- Reading Late Antiquity ed. by Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, Mats Malm
Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed and Mats Malm, eds.
Heidelberg: Winter-Verlag, 2018. Pp. 267. ISBN: 978-3-8253-6787-9
This book is a collection of thirteen contributions from the conference entitled “Reading Late Antiquity,” held at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sweden in 2015, with the aim of exploring the current field of reception studies on Late Antiquity. Despite the different methodologies and the diverse content of the contributions, the collection succeeds in a remarkable coherence of purpose, through a functional partition of the volume in three parts, masterfully arranged to guide the reader from the most traditional interpretations to the most dynamic appropriations of late antique literary heritage throughout the centuries. Common to all the contributions is the willingness to assess the independence and uniqueness of Late Antiquity, in constant exchange with other historical periods.
In the first section of the book, “Theoretical Outlooks,” traditional theoretical concepts related to Late Antiquity are reversed, thus offering new interpretations of late antique literature. For example, in “Untimely Antiquity,” James Uden subverts the cliché of “untimeliness” of the late antique and positively describes it as the ability of this literature to contain multiple temporalities, recalling the past and anticipating future spirits and periods. Another old trope is subverted in the study by Marco Formisano. He appropriates the past scholarly definition of “decadent” and turns it into an aesthetic paradigm of Late Antiquity which was responsible of producing a sense of instability and disruption with the earlier literary tradition, resulting in thematic and formal features (e.g. fragmentation, allegories, displacement and discontinuity) which are distinctive to this period. Jesús Hernández Lobato advocates Late Antiquity as a major parallel for the postmodern era in which a problematic relationship between philosophy and language turns into a condition of apophaticism, a pronounced mysticism, a tendency to deconstruction, expressions of a crisis of the “logocentrism.”
The second section of the book, “Decadence and Decline,” expands the discussion of late antique literature to decadentism and investigates those views that shaped the common perception of Late Antiquity as a period of decline thereafter. Late antique aesthetic, poetics and sensibilities seem to find a close parallel in the postmodernist culture. Accordingly, Olof Heilo’s study convincingly argues that when Burckhardt in his early work Die Zeit Constantin’s des Großen (1835) reinforced the idea of degeneration (ausarten) of late antique literature, he was projecting onto it the strong contempt of his own time, in which he experienced a similar sense of decadence and disharmony. In his own contribution, Scott McGill uses Huysmans’s novel, À rebours (1884), to demonstrate the marginalization of late Latin literature in nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle France, when late antique literature was charged with aesthetic value only among decadent movements; Des Essaints, “the decadent antihero” of the novel, is taken as the paradigm of this [End Page 269] marginalization. A comparison between the fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of the hegemony of modern Europe emerges prominently after the World War I, especially in O. Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes. In his contribution Stefan Rebenich discusses the innovative perceptions of Late Antiquity developed by Spengler that transcend stereotypes and especially value the continuity of this period.
Rutilius Namatianus and his unfinished poem De redito suo are the focus of Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed’s contribution. The narration of the melancholic travels of this fifth-century Latin poet through the ruins of the Roman Empire and his dreams of recovery of the past glory were praised in post-revolutionary France and even more during the Italian decadentist movement, where it gained great popularity in the fascist context. In the twentieth century the Viennese writer Alma Johanna Koenig chose Byzantium as the setting for her work Der Heilige Palast (1922), and Ottorino Respighi and Claudio Guastalla similarly set La Fiamma (1934) in Byzantine Ravenna. The vitality of Late Antiquity as an historical frame is among the motivations that underlie Henriette Harich-Schwarbauer’s contribution on Koenig’s work: she highlights how the empress Theodora of Der Heilige Palast moves in a...