BMCR 2020.01.48

Myths of the Underworld in Contemporary Culture: The Backward Gaze. Classical presences

, Myths of the Underworld in Contemporary Culture: The Backward Gaze. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. viii, 224. ISBN 9780198767091. $85.00.


‘Myths of the Underworld’ are, as it were, an obol-under-the-tongue a dozen—or, if you prefer your deathly coinages high-cultural, as many as the souls crowding the near side of the River Styx: “as many as the fallen leaves of autumn.”1 Beyond literal ‘journeys below’ (a katabasis, on which a still-living traveler takes an extraordinary journey to the land of the dead, often encountering them in a nekyia), there are seemingly endless stories of characters ‘descending’ more figuratively into ‘underworlds’ inhabited by, e.g., criminals and other ‘sub-cultures’, or into the depths of their own psychology, the ‘sub-conscious.’ If most modern examples have little overtly to do with ancient myths, that fact testifies to how pervasive Underworldly story-patterns truly are. Although many post-classical works do signal their reception of ancient Greek and Roman sources, rather more do not, standing instead as variations on common themes.

The situation is, if anything, more complicated when such “elements of underworld narrative” are deployed in works belonging to ‘contemporary culture.’ As Judith Fletcher argues in her invitingly wide-ranging and illuminatingly prismatic book, when “themes of descent myths” appear in literature since 1945, they “will often destabilize the very traditions that they evoke” (44-45). If this is indeed “typical of postmodern poetics,” as Fletcher demonstrates the result is not merely ‘poetics’ but also ‘politics,’ with artistic repurposing of ancient tropes constituting “a comment on authenticity, cultural hegemony, and the role of marginalized genres or peoples in the literary tradition” (45). A great value of the book is thus its framing not as survey or katabatic catalogue—Fletcher is no garrulous Ovidian Sibyl narrating Underworlds to pass the time—but as an investigation of how a pervasive ancient story-type has been used to shed light on ‘underworldly’ aspects of contemporary life. Her focus is thus on how ancient Underworld stories “work so powerfully” with three intersecting areas of contemporary discourse. In addition to postmodernism (“themes of cultural rebellion in postmodern authors”), these are “the social marginality and alterity addressed by feminist fiction, and the fragmentation of identity endured by the diasporic subject” (8). Readings of individual works aside, then—and those are fascinating—perhaps the greatest interest of Fletcher’s book is how it examines shifting Underworldly story-patterns as a way of exploring ‘the contemporary’ at the intersection of postmodernism, feminism, and postcolonialism (plus, in places, psychoanalysis). From this perspective, ‘contemporary literature’ is seen as variously exposing and subverting the power-structures that have made people’s lives into living Hell(s). Works that shed ancient mythological light on lived experience can thus undermine ideologies that would naturalize practices of deracination, disenfranchisement, and displacement. Instead of being ‘condemned to Hell,’ the contemporary subject in such works becomes a kind of katabant on a journey that can lead to wisdom or even transformation.

Fletcher’s interest in that possibility is a major source of her book’s high value in the context of the many other recent studies of Underworld stories in contemporary culture and beyond.2 To make the argument, Fletcher wisely does not pretend to comprehensiveness, and, freed from such an impossible obligation, she is able instead to take instead ‘deep dives’ into roughly nine contemporary works.3 First, however, comes a welcome survey of arguably the most relevant Greek and Roman sources, culminating in a summary of shared features, both desiderata for students and other readers new to the material (‘Chapter 1: Source Texts’). Fletcher strikes a judicious balance, focusing on the most influential stories (about Odysseus, Heracles and Dionysus, Aeneas, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Persephone) while paying less attention to those that have been outliers in later traditions (e.g., Plato’s “Myth of Er,” Lucian’s Cataplus), and offering a combination of longstanding readings and interpretations of her own. Although I regularly teach a course on Underworlds that starts with many of those sources, Fletcher’s first chapter surprised me several times and has inspired me to rethink parts of my approach.

Similarly thought-provoking are the chapters (2-4) on the contemporary works. These are grouped thematically, with postmodernism represented in Chapter 2, ‘The Ghost of the Father: Spirits of the Postmodern’, by Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse and parts of Gaiman’s comics series The Sandman (one of two non-literary works). Chapter 3, ‘Engendering the Haunted Text’, turns to feminism, represented by Byatt’s Angels and Insects and Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan Quartet’ (after an interlude on Selick’s film adaptation of Gaiman’s Coraline (the other non-literary work). ’Chapter 4, ‘The Wanderer’s Descent: The Underworlds of Diaspora’ focuses on postcolonialism, migration, and disapora with Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Bloom’s Away, Rushdie’s The Ground beneath Her Feet, and Patchett’s State of Wonder. As Fletcher notes in her Acknowledgments, parts of these core chapters draw on her previously published work, but the book is not a clip show: in several places Fletcher offers wholly new readings, and all throughout the arguments are developed in context of the overarching interest. Again, having previously taught some of Fletcher’s articles, I was delighted to see earlier readings deepened in their new setting.4

Naturally, a given reader’s enjoyment may vary depending on their interest in the core texts and their topics. That can be no criticism of the book, and indeed it is part of what I mean by its ‘prismatic’ quality. As Fletcher herself indicates, other examples could have been chosen, and the results would have been equally but differently illuminating. Thus, e.g., in the ‘Epilogue’ Fletcher points to Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less as being rather ready-made for the sort of analysis she undertakes (perhaps a teaser for an article-to-come?). Personally I found most compelling Fletcher’s discussions of Gaiman’s work, the pieces by Byatt, and the focus on diaspora, with Rushdie and Patchett high points in the latter. Each of those examples illustrates an aspect of contemporary cultural production, a tendency to sharing story- elements across media, something which is also a clear strength of Fletcher’s. In this regard, Gaiman’s work is a ‘natural’ fit, since the comics form combines media, and he has a novella adapted into film. Byatt likewise often combines literary forms into ostensibly unitary texts, while Rushdie is explicitly interested in representing a music in literature as well as across notional realities. Finally Fletcher considers Patchett’s work well in light of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which of course is itself a transmediation already, adapting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. If such boundary-crossings are characteristic of contemporary cultural production, then Fletcher’s book as a whole vividly demonstrates how they are also deeply an element of Underworld stories: for a still-living traveler to visit the land of the dead is metaphysical boundary-crossing of the highest (lowest?) order.

Finally, a few things that might dissatisfy some readers. Although I appreciate how Fletcher allows such ideas as the homology between ancient transgression and contemporary transmediations to come into focus over the course of the book, I can imagine some readers wishing that such throughlines were more explicit. The chapters do not always offer definitions of the contemporary-cultural aspect at hand. ‘Postmodernism,’ ‘feminism,’ and ‘postcolonialism’ are not really defined as frames but rather deployed as tools and detected in the texts. Similarly, there are places where a technical term is used ahead of its definition: e.g., ‘mise-en-abyme’ is used a few pages before its fuller definition (100 and 113n47 respectively). Perhaps reflecting the origin of some of the material in separate studies, there are places where I could imagine additional interconnections among the three thematic units stated outright. To continue the same example, if ‘mise-en-abyme’ is defined as “a miniaturized metaphor” in reference to Byatt’s novel (100), then the same chapter’s identification of Ferrante’s Leda as “another iteration of the child-snatching bogey-woman of the underworld, a Mormo figure” (130) might have drawn on that critical term to deepen the identification or to sharpen the definition by contrast.

Instead, readers are mostly —and I think generously—invited to consider such possibilities for themselves. I can thus imagine the book’s rhetorical mode put to good use in a course, with each of the units introduced by seminar-style presentation. Thus, e.g., students tasked to deepen the postmodernism frame for Fletcher’s reading of Gaiman’s Sandman would delve into some of the cited scholarship, like Brian McHale’s studies. Alternatively, students could be required to consider at length earlier works in classical scholarship (only some of Fletcher’s many examples in note 2). In the absence of such a deliberate scaffolding for the reading, I do wonder whether readers new to the material will find parts of the study somewhat telegraphed and, as a result, find some of the more theory-oriented portions elliptical and their examples off-center. To put all that more positively, I imagine that the book as a whole will find its readership first of all in Fletcher’s fellow scholars and in fairly advanced students, while teachers—if I may project from my own plan!—will assign discrete chapters or subsections. Frustratingly, however, the book seems to be available only in hardcover and ebook formats, too expensive for many readers.

In that connection, I am sorry to note that a usual resource for readers to trace themes, the Index, has some oddities. The Index lacks some of the book’s most obviously critical terms: ‘postmodernism,’ ‘feminism,’ and ‘postcolonialism’ are missing (although there is ‘diaspora’), as is ‘contemporary culture’; by contrast, something like ‘psychoanalysis’—threading through many texts but not a focus of the argument—is there. Without knowing the production process, I can imagine this having to do with coverage, e.g., all of chapter 2 is under cover of ‘postmodernism,’ etc. That would not quite explain why, e.g., the entry for catabasis is limited to its definition while Nekyia is more detailed.5 Fuller lemmata for such critical terms would have been useful.

That quibble aside, Fletcher’s book is excellent, both illuminating and inviting. In its pairing of a lucid survey of the major ancient sources with interconnected studies of a range of contemporary works, it is something of a marvel, and—should the press only produce a more accessible version—would be a worthy introduction and centerpiece to courses not only on Underworlds but on receptions more generally. Indeed, I wanted more: Fletcher’s survey of ancient sources made me wish for an account of the receptions intervening between those and the nine core works. Although items like Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost are discussed here and there, and although Fletcher clearly knows the relevant scholarship perfectly well, I found myself wanting Fletcher’s full-scale take on how contemporary texts look back to the ‘ancient sources’ if, as often, they do so indirectly. Lest that seem to verge on criticizing a book for not doing something it never intended to, consider it instead as expressing my highest recommendation of the book: rich and interesting in itself, it left me hoping for additional studies by Fletcher—and soon.


1. As my Latin-poetry professor, Dick Tron, would say, “you pays your money and you takes your choice”: Homer Il. 6.146-47, Virgil Aen. 6.313-14, Dante Inf. 3.112-16, Milton Paradise Lost 1.299-304, etc..

2. E.g., David L. Pike’s Passage through Hell: Modernist Descents, Medieval Underworlds (Cornell University Press, 1997) plus Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworlds of Modern Urban Culture (2001), Rachel Falconer’s Hell in Contemporary Literature: Western Descent Narratives since 1945 (Cambridge, 2005), M. Thurston’s The Underworld in Twentieth-Century Poetry: from Pound and Eliot to Heaney and Walcott (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); with more thematic remits, e.g., Michael G. Cooke’s “The Descent into the Underworld and Modern Black Fiction” ( The Iowa Review, 1974, 5.4: 72-90), and Holly Blackford’s The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature (Routledge, 2012); more specific to Classics / the ancient world, J. L. Calvo-Martinez’s “The Katabasis of the Hero” (in V. Pirenne-Delforge and E. Suárez de la Torre, eds., Héros et heroïnes dans les mythes et les cultes grecs, A. Rousselle, 1995, pp. 165-86), Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy (Princeton, 2001), Fritz Graf’s and Sarah Johnston’s Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (Routledge, 2007), Stamatia Dova’s Greek Heroes in and out of Hades (Lexington Books, 2012), Radcliffe G. Edmonds III’s Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Oprhic’ Gold Tablets (Cambridge, 2004), Sarah Iles Johnston’s Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (University of California, 2013), George A. Gazis’s Homer and the Poetics of Hades (Oxford, 2018), Juliet Harrisson’s (ed.) Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World (Routledge, 2018).

3. ‘Deep dive’: a contemporary coinage I could not help but use here, esp. given Fletcher’s illuminating discussion of undersea imagery and/as underworld story in Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” (90-91, 131-32).

4. “An Odyssey Rewoven: A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects ( CML, 1999, 217-231), “Lost in the Underworld: John Barth Reads the Odyssey ” ( CML, 2002, 23: 65-76), and “Signifying Circe in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon ” ( Classical World, 2006, 99: 405-418), plus “The Catabasis of Mattie Ross in the Coens’ True Grit ” ( Classical World, 2014, 107: 237-54).

5. An entomologist would note that ‘spiders’ should not be listed under ‘insects.’