Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Response: Versnel on Bonnet on Versnel, Coping with the Gods. Response to 2012.08.39

Response by H. S. Versnel (

Version at BMCR home site

An author of a book that enjoyed such an honest, serious and overall gratifyingly appreciative review as the one by Corinne Bonnet in BMCR 2012.08.39 yet cannot resist the childish temptation to react to the only two explicit points of critique, ought, generally speaking, to have his head examined. I hope, however, that in this case the reason for my action may help condone it. My goal is to redress two errors, one made by the reviewer, another by myself, each of which may set the reader on the wrong path.

One concerns footnotes and citations. As usually in the introductions of my books I confess awareness of their number and size, and give my reasons for not having pruned them more drastically. Professor Bonnet summarizes this as: "Aux p. 18-21, Versnel fait acte de contrition en ce qui concerne leur nombre et leur longueur, tout en en recommandant de lire toutes les notes!" Such a recommendation would be suicidal indeed, both for the author who proposes it and for the reader who would accept it, and hence is rightly censured by the reviewer. What I wrote (pp. 19/20), however, was: "I am quite aware that all this does not suffice as an apology in the eyes of scholars who do not like footnotes. For them, however, I have an, apparently so far unsuspected, way out of the problem: one need not read them (all)!" Although I am not sure whether this will win over any reader to enthusiastically embark on a perusal of a 600 page book, I do think that this flaw deserved mending.

It is a trifle, however, as compared with the second error, for which I blushingly claim full responsibility. An attempt to repair it requires some contextualisation. The context is my treatment of Vernant and his equipe. Professor Bonnet objects to my "insistent tendency to draw a bead on the school of Vernant" ("une insistance à prendre pour cible l'école de Vernant") a sample of which she finds in my pages 11-18. This is part of the Introduction and is concerned with a critical discussion of the modish and widespread fixation of viewing the Greeks as "desperately alien". Here I state that after its introduction by Fustel de Coulange "it was the early (sic) 'École de Paris'1 led by Jean- Pierre Vernant in particular that stressed the alienness of the Greeks", while listing other scholars of sometimes quite different 'schools' who followed this track. At the end I refer to quite a contrary approach, the one that pleads for a basically universal and ongoing identity of the human race. One of its representatives is Walter Burkert, who in this connection (and elsewhere) explicitly takes exception to the structuralistic approaches of Lévi-Strauss and (the different one) of Vernant. "Cultural others" versus "natural humans" are expressions, denounced by the reviewer, that summarize the two different positions. They must (and can only) be correctly understood within the discussion of "the desperately alien" concept, in which I myself choose a position "between these two extremes" (p. 15).

The first chapter, on the workings of Greek polytheism, opens — "in the most honest sense of the word honoris causa"p. 27) — with a fundamental exposition of the contrasting positions of the most "eminent students of Greek religion" of the second part of the last century, Vernant and Burkert, of whom I feel that "all students of Greek religion stand in debt of at least one of these protagonists, many — including the present writer — of both" (p. 26). This exposition (pp. 26-33) is deliberately based on pronouncements by the two protagonists themselves, only occasionally followed by a brief summary in my own words. "Catéchisme structuraliste" (censured by Professor Bonnet) is not my own verdict but my summary of Burkert's view on Vernant's pantheon, just as "a scattered and heterogeneous pantheon (. . .) a kind of chaos" is Vernant's own summary of the views of Burkert (p. 26). Here too, I myself found that "both views have their merits but each at a different level of discourse and viewed from a different perspective" (p. 6).

It is tragic that precisely in my panegyrical presentation of "the two outstanding champions in the study of Greek religion of the last forty years" (p. 27) things go dramatically wrong. In my desire to extend the highest praise for the intellectual giant whom I have admired since my student days, I wrote: "Jean-Pierre Vernant, initiator, indefatigable patron, and till his death in 2007 the eminence grise of what is generally referred to as the École de Paris" (p. 26). When reading Professor Bonnet's indignant reaction: "Je me permets d'ajouter qu'une figure aussi immense, sur le plan scientifique et humain, que Vernant mérite assurément mieux que la qualification d'« éminence grise »" I realized my blunder. The inhabitants of such a negligible little country as the Netherlands easily tend to develop a sense of inferiority. They try to mend this by using as many foreign words as possible, often in a surprisingly unexpected sense. In Dutch dictionaries you will find for eminence grise: 'elderly person (gray hair!) of high (eminent!) authority in a special field'. In French dictionaries, as I now recalled, the term never lost its original reference to the Capuchin abbé (gray habit) Père Joseph, assistant of Cardinal Richelieu (the éminence rouge due to his red cappa magna). Thus jokingly referred to as 'éminence (which he was not) grise' he was a man of inferior rank with some influence but (sneakily) active only behind the scenes. Hence what in Dutch ears is understood as highest praise, to the French sounds as a very dubious designation. That is why I now offer my sincere apologies to all French readers and most of all to Professor Bonnet for this most unfortunate misnomer, which could not but provoke regrettable misunderstandings. As a result I am now firmly resolved never to use foreign, in particular French, expressions anymore. With even more emphasis I wish to express my admiration for a reviewer who, despite her fully justified indignation, has written a review sine ira et studio (to say the least). Chapeau!


1.   At p. 35 n. 41 I expressly restrict my use of this sobriquet for the works of Vernant, Detienne and Vidal Naquet and their close adherents, referring to a relevant remark by Stella Georgoudi, and pointing out that her and some others' contributions to the "nouvelle cuisine" can be seen as a consistent "auto-critique" of the approach characteristic of the old Paris cuisine. As a matter of fact in Georgoudi's current works as well as for instance in those of Belayche (mentioned by Bonnet) I do not recognize typically "Parisian" traces at all.

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