BMCR 1994.06.10

1994.06.10, Augustinos, French Odysseys

, French odysseys : Greece in French travel literature from the Renaissance to the romantic era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xiii, 345 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780801846168. $35.95.

Between the Renaissance and the early nineteenth century, Greece, then a province of the Ottoman empire, occupied a strange zone in “the penumbra between East and West,” as the author puts it. The birthplace of Western civilization, colonized by an Eastern enemy conjuring up all the images of Otherness, Greece was seen as a crossroads where historical as well as geographical categories were called into question.

In this book, Olga Augustinos analyzes how French travelers constructed through their writings image of Greece which reflected their own “reasoning process” as they were using this experience of cultural encounter to ascertain their own identity as Frenchmen, heirs to classical Greek culture. Indeed, and Augustinos is right to emphasize it, they realized these “Greek Odysseys” were a pilgrimage to the sources, a quest of glorious origins, part historical, part mythical, whose legacy had been “integrated in the matrix of their own civilization” (x).

Although this is not the first time this important aspect of France’s cultural history has been studied, Augustinos’s book derives particular strength from its exhaustive examination of a well-defined epoch, Greece under the Ottoman rule, and its concentration upon one genre, the travelogue, in which first-hand experience and cultural constructs are usually intermingled. According to Augustinos, the travelogues of this period contain “in embryonic form, elements of history, sociology, anthropology and archeology, long before they became scientific disciplines” (57). Their interest is therefore epistemological, as well as cultural.

Some particularly noteworthy observations stand out amid this wealth of erudite analysis. One is the antithesis in the French mind between Athens and Sparta, as stereotypes of two competing models of civilization. Augustinos sees the inward-looking, disciplinarian Spartan model prevailing against the more cosmopolitan, mercantile Athenian one during the Renaissance and the prerevolutionary period, i.e., times of cultural and political realignments. Another interesting observation is that, ever since their first contacts with modern Greece, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, French travelers seemed to feel entrusted with a “mission civilisatrice.” Augustinos borrows this phrase, not without irony, from the official discourse of nineteenth century colonialism. To these travelers, contemporary Greeks appeared backward, even in their religious practices. Icon worship, especially, was interpreted as a remnant of the pagan past, and modern Greece soon became a case of “the relation between paganism and Christianity” (73).

The author grants special importance to Chateaubriand, among these French travelers and self-proclaimed “cultural missionaries.” In his Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, the patriarch of French romanticism, according to Augustinos, appears particularly obsessed with the gap between “eternal” Greece and the contingencies of its contemporaneous reality. “Never see Greece,” he wrote to a friend in 1806, “except in Homer. It is the best way.” This quote echoes an old theme in French letters, but one that was more often associated with Rome, and best illustrated in Du Bellay’s Regrets.

Yet, despite Chateaubriand’s disenchanted views, the author credits the romantic generation with turning traditional hellenism into a modern philhellenism, which acknowledged Greece as a living nation, not a mere museum of past glories, and created sympathy for the Greeks’ war of liberation in 1821. In the last chapter of the book, which deals with this period, it is surprising that Lord Byron is mentioned only in footnotes, whereas the English poet-dandy-traveler’s prestige among French intellectuals was considerable, and his participation in the Greek war, for all its romantic showmanship, probably stimulated this generation’s sympathy for the Greeks, a sympathy vividly expressed in Hugo’s poetry and Delacroix’s painting. One may also regret that most quotes are given only in translation. The French original would have been useful, and, in some cases, necessary.

But these are minor points. There is little to criticize in this well-researched, well-organized study, which reflects a solid expertise in both Greek and French cultural histories. Augustinos manages to show how the “rejection of Greek contemporary reality” by many of these French travelers, “was a sort of historical bovarysme induced by overreading” (166). Like Flaubert’s heroine, they put their own paradigm of reality before their first-hand experience of it, until finally, after the Greeks shed the Turkish yoke, with some help from European allies, including France, there could be, in Augustinos’s words, “rebirth amid the ruins.”