- Von Iphigenie zu Medea. Semantik und Dramaturgie des Barbarischen bei Goethe und Grillparzer
Markus Winkler is professor of German at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, but some of us may remember him from his years on the faculty of Pennsylvania State University. In 1995 he published an admirably nuanced and differentiated study of Heine’s changing relationship to pagan myth, Mythisches Denken zwischen Romantik und Realismus. Since then he has gone ad fontes, so to speak, to core texts of German engagement with Greek tragedy, Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris and Grillparzer’s Das goldene Vließ. Central to the endeavor is an analysis of an attempt to overcome barbarism with a humanism that nevertheless retains the exclusion of the barbaric other. Ancient Hellenocentrism becomes modern Eurocentrism, with implications for the evolution of colonialism and racism, resulting in invidious contemporary discourses in regard to immigration, terrorism, and “the clash of civilizations.” The postcolonial cast of the argument is evident; thus prominent among Winkler’s theoretical resources is Edward Said, particularly in regard to ambiguous counterpoint in subtexts and the hybridity that causes the humane and the barbaric to interpenetrate even when they are meant to be kept distinct.
Winkler traces the concept of the barbaric from Greek antiquity, when it initially denoted the sound of a foreign language but came to devalue foreign culture as crude, primitive, and violent. He follows the treatment of the mythic material from Euripides through the Romans such as Seneca, French classicism, particularly Rotrou and Racine, and Enlightenment versions of the Iphigeneia story, in which the Greeks kill Thoas, to Goethe, who, however, retains the opposition of Greek and barbarian: Thoas is to be elevated to Greek humaneness through Bildung, but remains isolated and an unsuitable marriage partner for Iphigenie, who longs to rejoin her own culture. Yet the Greek culture is implicated in the barbaric, especially in the rituals of human sacrifice in the atrocities of the house of Atreus, the intended sacrifice of Iphigenie by Agamemnon, and Medea’s killing of her children, to which there are two references in Iphigenie. Indeed Thoas, resentful of condescension, taunts the Greeks with these evidences of their barbaric heritage. Winkler points out that Goethe’s Iphigenie is the first in the tradition to have suspended the sacrifices of foreigners from the outset (107), but in the Parzenlied the overstressed heroine at least temporarily recurs to the old, [End Page 306] wild, barbaric ideality of family. Winkler detects myth criticism and the ambiguity of the archaic and the anthropocentric in Greek tragedy itself (in Euripides in particular, I should think) in order to claim Goethe’s rootedness in the Greek original.
Winkler presents Das goldene Vließ as a parody of and supplement to Iphigenie. Here there is no elevation to the humane. Jason and Medea ultimately remain enclosed in their ethnic identities. Love cannot break these compulsions. Their “Zerrissenheit . . . deckt auf, was bei Goethe durch die klassizistische Dramenform und Sprache und durch die forcierte Einvernehmlichkeit des Dramenschlusses verdeckt wird” (211). Jason’s theft of the Golden Fleece and his possessive conquest of Medea are barbaric; Jason becomes the equivalent of the bestial wild woman. Medea takes the idea of killing children from a Greek model, Althea causing the death of Meleager. The failure of Medea’s effort to become Greek, which Winkler takes as a comic element, “parodiert das neuhumanistische Bildungsprogramm von Goethes Iphigenie” (211–12). The transformation of Medea into a penitent and Jason into a figure of misery seems to be an opening to a new order, but it requires recourse to the old mythic forces in Delphi. As a tragedy Das goldene Vließ assigns no blame, but also offers no solution; its cultural outlook is pessimistic.
The above description is but a crude epitome of a masterfully executed, fine-grained, patiently detailed interpretation with a closely woven fabric of intertextuality. It would seem captious to find fault with it. There are only two matters concerning which I felt a little uneasiness. One was that this mode of...