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“Indigenous”? How Dare You?

Grave stele c. 340 BC found in the Ilissos river near Athens. A young warrior mourned by his aged father, small son, and dog.

753 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

Translations of this English translation: Czech, Ukrainian

No man is blinder than someone who refuses to see. I thought of this adage recently while reading a long public diatribe by a retired classicist.[1] Enjoying a status privileged in France and even in the United States where he taught at a reputable university, the good professor mocked the term chosen by his compatriots who call themselves “indigenous” or “autochthonous,” i.e., as the Greek etymology indicates, born of themselves, of the same blood and the same soil.

“In the middle of fifth century before our era,” he writes, “a small city-state in Greece was struck by the virus of the ‘hypertrophy of the ego’”—“a frightening epidemic,” added the professor emeritus. Consider: this epidemic “resulted in instituting an annual ceremony in which a speaker, expert in funeral orations, celebrated the immemorial glory of the Athenians before the graves of the war dead.” What an absurd idea, indeed, to celebrate the glory of the city and those who died in war! This disturbing “hypertrophy of the ego” even led the Athenians to build some negligible marble monuments like the Parthenon, which resisted the millennia and various invasions to the eternal admiration of morons like us. It also led them to raise other equally trivial monuments: those of the spirit (the transmission of the Homeric poems, the invention of philosophy, tragic drama, and historical investigation), which nourish us to this day and that the curious classicist finds it astonishing that we still quote.  This whole heritage is indeed irritating.

And what a deplorable example! “The [French] historians of the 1880s began to write a history of France, born from itself.” Truly a scandal! And that is not all: “Just as the monks who in 12th century invented the ‘Christian cemetery,’ excluding Jews, infidels, foreigners, and other non-believers, they [the historians] continue to maintain, from one Republic to another, the belief that we are the heirs of the dead, specifically of our dead, since prehistory. The ‘great historians’ [note the quotation marks] vouch for them.” How sad!

To believe our retired academic, in France the idea of the national identity—which thus comes to us from Athens and ancient Greece—is in the air today. This revelation fills him with distress.

Indeed, how inept, given the ascendant global flux of financial exchange, obviously so beneficial, encourages on the contrary a “nomadic” feeling, to use his words. Naturally it is easy to be “nomadic” when one travels only to the most beautiful places in the world, all expenses paid, cocooned by countless employees devoted to one’s comfort and safety.

The stele of Dexileos son of Lysanias

No doubt the last French “autochthones” who lacked the means or opportunity to escape, for example, from Villiers-le-Bel after the riots of November 2007 would also like to be “nomads” of this type. But their status as poor, aged, or abandoned “autochthones” prohibits that. And yet what a pretty name, “Villiers-le-Bel” (Villiers the Beautiful). An “autochthonous” name, which now resounds with cruel irony.

Why, you might ask, do I speak of such things? Because the historian must also take into account and not to be blind to what happens before his eyes. This is the lesson of Marc Bloch, contemporary and victim of the disaster of 1940. He recognized that his work had led him to be unaware of the importance of the events of his time. “It was a misinterpretation of history . . . We preferred to confine ourselves in the nervous silence of our offices. . . . Had we not always been good citizens?”[2] I cannot deny that such a precedent does not leave me indifferent.

And if one is not a complete idiot, a question emerges: Why is the desire for identity (to be conscious of who one is, in every layer of one’s existence, among those who are like you) creditable among American Blacks, Chinese, Arabs, Israelis, Uyghurs, Turks, or Gabonese but reprehensible among Europeans and French?

Now that is a question that needs to be answered.


[1] Marcel Detienne, in Le Monde, 12-13 July 2009, under the title: “La France sans terre ni mort” [France without land or dead].

[2] Marc Bloch, L’Etrange défaite (Editions Francs Tireurs, 1946), p. 188. Repenting his previous detachment, the great historian joined the Résistance. Captured, he was shot in June 1944.

Source: “Vous avez dit autochtone?”

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