Academic journal article Arthuriana

Odysseus, Parzival, and Faust

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Odysseus, Parzival, and Faust

Article excerpt

This essay takes 'charismatic representation' as the category that makes the three figures of the title comparable. It argues that each of the works creates exemplarity in the main characters by projecting their strength, desirability and destinies into the supernatural, at least to the point where a contest with the supernatural is an option, which ends inevitably in higher reconciliation. After defining 'charismatic representation,' it focuses on the elements that best illustrate that mode and that best invite comparison of the three works: the fantastic, the rise of the hero, and defiance of the gods. (CSJ)

'The trouble with the Germans,' Nietzsche once said, 'is the way they use the word "and."' 'Goethe and Schiller' was his target. The harmless connective shrinks oceans of separation to rivulets and levels mountain ranges of contradictions to plains-so Niezsche thought. I suspect that he-and most readers-would see big trouble ahead in my title.

But there is a logic that links Odysseus, Parzival, and Faust and justifies the risky use of the great equalizer, 'and.' That logic is rooted in the mode-both of being and of representing-that antiquity would have called mégethos, megaloprépeia, hypsos (Gk.), and magnificentia, grandiloquentia, sublimitas (Lat.) and would be rendered in English as 'magnificence' or 'greatness' or 'grandeur' or in the context of style, 'sublime." A more general claim grounds the connection as well. It is the basis of a longer study I am now working on. It is that the exalting mode is far more embracing than its much studied highpoints in western tradition might suggest. While each of my figures and each term of grandiosity is culturally bound, the mode of thought and representation is not. What Odysseus, Parzival, and Faust share in common is a mode of depiction that I will call 'charismatic.' My three characters are charismatic figures in the general acceptance of the word. In the specific sense I want to develop here, the works that brought them to life infuse that quality into the world of the narrative, create a higher world, which operates by laws as far above the real and normal as the hero himself is.

This vantage point-a medieval work viewed from the perspective of an ancient and a modern work-allows me to highlight, question, criticize two paradigms deeply embedded in the thinking of medievalists on their subjects generally and on medieval romance in particular. The one is a negative judgment of medieval art, literature, architecture and culture generally, when compared to antiquity; the other is the paradigm of the real vs. the ideal as an approach to romance.

The seed of this essay was an informal reading group on medieval literature at University of Washington a few years ago. At one of the meetings we read Erich Auerbach's essay, 'Camilla, or the Rebirth of the Sublime.'2 Comparing scenes from Virgil's Aeneid, the Old French Roman d'Éneas (with a glance at Veldeke's Eneit), and Dante's Divine Comedy (not Camilla, but the arrival of the divine messenger in Canto 9 of Inferno), Auerbach shows how courtly literature bypassed the sublime style, which was reborn in Dante. Dante's reverence for Virgil commended elements of the sublime in the master's style and pointed forward to the reverence of classical antiquity among the early humanists and ultimately to the Renaissance. Auerbach is at pains to rescue the medieval narratives by stressing their command of rhymes and the charm of their style. But the condescension is unmistakeable ('Camilla,' pp. 216ff.), and Auerbach's reluctance to entertain the question, 'which passages are more impressive, Virgil's, the OF poet's, or Dante's?' does not matter. The answer is clear: 'ancient sublimity' was not available to courtly literature.

At that session of the reading group a guest from Germany, Andréas Krass, objected to Auerbach's framing of the topic. It makes the high courtly tradition appear as a dwarf between two giants. …

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