BMCR 2022.06.25

Memories of the classical underworld in Irish and Caribbean literature

, Memories of the classical underworld in Irish and Caribbean literature. Media and cultural memory, 31. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. 316. ISBN 9783110673883 $99.99.


What does it mean for a culture to be haunted by another culture’s dead? How might authors respond when places of importance for memory—lieux de mémoire—are also sites of contestation over geography and history, over how present space is made to represent the past?

Questions such as these locate Madeleine Scherer’s thoughtful and thought-provoking monograph in the context of ‘cultural memory studies’ (e.g., Astrid Erll’s and Ansgar Nünning’s 2008 co-edited volume, A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies). Scherer makes warmly clear her work’s particular debt to a founding figure in that field, Astrid Erll, one of two editors for the series, “Media and Cultural Memory / Medien und kulturelle Erinnerung.” More generally, that placement is central to the monograph’s purpose: Scherer’s overarching goal is to use the conceptual resources of mnemohistory for a “methodological intervention” into the contested overlap between ‘tradition’ and ‘reception’ studies (46).

Although her examples throughout the monograph are from literature, Scherer considers ‘literary text’ as a ‘conceptual lens’: “working with literary conceptions of memorial spaces,” she uses “the conceptual lens of ‘text’ to read the significance of underworld spaces that come to embody ideas, philosophies, and histories from both antiquity and contemporary contexts that are interwoven in the act of … ‘(re)inscribing memory into space’” and therefore making landscapes ‘memorial’ (58-59, emphases added). The concept of ‘memorial landscape’ suggests points of contact with other scholarship on landscapes in ancient discourses and in receptions. Scherer draws on Dwyer and Alderman, and, in the context of underworldliness, perhaps especially work like Debbie Felton’s 2018 edited volume Landscapes of Dread in Classical Antiquity, or Emma Gee’s 2020 Mapping the Afterlife.[1]

Focused on different topics—Felton’s contributors focus on ancient examples, Gee goes only as far as Dante—Scherer’s monograph is distinguished further in, again, its emphasis on methodological intervention via mnemohistorical theory. To ground her approach to reading spatialized reinscriptions of memory in literature, Scherer draws on Henri Lefebvre’s turn, in his 1974 La production de l’espace, to ‘the classical underworld’ as paradigmatic of ‘representational space’ to which affect and meaning are attached in discourse. With stories of katabasis placing “literary and meta-literary importance [on] remembering,” Scherer speculates that the classical underworld could have been conceptual in its own right, “[c]onceived” not only in theory but in a kind of literary prehistory “as one of the earliest memoryscapes” (61). If “spatial embodiments of the underworld hold an inherently mnemonic significance,” then it follows that the underworld journey can serve as “a stimulating and self-reflexive framework for an analysis of the connection between space and memory” (61-62).

Such ‘self-reflexivity’ in classical-underworldly stories about memory is a theme of Scherer’s work. Thus, in her 2020 co-edited volume with Rachel Falconer, A Quest for Remembrance: The Underworld in Classical and Modern LiteratureScherer examines ‘self-reflexive authorship’ in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Penelopiad, arguing that devices like “references to practices of commemoration and memories of the [given] story’s intertextual predecessors” have “meta-fictional implications” (239). The present volume builds on that work as well as related scholarship by Falconer (esp. her 2005 Hell in Contemporary Literature), Rosalind Williams (esp. her 1990/2008 Notes on the Underground), and others to consider how katabasis has served to trope memory both in plot and in metafictional aspects: “the reception of the descent trope” is itself “a form of literary ‘remembering’” (13).

If in general such a mnemohistorical approach emphasizes cultural forms that center present-time contestations over the past, in Scherer’s view that has taken particularly vivid form in “katabasis narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (260). Those Scherer reads as reflecting on a ‘long 20th century’ whose events and discoveries have seemed to be qualitatively different from prior history, including classical antiquity. Examples from literature are thus set against a backdrop of longue durée in part via scholarship on historical watersheds or singularities like the advent of mechanized warfare, quantum mechanics and related philosophy, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (esp. 6-8, 42-47).

This leads to Scherer’s focus on literature in postcolonial contexts. With reference to foundational work by Lorna Hardwick and Carol Gillespie, Emily Greenwood, and others (summarized 31-34), Scherer suggests that “[p]ostcolonial writers are … preoccupied – perhaps more so than others – with the mnemonic potential of physical spaces” (63). For authors in subaltern positions, constrained to write in a hegemonic culture’s language and literary traditions, reinscribing their own culture’s memories into colonized spaces is a political act. With home spaces haunted by a colonizing culture’s discourse about the dead, the classical underworld becomes a contested lieu de mémoire: as Scherer puts it, “a resonant and potent location for the deconstruction of an imperialist history” (63).

To make that argument, Scherer proceeds as follows. The introduction sets out general terms. The second section, on “Methodology,” sets out theory in detail, considering questions of authorial intent, classical reception and/as classical tradition, memory studies in itself and as a way of approaching receptions, and how the concept of lieu de mémoire, may be made more useful when extended beyond the local and the national to encompass the international, transnational, and transcultural (as per Barbara Törnquist-Plewa’s, Tea Sindbæk Andersen’s, and Astrid Erll’s introduction to Andersen’s and Törnquist-Plewa’s 2017 co-edited volume, The Twentieth Century in European Memory).

To limit the scope of examples, Scherer focuses on “the katabasis narrative specifically in Ireland and the Caribbean in the twentieth century, post-independence” (35). She treats three Irish poets (Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Eavan Boland); Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott (focusing on Omeros and the stage version of The Odyssey); and Guyanese writer Wilson Harris (focusing on four novels: Palace of the Peacock, the Four Banks of the River of Space, Resurrection on Sorrow Hill, and The Ghost of Memory). Scherer concludes by arguing that for these authors the classical underworld allows for “meta-textual explorations of the postcolonial culture’s relationship with indigenous traditions, the Eurocentric classical canon, and the creative potential of authorship” (278).

Overall, the monograph is clear in concept, rich in example, and insightful in its detailed readings. While readers’ mileage may vary to some degree in relation to their interest in the examples, I imagine that the discussions of theory will be of interest to a wide audience of scholars, including students. I myself would assign especially the second section on “Methodology” in future courses on classical receptions, to some degree regardless of particular topic, and in future iterations of my course on underworlds. 

I conclude with some examples of how Scherer’s monograph seems to me to open up spaces for further research and other kinds of evidence. On Scherer’s reading, what most allows “the literary connotations around katabasis” to be “refigured within larger, postcolonial frameworks” is when spatial imagery from classical underworld stories are “schematically adapted into postcolonial environments” (62). I am not sure I agree that cultural memory of ancient underworld stories is chiefly schematic, even as ‘schema’ has been defined in relation to memory and memory studies.[2] I would say that imagery of concrete objects seems to play a large role. I do not mean to suggest that Scherer has ignored this aspect: indeed, at the same point in the argument she emphasizes that “a prefigurative factor” for “mnemonic reception” of the classical underworld are the setting’s “physical characteristics … such as rivers or a [sic] cave-like structures” (62).

To me however this is still somewhat abstract for something as imagistic as katabasis myth. Thus some other scholarship on ‘classical underworldliness’ in ancient discourse and in reception has emphasized literary elements like atmosphere, archetypal characters or roles, recurrent images, and special objects.[3] We might think for example of the trench that Odysseus must dig and fill with milk, honey, barley, and blood; the golden bough that Aeneas must find and offer to Persephone; the boat in which one must cross the river Styx, coins for the ferryman in hand; etc. It would be interesting to see Scherer’s approach developed further in this direction, considering how mythic underworlds are mapped onto literary lieux de mémoire not only in topography abstracted as schemata but in the form of concrete objects as metonyms for story types and episodes. This could link mnemohistory to approaches like ‘object’ and ‘thing theory’ (e.g., Lilah Grace Canevaro’s 2018 Women of Substance).

With such concrete and recurrent imagery in mind, it would be fascinating, finally, to see further work on connections between the classical underworld in particular as lieu de mémoire and other approaches to reception as ‘haunting,’ in other words linking the spatial to the spectral. Scherer gestures in this direction with some discussion of, for example, Derrida’s concept of ‘hauntology’ as in his Specters of Marx and Kathleen Brogan’s study of ‘cultural haunting’ in American literature. It is too bad that, most likely, the timing of the book’s production prevented consideration of a major advance in this connection in classical reception studies, James Uden’s 2020 Spectres of Antiquity.

Such further possibilities aside, Scherer’s monograph as it stands is a cogent application of cultural memory studies to an important area of classical receptions. It would richly repay the attention of many readers.


[1] I review Gee 2020 here. Owen J. Dwyer and Derek H. Alderman, “Memorial landscapes: analytic questions and metaphors,” GeoJournal 73 (2008): 165-178.

[2] Scherer draws on, among others, Perry W. Thorndyke and Barbara Heyes-Roth, “The use of schemata in the acquisition and transfer of knowledge,” Cognitive Psychology 11.1 (1979): 82-106.

[3] Classical underworlds have been the subject of much recent scholarship: e.g., David L. Pike’s Passage through Hell: Modernist Descents, Medieval Underworlds (Cornell, 1997) plus Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworlds of Modern Urban Culture (Cornell, 2001), and 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 5.4 (1974): 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, 165-86), Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy (Princeton, 2001), Fritz Graf’s and Sarah Iles 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 ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets (Cambridge, 2004), Sarah Iles Johnston’s Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (California, 2013), George A. Gazis’sHomer and the Poetics of Hades (Oxford, 2018), Juliet Harrisson’s (ed.) Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World (Routledge, 2018), and Judith Fletcher’s Myths of the Underworld in Contemporary Culture: The Backward Gaze(Oxford, 2019), which I review here.