One of the often overlooked characteristics of the Greek propensity to found colonies throughout the world, is their historical tendency to fail. Sooner or later, whether through social decline, warfare or simply exhaustion, the various colonies founded by our illustrious forefathers have been abandoned, or have lost their Greek character. Examples are manifold. As early as 1,400BC, the Minoans are said to have abandoned their colony at Miletus. The Phoceans who settled in Corsica abandoned their settlements for mainland Italy, the entire Graeco-Bactrian kingdom that held the balance of power between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent was subsumed in the tempestuous headwaters of violent conquest by various tribes, leaving only classical ruins as strange and melancholy witnesses to their sojourn upon an alien moonscape. Sicilian Naxos was also abandoned whereas Sybaris was completely destroyed by its neighbour Croton. Some colonies, like Byzantium and Trapezous retained their Greek character despite conquest and tyranny for thousands of years only to have it violently destroyed through ethnic cleansing and genocide. Others such as Paestum in Italy and Odessa and Marioupolis on the Black Sea simply over time, saw their Greek inhabitants assimilate into a larger whole.
There is a particular quality to a melancholy that arises from a sense of loss in Greek colonies. It is an admixture of sweet sadness at perceiving the traces of that which is gone coupled by the knowledge that it will never return, that in fact, to paraphrase Steinbeck, the best laid deeds of mice and men and led to nought. The Turks have a word for it: huzun and it is exactly the emotion captured by Solomon’s musings in the passage of Ecclesiastes that prefaces this diatribe. It is this huzun that is keenly felt by the traveller who will traverse the silent, narrow alleyways of the Phanar district of Constantinople, tentatively tracing Greek-language inscriptions on the doorways of abandoned houses, sagging under the weight of their memories and rotting away in their lethe before oblivion, passing by the locked churches and observing the mouldering Byzantine walls. It is also this huzun that the traveller will feel in buzzing, lively Cairo or Alexandria, knowing that the neo-classical, baroque and art-nouveau architectural masterpieces that are swamped in the madness of a city that is an ever-expanding living organism are denuded of their erstwhile cosmopolitan and well to do inhabitants, that the elaborate tombstones of its Greek magnates are crumbling, with no one to tend them. The huzun is amplified when one stops to consider that not so long ago, Alexandria was arguably home to a larger Greek population than that which currently resides in Melbourne.
Seeking to grapple with issues of futility and immortality are the preserve of a community that is aged. In previous decades, the Greek community was too concerned with establishing itself in this country, acquiring wealth, having children and legitimising its own presence to worry about the future of its outward manifestations. In those days, Greeks flocked together in organic forms that reflected their needs without much concern for image and appearance. It is to our everlasting credit that we reached our apex extraordinarily soon. Now, much as an aging woman who spends hours in front of the mirror surrounded by face-paints vainly attempting to re-create the freshness and vigour of youth, we lament the sagging of our skin, the wrinkles and liver spots that have become to be manifest upon our surface.
What bugs us the most it seems, is not that these marks of decline exist, for it is by now common knowledge that our frame has shrunk and that we have shed the extra kilos of our own affluence. Rather it is that our aging has become noticeable to others and that instead of being diplomatic, they are asking direct questions about our ageing process.
The recent forum on the future of Lonsdale Street is a case in point. It was convened simply because philhellene Lord Mayor of Melbourne John So wishes to provide some Greek “colour” to his city. In other words, we have been told that we have been chosen to be contestants in a beauty pageant in an externally defined multicultural Melbourne. Unfortunately, our selection has been by reputation alone and our blemishes and time-ravaged features having been discovered, we have been referred to the surgeon for some intensive cosmetic surgery before we can be deemed to be acceptable.
The same ravages of time and ever changing demands of the Greek community have seen the ostensible Greek presence in traditionally “Greek” areas of Richmond and Brunswick also vanish. However this is not as lamented. That is because subconsciously, we believe that the Greek “presence” in the heart of the City, in close proximity to the ostensible bastions of civic power, somehow legitimises our presence in this City and acts as a sort of sacred charm, warding off the evil spells of decay and disrespect. It is for this reason that we ignore the fact that apart from serving the needs of a section of the Greek community that works in and around the City and wants to pop in for a cup of coffee, or browse through the latest Greek CD’s, Lonsdale Street now has marginal relevance to our community, its centre of gravity now having shifted to other areas of Melbourne, such as the centre of Oakleigh, which on Saturday mornings is as close to a village as one could conceivably re-create in this country. Instead, Lonsdale Street has a wonderful semantic operation: it constitutes the signified to the signifier “Greek.” It is the yardstick by which we believe our overlords and fellow citizens perceive and define us, a paltry collection of five or so shops along a miniscule stretch of pavement, offering the non-Greek a non-alienating, government approved taste of user-friendly Austrohellenism.
That we all subconsciously realize this can be evidenced by our resounding now show at the recent forum convened to discuss the future of the Lonsdale Street, Greek precinct which failed even to obtain the participation of all of the proprietors of the Greek businesses which constitute it. This if anything signifies how remote to our old age this principal folly of our youth has become.
And indeed it appears that a folly is exactly what we now seek Lonsdale Street to become, in the interests of keeping up our façade of vitality. In architecture, a folly is considered to be an extravagant, useless, fanciful building, or a building that appears to be something other than what it is. Follies are usually found in the parks and gardens of stately English homes. In other words, they are playthings of those who hold the reigns of power, of absolutely no use to anyone, constructed and retained in a spirit of madness and excess. We are happy to become such a symbol, if only because it tickles our vanity that someone, in this case Lord Mayor John So and the City of Melbourne still finds us attractive enough, even in our decrepit state, to be worthy of his attentions, which lets face it, are honourable and appreciated. In the film “The Serpent’s Kiss,” Pete Postlethwaite plays a wealthy businessman who squanders his fortune and destroys the vitality of his family in his quest to build an artificial hill as a folly. When all his lost and his house is repossessed, he looks at that hill and mutters: “Oh the swollen belly of my pride.” We must take care not to suffer the same fate.
Shocked community pundits have commented that the absence of interest in the Lonsdale Street forum is unacceptable. This is because in our endeavour to entrench ourselves here, we have committed the hubris of believing in our own immortality. Ignoring all historical precedent that implies the opposite, we maintain the dream that we will retain the pristine, paradisiacal form we had at the time of the First Contact. Seeing or implying that this dream is somehow flawed is a heresy because in our self-conception, informed by an unlikely compound of metaphysical materialism, we believe that we can arrest our terminal decline, either by virtue of our own efforts, or the miraculous intervention of a deus ex machina or paraclete. (cue in John So descending from heaven in a winged chariot drawn by Lavinia Nixon.)
That is not to say that we should arrogantly dismiss any opportunities to redevelop a part of our organic whole if and when they arise. We need to balance material need with emotional dependence upon symbols, regardless of potency or lack thereof. However, we owe it to ourselves to properly identify these as they truly may be, either as prosthetics, cosmetic refinishes or true regenerations. After all, our cousins back on the islands are masters of the art of whitewashing their homes. And if we are unable to revitalize ourselves, if we do vanish, as our ancestors have before us, we have not failed. We have just been human beings, albeit pathetic ones who wasted their limited time seeking the fountain of youth. There is much huzun still to be distilled.
Finally, a word of advice for those who insist upon the dream from the great master himself, Homer: “Dreams surely are difficult, confusing, and not everything in them is brought to pass for mankind. For fleeting dreams have two gates: one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those which pass through the one of sawn ivory are deceptive, bringing tidings which come to nought, but those which issue from the one of polished horn bring true results when a mortal sees them.”