ElAnt v7n1 - Reviews - Memories of Odysseus

February 2003 Volume 7, Number 1

Memories of Odysseus , Fran├žois Hartog. Translated by Janet Lloyd, forward by Paul Cartledge. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-31852-4 (cloth), 0-226-31853-2 (paper). Pp.252.

Reviewed by Leon Golden
Florida State University, USA

Traditional Classicists will find themselves often challenged, intrigued, and illuminated by Hartog's anthropological foray into the question of Greek identity and the "otherness" of the world that surrounded it which he pursues in texts ranging from Homer's Odyssey through the distant metaphorical images and tangential evocations of the Homeric model that appear in the Greek and Roman world all the way to the Second Sophistic of the Roman imperial period. For most of the journey on which Hartog guides us, the phrase "memories of Odysseus" must be understood metaphorically for it refers to themes at some distance from Homer's Odyssey . Only the first chapter, "The Return of Odysseus", is concerned directly with Homer's epic and Hartog's emphasis here is on Odysseus' firm commitment to return home to the country, family, and identity from which he has been unwillingly separated during the great adventure at Troy and its aftermath. Odysseus represents for Hartog a pure commitment to a return to his own identity in face of the delay and threats posed by the "otherness" of the environments through which he passes. Unlike Odysseus, later voyagers, real or metaphorical, will seek various forms of accommodation with that "otherness." Hartog notes (17-18):

It is in the space opened up by that delay (which the bard exploits) that 'otherness' is experienced and that, as the tale develops, the great divides of Greek anthropology are revealed. Otherness is invariable a threat, and extreme otherness means extreme danger. In order to maintain or recover his identity, to regain his own name, Odysseus the Endurer must also be Odysseus the Vigilant. His return to himself comes about despite the "others", whether the other one is Polyphemus, who is ready to devour him, or Calypso, who wishes to give him immortality if only he will stay with her.

For Hartog Odysseus's homeward journey allows him to experience "the place and lot of mortals on earth" as he meets with divine interventions and barbaric, animal cruelty but maintains his civilized (Greek) human self-control. In Hartog's view, the Odyssey provides an anthropological basis for the "Greeks' vision of themselves and others" and made it possible "to see and explain the world...and make it a world that was 'human', that is to say Greek."

After exploring Greek self-identity in the Odyssey , Hartog views the motif of "otherness" as it impacts on the Greek consciousness. The first entity he examines in this context is Egypt, a nation that fascinated Greek thinkers and writers from Homer down to the Neoplatonic philosophers and which the historians Herodotus, Hecataeus of Abdera, and Diodorus Siculus wrote about in detail. It was the great antiquity of Egypt that made an indelible impression on Greek culture as it suggested to Greek intellectual explorers that in that nation they were approaching the actual origins of civilization. On the one hand, Greek thinkers could see in ancient, Egyptian wisdom possible origins of their own great cultural achievements; on the other, they caught a glimpse of another important anthropological discriminator when comparing themselves to the Egyptians-that which separates Greek from Barbarian. Using the Egyptians as the Barbarian antonym to Greek civilization was troubling to Greek thinkers because of the awe in which they held the antiquity and brilliance of Egyptian intellectual achievement. A solution to this problem arose in the 6th and 5th centuries through the Greek encounter with the Persians. Hartog points out that the distinction between Greek and Barbarian was then seen as a political one which distinguishes "those who know the polis from those, who being ignorant of it live-can only live-in subjection to kings. A Greek is 'political' that is to say free, and a Barbarian is 'royal', subjected to a master ( despotes ). Thus this criterion of "Barbarian" applies to both Persians and Egyptians equally for they equally sought political refuge in kings. Ultimately we can trace to Herodotus the reigning definition of the term "Greek", to Hellenikon ,-"same blood, same language, common sacrifices and ceremonies, similar mores and customs."

The integration of Rome into the Greek/Barbarian nexus is the climactic theme of Hartog's work. He indicates that it was Polybius who solved the conundrum of where to place the Romans within the Greek/Barbarian context (167):

How could the Romans still be regarded as Barbarians when their success stemmed precisely from what the Greeks had always considered the very foundation of civilized life: namely city life and its framework of politeia ? Rome belongs to the same political space as Greece; possibly it had done so ever since Aristotle's enquiries into a wide range of constitutions which, we know, included those of both Rome and Carthage.

The shared framework of a political structure is what allowed for a Greek/Roman bond and union. Hartog points out that it was Dionysius of Halicarnassus who had propounded the remarkable thesis that the Romans were "Authentic Greeks; and Rome had always, ever since its first day, been a Greek city" (171). From this perspective Rome was the perfected Greek polis.

Hartog's final chapter is considerably different in tone from the earlier part of his book. This is a chapter devoted to Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana and we are now in a world of mysticism and fantasy that differs greatly from what has come before as we focus on the strange wanderings of a mystic in an apparently futile attempt to rehellenize the world. Hartog's book tells an intriguing story of the search for Greek identity across the ages. For the most part it is an enlightening analysis of historical, philosophical, and literary texts that is informed by an anthropological perspective.