Saturday, November 28, 2015
I have in my collection, a silver coin of Phraates IV of Parthia, the successor state to the Persian Empire. On that coin, his title, the very Persian "Shahanshah" that is, "King of Kings," is inscribed in Greek as ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ. Beside a relief of the King shaking hands with Zeus, is the inscription: ΕΥΕΡΓΕΤΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ containing all the necessary attributes of a king, as benefactor, manifest and, mysteriously enough for a Parthian king existing on the fringes or beyond the borders of the Hellenic world, a Philhellene.
Every time I hold it in my hands, the verses of Cavafy's poem, "Philhellene" course through my mind:
Make sure the engraving is done skillfully.
The expression serious, majestic.
The diadem preferably somewhat narrow:
I don't like that broad kind the Parthians wear.
The inscription, as usual, in Greek:
nothing excessive, nothing pompous-
we don't want the proconsul to take it the wrong way:
he's always nosing things out and reporting back to Rome-
but of course giving me due honour.
Something very special on the other side:
some discus-thrower, young, good-looking.
Above all I urge you to see to it
(Sithaspis, for God's sake don't let them forget)
that after "King" and "Savior,"
they engrave "Philhellene" in elegant characters.
Now don't try to be clever
with your "where are the Greeks?" and "what things Greek
here behind Zagros, out beyond Phraata?"
Since so many others more barbarian than ourselves
choose to inscribe it, we will inscribe it too.
And besides, don't forget that sometimes
sophists do come to us from Syria,
and versifiers, and other triflers of that kind.
So we are not, I think, un-Greek.
Much as we do as a community here, Cavafy's unnamed Philhellene inhabits a borderland world between east and west, Hellene and Other. Yet the very poem's title suggests that this is a person who is consciously seeking to align himself with the Hellenic world, this being evidenced by his concern for the quality of the coin's engraving as well as the messages, both visual and verbal that we wishes the coin to convey. Though his kingdom, beyond the Zagros mountains of Persia, is far removed from Greece, here Hellenism has been standardized into an unfelt aesthetic and ethical ideal.
It is an ideal the acceptance of which is ambivalent: The young, good-looking discus thrower the king wants inscribed at the back of his coin is not imagined with desire or is a product if his memory. Instead this is a desensualised aesthetic, as is evidenced by the king's detached casual instruction: "something special on the other side."
Similarly, the Philhellene king's ostensible love of all things Hellenic is undermined by his seeming contempt for the actual purveyors of Hellenism, sophists..from Syria,
and versifiers, and other triflers of that kind.." who occasionally turn up at his doorstep. The concluding verse, "So we are not, I think, un-Greek," for me, at least is an eerie look forward to our own purveyors of Hellenism, in the form of the odd visiting Greek politician or singer, who is purposely shipped out here in order to remind us time and time again, that we are "more Greek than the Greeks."
For us to require this reassurance, obviously there exists an underlying insecurity within us as to our identity. Like the Philhellenic king, we take great pains to make our adherence to our own conception of "Hellenism" manifest, through staging events where as one recent writer on the fringes of Hellenism stated, we can: "Get our Greek on," panygiria, where we don traditional regalia, the music we listen to, and dance to, the organization of our pastimes, or our unquestioning adoption of "Hellenic" pastimes with which we have no connection, such as the drinking of the ubiquitous frappe, or being moved by the profundity of Hatziyiannis lyrics. Ultimately, our responses to our own identity, are shaped by our responses to other's responses to ours with regard to our identity.
For Edmund Keeley, the Philhellene King is at best, an instance of "unlettered aspiration," and at worst, of "cultural affectation and imitation. He is, a "parody of the Hellene he aspires to be," a charge not a few Helladic Greeks or newly arrived Greeks often level at us, "barbarian pretenders." There exists among many of them, the tendency to deny the validity and worth of any transformation at the periphery, of what was originally drawn from the centre. Similarly Sonia Ilinskaya writes of the inevitable "degeneration of Hellenistic civilization, itself, worn thin.in those branches of it that reached into the eastern provinces." According to this view, then, it is inevitable that Hellenistic (ie. Greek-seeming but not Greek) culture in the Antipodes, which is as far away from the mother culture as possible "here behind the Zagros, out beyond Phraata" can only ever be a pale ersatz form of the original product.
However, Alekos Sengopoulos, who knew the poet, suggests that Cavafy is actually sympathetic towards the Philhellene king, as is suggested not only by his verbal insistence on restraint and simplicity (nothing excessive or pompous), but also his awareness of his geographical remoteness from anything Greek, one that is mirrored by Cafavy's own sense of cultural displacement, living in Egypt, far from the metropolitan centres of Greek culture. That sense, is by and large, shared by most Greek-Australians certainly of the first and probably of the second generation.
Rather than mocking us for our inauthenticity, an insecurity about which we ourselves bring back to Australia, every time we return from Greece, ("Why so silent? Ask your heart:/didn't you too feel happier/ the farther we got from Greece?/ What's the point of fooling ourselves?/ That would hardly be properly Greek." Cavafy asks in one poem), the poet may be merely highlighting a cultural phenomenon and instead, castigating the detached pedantic types for whom memory comes by imperative and feeling is constantly checked against convention. This is ever more so evident in Cavafy's "Returning From Greece," where the poet mocks those puritans who in their quest to maintain purity of blood and custom, would pour scorn at the Philhellene king, and by implication, all of us Ersatzians: "It isn't right, Hermippos, for us philosophers/ to be like some of our petty kings.who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,/ Macedonian exteriors (naturally),/ let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then, a bit of Media they can't keep back. And to what laughable lengths the fools went trying to cover it up! / No, that's not at all right for us./ For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won't do./ We must not be ashamed/ of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;/ we should really honour it, take pride in it."
In 'Returning from Greece,' Cavafy finds a way to liberate the Philhellene king and all of us, from our deep-rooted Antipodean cultural cringe, our Poseidonian devotion to forms and symbols that somehow will preserve our identity by way of a momentous 'coming out' confession: "It's time we admitted the truth:/ we are Greeks also-what else are we?-/ but with Asiatic affections and feelings,/ affections and feelings/ sometimes alien to Hellenism." Phraates IV's coin in my hand then, serves to remind me of the exoticism and excitement that comes with belonging to a "buffer community," occupying a fascinatingly ambiguous ground between a particular and a global culture. As Martin McKinsey wrote, where Cavafy refers "to a particular instance of Hellenisation in the late antique Middle East as "a means to arrive," here we might more accurately speak of it as [our] local culture's means to survive," liberated from the pedants and the purists who are pained rather than take pleasure in the periphery.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 28 November 2015