Exit Medea

An end is in sight. An end to this hell of a semester, I mean. Today was the last session of the class I gave with Selma on the myth of Medea and its (mainly German) reception.

At first, we wanted to give a class on the myth of Antigone after the same pattern (from Sophocles to modern adaptations), but since there was an MA-class on that topic, we thought it would be better if we would not offer the exact same topic in the BA. I pleaded for Cassandra, but we finally settled on Medea. The idea to involve a work by Christa Wolf appealed to us. And our institute has a long history of Medea-classes – Inge Stephan wrote a book  and gave classes on it, Selma even intended one of those while she was a student.

I have already worked on translations, adaptations and transposition of antique narratives in modern times and I thought we would be able to work out the material in that very way with Medea as well: putting myth theory and texts together, spotting intertextuality, looking at how the literary and historical context modifies the lecture and/or (re)writing of the myth. Most of all, I thought that this would fill the class. Obviously I had no idea what Medea actually is about.

The texts the class was based on (apart from the theoretical ones) were Euripides’ play, Seneca’s play, Lessing’s Miß Sara Sampson, Grillparzer’s play, Hans Henny Jahnn’s play and Christa Wolf’s novel. Not only did each version bring its lot of  agglomerated violence (special mention to Hans Henny Jahnn in that regard!), but the fact that these were dramas (the staging of “voices” in Christa Wolf’s version has at least partly the same effect) seemed to multiply by a tenfold the possible projections in the play’s characters. The final session today showed how extremely personally the students reacted to the class. “At first I thought she was only this horrible mother who kills her own kids, but in the end I had some sympathy for her / I pitied her / I understood her”, were the kind of sentences we heard. On the one hand, it shows that the students were able to make a move against their natural moral judgement (good!), on the other hand, it also shows how difficult it is to put any kind of distance when the content is either too close to oneself or close to such a borderline phenomenon that our subconscious perceives the relief, or interest of merely speculating about it – or, I suppose, the pleasure you can get from it.

That was my main problem in this class. The fun factor was drastically reduced by the weekly confrontations with new forms of violence adding to the version Euripides has transmitted, which is not specially light-handed to begin with. Every week, we had to face the asking of the question what a good mother is, what can excuse the inexcusable, as if Medea was an actual person and not a character. The discussion took such a turn that it felt like we had to deal with real people and not drama characters. This figure, Medea, turned out to impress our students so much, their ability to read a drama as a literary construction was so blinded by the sheer idea of Medea, that we were not able to provide for the necessary distance, for what the class should have been about. Week after week, 30 Medeas waited for us on Tuesdays, eager to know why they would kill their kids. Or not. Or would?

Hence my piece of advice: if you have 2 young kids like I do, and the class you intend to teach is about 2 young kids being assassinated by their mother, think it over before you actually commit to repeating the murder scene over and over 15 weeks long.

Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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