Monday, March 21, 2005


When Greeks in Hellenistic times referred to the mummified corpse of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, they did so, not as departed basileus or leader but simply as the "σώμα." That the legacy of that soma proved particularly heavy for the Hellenistic world can be evidenced by the mad scramble of the epigonoi, Alexander' generals, to gain possession of this carcass as a conferrer of legitimacy to world rule and that the entire Hellenistic period was overshadowed by the legacy and devotion to that soma, a lifeless caricature of a call to greatness that in the end, proved impossible to emulate.
There is a school of thought that contends that our entire history is a soma, a bloated and festering carcass of greatness that once in a while enters our nostrils and causes us to recoil in revulsion at our own contemporary odour of lowliness as compared to what we have been told is, the sweet swelling fragrance of our great past. Perhaps the most eloquent exposition of this view of our cultural heritage can be found in the great poet George Seferis' work, "Argonautes," where in one poem he wakes up with a marble bust in his hand which he does not understand and is a great burden to him.
As true epigonoi of Hellenism, we have our own somata here. One of these is our perception of our community as one organised and compartmentalised by organisations. It is of no small coincidence that one of the Greek words used to describe such organisations, σωματεία sounds very much like σώμα, which is unsurprising, since both mean 'bodies' in the vernacular and its does not require much of a conceptual leap to see how close the term 'body' is to that of a 'corpse,' festering or otherwise.
We have heard it all before. While we maintain the façade that our community is organised by ethnotopical organisations, in reality, these have dwindled to the point almost of extinction in the worst case and benign irrelevance at best. One would be forgiven then in thinking that our soma is our attachment to such organizations, given that they were created in the optimistic and productive days of our early migrants and today, like Seferis' statue, are merely burdens, whose festering legacy is a Steinbeckian admission that the best laid deeds of mice and men do often lead astray, being rendered useless in time and further, a denial of immortality and the guilt that is implied therein.
Yet given the evident putrescence of our soma, that would only be telling half the story of its decomposition. In fact our particular soma is not the illogical attachment to irrelevant organisations but rather, an attachment to the idea that our community MUST be compartmentalised into any form of corporate organisation in order to ensure not only its survival but its very conceptual existence. The fallacy of this way of thinking, as it has emerged within the past ten years is as evident as its development is intriguing. Somewhere along the line, various prominent members of our community perceptively identified the decay and irrelevance of our traditional organisations, wracked as they were by factional strife. Yet so pervasive is the influence of the soma that the only way that they could see to arrest this problem, which they saw as being the ineffectual and impotent standing of our community as against the wider Australian and Greek societal sphere was the federation or unification of all these bodies into a further, 'uber-body' which presumably, strengthened by the combined resources of our malignant tumour-like ethnotopical organisations, would produce enough antibodies to arrest our terminal decline.
The well-intentioned Council of Greeks Abroad, of which I am an Oceania Youth Co-ordinator is but one of the bodies that sprung from this mode of thinking. Yet after approximately ten years of existence and valiant efforts by its co-ordinators to make it work, it is struggling in Australia. Comprised of federations of organisations 'approved' by the Greek government, it is supposed to be a representative body of Greeks in Australia that the Greek government consults on various issues pertaining to it. The existence of SAE is supposed to bring about 'unity' and ‘communication.’ Yet successive conferences in Thessaloniki have proven to be a shambles where no topics of any interest to the general migrant have ever been discussed intelligently, nor does a forum, or indeed a structure for a forum for the Greek government or the Council to take into account Greek community consensus of opinion and then realize it exist. Instead, presidents and appointees of often 'letterhead' ethnotopical bodies proudly indulge in self-serving skullduggery oblivious to the needs of the persons they supposedly 'represent,' the Greek government ‘changes’ its structure every two years but retains non-representative groups within it and the hard-working, visionary SAE Co-ordinators are left to pick up the pieces of community disapprobation.
The plight of SAE youth mirrors this. It is supposed to be comprised of the youth bodies of senior organisations, as the Greek government and the Greek-Australian community is so attached to the legacy of its soma that it cannot see that the vast majority of Greek-Australian youth are not represented by 'organisations' or 'youth groups.' Of the youth groups the Youth Council is comprised of, only several have an existence that is not in name only. This notwithstanding, the Greek government refuses to entertain the antisomatic suggestion that Greek-Australian youth are not represented by organisations (if they were would not more be in active existence?) and view the solution to this particular body's rigor mortis as the addition of further (non-existent?) youth organisations and/or the staging of 'functions' to prove that the corpse can be resuscitated in classic Weekend at Bernie's fashion.
The recent announcement of the creation of the Greek Australia Council comes then at a crucial time. When one notices that the driving force behind such a Council are prominent community personalities such as Mike Zafiropoulos and Theo Theophanous, one is compelled to sit up and take notice. One is also compelled to admire their vision when they say that ‘primarily its aim will be to unite Greek Australian individuals, corporations and organisations for the benefit of the community.’ Yet let us all beware lest we celebrate our exosomatic liberation too soon. For the laudably created Greek Australian Council seems remarkably akin both in its stated aims and scope, to the already existing Hellenic Council, the only difference being that while the latter is comprised of the usual mouldering ethnotopical bodies, whose delegates seem to believe they have a mandate from the Greek community to negotiate matters which they determine without broader consultation to be of interest to that community with the Australian Government (notwithstanding this, they have become over recent years, noteworthy and effective lobbyists), the former envisions itself to be a body of professionals, personalities and high-profile Greeks of influence, who also have abrogated for themselves the role, by virtue of their success of being the public face of the Greek community and working for its ‘benefit,’ subjectively perceived of course. Hopefully, their high profile in the wider sphere will smooth the path for greater communication and exposure to the upper echelons of power. However, how these august personages will be able to represent the needs of the elderly Greek pensioner in Fawkner, the apprentice in Footscray or the small business owner is South Melbourne, or indeed how this essentially elitist body will conceive of mechanisms through which the diverse gamut of opinions and interests of our fragmented community can be canvassed and effectively portrayed is yet to be known and may be irrelevant in a community whose soma is not what is, but what is seen to be.
"What this community needs," a community 'leader' was telling me the other day, "is a saviour, an Alexander to get rid of all the stupid disputes and unite us into one body." Again the soma that has plagued our existence for all time seems to afflict us still, from beyond its watery grave somewhere below the sunken harbour of Alexandria. Perhaps it is time we realized that we need no saviours and that no elitists could ever seek to enclose us within the narrow confines of their own subjective vision. The fact that there existed only one Alexander and that his achievements were squandered among his descendants in a matter of years and were set at nought is surely enough to convince us to divest ourselves of our somata once and for all and to realize that our survival is not contingent solely upon the existence of top-heavy organisations or any self-appointed 'saviour' (though groups such as the Hellenic Council and the Greek Australia Council are important and their members deserve our appreciation) but rather simple, grass roots adherence to one's own tradition and respect for the diversity that is so intrinsic to our own identity. And perhaps then, age-old adherents of cultural freedom such as Demosthenes, as well as the weary soma of Alexander himself, could finally rest in peace.

First published in NKEE on 21March 2005