Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.05

François Hartog, Memories of Odysseus: Frontier Tales from Ancient Greece,.Translated by Janet Lloyd. Foreword by Paul Cartledge.   Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2001.  Pp. 258 + xiv.  ISBN 0-226-31852-4.  $60.00.  ISBN 0-226-31853-2.  $27.00.  

Reviewed by Phiroze Vasunia, University of Southern California (
Word count: 2691 words

"Some books are like voyages: one seldom sticks exactly to the proposed route in either." -- Charles Perrault, Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes (1688-1692)

The latest book to appear in English1 by the distinguished scholar François Hartog begins with this quotation. The book is a translation of Mémoire d'Ulysse: Récits sur la frontière en Grèce ancienne, first published by Gallimard in 1996. One does not know what route Hartog had in mind when he began to conceive this book. But there are signs: note 38 to the Introduction informs the reader that the book evolved out of six articles published earlier and that "these are reproduced here, with significant modifications." (To the editor: information of this nature should not be buried deep in the text.) These are important articles, and it is useful to have them brought together in this mostly coherent book, along with the new and revised passages. Hartog continually dazzles the reader with the range of his reading and with the ways in which he draws connections and links between seemingly disparate material; he has an impressive ability to bring out hitherto unnoticed nuances from ancient texts. Perhaps because it grew out of a series of articles published over several years, the book seems at times to resemble one of the voyages that Hartog describes in his text, and the reader is not always sure what to make of all the details and connections that he presents. But why resist the pleasures of the text? Hartog writes: "...we shall simply pick out a few travellers and follow them for a while. So it will be a matter not of topography or geography, but rather of keeping on the move and looking: topology and keeping going." The book is a flow, or a succession of names, places, toponyms, and representations, all joined by perceptive analysis and commentary. It offers an itinerary and not a map, as the author notes. The reviewers of the French edition, properly, call this "a wonderful book about otherness" and "a passionate book."

For some years now, the study of the other has been a concern of scholars of antiquity. Hartog himself is the author of a groundbreaking exploration of Herodotus in which the issue of otherness was analyzed with sophistication and charm (Le miroir d'Hérodote: essai sur la représentation de l'autre, 1980 [new edition, 1991], which appeared in English, in 1988, as The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, also translated by Janet Lloyd). In the book under review, Hartog continues the discussion of otherness, and he does so here through analysis of travel and travellers. The book is a sustained and stimulating inquiry into cultural identity, alterity, and memory through the figure of the traveller. For Hartog, the travel voyage functions "as a discursive operator and a narrative device" through which he can better understand Greek self-definition, identity, openness, and attitudes to the foreign. He is interested less in the Realien of travel than in travel as a trope. Readers interested to learn about the facts and figures of ancient travel should read the work of scholars such as Lionel Casson or any number of articles in the standard handbooks and encyclopaedias. Readers also interested in understanding how the issue of travel opens onto questions of identity, otherness, cultural memory, and poetic anthropology should read this book. Hartog's book is not concerned solely with these questions, and those who ask him to go with them and be their guide will appreciate his extraordinary learning and acute mind.

From the perspective of this study, the prototypical traveller is Odysseus. In truth, the range of travellers mentioned by Hartog is remarkable. But the entire discussion unfolds under the sign of the Homeric hero who achieves his return to home and hearth after a voyage of fantastic proportions. In using the example of Odysseus as his point of departure, Hartog argues that the subsequent evocations of this example represent new responses to the question of identity. Thus, "[t]he Odyssey, with its poetic anthropology, provides the basis for the Greeks' vision of themselves and of others. Not in abstract form, but through an adventure story, it produces a long-lasting paradigm -- albeit one that was later to be reshaped, reworked, completed, reassessed and criticized -- that made it possible to see and explain the world so as to explore it and represent it, 'inhabit' it and make it a world that was 'human', that is to say Greek." Homer's epic, then, offers the founding narrative of Greek conceptions of identity, otherness, geographical space, and anthropological categorizations of the world. For Hartog, moreover, it is significant that Odysseus makes a return journey, and does not undertake a one-way trip out of Ithaca. As he suggests, the voyage confirms the importance of the hero's destination and the rootedness of his perspective in Greek soil. Homer's Odysseus thus contrasts with the Ulysses of the Inferno who leaves behind father, son, and wife for an individualistic journey into the unknown and who dies at sea as a result. The various figures whom Hartog discusses in his book are closer to Homer's Odysseus than to Dante's Ulysses, and none of them evinces Ulysses' "longing for experience of the world, of human vices and virtue." Odysseus himself is a reluctant traveller. Nevertheless, Hartog remarks that reluctance is but a part of a larger picture and that he situates his travellers between the two polarities of closure and openness, between Emmanuel Levinas' characterization of Odysseus (Levinas said that Odysseus' voyage was "simply a return to his native island -- complacency about what was the same, rejection of what was other") and Cornelius Castoriadis' claim about Greek interest in other cultures. As Odysseus and the travellers after him make their voyages, they test these boundaries of closure and openness, they put into question the extent to which ancient Greeks were genuinely interested in other cultures, other peoples, other ways of life, and they interrogate how far ancient Greeks were willing to change themselves because of what they learned and could learn from foreigners. Odysseus, Pythagoras, Solon, and voyagers like them, are the means to a deeper understanding of identity, otherness, ethnocentrism, and Hellenism.

While Odysseus' example presents the "first canonical and inaugural voyage," it turns out by the end of the book that the "master-signifier for Greek culture" is not Odysseus but Pythagoras. It is Pythagoras who travels to other lands on account of theoria and sophia, two linked concepts whose semantic and cultural trajectories are the underlying themes of the book. And no less, and perhaps even more than, the life of Odysseus, Dionysus, Heracles, or Alexander, it is the life of Pythagoras that is the subtext to Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, with which Hartog concludes his study. Any attempt to give a fixed definition of Pythagoras' identity is beset by contradictions, inconsistencies, and improbabilities. "Pythagoras is both human and divine, a Greek and not a Greek, a man of both science and mysticism, a student of Barbarian wisdoms and a purely Greek philosopher." In this respect, Pythagoras reminds us of the assertion that identity is virtual, with no real or bounded existence as a fixed entity. As Hartog writes, "Pythagoras shines in the sky of Greek sophia, but as soon as you try to pin him down, he disperses into a shower of stellar bodies that are themselves all of different ages. He is assuredly a point of reference, but perhaps only because there is something about him that is always elusive." Pythagoras is both same and other, and what the figure of Pythagoras suggests is the difficulty and impossibility of holding on to a notion of pure Greekness; he suggests that identity is always informed by otherness, that the same is always and already infiltrated by the other. "He is one of the figures through whom Greek culture manifested the place that it had made for otherness. In other words, he represented a device for both opening and checking from within, expressing both unease and confidence, recognition and incomprehension, translation and treachery. . . ." It is the figure of Pythagoras, then, that vividly expresses Greek anxieties about identity and otherness.

To enter into a discussion of identity and alterity, especially in relation to texts drawn from a period of a thousand years and more, may seem daunting, but readers of Hartog's earlier work on Herodotus and Numa Fustel de Coulanges would expect nothing less than a refined and sensitive exploration of the issues. Hartog does well to quote Claude Lévi-Strauss: "Identity is a kind of virtual foyer to which we have, perforce, to refer to explain a number of things, but which has never had any real existence." Identity is not a stable or unchanging category, and definitions of a Greek identity will vary across authors and periods. What are the contours of this identity, and how is it to be defined? The flow of the history of Greek otherness makes this a hard question to answer, but Hartog indicates ways with which to attempt a beginning. While there are few fixed categories of otherness, nonetheless some basic distinctions are often at play: Greek and barbarian, male and female, free and slave, mortal and immortal, earth and heaven, wet and dry, raw and cooked. The Athenians live in a polis, and others do not. Greek culture is hot and dynamic, and other cultures are cold and static. Greek thinkers have sophia, which, even if originally borrowed from overseas, can be superior to alien wisdom. In a treatment that at times moves beyond Lévi-Strauss, and the early work of Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Marcel Detienne, Hartog explores how these codes and oppositions are often overlapping, mobile, contradictory, and subject to historical change. The Persians are barbarians, but what about the Romans? How do they destabilize the distinction between Greeks and barbarians? How is the distinction between Romans and non-Romans different from the distinction between Greeks and barbarians? In outlining his responses to such questions, Hartog adopts a long-range perspective and focuses more on points of change, reversal, and transformation than on moments of continuity. This perspective justifies, in part, the extraordinary range of the examples to which he refers. The travellers discussed by Hartog are, among others, Odysseus, Pythagoras, Solon, Anacharsis, Pausanias, Plutarch, Alexander, Polybius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Strabo, Aelius Aristides, and Apollonius of Tyana. Of Greek voyagers, it seems, there is no end.

In considering the intellectual heterology of the Greeks, Hartog examines Greek views of foreigners and of themselves. He looks at what the Greeks say about Scythia, Egypt, India, and Rome, and also Arcadia, Boeotia, and Thrace, among other places. The reason for examining Greek voyages inside Greece is that identity and ethnicity are informed by internal as well as external boundaries, and that the simplicity of the Boeotians or the stupidity of the Abderites are strategies for the remaining Greeks through which they can exert cultural authority, strategies that perhaps stem from a need to place certain peoples at a distance from civilization. However, the longest discussion in Hartog's book of any one place is that concerning Egypt. This discussion, much of which comes from an article published in 1986, covers texts from Homer to the Corpus Hermeticum, with additional analyses of Isaac Casaubon's work on the Corpus and of the Description de l'Égypte from the early nineteenth century. Hartog is consistently insightful on the varied Greek views of Egypt, and says much of importance in a chapter that could easily have been several times longer. He is surely right to note about the Greeks that Egypt "occupied a prime place in their imaginary representations and their thought, sometimes exerting a positive fascination, which was eventually passed on to the modern age." It should be said, however, that Hartog rapidly flies over so many authors and texts, in discussing Egypt and in his book in general, that he often frustrates the desire of the reader for deeper and more thorough examination of a particular author or text. Many of the topics treated by Hartog, and often his ideas about them, could be the subject of separate monographs in their own right. On the other hand, the reader gains from an investigation that adopts a diachronic perspective and that gives attention to continuities and breaks over the longue durée.

The scope and breadth of the book are among its strengths. The author's scrutiny encompasses Greeks from the archaic period to imperial Rome and a host of writers and intellectuals from the Renaissance and after, including Montaigne, whom some critics have gone so far as to identify as Hartog's true predecessor. It needs to be pointed out that the authors discussed by Hartog come invariably from the western European tradition. Although much of the book is devoted to Greek voyagers who travel to places outside of Greece, and especially to the East, the author does not mention or discuss Egyptian, Arabic, or Indian sources, for instance, from any period. This is a surprising silence in a book that is concerned with the Greeks' sense of ethnicity and alterity, especially since the procedure betokens the kind of insularity and circularity that Hartog is at pains to ascribe to ancient Greeks. The omission of non-European material is not unprecedented in classical scholarship. Given that the book is avowedly about Greek representations, Hartog's concentration on classical and later European sources is perhaps justifiable. In this regard, his approach differs from that of two recent books with which his own has already invited comparison, Irad Malkin's The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity (1998) and Carol Dougherty's The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer's Odyssey (2001), both of which make some attempt to engage the non-European tradition. Like them, Hartog demonstrates the ways in which Homeric epic was used and exploited by Greeks; at the same time, Hartog is less concerned than they are with Homer, and he is far less drawn to historical and material evidence or to current scholarship on colonialism and travel literature. Hartog's book should be read alongside these two studies; more generally, his book can also be read as a contribution to debates about ethnicity, alterity, and identity in the ancient world.

It is not frivolous, lastly, to remark on the voyage undertaken by the book from France to the Anglophone world. The author has made some changes and added a few references to work published since the appearance of the book, and Paul Cartledge has added a Foreword, but in all the essentials the source text is the published French edition. The quality of the translation is testimony to the continuing achievement of Janet Lloyd, who has toiled for decades to make French scholarship accessible to the English-speaking academy. Not all scholars will know that she is the translator of more than fifty books and that she has received the Scott Moncrieff prize for her translations of Marcel Detienne's The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology (1977; rev. edition, 1994) and Philippe Descola's The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle (1996). But further, a comparison between the French and English editions causes one to reflect, albeit not for the first or last time, on the differences in publishing traditions, the projected taste of Francophone and Anglophone readerships, and the increasing pressure on university presses in North America and the UK to market books more aggressively and generate ever higher sales. The dull grey of the Gallimard edition has given way to an illustrated, red-figure design on the cover in the English version. And, it is noticeable that, while in the English edition the Acknowledgements are displayed prominently on a separate page in the front, in the French the same are placed quietly below the introduction. Does this mean that in France you may whisper your gratitude, but in Anglo-America you need to declare it firmly, or at least be seen to do so? On questions of cross-cultural translation and stereotyping (yours and mine), as on the others treated so passionately and wisely in his book, the views of François Hartog are always welcome.


1.   The book is published in the United Kingdom by Edinburgh University Press.

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