Europe Without Myth? Greek Antiquity and the Avant-Garde

"How beautiful the world is | Greece never existed." These verses belong to André Breton, the founder of Surrealism--of that early twentieth-century avant-garde movement which was destined to shape fundamental aspects of all subsequent artistic and aesthetic developments in the Western world. Like a number of his contemporary thinkers and artists, Breton attempted to liberate the modern world from the overwhelming influence of the classical cultural paradigms that had dominated Western European thought and art in the post-Renaissance (and especially in the post-Enlightenment) era.

A prodigiously original book that I recently read, Greek Mythologies: Antiquity and Surrealism by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, undertakes to unravel the intricate, not rarely contradictory, ideological and aesthetic principles that conditioned the reception of Greek antiquity in the European avant-garde. The cross-disciplinary study of this remarkably intriguing facet of the European cultural politics of the second quarter of the twentieth century is especially demanding. Written by a leading authority in the anthropology of the ancient Greek world, a scholar who can move with impressive brilliance and outstanding research expertise along a broad spectrum of periods and disciplines (art history, historical anthropology, classical studies; see his influential Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception), Greek Mythologies will be the definitive, most authoritative go-to study on the subject. With rigorous attention to detail and in an astute dialogue with debates of broader methodological and cultural political relevance, this book investigates not only particular cases of avant-garde responses to ancient myths but also, and more compellingly, the "deep conceptual schemata" that, as Yatromanolakis argues, Surrealist thinkers and artists came to believe they shared with ancient mythology: disruption of established gnosiological and ontological orders, including spatiotemporal demarcations; emphasis on metamorphosis and its epistemological potential; open-ended, free-associative narrative strategies. The Surrealists' attempt at exploring and inventing experimental creative possibilities on the basis of new mythical modes of thinking is studied in this book in terms of what its author calls "mythogenesis," an ingenious concept that sheds entirely new light on the cultural politics of that decidedly formative period of twentieth-century European thought and art.

The main focus of the book is on the years between the early 1920s and 1946. The beginning and the end of that period were marked by the profoundly traumatic experiences of the two World Wars; the interwar years saw the gradual culmination of deep social and political crises and the establishment of Nazism and fascism in specific European countries. The book investigates the development of Surrealist mythogenetic mechanisms at a critical moment in European history in connection with Surrealism's overall reaction against the overpowering positivism of modernity's new socioeconomic and political hierarchies. Greek Mythologies takes into account a wide range of works by avant-garde thinkers and artists: André Breton, Louis Aragon, Salvador Dalí, Georges Bataille, Nicolas Calas, Andreas Embeirikos, Max Ernst, André Masson, Nikos Engonopoulos, Roger Caillois, and Michel Leiris. As Yatromanolakis shows, hand in hand with modernity's redefinition of temporal categories went the creation of an avant-garde "socioaesthetics of ruination." The latter is to be viewed as a critical response especially to modernity's privileging of constant innovation and mobility. Sensational archaeological discoveries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a significant impact on avant-garde aesthetic and ideological explorations of the interplay of the past and the present. A case in point is the island of Thera (Santorini). As Yatromanolakis stresses, Santorini was also the focus of intense geological research, especially by the eminent French seismologist Ferdinand André Fouqué (1828-1904), in a period of at least six decades (1866-1926), due to recurrent seismic activity and volcanic eruptions, which resulted in the sinking and emergence of several islets in the area. In one of its most absorbing sections, the book suggests that, in the avant-garde imaginary, that Aegean island (also the place of an extraordinary pre-classical civilization) came to be viewed as "a floating land of eruption and artistic experimentation." Santorini was thus invested with the emblematic value of "(re)emerging and sinking mnemohistory."

In a genuinely cross-disciplinary manner and with imposing erudition, the author probes mythogenetic patterns in the works of diverse avant-garde writers and artists. It was through transgressions of discursive boundaries (what Yatromanolakis defines as "interdiscursivity") that ("orthodox" or "dissident") Surrealist mythogenesis evolved. One of the most original contributions of this book is the exploration of the complex ways in which avant-garde mythogenesis was often engaged in creative dialogues with developments in the field of anthropology, as well as with discourses of ancient Greek mythology. In a pioneering investigation, Yatromanolakis demonstrates that through both radical reworkings of particular ancient mythical narratives and the invention of new mythogenetic modes, Surrealism interrogated inherited conceptual and cultural polarities (scientific causality/aleatory simultaneity; rational thinking/madness; reality/imagination; historiographic linearity/fictional atemporality), while also undermining dominant discourses on major conceptual and ethical categories: identity, "genos," kinship, hybridity (vs. "purity"). Often, mythogenesis allowed avant-garde artists and thinkers to expose even the limitations of Freud's patriarchal ideas about individual ("ontogenetic") and universal human ("phylogenetic") psycholibidinal development. "Orthodox" Surrealists tended to focus on mythogenesis's transcendental potential, whereas the "dissident" ones adopted more polemical approaches. Bataille's notion of "base materiality" is proposed by Yatromanolakis as an overarching conceptual/ideological framework within which "dissident" Surrealists' relation to myth should be examined; the monstrous "mythical" creature of the Acéphale or radical retellings of the story of Pasiphae constitute indicative instantiations of such uses of mythogenesis. Despite their differences, both "orthodox" and "dissident" Surrealists endorsed and developed the transformative force of mythogenesis as a critical ideological, and potentially multifaceted political, response to post-Enlightenment positivist totalities, linearities, and illusions.

Greek Mythologies is a bold and pioneering book that will influence all future investigations of the reception of Greek antiquity in the European art, philosophical thought, and aesthetics of the second quarter of the twentieth century.