Review of: Paul-André Claudel, Atlantides rêvées – Archéologie et Imaginaire, in: Hypotheses.org (blog), four parts 2017-2020.
On the blog "Hypotheses.org", the French modern literature scholar Paul-André Claudel (1978-) from the University of Nantes published a multi-part article on Plato's Atlantis in 2017-2020. The connecting factor for him is the interest in literature about the Orient of the 19th century, and in this context "Mediterranean myths", to which he includes Atlantis.
First of all, we have to agree with Paul-André Claudel in principle: The story of Atlantis has been processed many times in literature and is thus naturally also of interest to modern literary scholars. The point Claudel is trying to make is therefore not objectionable in principle. On the contrary. This research is to be supported.
Unfortunately, Claudel commits the usual errors in considering the origin of the Atlantis story in Plato. This in no way devalues Claudel's approach and concern, but the perennial misconceptions about Plato's Atlantis can, of course, damage the analyses and conclusions Claudel builds on them. Therefore, let us go through some of these fallacies.
First, Atlantis is presented as a rich, fabulous wonderland, "trop beau pour ne pas y croire", i.e. "too beautiful not to believe in". Or: "civilisation extrêmement brillante, riche, prospère, très avancée technologiquement". Or: "paradis perdu". All this is inaccurate. Plato's Atlantis was certainly a land blessed by nature, comparable to Herodotus' descriptions of Mespotamia, but still not a wonderland. Claudel also often mixes the modern reworking of the story and the original story. Claudel is absolutely right that the word Atlantis today has an almost magical meaning and invites us to dream. But that is only the modern reworking of the story.
Allegedly, the Atlantis story resembles other fictional texts of the ancient Greeks from Plato's time. However, this is false and does not become any truer through constant repetition. The historical novel came into being several centuries after Plato. If Plato's Atlantis is a fiction, then it is a deception of the reader, but not a novelistic fictional allegory that should be recognised as such by the reader.
Allegedly Atlantis was an integral part of the whimsical myths about the edges of the world. This too is false. Atlantis is not integrated into this other mythology, nor is Atlantis located on a mythical edge of the world, but on the edge of the known world, in a place very specifically named by Plato. Aristotle confirms the presence of mud at the site where Atlantis is said to have sunk and offers no alternative explanation of its origin.
Allegedly, Atlantis is a typical mythical illustration of the kind often found in Plato's in dialogues. A concrete example is the Analogy of the Cave: No one would look for this cave. But this comparison does not work. The Atlantis story is not presented as a myth. Nor is it an analogy. Prima facie, the Atlantis story is presented as a historical account. It may be an invention, but it is not a myth or an analogy. It is explicitly stated that it is not a "mythos" but a "logos".
The history of reception is also misrepresented. In this, Claudel follows Pierre Vidal-Naquet's numerous errors. For example, Claudel believes that hardly anyone in antiquity cared about Atlantis or that the sceptical reading prevailed. Vidal-Naquet would have shown that Atlantis does not appear in serious texts. But it does occur in serious texts.
It is false that Aristotle and Strabon were against the existence of Atlantis. It is obviously an allusion to Strabon II 102, but there is no mention of Aristotle at all, and Strabon is in favour of Atlantis' existence, not a sceptic. The idea that in Strabon II 102 there is a word of Aristotle against the existence of Atlantis is an error that arose in the early 19th century, and was clearly named as an error in 2010 at the latest. In the meantime, the search for other possible authors for the word against the existence of Atlantis in question has begun.
Claudel says that at the end of the Middle Ages and with the beginning of the Renaissance, people began to see Atlantis as a real place, so that the sceptical reading became a minority. Then in the 18th century there was supposedly a pause in the reception of Atlantis. Finally, the 19th and 20th centuries were the "second golden age" of Atlantis reception. Ignatius Donnelly is particularly singled out. It was only in the 20th century that interpretation as fictional allegory got the upper hand again, according to Claudel. But all this is sadly mistaken. Interpretation as reality had the upper hand throughout from antiquity to the beginning of the 19th century. It was only in the course of the 19th century, not the 20th century, that opinion tilted towards fiction, i.e. even before Donnelly published his pseudo-scientific work.
The problem is that Claudel sees in Donnelly a new literary genre, "celui de l'imaginaire, par essence invérifiable, ou infalsifiable". This is a false analysis. Donnelly understood his work as pure non-fiction, not as imagination, which only could not be refuted. Donnelly himself believed in what he wrote. So it is either true or erroneous. Donnelly is not fiction, but pseudo-science.
The portrayal of Atlantis proponents as "literalists" who read Plato "à la lettre" is completely wrong. There are indeed such people. But it is precisely the supporters of the Minoan hypothesis that Claudel mentions who are badly described by this. The idea of historical-critical interpretation does not occur at all in Claudel. Instead, reference is made to the outrageous book "The Atlantis Syndrome" by Paul Jordan, which declares the thought of a possible existence of Atlantis to be an illness.
Socrates' demand leading to the telling of the Atlantis story is completely misrepresented. Supposedly, Socrates wonders whether the ideal state has a real correspondence or is just a sweet dream. This is inaccurate. It is also inaccurate that the participants in the dialogue should now decide this.
It has nothing to do with Atlantis, but for the sake of completeness: the demiurge of the Timaeus is described as the creator of matter. Of course he is not. That is only the religious reading of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Interestingly, Claudel says that he prefers to read Atlantis as fiction, even if it were real: "Ne vaudrait-il pas mieux goûter le récit de l'Atlantide essentiellement pour lui-même ? C'est le choix que nous ferons." He is welcome to do so with the later revisions of the Atlantis story, but the original story should please be read only as it was meant by its author and understood by his contemporaries.
There is much more that could be said, but we will leave it at that.
Paul-André Claudel relied on the widespread scholarly literature on Plato's Atlantis, apparently above all on Pierre Vidal-Naquet, for Vidal-Naquet's "perversité" of Plato is not lacking either. This left him defenceless against many errors. This is not his fault, but the fault of the current state of scholarship. The current state of scientific opinion on Plato's Atlantis is deplorable.
Of course, this in no way devalues Claudel's approach and concerns. An exploration of the fictional literature on Atlantis and the later reworkings of the original story is legitimate and worthy of support.
Maître de Conférences en littératures comparées
Département Lettres Modernes, Université de Nantes
Paul-André Claudel, Atlantides rêvées – Archéologie et Imaginaire, in: Hypotheses.org (blog), four parts 2017-2020.