Monday, January 30, 2006


Greeks have always had a special affinity for libraries, though contrary to common belief, they did not invent them. Indeed, this honour belongs to the Sumerians. Archaeological findings from the diggings of the ancient city-states of Sumer have revealed temple rooms full of clay tablets in cuneiform script. These archives, as in Egypt, were made up nearly completely of the records of commercial transactions or inventories, with only a few documents touching pther matters
What the Greeks did was to separate arbitrary record collecting from the bureaucracy and establish libraries for public or personal use. Private or personal libraries made up of non-fiction and fiction books in the form of parchment or papyrus scrolls, as opposed to the state or institutional records kept in archives first appeared in classical Greece, some time near the 5th century BC. There were a few institutional or royal libraries like the Library of Alexandria which were open to an educated public, but on the whole collections were private. In those rare cases where it was possible for a scholar to consult library books there seems to have been no direct access to the stacks. In all recorded cases the books were kept in a relatively small room where the staff went to get them for the readers, who had to consult them in an adjoining hall or covered walkway.
Whereas libraries and their functions have greatly changed since then, though in Greece, the concept of a public lending library is still is in its infancy owing to unique cultural attitudes, the 'Greek civilisation's' fate is inextricably bound up in its attitude to its libraries. The loss of the great libraries of Alexandria and then Pergamum, as well as ensuing the destruction of enormous quantities of recorded Greek thought (where else could one store culture by the kilo?) could well nigh have served as metaphors for the inevitable decline and fall of the civilisations they were meant to record and propagate in the continents of Africa and Asia. It is mortally sad to consider that in war-ravaged Afghanistan, thousands of miles away from the Greek metropolis, the lost Aristotelian manuscripts of the Hellenistic library of Ai Khanum have etched themselves into the rocks before wasting away, as if in a vain quest for immortality and relevance, only to be looted and destroyed by the mujaheddin, Taliban and glorious Occidental liberating occupation forces.
There has always been a sense of urgency in the Greek attitude towards libraries, linked to an obsession with the past. Especially during Byzantium, it was felt that it was necessary to store and protect the writings of those now superseded, as if culture was not vibrant or alive but peregrinating on a pernicious precipice, threating to teeter over the edge into oblivion. One's libraries were felt to be the soul of the nation, the final bastion of its identiy when all vestiges of temporal power would vanish. It comes as no surprise then, that the Arab Caliphs would seek Greek manuscripts from the Emperors in lieu of tribute. It was tantamount to selling one's soul, though such surrendering of one's heritage did have its flipside. The Syriac Christians in the Arab Chaliphate would develop and disseminate Greek thought to a hitherto uknown degree, refining it to the extent where it would be commercially viable for it be plundered and purveyed all around Europe by the Crusaders hundreds of years later.
That Hellenism survived at all during the years of Ottoman occupation can also be directly attributed to our forefathers' acquisitive mania. Monasteries became the repositories not only of religion, but also of Greek learning and culture. The cavernous monastery libraries, stacked with manuscripts of most ancient provenance served as temporary mausolea for a culture dormant and under seige, but ready to arise again when the Marbled King would return. They also came in handy during the War of Independence, many of them being ripped out of their bindings and used to prime muskets, proving how one's culture can defend one from physical as well as moral dissolution.
We are good hoarders then and our seige mentality continues. For as a nation, in keeping with our original conviction of making libraries not so accessible to users, our primary motivation seems to still be the storage of the documentray records of our sojourn on this earth. There is almost a Byzantine apocalyptic feeling of a straitening of time. We don't have the capability or the ease in which to interpret, study and assess the legacy preserved by our well-secreted books. All we can do is bury them somewhere safe and hope that others will find them, be inspired to review them and consider how 'great' we really are.
The famous archives of LaTrobe University's Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research are a case in point. Over the past decade, that august institution has managed to amass a comprehensive and invaluable archive of our sojourn in this country. Yet the number of staff and researchers, especially in today's climate which does not favour such economically unproductive pursuits are not nearly as many as a required to fully study the importance of such archives and by implication, our community as a whole. Yet in years to come, when memories and knowledge of our identity fade, shall that which will sustain us be the knowledge that our heart is hidden in the bowels of some university library and like the giant in the Arabian nights fantasy, we shall not fade until such a heart is destroyed? And who knows, maybe in years to come, bemused descendants of our community organisation's librarians, who currently boast about the 'archives' they have ammassed pertaining to their own community's settlement here, will pore over such 'archives,' discover who purchased potatoes for the 1937 annual dinner dance and have an epiphany.
Given the above, the news that the Greek government has recently announced plans to create a 'library of migrant Greek literature' is merely symptomatic of this unintelligent hoarding attitude. The rationale for the creation of this library apparently is that too many migrant works of literature that are sent to Greece to be exhibited, languish in basements and storerooms and either never see the light of day or are ignored.
At first instance, this seems a worthy idea. Writers can only produce their art in the context of a receptive community, so they deserve our full support. However, we learn that this library will not be created here in Australia, where it is needed most but in Greece and more specifically in the grounds of the Foreign Ministry. Apparently, it will act as a 'database' so that all Greek migrant literature will be collected and documented…. And then what? How many Greek scholars will seriously concern themselves with what certain Greek academics both in Greece and Australia often consider to be 'inferior literature.' It is also inconceivable that the Greek public at large will gain greater awarness of our literary efforts by the creation of such a sepulchre to our aspirations to culture. I for one am not often to be found at the library of our own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. What this latest 'positive move' by our august cultural protectors seems to be, is a mere smokescreen to cover the increasing inanity of their own irrelevance and a manifestation of our historical attitude of pickling even the most far-flung and limited in use tentacles of our cultural octopus, for possible consumption at a later date ie. when all the migrant Greeks have assimilated or vanished.
The creation, not of a mausoleum but a public lending library open to the Greek community would seem ideal. In this way, the Greek community could have access not only to the works of local writers but also to the current literary trends of the mother culture. Yet this prospect too is fraught with difficulties. The number of Greeks with the capacity and willingness to read Greek is gradually declining. The Greek section of most public libraries (as usual, being incapable of doing anything of our own accord, we have had to have the government step in and do it for us) has become static, with books remaining on the shelves unread for years. When we needed such a library, we lacked the perspicacity to create one. Now, as we emerge Rip Van Winkle-like from our arrogant sleep of delusion and cultural perpetuation, we notice to our shock that the world is a very different place to that which we had imagined and that solutions, in a sub-culture that has morphed and mutated in a multitude of unexpected ways are elusive and ineffectual and that there is not much point to our cultural sepulchres, if we cannot read their inscriptions and shall gradually forget their existence, consigning them to a perpetual sleep. If anything, our stance is reminiscent of the arrogance of the pharaohs of old, compelling their subjects to toil at constructing a vast sepulchre, in the vain expectation that its existence and contents therein, would grant them eternal life. In keeping with this ancient tradition, it is therefore inconceivable that any Greek-Australian library is not built in pyramidal form.
Let us then pray for an apocalpyse that will at the end of days, sunder the seals of our entombed literary works and see them propagated by horsemen representing the souls of demented librarians. We leave you with perhaps the most far-seeing of quotes, from Clearchos of Soles, inscribed at the ηρώον of Ai Khanum:
"As children, learn good manners.
As young men, learn to control the passions.
In middle age, be just.
In old age, give good advice.
Then die, without regret."

First published in NKEE on 30 January 2006