Monday, December 19, 2005


There it is Ron," Harry cried excitedly as he lurched forward past the speedily dispersing phoenix smoke, into the centre of the Chamber of Monolingualism. "Monoglot juice. Now Hermione can be released from the throes of that evil Babel spell and begin to talk in a language that we can understand." (Author's note: Hermione of course is of Greek descent, being named after her wizened grandmother, a witch of a woman on the island of Skiathos. Linguists are still deliberating as to the ethnic descent of the androgynous Lord Voldermort, but conjecture that he is of Semitic descent given that -t suffixes usually denote the female gender and as all newly illumined neo-Greeks of our community would tell you, Indo-Europeanism is benign while Semiticism (excluding that of the previous Greek governmental regime,) is thoroughly evil.)
Community response to the latest statistics that whereas approximately 15,000 pupils studied Modern Greek at VCE level in the mid-nineties, only 379 now do so, has so far been so non-existent, vague or fanciful as to rightfully claim a place in the fairy stories of J. K Rowling, rivaling the fantastic stature of her own Harry Potter. Indeed, was it not true, what a great fairy story Greek education in Victoria would make. Imagine, gentle reader, if you will, a community that hitherto placed education above all other things struggling and striving from the seventies to battle the evil curse of monoculturalism and managing to institute Modern Greek Studies in at least five major Victorian universities, only to have these be completely annihilated or excruciatingly withered away to a mere Voldemort-before-he-rose-again shadowy existence, most probably through the operation of a Crucio curse.
Imagine further, a legend of a prominent community reveling in its retention of its ancestral runes and mystical lore, building or founding a multitude of schools for its younger members, all of who pass through their hallowed halls. These schools, in the best of Harry Potter tradition exist on a parallel reality to that of the mainstream and details as to both their location and attendance is strictly provided on a need to know basis by the Ministry of Magick, save for the higher two grades, whose knowledge in magick is stretched and tried within the mainstream mangle.
These mystical schools have historically been peopled by strange teachers of a bygone age. Some, their nasal hair escaping down their nostrils with the urgency of fire-breathing dragons exclaimed, cajoled and screamed the knowledge of these most archaic runes to their hapless pupils. A slight, graying teacher, her complexion so pale as to render her indistinguishable to the wall behind her, attempted in terrified, sotto-voce tones to convey to her pupils, the more graceful aspects of their magical history while others, pale, quick-tongued and bedecked with a plumage of long, greasy hair, snappishly forced their pupils into the art of word construction, rules and declensions and woe betide anyone who was not able to recite national incantations such as: «Σε γνωρίζω από την κόψη.»
Tragically all is not well with our magical scholastic paradise. Over the years, both teachers and students have succumbed to the Imperius curse, cast upon them by the evil monolithic and megalithic Lord Voldermort, who, bent on making the world safe for democracy, free trade and cultural conformity, has enchanted our hapless friends. The Imperius curse, as J.K Rowling could tell you, is a particular insidious one, as it causes one to abandon one's own convictions and beliefs and instead, unconsciously adopt those of the enchanter. Thus, the pupils of our schools have slowly become disenchanted by the intricate spells of their ancestors. No longer do they feign interest in reciting or learning the magical incantations. Rather, they pay lip-service to these in order to gain some pocket money from their doting grandparents or in those in whom the ancestral enchantments are strong, to assuage their uneasy conscience as they slip further and further towards the deadly Rune Eaters.
The Teachers, or Aurors, whose secret task it is to capture vagrant students and cast them into the protection of Azkaban before Voldermort's hold over them is complete, are also under the Imperius curse, though in their case, it acts slightly differently. Our community Aurors become listless; their glowing desire and yearning to teach the true magic waning, they are content to merely go through the motions, year after year lowering the standard of incantation metadosis until finally, being able to falteringly spell out the runes alone, is held to be a great achievement. Along with the occasional ethnic Quidditch match, this accomplishment cynically and struthocamilically deludes devotees of the old magick that it still holds strong, whereas the vast majority of graduates can barely wave their wands, let alone intone a decent incantation to their elders.
As a result of their listlessness and their reduction solely to waiting for their weekly tithe, necessary for their procurement of Lord Voldemort’s worldly delights, by the year of our Ford 2005, attendance of mystical rune instruction at VCE level has fallen within ten years, by 97.5%. Aurors and parents alike gaze vacantly and wonderingly into space, afflicted by Lord Voldemort’s Inanus curse, vaguely aware that a problem exists, that their comfortably acculturated progeny should be able to be conversant in runes, lore and all sorts of other mysticism that the great pancosmic conflict of sorcerers had denied to them and that there must be a reason for the failure of the institutions they had so much faith in.
What then is wrong? The college of Aurors, in their deliberations have concluded that in fact, the study of mystical runes is just not appreciated by the Lord Voldermort-appointed manglers of knowledge, known as Dementors. As a result, those of our progeny who would, out of desire, or compulsion, take to the study of runes, are unfairly discriminated against, as compared to those who take on the study of more acceptable, Lord Voldermort-approved subjects such as Parcel-tongue. Short of offering them sweets, there really is no incentive for our progeny to study such a language, especially since, in their mathematico-imperialist mania to root out all differentiation, the Dementors will penalise those who do better in Runes than their other subjects and thus retard their progress through their Voldermort dominated life.
Other interested Aurors make the observation that it is the inordinately high standard of Runic knowledge demanded of mystical pupils that causes them to balk at the thought of their mastery, especially when other, more advantageous pursuits are available to them. These Aurors, suffering under the compounded curse of the Imperius, Inanus and Defeato, postulate only one solution, calculated not to instill mystical knowledge in their charges but rather, to keep them in a position to continue to pay tribute to He-who-must-not-be-named. Their solution: to dumb down the standard of Runic teaching to the level of an intellectually advanced aardvark.
It is sad that while the Dumbledores of the community may sound the alarm at the ever-increasing eradication of Rune lore, while the enchanted Aurors and their pupils slumber in their Voldermort-induced trance and the few who have not succumbed to his chthonic charms frantically search and pray for the messianic appearance of a Harry Potter who shall be a panacea to all that ails them, none can find the strength from within to disentangle themselves enough from their predicament to realise one thing: we at the Wogwarts School Greek Campus (sorry for the crass joke –couldn’t resist) teach Rune lore because its our Rune lore and in our heart of hearts, we all want to be Runelords. The only polyglot juice that can combat the darkness of the Chamber of Monoculturalism is that which lies in our veins and those of our ancestors. It is the knowledge of the wellspring of this juice and a bit of backbone that will dispel our curse. For how good would it be, if the scars of our passion for our own Runes become so deeply in our hearts that we should become as a result of our ancestor's love, the little boys that lived. And now for a last Inanus curse…..Antzela Dimitriosa!
First published in NKEE on 19 December 2005

Monday, December 12, 2005


When I first learnt that the Australian Hellenic Council of New South Wales was planning to stage a peaceful protest during the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, my first reaction was to wonder whether its schismatic Victorian chapter would follow suit, given that its only act of note recently, has been its departure from the Australian Hellenic Council. I also wondered why Greek community groups directly affected by the policies of the Turkish Prime Minister, including the Pontian Federation, were not actively preparing to draw attention to their issue. In the case of the Pontian Federation I learnt that their campaign had been reduced to a small paid advertisement in the Herald Sun-affiliated papers of Australia. While the said advertisement, which discretely drew attention to a website wherein presumably the main facets of the Pontians' grievances are contained was accepted to be published in two states, in Victoria, it was rejected, owing to its wording.
Indeed there is much to protest about. Turkish troops still occupy one third of the sovereign republic of Cyprus and as a result, thousands of Australian citizens are denied enjoyment of their homes. They also prop up an illegal regime that has ethnically cleansed the territory under its jackboot, and which the Australian government does not recognize.
Similarly there are thousands of Australian citizens who have had their properties confiscated by the Turkish authorities owing to discriminative tax and other regimes targeted against ethnic minorities within Turkey.
How can Australian business trust a government that arbitrarily confiscatespersonal and communal property based on individual faith? Before seeking Australian investment in his country, Prime Minister Erdogan should look at protecting the existing investments of Australian citizens in Turkey and this is something, which should be brought to the attention of all Australians.
Further, the Turkish government's continuous discrimination of Christian churches and the confiscation of their property as illustrated in the 2005 Freedom of ReligionReport issued by the United States' Department of State portrays Turkey, as not so democratic or western as policy-makers would have us believe. The continued forcible closure of the Christian theological school at Halki and the constant attacks against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the spiritual headquarters of at least 250 million Orthodox Christians further belies this.
Given the above, one would believe that the Greek community in Melbourne would be taking great pains to point out a few of these issues of concern to the mainstream. Though, given its insularity, xenophobia and general anti-social character, it would be to much to ask for it to join forces with other Australian community groups who have similar concerns vis-avis the Turkish government, such as the Armenians, Assyrians and Arab Christians, one would have thought that such combined action, would be effective in sending a message to Australian MP's, that a perceptible percentage of their constituents are concerned about certain aspects of the Australian-Turkish relationship, giving them incentive to raise these aspects, if not during Erdogan's visit, then at least at a later stage. The successful peaceful and well-organised protest in Sydney by the Australian Hellenic Council (NSW) in conjunction with the Armenian Youth Federation, is a case in point. In a community so fragmented and self-interested as ours however, the mere conception of any such co-operative action on an infra ethnic, let alone an inter-ethnic basis, is purely utopian.
Sadly, if our newspapers are anything to go by, we are too interested in pursuing a futile debate in such deluded topics as philosophy v religion, GOCMV dissidents v G. Fountas and the like to be able to appreciate the importance of the issues that pertain to our place within Australian-Turkish relations, let alone be capable of organising ourselves in such away as to be a critical mass that can make itself be heard. The lack of unity within our community as well as its ethnotopic nature renders it incapable of defending the interests of its smaller constituent members, or in the case of those who come from Constantinople, Imvros and Tenendos, are still too afraid to speak out. This is demonstrated to demoralising effect year after year by the organised Melbourne Greek community's total indifference and lack of participation in the events commemorating the Pontian genocide, which is seen as largely a Pontian preserve. It seems that despite our boastfulness and highly developed sense of historical importance, we are no more capable of moving to an integrated conception of a Greek identity than our ancient ancestors, thousands of years ago.
Even when selected well-meaning individuals or groups are fired by zeal and concern as to the issues that affect them, they are often reduced to circumambulating the fundamental orifice of their community and preaching to the converted, or instead, making a few painfully fractured attempts to puncture through the mainstream's screen of indifference and contempt at what it calls 'ethnic politics.' We witnessed this earlier this year with the formation of the Australian Macedonian Advisory Council (AMAC) and continue to witness it with other such groups, with the notable exception of the Australian Hellenic Council, which though elitist, still manages to bend the ear of a politician or two.
Sadly, and AMAC experienced this first hand this year, such groups or individuals who seek to promote, lobby or raise awareness of issues that pertain to their Greek identity in Australia, often run up against the indifference or outright enmity of the Greek consular authorities. In principle, this is not unjustifiable. Fervent as they are, community campaigners can only be amateurs in the great game of international politics. By rights, the task of promoting Greek interests belongs to the Greek foreign affairs officials posted in this country. Unfortunately, as their lukewarm response to Erdogan's visit and their inability to create Australian awareness of issues such as Halki, the discrimination of Christians in Turkey etc as well as Greek Ambassador Xydas' frank admission that without the Greek community, Australia's policy on the Macedonian Issue would be more prejudicial to Greece's interests suggest, Greek officials are experiencing great difficulty in promoting Greece's interests in this country. Unlike their Turkish counterparts, who create or direct Turkish interest-based groups such as the Australian Friends of Turkey, which enjoys a close relationship with the Turkish consul-general, to promote Turkish culture and under such a veil, its government's policies to the mainstream, Greek officials struggle to follow suit.
Greek officials must also understand that such community lobby groups as exist, whether professional, self-appointed, deluded or well-meaning, do not seek to blindly promote Greece's policies, for they are often at odds with them, but rather, their own interests as Greek-Australians. Greek officials should therefore take pains to fully inform these groups on the official Greek stance on issues that affect Greek-Australians, permitting them to form coherent strategies and put these into effect. failure to do this results in the scenario experienced this year, where the Pan-Macedonian Federation called a public meeting in order to gain community consensus a to how best to respond to the latest developments in their pet issue. In that case, the meeting was a debacle, as Greek consular officials declined to attend the meeting or advise what the latest developments were, causing great confusion as to who was doing what and who a protest should be directed against. While non-co-operation between Greek entities is a historic precedent, it is now a luxury that can be ill afforded.
As the sun of indifference sets over the mountain of community inertia, the fact of the matter is that our demographic is too widespread, our interests too diverse to influence the development of Australian-Turkish relations. By vociferously protesting in this increasingly monolithic climate, we run the risk of being seen to be creating ethnic strife against the interests of Australia, instead of what we really seek to do, which is to assist in the development of Australian-Turkish relations that respect the rights of all Australian citizens. Even if we indulge in the utopian fantasy that we are a cohesive community, would our protests and vague indications of electoral clout to a government that enjoys a sizeable majority in both houses be enough to refocus its delight in hosting a Turkish trade delegation of immense proportions to examining the human rights of a miniscule and economically insignificant few of its citizens? Do not Benthamite principles apply here?
That being said, the Labor federal member for Hindmarsh, Steve Georganas', spirited speech in Parliament on 7 December 2005 where he brought to the attention of the House his concerns over the Turkish occupation of Cyprus and the closure of Halki was eloquent and exactly what we would expect of our home-grown pollies. Now if only the community resources existed to assist this lone voice in the parliamentary wind.
Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe we should fatalistically persist in guarding the pass at Thermopylae, even though a by-pass has been built decades ago. I do know is that we desperately need Anna Daskalaki-Angelopoulou to organise a bigger, better Greek trade delegation and to also choreograph the main event of the year: the day we rouse ourselves from our lotophagic reverie, and march off in protest, against ourselves and the sybaritic lotus-eaters we have become.

First published in NKEE on 12 December 2005

Sunday, December 11, 2005


The word πρεσβευτής does not exactly imply its English counterpart 'ambassador." For the Greek version derives its root from the verb πρεσβεύω, to give precedence and honour, a role usually afforded to 'elders,' it being presumably held that a person who is charged with the responsibility of representing his countries interests, has to be eminent, distinguished and 'first' among his fellow citizens. He should also be the 'first' port of call for anyone who should wish to have dealings with that country and in a sense, he 'comes before' his country as through his presence, demeanour and conduct, he is the 'face' of his country to the outside world. Interestingly enough, and though it is not this diatribist's intention to traverse into the consequent oft-trodden thematic cul-de-sac, the term πρεσβύτερος, commonly employed to denote a priest, comes from the same root as the word πρεσβευτής and carries with it, exactly the same connotations of precedence and pre-eminence.
However if the conduct of outgoing Ambassador of Greece Mr Xydas is anything to go by, the similarities end there. For in his various farewell speeches delivered around Australia he has done both his country and those Australian citizens whose origins lie within it, a great disservice and further than that, proven for the umpteenth time that the calibre of foreign affairs ministry personnel sent to this country from Greece, is of a standard that appears not to inspire confidence in that country, its embassy or its government.
Admittedly, I had never come face to face with Xydas until last Friday, when I attended a gathering of largely irrelevant presidents of defunct or dying community organizations, hastily summoned together in order to provide the requisite Potemkin façade of our community having the slightest interest in his passing. Indeed, speaking to them, most could not tell me who Xydas was or what his function was in Australia. Many of them were not even aware of his name until they were invited to form the claque appointed to cheer and applaud his illustrious term in this country.
In a sense, it was comforting that Xydas' farewell speech was in Greek, given the presence of Victorian parliamentary representatives, for it far surpassed in crassness, tokenism and buffoonery even the most inane speech of a brotherhood president at an annual dinner dance. According to Xydas, not only is Australia "one of the most important diplomatic postings" (compare that with the private admissions of previous consul-generals and ambassadors to the effect that Australia is commonly held to be a place of exile and inanity), but that he enjoyed his time "getting to know us, the vibrant Greek community," (which is why most of his seers off had no idea who he was.) After attempting, in his bleating, sheep-like voice, an extraordinarily lame joke to the effect that while during his tenure, his Mytilenian compatriots were pre-eminent and ear-marked for preferential treatment at the consulates, it remains to be seen who will now be the recipient of favouritism, he then applauded the Macedonian community, stating that "if it wasn't for them, things would be difficult for us with regard to the well-known 'Issue." What utter rot. How dare does a 'pre-eminent' diplomat allude to favouritism, even as a joke? How does he have the gall to stand up in front of the public and cynically flatter the Macedonians when the Greek consular authorities here in Melbourne have this year, refused to provide direction to the Pan-Macedonian Federation, attend their meetings when invited or meet with the newly created Australian Macedonian Advisory Council?
Again, we praise the heavens that Xydas spoke in Greek for he then proceeded to declaim that at the commencement of his tenure, persons attending the Consulates would be met with apathetic personnel, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes and that slowly over time, this has improved. He then ventured so far as to say that if the Greek community finds that Greek consular personnel are not doing their jobs properly, they should 'get out the strap.' How sophisticated. While it cannot be disputed that service in Consulates has improved somewhat over the past three years, its standard still falls far below that offered by other countries. Further, the Greek Embassy needs to realize that while the first generation can still acquiesce to ill or rude treatment by representatives of the country they had to emigrate from, the second and third generation Greek community will increasingly come to view Greece as a foreign country and not stand for such treatment. On the same token, it needs to remember that it is not only persons of Greek extraction that avail themselves of the services of the Greek Embassy/Consulate. Of the non-Greeks I have spoken too, all have found their attendance at a Greek Embassy/Consulate to be a negative experience, including one Iraqi refugee who was told in no uncertain terms by smoking Consulate personnel that the declaration of good conduct he sought from the Greek government, pertaining to his stay in that country and required by the Australian government for the purposes of his application for citizenship would not be forwarded to Greece as: "who are the Australians to tell us what to do?" Xydas' subsequent admission, that: "we can't do much because there aren't enough of us here," is ludicrous. He is the chief representative of Greece in this country. There can be no excuses for incompetence.
Further, and most frightening is the Greek Embassy's conception of itself as a pole in the various magnetic storms of Greek community politics and power-mongering. In this, Xydas' bitter comments about the role of the Archdiocese, its primate and various community organizations are cowardly, reprehensible and out of place. Firstly, if Xydas was so concerned about the position of 'schismatic communities' why did he wait until the end of his term in order to voice these concerns? Is that not insulting to the deluded 'communities' he purports to champion? Secondly and most importantly, the Greek Embassy and its officials have no business meddling in our affairs. Our community institutions and churches were created in accordance with the laws of Australia, by the sheer hard work and vision of ordinary Greek migrants, who were determined to perpetuate their cultural presence in this country. Xydas should know his place, respect this and not cynically attempt to create dissent and discord, as most of his predecessors have done, to devastating effect. He should keep his opinions to himself. His lame attack on the primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia is nothing more than a spineless, inarticulate, amateurish vinegar disguised as vitriol and further serves to reinforce an emerging impression we have of Greece's officials in this country as petty, irrelevant and bankrupt in the respect stakes.
Ultimately, the reason why in my mind Xydas and others like him will leave and be forgotten, having not even effected a scratch on the quartz rock of diplomatic accomplishment is because he did not do enough to promote Greece to mainstream Australia. During the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the Embassy did little to promote Greece's profile and encourage the creation of a positive image for that country. Instead, it adopted a defensive position, awkwardly and unconvincingly parrying some of the most vitriolic blows in the barrage of the anti-Greek media hysteria we experienced last year. The demise of the Greek Tourist Board in Sydney and its paltry re-constitution under a different name is another case in point. Whereas the Turkish Embassy has established the Australian friends of Turkey and constantly strives to promote a positive profile in the media and the Australian community, the Greek Embassy is content to shut itself off from the world and meddle with the community and religious affairs of Australian citizens, while its petty officials such as the Consul-General of Melbourne discriminate between such community organizations and refuse to greet or speak to members of the Greek community whose views are unacceptable to them.
Xydas ended his diatribe by apologizing to the State member of Parliament for speaking in Greek, stating that one of his duties is to promote the Greek language, causing one of the community claque to stifle a laugh and admittedly, so did I, recalling that at the fifth annual exhibition of Greek Australian writers this year, the head of the Education and Press Office of the Melbourne Consulate, at the organisers' request for that office to advise all schools of the Exhibition's existence, had the temerity to ask for money to cover the cost of postage stamps.
At the end of the day, we only have ourselves to blame. While our community is rife with complaints against the Greek Embassy and its consulates, our obsession with hobnobbing with the great, shaking their hands, taking photographs with them and pandering to them in order to boost our own insecure egos renders us a mere caricature of a claque and only increases their contempt for us and expands their own comfort zone. As they sink further in their own self-satisfied complacency, their irrelevancy is increased and the interests of the country they purport to represent are not served. Xydas has been right about anything during his stay here it is this: we should take a switch to all of them, starting with him.



Tuesday, December 06, 2005


In Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of Florentine libertines suddenly experienced the inversion of their entire world by the unexpected advent of ‘pestilenza,’ a plague which decimated the population and whose origins baffled the wisest of sages. “Some say that it descended upon the human race through the influence of the heavenly bodies, others that it was a punishment signifying God’s righteous anger at our iniquitous way of life.” While some fled, most wasted away miserably and others in their desperation gave up all semblance of adherence to social mores, indulging in the grossest of their bestial passions, our struthocamilic libertines ensconced themselves in a villa high up in the Tuscan hills, “di raccontare cento novella, o favole, o parabole, o istorie chie dire le vogliano, raccontate in diece giorni da una onesta brigata di sette donne e di tre giovani nel pistilenzioso tempo della passata mortalità fatta, e alcune canzonette dalle predette donne cantate al lor diletto.” (to tell a hundred tales, or fables, or parables or histories, call them what you will, told in ten days by a worthy group of seven ladies and three young men formed in the recent season of deadly pestilence, along with certain songs that were song by the ladies for their pleasure.)
The advent of the most recent manifestation of the plague, the Avian Flu H5N1, commonly known as the ‘bird flu,’ is thus not so unprecedented historically as first might appear. For if one searches the annals of history, one is disconcerted to discover that plague and pestilence have blighted mankind at the utmost level of its pride in its own civilization. At the zenith of its hubris, in the form of its smug security in the achievements of its own society, plagues have arrived as thieves in the night to lay men low and shatter the fundamental premises that define and restrict their own world view.
The Golden Age of Athens for example, where under Pericles’ inspired guidance, saw that city develop a vast colonial empire, lord it over the Greeks and pillage the treasury of the Delian league in order to construct that lasting temple to mathematical perfection and human aesthetic, the Acropolis and ‘perfect’ its political Constitution, was brought to a close by the arrival of a strange and highly contagious plague, «λιμός,» that humbled proud Athens at the height of its glory and ensured that it did not ever really achieve those heights ever again. After all, ύβρις according to the ancient Greek conception of religion, was a sin against the gods and as Greeks, the gods tended to cut down tall poppies with excessive glee.
It is pathetic and at the same time profoundly moving to read Thucydides’ account in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars, of the hapless Athenians flying high in April and dropping dead out of the sky, in May. Bewildered at how they, who had hitherto controlled their destinies with confidence and whose fanatic belief in the Athenian way of life and the triumph of the human will led them to defeat those agents of imperialism and enemies of democracy, the Persians, and to order the genocide of the Lesbioi and the forcible installation of ‘democratic’ government in Samos, were now powerless, their sense of identity was entirely annihilated. As Thucydides relates: «δεινότατον δε πατός ην του κακού η τε αθημία, οπότε τις αίσθητο κάμνων (προς γαρ το ανέλπιστον ευθύς τραπόμενοι τη γνώμη πολλώ μάλλον προίεντο σφας αυτούς και ουκ αντείχον) και ότι έτερος αφ’ ετέρου θεραπεία αναπιμπλάμενοι ώσπερ τα πρόβατα έθνησκην» (And the most dreadful thing about the whole malady was not only the despondency of the victims, when they once became aware that they were sick, for their minds straightaway yielded to despair and they gave themselves up for lost instead of resisting, but also that they became infected by nursing one another and died like sheep.)
It is evident in the literature that the plague is but a mere physical manifestation of a deeper pestilence, an illness of a society and the decay of one’s own soul. The greatest historical precedent for this is the Old Testament, where the Ten Plagues are visited upon the profligate inhabitants of Egypt as a result of Pharoah’s hardening of heart and it is within this tradition that Boccaccio placed the plague of the Decameron: «εγώ γαρ εσκλήρυνα αυτού την καρδίαν και των θεραπόντων αυτού, ίνα εξής επέλθη τα σημεία ταύτα επ’ αυτούς.»
In contrast, or maybe in parallel, Albert Camus, in his haunting allegory of Collaborationist France during World War II, ‘La Peste’ viewed the plague as an organic process. In Algerian Oran, the plague is heralded by the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of rats from the sewers, to die on the city’s streets. “It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then, had been devouring it inside.” The death of thousands, the imposition of quarantine, isolation and loneliness of the town followed, coupled with extreme paranoia.
Camus’ plague is hauntingly prophetic. All of a sudden, birds instead of rats are falling from the sky, infected by a disease that seems to be spreading throughout the globe, while governments accumulate stockpiles of antibodies and re-assure us that come what may, they will deliver us from evil and that our faith in the system which guarantees the enjoyment of our daily lives shall not flag, or fail.
Whether our plague is called the ‘War on Terror,’ extreme paranoia and totalitarian methods of enforcing political and social conformity through the spreading of fear and the isolation of the outsider, as our Athenian brothers attempted to visit upon Lesbos and Samos, whether it is famine, environmental degradation, abrogation of worker’s rights and the ‘necessary’ dispensation of human rights in order to safeguard our hallowed world-view, to which our total adherence is now uncompromisingly demanded, or whether indeed our plague merely is the ‘coldening of hearts,’ the total breakdown of moral conscience to the extent where right can no longer be distinguished from wrong, as prophesied by St John in the Apocalypse and demonstrated by the notorious abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, it does indeed seem as if, at the very moment where at the collapse of communism, the planetarchs lauded themselves for the triumph of their civilisation, they and indeed all us, are being punished for our hubris and complacency.
The earth is purging itself of its bile with horrifying and righteous inexorability. All the while, we exhibit behaviour that comes in striking parallel to the apprehensive Athenians of Thucydides, or the libertine Florentines of Boccaccio. We either listlessly await our fate, bewildered at how our best efforts to donate to World Vision have not helped to alleviate world poverty and our conscientious recycling of household waste has not stemmed environmental degradation, or ensconce ourselves within our own Tuscan world of pleasures, purchasing the latest mobile phone, seeking escape in a new car, or watching the latest episode of CSI, desperate for a fairytale where the system always triumphs over its enemies and praying to the god of shopping therapy to grant an hylic discourse to the disease-ridden, plastic narrative of our existence.
All the while, the millions afflicted and perishing as a result of our moral decay, are far removed from our Florentine eyes. They are in Iraq, Pakistan, the streets of New Orleans or some deserted, syringe-strewn St Kilda backstreet, only because they lacked the foresight, or the resources to take to the Tuscan hills in time and no amount of namby-pamby do-gooding by those who demand devotion to their conception of righteousness, without which there is only the gehenna of social isolation, or by listless Athenians wondering why ‘nursing’ does not bring about a cure, can arrest our terminal decline. As Camus’ Tarrou reveals in what constitutes La Peste’s essential moral message: “I thought that I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them…”
Collective responsibility or guilt is an inordinately difficult concept to inculcate into generations that have been inoculated against it by antibodies of individualism and the Atheno-Nietzschean conviction in the triumph of the will. Suddenly, our purposes and tongues become confused, our computers crash, infected by a virus, we abandon Babel, despite the U.S’s assurance that NASA’s next space mission is nigh and the moon will soon be made safe for democracy, to the eternal gratitude of the emancipated moonakia and we wander about, mobile phones in hand, seeking respite from an affliction from which our blind adherence to the firmament should have precluded us from contracting in the first place.
Yet all is not lost. Plagues coma and go and Deucalion and Pyrrha always remain after the penultimate cleansing, to re-commence the cycle of re-construction/self-destruction. Maybe the solution truly lies in inoculation, against inoculation itself. Again we revert to Camus: “All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim.. And this is why I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die…” quite a feat when the signs of the times require suspect members of our society to vociferously proclaim their loyalty to the scared idol of the Ideal.
Camus’ idea of resisting the plague is essentially anti-heroic. For him, resistance to Oran’s plague was not about heroism at all, or it was, it was the heroism of goodness, attained in La Peste by a humble clerk: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency… When you see the suffering it brings… you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the plague.”
Perhaps, as always, we shall manage to contain Hitchcock’s Birds, who carry the foulness of our hypocrisy and folly to us, as it to accuse us, and stem this bout of the perennial plague. We may even, as Sotiris Hatzimanolis quaintly suggests, manage to quarantine the ‘papakia’ (@) from our email addresses and exile them to the moon. Yet let us be vigilant. Fifty years after its first appearance, in an age of post-post-totalitarian satisfaction with our condition and prosperity, where intellectuals pronounce the End of History and politicians proffer globalisation as a universal palliative, the closing sentence of La Peste rings true in the midst of complacency and forgetting:
“The plague bacillis never dies or vanishes entirely. It can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing… it waits patiently in bedroom cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and… perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
First published in NKEE on 5 December 2005