BMCR 2008.03.21

Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts. An Introduction. Translation of 2002 German edition

, Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts : an Introduction.. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. 1 online resource (254 pages). ISBN 9780470691533. $29.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

Yes, another introduction to literary theory—of course, Schmitz and I should have said theories, for to talk about such heterogeneous material as a unified entity is problematic. Thomas Schmitz has translated his Moderne Literaturtheorie und antike Texte (first published in 2002) to make it available to an Anglophone audience.1 The volume follows the traditional format for books written in this genre: namely, individual chapters are dedicated to particular theories or theorists. What makes this book relevant to classicists is Schmitz’ method of integrating discussion of literary theory with studies written by classicists who have applied theoretical models to ancient texts. The book is targeted “at students of the classics,” and Schmitz’ aim is “to provide a first encounter with the most important ideas and concepts of the main theoretical approaches, thus enabling readers to pursue their forays into this [i.e., literary theory’s] territory independently” (p. 1). Although Classics was late to join the theory-turn, we are no longer short on books that link theory and ancient texts.2 However, although several books in Classics now explicitly frame ancient texts through modern interpretive theories and methodologies, none of them provides an extended overview of specific theories for the novice reader. Accordingly, Schmitz’ text fills a pedagogical lacuna that needed to be addressed. Professional readers might lament the fact that Schmitz has left out detailed overviews to certain approaches such as Marxism and the Paris school’s (i.e., Vernant et al.) cultural anthropology (cf. p. 205); however, he has provided a solid introduction to several of the most important theoretical stances, and no other introductory handbooks on literary theory are positioned so squarely within the discipline of Classics.

In his introduction, Schmitz sets the groundwork for the following chapters by responding to criticism leveled at different times against the study of theory. He takes aim against claims that theory is too often practiced for the sake of theory, that modern theories are inappropriate to apply to ancient texts, that theory is carrying “new wine in old wineskins”, that theory is too fashionable, and that the application of theory means that texts are not approached from unprejudiced positions. Although Schmitz adequately responds to these assertions, I wondered, while reading the section, how many people would really disagree with Schmitz on the topics he was addressing—at times he knocks down straw men. Schmitz addresses the types of blanket criticism that were leveled against theory several decades ago. Would not most critics of theory today, however, have very nuanced critiques against specific theories or, more likely, their application to particular texts and contexts? Who would want to throw out reader-response theory wholesale, for instance? This would be impossible, at any rate, since all of us have now (i.e., post-theory) been acculturated to interpret texts, at least partially, from the perspective of the reader (I do not mean to suggest that the audience’s response was left unconsidered before reception theory ossified). To quote Schmitz in his conclusion, “the choice is not whether we want to do theory or not, the choice is whether we want to do good or bad theory” (p. 208). In closing his introduction, Schmitz provides a “literature review” of other introductory texts devoted to literary theory. This section of the introduction could have been tucked away in an appendix.

In the first chapter devoted to a particular theoretical approach, Schmitz introduces Russian formalism, a frequent starting point for handbooks of modern literary theory. In the next eleven chapters, the student is introduced to structuralism, narratology, Bakhtin, intertextuality, reader-response criticism, orality-literacy, deconstruction, Foucault and discourse analysis, new historicism, feminism and gender studies, and, finally, psychoanalytic approaches to literature. I shall not summarize here the extensive content of these chapters. I note, however, that Schmitz astutely introduces and analyzes the primary concerns that these interpretive approaches raise. Schmitz has rightly chosen to include chapters that introduce concepts that are not theoretical positions per se, but are rather approaches that are particularly productive for classicists. For example, his chapters on narratology, an offshoot of structuralism, and on orality-literacy, an approach that takes into consideration the socio-cultural context of the production of “texts,” introduce students to contemporary methods of textual and cultural analysis.

One of the virtues of Schmitz’ text is his brief description of theoretical approaches; the chapters average fifteen to twenty pages. Such concision means that the chapters may at times be too brief and, in the end, that specific sections may be superficial for some readers. To counteract the possibility that he has left his readers unsatisfied, Schmitz provides suggestions for further reading at the end of every chapter, directing his curious readers to works that will provide more detail than his book’s length allows. This format represents a judicious decision. The student (again, this is Schmitz’ intended audience) who approaches, say, Russian formalists for the first time will have an introduction to some of the primary ideas that circulated among this school’s influential thinkers and, thereafter, have helpful references to study the formalists in greater detail, if so desired.

A second virtue of Schmitz’ text is his frank manner of discourse. While he, rightly, does not avoid using technical terms when relevant, his text is jargon free and his style is unpretentious. Moreover, Schmitz approaches theory from a critical perspective that allows the reader to understand and appreciate Schmitz’ own positions, proclivities, and presuppositions; and his own predilections shine through certain chapters: he clearly finds narratology “fascinating,” and it was a good decision of his not to expurgate his personal excitement for certain approaches, since some of his enthusiasm will rub off on many of his readers. In the end, he urges his readers to become cheerful pluralists (p. 208). He hopes that they, equipped with the arsenal of technical weaponry that a knowledge of all these theories provides, will return to literary texts and think through them from a more critical perspective. I think it would be hard for anyone new to theory not to be a more competent reader after having finished this book.

A further virtue is that Schmitz earnestly tries to help students understand the concepts that he explains. For example, when elucidating structural paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis (pp. 32-33), he describes the system via our daily practice of waking up and choosing one shirt among many in the closet (a paradigmatic decision). Finally, when we have dressed in the morning and have arranged our outfits with shirts, shoes, pants, etc., we have put together a syntagmatic ensemble. Examples such as this from daily life are useful because they allow people to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Moreover, when Schmitz expects his readers to be familiar with a technical term that he introduced in a previous chapter, he takes the time to summarize the term in its new context (for example, Bakhtin’s idea of the polyphonous novel in the context of Kristeva’s intertextuality (p. 77)). Schmitz’ intended audience should find such explanatory digressions helpful.

Schmitz also notes the particular problems of using specific theories. In his introduction, he rightly points out that no text should be viewed from every theoretical standpoint—different texts will elicit different methodological approaches based upon the productivity with which a theory can be used in a particular textual (and extra-textual) context. As Schmitz rightly states, “we must avoid asking a methodology to provide what it cannot provide, and we should not eschew what it can provide” (p. 46). In regard to specific theories, Schmitz does a good job of showing where threads unravel (or become problematic, at any rate). For example, when discussing Saussure’s linguistic structuralism (p. 29), Schmitz addresses the methodological problems that structural study raises: most obviously, a flippant approach to important historical problems. When Schmitz finds an argument unconvincing, as is the case with Lévi Strauss’ structural study of myth, it is refreshing to hear him argue (where other commentators might simply put forth Lévi Strauss’ position) extensively against the methodological flaws in Lévi Strauss’ analysis (pp. 35-38; cf. too his discussion of Foucault’s thoughts on the human subject: pp. 147-149). His strongest disdainful remark is made in relation to psychoanalysis: “His [i.e., Freud’s] methodology is fundamentally flawed and cannot claim any measure of scientific reliability” (p. 197). Such sections of the book should be particularly exciting (and analytically productive) for students, since Schmitz frankly criticizes approaches that he finds unsatisfactory; moreover, he also provides detailed discussion of others’ critiques of particular methodological perspectives (cf. his remarks on new historicism: pp. 167-172).

As mentioned above, what makes this book of particular value to classicists is Schmitz’ engagement with criticism written by classicists. Since the introductory overviews on individual theories that make up the bulk of the chapters will be familiar to scholars who have either already read a half dozen other similar overviews on literary theory or have read the primary texts of the respective theorists, it is in the reception sections that more advanced readers will find Schmitz’ text intellectually satisfying or dissatisfying. For example, after introducing Saussure’s structural linguistics and Lévi Strauss’ anthropological structuralism, Schmitz turns to Gian Biagio Conte and discusses Conte’s work in genre in relation to structuralism (pp. 40-42); and after introducing narratology, Schmitz introduces Irene J. F. de Jong’s narratological analysis of Homeric poetry. Similarly, after intertextuality, Schmitz focuses ( inter alia) on Giorgio Pasquali and the arte allusiva criticism that preceded Kristeva. I found these sections and others like them to be rather short—I would have liked to have seen Schmitz provide the sort of detailed analytical overview for all his case studies as he does with “the Homeric question” in relation to orality and literacy. I thought that these case-study sections were the passages that would readily allow Schmitz to position his work as an especially important contribution to Classics; after all, if the reader already has a dozen introductions to literary theory to choose from, why one more? Extensive critical engagement with the contributions of classicists who have used theoretical models would have given this book a particularly strong position within the interdisciplinary niche between Classics and broader literary studies. I realize, however, that my desire for longer critical sections devoted to the works of classicists may not be universal—the reader, who wishes, can turn to the works of classicists to study their arguments and approaches in greater detail. And Schmitz, presumably, intends for his reader to do just that.3

In closing, I would like to consider the value of this book as a textbook for a course in literary theory taught in a Classics department; after all, such a class should be a primary venue for this book’s consumption. This helpful book deserves a place in such a course, and I think it will find a place on the syllabi of several classicists who are interested in teaching literary theory to advanced undergraduates and graduate students. An ideal way to use this book would be to assign chapters of it, topic by topic, along with readings of other texts written by ancient authors, by modern literary theorists, and by classicists. For example, the required seminar reading for one week on narratology might include Schmitz’ chapter on narratology, a reading from a theorist of narratology (say Gérard Genette or Mieke Bal), a selection by Irene J. F. de Jong on narratology and Homer, as well as a relevant passage from Homer. After one semester of such sustained reading of various methodological approaches to literary texts, the advanced undergraduate or graduate student should have developed the critical acumen to continue reading, with confidence, in critical theory as desired.4


1. Reviews: B. Roest, BMCR 2002.12.32; E. Theodorakopoulos, Classical Review 55 (2005) 352-353. G. Häfner, Biblische Zeitschrift 48 (2004) 263-265; S. Heimann-Seelbach, Daphnis 31 (2002) 725-731; H. Kuch, Anzeiger für die Altertumswissenschaft 57 (2004) 1-4; A. Kurmann, Bulletin des Schweizerischen Altphilologen-Verbandes, 62 (2003) 29-30; M. Landfester, Gnomon 76 (2004) 641-643; M. Möller, Gymnasium 111 (2004), 85-87; F. Winter, Janus 24 (2003) 75f.; Germanistik 44 (2003) 130.

2. For example, Irene J. F. de Jong and J.P. Sullivan’s Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature (Brill, 1994) provides interpretations of classical texts using theory; Ralph Hexter and Dan Selden’s Innovations of Antiquity (Routledge, 1992) offers examples of interpretive pluralism; S. J. Harrison’s Texts, Ideas, and the Classics: Scholarship, Theory, Classical Literature (Oxford 2001) similarly interrogates important questions within the theory/text matrix; and Malcolm Heath, in his Interpreting Classical Texts (Duckworth, 2003), stresses ways for critics to become keener readers by becoming more aware of their presuppositions and methods of analysis. In addition to these texts, there are many others that could be mentioned that have particularly strong theoretical approaches to Greek and Latin literature. The application of theory to Classics has burgeoned to such a degree that it would be impossible to provide any meaningful overview here.

3. Schmitz does not conclude every chapter with a discussion of a representative example of classical scholarship that applies a particular theory to an ancient text. In some chapters, no classical studies are discussed at length (e.g., Russian formalism, deconstruction), while in other chapters Schmitz does not outline any specific classical scholar’s perspective on a topic, but rather himself shows how an ancient text can be illuminated in light of modern theory. For example, drawing from Bakhtin, Schmitz shows how Petronius’ Satyrica may be read in relationship to Bakhtin’s ideas on Carnivalesque literature.

4. As might be expected of Blackwell Publishing, the book is attractively produced. There are, however, numerous typographical errors throughout the book.