Monday, August 28, 2006


"I woke up with this marble head in my hands;it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down. It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream so our life became one and it will be very difficultfor it to disunite again." Seferis.

Nobel Prize winning poet George Seferis, like many other modern Greek writers before and after him, was preoccupied with the idea, and burden, of the so-called "Hellenic Ideal," the belief that the modern Greeks are the direct successors to, inheritors and guardians of, Greek classical tradition. The modern nation’s claim to be heir to the Athenian ancients posed vexing problems, which Seferis portrayed as akin to the weight of the disembodied head of a classical statue, the burden of which he found unbearable, but which he nevertheless could not let go. He wrote also of the insupportable heft of the dead past, a past which threatened to drag him down: “These stones sinking into time, how far will they drag me with them?… /I see the trees breathing the black serenity of the dead/and then the smiles, so static, of the statues.” Even at the moment of its birth, as the state, to use Seferis’ metaphor, “woke up” Greece and the Greek people found themselves already saturated with, even deadened by, the dream of the past and the weight of their own ancient history. Thus, the life of modern Greece is lived, particularly at the level of national discourse, as a palimpsest of imagined past and actual present, and it is, indeed, “very difficult” to untangle and “disunite” the one from the other.
The problem of the construction of a modern Greek identity seems to have at its root the multiplicity of traditions that have been drawn upon in order to create it and even the concept of tradition itself. Traditio or in Greek paradosis means that which is handed down or handed over. In most cases this takes the form of information brought from the past into the present. Unless it is repeated or passed on, such information, whether in the form of custom, or narrative, is doomed to disappear. As Greek civilisation became literary at a very early stage, a great deal of information that might otherwise have been lost and in many cases was lost from popular consciousness is still with us, and thanks largely to the western neo-classical movement which resuscitated it, forms the important part of our tradition that Seferis so agonized over.
Seferis’ problem is immediately apparent. While it is obvious that traditions can be and have been constructed over the years to suit various needs, how does one cope with and accommodate information that while suitably venerable, has escaped the chain of continuity? Can such information be termed tradition if its only precedent is an activity taking place thousands of years ago as well as literary records attesting to this? If so, is such tradition less authentic than one that has survived in an unbroken and continuous chain for the same period of time? This then in a nutshell, is the dialectic facing those who would champion the ascendancy of either the ancient or Christian aspects of our identity and tradition over each other. While it is possible to resuscitate and assimilate certain long forgotten aspects of our ancestors’ usages to our current situation, our narrative, for better or for worse, has forged ahead since the discarding of such traditions that hitherto have not survived in the popular consciousness and their consequent, often arbitrary resuscitation has often fitted in ill with contemporary sensitivities. Thus their adoption requires either a difficult syncretism or the replacement of ‘younger’ but better entrenched traditions with one that are ‘superior’ by virtue of their antiquity.
Interestingly enough, in the case of modern Greece, the acceptance of many resuscitations was a consequence of their external imposition. This in itself constitutes a novelty. Up until the late Byzantine era, Greek scholars studied such ancient texts as had survived, utilizing information within them that was useful to their ends but on the whole, viewing them and the world they belonged to as something superceded though not totally without value. No one would argue that despite the fact they were forcibly abolished approximately a thousand years before, the Olympic Games, revived in their modern form by De Coubertin, administered by an international body and bearing little resemblance to their prototype, form part of the Modern Greek tradition today. Parliamentary democracy, a western form of government arising under unique circumstances and with only a passing resemblance to ancient Athenian democracy is another case in point, though its adoption is benign. It appears to a large degree then that exterior sanction has been required for the adoption of past tradition without reference to the chain of continuity. That is, we adopt as tradition that which will in our estimation, increase our appeal to the outside world and boost our self-esteem. This can be illustrated by the unique situation of the relationship between church and State in Greece. Hitherto two separate entities, the Bavarian Protestant bureaucrats that took over the new country after the assassination of Kapodistrias subordinated the Church to the control of the State - a completely alien tradition for Orthodox Christians. Now, as western democracies seek to augment their pluralistic identity, such a state of affairs is considered archaic and the calls for separation of the two entities founder mostly upon devotion to a tradition that really wasn’t really tradition after all.
What happens when tradition develops in a vacuum? Devoid of its precedents and root causes does it have any meaning at all? Alexandrian poet Cavafy was entranced by this concept, best expressed in his poem Poseidonians, where he states: "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…"
The aforemetioned parallels our situation here in Australia. Until recently cut off to all intents and purposes from the evolving traditions of our mother culture to the extent where our parents’ clothes and manner of speech are the object of derision among inhabitants of the most remote and backward Greek village, our adherence has been to those traditions passed down to us in the strictest of senses, by our parents. Many of those traditions were relevant to a specific time and especially place. A great number of such social and rural traditions are of as questionable relevance to our new urban, Anglo-Celtic reality as they are to the new urban Anglo-Celtic-influenced reality of the place our parents left behind and as a result, many have been discarded. As a result, parental status as custodians of received tradition is slight, the generation gap, better desribed as a chasm.
In the face of this demise of ‘tradition’ in general, we have three choices. We can reject it outright, though few have done so. We can study it and do our best to define that which we share and which is worth preserving, despite the quixotic character of such a task. Otherwise, we could, and to a large extent do, as the Poseidonians did before us. That is, to blindly and unquestioningly retain antiquated customs that are no longer relevant to us and which we do not understand in the hope that these will facilitate our retaining an identity which is important, since these have been passed on to us, but which are in a size and style that no longer fit us, until they are lost altogether. It is the rejection of such a ‘one size fits all’ approach to tradition that is causing increasing numbers of our community to seek solace in reconstructing or resuscitating their own subjective ‘traditions’ out of information derived from books and a deep seated feeling of the inadequacy of the form in which some traditions have been transplanted to our adopted country. In many respects this represents the centrality of tradition in any form, to our conception of identity and is thus, unbeknownst to iconoclastic reformers, a traditional apprach to dealing with the Greek tradition in itself.
While any such innovations as may be made may seem novel and strange to contemporaries, if such resuscitated ‘traditions’ are passed down future generations, there is no reason why they will not be deemed to be personal, family or upon entering wider adherence, ethnic traditions. The prevalence of a good many invented or resuscitated ‘traditions’ that do not find their counterpart or are not resuscitated in parallel with our cultural motherland will eventually cause us to question our identity yet again and that will be when the petrified migraine so aptly portrayed by Seferis will really set in…
We are not alone in attempting to re-invent oursleves. Here in Melbourne, a small grouping of members of the Assyrian community have set up a temple where they worship Ishtar, Ashur and other ancient Assyrian gods, in the belief that Christianity, the major cultural point of reference for the rest of their compatriots, is the cause for their nation's current ignominy. Yet let us heed a caveat: While the richness of our history provides ample pickings for those who would rejoice in the achievements and deeds of our people, subjective contrivance and artificiality are not the answer to our perceived ills. It is incumbent upon all those who would abrogate for themselves the right to arbitrarily construct an identity for themselves to do so upon deep study of the cultural precedents they seek to replace and with the following in mind: that while we do indeed live in the era of indivisualism and deconstruction, we also, to all intents and purposes, form part of a community that has some common points of reference. Let us ensure then, that others are able to recognise the statues we place upon our pedestals, lest one day we remain, like in Seferis’ waking nightmare, nursing the decapitated head of our own presumption in our hands.

First published in NKEE on 28 August 2006