Marguerite Yourcenar wrote in the “Avant-propos” to her Electra that the usefulness of Greek myth for the writer lies in the “crédit inépuisable que nous ouvre le drame grec, de cette espèce d’admirable chèque en blanc sur lequel chaque poète, à tour de rôle, peut se permettre d’inscrire le chiffre qui lui convient.”1 Susanetti’s succinct (given the topic) and always interesting book testifies to the truth of this claim.
In the preface, Susanetti defines the limits of his book. He does not propose a detailed and exhaustive inventory of revisions of Greek myths (work fruitfully done by others). Instead he “[m]ore modestly” suggests “possible routes” which a few mythic figures follow as they evolve and transform, all while considering them “against the backgrounds of different ages and poetic worlds” (11). Studied in this way are: Prometheus, Odysseus, Oedipus, Orpheus, Narcissus, Electra, Antigone, Helen, Medea, and Phaedra. Each chapter is essentially independent of the others, so the reader interested in a particular figure need not read the whole book. (Individual chapters together are of course clearer in the light of the introduction’s framework.)
The introductory chapter discusses myths and their interpretations and varying definitions and roles from ancient Greece to the present. Susanetti is particularly interested, as his book’s title indicates, in the intersection and interaction of myth and literature: the various ways myths can be used; the effects of successive taboos imposed by morality or taste; how myths may be transposed into different registers and genres; how they may serve as hidden, subtextual stories. Allegorical readings, not limited to the religious or philosophical, are also discussed. Susanetti’s fairly broad definition of literature (he is able to include, for example, philosophical, religious, historiographical, and scientific texts in its purview) illuminates the complexity of the knotted threads of story he studies. It is the variety of approaches to and uses of myth that seems to intrigue Susanetti as much as the transformed characters and plots in the chapters that follow.
Each chapter is roughly similar in structure. First, the oldest known written version or versions of the figure’s story is summarized. Often identified at the beginning are the mythic figure’s characteristic attributes (which are shown to change surprisingly little, even if the value of those traits or the plot of the story changes: the bitterness of Electra, the obstinacy of Prometheus, the rage of Medea). Then various threads of development, different for each myth, are followed. For example: Prometheus as friend of mankind, Prometheus as ignoble rebel, Prometheus as false friend to mankind, Prometheus as model atheist; historical applications, Christian allegories, psychonanalytic interpretations and so on.
In each chapter what is interesting is: 1) the range of authors and time periods (for Phaedra, one begins the chapter with Homer and ends with Sarah Kane’s 1996 play); 2) the quite different yet recognizable reimaginings of each mythic figure; and especially 3) the enormous range of valorizations, emphases, meanings, etc., that burst from each powerful story-seed.
It is possible to perceive this variety of form and interpretation because Susanetti does not go into too much detail with every work. As when watching a flower’s blooming captured by time-lapse photography, we lose the detail but gain perspective on the changing shape of the mythic figures. However, in every chapter a few authors and works are given several pages: for example, the chapter on Oedipus, while it touches on some 30 works, spends significant time on the interpretations of Sophocles (of course), Corneille, Voltaire, Martello, Hofmannsthal, Gide, and Cocteau. (Other chapters cover similar numbers of works; one or two around 50.) In each work discussed or mentioned, Susanetti plucks out the most intriguing feature, the new twist, the reversed value or unexpected angle.
Finally, Susanetti provides, for those who wish to pursue his method further, bibliographic notes (“Per ulteriori percorsi”) for figures touched upon in the chapters but not fully discussed in their own right: Achilles, Alcestis, Ariadne, Hercules, Daedalus, Iphigeneia, and Sisyphus.
It seems churlish, in the face of such intelligent and readable handling of such various and extensive material, to note limitations. Russia and Spain seem to be on the fringes of the Europe mentioned in the title. Italy, not unnaturally, is the center. While I did not notice any odd gaps in the chapter on Phaedra (the heroine with whose stories I am most familiar), I was surprised to find H.D.’s long poem Helen in Egypt (1961) unmentioned in the Helen chapter (one might argue that she is an American writer, but her work is discussed in chapters on Phaedra and Orpheus).
But these are quibbles. Susanetti’s is a useful text for any who are interested in myth, reception of myth, how stories change and survive, and how they interact with the moment in which they are retold. His book provides a frame for understanding where those texts that are not alluded to may fit in (H.D.’s omitted Helen, for example, finds kin among the Gnostic interpretations of the figure of the Spartan queen). New to me were many of the interpretations outside the fine arts: Marx, Bacon, early Christian writers. (Others may find the reverse true.) Susanetti’s book urges one to return once more (or to discover) the texts discussed and see for oneself the strange metamorphoses of story and character, and it compels one to reflect, once again, on the never-dry springs of the Western imagination that are Greek myths.
1. Marguerite Yourcenar, Théâtre, vol. 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1971) 19.