Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 483-485
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A Cultural Landscape
The Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape. By PREDRAG MATVEJEVIC. Translated by MICHAEL HENRY HEIM. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. 218. $29.95 (cloth).
For decades, Fernand Braudel has dominated the study of the Mediterranean as a historical unit (Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II [Paris: Armand Colin, 95th ed., 1990]). While regional studies have followed his monumental work, few have re-attempted Braudel's feat. Over the last decade, however, a number of scholars have emerged to build upon his work. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell have analyzed the microenvironments of the Mediterranean, and have traced Braudel's longue durée to antiquity (Peregrin Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History [Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000]). Predrag Matvejevic offers a subjective perspective on the history of the Mediterranean, arguing that it cannot be reduced to prescribed categories. Matvejevic contends that Braudel was the first to realize that his model got away from him as he was writing about the sea, overwhelming the reader with a barrage of information. This is precisely what Matvejevic attempts to avoid. His task is one of poetically evoking rather than tightly representing the Mediterranean. More than a defined place on the map, the Mediterranean becomes a cultural and intellectual product. It is a sea of promiscuity where the ideas, religions, traditions, and languages have shaped history. The author describes the Mediterranean as the basis for history and culture, and his philosophy of the sea tries to encompass everything.
Definitions, of course, are slippery, and the author sets out to limit [End Page 483] the scope of the Mediterranean. For Matvejevic the sea stretches as far as the olive tree grows. Here he emerges with a truly holistic vision, supporting the concept of a Mediterranean ecumene in which interaction is the foundation of the surrounding societies. The author addresses the question: "How can anyone take so many forms and structures, so many groupings of lands and vegetation . . . and compress it into a system?" (p. 30). Matvejevic seeks to encompass "[t]he sea and all that goes with it" (p. 35). Matvejevic reveals how the environment affected the lives of people and how the Mediterranean itself was shaped by human production. For instance, he claims "[s]outhern eccentrics differ from their northern counterparts, and not only for reasons of climate: the Mediterranean's psychic climate is also distinctive" (p. 43). Matvejevic renders a subjective account of the sea and confesses that "[n]o one writes about the Mediterranean or sails it without personal involvement" (p. 66). But the author has a specific reason for his introspection. Halfway through the book he defines his objective: "to portray the presence of these peoples on the sea, or rather, their relationship to the sea insofar as it can be derived from history or the past" (p. 73).
Matvejevic's concern is less with political occurrences than with the marking influences of climate, religion, food, and intercultural relations. He offers a systemic approach proposing to retrace the Mediterranean as a place of promiscuity and commonalties, linked by the sea. He depicts graveyards, lighthouses, monasteries, dead languages, marketplaces, harbors, islands, but also sounds, winds, and currents. He appeals to the olfactory memory associating smells with places. Napoleon himself, on a visit to his island, Corsica, felt the proximity of the shore in the aroma of the Maquis. Matvejevic scrutinizes vegetation and fruits that make the Mediterranean a coherent entity. His inventory seeks to recapture the world of its inhabitants. The author often paints with an undeniably Braudelian brush in this production of a cultural and historical Mediterranean landscape. One of his ways to retrace the history of interaction is through linguistics, perennially referring to the Greek tradition so as to provide evident linkages between the numerous Mediterranean actors.
Despite Matvejevic's poetic evocation, he can hardly escape the need to provide a clearer outline for his work. Dividing the book into...