From the Marginals to the Center: Olga Freidenberg's Works on the Greek Novel

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Olga Freidenberg: Image and Heritage

You see two faces of the same person--Olga Freidenberg born 1890. The first one is of a young and carefree woman before her becoming a great scholar and a philosopher. The other one is of the same woman, looking like someone who has lost all hopes. The photograph was taken when she served as the Head of the University Classics Department and had already written her major books. Most of what she wrote was locked away in an iron trunk and, after her death in 1955 in Leningrad, remained in that chest, that is, unpublished. In 1972, when I first opened that trunk, I found there--just to mention the most important items--nine completed monographs, thousands of pages covering such topics as Greek novel, Roman comedy and Greek tragedy, Sappho and Hesiod, Homer and ancient folklore and so forth; there were at least two dozens of completed articles, an enormous manuscript of two thousand and five hundred pages of her memoirs, and several sets of correspondence with different people. It was rather astonishing to discover among all those riches one hundred and thirty letters from Boris Pasternak, Olga's first cousin and Russia's famous poet and novelist.

Russian Scholars: Colleagues or Informants?

The Correspondence was translated into dozens of European languages (in Dutch it appeared 14 years ago (1)) and was widely read, which made Olga Freidenberg's name and personality rather familiar to Slavonic scholars, yet not to classicists. Even now that neither the iron trunk nor the iron curtain stand in the way of knowledge and communication, Russian scholars, it seems to me, look at their Western colleagues through a kind of one-way transparent glass. While Russian scholars do the utmost to follow what is going on in their professional field in Europe and the US, their Western colleagues, as a rule, notice Russian scholars when they occasionally become interested in Russians. With the exception of a few charismatic figures, like, for example, Bakhtin, the acquaintance with whom is considered obligatory, Russian scholars are usually viewed as informants rather than colleagues. They are expected merely to represent their national culture, rather than enter an international academic community as its equal members. It is easier to hold Bakhtin's theory of the novel as 'Russian' if he is the only representative of Russian thought. Yet, Bakhtin and Freidenberg were peers--their ideas on the novel were developing in the same period of time, and their theories 'are two antinomic worlds that badly need each other but never converge'. (2)

Scholar in Isolation

In these circumstances, as I understand them, I would like to introduce to the students of the ancient novel the ideas and writings of Olga Freidenberg, who, I believe, was the first one to draw the comparison between pagan erotic novels and both Apocryphal Acts and canonic Acts and Gospels, the inclusion of the latter being of course a rather daring initiative for those days. She discussed the existence of a narrative genre that she was the first one to define as 'Acts and Passions' and that incorporated both: the Greek romance and Christian narratives. In her Master thesis, written at the very beginning of the 20s, Freidenberg came to the revolutionary conclusion that the 'Greek' novel was Oriental in its origin, and that the plots of its different narratives exhibit a retentive archetypal pattern which turned out to be a remake of the legomenon which can be traced back to the dromenon of the fertility cults. At the time when Rohde's authority was still unquestionable, she rejected his Entwicklungsgeschichte together with his dating of the novels. Not knowing about the discovery of early papyri, she maintained that the first novels were probably written in the 1st century B.C. Karl Kerenyi's famous book on the Oriental and religious origin of the novel was not yet written. …

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