[Seagull Books; 2022]
Tr. from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Like a Law and Order episode that buries the violence until the second or third act, there is something initially comforting and eventually terrifying about Greek mythology. It’s the original fictional universe of the western canon, complete with a deep roster of familiar characters, who always get up to something manipulative and grotesque, leaving their victims wondering when they lost their way.
Franz Fühmann, one of the most prominent socialist writers after World War II, leans on these characters while presenting four classic tales from Greek mythology for this story collection, each of which explores the emotional whims that distract mankind from exercising control.
Fühmann’s writing started to appear after World War II. He was an ardent socialist who slowly grew disillusioned with the souring experiment in East Germany. With publications ranging from poetry to plays, from memoir to mythology, Fühmann’s genre-hopping work may point to a reluctance toward trusting any one set of rules. This makes sense given that his initial bout of teenage idealism molded him into a Nazi fascist, a process he explores openly in his collection of autobiographical vignettes, The Jew Car. But this varied approach to his writing not only reflects his political journey, it also provides him with several ways to grapple with society’s traumas, both as a fascist who inflicted them and as a socialist who suffered them.
In the first of the four Greek tales, the goddess Eos is cursed to give in to the desires of mortal men every night, as she shepherds the moon below the sea and rousts the sun from its cave: “what had happened felt shameful and what was shameful felt sweet.” When Aphrodite refuses to drop the curse, Eos falls in love with one of her mortal lovers, Tithonos, and begs Zeus to make him immortal. But she doesn’t clearly define the terms of his immortality, and after a couple blissful decades, Tithonos is left with an agonizing eternity of old age. And to the end, he is so dedicated to his immortal love that when Zeus offers him the reprieve of death, Tithonos refuses.
The other tales are similarly fraught. In another, it is an immortal Apollo who prizes their pride and power and defends them to grotesquely violent ends. When Marsyas discovers Athena’s double pipe, he plays it so well that he initially outplays Apollo in a bet. However, Apollo claims that the double pipe is two instruments, and therefore he deserves a second song on a second instrument, which seals his victory. His prize is flaying Marsyas alive. Elsewhere, Hera employs Aphrodite’s girdle to distract her husband Zeus long enough to give the Greeks an advantage in the Trojan War. It works:
Zeus knew he had to choose: his plan, or this moment . . . And Zeus forgot a second time, forgot the battle and the Trojans and the Greeks, forgot the ships and the wall, forgot the sisters’ pronouncement, and she took the place of all he forgot . . .
Readers are reminded that even the mythologized autocrats of the universe—and the mortals suffering under their reign—are still subject to whims and unwieldy desires: “For even the might of the mightiest is not almighty; they are caught in their own plans and the snares they create, like spiders in their own web.”
So who is in control? Fühmann might answer that ultimately we’re the only ones with any semblance of control over our paths. However, when opportunities to take control arise, logic is often blinded by emotions—most notably, pride and power, but also love and shame. For instance, the last tale in this collection centers on Hephaistos, the martyr of Olympus, who had his birth defects worsened when his mother, Hera, dropped him off the mountain as a newborn. He is routinely mocked by Zeus and the others. He creates a net to catch his wife, Aphrodite, sleeping with his brother Ares, and when he ensnares them, he feels so vindicated that he cries for all his family to come see. But they laugh, just as they always have, at Hephaistos and the shame he lives with as an imperfect immortal. Out of frustration, he considers ensnaring his whole family, the enforcers of his shame. But just as Marsyas regretted his hubris with Apollo far too late and Zeus decides with his heart and not his head, Hephaistos also laments his illogical decision to live with the gods as their inferior. Pride and the allure of power prevented him from realizing where he belonged until it was far too late. He should have followed the path and advice of his friend Prometheus, “who had once been cast out from the palace and had sided with those who are the Others to those at the top.”
Perhaps this is what Fühmann was feeling at the time, similarly ashamed of his prideful past but relieved that he eventually took back control over his own path, even if he still felt resigned to an imperfect present and future with “the Others”—the mortals, the workers, those living in the shadows of the powerful. By choosing stories that lie at the foundation of western civilization, he is not only putting his whims in grand company but also encouraging empathy by pointing to the timelessness of these human experiences. It’s a logical move for a former Nazi when moralizing his life, one that taps into the depths of the human condition—the grotesque and the intimate, the proud and the petty, the mortal and immortal.
Justin Stephani is an editor and writer living in Milwaukee.
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