This work, based on lectures held at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel and at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main, intends to provide German students of classical philology with an introduction to modern literary theory. At the outset, the author points out that, for many philologists, literary theory resembles a hermetically closed bulwark, only accessible to the initiated. This perception seems particularly strong in Germany, where classical philology appears to be extremely hesitant in coping with the challenges and opportunities of modern literary theory. Due to this resistance, classical philology threatens to lose the capacity to engage in fruitful dialogue with neighbouring disciplines and runs the risk that its own claims with regard to the importance of the classical tradition for our understanding of modern literature and history will no longer be taken seriously.
Schmitz has written this work to mitigate this situation and to acquaint students of classical philology with some of the enticing opportunities inherent in literary theory. The book is a guideline, or rather a ‘thread of Ariadne’, by which students can be coached through the labyrinth of frequently conflicting theoretical viewpoints and through which they will be sufficiently empowered to find their own way afterwards. In his introduction Schmitz furthermore makes a case for a ‘sovereign’ attitude towards literary theory. Instead of becoming acolytes of one theory or another, with all the side-effects of excessive name-dropping and the adoption of a hermetical jargon, students of philology should learn to apply the concepts and ideas of literary theory in a balanced eclectic fashion, so that these concepts and ideas can elucidate and push forward their own scholarly work. Such an attitude is valid, so Schmitz informs us, because all complexities notwithstanding, most theoretical positions deal with a few fundamental questions: what is literature (and what creates the distinction between literary and non-literary texts), how does literature convey meaning, who rules interpretation, and what is the relationship between literature and the world at large.
The introduction is followed by twelve chapters, each of which is dedicated to a major trend in twentieth-century literary theory. In this way, the reader is introduced to Russian formalism, structuralism, narratology, Baktinian criticism, intertextuality, reception theory and reader-response criticism, the orality-literacy debate, deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s discourses of power, new historicism, feminism and gender studies, and psychoanalytical approaches. Each chapter aims at presenting the main protagonists of the theory under discussion, at elucidating in a critical fashion the basic theoretical principles underlying their works, and at sketching ways in which the literary theories in question can be of use in the discipline of classical philology. All chapters close with a short paragraph suggesting bibliographical references for further study.
As one reads through the book, it soon becomes clear that in many chapters Schmitz himself has a sovereign command over the strands of literary theory on display. It also becomes apparent that Schmitz has a strong predilection for text-centred approaches, and has less affinity with approaches that privilege contextual elements and try to embed literary meaning in extra-literary fields of cultural production. Hence, Schmitz’s portrayal of structuralism, narratology (and more in particular Gérard Genette’s narratological system), intertextuality, and deconstruction is more engaged than his description of reception theory and gender studies. In itself, this does not constitute a problem, as Schmitz is very open about his predilections and is not overly biased when dealing with positions that he does not favour himself. Only in the last chapter (on the psychoanalytical approaches of Northrop Frye, Norman Holland, and Jacques Lacan) do Schmitz’s professed preferences stand in the way of an adequate treatment of the subject matter. This chapter therewith is by far the weakest.
Yet there are more fundamental problems with this book than a professed bias towards text-immanent approaches. Firstly, many chapters in this book remain slightly too rudimentary to provide the ‘sovereign attitude’ that Schmitz wants to instil in his readers. I would venture that the author has not succeeded in reworking his lecture series (in which the individual lectures, one would assume, functioned together with additional syllabi and seminars) into an independent scholarly introduction that can stand on its own. Frequently, the reader suddenly finds her- or himself at the end of a paragraph or a chapter, just when s/he is expecting additional information. Too often, the reader is referred without much further ado to important works that should have received a more integral treatment in the text. A good example is found in the third chapter on narratology, in which Wayne Booth’s classical work The Rhetoric of Fiction is mentioned at the end as literature for further reading, whereas Booth’s concepts of implied author and narrative voice in fact are central to the basic problems discussed in the chapter itself.
Secondly, the work has peculiar omissions, certainly when we take into account that it intends to be an introduction for German students of classical philology. Although the author confesses in his introduction that, due to his own academic career, he is better acquainted with French and Anglo-American theoretical developments than with the German ones, it still surprises that the whole tradition of interpretative hermeneutics from Schleiermacher to Hans-Georg Gadamer and beyond is totally absent. German concepts like Erwartungshorizont, which Schmitz introduces in his rather shallow treatment of the reception aesthetics of Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser (chapter six), are hardly understandable without some reference to the German hermeneutic tradition. The absence of Gadamer’s hermeneutic framework of interpretation is even more lamentable, as it has a lot to offer to philologists engaged in the dialogue with literary texts of classical antiquity.
Thirdly, as an introduction the book is not always sufficiently up to date, either with regard to the presentation of theoretical positions, or with regard to the way in which theory has found its way in applied philology and history. This holds in particular for the in itself interesting chapter on orality and literacy (chapter five), which does not have much to say about the ongoing theoretical discussions following the works of Marshall McLuhan, Jack Goody, and Ian Watt, and would have profited greatly from a short foray in present-day studies on classical and medieval literacy. Comparable criticisms can be raised with regard to chapter eleven on feminism and gender studies, which after a promising start fails to incorporate several more recent theoretical contributions, and does not sufficiently exploit the use of gender as a conceptual tool in the signalled philological and historical studies (such as those of Froma Zeitlin and Laura MacClure).
In short, this book falls short of being an adequate introduction to modern literary theory for German students of classical philology. At the same time, it contains many of the seeds necessary to become one, if only it could be reworked and extended by the author, who certainly must be capable to deliver what he set out to do.