a pluralist antidote to nationalist fervour
13 May 2021
George Ttoouli Independent Scholar
Any attempt to represent a national identity can quickly become perceived as futile and flawed. Such a totalising ambition brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘On Exactitude in Science,’ which describes an empire’s obsessive pursuit of perfection in cartography. This leads to the useless creation of a map of the empire to a 1:1 scale, which must in turn be abandoned: “In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.”
In spite of – or, more likely, because of – this, the Greek Studies Now network called for creative responses to the theme ‘What Greece...?’ and the connection to the ‘many Greeces’ this inspired. Even given the decidedly open range of interpretations we might bring to this theme, the form was highly restrictive; it’s impossible to produce an epic account of nationhood in three weeks, or squeeze the full range of a country’s history into a three-minute video. Yet perhaps this was the point. The call was not an invitation to forge an epic, but the opposite: the creation of a collection of plural perspectives and bite-sized self-reflections.
Taken together, these many contributions to ‘What Greece...?’ add up to something far greater than the sum of parts: a thing called Greece that cannot be contained. Embedded in the nineteen works, comprising almost an hour of footage, you’ll find a fulfilling gamut of experiences, emotions and aesthetics, all of which serve to challenge the sense that Greece or Greekness can be reduced to a tourist’s postcard image of a marble statue eating a souvlaki, or an economist’s infinitely impossible race to keep up with its Eurodebt. What you will not find is any consistency, which may seem flawed to some, but for myself is something to celebrate.
Even the Greek state’s construction of Greekness turns out to be built on a fault line. Orfeas Apergis’ playful mistranslations of Kostis Palamas’ ‘Olympic Hymn’ (‘What Portion of Greece is Lost in Translation?’, 21:35) pushes the absurdity of nationalist poetics built on myth into childlike pop-popping doggerel, in Greek and English. This in turn led to a discussion of the fundamental fuzziness of Greek nationalism (1:10:30). Peeling back a couple of layers of history, Apergis revealed Dionysios Solomos’ roots in Italian language, and an epigraph adapted from Dante on the frontispiece of his original poem, which Greece’s ‘Hymn to Liberty.’1
The anthology’s workings between Greek and the network’s lingua franca, English, also raised questions. Theodoros Chiotis referred to Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson’s description of translation as a ‘deformation zone’ (1:29:05), or a wound that makes impossible connections between languages and unsettles boundaries, so as to characterise the precarity of imagining Greece as a contained whole. Chiotis’ contribution (‘War Machine (Nation4Nation I)’, 43:26) processed contemporary Greek images through algorithms, warping Greece’s present with a techno-aesthetic, while his poetry challenged state machinery’s destruction of unfit bodies. The message echoed well against Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s similar concerns in ‘Greece is a Body’ (8:15).
This concern with bodies and how they (we) fit into Greece’s body politic led to a surprising number of works wherein the artists obscured or effaced themselves. While Apergis slowly lowers and raises the Greek flag like a mask, others, such as Elina Psykou (‘Neighbourhood Greece’, 19:20), Glykeria Basdeki (‘Missing Greece’, 24:45), Erofili Kokkali (‘Spell Breaking’, 40:23), and Vassilis Amanatidis (‘Hell_ _ Service’, 32:34), obscure and compromise their faces and bodies with posters, mirrors and even a close up of Caravaggio’s head of Medusa.
Notably, only Maria Fakinou’s work (‘Just a Perfect Day, Feed Animals in the Zoo’, 47:26) involved the artist sitting and recollecting experiences directly to camera, with the immediacy of an interview. Her work, and that of Pavlina Marvin, Danae Sioziou and Hera MacPhail’s playful ‘Greek Dream’ (12:32), in which MacPhail practices aerial gymnastics in a park against a reading of Sioziou’s poetry, assert artists’ bodies in very different ways against statist visions of Greekness, demanding space for more lives and more personal experiences. Even today, patriarchy sees threats in women with political opinions, or female bodies moving freely in a public park. The same is true for many other identities, experiences and behaviours. Both contributions take their titles from outside of reality: the myth of Lou Reed’s perfect day, the meaning of which Fakinou transforms in her recollection; and the Greek dream, for which the people addressed in Sioziou’s poem have given their lives. How far is Greek society from these dreams?
My position among Greece’s diaspora made the issue of ‘passing as Greek’ particularly evident. I carry the classic hybrid problem with me, of never feeling quite at home in Britain for my Greekness and always waiting for my language to betray me as English in Greece. In conversation after the event, when I claimed to feel very ‘unGreek’ in this crowd, Alexis Radisoglou shared a fascinating anecdote about his experience of being ‘overly’ appropriated in the body of the nation, despite being half-Greek and half-German. He contrasted his experiences to a course mate of his, who being a person of colour in Greece and despite their total fluency of language and accent, experiences Greece through othering and exclusion.
This theme of passing manifested in playful ways in the anthology, such as in Christos Chrissopoulos’ literal act of passing the wrong way up a one-way street (‘Fylis Street – Opposite Direction’, 34:47), against a repetitive electronic sound track and extracts from Odysseas Elytis’ To Axion Esti. The significance of the street was lost on me as an outsider to Athens, but the editors tell me it is noted for its (often unlicensed) places of sex work. This, then, is yet another site where women’s bodies negotiate capitalist patriarchy’s power structures, on the periphery of legitimacy and visibility. It’s easy to forget how unnerving cities can be and how close to transgression we are as citizens, wherever we call home. Yet there was also a disturbing reminder of the damage state impositions on identity can cause by forcing people to try and pass as conventional. Patricia Kolaiti’s ironic closing thanks “to Patriarchy and Greek Orthodox Christianity” in ‘Groundhog Day – A Diary in Nine Voices’ (15:39) followed on from a stark documentary poem invoking state and religious suppressions of sexuality.
I began my own contribution, ‘Parchment Scalpel Rock : Legacy’ (27:22), by exploring the effects of acid rain on cultural sites in Greece, imagined Achaean artefacts, Greekness, literally melting away through climate change. Yet Brexit has also been on my mind this year, limiting my access to family and friends and inspiring British nationalist pride in, for example, Churchill’s racist warmongering. This led me in turn to unearth a Mass Observation event recorded by the British during the Dekemvriana: a violent communist uprising in Athens in December 1944 against the British-backed right-wing Government instated by Churchill after Germany’s retreat.
As an outsider to Greece’s history, the complexity and conditions that led to the Dekemvriana escapes me, but the recorded response of British soldiers in Greece was jaw-dropping. The Mass Observation event documents British soldiers lambasting Churchill for substituting the Nazis they had ousted with Greek fascists, using the kind of statements that lead to vilification in England’s public discourse today. Ironic how, shortly before the ‘What Greece…?’ event, a Greece-born British prince died, inspiring more nationalist fervour here. Nationalist identities are such fragile myths, despite their potency, quick to erode under careful scrutiny.
While some audience members raised the issue of the anthology’s Athenocentricity, I felt there was much on offer in terms of plural voices, aesthetics and identities. In fact, perhaps it’s the cultural familiarity of Athens that made those moments stand out for some viewers amid sometimes alienating and alienated contributions. If most participants seem connected by only one or two degrees of separation, then that’s due to the network’s nascency. As the network strengthens its new centre at the periphery of the louder resurging traditions and conventions trumpeting the 200-year anniversary of Greek Independence, it will by necessity begin with proximal voices. Yet for anyone who doesn’t feel represented by those state-funded projects: this network is for you. Bring your voice, your self, your own critiques and challenges; bring your body and be welcome.
For myself, located on the periphery of modern Greek (or, for that matter English) cultural centres, this chance to participate in a project very much at the cutting edge of ‘now’ and from such a plural sense of Greek creativity was tremendously energising. I think of Kamau Brathwaite’s notion of holding up “a broken mirror to broeken nature” (in Magical Realism, 322) as a reminder of where nationalising projects inevitably lead. ‘What Greece...?’ stands as an antidote to totalising exclusions, celebrating the many voices on display in this small hour as they make a space to critique and mend and validate our bodies within the wider world.
1 With thanks to Eleni Papargyriou, who nuanced this discussion through the event’s YouTube chat.
George Ttoouli is a poet, editor and teacher based in Coventry, UK. His latest collection of poetry is from Animal Illicit (Broken Sleep 2020).