Heiner Müller in Time Flight

Contemporary Relevance of Ovid’s Metamorphosis

29 Jan 1996
News & Stories
Heiner Müller
Heiner Müller


Müller describes Ovid's Metamorphoses, Golding's translation of which (1603) was one of Shakespeare's sources, as an encyclopedia of the Greek myths, its dramatic central theme being the transformation of human beings into animals, plants, stones---either as a punishment or out of a need to escape. Ovid, who is considered a gallant author, is nonetheless cruel. The Maenads cannot kill the fleeing Orpheus with the natural objects about which he sang. It is only with peasant work implements, about which he never sang, that he can be killed. Only by screaming does the satyr Marsyas, who had been defeated by the deceitful Apollo in a musical competition and subsequently skinned, silence all music. These metaphors from Ovid are still relevant in the present, Müller says. From across the generations, Ovid provides a balance sheet of the anguish involved in founding a civilization. At best, the process of metamorphosis can be understood as a form of "consolation." This still links Ovid to Kafka and Brecht, who once expressed the desire to be transformed into "un-threatenable dust."

The fall of Troy has diverse consequences. The Celts and Etruscans, perhaps aware of the Trojan experience, never again found a state. Aeneas, by contrast, having escaped from Troy, founds the super-state Rome. Müller says that he, for his part, needs the state as a frame that he can oppose through the art of writing. He claims to have a passive, feminine way of reacting, which is the opposite of the mentality of a military commander founding a state. In contrast to Troy, the domestication of women was the precondition for the founding of the Roman state. If this question, symbolized in the image of the theft of Helen, was the meaning of the Trojan War, then modern wars, by contrast, have lost all meaning. Müller answers Kluge's question of why the Socialist International wasn't able to prevent the First World War by pointing to the emergence of the Prussian-German military machine after 1848. The alliance of Junkers, the military, and the bourgeoisie also incorporated proletarian energies, a process that was flanked by the social insurance system. This was how the special, German enthusiasm for war was able to erupt as an illusion of freedom. Müller here cites Karl Korsch's definition of Blitzkrieg as "bundled leftist energy," coined on the occasion of the German invasion of Greece in 1941. Müller attributes the lower level of brutality that characterized the German conquest of Greece to inhibitions arising out of German classicism. In response to Kluge's fanciful attempt to imagine Klages, Heidegger, and German schoolmasters being ordered to Greece in the wake of the German troops, armed with the mentality of academic founders, Müller speculates that they perhaps would not have discovered the purified classical-Roman beauty of Winkelmann, but rather, like Goethe in Sicily, would have had to recognize the monstrous, Asiatic qualities of antiquity.

Asked about his efforts to create an "authentic expression of the East" in his theater, Müller points to the close ties between Prussia and Russia. "Prussianness" for Müller is less a structure than a movement; Heinrich von Kleist, for instance, was as nomadic as a Mongol.

Müller's reading of the poem "Orpheus gepfluegt" introduces the concluding portion of the interview. If one considers long stretches of the succession of generations and takes them as a unit, Kluge says, then death loses its reality, it flows right through the species. Müller counters this by saying that it is important, nonetheless, to keep memories alive, and that one form of remembrance is writing.