Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.19

Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, Greek Mythologies: Antiquity and Surrealism. Cultural Politics, Socioaesthetics, Beginnings, 5.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 2012.  Pp. xi, 367.  ISBN 9780983532217.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Paschalis, University of Crete (


This book investigates one of the most cross-disciplinary areas of the reception of Greek antiquity in post-classical eras – and one relatively unexplored by scholars of classical studies: the complex exploitation of ancient Greek mythology by major representatives of the European avant-garde, especially European Surrealism. Building upon the methodological approach to the reception of archaic aesthetic cultures in later Greek antiquity that he developed in Sappho in the Making, Dimitrios Yatromanolakis provides an equally innovative interdisciplinary synthesis in Greek Mythologies. The book treats the reception of Greek antiquity in a very significant moment in European intellectual history in the first half of the twentieth-century: the highly complex, revolutionary, anti-traditional, and polemical avant-garde movement of Surrealism, which flourished in the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and had a pervasive impact on later intellectual and aesthetic developments in European cultures. More specifically, the book focuses on the period between c. 1920 and 1946, although it also takes into account the polemical rejection of classical antiquity by the earlier avant-garde movement of Futurism. Written with intellectual vigor, scholarly rigor, and methodological sophistication, this book covers a wide range of French and Greek cases of experimental rehandling of ancient Greek mythological discourses in Surrealist art and texts. A specialist in papyrology, ancient Greek vase-painting, and performance culture, Yatromanolakis now demonstrates his erudition in an entirely different scholarly area: the European intellectual history of the second quarter of the twentieth century. From the outset he substantiates the significance of this new research direction for classical reception studies by pointing to complex discursive mechanisms and patterns of thought in ancient Greek mythology that Surrealist thinkers and artists “reconstructed” and saw as comparable—mutatis mutandis—to their own project: subversion of ontological and epistemological boundaries; open-endedness; “free-associative narrative techniques; and the suspension of spatiotemporal limits” (p. 4). The book consists of four chapters, Bibliography and Abbreviations, an Index, as well as a Foreword by Professor Hent de Vries.

In the first chapter, the author diagnoses a paradox with regard to Surrealist and other avant-garde reactions to Greek antiquity. On the one hand, major figures of the European avant-garde (including Surrealism) such as Marinetti, Picasso, and Breton vehemently opposed the impact of Greek antiquity on—and its iconic status in—modern European cultures. On the other, intricate discursive and conceptual mechanisms, as well as specific figures, of ancient Greek mythology ingeniously contributed to avant-garde subversion of dominant socioaesthetic hierarchies. Consider the following manifesto-like calls (explored by Yatromanolakis) for a radical rupture with Greek antiquity and the rejection or destruction of everything related to ancient Greece and Rome—the cult of the past—in the writings of two founders of avant-garde movements (Futurism and Surrealism, respectively): “To the earthquake / their only ally / the Futurists dedicate / these ruins of Rome and Athens”; “we establish Futurism because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni, and antiquarians” (Marinetti); “How beautiful the world is / Greece never existed” (Breton). To unravel this paradox, the author embarks on a wide-ranging investigation of its relation to broader avant-garde cultural politics. His first chapter covers the influence of Anthropology and psychoanalysis, as well as of recent archaeological discoveries, on the Surrealist rehandling of ancient Greek mythology. The dense dialogue of avant-garde artists and writers with those fields marked a fundamental shift from the focus on classical Athenian culture to the promotion of pre-classical, “primordial” modes of thought and art production. Intense interest in the Minoan and Aegean civilizations, as well as in the “Dionysiac” elements of ancient Greek mythology, replaced idealizing interpretations and reconstructions of “Greek antiquity” in orthodox and especially “dissident” Surrealist circles. Yatromanolakis shows that this radical shift helped Surrealist thinkers and artists to articulate not only new “mythical” narratives but, more significantly, new patterns of mythical thinking and expression.

Indicative of the author’s original approach in this part of the book is his introducing of the concept of “mythogenesis.” This concept refers to the creation of “new mythical modes and strategies of discursive experimentation often based on mechanisms and deep structures of mythical thinking that Surrealists detected in traditional mythologies.” The author suggests that mythogenetic strategies were often connected with complex manifestations of mnemohistory and of the “ontological past” (adapting Deleuze’s similar concept to the socioaesthetic projects of the European avant-garde), that is, with cases in which the past as a temporal order “coexists with the present in an inextricable synthesis” and “does not cease to be.” The first chapter concludes with a discussion of the “aesthetics of ruination” in Surrealism, which the author studies in connection with modernity’s redefinition of inherited temporal orders and categories—a result of modernity’s promotion of persistent change and mobility. In this section, the author considers, among other material, the history of modern (late 19th- and early 20th-c.) archaeological excavations in major sites such as the Acropolis and Thera as well as their impact on the formation of aspects of the avant-garde imaginary. He convincingly argues that, in contrast to previous manipulations of classical antiquity, Surrealist reinvention of ancient mythology did not focus on its value as venerable cultural capital but on its relevance for a polemic reevaluation or subversion of current established ideological and epistemological orders.

Original sources of the second quarter of the twentieth century explored in the first chapter, as well as in the second, third, and fourth chapters, range from paintings and writings of avant-garde painters, thinkers, and writers who flourished mainly in Greece, France, and Germany (Luis Aragon, Georges Bataille, Walter Benjamin, André Breton, Nicolas Calas, Salvador Dalí, Andreas Embeirikos, Nikos Engonopoulos, Max Ernst, André Masson, Pablo Picasso), to texts of members of the Collège de Sociologie and ethnographers like Roger Caillois, Marcel Griaule, and Michel Leiris. The author ably blends the disciplines of art history, intellectual history, anthropology, and philosophy. In his approach to the European avant-garde of the second quarter of the twentieth century, he draws illuminating material from the field of classical art and archaeology, and even from the discipline of Greek epigraphy.

The second chapter of the book focuses on the impact of the myth of Pasiphae on different Surrealist artists and writers. Although the figure of the Minotaur, her offspring who became an emblematic figure of Surrealist art, has received adequate scholarly attention, Pasiphae’s engrossing appeal to the Surrealists has up to now been relatively unexplored. Yatromanolakis begins his discussion by providing a wide-ranging synthesis of the reception of Pasiphae in European art and thought from antiquity to early modernism—a synthesis that, in its own right, is a major contribution to the field of reception studies. Especially noteworthy are the interpretation of the myth of Pasiphae in the ancient mythographical tradition and in the work of the Byzantine rhetorician Nikephoros Basilakes, as well as the use of the myth’s alleged pleasure-pain connotations in the work of Swinburne. This chapter culminates in the study of the reinvention of the myth of Pasiphae in intriguing works of avant-garde art and literature. The author shows that this phase of the reception of Pasiphae in European Surrealist thought should be approached from the perspective of avant-garde thinkers like Georges Bataille: it is especially Bataille’s idea of “base materiality” that, according to Yatromanolakis, best illuminates the highly subversive retellings of the myth of Pasiphae in a number of French and Greek Surrealist contexts. At the same time, the author analyzes how the story of Pasiphae’s bestiality contributed to a provocative interrogation in Surrealist art and literature of Freud’s patriarchal principles of human psycholibidinal development.

In the third chapter, Yatromanolakis probes the ways in which the “inscription” of major narratives and figures of ancient Greek mythology into broader Surrealist mythogenetic structures resulted in the production of what he calls “liminal discourses.” He argues that liminality should be viewed in terms of crossing over “established notional demarcations between cultural capital and socioaesthetic radicalism, madness and reality, ideological activism and playful creativity, the past and the present, psychoanalysis and art, (black) humor and self-inspection.” Fundamental for the construction of such liminal rehandlings of ancient mythology is the mechanism of “interdiscursivity.” “Interdiscursivity” is a methodological and hermeneutic model that the author has developed in his earlier work, and that he now adjusts to the project of this book. Focusing on retellings of the stories of Oedipus, Neoptolemus, “mythologized” Alexander the Great, and the Danaids (and on the thematic categories of “genos,” “identity,” “hybridity,” “kinship,” and “tyrannicide”), the author argues that despite their debt to Freud, Surrealists’ familiarity with ancient Greek mythology opened up novel ways of fathoming into humanity’s psycholibidinal development, ontogenetic as well as phylogenetic, that put into question the ideological and moral orthodoxy of Freudian psychoanalysis. He shows that the Surrealists’ reappropriation of ancient Greek mythology and their articulation of new mythogenetic patterns of thinking radically subverted established power structures and orders grounded on the valorization of the superego, as this was approached by Freud. These power orders included historical linearity and grand narratives about cultural and national identities; current views on rational thinking and madness; sanctioned demarcations between scientific discourse and fictionality.

The fourth chapter synthesizes the insights and methodological directions proposed in this book. It begins with a brief discussion of the ambivalent appeal of Greek antiquity to Michel Leiris, one of the most original French Surrealist thinkers and ethnographers, and of the attempts by Luis Aragon, André Breton, Robert Caillois, Georges Bataille, and André Masson, to articulate or advocate modern mythogenetic schemata in an ingenious dialogue with both ancient mythology and the creative possibilities emerging in a modern metropolis. Special emphasis is placed on the role of the Acéphale, the monstrous headless creature invented by Bataille and Masson, as an emblematic embodiment of the need for a new mythology that would advance the cause of a modern, “headless” socioaesthetic and political world. As the author shows, orthodox and dissident Surrealists developed different but ultimately complementary views on mythology and what he has termed “mythogenesis,” since both groups were interested in the transformative effectiveness of “myth”: orthodox Surrealists promoted a more transcendental and harmonizing approach, whereas dissident Surrealists were especially interested in exemplifications of base materiality. The author concludes this book by foregrounding one of its most valuable insights: contrary to Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the role of myth and mythology in modernity in terms of political reactionism, the complex reception of ancient mythology in Surrealist, French and Greek contexts contributed to a radical critique of post-Enlightenment positivism.

This is a brilliant and innovative book, which deserves multiple close readings. It is detailed and rigorous and at the same time wide-ranging, linking disciplines that are not commonly brought together by classicists. As Kathryn Gutzwiller and Ian Rutherford emphasize in their advance praises of the book, it opens up important research directions in a dynamic area of classical studies, that of classical reception studies.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010