Monday, June 12, 2006


"The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language/ after so many centuries of mingling/ with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners./ The only thing surviving from their ancestors/ was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,/ with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths./ And it was their habit toward the festival's end/ to tell each other about their ancient customs/ and once again to speak Greek names/ that only few of them still recognized./ And so their festival always had a melancholy ending/ because they remembered that they too were Greeks, /they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia; /and how low they'd fallen now, /what they'd become, /living and speaking like barbarians,/ cut off so disastrously from Hellenism." Cavafy, Poseidoniatae.
It appears from the above that there are two types of festivals that pertain to our discourse. The first is the no holds barred, no beg your pardons panygyri which stems from an innate desire to kick back and revel in being, well, ourselves in all of our gastronomical manifestations, whether that take the form of a fasolada festival, sardine festival, or wine festival. These festivals, though derived from the grass roots of a generation that has had intimate contact with and thus is a witness of an ancestral pre-migration society, generally tend to be poorly attended by latter generations and even by the target generation itself, indicating that their relevance to the current zeitgeist of our community is becoming increasingly slight. Nonetheless, they exist and it is comforting to know that in this plastic world of silicon implants, silicone tears and silicon sealed marble bench tops that memories of a time when one could delight in the simple act of devouring a sardine are soul-salving.
The second type of festival is that which is referred to by Cavafy above. Though the Poseidonians, inhabitants of a Greek colony in southern Italy gradually became latinised, they could not ever conceive of a reality divorced from their Greek heritage, even though this was increasingly a burden upon them. Consequently, their adherence to the rubrics of a Greek festival with dancing and singing was not merely going through the motions or attempting to resuscitate a dead culture. Rather, it was an expression of a desperate need to remind themselves of who they were at a time when the very identity they were clinging on to so desperately was finally eluding their grasp.
Our community's major festival here in Melbourne, is aptly named the Antipodes Festival, given that we are, compared to our ancestral homeland, at the opposite end of the earth. If indeed antipodes means opposite, then we find ourselves in a Lewis Carrol-like looking-glass world where the further we progress therein, the further social norms and logic is inverted, leaving us damned if we act but equally damned through our own inaction. This is a world where we are free to construct our own reality, yet according to the Alice in Wonderland paradigm, a certain amount of perception is required in order to identify whether we have, in the manner of French philosopher Jean-Bernard Klus constructed a myth to obscure our own art, and whether our house of cards will come crashing down after the first breath of wind.
The reality is that the Antipodes Festival ceased to be an organic and spontaneous gathering of our community years ago. This is evidenced by the iconoclastic and often scandalous manner in which it is referred to in the cesspools of community gossip-groups, the relative readiness in which your average community member will accept that moneys pertaining to the festival are being laundered and the fact that however successful or popular the overseas acts may be with the crowd that squeezes its way down Lonsdale Street like cancer cells coursing through a terminally ill body year after year, it commands attendance, but neither reverence or awe.
Indeed, much like the Poseidonian Festival, the focus, at least in the minds of the public is less upon enjoyment and more upon "showcasing our culture" to the mainstream. As a society for whom what is seen to be is infinitely more important than what actually is, we are obsessed with the face we will present to those who will define us because of it, simply because they lack the perspicacity or even still, the benign interest to attempt to look beyond that face. Surely then we are adherents of the Klusian maxim that "the artist is who he says he is."
Yet given the minimal participation and attendance of members of the mainstream culture in our festival of self-definition, surely such a focus is deluded. For the deep meaning of the festival is that it is not held in order for us to have fun, nor is it organized «για τα μάτια του κόσμου.» Rather, the reason for its existence is our sub-conscious resolve that this festival serves to remind us of who we are, regardless of whether our own self-imposed stereotype accords with reality or not. If we tell enough people our names today, they will succour us with a long-forgotten identity in the dementia-stricken pain of tomorrow.
It is amazing to perceive how many parallels exist between us and our Poseidonian ancestors. We too uphold our own dancing and songs as a method of retaining even the most tenuous of links with a mother culture that has evolved just as ours has into a proto-disparate form. We too recite old names or hold cultural exhibitions in order to remind ourselves of who we are even though that which we exhibit no longer exists anywhere within our wider discourse. And we go home satisfied and yet troubled, because in our looking-glass world, our best efforts seem to bring about the opposite of what they intended and we are hurt and bewildered in our intellectual and temporal isolation.
The Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria's decision to hold the Antipodes Festival late in order to coincide with the coming of the Greek National Football team was therefore a consistent, sensitive and highly symbolic one. For to conceive of a year without an Antipodes Festival is for us, tantamount to not celebrating Christmas and a harbinger of the inevitable consequence of all the work of our hands. Instead of taking it easy, the GOCMV has realized just how important it is for us that the links between us and our mother culture are maintained, knowing that even if cultural manifestations are no longer spontaneous, at least in their contrived and manufactured form, they act as a palliative for the pain of what is to come and attempt to stave that off as long as possible.
Thus it was us who needed to bask in the glory of the Greek Football Players and not vice versa. We needed to know that we are still Greek enough to be considered such by the inhabitants of our country of origin. Our deep-seated and hysterical feeling of the inadequacy of the hybrid, which does not permit us to enjoy or highly-regard the most excellent talents and class acts of our own home-grown musicians demanded that we lavish attention upon Stelios Dionysiou for his presence confers the legitimacy upon us that we so crave. It is to the journalists, notably Maria Alyfanti of Antenna to gloss over disparities though the twinkle in the eye of her own expressionless mask is enough to permit the more perceptive to understand that the disparity and indeed the hysterically Poseidonian nature of the festival is understood.
This year, albeit in a small way, I assisted in the preparation of the Festival, especially the most Poseidonian exhibition of old Epirotan handicrafts. I was quite literally taken aback by the passion and enthusiasm of its organizers, for whom the Festival takes on a monolithic ideology, all of its own. The amount of goodwill shared among those organizing and assisting in various aspects of the Festival was phenomenal and indeed rarely to be otherwise found within the confines of our community's organized endeavour. These are persons so committed to the survival of the Festival and its importance as a landmark in our community that they refuse to consider life or our community without it and rightly so. For in as much as the Poseidonians have been immortalized for the futility of their efforts, they persisted nonetheless and it is as much to their romantic example as to their logical conclusion that Cavafy points. Notably, the critics and the stay-at-homers get no such delicate treatment from the master of caustic verse. Our distant past, which is always with us, has a way of providing us with the consolation, strength, but also foresight that we so desperately need, if we are only astute enough to see it. Till next year then we leave you the scent of lotus and the sybaritic pennings of a modern day master: «Γιορτάζω, γιορτάζω/ ακούστε που το φωνάζω θα διασκεδάζω, ως το πρωί....»
First published in NKEE on 12 June 2006