Monday, July 31, 2006


"And the LORD spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, and quite pluck down all their high places: And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it. And ye shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance among your families: and to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer ye shall give the less inheritance: every man's inheritance shall be in the place where his lot falleth; according to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit. But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell." Numbers 33:50-55.
If there is any philosophical movement that can be said to pursue meaning in existence and seek value for the existing individual, then that would undoubtedly have to be existentialism. Unlike other fields of philosophy, existentialism does not treat the individual as a concept and consequently values individual subjectivity over objectivity. As a result, it sees questions regarding the meaning of life and subjective experience as being of paramount importance, above all other scientific and philosophical pursuits. It is no wonder then that existentialism often is associated with anxiety, dread, awareness and freedom.
Existentialism emphasizes action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to human existence and being fundamentally opposed to the rationalist tradition and to positivism, it argues against definitions of human beings either as primarily rational, knowing beings for whom action can or ought to be regulated by rational principles, Instead, it tends to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, and absurd universe in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings' actions and interpretations.
In many ways, the recent conflict in the Lebanon, symmetrically known in cause and effect like fashion as Operation True Promise (Hezbollah) – Operation Just Reward (Israel) is nothing more than an existential paradigm gone horribly wrong. At the outset, the conflict seems simple: Hezbollah attacked Israel and Israel has retaliated. Debate has not centered, as it usually does around who is at fault, for it is widely accepted that Hezbollah had no business abducting Israeli soldiers or firing weapons into that country, but rather, whether Israeli’s Operation Just Reward, better translated in Greek as Operation «Καλά να πάθετε,» is a proportionate response. Many countries, Greece among them, have considered that the bombing of South Beirut, its airport, the Damascus road that is used by refugees fleeing the conflict and especially the civilian Christian towns of Jounieh and Amsheet, a response far out of proportion to the original attack.
To all this, Israel outlines its existential plight. Simply put, Hezbollah and entities like it deny that Israel has a right to exist. They have done so since the very creation of Israel, resulting in the invasion of Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Thus, Israel is entitled, in the words of its military officials to such “severe and harsh responses” as it sees fit to safeguard that existence and freedom. If, as existentialists Soren Kierkegaard and Nietzsche argued, individuals can create and apply their own fundamental values and beliefs, then assuredly that of Israel as an individual expression of a collective conscience must be the right to existence. Just how close to the core of existentialism this value lies, can be evidenced by its proximity to Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity,” meaning that what is most important to an existing being are questions dealing with an individual’s existence. Greatness lies in having the strength to invent one’s own values and create the very terms under which these can be applied. Nietzsche termed this capacity the “will to power,” and those few who possessed the greatness to define the nature of their own existence were termed Übermenschen, supermen.
Israel certainly does possess the will to power. Its Middle Eastern policy is logically enough predicated upon its right to freely exist, a right that has become ideology not only through the experiences of successive Arab invasions but also the horrific holocaust of its people at the hands of deranged fiends who also purported to deny them their right to an existence. It is a right that Israel has imposed upon millions of dissenters, whether through the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, the construction of the West Bank Wall, the death of stone-throwing Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli soldiers and now, the destruction of Lebanon.
If one explores the tenets of existentialism further, it becomes apparent that whether or not Israel uses disproprtionate force or not in continuing to create its own terms and values for existence is irrelevant. One of the main tenents of existentialism according to existentialist in chief Jean-Paul Satre is that existence precedes essence. This is a reversal of the Aristotelian premise that essence precedes existence, where man is created to fulfil some telos and life consists of fulfilling that goal. Unlike tools that are created to fulfill a purpose, Sartrean existentialism argues man exists without purpose, finds himself in the world and defines the meaning of his existence. If indeed values are subjective, then Israel cannot be judged for seeking to exist, for by its own subjective values, it has acted correctly in causing the deaths of 300 Lebanese, wounding another 480 and pounding Lebanon into submission.
Further Israel adheres to another Satrean tenet, that of assuming responsibility for choices made. Thus, the individual consciousness is seen as responsible for all the choices it makes, regardless of the consequences. Sartre claimed that to deny such responsibility is to be in bad faith and he held that feelings such as angst and despair are arise by being in bad faith. Israel definitely does not seek to resile from responsibility for its actions, nor does it feel any angst or despair for acts that secure its raison d’etre. Instead, it threatens further action until such time as those who do not subscribe to its values finally adhere to them or at least, submit to the inevitability of their imposition.
In doing so, Israel, abounding it its own übermenschkeit, should perhaps consider the fate of one of its counterparts, Raskolnikov, the main protagonist of the novel, Crime and Punishment, written by an inspirer of existentialism, Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov believed that he too was an übermensch - that he could justifiably perform a despicable act—the killing of the pawn broker—if it led to him being able to do more good through the act. He constantly tried to reach and defy the boundaries of what he can or cannot doand he commonly interprets his depravity as an affirmation of himself as a transcendent conscience and a rejection of rationality and reason. Raskolnikov believed that he could transcend this moral boundary by killing the money lender, gaining her money, and using it to do good. He argued that had Isaac Newton or Johannes Kepler had to kill one or even a hundred men in order to enlighten humanity with their laws and ideas, it would be worth it. In Crime and Punsihment, Raskolnikov’s real punishment is not the labour camp he is condemned to, but the torment he endures throughout the novel. This torment manifests itself in his extreme paranoia, as well as his progressive realisation that he is not an übermensch after all, as he could not cope with what he had done.
Between the first Jewish state, whose establishment was guided not by subjective man-made values but by the God-given fiat appearing as a prelude to this article and the current State of Israel whose establishment was guided by the man-made and enforced righ to exist, untold suffering has been visited upon its people and their neighbours. Such violence, unceasing for the past 4,000 years, should be sufficient to even the most obtuse warmonger to indicate that like Raskolnikov, whose name literally means schism, that such a state of affairs is unsustainable and that if a city under seige does not succumb to outward pressure, it most certainly will succumb to the internal strains and contridictions imposed upon it by its narrowness of vision and split it apart. Surely then the solution for Israel lies in seeking rapproachment with its enemies: returning occupied land in exchange for a guarantee of security and recognition and the signing of mutual assistance pacts so that in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Yeah right. Try telling that to those who see us as the Dar al Harb, and recite the following sura: “He it is Who hath sent His messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may make it conqueror of all religion however much idolaters may be averse.” If you ask me, too much blood has been spilled for any sort of peace to extend beyond the realms of idealism. Both Israelis; and Arabs are perennially stuck in an Ezekiel prophecy, where “Destruction cometh; and they shall seek peace, and there shall be none.” And as always, the innocent will suffer.

First published in NKEE on 31 July 2006

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed… And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.”
Luke 2: 1-4
In the Old Testament, the census was employed as an embodiment of hubris and of mankind’s increasing distance from God and things spiritual. This can be evidenced by a consideration of the following excerpt of NKEE’s front page article of 3 July 2006: “The five-yearly Census of Population and Housing is the largest statistical collection undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and it aims to accurately measure the number of persons in Australia on, their key characteristics, and the dwellings in which they live.” Now contrast this with the following excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Chronicles, known in Greek as the ‘Paralipomena:’ “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” No more savage indictment against a simple act of addition exists in literary form.
Perhaps though, the preceding excerpt is as apt as it is vitriolic. Its’ traditional interpretation is that King David’s act of ordering a ‘numbering of the people’ arose from pride and a self-glorifying spirit. It indicated a reliance on his part on the tangible and earthly, an estimating of his power not by the divine favour but by the material resources of his kingdom. He thought only of control and the utilisation of resources not of his own in order to extend his own power, forgetting that he was God’s vicegerent. In all this he sinned against God. While his official Joab was engaged in the census, David’s heart smote him, he became deeply conscious of his fault; and in profound humiliation he confessed, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done.” He was then punished severely.
Presumably, the August census could be seen in the same anarchistic light. It is a numbering of the peoples designed to provide our rulers with the information they require in order to, to use the democratic euphemism for ‘rule,’ “govern us more effectively,” or to use the newspeak of economic rationalism, ensure “adequate planning.” As Tom G Palmer put it: “The government has become a mechanism for distributing largess, and your census form is your ticket.” It constitutes good housekeeping on the part of any government, though this not without danger of abuse. For in this increasingly paranoid War on Terrorism world, while the census provides a useful way of obtaining statistical information about a population, such information can sometimes lead to abuses, political or otherwise, made possible by the linking of individuals’ identities to anonymous census data.
It is thus not unusual in many countries for census data to be processed in some way so as to obscure individual information. Some censuses do this by intentionally introducing small statistical errors to prevent the identification of individuals in marginal populations; others swap variables for similar respondents. Whatever measures have been taken to reduce the privacy risk in census data, new technology in the form of better electronic analysis of data pose increasing challenges to the protection of sensitive individual information.
In many respects we are fortunate. Our governments on the whole are benign and are sensitive to issues pertaining to the protection of privacy, despite the fact that recent invasive legislation has caused greate unease within the community. Further, they tend to use the census in order to gain information, not distort it. Contrast this with the situation in Albania, where although the Albanian government protests vociferously at what it terms “unfair” census gathering that will result in an underestimation of FYROM’s increasing Albanian population, in its own 2001 census, it refused to gather information as to the ethnicity of its population, obviously in order to underestimate its own significant minorities and consequently, deny them basic rights.
This is because a census assumes a status almost as close to Gospel Truth. It makes official the existence of hitherto non-recognised sections of the community and facilitates their treatment on that basis. The case of the Greek community, especially in Melbourne, seems to be the only case where myth, instead of statistics are accepted as the ultimate reality and expressions such as “300,000 Greeks” and the largest Greek city outside Greece” still endure, emanating from the lips of even the most careful politicians, though one would venture to say that this is a well-calculated foray into the world of winning friends and influencing others, among our people.
It is no small wonder then that Greek community leaders, (whoever they are) are urging all Greek-Australians to declare their Greek identity in the August census. Again this is not without precedent. Just as Joseph of the New Testament was compelled by the Roman census to return to the land of his fathers, so too must we return, at least noetically to the land of our fathers and re-affirm our kinship with them, if there is to be any room for our kind, in the greater societal inn.
Such an affirmation, expressed as a willingness to stand up and be counted is said to be necessary for two reasons. The first is that, as reported, “it is particularly important for people from non English speaking backgrounds as the information is used to plan services like funding for local community centres, retirement homes, schools and broadcasting time on SBS.” The caveats that could be put on such a statement are so numerous as to send the Victorian Titles Office into a frenzy. Since when did proportions or community numbers translate into greater viewing time on semi-commercialised SBS? Most immigrants abjure SBS because they cannot read subtitles and Greek-speaking Australians would sooner find a needle in a haystack than wait for the odd Greek program to be aired. Further, in an era of diminishing numbers of monolingual Greek-Australian viewers, diminishing linguistic competency of bilingual Greek-Australians and the ubiquitous presence of satellite television, sadly, the ‘ethnic broadcaster’ is becoming of marginal importance for the ethnic communities it purports to serve and more of a mouthpiece for the ideal of a melting pot of cultures, from which an amorphous though exotic mass of hybrid homogeneity is to emerge, rather than the preservation of each unique tile of our societal mosaic. Similarly, in an epoch where multiculturalism is under siege and funding for schools and retirement homes is drastically reduced, causing ethnic communities to fall back on their own resources though it is to their credit that they are able to do so, it is becoming difficult to distinguish the sphere of policy from its speedy rotation upon the axis of expediency.
Nor are greater numbers necessarily indicative of greater influence upon our governors or society, though this is fatally injurious to the myth we have constructed of our own community. Evidence in chief of the soundness of this proposition is the oft-cited democratic lament of members of our Greek community, when our plans fail or are thwarted by other groups: “Why do they (meaning our governments) listen to them, instead of us? After all, they are more of us, than them.” The answer of course is that despite what any census may find, our tendency for facadism is well known. Our community is too fragmented, self-interested, conflicted and convoluted to present a quantifiable and coherent whole to be dealt with on little more than a symbolic or semantic basis and no amount of census over-inflation of figures can mask this.
Why bother with the census at all in this case? Simply because while it is infantile to suggest that a census alone can serve to improve or elevate our standing as a community within wider Australian society, it can work wonders on an intra-communal level. For it follows logically that if people are willing to officially identify themselves as being of Greek origin, then it is they who can be considered to be constituents of the Greek-Australian community. It is in this light then, that the paradoxical injunction of our ‘community leaders’ must be understood, whether they are conscious of this or not. For what other reason would they feel compelled to urge us to do something so natural as to identify ourselves as who we really are, if they were not terrified that we are no longer who we once thought we were or worse still, do not wish to retain that identity at all? And sadly, there do exist persons, some of whom are even possessed of poor English, who for diverse reasons, ranging from the tragic and veering off into the ridiculous, desist from declaring their Greek identity in the census. Census results that portray our community as a populous and growing one, will psychologically at least, arrest the unspoken fatalism that pervades all of our community endeavours. It may even provide the impetus for renewal.
It is a sad indictment upon our community when we need an externally-imposed census to cause us to re-assess our identity and tremble lest the world learn that some of our ‘brothers’ are lost to us. Yet perhaps this is necessary after all. As time passes and the seductive embrace of benign monoculturalism lasciviously draws us tighter to its absolutist bosom, a census is possibly what we need to shake ourselves from our complacency, separate the wheat from the chaff and publicly commit to our identity as our ancestors did, sometimes with tragic consequences, during the tribulations of Roman times and the Ottoman occupation, not for the prospect of receiving largesse, not for anyone else’s sake but our own. Maybe thus, we are provided with a last chance to divest ourselves of the pride and self-glorifying spirit that have deluded us until now and threaten to punish us, as they did David. And after all, if the Australian Burueau of Statistics tells us that we exist and in large numbers to boot, who are we to argue?


© First published in NKEE on 26 July 2006

Monday, July 17, 2006


Imagine that as of this day, that you are never allowed to return to your home ever again. You can see it metres away, year after year, crumbling into disrepair. First, the weeds which grow out of control and strangle your garden. Then the windows break. The walls begin to crumble away and the roof caves in. You sit there and watch year after year, your heart encased in a hope that your brain no longer believes – that somehow things will change and you will be able to return to your by now, totally useless home. You despise the weeds, those ubiquitous usurpers of a life that has been denied to you. Otherwise, if you are lucky, you may, under a pretext of openness and pseudo-détente on the part of the usurper and ravisher of your home, be fated to return to it and find other people occupying the space that your longing has left blank. It is then that you realize that in one fell swoop, not only your property but also your capacity to dream has been taken away from you and encased in a harsh, wounding bolus of barbed wire. As tears come to your eyes, you remember in an unbroken chain, the myriad of consecutive events, incidences and personages that have connected you to this land. They lie, fragmented and headless before the inaccessible horizon. The sky closes around you like a cage and you finally realize that which is the ultimate damnation: There is no infinity and your world is already too constricted to harbour a place for hope any longer.
This has been the plight of hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of people throughout the bloody twentieth century, sacrificial pawns in the greater game of weltpolitik chess played by unworthy and insidious rulers. The Greek people are no exception. From the Northern Epirots who had borders drawn across their house blocks, to the refugees from Asia Minor who in some cases settled on islands and spent the rest of their lives longingly looking back across the narrow sea towards their vanished homeland, expecting they would be back their homes soon, our history is an ever pulsating quicksand of population movement, studded like dead twigs, with a vast array of broken hearts.
The facts of these past events are but dim entries in dusty history books or papillae upon the undulating tongues of neonationalists, though they continue to haunt our psyche. We are nothing more than a nation of unsleeping corpses, perennially in search of an undisturbed resting place, haunted by the more powerful spectre of eternal dispossession. We know not of the albatrosses our ancient mariner ancestors killed to bring about their damnation. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner however, we seemed to be doomed to travel from one end of the earth to the other, persecuted or despondent in search of permanency, only to resume the journey generations later, if our weary bodies have not already been assumed by the soil of our place of sojourn. That there is no redemption can be evidenced by the fact that it was only thirty or so years ago that the latest of our damned, the Cypriots, were violently and brutally forced to leave their homes, during the Turkish invasion of that island, justified as a military operation to make that country “safe for democracy.” At the lookout at Deryneia, which faces occupied Ammochostos, now a ghost town, on any given day, a middle aged person can be found staring across into the distance, at the eerie abandoned and crumbling ghost town – permitted to crumble through the ponderous genius of Rauf Denktash’s carrot on a stick diplomacy. “I am Andreas Pougiouros,” he told me in 1999. “I am the mayor of Ammochostos.” He proceeded to point out every building on the shorefront. He explained the planning procedures that had taken place for the construction of each hotel and quoted statistics as to the tonnage of oranges harvested in the greater radius prior to 1974. “We already have plans for how to develop the city once we return,” he remarked enthusiastically. I stood silently for a moment, watching a solitary Turkish Cypriot herd his solitary cow before the solitude of the abandoned city, leaning upon the azure sea with the superreal clarity of a Salvador Dali composition. Finally, I asked: “And when will that be?” He did not answer. Instead, he told me the story, one I had read before, of the poor woman who kept on getting into taxis and asking the driver to take her home to Ammochostos. Here was an ancient mariner who had become so at one with his city that his face had taken on its unearthly grey hue and though it was as weathered and exposed as that city, its focus refused to waver, or its persistence expire.
Leukosia was designed as a fortress and the whole atmosphere is pervaded by a siege mentality and the brooding Pentadaktylos mountain bearing its badge of slavery, branded as it is by a huge Turkish flag, as if to deter those cattle rustlers who would return home. Apart from the empty buildings mouldering on the green line, refugees from the occupied part of the capital can rest easy at night knowing that their home, which has been usurped by someone else, is in some cases, just over a wall. One of the walls overlooking the dead zone bears a sign that reads: «Τίποτε δεν κερδίζεται δίχως θυσίες και η ελευθερία δίχως αίμα.» After all that we have suffered, we cannot still placate the furies. Across the wall, there is death. Within it, further blood offerings are demanded.
In Moonee Ponds, signs of death are all pervasive in the Edwardian home of an old mariner who ventured far away from her birthplace in fear and is now preparing to return to her village in occupied Karpassia for the first time in thirty two years. Her brother went missing during the invasion and her walls are plastered in newspaper articles and cut outs from various print media that have featured his story over the years. The passage of time has not aged that youthful face, though the paper that bears is has yellowed and become brittle. He too is an ancient mariner, of a history that refuses to be forgotten and of a tragedy too heinous to speak of.
As we remember this month, the heinous crimes committed by the Turkish invading army, we should focus on the plight of its victims. Of late, the Cypriot issue has become a Byzantine enravelment of political plans for bi-zonal, bi-communal settlements, proposals, counter-negotiations, legal processes, compensations, United Nations censures, behind the scenes lobbying, exhaustive conferencing, European Union joining junkets and Cat and Mouse dodging and prevarication.
Somewhere amidst this labyrinth of politics, the individual tragedy of families and their dislocation can be obscured and forgotten. Many families both here in Cyprus and Australia share the heartbreak of not being able to return to their homes, the agony of not knowing what befell their loved ones and in some cases the trauma of rape and massacre.
In the rage of injustice and in the battle for what is right, tragedies like this too often become reduced to mere statistics, or more dangerously, tools in the hands of the lusty propagandist, who, not taking the time to truly comprehend the magnitude of their wounds, waves around case studies in the perverse pleasure of proving that yes, we are a wounded and wronged people. This type of attitude is dehumanizing and disrespectful. Yet it seems to be the method most nationalists adopt to “prove” their point.
All things are needful in the struggle for what we term “ethnic issues.” Including balance. Our annual march to Parliament House to request Justice for Cyprus from people who cannot give it to us is important in that it preserves in our mind the injustices committed and still extant. They also make us feel important, that is the increasingly few of us that make it to Parliament house every year. By walking, we may be seen to delude ourselves that we are doing something, much like our ancient mariner ancestors.
We are. We are remembering. Not only are we doing so, but also we are reflecting on the fragility of the human condition and of the ridiculous but thoroughly evil processes that lead one group of people to inflict violence upon another. We should also, while listening to dreary, clichéd and nationalistic sentiments, remember those Cypriots who still remain in occupied Cyprus, in Karpassia and have a status little less then that of the cicada in the eyes of the current overlords of the North. Deprived of basic education, sanitation and opportunities, these people are being starved and intimidated out of existence, despite the threadbare goodwill rhetoric.
Cyprus is οne of the last divided countries in the world. It is a repository of untold misery and yet it is irrepressible in its desire to free itself from the rhyme of the ancient mariner and embrace its future with gusto, if only it could be permitted to do so. And across the green line, the dispossessors envy the righteous suffering and dreamless sleep of the accursed, for no barbed wire can hinder the words of the poet Yiannis Ritsos from leaving their dozing lips and insinuating themselves into the ears of those afraid to lie upon the earth that they have so defiled and evoking the insomnia of the guilty: «Δεν είναι ανάγκη να φωνάξω για να με πιστέψουν/ να πουν, όποιος φωνάζει έχει το δίκιο./ Το δίκιο το έχουμε μαζί μας εμείς/ και το ξέρουμε./ Κι όσο σιγά κι αν σου μιλήσω/ ξέω πως θα με πιστέψεις.....»

First published in NKEE on 17 July 2006

Monday, July 10, 2006


I happen to harbour a rather vague Orwellian false-memory from the eighties, involving listening to older relatives arguing strenuously that, among others, Dennis Lillee was a Greek from Northern Epirus called Dionysis Lillis and even more paradoxically, that Daryl Sommers was in fact a Greek, whose baptismal name was Paraskevas. There seems to be a deeply entrenched fascination within our souls, for singling out eponymous persons and proudly proclaiming that they are Greek, or at least of Greek origin regardless of their proximity to Greek culture, most notable recent additions to the pantheon of the Greek race being Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Aniston. That this tendency can verge upon the ridiculous is evidenced by one the debates that smoulder from time to time in the letters section of the Greek parent of this publication, as to whether the deity himself, Jesus Christ, was Greek. That this diatribist is not immune from such tendencies can amply be evidenced by the publication over the years, of Diatribes relating to the Greek origin of such diverse personages as Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ioan Heraclid, King of Rumania and just last week, French poet Andre Chenier.
Interestingly enough and in contrast to Diatribe's own admission criteria, which are two: that the said Greek has to be relatively unknown – (hence Theodore and an upcoming Diatribe on Petros Philargis of Crete, who unbeknownst to almost all of us, was a Roman Pope,) or at least violently villainous – (hence the charlatan Ioan Heraclid,) those singled out for inclusion into the fraternal bonds of Hellenism by the hoi polloi are done so by reference to a single criteria - how famous, as opposed to notorious they are and how easily their fame can rebound to the greater glory of that ideological construct we all commune in with such mystical reverence.
That this tendency exists, is of grave concern to those who subscribe to the theory that all our ethnic characteristics are retained in an unbroken chain from the depths of hallowed antiquity, for this is definitely a case where the exception shatters the rule. Ancient Greek culture was predicated upon a dualistic conception of the world, where the concept of "others" was not only excluded but rejected altogether. None of your modern day syncretic miscegenation here. In fact the ancients were so xenophobic that they struggled to find common bonds with each other, let alone the rest of humanity and we have Demosthenes to thank for the misappellation of our northern tribes, that has caused us so much grief in recent times.
If anyone therefore is to blame for our namedropping and sorely misguided attempts to gain status through forced association, it would have to be the Romans who not only appropriated our gods and made them their own, but also applied the same philosophy to the Olympic Games, architecture and almost every single other aspect of Greek culture. While the Babylonians and Egyptians could conceivably have the same complaint of us, they are, at least in the ancient Greek conception, Semitic barbarians of pernicious value and thus, their testimony is of miniscule intrinsic worth. That this is so, can easily be proven by the exploits of that arch-syncretist, Alexander the Great, who not only had the temerity to compel the forcible adulteration of our glorious race through genetic experiments of a kind not seen again until the times of Mendel but who also traipsed across Bactria, haphazardly recognizing inhabitants as Greeks without a thorough investigation, appointment of a committee to oversee the investigators, appointment of a sub-committee to ensure the integrity of the committee and finally, the election of an εφορευτική επιτροπή to make sure no one feels so left out of the process that they become bitter and ask nasty questions at the next annual general meeting.
Invariably, any attempts to 'claim' persons for our own must stem from an incredible lack of self-esteem. Despite a pedigree that if laid end to end would circle the girdle of the earth thrice-fold, we still feel insecure about who we are and our own worth as a people. Consequently, we seek consolation and self-justification by pointing to those who have "made it" in a discourse that is probably not our own, under conditions we are not privy to and possibly, without material reference to our culture, as if their achievements reflect upon our diverse people in any way whatsoever. It is therefore important to us that Alec Issigonis invented the Mini Minor, as this shows to the outside world but more importantly to ourselves that Greeks can be inventive and good businessmen. It is important that Spiro Agnew was vice-president of the United States as this shows that Greeks can escalate the upper echelons of power. All this makes us feel like we are somebody and is tantamount to the Greek boasts of a half a century ago: «είμαι κόρη γιατρού,» or among the first generation of the Antipodes, «ο πατέρας μου έβγαλε το σχολαρχείο.» French philosopher Jean-Bernard Klus' maxim: "the Greek recognises Klus' left shoulder as his father," certainly rings true, though is probably apocryphal.
It is noteworthy to mention that knowing that Melina Kanakaredes is a successful Greek actress in the US is infinitely more valuable than knowing that Kalomoira Sarantis is a "successful" well, media "thing" from the US, in Greece. In other words, what we attach value to is the fact that our protégés can make it in a discourse not of our own making, regardless of whether this means that they must abandon, hide, or relegate to the sidelines, the Greek aspect to their identity, if it at all exists. What this further underlies, is a tacit acceptance that the exoteric discourse, though foreign, is of greater value than our own, yet again another manifestation of our incredibly low self-esteem. As long as this deep-seated conviction exists, our assimilation is to kismet what predestination is to Calvinism.
We can see this conception of our own discourse at play here in the Antipodes. Those who are lauded in our print and radio media are those with the ability to make it 'big' in the wider Australian community. There is nothing wrong with this and on one level, this is merely an example of the pride the couch grass of Hellenism feels in being able to survive its recent transplantation and creep its tendrils through all facets of society. Our politicians, actors, media personalities and businessmen have not had success poured onto them from the Cornucopia of Amaltheia. They have had to battle prejudice as well as healthy competition and no one should be able to diminish their achievements. However, it says much for our community and people in general that while we are able to laud the efforts of those who ultimately serve the mainstream culture, we seem to experience inordinate difficulty in recognizing the efforts of those within our community who strive for its own good, rather than that of others, relegating our so-called community, at least conceptually, into oblivion.
It is a sad state of affairs indeed if an Australian "well done," is worth more than a Greek one. Yet this is exactly the situation we find ourselves in. In our obsession with symbols and facades, we seem terribly eager to pay homage to idols of image and the outward trappings of success in the vain belief that one man’s achievements will magically be reflected on his community, which is too loose and impotent to have engendered that success anyway. Rather than inflating our self-worth and injecting it into the veins of our community as a palliative for its terminal decline by publishing self-righteous lists of the top 20 rich Greek businessmen, why not concentrate on highlighting the valiant efforts of those who have striven or strive to have our community retain some sense of cohesion and continuity? Why not loudly laud obscure Greek-school teachers, dance teachers, volunteers, musicians, artists and countless others who give of themselves and their time under the illusion, delusion or vision, call it what you will, that what they are doing is of some importance to the retention of Greek culture here in the Antipodes?
There are many unsung heroes within our discourse. Their punishment, obscurity, is ill fitting to their only crime, which was to seek to remain within their own dialectic instead of transcending it in search of personal benefit. While in our daily lives we all out of necessity transcend the dialectic and act as intermediaries for the onslaught of benign monoculturalism, our self worth should be measured in our community, not solely by how much we achieve for ourselves or our temporal masters but most importantly, by how closely we have adhered to it and what we have done to its benefit.
That being said, let us alleviate our self-castigation by accepting that no nation is immune to bandwagon tendencies. Heavily American-accented Mel Gibson is thought of as Australian and so was Yelena Dokic before she started losing matches and before the populace at large met her father. Both Assyrians and Armenians squabble over the ethnic identity of Andre Agassi and the jury is still out on Yusuf Islam, hitherto known as Cat Stevens, also known as Stephen Georgiou. Nonetheless, would it not be refreshing to engage in such topics as: “Twenty most unfortunate and unsuccessful Greeks - How can we help them?” Or is failure a word mutually exclusive to our discourse? Plotting the graph of our sojourn in this country, this would decidedly not be so. Diatribe this week leaves you with the sensational news that at least according to the "Greek-Americans" entry in the ubiquitous Wikipedia, Jodie Hart, adult film actress who has appeared in such quality films as Larry's Angels, and The Da Vinci Load, and who describes herself as easygoing, fun, and a bit of a dork, is of partial Greek descent. As Wikpedia states: "she was planning on visiting Greece this summer as she is half Greek and into history." What a nation. Now we can finally trace the origin of the Greek adage: «Γ...ω τη φυλή μας, γ...ω …..»

First published in NKEE on 10 July 2006

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


In his masterpiece of satire “The Devil's Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce defines poetry as: “A form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.” Be that as it may, the word poetry, whose etymology is derived from the Greek verb ‘to create,’ has played an intrinsic part in Greek culture since at least the days of Homer and Aristotle’s attempts to rationalise and classify it. It is the classical Greek tradition that inspired poetry in the West, though the East has a venerable tradition of its own that may or may not have influenced or inspired Greek poetry in the first place depending on our race’s proximity to the Proto-European Homeland and our own beliefs as to whether such a homeland ever existed, or whether in fact, a some within our community would tell us, we are actually descended from the stars.
Such a poetic tradition serves both as an ancestor and a yardstick to the entire genre, or to use Dylan Thomas’ terminology, “the fundamental creative act using language.” While this means that our venerable progenitors of rhymed and metered verse obtain the recognition they deserve, it also underlines a common underlying perception of Greek civilisation as a whole, that is, that all useful aspects of it were taken by the West from its ancient tradition and that anything occurring after it is of marginal importance. Thus, while we can boast Nobel Prize-winning poets in Seferis and Elytis and a much-translated poet in Cavafy, it cannot be said that Modern Greek poets stand at the forefront of world poetry. Even the few successful poets of Greek background that do exist in the west, by virtue usually of their ethnicity and themes employed, are generally considered of quaint but marginal importance.
This was not always the case however. Enter André Marie Cheniér, who was not only the voice of an entire generation and a prominent poet of the French Revolution but also a precursor of the Romantic movement, doing much to rework the ancient Greek literary tradition and motifs to give them contemporary relevance.
Cheniér was born in Constantinople in 1762, of a French father and a Greek mother, Elisabeth Santi-Lomaca, whose sister was grandmother of Adolphe Thiers, Prime Minister of France. At the age of three, his family returned to France and the young Cheniér was able to steep himself in the literary and social upheavals of the pre-Revolutionary period. Trips to Rome, Pompei and Naples saw him draw inspiration from classical archaism and his Greek heritage. He began his literary career writing idyls and bucolics in direct imitation of Theocritucs Bion and other ancient Greek writers.
All the poems written during his early period such as L'Oaristys, L'Aveugle, La Jeune Malode, Bacchus, Euphrosine and La Jeune Tarentine, expose a fascination with ancient Greek culture. La Jeune Tarentine is especially remarkeable for it being a mosaic of reminiscences of at least a dozen classical poets. However, despite his adulation and emulation of the classical poets, Chénier gives his poems a decidedly decadent, hellenistic feel. The colouring may be that of classical mythology, but the spiritual element is as individual as that of any classical poem by English greats Milton, Keats or Tennyson.
Apart from his idylls and elegies, Chénier also incorprated Greek motifs into his experiments in didactic and philosophic verse in order to fit his universalist vision. When he commenced his Hermes in 1783, his ambition was to condense the Encyclopédie of Diderot into a poem examining man's position in the Universe, first in an isolated state, and then in society. It remains fragmentary. Another fragment entitled L'Invention sums up Chénier's Ars Poetica and his attitude to tradition in the verse “Sur des pensers nouveaux, faisons des vers antiques,” meaning: “Let us express modern thoughts in a form worthy of aniquity.” Orthodox theologian Seraphim Rose would have been proud. Chénier’s vision was so broad that he could even treat biblical subjects, such as his long poem in six cantos, Suzanne in his unique, hellenic manner.
Appointed as secretary to the French ambassador of England in 1787, Chénier was uninspired by Anglo-Saxon culture though he seems to have been interested in the poetic diction of Milton and James Thompson, while a few of his verses were remotely inspired by Shakespeare and Thomas Gray. Assuming the archetypal manner of a Frech stereotype, and in a fashion relevant to the monocultural globalisation of our modern times, he observed: “Ces Anglais. Nation toute à vendre à qui peut la payer. De contrée en contrée allant au monde entier, Offrir sa joie ignoble et son faste grossier.” (The English: A nation anyone could buy if they had enough money to pay for it. They go from region to region throughout the world, offering their wretched joy and coarse consternation.)
The 1789 French Revolution and the startling success of his younger brother, Marie-Joseph, as a political playwright and pamphleteer caused him to refocus upon France. In April 1790 he could stand London no longer, and returned to Paris. The France that he plunged into with such impetuosity was upon the verge of anarchy. A strong constitutionalist and in a manner reminsicent of many of the Social Democrats just after the Russian Revolution, Chénier opposed the radcials, taking the view that the Revolution was already complete with the removal of the absolutist king and that all that remained to be done was the inauguration of the reign of law. Moderate as were his views and disinterested as were his motives, his tactics were passionately and dangerously aggressive. From an idyllist and elegist we find him suddenly transformed into an unsparing master of poetical satire. His prose "Avis au peuple Iran Qais" was followed by the rhetorical "Jeu de paume," a somewhat declamatory moral ode addressed to the painter David.
In the meantime he contributed frequently to the Journal de Paris from November 1791 to July 1792, when he wrote his scorching iambic poem: On the revolt of the Swiss Regiment of Châteauvieux. His devotion to the ancient Greek philosophy of virtue and nothing in excess made him an increasingly outspoken opponent of the new regime and he was forced to flee to Normandy in 1792 in order to escape the September masscres. While his brother entered politics, Chénier's sombre rage against the course of events was manifested by once more employing Greek motifs in his poetry, notably in the line on the “Maenads” who mutilated the king's Swiss Guard, and in the Ode to Charlotte Corday, congratulating France on “slipping deeper into the mud.” Paradoxically enough and proving his versatile and profound learning, Chénier even assisted Malasherbes, King Louis’ counsel, by providing him some arguments for his defence at his trial.
After the king’s execution, he sought a secluded retreat at Versailles and only went out after nightfall. There he wrote various poems including the exquisite Ode à Versailles, one of his freshest, noblest and most varied poems. On 7 March 1794 however, he was arrested while visting a friend by two obscure agents of the Committee of Public Safety (sound familiar?) who were in search of a fleeing marquise.
During the 140 days of his imprisonment in the infamous gaol of Saint Lazaire, Chénier wrote marvellously polemic iambes against the regime of Terror, which were transmitted to his family by a venal gaoler. There he wrote the best known of all his verses, the pathetic Jeune captive, a poem of enchantment and of despair, describing his suffocation in an atmosphere of cruelty and baseness. At sundown on the very day of his condemnation on a bogus charge of conspiracy, André Chénier was guillotined.
Chénier’s legacy was immense. His use of language, though contrived for the modern taste was artful, especially his descriptions of trhe natural world, where he drew so heavily from the Greek tradition. The French critic Sainte-Beuve maintained that Chénier was the first to make modern verses adding: “I do not know in the French language a more exquisite fragment than the three hundred verses of the Bucoliques.” Chénier’s influence can even be felt as Russia, where Pushkin imitated him.
To all intents and purposes, as a poet, a victim of the Terror or even as a Greek, Chénier lies outside the common Greek conscience and this is surprising given our propensity to boasting about our: «καλά παιδιά που προοδεύουν στην ξενιτιά.» Relative obscurity notwithstanding, Chénier is on par with El Greco in so far as he reintroduced elements of Greek culture and aesthetic into a wider discourse in a manner that would not be possible nowadays. Much as the Persians ended up erecting a statue of Themistocles in Magnesia after his death, let us at least be thankful that Chénier continues to inspire French culture, his memory being commemorated in numerous poems, notably the ‘Epilogue’ of Sully Prudhomme, the ‘Stello’ of De Vigny, a statue by Puech and a portrait, for history, especially for us who invented it, has a strange way of repeating itself.

First published in NKEE on 3 July 2006