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Greece à la Française

Le Chasseur noir: Formes de pensée et formes de société dans le monde grec

by Pierre Vidal-Naquet
Maspero (Paris), 487 pp., 140 francs

Ever since the turn of the century Paris has been the arbiter of fashion for the English-speaking world and though since the Second World War the dictates of its couturiers on skirt lengths have not imposed the universal conformity they once did, the methodologies launched by its intellectuals have all, in their turn, found industrious promoters and an enthusiastic clientele. Fashion however is a quick-change artist and some of her intellectual creations no one would now want to be seen dead in. Even the most infatuated of sentimental leftists had long ago to give up trying to explain Sartre’s manic switches as he wriggled on the hook attached to the Party line, and almost everyone now realizes that Roland Barthes was too great a wit to have taken his own late work seriously (if SZ is not a gargantuan parody of structuralist criticism there is no excuse for it).

Epigones of Lévi-Strauss, of course, are still constructing diagrams which show the tortuous relationships between questionable opposites, and students of Derrida continue to write critical prose which is often a classic vindication of their master’s basic contention that language is not an adequate instrument for the expression of meaning. These fashions too, mercifully, will pass, and there are signs that perhaps Paris is losing its power to impose instant ideologies: what seemed, a year or so ago, to be the distinct possibility that there would be a boom in the Freudian incoherencies of Lacan has turned out to be a false alarm.

In one particular field, however, which might be loosely defined as Greek cultural history, Paris has been exerting an enduring and steadily widening influence on the professional sector in England and the United States. Its source is a group of scholars—Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet—who are not exactly an école (the senior member, Vernant, does not function as maître) or even an équipe, for though they often publish collaborative work they have divergent viewpoints and interests. The main links between them are their cooperation in the direction of the Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes, their teaching and research functions in the Ecole pratique des hautes études (though Vernant moved on to the higher reaches of the Collège de France in 1975), and the general description “structuralist,” which appears in the subtitle of a recent selection from their work in English translation.1

Vernant, whose training was in psychology (his first collection, Mythe et pensée chez les grecs,2 was subtitled Etudes de psychologie historique), attended the seminars of Louis Gernet, whose essays he published (under the title Anthropologie de la Grèce antique)3 after Gernet’s death. In the introduction to the volume he writes with admiration and affection of his teacher, a man whose wide interests and original approach evidently did not recommend him to his bureaucratic superiors; “il n’a pas fait carrière“—in fact he spent most of his life teaching Greek composition at the University of Algiers, before he came to the Ecole pratique des hautes études in 1948. This colonial ambience may have stimulated his anthropological interests (among his articles there is one entitled “You-you, en marge d’Hérodotele cri rituel“); he was in any case a friend of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss and a follower of Durkheim. When he died in 1962 he was known to the scholarly world principally as a specialist in Greek law, author of Droit et société dans la Grèce ancienne4 and translator and editor of the private orations of Demosthenes in the Budé series.5 Since the publication of his selected essays in 1968 his true importance as a pioneer in modern sociological and anthropological analysis of ancient Greek society has been beyond dispute and a recent English translation of the volume edited by Vernant6 will make this rich mine of informed speculation and revealing interpretation available to a wider audience.

Vernant defines his own interest as that of Ignace Meyerson—recherches de psychologie historique—and his first book, Les Origines de la pensée grecque,7 deals not only with the birth of Greek “rationality” from the conditions of the city-state—“in its limitations as in its innovations it is the daughter of the city”—but also with its nature—it is “inseparable from the social and mental structures characteristic of the Greek city.” Since then in collections of essays,8 and also in a series of conferences he has organized or contributed to,9 he has established himself as perhaps the leading, certainly the most consistently exciting, investigator of the psychological, political, and religious norms of ancient Greek archaic and classical culture. He is an eclectic “structuralist,” as ready to use Georges Dumézil’s three Indo-European “functions” as Lévi-Strauss’s binary opposites (or to combine them, as in an influential analysis of Hesiod’s myth of the five ages); he has learned from Marx as well as from Gernet, Mauss, and Durkheim. But the resulting methodology is very much his own; time and time again, coming across a typically challenging and brilliant formulation one feels: “Only Vernant could have said that!”

Marcel Detienne, his close associate at the Ecole pratique des hautes études and now director of studies in the section dealing with Greek religion, is mainly concerned with developing the analytic methods of Lévi-Strauss; in fact he has even won that rare cachet, an endorsement from the master who has, quite understandably, made very sour remarks about some of his would-be disciples but said of Detienne’s Jardins d’Adonis10 that it is “gripping…skillfully organized…written with a grace uncommon in scholarly works.” This praise is justified; the book is a spectacular performance. One of Frazer’s central concerns, the myth of Adonis, is subjected to a structural analysis that stands Frazer’s classic interpretation on its head: instead of a vegetarian god whose life and death was an image of the agricultural year, Adonis emerges as a figure representative of illicit, issueless sexuality, a threat to the institution of marriage and its Greek purpose—the begetting of legitimate children. Linked with Adonis is the whole world of seductive spices and perfumes; Detienne’s decipherment of the “codes” embodied in the myths makes fascinating reading—who could resist chapters with titles such as “The Perfumes of Arabia,” “The Misfortunes of Mint,” “From Myrrh to Lettuce”? Even if the reader emerges not convinced on every point, Detienne has opened up for him a strange and alluring new world.11

Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s name appears as joint author with Pierre Lévêque on the title page of Clisthène l’Athénien,12 and he shares with Vernant the authorship of Mythe et tragédie, to which he contributed two brilliant essays, but Le Chasseur noir is the first book dealing with classical Greek civilization to be issued solely under his own name. That name, however, has often appeared on books which appealed to readers who do not share his interest in the institutions of the ancient world; he was a leading figure, for example, in the campaign to expose and document the use of torture by the French army and police in Algeria. L’Affaire Audin13 presented the results of an investigation into the case of an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Algiers who died in the course of an “interrogation” by the paratroops. The book accused the army of the systematic use of torture as well as murder and managed to document its case very effectively. In Raison d’état14 the army’s use of torture as a normal practice was meticulously exposed, mainly through demonstration of contradictions in the official records. In the next year Penguin Books, in England, published his Torture, Cancer of Democracy: France and Algeria 1954-62, a sobering meditation on the moral and political crises revealed by the public indifference to the use of torture not only in a colonial war but in France itself. This book did not appear in French until 197215 and was followed in 1977 by Les Crimes de l’armée française,16 another selection of documents mostly accounts by men who had served in the campaign, which amply justifies the title.

This book, Vidal-Naquet explains in the preface, is an aide-mémoire. For a people’s memory, he points out, is not an automatic process, a “natural” phenomenon. It can be wiped out, as in the USSR, or maintained, as in the case of the museums and institutes that preserve the record of Nazi terror, or it can simply cease to function, lulled to sleep by the official voices of government, press, and television. “If the profession of historian has a social function,” says Vidal-Naquet, in an ironically appropriate military metaphor, “it is to furnish cadres and benchmarks for the collective memory.”

It was with the memory of another, older controversy which divided the French nation that he engaged, “not without illusions,” in the polemics of the Algerian war: “in the background was the example of the Dreyfus case.” His most recent publication is a long and fascinating account of that “affaire” and its effects on French society, a preface to a reissue of Dreyfus’s own account of his imprisonment, Cinq années de ma vie.17 Vidal-Naquet had heard about the affaire as a child; in fact his great-uncle Emmanuel Vidal-Naquet was a devoted Dreyfusard, but such an interest was in any case natural in a Frenchman of Jewish ancestry, whose parents were “déportés” under the German occupation.

A collection of articles, prefaces, and essays, Les Juifs, la mémoire et le présent,18 explores the problem of Jewish identity and destiny all the way from a fascinating discussion of Josephus, the historian of the revolt that ended in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, to the controversy over the “revisionists,” French and American, who dismiss the Holocaust as Zionist propaganda. And in a long preface of over one hundred pages written for a translation of Josephus’s Jewish War,19 Vidal-Naquet explores with penetrating political insight and formidable erudition the religious and ideological chaos of first-century Palestine, a tangled skein which seems so familiar that it is hardly a surprise to come across a Menahem (who seizes the fortress of Masada in 66 BC and returns as king to Jerusalem); one half expects to turn the page and find some form of the name Arafat.

Vidal-Naquet has a talent for writing prefaces and he is often invited to do so. He wrote the introduction to Detienne’s book on early Greek philosophy, Les Maîtres de vérité dans la grèce ancienne,20 to translations of Sophocles,21 the Iliad,22 and Aeschylus.23 He also contributed to the French translation of M.I. Finley’s Democracy, Ancient and Modern,24 a substantial essay on the use made of the Athenian democratic tradition by the French revolutionaries of 1789-1794. Le Chasseur noir does not contain any of these pieces but it does consist entirely of articles that have been previously published elsewhere; “in the Greek area,” Vidal-Naquet says in the avant-propos, “the article is a means of expression more in my line than the book.”25 The contents were first published, in their original form, over the course of twenty-three years (from 1957 to 1980) and have here been corrected, expanded, and rewritten to take account of criticism, fresh insights, and new data.

  1. 1

    Myth, Religion and Society: Structuralist Essays by M. Detienne, L. Gernet, J-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, edited by R.L. Gordon (Cambridge University Press, 1981). This includes translations of five of the essays contained in Le Chasseur noir.

  2. 2

    Maspero (Paris), 1962.

  3. 3

    Maspero (Paris), 1968.

  4. 4

    Publications de l’Institut de Droit romain de l’Université de Paris, 1955, reissued 1964.

  5. 5

    Démosthène: Plaidoyers civils (Les Belles Lettres, Paris), vol. I, 1954, vol. II, 1957.

  6. 6

    The Anthropology of Ancient Greece, translated by John Hamilton and Blaise Nagy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

  7. 7

    Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1962. English translation: The Origins of Greek Thought (Cornell University Press, 1982).

  8. 8

    Mythe et pensée (1962; now in its sixth edition). Mythe et tragédie en Grèce ancienne (Maspero, Paris, 1972); English translation: Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece (Humanities Press, 1981). This contains an essay by Vidal-Naquet, “The Shields of the Heroes,” which was not included in the French edition. As for the other essays, a note to the preface states: “Many of the studies that are reprinted in this volume have been modified or corrected since their first appearance, or even in some cases expanded.” Mythe et société en Grèce ancienne (Maspero, Paris, 1974); English translation: Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (Humanities Press, 1980). Les Ruses de l’intelligence: La métis des grecs, in collaboration with Detienne (Flammarion, Paris, 1974); English translation: Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Humanities Press, 1978).

  9. 9

    Problemes de la guerre en Grèce (Mouton, Paris-The Hague, 1968); Il mito greco: Atti del convegno internazionale, Urbino, 1973 (Edizioni dell’ Ateneo e Bizarri, Rome, 1977); Divination et Rationalité (Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1974); and La Mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  10. 10

    Les Jardins d’Adonis: La Mythologue des Aromates en Grèce (Gallimard, Paris, 1972). English translation: The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology, by J. Lloyd (Harvester Press, 1977).

  11. 11

    More recently he has tackled the myths and cults associated with Dionysus—Dionysos mis à mort, (Gallimard, Paris, 1977). English translation, Dionysos Slain, by Mireille Muellner and Leonard Muellner (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979). The choice of subject, like that of Adonis, is characteristic of his discretion: here, as in his contribution to La Cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec, edited by M. Detienne and J-P. Vernant (Gallimard, Paris, 1979), he has focused attention on the wilder shores of Greek myth rather than the highly sophisticated literary versions which are shaped by the moral and artistic concerns of poets.

  12. 12

    Les Belles Lettres (Paris), 1964.

  13. 13

    Editions de Minuit (Paris), 1958.

  14. 14

    Editions de Minuit (Paris), 1962.

  15. 15

    La Torture dans la république, (Maspero, Paris).

  16. 16

    Maspero (Paris).

  17. 17

    Maspero (Paris), 1982.

  18. 18

    Maspero (Paris), 1981.

  19. 19

    Du bon usage de la trahison,” preface to La Guerre des Juifs, translated by Pierre Savinel (Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1977).

  20. 20

    Maspero (Paris), 1967.

  21. 21

    Gallimard (Paris), 1973.

  22. 22

    Gallimard (Paris), 1982.

  23. 23

    Gallimard (Paris), 1982.

  24. 24

    Démocratie antique et démocratie moderne (Payot, Paris, 1976).

  25. 25

    For translation from the French here, as elsewhere in this review, the reviewer is responsible. The Johns Hopkins University Press plans to issue an English version of Le Chasseur noir in the fall of 1984.

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