Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.01.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.01.03

Marc Escola, Sophie Rabau, Littérature seconde ou la Bibliothèque de Circé. Détours littéraires.   Paris:  Éditions Kimé, 2015.  Pp. 262.  ISBN 9782841747047.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Frédéric Nau, C.P.G.E. Lycée Fénelon (


This book examines some textual productions that have been inspired by the Circe episode in the Odyssey. The corpus is obviously not supposed to be exhaustive. However, it ranges from ancient (Apollonius Rhodius, Lycophron and pseudo-Heraclitus) to contemporary times (Jean Cuisenier), and includes more or less famous writers (from Joyce to Cuisenier again). This provides the authors with the material for a theoretical construction of what they describe as “second degree literature”. With this phrase, the authors intend to draw the distinction between academic commentaries and literary rewritings less strictly, and to insist rather on the many concrete instances where these two types are blended. Therefore Rabau and Escola rightly deny that their work lies in the lineage of reception studies as a field. Their book could be more adequately defined as a contribution to literary theory grounded on a comparative approach.

The first chapter starts with a sample of extracts related to Homer’s epic. The names of the writers are mentioned only in an endnote. These quotations are aimed at illustrating how tiny the difference between commentary and rewriting is. In other periods, it has even been ignored: so with Hellenistic poetry, medieval translatio or the rhetorical age of 17th century France. These remarks lead to a more precise definition of the subject of their study, which Rabau and Escola name “secondarisation”. This is a process by which a source text can be pluralized and transformed into new texts of various types. The Circe episode is used as a case study to show the limitations of rigid classifications.

The following chapter consists of a bibliography, which is organized according to traditional criteria and distinguishes sharply between, on the one hand, texts and rewritings (hypertexts), and on the other metatexts and commentaries. It is balanced by the last chapter where the books are simply listed in chronological order.

This is followed by a reading of the Circe episode in Homer, which raises various questions that the text leaves unanswered, such as the geographical situation of Circe’s island, her relationship to Medea, the nature of the deer that shows up when the sailors arrive at the island, the reason why Hermes did not tell Ulysses everything about Circe and so on.

These uncertainties are obviously crucial to the texts that are derived from the Homeric episode and are examined in the seven chapters that constitute the core of the book. Apollonius Rhodius’ rewriting includes some implicit scholarly commentary (for example, having Aietes himself explain his family bonds with Medea and Circe) and softens Circe’s dangerousness. In contrast, the allegorical reading by Pseudo-Heraclitus presupposes a transformation of the Homeric narrative: Ulysses, for instance, is not saved by Hermes’ intervention but by his own virtue, since Pseudo-Heraclitus reads the entire episode as a conflict between virtue and pleasure. Anne Dacier’s famous commentary is best characterized by its extreme variety: beside scholarly notes, it incorporates many aesthetic appraisals through which Dacier takes part in the “Querelle d’Homère” that divided French intellectual milieus in the beginning of the 18th century, and tries to defend the ancient poet against criticisms (in particular concerning his alleged immorality). Joyce seems to have had quite the opposite idea of the episode, and his Circe, Bella Cohen, who runs a brothel in Dublin, is the center of an erotic dream-like fantasy. Rousseau’s treatment of Circe in his Emile is at the same time a rewriting (his two young heroes can be seen as a modern version of Ulysses and Circe) and a commentary (contained in his remarks on the engravings that illustrate the book, which include one in Book 5 showing Ulysses facing Circe). The philosopher radically modifies the episode, which is eventually made to celebrate the triumph of virtue: Circe indeed surrenders to Ulysses because, unlike his companions, he resists temptation.

The blurring between commentary and rewriting culminates in the last two instances that are examined by Rabau and Escola. Bérard’s famous commentary is based on such a strong prejudice (that the Odyssey is a poetic account of authentic travels through the Mediterranean sea) that in the end it considerably transforms the Homeric version to make it fit the general pattern of the interpretation. Jean Cuisenier’s approach, in a book published in 2003, is more anthropological, but, like Bérard's, it consists in producing a hypothetical “real” world from which Homer’s epic would be a derivation and that the commentary is supposed to reconstitute. Thus Ulysses and his companions’ encounter with Circe stands for the acculturation that took place when ancient sailors arrived in foreign regions and could not understand the local rites and customs.

Jean Cuisenier is the last stop in Rabau and Escola’s travel through Circe’s library. The book ends with a re-organized, alphabetical bibliography, as mentioned above, preceded by an eleventh chapter devoted to the theoretical conclusions that can be drawn from the study of the Circe case. It is subtitled “Poetics of second degree literature”, and looks back again at the definitions of commentary and rewriting. It states that whereas the author of a commentary is clearly distinct from the author being commented on and is expected to enlighten the source text to help readers (mostly students and specialists) to understand it, the author of a rewriting enjoys a much wider freedom, since s/he absorbs (or even cannibalizes?) the primary text and is to be judged according to artistic rather than academic criteria. Yet all the previous chapters have convincingly shown that in many instances the boundaries between the two are blurred. Hence Rabau and Escola argue that it would be more accurate to describe the different kinds of relationships between first and second degree texts as successive steps in a continuum rather than systematically to contrast their features. Two scales can be used to characterize this process of “secondarisation”: the degree to which the second text is substituted for the first one (as opposed fo just standing beside it); and the intention behind the production of the second text (scholarship, dogmatic demonstration, self-exploration...). The specific pleasure of second degree literature thus consists in confronting another reader who happens to have become herself an author.

The study of second-degree literature eventually reveals that, to a certain extent, all texts are related to other (previous?) texts, and that literature is essentially defined by these constantly renewed interrelations. Circe’s library is, then, simply what every library is. And one of the most evident merits of the authors is their own contribution to this vast circulation. Littérature seconde ou la Bibliothèque de Circé is indeed very subtly written with a pleasant tongue-in-cheek tone. The chapter about Bérard’s Circe is even hilarious. The reviewer wishes he had been able to do more justice to this refinement, but admits his limited abilities to match Rabau and Escola’s wittiness, especially (but not exclusively) in English.

The argument is, moreover, very convincing, for it combines a rich knowledge of literary theory with intelligent close readings. In this respect, Rabau and Escola clearly belong to the best French tradition, from Gérard Genette to Michel Charles, and they frequently claim this heritage. The theoretical chapters should be of great interest to any student of literature, and the passages centered on specific writers also reflect a real familiarity with them.

If the book as a whole is really thought provoking, however, it still leaves unresolved the question of its intended audience. Classicists presumably knew about of the uncertainties in Homer’s text. Anyhow they have to draw their own conclusions from the infinite retractationes of the Circe episode. Chapter 4 on Apollonius and Lycophron shows how much philology influenced Hellenistic poetry and cites Jean-Christophe Jolivet, who has indeed studied this tendency at length, but Jolivet himself belongs to a much wider trend in classical studies, and Alessandro Barchiesi, Stephen Hinds or David Ross could have been mentioned as well. Consequently, the central chapters should probably be seen as brilliant syntheses of their subjects rather than new approaches. The most original part of Rabau and Escola’s work is to be found in their ability to embrace all these diverse analyses and articulate a theory based on this overview.

The authors could also have explained some of their choices more explicitly. Among the countless versions of the Circe episode, they have clearly selected a sample to stand for the variety of theoretical cases they wish to examine. But have they used any other criteria? One may question, in particular, which qualities essentially characterize a text as a “second-degree text”. When Torquato Tasso conceived of the Alcina episode in his poem Orlando furioso, there is no doubt he was re-writing the Circe episode. On the one hand, this supports the view of Rabau and Escola that “second-degree literature” is nothing but literature itself. On the other hand, it remains unclear why they have not included in their sample one such instance where the name of Circe does not appear at all, but the Homeric model is still as potent as evident. Do such cases not fit into their final classification?

Similarly, the authors mention that they have preferred Philippe Jaccottet’s translation of the Odyssey, but they also cite Bérard and Dufour’s translations: why not also Frédéric Mugler’s? More importantly, they do not seem to consider the status of translation itself as a kind of rewriting. Littérature seconde ou la Bibliothèque de Circé is a stimulating book: this is a "library" that opens a wide space for its readers' exploration. The authors can hardly be reproached for not addressing all the questions related to their subject and should rather be thanked for making these questions possible.

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