Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.01.60

Nicola Hömke, Manuel Baumbach, Fremde Wirklichkeiten: Literarische Phantastik und antike Literatur. Kalliope. Studien zur griechischen und lateinischen Poesie, 6.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006.  Pp. x, 437.  ISBN 10: 3-8253-5266-8.  ISBN 13: 978-3-8253-5266-0.  €45.00.  

Reviewed by Victoria Jennings, University of Adelaide (
Word count: 2207 words

This volume, developed from a conference at the University of Rostock in 2004, contains seventeen papers on 'the fantastic', extending in scope from ancient Egypt to modern times, from archaic Greek monsters to The Legend of Zelda. The editors do not force connections in their brief foreword, but two common elements are highlighted: the application of critical theory and modern perceptions of the fantastic to the ancient world (for example, to determine whether one may speak of a 'genre' of the fantastic); and the influence of an ancient 'fantastic' tradition on the modern, particularly Romantic world. The prioritizing of these elements lends coherence to this absorbing volume.

Papers fall into four thematic groups. Sections II, III, IV are most relevant to the ancient world, but it would be a mistake to overlook the themes and theories explored in Section I.

I. Moderne Phantastik: Konzepte, Begriffe, Fallstudien.

Against a background of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, Michael Scheffel, 'Was is Phantastik? Überlegungen zur Bestimmung eines literarischen Genres' (1-17), explores, in narratological terms, the problems of the conflict or 'break' between coherent but incompatible systems of realities (for example, that of 'die Welt des Märchens'). His 'Erzähltheorie' probes the slippage between reality and fantasy played out through apparently familiar, dream worlds in the 'Ich-Erzähler' of Balzac and Storm. Scheffel turns to modern attempts to define the scope of the fantastic, then briefly examines the potential to classify ancient texts--notably Odyssey 13--within a 'Poetik des Ungewissen'/'poétique de l'incertain'.

Renate Lachmann, 'Bachtins Konzept der Menippeischen Satire und das Phantastische' (19-39), draws on Bakhtin's concept of genre renewal (for example, 'Die Gattung lebt in der Gegenwart, ist jedoch immer ihrer Vergangenheit, ihres Ursprungs eingedenk', from Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics). Modern conceptions of the fantastic should recognize the formative, constantly renewing role of Menippean satire, the relevance of which is epitomized by its fantastic elements ('Halluzinationen, Träume, Wahnsinn und Metamorphosen'), trans-generic flexibility (is it, Bakhtin suggests, 'die journalistische Gattung der Antike'?), and perceived continuity from antiquity to the present. Lachmann's rich discussion of the role of rhetorical figures (oxymoron, adynaton, paradox) in the 'experimentelle Phantastik' is illustrated with reference to Lucian, Voltaire, Dostoevsky and Borges. Lachmann is an expert theoretician of the fantastic (cf. Erzählte Phantastik. Zu Phantasiegeschichte und Semantik phantastischer Texte, 2002).

Elmar Schenkel, 'Die Phantastik und die Wissenschaften: Wechselbeziehungen und Befragungen' (41-56), quotes a remark by one of Crick's colleagues on the DNA pioneers' brainstorming sessions: 'We had a rule that you could say anything that came into your head'. Schenkel offers a fascinating discussion of the links between fantastic fiction and the world of science, particularly the element of 'counter-intuitive' or 'unnatural' thinking shared by both (Schenkel is indebted to Lewis Wolpert The Unnatural Nature of Science, 1992), with references that illustrate the blurred boundaries between scientific discovery/theoreticization (molecular theory; chaos theory) and scientific fantasy/science fiction. There are brief but thought-provoking discussions of Alice in Wonderland (Plato's Cratylus is a neat comparison) and other parallel universes in the works of H. G. Wells and Philip Pullman.

Ralf Georg Bogner, 'Zwischen Modernekritik und Skepsis gegenüber antimodernistischen Positionen. Die aporetische Konstruktion von Alfred Kubins 'phantastischem' Roman Die andere Seite' (57-71), analyses the influences underlying the Austrian Alfred Kubin's 1909 novel The Other Side: A Fantastic Novel. The author drew upon and structurally subsumed elements of other narrative forms, namely fantastic (dream-like, first-person), utopian, travel and apocalyptic narratives. Bogner stresses the significance of Kubin as an exponent of German Expressionism, and neatly figures the contradiction (as 'eine grundlegende Aporie') inherent in Kubin's anti-modernistic tribute to early twentieth-century modernity--perhaps not untypical of his time?

II. Die Anwendung moderner Phantastikkonzepte auf antike Texte

Manuel Baumbach, 'Ambiguität als Stilprinzip: Vorformen literarischer Phantastik in narrativen Texten der Antike' (73-107), summarizes how (and why) the fantastic is a constant (albeit fragmentary) presence throughout much Greek narrative: 'Das Phantastische ist dabei mehr motivisch als strukturell vorhanden: Anstatt eines Einbrechens übernatürlicher Begebenheiten in eine wirklichkeitsnahe Welt verlässt der Protagonist die behannte Welt und dringt mit dem Leser in fremde Wirklichkeiten ein' (88f.). In a rich and theoretically dense chapter, Baumbach applies Tzvetan Todorov's 'Struktur der Unschlüssigkeit (hésitation)' (from Introduction à la littérature fantastique, 1970) to ancient texts, moving swiftly from Hesiod's lying Muses to the manipulations of levels of reality in Archilochus fr. 122, utopian travel/wonder narratives (with an able discussion of adynaton) and the Greek novel. The latter could be read in broadly 'fantastic' terms ('als Beispiel religiöser Phantastik'; on this, Baumbach makes use of Merkelbach on Chariton) but the novels also reveal individual episodes of fantastic narrative ('phantastische Mikrostrukturen') that rattle the assumption of an internal reality: for example, Petronius' werewolf story can support the application of the 'hésitation' theory.

This volume certainly highlights the interest of critical theory's big names in the fantastic. In the chapter by Almut-Barbara Renger ('Fremde Wirklichkeiten und phantastische Erzählungen als "Urtendenz der Dichtung selber" (Benjamin): Homers Odyssee und moderne (bzw. zeitgenössische) Fantasy', 109-42), it is the turn of Walter Benjamin, for whom (to paraphrase) the fantastic narrative is as old as epic itself. Renger summarizes how the Odyssey can be categorized as 'fantastic' and notes characteristics shared by modern fantastic 'epic' (Tolkien, video games, Conan the Barbarian, etc.). Renger concentrates on two signals of the fantastic (folk) narrative--ambivalence ('des gleichzeitigen Erscheinens von Verschiedenem') and threshold ('der Schwelle und deren Transgression'). Is this vague but narrow focus (on a text so filled with rather more obviously fantastic signposts) warranted? Renger is a careful reader, though I suspect that Bakhtin, not Benjamin, was a greater aid to exegesis. Finally, in analyzing the Apologoi of the Odyssey ('Schädigung und Happy-End'), Renger examines the structural politics underlying happy endings. Renger makes use of U. Hölscher (Die Odyssee: Epos zwischen Märchen und Roman, 1988) and the theoretical insights into the typological structure of the folktale by Propp and Meletinsky to offer a cautious breakdown (Urform vs. Urtendenz) of the Odyssey's debt to (and influence on) archetypal tale structures. This is a very complex chapter, but Renger has made it more accessible through the use of comparative 'texts' (e.g., Clash of the Titans--the date of which should read 1981) and a number of diagrams.

Gerrit Kloss, 'Mythos und Realität: Paradoxe Phantastik in antiken Texten' (143-59), asks why ancient texts never achieved the all-embracing fantastic nature (defined by Todorov, this volume's dominant theoretical figure) of their modern counterparts. They fall short less in the details than in their failed evocation of an omnipresent 'ontologische Ambivalenz' (the 'Unschlüssigkeit' factor; 'Beunruhigungspotential'). Kloss explores ways in which the all-pervasiveness of myth may have taken the place (or curtailed development of) a fantastic 'genre': 'Der Mythos ist der natürliche Gegner der literarischen Phantastik' (147). Kloss then seeks less concrete instances of the fantastic than those found in fables or wonder texts. This hunt for the 'mythische Phantastik' draws on material in which the 'Absolutismus der Wirklichkeit' is, in fact, not so absolute. Kloss seeks examples of fantastic's give-away pointer of disturbancéuneasiness in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Sallust's Bellum Iugurthinum. The 'Absolutismus der Wirklichkeit' is certainly given a good shaking up at OT 1054-68; and OT and Iug. 113.1-4 offer examples of 'ontologische Ambivalenz' (one might wish for more on the latter's mythic credentials). Kloss's suggestions are fascinating, but the extent to which these texts afford persuasive examples of the quasi-fantastic is open to question.

Nicola Hömke, 'Die Entgrenzung des Schreckens: Lucans Erictho-Episode aus Sicht moderner Phantastik-Konzeptionen' (161-85), examines the necromancy episode in the central book (VI) of Lucan's Bellum Civile and a similar passage from Ps.-Quintilian Declamatio maior (12.9-10). Hömke offers a persuasive analysis of the effect--in and on the broader narrative context and its classification--of the interruption of 'reality' by an episode of fantastic horror, in this case the breakdown of the boundaries between living and dead. Hömke considers, too, the reception of some stock figures in fantastic literature. This chapter is a highlight of the volume, as is that of Peter von Möllendorff, 'Sophistische Phantastik: Lukians Lügenfreunde' (187-201). This text certainly offers many instances of the fantastic, but is it a 'fantastic text'? Von Möllendorff demonstrates that, fantastically speaking, Lucian's Lovers of Lies is far more than the sum of its parts. Von Möllendorff examines the structure of the work, noting that the destabilizing parody of the canonical (Plato's Phaedo) and the unstable carnavalesque nature of its 'narrative world' and perversion of conventional paideia suggest fantastic's 'Travestie unseres Alltags' (Wyss1). The destabilizing effect of these textual distortions could render the narrative 'fantastic' in Todorov's terms.

Section III (Grenzüberschreitungen: Antike Texte und Bilder zwischen Utopie, Phantastik und Erfahrungswelt) concentrates on the places where the barriers between reality and fantasy collapse. Lorenz Winkler-Horacek, 'Mischwesen in der frühgriechischen Kunst: Die Grenzen der Welt und die Grenzen der Phantastik' (203-35), examines early images of the monstrous hybrids which inhabit the borders of the known world, and suggests that animal friezes (monstrous and natural), lying somewhere between ornament and narrative, can be read syntactically as an attempt to order 'eine konzeptionelle Tierwelt' (and, thus, the world itself). This well-illustrated chapter is a useful addition to the study of Greek monsters--a topic undergoing somewhat of a mini-renaissance.

Reinhold Bichler, 'An den Grenzen zur Phantastik. Antike Farhtenberichte und ihre Beglaubigungstrategien' (237-59), examines the 'authentication strategies' of three sets of narratives, concentrating on the extent of their sign-posting ('Fiktionalitätsignale') of boundaries between fact/fiction, real/fantastic. Bichler argues that, while texts from the first two categories (travelogues: Odysseus' Apologoi, the Egyptian Ship-wrecked Sailor, Gilgamesh; utopian narratives by Hecataeus, Euhemerus, Iambulus) adopt an overt demarcation, tales from the third group ('authentic' narratives of Herodotus, Hanno, Pytheas et al) deliberately blur the boundaries. One hopes that Bichler will expand elsewhere on this, self-confessedly, underdeveloped conclusion.

Utopian narratives are the subject of the next two chapters. Dirk Uwe Hansen, 'Orte ohne Wiederkehr. Überlegungen zu utopischen Städten und Stätten' (261-76), notes that the invariable theme of 'No Return' in utopian narratives is problematic in historiographical (evidentiary) terms. Within the context of the utopian narrative 'genre', and drawing plentifully on fictional prose sources, Hansen discusses ancient preoccupations about the status of history-writing versus pseudo-historiography/mythography. Bernhard Kytzler, 'Unwirkliche Wirklichkeiten: Geplant--Geträumt--Geflunkert. Über Utopie und Realität im frühen Europa' (277-87), works backwards from the early modern reception of 'utopia'--for example, utopia / eu-topia--then offers a learned but light-hearted examination of several Hellenistic utopian passages from Euhemerus, Theopompus, Iambulus and others. He concludes with a brave attempt at analytical classification which links back to his reception 'model'.

It is not surprising that Antonio Stramaglia, 'The textual transmission of ancient fantastic fiction: some case studies' (289-310), concludes that the majority of 'fantastic literature' surviving from antiquity owes its preservation to its use by 'upper' literature. Stramaglia traces the vagaries of survival of oral works in their transition to written form and subsequent transmission or loss. The well-chosen case-studies (with considerable bibliography) cannot fail to depress the reader--how much fantastic fiction has indeed been lost without 'authoritative and/or durable plans for preservation'?

IV. Phantastisches in antiken spirituellen und religiösen Texten.

Two chapters explore Christian sources: Laura Feldt, 'Signs of wonder--traces of doubt: the fantastic in the Exodus narrative' (311-38), suggests that, if we take 'fantastic' as mode not genre, then some religious texts can be classed 'as a sub-type of fantastic texts with specific pragmatic determinants'. Feldt applies Renate Lachmann's theoretical framework (neatly summarized) and suggests that a cultural shift (away from the Romantic) is required, and that this can be achieved through the application of cognitive science approaches. Feldt elaborates the 'fantastic strategies' of Exodus--'metamorphosis, hyperbolization, and apparition'--and concludes with the pertinent question of contemporary uséreading and some remarks on differentiating 'literary' and 'religious' fantastic texts.

Feldt shares little common theoretical ground with Marco Frenschkowski, 'Vision als Imagination. Beobachtungen zum differenzierten Wirklichkeitsanspruch frühchristlicher Visionsliteratur' (339-66), who makes the point that 'fantastic' Christian texts appear (even more) 'fantastic' to those not sharing in their religious 'reality'. For Frenschkowski, 'Phantastik ist Dekonstruktion von Wirklichkeit im Medium von Kunst'. Frenschkowski explores elements of the fantastic in visionary/apocalyptic texts (Revelation of St John; Pastor Hermae; Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis; Story of Zosimus). This is a brisk and pragmatic exploration of the transmission of fantastic elements into these early Christian texts: for Frenschkowski, this Christian fantastic 'ist Phantastik in statu nascendi'--not per se.

Grazia Maria Masselli, 'La magia senza mistero: letterature classiche vs folklore moderno' (367-400), examines survivals of magical practices from the ancient world. In particular, Masselli examines the reception of tabellae defixionum and the collision of 'primitive' (= ancient: 'la cifra di una mentalità primitiva, rimasta immutata per secoli') magic and modern sciencémedicinépsychology in Carlo Levi's wonderful Christ Stopped at Eboli. This chapter's 'other realities' are a difficult fit for this volume as a whole, but in itself this is a richly referenced 'viaggio antropologico' into the enduring symbolic and practical power of cultural memory 'oltre che letteraria'.

The volume concludes with an appendix describing the holdings of the Phantastische Bibliothek in Wetzlar; a summary in English of all papers; and an index of key concepts and index locorum. Each paper has its own bibliography. The editing is of a very high standard. This admirable volume, with so many papers adhering tightly to the overall theme of 'other realities', is worth reading in full, and gave this reader much food for thought.


1.   U. Wyss (2003) 'Jenseits der Schwelle. Die Phantastik der anderen Welt', in C. Ivanovic, J. Lehmann & M. May (eds.), Phantastik--Kult oder Kultur? Aspekte eines Phänomens in Kunst, Literatur und Film. Stuttgart/Weimar, 41-53 [p.44].

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