Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 3, Number 3


View From America--

The Classical Tradition as Rewriting

Scott G. Williams

aan Andre

This issue introduces the reader to the creative reception of the classical tradition in German-language literature since 1945. The Greco-Roman tradition is an essential element in the development of both the English-language and German-language literary cultures. From an American standpoint, that shared heritage offers a unique bridge to contemporary German-language literature. Although it is an asset, one does not need a degree in classics to appreciate the modern rewritings nor to create those new texts. The creative reception of the classical tradition shares an intermediary space between cultures with other types of rewriting--such as translations, anthologies, and even mythology reference books--and is similarly determined by the rewriter's agenda.

I. Rewriting

This is also a collection of translations: an obvious statement which takes on added dimension when one considers that the history of the classical tradition in the West is intimately tied up with that of translation. As the number of readers familiar with Latin and Greek has dramatically declined over the centuries, translations have become the only way to read the 'originals,' and therefore the translation often essentially replaces the original for the reader. Like many other readers, John Keats' access to Homer was only through the mediation of a translation. Thus, it is fitting that long before he composed the poem To Homer , he wrote a sonnet commemorating the reading of a translation of Homer, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer :1 The same process of mediation exists outside of the act of translation in the narrow sense. Keats drew his picture of antiquity from many sources. His famous Grecian urn, for instance, existed only in his mind as a conglomerate of impressions of original vases, opinions on the value of the classical tradition as a whole, and his own modern poetic agenda.2

There are many factors which affect the precarious nature of the relationship between original text and translation. For instance, the relative status of the source and target language and the values of the respective cultures compete for dominance. Thus when, in 1714, Antoine Houdar de la Motte boasted that he had cut out unnecessary repetitions in Homer, rendering the twenty-four books of the original Iliad to only twelve in his own translation, he was reflecting his own version of French poetics rather than Homer's aesthetic sensibility.3

Translations are, however, only one type of rewriting. The German texts in this issue represent a kind of rewriting in which the question of fidelity--a querulous topic among translation theorists--loses much of its urgency. Even when the rewriter is responding to a particular classical text, the original text per se may be only a part of a whole field of material coming together in the modern author's mind. Lefevere and Bassnett have taken the otherwise general word rewriting and defined it as referring to all such factors which contribute to the construction of the image of a writer and/or a work of literature.4 The original--especially in the types of rewritings featured in this volume--is often not a single text but a whole tradition of which any given text is but one element. Whether the rewriting proceeds "word for word," or "sense for sense," or "image for image," the borders between types of rewriting remain indistinct and fascinatingly fluid.

Christoph Ransmayr's novel The Last World (translated 1990) started out as an attempt to render Ovid's Metamorphoses into modern German prose. The task of translation became a step in the creative transformation into his own fiction. The novel concludes with the juxtaposition of different types of rewriting in an "Ovidian Repertory." This repertory is comprised of an alphabetical listing of the main characters in the novel. Under each name are two columns. The left hand side has a summary of the character's role in Ransmayr's fiction. Parallel, on the right hand side, is a brief narrative rendition of the story of the character's classical paradigm based on "Ovid's mythology" followed by a passage from a standard translation of a relevant passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses--written in italics--quoted "with minor adaptations," and in some cases the original of Ovid's letters are quoted directly in "free translation." The reader experiences the Metamorphoses reconfigured in the novel as a whole according to Ransmayr's aesthetics, not Ovid's.

One reason for inclusion of the repertory is that contemporary readers are nt familiar with the myths and need to turn to auxiliary material for information. Of course, handbooks of mythology are themselves rewritings shaped by the attitude of the mythologist and reflect upon an image of the myths. Collections of myths provide a supplementary aid for the reader of classical literature (even those reading it in the original). This is certainly the intention of some of the early handbooks, such as William King's An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes Necessary for the Understanding of the Ancient Poets, published in the early eighteenth century. More recently, Edith Hamilton (1868-1963) hoped to nurture interest in the immortal classics with her collection of retellings.5 However, for Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867), the myths are clearly a resource for understanding English-language literature. His organization of the material reflects this purpose. He grouped the Greco-Roman myths with the Germanic myths under the title "The Age of Fable" while producing separate volumes on the legends of Charlemagne and on the Arthurian cycle, respectively.6 The original volumes included not only proverbial Latin quotes with translation, but also poetic allusions in the works of Victorian poets as well as other wtiers, e.g. Shakespeare and Milton. In the twentieth century, the Britain Robert Graves specifically mentions the influence of the classical tradition in English literature from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries in the introduction to his mythological reference work.7 Mythology has become a subject in its own right in American unversities. Common textbooks on classical mythology combine modern paraphrase of myths, selections of classical sources in translation, a discussion of different theories of myth (anthropological, psychological, etc.), and sections touching on the myths' afterlife in Western art, music, literature, and film. In its manner of presentation, a modern myth collection of lexicon--as a type of rewriting--may emphasize a single narrative of a myth or the multiplicity of versions, the strangeness of the ancient material or the universal, the classical tale or subsequent rewritings. The reference work on myths does not simply present mythology but rather reflects the interpretation of the modern author, and the work in turn influences the perception of the myths by the reader.

The conditions for the mediation necessary for the production of these reference works are essentially the same as for any rewriting, be it a translation or some other form of the creative reception of antiquity. Some of these works are directed toward appreciating classical texts, while most acknowledge to varying degrees the cumulative force of the whole tradition. A myth is not just a myth: it is Sophocles' play, it is Ovid's poetry, it is Joyce's novel; and it is theoretical fodder and historical source. What is here true of mythical figures is equally applicable to historical personages as well. Caesar is a coin, a statue, a chapter in Seutonius, a play by Shakespeare, a novel by Wilder, a hero to Mommsen, a villain to Brecht.8 Without having to be a classical scholar, one can turn to such collections not only for aid in reading classical and modern literature, but also in creating new literature on one's own.

The present issue of this journal, as an anthology, is also a form of rewriting. Indeed, the reader will find different types of rewriting: translation in the narrowly defined sense as well as in the broader sense. First, DIMENSION2 tries to introduce contemporary German-language literature to an English-language readership. Beyond a few names, such as Brecht, Mann, or Grass (and perhaps Hesse, Broch, or Handke), virtually no modern German-language authors are generally known in America. Kafka has been so thorougly incorporated into the canon--albeit in translation--that many of my students have to be reminded that he wrote in German. Yet, there exists a vibrant literary culture in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland virtually unknown in America. Second, the present issue in particular tries to draw attention ot the intriguing metamorphosis of the classical tradition in contemporary literature. One could supplement this issue with preciously translated novels, such as Cassandra by Christa Wolf (translated 1984), Peter Handke's Across (Chinese des Schmerzes, translated 1986: a reaction to Virgil), Christoph Ransmayr's The Last World, or Sten Nadolny's A God of Mischief (due out in spring 1997). Combined with the lead essays, the texts in this issue should provide the reader with a small introduction into the field of "Antikerezeption."

II. The Study of the Creative Reception of the Classical Tradition

The last thematic issue of DIMENSION2 dealt with a newer, and certainly important, field of interest: the image of the Third World. In contrast, the present issue addresses the very old dialogue with classical antiquity. In comparison to the situation in periods such as the Renaissance or late eighteenth-century German Classicism, rewritings based on classical Roman and Greek culture seem to form a mere footnote to other discourses dominating the contemporary literary scene. Nevertheless, even if the proportion of works drawing on classical Roman and Greek culture has declined, the classical tradition has tenaciously maintained a presence in German-language literature throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, contemporary German-language authors are weaving such themes as the fascist past or feminism into the traditional classical discourse. The styles range from realism to postmodernism.

Critical attention to this discourse has been scant. Once can argue about the intrinsic value of the classics or about whether one likes the art or the poetry, the philosophy or the politics. However, the sheer depth of the tradition, the historical ubiquity of influence not only of a given work or person, but of the cumulative effect of opinion about them over the centuries--these overlays of tradition which produce an image--all that cannot and should not be ignored because the effects on Western culture remain even if we refuse to explore them on a conscious, critical level.

In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, beyond the general furor over individual novels, much of the scholarly attention has come from classicists. On the one hand, they are establishing the relevance of the classics for a contemporary culture to counter the sinking interest in, and funding of, the classical disciplines. On the other hand, a book like Ransmayr's The Last World would inevitably arouse the interst of a scholar who teaches and reads Ovid in the original--regardless of the current plight of calssics. A few classicists, such as Bernd Seidensticker (represented in this issue), have achieved an expertis in this aspect of modern literature as well.9

Of the ongoing scholarship, there is very little in English. There are few book length studies of the subject in any language. One notable monograph is E. M. Butler's well-known Tyranny of Greece over Germany (first published in 1935). However, it has become dated and needs to be seriously reexamined, its conclusions tested against the post-1945 literary scene. Gilbert Highet wrote The Classical Tradition trying to deal with the Greco-Roman influence in Western literature. Although Highet's book also provides an overview of that tradition in the German-language literature of previous periods, it is of little direct use for literature appearing after the book's initial publication in 1949. Also, scattered among various journals, there have been several relevant articles, particularly in reference to Christa Wolf and Christoph Ransmayr. Besides the usual Germanist journals, Classical and Modern Literature and the newer International Journal of the Classical Tradition, as well as some of the comparative literature journals, provide a forum for research in this area. America is, of course, a large country with thousands of scholars, but to my knowledge there are few who focus on the classical tradition in contemporary German-language literature. Theodore Ziolkowski of Princeton has published a book (Virgil and the Moderns 1993) tracing the fate of Virgil in modern thought (i.e., not limited ot German-language literature), and he has just written a study of the tradition of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Kathleen Komar of UCLA is writing a book on contemporary women authors' rewriting of the figures of Helen and Clytemnestra. I am currently engaged in a study of the Roman tradition in post-1945 German-language literature. All three of the above scholars have a decidedly comparative approach. This is not surprising since the classical tradition is a shared element in the West allowing both diachronic and synchronic comparison within a single culture as well as across different ones.

The present issue of DIMENSION2 presents a small sampling of a relatively unexamined corpus of literature. There is, indeed, a distinguishable group of prose, plays, and poetry substantial enough for one to speak of a "discourse." It might help orient the English speaking (and reading) audience to survey some of that same discourse in our own literature.10 In the post-war period, there was a definite tradition of the use of classical material to which American authors could react, e.g. O'Neill, Pound, Eliot, Jeffers, HD.11 Pound's text Homage to Sextus Propertius loosed strong debate about how free a translation should be with the original.12

The sixties and early seventies saw a flurry of classically inspired American fiction: John Barth played off of Greek mythology several times (e.g. Lost in the Funhouse 1968, Chimera 1972), one of John Updike's novels, The Centaur (1962), includes a "Mythological Index." Gore Vidal wrote the historical novel Julian in 1962. In the early sevnties, John Gardner turned to antiquity twice for material for his novels (The Wreckage of Agathon, 1970; Jason and Medea, 1973). John Hersy conjures up Nero's secret police in The Conspiracy (1972); and in 1973, John Williams won the National Book Award for his novel Augustus. Also in the sixties, Britain's Anthony Burgess published the novel The Eve of Saint Venus (1964). In 1965, the classicist Peter Green wrote an historical novel that has just recently been republished (The Laughter of Aphrodite, 1965/1994). Other English-language authors such as David Malouf (An Imaginary Life 1978); inspired by Ovid) and, of course, Derek Walcott (the epic poem Omeros 1990 and his play The Odyssey 1993)have looked to classical antiquity for inspiration. There are also the many best-selling novels about classical Greece by Mary Renault (too numerous to mention individually) and those by Colleen McCullough set in ancient Rome (The First Man in Rome 1990, The Grass Crown 1991). The editors of the poetry collection After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1994) sent out requests to English-language poets around the world inviting them to "translate, reinterpret, reflect on or completely reimagine the narratives" of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In both the German-language and the English-language literary cultures, some of the best work combines a clear appreciation of the classical heritage with a willingness to turn that tradition on its head. Many of the selections in this volume exhibit a healthy playfulness and experimentation.

This volume represents merely the tip of the iceberg, but space would only allow so much. Relevant examples of either poetry or drama could actually have filled individual volumes of their own. I opted to a larger proportion of prose because the breadth of the prose is only slowly being identified and because prose more closely accommocates the dominate reading habit in this country. The number of selections refelcting Roman influence could have been larger, but the proportion of texts reflects the fact that the Greek influence, particularly mythology, dominates the literature. The texts represented here span the entire post-war period and are written in a wide range of styles. A literature is as alive as its readership. Vale!


1 Keats and his friends diligently compared famous passages in this translation with those in Pope's translation; cf. C. C. Clarke, Recollections of a Writer, 128-; quoted in the commentary of Stillenger's edition of Keats: Complete Poems (Cambridge/London: Belknap Press, 1982) 423. In a letter dated in 1818 to his friend J. H. Reynolds, Keats expressed the desire at least to hear the Greek original read aloud, if not learn to read it someday himself: Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1990) 89.

2 C. M. Bowra believes he can actually name the two vases which blend together in the poem: The Romantic Imagination (N.Y.: Oxford U. Press, 1961).

3 Cf. Translation/History/Culture. A Sourcebook, ed. André Lefevere (London/N.Y.: Routledge, 1992) 28-30.

4 "Introduction: Proust's Grandmother and the Thousand and One Nights: The 'Cultural Turn' in Translation Studies," (9-10) Translation, History and Culture, ed. Bassnett and Lefevere (London and N.Y.: Pinter Publ., 1990) 1-13.

5 Mythology (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1942) viii. My own copy, bought in the sixties, in the twenty-seventh printing. Like Bulfinch, she also includes Norse mythology.

6 Commonly available today in an abridged single volume, i.e.: Bulfinch's Mythology, ed. Edmund Fuller (New York: Dell, 1965).

7 The Greek Myths, Vol. I (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968) 22 [first published in 1955], Vol. I, 9.

8Thus one finds an article on Caesar along with mythical figures in Elisabeth Frenzel's Stoffe der Weltliteratur (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1962).

9 There is also the possibility of cooperative efforts. For instance, Gerd Lohse, a classicist, and Horst Ohde, a Germanist, at the Universität Hamburg have offered seminars and published together on "Antikerezeption", cf. "Mitteilungen aus dem Lande der Lotophagen: Zum Verhältnis von Antike und deutscher Nachkriegsliteratur," Hephaistos 4, 1982, 139-170.

10 Wolfgang Haase and Meyer Reinhold are editing a multi-volume project entitled The Classical Tradition and the Americas, cf. Haase's preface to Vol. I, Part 1, European Images of the Americas and the Classical Tradition (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1994) v-xxxiii.

11 Cf. the relevant parts of chapters 22 and 23 in Highet, 1985; and there is a chapter on "American Poets"--including Pound, Eliot, Jeffers, and HD--in Douglas Bush's Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Pageant, 1957) 481-525.

12 J.P. Sullivan, Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius: A Study in Creative Translation (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1964); Ronnie Apter, Digging for the Treasure: Translation after Pound (New York: Paragon House, 1987); see also: Richard Geoffrey Ingber, Ezra Pound and the Classical Tradition: Background and Formative Influences (Diss. Harvard University, 1983).


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