BMCR 2017.09.17

Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Classics in International Modernism and the Avant-Garde. Brill’s companions to classical reception, 9

, , Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Classics in International Modernism and the Avant-Garde. Brill's companions to classical reception, 9. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. xi, 320. ISBN 9789004276505, 9789004335493. ebook.

Table of Contents

This is the ninth volume of Brill’s Companions to Classical Reception. The topic needs little introduction: the influence of the classical tradition on modernism has been a central concern, ever since the publication of T.S. Eliot’s seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1921, one year before modernism’s annus mirabilis that saw the publication of both “The Waste Land” and Ulysses.

In their introduction, the editors of the volume open with George Seferis’s reading of Eliot, but they also include his interpretation of the rather different Greek poet C.P. Cavafy to conclude that the relationship with history is a central concern in the literature of modernism and the avant-garde: the “tension between contemporary history and the legacy of the past continues to shape our understanding of modernism” (2). They align this volume with the “new” modernist studies which they claim is marked by changes similar to those that can be observed in the study of the reception of the classics: “classical reception studies has done to Classics what the ‘new’ modernist studies did to its field” (6).

The essays are arranged chronologically, starting with the influence of Latin-American modernismo on the birth of modernism. Tyler Fischer and Jenni Lehtinen read the motif of the female colossus in the poetry of José Martí, and although they admit that the link between modernismo and modernism is not self-evident (to say the least), they claim that since both movements were “amorphous” they share “certain concerns and poetics” (22), which is a rather vague and not very helpful formulation. The rest of the essay consists of a thorough reading of the theme of the giant as a representation of a nation in Martí’s poetry which, according to the authors, subverts and deconstructs that traditional image.

In what turns out to be one of the strongest essays in the collection, another duo, Bryan and Bartholomew Brinkman, open their study of the influence of Greek literature and classical scholarship on the imagist poetry of H.D. by recalling one of the “central ironies of modernism and the historical avant-garde: a Janus-faced gazing into the ancient past and an unflinching turn to the future” (39). This is a rather conventional essay on an important writer’s relationship with the classics, with a number of interesting insights, such as the importance of the publication of lacunose translations of papyrus texts and especially of the role of Sappho’s fragments.

Adam Goldwyn then tackles Ezra Pound’s Cantos, after a preamble discussing the different mottos for Eliot’s The Waste Land (from Conrad’s “The horror, the horror” and the quote from Petronius’s Satyricon, in Latin and Greek, to Dante’s il miglior fabbro. Pound being the best reader of Eliot and vice versa, as modernist criticism traditionally has it, Goldwyn further claims that the intertextual nature of the Cantos“foregrounds Pound’s multiple personae” (58).

Bovan Jović studies the influence of the classical tradition in the Serbian avant-garde, which had its history in the changed political realities of the Balkan states after the first world war. Although it is interesting to have a detailed study of the continued relevance of Greek and Latin culture, the reading of this survey essay is not made easier by poor copy-editing. Juan Herrero-Senés offers a similar survey of classical imagery in the avant-garde in Spain, another country that was going through political turmoil at the time.

Kenneth David Jackson then looks at the classical ideal in the work of Fernando Pessoa (and some of his heteronyms): he identifies the importance of an English and even Victorian classicism in the poet’s education in Durban, South Africa. The Greek Anthology and the work of such writers as Matthew Arnold provided the sources for Pessoa’s neo-pagan alternative to the prevailing culture in Portugal.

In the only essay that was not originally written in English, Ernesto Livorni gives us a rather conservative discussion of the theme of the nóstos in the poetry of the Nobel prize winner (1959) Salvatore Quasimodo. This is an old-fashioned and impressionist close reading that might be of interest to specialists of Italian literature, but to very few other readers: in its present form it has no place in a book like this. The quotations from Quasimodo’s work have not been translated and the frame of reference is entirely Italian.

In contrast, David Hammerbeck examines the French interbellum fascination with Greek tragedy, focusing on Jean Cocteau’s 1926 Orphée to show the relevance of the play in the controversial author’s career and in the heady context of Paris between the wars. Anett Jessop studies Laura Riding, who reinvented the versions of the classical stories about the Trojan war from a woman’s perspective (cf. Ovid’s Heroides), but she uncritically adopts Riding’s idea that Homer was writing about historical characters. Parenthetically, this reviewer fails to see the relevance of referencing an unpublished paper to show that medieval founders of states invented a Trojan genealogy.

Another essay that may not quite merit a place in a book about literary modernism and the avant-garde is Samuel Baker’s study of the role of Plato’s eros in C.S. Lewis, interesting in itself, but by any definition Lewis was if anything anti-modernist, as Baker admits in a final section. William H.F. Altman contributes a fine but purely philosophical discussion of the emergence of what he calls the post-Platonist Plato “in the context of Martin Heidegger” (220): no modernist or avant-garde writers anywhere.

In contrast Matthew Sharpe reads the “hellenic heart” of Albert Camus in a way that places the writer/philosopher in the context of his work and his time, and in that of the wider cultural and political world he inhabited, where Camus criticised German philosophy’s (Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche) influence on his French contemporaries, with their “secularizing of eschatological modes of thinking he associated with Augustinian Christianity” (244).

Polina Tambakaki finds references to Thucydides in work by George Seferis, from his first published essay to his modernist novel Six Nights on the Acropolis, and to his poetry as well. Tambakaki distinguishes between “acknowledged allusions and explicit references” on the one hand and “elusive references” on the other, but some of these are vague and general references to a Greek myth and history for which neither we nor Seferis needed Thucydides. In her conclusion the author admits that they mostly occur in combination with Homer and Euripides.

In the final essay, editor James Nikopoulos rereads T.S. Eliot’s review of Joyce’s Ulysses and its description of what the Anglo-American poet called the mythical method. In the process he places one possible introduction to the volume at the end. This is a thoroughly contextual reading of a crucial moment in what has been called the period of High Modernism in English literary history. The role of anthropology in Eliot’s interpretation of myth and its possible role in art and literature is crucial.

Very different as they are in scope and ambition, the individual essays are for the most part successful in many different ways, but the editors, like Pound with his Cantos, cannot make them cohere. In their introduction, they write that they see it as their duty to “to represent the current state of affairs” (13), but this reviewer is not convinced. Neither the selection of classic texts, nor that of modernist or avant-garde works or authors seems to be representative: a lot can be said about C.S. Lewis but not that his work is either avant-garde or modernist; the same is true for the continental reception of Plato’s philosophy, and two essays on George Seferis are a bit much, especially when we note the total absence of such extremely Hellenophile German writers as Stephan George and Hermann Broch.

This book needed a few more rounds of copy-editing, and this reviewer wonders if an earlier version has been allowed to go into print, at least for some of these essays. There are too many typos in names (“Han Blumenberg”), in titles (“Since the Greta War”), and in the foreign language quotations (in those that I can judge). In addition, some of the translations are wooden and the translation policy is unclear: why translate Camus without the original, Spanish and Portuguese with original and then have extensive Italian quotations without translation? Almost every page has grammatical errors, stylistic infelicities, even two alternative wordings and sentences without end or beginning. These have no place in such an expensive book.