François Hartog and the Mediterranean

José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec

Historian, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

The entire oeuvre of the French historian François Hartog revolves around a theme that he himself has recently revealed and which had constituted a kind of hidden reference in his work over the last 30 years: the regime of historicity of past civilisations. This idea has been the core around which he has produced a solid body of research into the Greece of classical antiquity, masterfully outlining the works of poets, playwrights, historians and geographers whose points of view contributed towards the fashioning of a vision of the world that has survived through to the present day via the principles of Humanism and the Enlightenment that are also a feature of the intellectual shape of Europe. Le miroir d’Hérodote is the densest of all Hartog’s books as regards methodological proposals and reasons for going back and rereading the narrative texts of antiquity.

The opening pages are sober, yet it unfolds with unusual force when the writer decides to pursue the portrayal of the world presented by Herodotus’ History, in which are recalled—disregarding the prejudices that took root in the farming communities of Hellas—the splendour of the Lydians, the disturbing world of the Medes, the enigmas of the Egyptians and reasons behind the legitimacy of the Greek wars against the Persians, wars of self-defence to protect freedom and the law against a despotic king and hence to defend Greek moral superiority over the Persian way of life. Yet Hartog’s true ambition did not lie in Herodotus’ objectives. Instead, his research flowed in a single direction, and his analytical procedures and observations on method gravitated around a central concern: the conception that others have of the world, in other words, the ways that the Scythian peoples—who are unlike the Greeks yet perhaps complement them, in that plurality can be understood in the Mediterranean as a phenomenon of civilisation—view life.

Linking the ethnology and comparative mythology of the Greek religion with history was thenceforth Hartog’s programme of work. This project formed the basis of the suggestions that arose from the reading of the works of Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges through the “sad topics” of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the findings of Michel Foucault on the order of the discourse in the construction of history. La Cité antique by Fustel de Coulanges (first published in 1864) is a kind of tour of the Mediterranean world of antiquity in search of the origins of the city as a religious response to the discovery of death, as a way of questioning Rousseau’s notion of the social contract, as well as a way of undertaking a lengthy study of the social institutions of the Mediterranean.

Hartog looks at this theme from Herodotus’ perspective and is above all interested in otherness and the world of the frontier, in which we can see some of the themes of his later works taking shape. Le miroir d’Hérodote was written in the 1970s, when Paris was the undisputed centre of historiographical debate at the Collège de France, with Foucault, Aron, Veyne, Dumézil and Duby, and was published in 1980 thanks to the support of Michel de Certeau, Marcel Detienne, Jacques Revel, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. The book was republished in 1991 with a new prologue entitled “Le vieil Hérodote”, in which Hartog recognises that his objectives coincide with the search for the ‘forms’ of the historic discourse by Hayden White: finally, having been cited and commented on by specialists in every field of history, and having become a fundamental element in the new understanding of the significance of the Barbarians in history, as the notable studies of Edith Hall and Carlos García Gual confirm, Hartog’s work was republished yet again in 2001 by Gallimard in their Folio collection.

There can be no better evidence than this that his book had become a classic, at least in high-brow circles. In Mémoire d’Ulysse, Hartog returns to the issue of otherness and the border as an element that had an invigorating impact on Mediterranean civilisation in antiquity. In this brilliant essay, he not only examines the memory of an ancient civilisation that is defined in the 1960s through the film Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas, but also seeks to find out why the Mediterranean is itself a frontier space, the secret to this behaviour over the centuries and its communicative effect in the Greek, Hellenistic and Roman writers, not forgetting the interest in the secrets of the world that seem to be linked to the journey of initiation to Egypt: from Herodotus to Champollion, taking in Plato (the Timeaus), Hermes Trismegistus, Hecateus of Abdera, Diodorus Siculus, Marsilio Ficino, Isaac Casaubon, Bossuet, Abbot Rollin, Vivant Denon, Karl Otfried Müller and Martin Bernal. It is no coincidence that Hartog should have placed his reflections under the shadow of Ulysses, a traveller by the will of the gods, who lead him to the edge of the known world so that his return journey home might become an absolute metaphor of the value of Mediterranean civilisation.

And on Ithaca, his island and his treasure, he seeks to grasp the ultimate substance of these images that are the only reality man has after travelling through life. Memories and challenges, dreams and offers of love, sacrifices and entertainment. The fatalistic background of the Mediterranean is the starting point of the need to open up to others, Hartog seems to think, devoting to this issue excellent pages in which high erudition is shown to be a form of intellectual commitment to society today, evidence that talent is at the service of a world that resists falling into the arms of the irresponsible vulgarity of social agents. His refined analysis and judicious comment on works that are accorded scant importance in modern educational programmes reveal how an understanding of the intellectual approaches employed by the classical writers can be an effective element in people’s education in any era and in any place.

Every page cries out for this need to be met, the reason why a translation of this book was rejected by a wellknown publishing house in Barcelona, though readers of Spanish may turn to the translation published by the Fondo de Cultura Económica de México. Hartog does not, of course, look for the key to the way of being in the Mediterranean solely in his analysis of texts: the social backdrop of the valleys and the way the world is perceived in small agricultural properties have also developed their own system of representation and for that very reason are the theme of the analysis in this book, Hartog’s aim being to offer a full panorama of the Mediterranean world in antiquity. Alexander the Great is inevitably included in this examination, perhaps because of his aura as a visionary, because of his attempt to create a ‘mixed civilisation’, because of his determined support for the brotherhood and unity of mankind.

Identifying life with an experience so different to that of his surroundings is for Hartog, however, one of countless groundless dreams that appear in Mediterranean culture, dreams that are the wellspring of myths and that make us feel that history can never be changed by the will of a titan, even one named Alexander the Great. The emotional charge of this finding discredits the objectives of Hellenistic society and opens up a path to Rome. The observations made by travellers to Rome, led by Polybius, constitute the cultivated man’s revenge on the troubles of life and enliven the closing pages of this decisive book, in which appear the various planes of knowledge on which Hartog deploys his solid research into the Mediterranean.

The need to specify the pillars on which his research rests has led Hartog to gather his main articles of methodological opinion in an important book entitled Régimes d’Historicité. Présentisme et expériences du temps, in which we can identify at least three levels on which he has developed (and continues to develop) his work: the level of memory, the level of history, and the level of historiography (the history of history). A crucial factor in his position is that these three levels govern an order of things that he terms the ‘regime of historicity’, in other words, a human community’s mode of awareness of itself. The learned reader is one who knows (or who recognises, in some cases) the rhythm of society, and it is precisely from this work that the principle of difference over a common identity comes. “Ulysses has not read St. Augustine” is a phrase that is meaningless except from the perspective of history, when one accepts the principle of his chronology that ancestors can have no understanding of their descendents, yet descendents can have an understanding of their forebears and children must recognise their ancestors. Here we have memory as a vehicle of social recognition and as a creator of images.

Revolutionary history and mythical-ritual anti-history have the same face in this book and speak with the same voice, a voice that emerges like a complaint in response to the difficulty of understanding the regime of historicity in which we live following the gap (a word I use in tribute to Hannah Arendt) of 1989. The omnipresent present, ‘presentism’, is the category that would best seem to define the early 21st century. We are at the antipodes of any historicism, those ways of thinking about the past from the cold and objective distant position formerly termed ‘scientific’ and which we have seen is perhaps merely ‘bureaucratic’. Yet in a strict sense, Hartog only speaks in the vibration of the present moment. In order to analyse the various regimes of historicity, Hartog turns to the anthropology of Marshall Sahlins, pointing out that “other times, other customs, are also other histories.”

The principal goal of Hartog’s work is the juncture between the reader transported to the archipelago of Fiji in order to fix the meaning of these ‘islands of history’ and the recovery of the scholarly tradition that links Homer and Thucydides and St. Augustine. The Mediterranean is also conceived of as an island of history, but over time this island became the only known land. Hartog knows full well how to handle the paradox that the Greek identity did not embrace the Biblical principle that life is a promise, hence his remark “Ulysses has not read St. Augustine” also acquires a gnosiological dimension, as it means that this entire culture ignored the process of the production of the Bible until the year 100 AD, when it seems that it drew up a religious canon.

This led it to confront the rupture of all ruptures, that moment that serves as the end of a long epoch and the start of another that is barely recognisable, full of uncertainties and which seems unable to take flight. Hartog places that moment at the shift from the French classical world to the era after the Revolution, and follows it through the eyes of Chateaubriand, an exceptional witness. Chateaubriand the traveller returned to his land once the Revolution and the wars were over, and recorded images of the future, not of the past, following an invisible thread of suggestions that ends at those historians who also returned home after the disasters of the Second World War (though some of course did not do so, having been assassinated by the political police, as Marc Bloch was, or having died in the trenches). For Chateaubriand and those who came after him over the course of the following 150 years, the future had a name, and that name was ‘nation’. These historians were patriots in search of a regime of historicity of their own (be it French, German, English or Italian).

The signs of these national histories were sometimes places in the memory of the respective nations: monuments to those who died in the wars, galleries of distinguished figures (most of them generals, politicians and poets who speak to the fatherland), and countless other references erected to counter the rise of any other ‘supranational’ alternative. The incessant return of these images prompted people to keep these memories alive, rather than to follow the historical tendency towards forgetfulness. Memory, the great game of the present once again—and again in Hartog’s sights—is transfigured as an agent of the future. Perhaps no longer the nation, but certainly the fatherland. A call to patriotism.

To look to the future is, once again, to look to the emblems of the fatherland, a language, a cultural heritage, a social gesture, a way of being. Is this really what awaits us after the break with the past that occurred in 1989? Nobody can be absolutely sure, because the spirit of progress has been guided ever since 1789 by an obscure self-abandonment to the vertigo of war: the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli wars and the conflicts between the Palestinians and Israelis, the Vietnam War, the war in Kosovo, the Gulf War and the Second Gulf War. It is pointless to go looking for a reason for all this.

Last year witnessed protests against the rush to war, and this year patriotic impetuses are returning to the world once again. The presentism of the present that Hartog speaks of still remains, which requires that we place the precise value of 11 September 2001 in the future. This was an event in the immediate past that conditions the distant future: what should we read in order to comprehend it? Or rather, in the spirit of this great historian: where should we go to find the witnesses needed to rescue the past? Would a voyage around the Mediterranean be useful? Let us try.

On its shores we can find the witness as the survivor of an extreme situation, that is to say, the witness who manages to endure beyond the event, the witness who speaks of a world that is already lost but whose tone or face may be recovered through his testimony. Yet how should personal testimony be incorporated into history which, by definition, is supposed to be a lucid examination of human existence? How can two elements that are so different—the witness and the historian—be united? This demands a veritable hermeneutics of the discourse. Hartog makes his way towards this in his talk at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, the text of which was later published by the journal Historia y Grafía.

His proposition is bold in that it rests on the paradox described some years ago by Reinhart Koselleck, which is that history is written by the victors, but only for a time, as in the long run the vanquished become the source from which historical gains in knowledge proceed. If this is true, which, according to Hartog, everything would seem to indicate, we do not need to invoke the vanquished alone in order to understand that both sides must be taken into account if we are to understand an event. In this respect, his opinion and his question can be corroborated: could a history of witnesses and victims be capable of satisfying that demand that history, that ancient word, draws in its wake? The Mediterranean is a good observatory for settling this important question. And that is something I shall always insist on.