In the opening scene of Friedrich Hölderlin’s epistolary novel Hyperion the eponymous narrator gazes from Acrocorinth across the Saronic and Corinthian gulfs. Hyperion says his soul flits back and forth between the seas and the glowing mountains, adding that he would settle for even a single gulf could he have been there a thousand years earlier. A letter from Hölderlin opens Constanze Güthenke’s rich and informative study Placing Modern Greece. The Dynamics of Romantic Hellenism, 1770-1840. In the letter Hölderlin presents himself as stumbling along behind the Greeks, “those unique people ( einzigen Menschen)” and says that like geese, he stands flat-footed and powerless “in the waters of modernity” ( in modernen Wasser) as he contemplates flight up into the Greek sky.
Hölderlin’s work highlights two themes central to Güthenke’s impressive study. The first is the physical nature of Greece and its landscape, what Güthenke calls its materiality. Probably the most notable feature of the Greek landscape, overpowering even, is its luminosity. For Hölderlin, Greece was the realm of Apollo and the fire of heaven. Lawrence Durrell on seeing the gleaming Aegean for the first time, proposed that space, light and solitude needed to be rediscovered. Even the contemporary visitor yet to scale the heights of Acrocorinth can be astonished when traveling to the Peloponnese from Athens. Leaving behind the auto supply shops on Athens’ outskirts, the cement works at Eleusis and the rusting vessels in Eleusis Bay, in due course the driver comes round a turn in the highway to see in favorable weather the dazzling Corinthian Gulf seemingly on fire beneath the brilliant sun as it displays what Aeschylus called those “uncountable smiles of the sea”. It can be breathtaking even after numerous trips.
Like many who first stoked the fires of European Hellenism, Hölderlin never actually saw a real Greek landscape and founded his ideals on what he imagined Greece to be. To be sure, he was familiar with and drew upon writings of contemporary travelers to Greece such as Choiseul-Gouffier and Richard Chandler, both discussed by Güthenke in her book. Forgoing the particularities of travel writings, Hölderlin represented nature as an ideal. As David Constantine has pointed out, the landscape of Greece offered a site of continuity which linked the modern Greek (and European visitor) to the ideal past.1 Güthenke identifies this continuity as underlying the logic of Hellenism which she says is dependent on the “frisson” emerging from interactions of stable geographic space with the temporal change history introduces into that space.
This ties in the second theme in Hölderlin’s letter: the vexing relation between modernity and antiquity. In an unfinished essay “How shall we see the ancient world?”, Hölderlin spoke of “the slavery with which we have behaved toward antiquity. There seems indeed to be hardly any other choice than to be oppressed by what has been appropriated and by what is positive, or, with violent effort, to oppose as a living force everything learnt, given, positive.”2 (The relation is problematic still. One has merely to read Heidegger, in particular as he addresses the poetry of Hölderlin, to see how profound the problem remains for moderns3). The contrast of Hellenic antiquity to modernity revealed lost unities and underscored estrangements created by Enlightenment thinkers: estrangements of human life from objectified nature, reason from imagination, thought from the senses. The classical Greeks were made into a form of human life in its highest mode, one in which thought and feeling, self and nature were united. In contrast, the discontinuities emerging in modern life revealed deep conflict. Greek tragedy provided the greatest artistic expression of conflict and became an object of intense philosophical and aesthetic exploration. Schiller thought it the paradigmatic art form; it was a suitable vehicle for grasping the “self-divisions” of modern experience.4 In addition to these discontinuities was modernity’s estrangement from the past itself. Winckelmann’s groundbreaking history of ancient art had demonstrated that estrangement and alerted Herder, Goethe, and the Schlegels to the profound rift which separated ancient from modern culture.5 The “Greek Ideal” was built on this rift.
The intersection of the Greek Ideal—imposed by non-Greeks onto Greeks and their land— with Greece’s physical reality is at the heart of Güthenke’s book. She argues compellingly that Greece’s materiality cannot be separated from its ideality and demonstrates the link between materiality and Idealist vision whereby representations of Greek landscape subsumed nature and culture alike. In a chapter entitled “The Form of Greek Landscape”, Güthenke sets the advent of Greece as an autonomous political and territorial entity within the developing discourse of Hellenism. Freedom was an important constituent of that discourse ever since Winckelmann in both the Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechishen Werke and the Geschichte der Kunst der Altertum closely associated the excellence of Greek art with Greek freedom. Güthenke points out that as the term “nature” in the eighteenth century came to denote emancipation, Greece too became a privileged topos of freedom. She advises the reader that nature and freedom were elastic terms with moral, aesthetic, political, and material dimensions. In terms of the Hellenic Ideal, the Greeks were thought to have harmonized them. The harmony imputed to the ancient Greeks made them the model of human development and of the Bildung which Wilhelm von Humboldt’s newly founded University of Berlin planned to instill in generations of Germans through intense study of Greek culture.
To Winckelmannn, history in the form of political and social conditions enabled Greek art to attain its much vaunted ‘noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur’ ( edle Einfalt und stille Grösse). Acknowledging Winckelmann’s dictum that good taste began its formation first under the Greek sky, Güthenke proceeds to demonstrate that the relationship between Greek culture and the natural environment is a recurring motif in the imagining of modern Greece. The trend began with Robert Wood’s Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer with a Comparative View of the Ancient and Present State of the Troad. It first appeared in English and by 1773 a German translation was available. Wood proposed that acquaintance with the real locales of Homer’s poems would prompt greater appreciation and understanding. Güthenke surveys the works of several travel writers in addition to Wood, including Pierre Augustin Guys, J.L.S. Bartholdy, and Choiseul-Gouffier. Greek travel writing of the period is a body of rich and imaginative literature, and sometimes completely fictional as in the case of the Abbé Barthélemy’s widely read Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce published in 1788. The overall effect communicated in the works of these writers is Greek nature in an aestheticized form.
Güthenke’s analysis of landscape comes to fruition in her interpretation of Hyperion. She shows us a Hölderlin who exemplifies the challenge of visualizing an ideal spatially which required establishing a correspondence between internal and external landscapes. Since Hölderlin had not experienced the reality of Greek landscape, he had to create it in the realm of imagination. In Hyperion Greece becomes a place of memory, a contemporary place where the past has been superseded. Her analysis sets its reference point in Hyperion’s subjectivity as it is affected by the surrounding natural environment. If Hyperion’s modernity is to come into being it must be played off against the non-modernity of the historical Greeks. The landscape serves as metaphor for self-understanding.
The Greek War of Independence shifted the focus on nature to specific locations that Güthenke says served as rhetorical and literal topoi. This produced literature which aroused both admiration and derision due in part to the politicization of natural imagery. Wilhelm Müller’s poetry for example is described as catering to contemporary political events by setting Greek speakers in their natural environment. The new Greek state undercut the notion of Greece as a transcendent entity. The lofty spiritual freedom celebrated by Winckelmann could descend under the weight of political content to bluster about primitive Greeks living free as the mountain streams and the soaring eagle. By 1821 Philhellenism had expanded beyond the high cultural valuation of Greek antiquity to include support for Greek political aspirations. German Philhellenism was different in that many supporters believed the warrant supporting their own Bildung was provided by the Greeks. Humboldt had even declared that the Germans were undeniably the first to comprehend Greek Bildung, that is paideia,6 and thus was in a privileged position to offer it to others. Once Philhellenism gave cover to modern political aspirations of Greeks, nature was politicized and the hunt was on for national characteristics in Greece and its landscapes.
Güthenke has interesting things to say about the role of folk song and folk poetry, which were thought to evoke the authenticity and immediacy of Greeks living in harmony with the natural landscape. Along with translation of native materials came the memoirs of non-Greeks who had contributed to the military campaigns. Güthenke includes a detailed analysis of Wilhelm Müller’s Griechenlieder. He was a supporter of the Greek cause and the poems typified German Philhellenism of the 1820s in their blending of political, religious, and artistic concerns. Like Humboldt, Müller thought the German language better suited than any other to capture the peculiarities of Greek. Like Hölderlin, he never went to Greece but he relied on the familiar motifs of classical significance, mountains and the sea to provide physical reference points for Greek freedom. Thermopylae and Marathon figure prominently. Müller also focused on the Mani, wild and remote even in the 1950s when Patrick Leigh Fermour wrote his well-known book on its people and terrain, and more so in the nineteenth century. Then, the Maniotes were regarded as inhabitants of an untamed, rugged territory who were fiercely freedom loving. They were also treated as the heirs of Spartan courage, and were assigned the highly symbolic role, Güthenke observes, of freedom fighters living in a natural fashion in the mountains and able to descend rapidly to the plain in support of the fight for Greek freedom. True to Winckelmann’s thesis that the culture of the ancient Greeks was due to their physical environment, the Maniote spirit was believed to be supported by the natural environment where they lived their daily lives. That environment it was assumed activated the desire for liberation.
The closing chapters of Placing Modern Greece turn from German authors to Greek writers and their response to European Philhellenism. First Güthenke examines the effects of Philhellenism on Hellenic authors and explores how the imagery of European Romanticism and Hellenism functioned in Greek literature of the nineteenth century. Its themes included the new Greek state and a new Greek literature. Güthenke points out that Greek writers such as Alexandros Rangavis and Alexandros Soutsos employed Greek settings for poems which endeavored to visualize the contemporary Greek state. She stresses that the authors of the new Greek literature were deeply ambivalent towards models of their land inherited from foreign authors, though Greece still seemed left in a limbo between its own antiquity and German, French, and English modernity which accounts for the trope of ‘belatedness’ associated with Greek literature.
The final chapter presents Greece seen from the perspective of the Ionian Islands which largely had been under Venetian control and hence not part of the Ottoman Empire. The writers chosen for scrutiny are Andreas Kalvos and Dionysius Solomos, both natives of Zakynthos. Kalvos’ Odes displayed a near mystical grasp of nature in daring language. But Güthenke indicts Kalvos’ poetry for compression and involution to the degree that Greece is narrowed to the point of invisibility. She says that his writings show the interplay of the Greek Enlightenment with a neo-Hellenism characterized by archaism and didacticism. Kalvos was closely attuned to Philhellenic discourse, and his imagery borrows from Homer, Pindar, Romanticism and the Bible. The result is that his native land is mirrored in an indefinite character of style and genre.
Dionysios Solomos is viewed, as Güthenke observes, as one of the founding poets of the Greek state. He was familiar with the writings of Schiller and Schelling, absorbing at times their philosophy into his poetry. The Early Romantic influence left a residue of tension between the ideal and the real. Güthenke shows the presence of Schiller’s aesthetic ideas in Solomos’ poetry in which he explores the relation of art and nature, the divine and the mundane and which sublimates the real to the ideal. Her contention is that Solomos’s conjunction of real and ideal breaks down the vision of Greece into vignettes of compression and containment, which she illustrates through an incisive analysis of Solomos’ poem on Missolonghi which describes the heroic exodus of the city’s inhabitants, “The Free Besieged”.
This is an original book, notable in its scope and the fresh scrutiny brought to Romantic Hellenism. The publisher’s price might lead one to expect multiple illustrations when in fact there aren’t any at all. Let us hope that a paperback edition will be forthcoming soon to give Güthenke the audience she deserves.
1. David Constantine, Hölderlin, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 94.
2. T. Paul, edit., Friedrich Hölderlin. Essays and Letters on Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988, p.39.
3. See Julian Young, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
4. Vassals Lambropoulis, The Tragic Idea, London: Duckworth, 2006, pp. 30; 11. See also Dirk t. D. Held, “Antigone on the Neckar: Tragedy and Enigmas of the Modern”, New England Classical Journal, 34.3, 2007, pp. 207-216.
5. Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal. Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History, New Haven 1994, p. 19.
6. W. Humboldt, Gesammelte Schriften, Berlin 1902, vol. 2, p. 184.