Reviews ns 17 (2008) 11.
Pierre Vidal-Naquet (tr. Janet Lloyd, with a foreword by G. E. R. Lloyd), The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato's Myth. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007. Pp. xxiv + 192, incl. 21 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-85989-805-8. UK£35.00.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
Janet Lloyd and Exeter University Press have performed an invaluable service to students of Plato’s Atlantis myth by making Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s short but wide-ranging study of its reception available in English.[] In this book the Press also announces (p. xiv) the forthcoming publication of an expanded edition of Christopher’s Gill’s commentary on the story.[] Together these two works will undoubtably focus attention not only on what Plato actually wrote, but also on the ways in which the wild and speculative theories about the location of the famous lost continent have resulted from, and impacted on, the cultural perspectives of so many people from antiquity until today.
In his foreword (p. xiii) Geoffrey Lloyd states that ‘the great originality of this study is to focus not on any possible historical basis for Atlantis, but on how the myth itself has run riot in the hands of those who refuse to allow it to be just that, a myth.’ Indeed, it would have been strange for a mythographer and political activist, as Vidal-Naquet was, to have argued differently, particularly as he deems that the myth had an allegorical message for Plato’s Athens (see, for example, pp. xvi- xvii, xx-xxi, and esp. p. xxi: ‘a radical critique of the maritime imperialism of Athens’). Vidal-Naquet traces (p. xvi) his interest in the story over almost half a century to his early years as a teacher in Orleans in 1955-1956 and his diplôme d’études supérieures on Plato’s conception of history (1953). He also notes his continued interest in the narrative throughout his career, especially in what he calls anti-Jewish ‘Atlanto- nationalism’ (p. xvii).
Vidal-Naquet freely hands out both brickbats and bouquets. The theory that the concentric circles of Atlantis were caused by a meteorite is termed ‘really mad’ (p. xix), Nguepe Taba’s theory that Africa was Atlantis has ‘elements of truth’ but ‘all the rest is pure verbiage’ (p. xix), Collina-Girard’s choice of an archipelago west of the straits of Gibraltar, by suppressing the island’s dimensions and ostentatious wealth, draws the comment ‘were you to do that, you might as well sugest locating Atlantis in the boating pond of the Jardin de Luxembourg’ (p. 8). On the other hand, Vidal-Naquet remarks of Paul Jordan’s sceptical study ‘I wish I had written this book’, and Richard Ellis’ Imagining Atlantis is deemed ‘excellent’ (p. 4).[]
Vidal-Naquet sets out his view of the Atlantis story in the aptly entitled Chapter 1, ‘In the Beginning was Plato’ (pp. 13-33). Despite the repeated insistence by Critias that the story was true (Tim. 20d, 21d; Crit. 110d), the plausible context of the Apatouria festival at which young male Athenians were told orally transmitted tales of the heroic exploits of their city, and the elaborately detailed report of the stages in the transmission of the story -- Plato via Critias III via Critias II via Dropides II via Solon via the Egyptian priests at the temple of Neith at Saïs -- Vidal-Naquet insists on the mythical character of the narrative on the grounds of its impossibly early date (a thousand years before Egypt), the unrealistic precision of the concentric circles of the city of Atlantis, the references by Solon to Phoroneus, Deucalion, Phaethon, and Niobe -- one might add the exact but impossibly huge dimensions of the canal and irrigation channel around the plain -- and so on. In short, 'for Plato all history was a pack of lies' (p. 19) and the story of Atlantis, whose division into ten parts recalls the ten tribes created by Cleisthenes, and the presence in it of orichalcum, which recalls the silver found at Mt. Laurion, was intended to 'represent a war waged by a so-called primitive or archaic Athens against the imperialist Athens that the city became after the Persian War, relying on its naval power' (p. 23). In creating this myth, Plato makes effective use of information provided by Herodotus as well as his own concern with the opposition between degenerate and perfect cities, as illustrated by the myth in the Statesman (268d-274e).
The main interest of this book, however, lies not in the debate over the historicity of Atlantis, but in the reception of the myth in later times. Chapter 2, 'The Atlantis Theme in Antiquity' (pp. 34-53), investigates references to Atlantis by ancient writers such as Theopompus, Aristotle, Diodorus Siculus, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Philo, Athenaeus, Tertullian, Arnobius, Proclus, Crantor, and Cosmas Indicopleustes. Chapter 3, 'The Return of the Atlantes, 1485-1710' (pp. 55-77), shows how the myth of Atlantis became associated with the discovery of the New World (Columbus), the plight of the native Aztec Indians (Bartolomeo de las Casas), the scourge of syphilis (Fracastore), the origin of the lost ten tribes of Israel (Jean de Serres), colonialism and the critique of colonialism (Montaigne / Lipsius), Renaissance scholastic utopias (Bacon), the existence of humankind before Adam (La Peyrère), the 'paranoid thesis' (p. 67) that Scandinavia was the orgin of Europeans and Asians (Rudbeck), and similar theories about Lombardy (Vico) and the Canaries (Kircher). Vidal-Naquet sees Rudbeck's theory as an attempt to replace the 'Judaeo-Christian myths' (p. 79) with pagan ones. He explores this question further in Chapter 4, 'The Atlantis of the Enlightenment, 1680-1786' (pp. 79-94). First, however, he notes that there were attempts to forestall this problem by linking Atlantis with Judaea (Huet, Olivier, Bonnaud). Voltaire, who favoured the Ganges as the origin of mankind, and Fréret, were sceptical, though, but Carli continued Rudbeck's path of Atlanto-nationalism by proclaiming that Italy was heir to Atlantis, together with America. Others took a wider perspective, such as Boulanger, who believed that religion was invented to remind men of the fragility of human existence in the face of disasters such as the one that overtook Atlantis and Athens. In Chapter 5, 'The Great Turning Point, 1786-1841' (pp. 95-109), Vidal-Naquet outlines De Sales's universal history of mankind, which favoured the Caucasus as the place of origins. He also discusses Fabre de Olivet, who put together a racist theory of the origins of mankind in which the Atlantes, whom he (Fabre) views as 'the masters of the universe' (p. 103), were the Black race who live in the south but who were also linked to the source from which everything was handed down. The chapter concludes with an account of British / Irish Atlanto-nationalism in the form of Blake, Wilford, and O'Brien.
It was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that interest in Atlantis theme, according to Vidal-Naquet, becomes far more elaborate and sinister. Chapter 6, 'Societies that are Open and those that are Closed' (pp. 111-26), focuses on France, Spain, and Germany. In France, Lemercier composed a eulogy of Newtonian science that, eventually, locates a society based on science and reason in America. Jules Verne in The Five Hundred Millions of the Begum depicts the struggle of two cities, one pacific the other belligerent, that Vidal-Naquet sees as the underlying theme of the Atlantis myth. At Nancy, Professor D. A. Godron published a series of lecture on Atlantis and the Sahara. Pierre Benoit's L'Atlantide subsequently located Atlantis in the Hoggar Mountains in Algeria. In Spain Verdaguer produced a Catalan epic on the theme of Atlantis that located the fabled city in Spain. In Germany, Zschaetsch found traces of the Atlanteans in Scandinavia, the Nazi Hermmann found evidence of Atlantis in the megaliths of Carnac and Stonehenge, the ideologue of Hitler, Rosenberg, made the Jews the descendants of the Germans via Atlantis, and Spanuth, whom Vidal-Naquet identifies as a 'German (Nazi) pastor' (p. 124) made a case for Heligoland. Chapter 7, 'Interlude: Notes without Music' (pp. 127-34), Vidal-Naquet calls 'an addition to the German, or rather Hitlerian section of Chapter 6' (p. 127). This chapter notes that Viktor Ullmann's opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (1944) was a response to the identification of the German Reich with Atlantis by Himmler. The novel by Georges Perec, W or the Memory of a Childhood, which makes explicit reference to Atlantis in the 'Atlantiad games', makes Atlantis a dystopia that produces the horrors of Auschwitz. The final chapter of the book, 'Water, Earth and Dreams' (pp. 135- 42) rather misleadingly takes a step back to the theosophistical ideas of Madame Blavatsky, William Scott- Elliot, and Ignatius Donnelly -- misleadingly, because Blavatsky at least anticipated the racist ideology of later writers on the subject.
This review has attempted (rather inadequately) to sketch the views of one of the leading Classical scholars of our times on the vast subject of the reception of perhaps the most important philosophical myth of Classical antiquity - - views that have developed over half a century and which were informed by close personal contact with scholars who most definitely do not share the Disney view of Atlantis. Plato's narrative is perhaps the most prized of all that we as Classicists have received from the ancient Greek world. It tests the credulousness of students and scholars, reaches beyond Classics to geologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, and in at its deepest levels challenges the entire edifice of belief about the origins of civilisation and the values of civilised society. Of course there are omissions in this short survey, but it is admirably concise and an essential addition to scholarship on the myth.[] It is ironic to write this review from a continent which is currently avidly portrayed not only as the 'cradle of mankind' but also as the 'cradle of civilisation'.
[] Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s original French edition appeared as L’Atlantide: Petite Histoire d’un Mythe Platonicien (Paris 2005).
[] Originally published as Christopher Gill (ed.), Plato: The Atlantis Story (Bristol 1980).
[] Nguepe Taba II, Afrika als Atlantis Insel (Diss. Frankfurt: J. W. Goethe University, forthcoming -- I have been unable to locate this thesis on the internet, where it was first announced); Paul Jordan, The Atlantis Syndrome (Thrupp 2001); Richard Ellis, Imagining Atlantis (New York 1998). For the African location of Atlantis see also Leo Frobenius, Die Atlantische Gotterlehre (Jena 1926).
[] The literature on Atlantis is vast and it is not surprising that Vidal-Naquet occasionally errs in citing particular references. For example, he quotes Peter James on the authority of Richard Ellis, Imagining Atlantis and later identifies James as the author of Centuries of Darkness (1921). In fact, Peter James’ Centuries of Darkness: A Challenge to the Conventional Chronology of Old World Archaeology appeared in 1991. The same author was responsible for Atlantis: The Sunken Kingdom (London 1995), which implausibly locates Atlantis in Turkey. The publishers could have improved the book by checking the bibliographic references more thoroughly, as some (for example, the reference to Gliozzi), are incomplete. It is a pity that the colour plates of the original French edition were not replicated in this otherwise well-produced volume, especially as Vidal-Naquet refers to the colour key of some of the maps.