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.

Vernant, whose training was in psychology (his first collection, Mythe et pensée chez les grecs, 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 …

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