MYTHS OF THE UNDERWORLD IN CONTEMPORARY CULTURE: The Backward Gaze

Judith Fletcher

OUP (2019) h/b 234pp £60.00 (ISBN 978019 8767091)

The underworld experiences of Odysseus, Aeneas, Hercules, Orpheus, Eurydice, Persephone and others are amongst the most memorable and enchanting scenarios in classical literature, be they via nekuia or katabasis; all of these hellish voyagers feature here. Books and papers on the theme proliferate, as F.’s fourteen page bibliography indicate.

F., who is Professor of History and Ancient Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, has already published in this field (e.g. ‘The Catabasis of Mattie Ross in the Coens’ True Grit’, 2014) and here admirably expands on the theme, telling the fascinating stories to be heard when 20th and 21st century fictional characters go down amongst the deadmen and come back to haunt us with their chthonic travelogues, providing a highly entertaining selection that makes eschatology fascinating and enlightening. 

The scope is wide-ranging: genres covered include the novel, comic, film (Coraline, Apocalypse Now), and ‘children’s culture’; authors include those already cited as well as Salman Rushdie (The Ground Beneath Her Feet), Elena Ferrante on ‘Searching for Persephone’, Neil Gaiman (Coraline), Amy Bloom (Away) and Anne Patchett (State of Wonder). The four chapters are: ‘Source Texts’ (Homer et al.); ‘The Ghost of the Father: Spirits of the Postmodern’ (Barth, Gaiman); ‘Engendering the Haunted Text’ (Byatt, Ferrante, Gaiman, etc.); ‘The Wanderer’s Descent’ (Morrison, Bloom, Rushdie, Patchett). Bob Dylan’s She Belongs to Me, which some have interpreted as a take on the Orpheus and Eurydice katabasis, is a possible omission. 

The book succeeds in its aim to show first how we are all obsessed with death and what happens to us in death, proving that one of the powerful vehicles for that unresolvable obsession comes in the underworld journey—as demonstrated by Homer, Aristophanes, Virgil, Ovid and others in chapter 1, and second how these myths are repurposed by contemporary writers (in chapter 4) to adumbrate urgent contemporary themes such as social liminality, diversity, rebellion and those seeking asylum, refugees, exiles and those upended by ethnic cleansing displacement. 

Paul Chrystal 

His Reportage from Greece & Rome is to be published autumn 2019. 

www.paulchrystal.com 

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