The gay knowledge of Paul Veyne

Posted Oct 2, 2022, 10:24 AMUpdated Oct 2, 2022, 10:25 a.m.

Paul Veyne had chosen to title his delicious memories, published eight years ago, “And in eternity I will not be bored”. Now that he has passed away peacefully, in the night from Wednesday to Thursday, at this moment when, in his Vaucluse village of Bedoin, the early morning begins to quiver under the nocturnal cloak, it is consoling to think that with him eternity won’t be bored either. Because this immense scientist belonged to the rare species of historians who have the gift of telling stories.

All his work, made up of about twenty books, seemingly overwhelming with erudition, but so sparkling with mischief – incarnation of this “gay knowledge” celebrated by Frederic Nietzsche among the troubadours -, is living testimony to this. This remarkable Latin scholar, honorary professor of Roman history at the College de France, told how the discovery of an amphora point, on which, still a young southern schoolboy, he had stumbled upon, would give him the passion for Antiquity.

Combined with its “unusual curiosity”, formula so well found by his faithful editor Hélène Monsacré as the title of the anthology of his texts published two years ago in Books, we owe to this extraordinary familiarity with the ancient world his long explorations of rites and myths in the Athens of Socrates , his delight in sharing the tumultuous company of the Caesars, his empathy for these gladiators who had no choice but to burn alive or fight to the death, the meticulousness with which he followed in the footsteps of Seneca, who left Andalusia to make a fortune in Rome – showing that you can combine philosophy and business acumen perfectly – or even the desperate eloquence with which he resuscitated Palmyra damaged by the jihadists in 2015.

A “living good”

On the occasion of these detours in a past which founded our culture, and engendered this famous European model, undoubtedly in the process of weakening, but despite everything which keeps, thanks to these precious legacies of our elders, its power of influence on the whole planet, the man Paul Veyne brought his readers to share his own introspections, his intimate questions, accompanied by his fine observations on the world of today. Aware, as he pointed out in his brilliant inaugural lecture at the College de France, that “Even when they don’t know it, historians do the invariant as they do prose”.

Later, without false modesty, he will return in more detail in his memoirs, combining tenderness and earthiness, on the pains and what he called the ecstasies of a rich personal journey. Because this living well, a term that no doubt suits him better than living well, seems never to have intended to confine himself to the role of pure spirit.

In this assessment of a life, a host of questions jostle about his unusual destiny, whether it is the shadow of the far right weighing on his family history, the attitude he would have been able to take in the face of the Nazi occupation, of his unique physique due to a congenital malformation, of his passage, we will say as “in passing”, in the Communist Party, of his anti-colonial militancy during the Algerian war …

Remaining resistant to religion until the end, without ceasing to question his relationship to Catholicism, he was in the best position to take up the subject at the root, by introducing himself into the mind of Constantine, the emperor who converted the world to Christianity.

All his expeditions in such distant times suddenly seemed so close to us through the magic of his pen, and his inimitable way of evoking them as if we were their contemporaries, so much so that we sometimes undertook them more to take advantage of the guide only by predilection for their destination.

Paul Veyne was not a historian like the others, which sometimes earned him the exclusion of honors that some of his eminent colleagues accumulated, but which also explains the friendship mixed with reciprocal admiration. which linked him to Michel Foucault, much more suspect than him in the eyes of the proponents of academic history.

imaginary museum

His interests were limitless, except maybe music, because he felt he had no ear for it. A great lover of poetry, he “translated” in his own way the hermetic poems of his neighbor from Vaucluse, René Char, long before tackling the colossal work of translating the Aeneid of his dear Virgil. His imaginary museum, where he revisits some masterpieces of the Renaissance, obviously makes you want to be accompanied by a scholar of his caliber, each time you go to the Louvre, the Uffizi or the Prado.

But this mischievous curiosity which so much characterized him, and without which there is no true intelligence, did not stop there; it redoubled in intensity when it was simply a matter of getting to know the other better, of sharing with a friend or, even more, of falling in love. This climber was certainly less of a runner than a seducer, cultivating the art of conversation with women. Little focused on male battles of postures, he savored these exchanges which had no other stakes of power than those so subtle of confidence.

He thus knew beautiful stories of feminine friendship, and sealed by three marriages his most beautiful love encounters. Of Françoise, the last wife, the great intellectual had said, when she died of cancer, three and a half years before her own death, that he saw her walk through the gates of paradise wide open. This poetry madman had summed up this vision in a verse which, undoubtedly, is just as valid for the beyond of his busy 92 years: “And, to honor him, the angels arise”.


Bread and the Circus

Fruit of his thesis on ancient evergetism, that is to say the codification of the gift in the Greco-Roman world.

Did the Greeks believe their myths?

On the role of cultural transmission of myth among the Greeks, and on what could have led them to grant such beliefs to so many incredible things. One of his great successes.

When our world became Christian

Sumptuous study of this decisive break in the history of the Western world constituted by the conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century. Masterfully conducted.

How we write history

Essay in epistemology. He protested there against the so-called “laws of history”, breaking spectacularly with Marxist historiography, but his defense of the role of “intrigues”, even more than just events, in the march of the world (he would have liked giving the title of his book “Intrigues dans le sublunaire”) also distanced him from the all-powerful school of the Annales.

And in eternity I won’t be bored

Playful and moving memories, addressing all facets of what Paul Veyne was. A reading delight.

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The gay knowledge of Paul Veyne

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