Jean-Pierre Vernant (1914-2007)

The great French historian and specialist of ancient Greece, Jean-Pierre Vernant, died yesterday at the ripe old age of 93. I had learned much about Greek mythology and thought from him, before I came to the US and thus to the Robert Duncan (via Jane Harrison & her Themis) and Charles Olson’s readings of mythology — a double, or better, a multiple-focused reading which has stood me in good stead over the years, I believe, allying and balancing the mytho-poetic with the scholarly sharpness and breadth of depth in its investigative analysis that, I am sure, Olson would have approved of. As a reader of Hesiod, for example, Vernant is the ideal companion to Olson’s takes. I still own, and read in, those lovely small and handy paperback editions of Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs, published in François Maspero’s “petite collection maspero” — where in those years (just about) everyone I desperately needed to read was published, from Franz Fanon to Paul Nizan to Louise Michel to Karl Marx to Régis Debray to Louis Althusser to Wilhelm Reich to Ernest Mandel to… Jean-Pierre Vernant. And he was that central, or to put it less hierarchically he was an equal among that company, and that was the company I and many of those who came off age in the sixties wanted, needed to keep.

Vernant, if not the most well-known “public intellectual” figure of his generation(s) — and certainly not well-known at all in the anglo-saxon world, except by specialists and their departments (as far as I am aware, and in this case hoping that I am wrong) — was, however, a major presence on the French intellectual and social scene for more than half a century, not only through his scholarship on Greek and allied history, but also as a long-time Communist party member and critic, a leader of the résistance against the Nazis during World War II (starting out as printer, with his brother, of the first anti-Nazi pamphlets during the occupation), and a commentator on the social and political events of his time.

Robert Maggiori summed up the man’s achievment well in today’s Libération, writing that what Vernant taught him — and us, I want to suggest— is “not to believe that everything is of equal value, not to bow the head, not to permit anyone to interfere with any part of what constitutes human dignity, and to make sure that the optimism of the will shall never be defeated by the pessimism of the intellect.”

Over the last years more of his books have been translated into English, and the best place to start reading him is with what constitute a classic Vernant trilogy:Myth and Thougth among the Greeks, Origins of Greek Thought, and the collection of essays Mortals and Immortals. As far as I know one of my favorites is t as yet untranslated: La mort dans les yeux: Figures de l’autre en Grèce ancienne, an investigation of the myht, the story, her-story of Medusa as the figure of the Other.

For those who have French, you can listen (online) on France-Culture on 14 January from 4 to 10 p.m. (French time) to 6 hours of conversations between Vernant and Jacques Le Goff, François Hartog, Lucie Aubrac, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jacques Lacarrière et Jean Bollack. For more details click here.

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1 Response

  1. Froma Zeitlin says:

    La mort dans les yeux has been translated into English. it is included in the volume of Vernant’s I edited for Princeton UP in 1991. ch 6, pp 111-138. The first part, Figure and Functions of Artemis is ch 11 in the same volume, entitled Mortals and Immortals.

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