos. His work around 1900 came at a time when British imperial involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean gave British archaeologists ample opportunity and prominence to work on an island at the center of a protracted power struggle between various European powers and the Ottoman Empire. What is more, beyond the prominence of Evans' archaeological work at home, the visual effect of his arguable reconstruction of a Minoan high culture that combined aesthetic appeal with social normativity, popularized his work and his finds across Europe.

Ziolkowski briefly mentions the effect which Evans' excavations had on classical and historical scholarship, particularly on the question of the origins of Greek culture, but he makes little of the fact that Minoan civilization, as a result of the highly visible and highly interpretive fieldwork done by Evans, was almost immediately considered "European", a factor that should tally well with Ziolkowski's overall choice and arrangement of materials.1 Archaeology, which in Ziolkowski's account plays a not negligible supporting part, was in itself a modern and Modernist practice, as was the Europeanism it promoted, not something that is spelled out clearly here, which is a little disappointing when one considers Ziolkowski's exceedingly good ear for the interplay of institutions, disciplines and literature, shown earlier in his German Romanticism and its Institutions (1989). Ziolkowski's study covers a wide spectrum of European writings (the book really is about Cretan myth in twentieth century European Literature and Art), thus deliberately deflecting from a focus on Anglophone literature. One American writer, incidentally, whose account of Knossos as a fantastic, mythic, Modernist and material site of reflection would have fitted well with the issues suggested by Ziolkowski, is Henry Miller, whose Colossus of Maroussi (1942) exerted considerable influence, well beyond the US. A fair number of the writings gathered here are deliberately engaged in thinking through what it means to be Europeanliterature; Ziolkowski himself contents himself with hinting, though it is an assured and knowledgeable hinting, at the importance of Europe as an intellectual, artistic, and political issue in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the interwar period. 2

Ziolkowski's study is not a systematic account of the European aspect; nor does it return to the interaction between archaeology and materiality on the one hand and literary and artistic production on the other hand in the specific readings it undertakes. Instead, its asset lies in drawing, in this first chapter, an intelligent, roomy roadmap that leaves spaces to be filled in, and in suggesting, in the subsequent chapters, a wide range of individual works and genres, across several literatures, that exemplify the varied nature of artistic receptions.

The power of myth lies to a large extent in its structural and interpretive pliability, and the attraction of the myth of Europa and the Bull, which Ziolkowski presents in his second chapter, is a case in point. As the figure of the seductive and seduced noble foreign adolescent, Europa connected to a modernist preoccupation with the journey of sexual awakening, the exploration of desire, and the fascination with animal nature. As the figure of Europe raped, the myth could be instrumentalized, with greater or lesser skill and subtlety and on opposite sides of the political spectrum, as a comment on the threat Europe faced from the foreign, as much as the threat that came from within, especially the seduction by the forces of fascism. The implication, manifest though not clearly brought into focus throughout the array of variations that make up the study, is that Modernism could contain within itself artistic and political attitudes to myth that spanned a broad spectrum from anarchy to extreme conservatism.

The tension between nationalism, internationalism, and a growing interest in a Europeanism variously formulated is also one of the characteristics of artistic Modernism and the European Avant-Gardes, even though its collusion with nationalism has only recently been more readily examined 3; myth is inevitably a strong vehicle to link these elements, while exploring the aesthetic dimensions of their relationship. Most of the analytical forays Ziolkowski offers into this set of issues introduce the detailed synopses of individual works that make up a very large part of this chapter and the ones that follow it. Ziolkowski is certainly masterful at the summary and paraphrase of entire, often substantial works, works in addition that are often neither known to an English-speaking audience, nor even well-known in their country of origin (the German expressionist dramatist Georg Kaiser is an example of the former, the poet Karl Leopold Mayer, also German, an example of the latter)--though Ziolkowski usually gives little guidance as to the relative importance of individual authors. Europa and the bull also emerge as a particular pet subject of visual artists and artisans, and Ziolkowski thumbs through a register that includes expressionist painting, advertising, satirical journalism, and porcelain manufacturing, stretching between the axes of erotic appeal and political momentum.

Chapter three, "The Minotaur: The Beast Within and the Threat Outside", treats the figures of the Minotaur and Theseus as interconnected, and even as triangulated by including Daedalus as the artist who built the labyrinth around the beast. One way or another, the myth of the uncanny and brutish, yet half-human, Minotaur enclosed in an artefact invites reflection about alienation. It is mainly from the 1930s onwards that the Minotaur enters public consciousness and appears with some regularity across the arts. Ziolkowski alludes to the confusion of the time, the foreboding of violence and the fear of destruction that manifests itself in a political as much as a poetic diction ("Like Sartre's hell, the labyrinth is the others: the world in which we live" (85)). The urgency of the myth in a time of state repression and politically sanctioned violence is one side of the coin. Its obverse, in Ziolkowski's examination, is the urgency, articulated across the Avant-Garde arts, which accompanies the often violent break-up and deliberate confusion of artistic models. A brief section on the Parisian Avant-Garde, multi-media journal Minotaure, published between 1933 and 1939 by André Breton, Albert Skira and E. Tériade (the pseudonym of the Greek art critic Stratis Eleftheriadis), and especially a long section on Picasso's life-long attention to the figure of the Minotaur as a personal symbol, exemplify the artistic affection felt for the creature facing alienation from the world for being itself.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt's repeated returns to the Minotaur, both in writing and painting and presented here in a sustained discussion, are another instance of this conflicted sympathy for the outsider, guiltless and guilty at the same time; André Gide's Thésée (1946) in its ironic demythologizing is put next to Mary Renault's rationalization in the making of a historical novel, a form of juxtaposition that organizes also a section on the Minotaur among the poets, where for example brief mention of the American poet Robert Penn Warren in the 1950s, talking about the politicization of the myth even after 1945, is immediately followed by a turn to the Czech writer Miroslav Holub to discuss, also briefly, the Minotaur as a key to metaphor and imagination. Ziolkowski is surely right that each interpretation of the theme has to be determined from artist to artist. But there is a tantalizing thrift in how the rich materials are organized. In this chapter, for instance, the plentiful examples are categorized according to genre, broadly speaking (the Minotaur among the poets, on stage, and in novels), with only a glimpse here and there of how the particularity of genre may interact with the treatment of myth.

Another surprising area of discomfort for an author as sympathetic, sensitive and experienced as Ziolkowski seems to be the question whether the treatment of Cretan myth by female writers has analytical traction as a category. The present reviewer does not think that feminist readings of myth or of writings on myth need to be given pride of place in this context, but Ziolkowski himself brings up the issue. He is brief and adamant that "regardless of their fascination and validity, these theoretical excursions into the past as well as the psychological, feminist and deconstructive ingenuities of recent decades hold little relevance for the literary and artistic treatments of the early twentieth century, with which we have been concerned" (66). This does not only bundle the question of gendered reading into a general broadside on quote-unquote theory of the late twentieth century; more importantly, it seems to give short shrift to the genuine interest displayed by the writers of the early twentieth century in issues of the archaeology of the psyche, of the feminine (and a quasi-cult of the feminine), of desire and the violence of art, to name but a few.

In the Minotaur chapter, Ziolkowski makes room for the comment that "[w]hile poets like Cronin, Holub, and Muir adduce the Minotaur as a powerful personal and social image, it seems inevitable that the myth would also experience a feminist re-vision. The Canadian poet Nicole Markotic proposes in "the minotaur dreams" that "it is possible the minotaur bull was female, pregnant, long overdue and desperate for escape into a more temperate myth. An ache for religions more gentle towards animals and virgins" (88-89). Quite aside from the fact that this makes feminist interpretation sound like a head cold one would want to avoid catching (it is easy enough to find extreme poetic voices), but it means to set up a straw man (or straw woman, as it were). It sits uneasily with Ziolkowski's detailed reading of Claire Goll's Europa novel, for example, elsewhere, and it short-changes writers such as Anaïs Nin, whose Seduction of the Minotaur (1961) is mentioned in passing and by title only, or the quite detailed synopsis of Marguerite Yourcenar's play To Each His Minotaur (1963), whose "mystical meditation on two conflicting aspects of womanhood" (110) is thrown out as bait yet not further elaborated on.

The last chapter, "The Other Cretans: Alienation, Invention, Liberation", brings together under its roof Minos and Pasiphae; their daughters Ariadne and Phaedra; and, most importantly and interestingly to Ziolkowski, the father and son pair of Daedalus and Icarus. Ariadne, in particular, is acknowledged as the Cretan figure most easily recognized, in some ways; three pages only deal with her reception by Giorgio de Chirico, Richard Strauss, and Darius Milhaud, as much as the attention given to "Ariadne's Lament" by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Dionysus closes with the "mysterious statement": "I am your labyrinth" (120). As in every chapter, there are concise and far-reaching insights, economically presented, and sadly not developed in greater detail. Just as the introduction pointed out that the Cretan myths are themselves a distinctly post-classical interest within antiquity, here Ziolkowski concludes that figures like Ariadne and her sister Phaedra appeared to be much more meaningful to periods earlier than the twentieth century (126). Yet on why that is we are not given further comment.

When it comes to Daedalus and particularly Icarus, however, Ziolkowski strikes the balance, and strikes it well, which the study is missing in some other sections. He situates the preoccupation with the master craftsman in early twentieth century debates on the roles of science and art in relation to each other (with reference to J.B.S. Haldane and Bertrand Russell); the section on Icarus, by extension, gives a model reading of the different factors that combine to make a myth the center of a network of receptions. In this case, he links Icarus' resurgence to Baudelaire's 1862 poem "Les Plaintes d'un Icare", as an influential poetological statement for modern writers; in 1912, Pieter Bruegel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1555) came to light for the first time and, after successful public display and European attention, was bought by the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels; lastly, the early twentieth century fascination with aviation implicated Icarus in the giddiness of new technology and its aesthetic appeal -- the case study of choice here is Gabriele D'Annunzio, but also the less well-known example of the Italian writer Lauro de Bosis and his tragedy Icaro (1927). Especially when compared to the detailed attention given to de Bosis, though, the overview of post-War Icaroi loses a little of its drive, bringing a wide variety of critical writings, poetological as much as political, under its wings, on only a short flight.

The brief conclusion on the modernity of myth summarizes the specific circumstances of the twentieth century, in which the "awakening of a new sense of sexual liberation, experience of totalitarian brutality and the dream of European unity, and the hopes and hazards of modern science" (167) all contributed to the rehistoricizing and unpacking of myth in general and of Cretan figures in particular. What makes the cast of figures special, in Ziolkowski's thoughtful and aphoristic final comments, is their shared sense of urgency that does not hide that most of them are largely acted upon rather than independent actors, and that most of them fail to succeed in their actions. To what extent this is a pattern inherent in most myth is a different question, and Ziolkowski suspends further analysis. The panorama of varied artistic reception offered in this study stays as unexpectedly open and closed as the path through the labyrinth for which the author shows intrigued and suggestive sympathy. Ziolkowski writes with the skill of the connoisseur, but exercises just as much the connoisseur's knowing silence.

The book has eleven black and white illustrations, keyed to some of the discussions of specific artworks. Typographical errors are minor and very few: for Jackson Pollack read Pollock (118), and for "Die Mythische Method" on p. 15, n. 36, read "Methode".


1. On the effect of late nineteenth-century large-scale excavations on scholarship of the origins of Greek culture, be it Mycenean or Minoan, see recently Yannis Hamilakis (ed.), Labyrinth Revisited. Rethinking "Minoan" Archaeology, Oxford: Oxbow, 2002, and Yannis Hamilakis and Nicoletta Momigliano (eds.), Archaeology and European Modernity. Producing and Consuming the 'Minoans', Padova: Aldo Ausilio. Creta Antica 7, 2006; in the latter volume see especially the chapters by Roderick Beaton and David Roessel on Greek and English-language literary reception, respectively. Further John Papadopoulos, "Inventing the Minoans: archaeology, modernity and the quest for European identity", Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 18/1 (2005): 87-149.

2. A useful summary and bibliography on the inter-War "Europeanism" as a real movement with its own organisational dynamic is found in Luisa Passerini (ed.), Europe in Love. Love in Europe. Imagination and Politics in Britain between the Wars (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999). Passerini's account also includes the functional role of eroticism and love in this context, with reference to Denis de Rougemont's account of love as a particularly Western and European cultural concept, in Love in the Western World (1940).

3. For example Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins (eds.), Locations of Literary Modernism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2000; Pericles Lewis, Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Paul Peppis, Literature, Politics, and the Avant-garde. Nation and Empire, 1901-1918, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Michael Tratner, Modernism and Mass Politics. Joyce, Wolf, Eliot, Yeats, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

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