For Jean

For Jean-Pierre Vernant: In Deepest Friendship

Marcel Detienne

(Translated by Janet Lloyd)

This is not an obituary. Let me explain. In France, now a province of Europe, there was a time when the dynasty of the Reinach brothers made much the same impact as the Rockefeller family in the land of Ford and of blacks deprived of all civil rights. One of the brothers, whose, name, suitably enough, was Salomon, reigned over the world of classical studies and passed judgment on all matters connected with it. At his death, obituaries of all his colleagues yet to die were found in the attic of his home.

I have never written and never, in this life or any other, will write a funerary oration. Jean-Pierre Vernant was born in 1914, twenty-one years before I was even conceived. One of my grandfathers, a courageous university man of integrity, lay in wait for me at the crossroads of adolescence and guided me to the path leading to “classics,” or rather philology, the austere mistress of Altertumswissenschaft. Once I had proved myself, a radiant future leading to every conceivable possibility would await me. After I had gained my PhD, the master who had been my teacher told me by way of encouragement, with a deep sigh, “We were born too late, you and I. They have already done everything.” “They” were the great German scholars of Hochphilologie. It was time for me to give urgent thought to my liberty.

Curious as to the ways forward that a secret perusal of Dumézil had allowed me to glimpse, I made my way to the Hautes Études, Paris’s equivalent of an Institute of Advanced Studies, where in a little room dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, on the first floor of the Sorbonne, I discovered two men. The elder, I judged to have retired from the academic world at least, while the younger was completely unknown to me. I knew neither his name, nor his voice, nor of anything that he had written. At the invitation of Fernand Braudel, Louis Gernet, recently back from Algeria, was explaining, with texts at the ready, how in Greek tragedy, in the Oresteia in this instance, it was possible to decipher thinking of both a legal and a social nature that was characteristic of the city of Athens. Furthermore, as I was later to discover, this sociologist of Greece who had so skillfully analyzed the semantic forms of legal and moral thought from Homer down to Plato, had undertaken to focus on the phenomenon of tragedy, showing how the creators of the Supplices and Antigone were inventing discourse situated on the borderline between the ambiguities of a nascent penal law and the moral problems transmitted by the mythical traditions and the epic cycles bequeathed by the archaic period.

Among his listeners—three or four of them, as was customary—was one who immediately attracted my attention by the intelligence of his questions and his dazzling personality. This was Jean-Pierre Vernant. A few days later, we met together and struck up a friendship and a conversation that were to continue for a full twenty years. In the 1960s and in the space opened up by the Sixth Section of the École des Hautes Études, under the title “Social and Economic Studies,” a lively comparativist exchange was taking place between historians unconcerned by disciplinary constraints and an early generation of ethnologists who, stimulated by Lévi-Strauss’ La Pensée sauvage (1962) and Anthropologie structurale (1958), had moved over from philosophy. When I first met him, before he was appointed Director of Studies, Vernant was leading a comparativist seminar attended by Indianist field-workers, Assyriologists, sinologists, specialists studying societies in the Pacific Ocean, and historians of Greece. The program included relations to the land, the status of the warrior function with regard to hunting, and the powers of the gods in various polytheistic religions: all problems that constituted work in progress for those who, in 1964, were to form the first Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes (Centre of the Comparative Study of Ancient Societies) in the rue de Chevreuse, but a stone’s throw from Georges Dumézil’s apartment.

Vernant was a disciple of I. Meyerson and his intellectual project that set out to define the specific features of human behavior and to analyze how human beings constructed themselves through different types of work and the cumulative body of their cultural inventions. Vernant devoted himself wholly to research into those parts of psychology, then known (1960) as comparative historique (historical comparativism). In close and friendly collaboration with historians, psychologists, philosophers and ethnologists, Jean-Pierre Vernant discovered many comparative approaches to the major psychological functions: work, action, the person, will, memory, time, and space. They were to lead him to what he called a history of “inner man,” in which the inventory of specific features led to the discovery of ruptures, discontinuities and forms of change, through the identification of a series of internal connections between the facts of civilization, the psychological content of those facts, and the operations by which they were constructed.

To his early audiences, Vernant started by revealing a wonderful motley of Greeks, Hellenes as brightly colored as their wooden, stone, or marble statues used to be before they faded to the academic pallor that we find in our museums. These were Greeks deliberately seen from the point of view of general problems. Let me give three examples. The first is their sacrificial practices, how these interrelated with diet, hunting, and warfare; the second is their representations of space, how these related to forms of political thought and certain categories of sophistry and philosophy; thirdly, their inventions in the domain of representation and plastic forms, how archaic anthropomorphic idols disappeared, making way for a generalized regime of images, produced by all the artistic genres, as imitations of appearances.

Vernant’s great works, those that inaugurated a new approach in the comparative study of myth and the image of the gods—those are texts that today’s anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and classicists should read and meditate upon, just as their predecessors did half a century earlier. The warm, courageous, and generous man that he never ceased to be for those who knew and loved him—that man accomplished a truly great intellectual project. For me, his smile of luminous intelligence will never fade.