Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Bernhard Zimmermann, Spurensuche: Studien zur Rezeption antiker Literatur. Rombach Wissenschaften. Reihe Paradeigmata ; Bd. 5. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach Verlag, 2009. Pp. 202. ISBN 9783793095576. €58.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Joshua Billings, Merton College, Oxford University

Table of Contents

Bernhard Zimmermann is one of the great explainers in the sphere of Classics. Though his research centers on Greek drama, his capacious learning and lucid writing make his work valuable to scholarship on Roman drama, ancient philosophy, the novel, and a wide swath of reception studies. Spurensuche: Studien zur Rezeption antiker Literatur collects thirteen articles, some new but most originally published elsewhere, that amply demonstrate Zimmermann's extraordinary breadth and enthusiasm. Subjects range from receptions in the ancient world to the twentieth century, and treat works in the classical languages, German, English, French, and Italian. The title gives an indication of the principle lying behind Zimmermann's investigations (which are far more successful than those of his Sophoclean forebears!): the traces (Spuren) of antiquity are all around us, and the task of the scholar is to seek them out (Suchen) and bring them to light. The strength of the book lies in the clarity and precision with which Zimmermann elucidates a vast diversity of such traces. However, while one can only admire the essays individually and on their own terms, the volume as a whole fails to cohere. This is due largely to differences of method: some of the essays are essentially Spurensuchen, tracking the afterlife of antiquity in western literature, while some go further towards elucidating a more dialogic understanding of the process of reception in which ancient works transform and are transformed by their modern traces.

I see three (overlapping) approaches. Some studies are thematic: the first two essays of the book, focusing on the figure of Odysseus and Stoic attitudes towards suicide, begin with ancient treatments of their central topic and then give a roughly chronological overview of modern receptions. Two other studies, both centering on exile, similarly follow a theme of ancient literature as it is transformed heterogeneously in the modern world. A second major starting-point is the Goethezeit, the classic phase of German letters. These essays begin with well-known texts (Goethe's Roman Elegies, "the tragic" in Schiller's works) and trace backwards, to find the ancient sources informing them. Finally a third group of essays is concerned with a single nexus between an ancient text and a modern work -- Proust's reading of Homer and Pasolini's Medea, for example. The breadth and flexibility of Zimmermann's method are formidable, but the essays seem aimed at different readerships. The first group are excellent introductions, useful to undergraduates or those with little knowledge of modern receptions; the second group will be valuable mainly to specialists in German literature and reception; and the third, most eclectic group might interest scholars of reception, who will find in them treatments of modern texts they may not be aware of. Though Zimmermann is far more authoritative on classical texts, his engagement with modern ones is always insightful (if occasionally derivative). Consistent throughout the volume is Zimmermann's gift for explanation; each essay suggests illuminating connections between the ancient and modern worlds. It may be churlish to expect more.

"Odysseus - Metamorphosen eines griechischen Helden" describes ancient literature's diverse portrayals of Homer's hero. Zimmermann draws out the ambivalence of Odysseus's polytropia as it is transformed by Pindar, Attic tragedians, and Ovid, and shows how some of these ancient receptions form the background for the lyrics of D'Annunzio, Ugo Foscolo, and Heinrich Heine. The essay closes with something of a laundry list of others (Dante, Pascoli, Kazantzakis, Bloch, Adorno) that points to possibilities for further thought. Similarly, "Imitatio Socratis. Der Philosophentod in Literatur, Kunst und Musik" gives an overview of the ancient variations on the theme of Stoic suicide, before a sprint through modernity. Zimmermann moves fluidly between ancient sources and shows how the death of the philosopher becomes a proof of the effectiveness of the philosophy. Both essays cover a great deal of material in very little space, without losing thematic coherence; as introductions and reading lists, they could hardly be bettered.

Two essays on the poetry of exile (touched on briefly in the Odysseus essay) also focus on transformations of an ancient theme. "Abschied von Rom," though placed in the middle of the book, should be read before "Poeta exul. Zur Bewältigung des Exils in der griechisch-römischen und deutschen Literatur des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts." The former gives an eloquent reading of the first book of the Tristia before an all-too-brief look at farewells to Rome in modern works from Vida to Freud. "Poeta exul" is, despite its intimidating title, one of the most compelling essays in the book. It looks in depth at a narrow, though immensely significant moment in reception, concentrating on exile in the works of German exiles during the Second World War, particularly Bertholt Brecht and the Mann family. This allows for a more thorough discussion than many of the other essays, and brings out the commonalities of experience that bind ancient and modern authors. The essay is further distinguished by its genuinely dialogical construction: rather than moving chronologically, Zimmermann moves back and forth between antiquity and modernity to argue that the pathos of exile is an anthropological constant. It is an eloquent essay and an example of the ways that the study of reception can illuminate ancient and modern works reciprocally.

A group of essays consider the importance of antiquity in the classic phase of German letters, and particularly the works of Goethe. "Aischylos-Rezeption im 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr. und im 18./19. Jahrhundert n. Chr." begins, like the first essays, with an extensive discussion of the ancient world, tracing Aeschylus's canonization as a classic with clarity and incision. Then, in an effective juxtaposition, Zimmermann jumps to the moment of Aeschylus's rediscovery by popular culture in the late eighteenth century. He shows how Aristophanes's reduction of the poet to a cipher is repeated in the works of the Stürmer und Dränger Goethe and Herder, as in the Romantic reception in Nietzsche and Wagner. Though it is hard to argue with the basic contour of this account, one wishes for more context on the evolution of Aeschylus reception in the period, and not simply a few (all German) highlights. Three quite focused studies follow, all examining links between the works of Goethe and antiquity. "Euripides' und Goethes Iphigenie" points again to the extraordinary influence of the Frogs upon modern readings of ancient tragedy. Zimmermann shows how Aristophanes's image of the enlightened, skeptical Euripides appealed to the young Goethe (unlike the far more dismissive Romantics), and influenced his attempt at creating a reflective tragedy in the Iphigenie auf Tauris. Common to both works is a "humanization of theology," which Goethe interprets in an optimistic sense, rendering Euripides's inscrutable gods absent from the plot and effectively laying consciousness of divinity in the characters themselves. Though all Zimmermann writes is perceptive, this is a well-trodden area of German literary studies (works by Karl Reinhardt, Uwe Petersen, and Jochen Schmidt are cited, and many more could be added to the list); Zimmermann's main contribution is to link Goethe's Euripides explicitly to Aristophanes's and to suggest connections between the text and ancient philosophy. This would have benefited from a more detailed exposition, which might also have taken more account of the string of important Euripides adaptations of the 1770s.

The next two Goethe studies are more satisfying. Zimmermann's essays on the Römische Elegien and the little-read Novelle are paradigms of source studies. "Goethes Novelle und der Hirtenroman des Longos" notes the modern aversion to the ancient novel before offering a lucid account of Goethe's (to many inexplicable) sympathy for the genre. Goethe was, Zimmermann shows, strongly influenced by Daphnis and Chloe in his own late Novelle, which enters into Longus's world in its pantheism and ekphrastic style, at the same time as it imaginatively refutes the posited hierarchy of art over nature. What distinguishes the study, beyond its authoritative treatment of relatively marginal texts, is that it demonstrates the way modern receptions can revive and increase the power of ancient works. Goethe's engagement with the ancient novel shows a path to appreciating his works and the ancient texts better; it brings out what made Longus's work important to one great reader of the past and in the process makes both Daphnis and Chloe and Novelle newly compelling. Similarly, "Sprechende Antike: Goethes Römische Elegien" makes the canonical lyric cycle newly fascinating by placing them in the context of the understanding of ancient elegy at the time. Zimmermann points out some echoes of ancient works, but no single pre-text or texts; rather, the Elegies reflect an "elegiac Koine" that Goethe uses to represent some of the formative romantic experiences of his time in Rome. Goethe's engagement with the classics appears as dynamic and intuitive, ultimately deeper than that of some authors who more obviously "receive" ancient works. Zimmermann's eclecticism -- necessary in studying so capacious a subject -- here bears greatest fruit, as he shows how the great poet fashions the idiosyncratic and utterly modern unity of the Elegies from heterogeneous ancient material.

A final Goethezeit study turns to tragedy and the tragic, as they are theorized and manifested in the works of Goethe's friend Schiller. Zimmermann is rightly cautious both of uncritical applications of the modern concept of "the tragic" to ancient works, and of the strain of intellectual history that sees the concept as qualitatively different from anything in ancient poetics. He shows the roots of Schiller's description of the "pleasure from tragic objects" in both Kant and Aristotle and offers a superb, concise explanation of the theory. He then takes a step that often eludes scholars of aesthetics, and shows how theoretical reflections inform a practice that seeks, with Aeschylean and Euripidean tragedy as important influences, to actualize the effect of tragedy. Schiller's practice in the 1803 choral drama Die Braut von Messina, Zimmermann argues, seeks to establish a tragic dialectic that begins in suffering and ends in knowledge for both character and audience. His perceptive discussion of this difficult work may help to point scholars of classical reception towards Weimar drama for further study.

Four short, pregnant studies close the book, each investigating a single modern work in its relation to antiquity. The first, "Präsenz der Antike in Marcel Prousts A la recherche du temps perdu" takes on the intimidating subject of Proust's reception of antiquity, and shows fascinating connections with the Metamorphoses and Odyssey. Zimmermann is, as ever, circumspect in pointing out these links, and resists the temptation to overstate the case. His tracking of echoes and references is convincing, as is his broader conclusion, which suggests an affinity between the two works based on their shared fin-de-siècle consciousness: both the Recherche and Odyssey witness the end of an aristocratic world and its replacement with more individual, bourgeois values, and memorialize this transition through the recollections of their central figures. Zimmermann mediates between minute observation and perceptive generalization with skill and style. One wishes, though, for more detail in the four-page "Ezra Pounds Homage to Sextus Propertius," which points out the similarity between Pound's and Propertius's projects of reviving an older genre, but leaves the application of this insight largely to the reader.

The final studies turn to the second half of the twentieth century and treat two distinctly anti-classical receptions of ancient Greece. Erich Kästner's 1953 travel narrative Ölberge, Weinberge and Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1969 film Medea both emphasize the wildness of ancient Greece. "Das Land der Griechen mit der Seele suchend" elucidates the constant opposition of real present and mythical past that informs Kästner's text. Zimmermann shows how modern Greece becomes a "place of memory" for Kästner, growing in significance through its ancient associations, even as impressions of the country constantly undermine idealizing images. "Fremde Antike?" shows how Pasolini's Medea goes even further against the grain. Where Greek tragedy (or our modern understanding of it) is based on the logos, Pasolini's work tells its story primarily through images, and exhibits a "mistrust of speech." It juxtaposes Jason's world of western words and civilization against Medea's non-verbal connection to eastern magic and primal ritual. The film thus takes part in the Nietzschean fascination for origins and the Dionysiac that has been so powerful an impulse throughout the century, and has come to be one of the major questions surrounding Greek tragedy both in scholarship and performance. These two essays, though short, are trenchant and enjoyable. A testament of their success is that they sent this reader to the library for Kästner's book and Pasolini's film.

Readers who have followed this summary of the essays collected in Spurensuche will appreciate the breadth of Zimmermann's knowledge both of ancient texts and their receptions. Even where one wishes for more depth, Zimmermann is never less than perceptive, and his explanations are lively and readable. Most readers will find something of value in the collection. If they do not find it consistently interesting, this will be due not to a variation in quality, but to the diversity of approaches and ostensible aims. Personally I wished for more sustained considerations of many of the topics and a clearer sense of connection between them. Further, with the increasing interest in the Classics for reception theory, I wanted to learn where Zimmermann (who studied in Constance, the epicenter of Rezeptionsästhetik) stands on issues of methodology. One looks forward hopefully to the time when Zimmermann will give us a more sustained contribution to reception studies.

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