the Atlantis mythly

Let’s not get carried away. The scientists discovered no traces of human habitation in the Lost City, let alone a Patrick-Duffy-lookalike sub-species of homo sapiens, but it must be more than a coincidence that they discovered something deep under the Atlantic that looked to them like a ‘lost city’ in a place known as ‘Atlantis’. Perhaps some time from the ninth to the seventh century BC, some ancient Phoenicians had got blown adrift as they tried to circumnavigate Africa and someone had fallen overboard and been sucked down to the deepest depths by a freak current during a freak tsunami, and had briefly seen the white chimneys and imagined it was a lost city, his imagination somewhat disorientated by the intravenous bubbles of the bends.

Perhaps with his last gasp, this hypothetical Phoenician deep-sea-diver-despite-himself had described what he had seen to his shipmates, and they had passed the information on to the Egyptians, who wrote it up in hieroglyphs. And perhaps the Egyptians had passed it on to Solon of Athens (flourished c.600 BC), and perhaps Solon had passed it on to Critias the Elder, who passed it on to his grandson Critias the Tyrant, just as Critias’ cousin Plato insisted. After all, have scientists not discovered just such grains of truth in the stories of the Flood (the creation of the Black Sea) or of Exodus (a reddish algal bloom that might, had it occurred, have been misinterpreted as blood, and have driven out the frogs to produce a salientian plague and an explosion in the fly population; volcanic activity leading to an opportune parting of the Red Sea or of a similar-sounding stretch of water)?

Well, haven’t they?

I expected the linked piece to be mostly about the search for Atlantis, but it’s more a reflection on the task of the historian in general, and on the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, in particular:

In his little history of Plato’s myth therefore the two sides of his historical activism come together: on the one hand, the analysis of the myth qua myth, a work of imagination, produced for a specific purpose in a specific historical context by an ingenious enemy of historians; on the other, the narrative of failures to recognise Plato’s hoax for what it was. Here history appears above all as work to be done and truth as something to be fought for, in need of constant subsidy over years, decades and centuries.

But perceived parallels between Atlantis and the Dreyfus Affair mean that Vidal-Naquet perhaps overemphasises the role of raison d’état in the success of Atlantomania and they provoke him to set up a binary opposition between total truth and total lies, between purely imaginative works of construction and historical events, an opposition that is neither plausible nor necessary. It is not, after all, completely impossible that the Egyptians did notice and record the submersion of Santorini, that Plato noticed the submersion of Helike or indeed of other cities, that there were traditions about a lost city or a lost continent, that information was garbled in time and translation. I would be surprised if that were so, but even if I were surprised I don’t see how that would make the slightest bit of difference to Vidal-Naquet’s argument. What could be more effective for a writer interested in reality-effects than a touch of reality itself? The most dangerously seductive myths are the ones that are sprinkled with the little-seeming grains of seeming truth.


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