Saturday, March 28, 2015
"Kαι τώρα πώς εξέπεσαν, πώς έγιναν, να ζουν και να ομιλούν βαρβαρικά, βγαλμένοι -ω συμφορά!- απ' τον ελληνισμό.» Cavafy.
If Cavafy's poem «Ποσειδωνιάται» is anything to go by, the phenomenon of diasporan Greeks feeling concerned about losing their mother tongue in their adopted countries is neither a product of the post-colonial, globalised capitalist world or a product of cultural imperialism. Instead, it is a historical inevitability. In his poem, set in Poseidonia in Southern Italy, colonised originally by Greeks from Sybaris, who over a long period of time, assimilated with their Latin neighbours, Cavafy sets out the manner in which assimilated Greeks struggle to make sense of their cultural heritage, going through the motions of conducting "Greek" rituals, mouthing words they barely understand and finally, being overwhelmed with the sense that they have lost something that they really can't define.
Cavafy's poem was inspired by the ancient writer Athenaeus who wrote that the Poseidonians celebrated an annual festival of "forgetting", where they called up from memory, the remnants of their heritage and lamenting their loss, went their separate ways. Cavafy, and Athenaeus, are making a pertinent point: Despite what we may have been led to believe by the various myths that underpin and inform our ethnic identity, geographic alterity does produce amnesia. Otherwise, whet real need is there for our "Speak Greek in March campaign," or indeed our many other festivals which, rather than exhibiting or expressing a dynamic culture of their own making, instead, appear to be a litany of past remnants of memory, re-enacted so as to not be forgotten?
Olbia Pontica, nowadays called Nikolayev and situated in the Ukraine, also provides a striking parallel to our contemporary reality. Founded by Greek settlers in the sixth century BC and serving as the granary of Greece, Olbia remained a predominantly Greek city until 63 BC when an army of Dacians and Getae captured and destroyed it.
In his 'Borysthenitica', Stoic philosopher Dio Chrysostom of Prousa describes his visit to the city in 95AD. He relates how the local inhabitants were were obsessed with remaining Hellenes. 'Those that come here' one citizen complained to Dio, 'are nominally Greeks but actually more barbarous than ourselves...but you would appear to have been sent to us by Achilles himself.."
During his visit, Dio found himself in a time warp. The Olbians were determined to impress him with their Hellenism, much as we do visitors from Greece, but it was an archaic and obsolete version of Hellenism that they clung too. In addition, they appeared to Dio to be as much Scythian as Hellenic. His definition of ethnicity had nothing to do with genetics and descent but with the clothes, customs and language. The Olbians wore Scythian clothes and the Greek they spoke was barely intelligible.
Walking through the town, Dio met a young man by the name of Callistratus on horseback and started a conversation. Callistratus seemed straight out of a museum. He was wearing 'barbarian' trousers and a cape, but on seeing Dio, he alighted from his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like other Olbians, he knew Homer by heart and was immensely proud of this, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. He boasted that he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, interest in philosophy, his beauty and because he had many lovers. Dio saw this not as a statement of sexual orientation but as a wonderful survival from a bygone age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Athenian veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual experience. The Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea, homosexuality was still in fashion.
At this stage, Dio, being a stranger and overtly 'Greek' was being swamped by other Olbians who believing that all Greeks ever did when they met each other was to discuss philosophy, begged him to discuss Plato with them. In the manner reminiscent of the 'older' Greeks, they all sat down outside the portico of the temple of Zeus to hold their debate. As the older men sat down, Dio noticed that they all wore beards, at a time when shaving had been the fashion in Greece for half a century. Dio was touched by the 'real Greekness' which he found surviving at Olbia. It appeared to him that they were more Greek than the Greeks in many respects, a sentiment echoed here in Melbourne time and time against by visiting Greek dignitaries and indeed, in sentiment and practice, not much seems to separate the Olbian Greeks from their Melbournian counterparts two millennia later.
As such, campaigns such as "Speak Greek in March" and our various festivals may appear to some to be, trite, kitsch, or anachronistic, given that they either present an idealised, ossified re-construction of a culture that bears no resemblance or relevance to a modern reality, or, at least, in the case of the Speak Greek campaign, represents a futile and ultimately doomed attempt to stave off the inevitable. However arguably what we can do, in view of our history and current practices is to realise that perhaps in so far as any concepts of Greece or a Greek identity inform our composite sense of self, our culture is a culture of memory, and a culture whose sole aim seem to be to stave off amnesia. Having accepted this, we can then accept another key value, something that our diasporan ancestors have troubled themselves with for thousands of years: that regardless of the state of preservation, or of the intensity of our own effects to effect such preservation, whatever we understand to be Greek culture or language is important to us, and sine our culture is founded upon our attempts to preserve it, without its preservation, we will cease to exist.
Undoubtedly, users of the Greek language among the second and third generations of Greek Australian do not possess in adequate numbers, the fluency or dedication that will see the Greek language used for daily discourse beyond a generation or so. Yet faced with such a bleak prospect, our Olbian ancestors provide consolation. For the wheels of history turn in unexpected ways. Centuries after the Greek language died out, Catherine the Great re-settled the entire area with Greeks eager to leave the Ottoman empire. The vibrant communities that they founded provided the impetus for the creation of the Philiki Etaireia and the emergence of Modern Greece. The creative impetus of these communities has largely died out as they too have become assimilated, culturally and linguistically with their neighbours, yet the shared memory of both sets of ancestors' exploits appears to be enough to sustain them, until the next turn of the cosmic wheel. In absence of all else then, we can do as the Olbians do, and always remember.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 28 March 2015