Monday, March 05, 2007


"The one thing that children wear out faster than shoes is parents." John Plomb

In the primeval mythologies of such diverse nations as the Greeks, the Egyptians, Aztecs and the Chinese, a curious tail-eating snake known as the Ouroboros, exists. This snake, whose very name in Greek means “tail-devourer” has, over the years, come to symbolize many concepts, among them, ideas of cyclicality, primordial unity and the vicious circle. It was of course, Plato in his Timaeus who first described a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing in the universe: an immortal, perfectly constructed animal, that lived from its own waste, “for the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything.”
The first thing in our particular universe were the first generation migrants whose remarkable achievements in this country overshadow and contextualise our existence to such an extent where, if the prevalent ideology is to be adhered to, they too are excellent and lack nothing. In many respects, their representation as ouroboros would be a particularly apt one. Caught in a vicious cycle of creation and decay, the community they have constructed is often insular and constantly tearing at itself or its tail. As they, like the ourboros have conceived their existence as eternal, no contingency plan has been made for the bitter truth that one day, their works and deeds will pass away, though this too is fitting, if one considers that the early Christians adopted the ouroboros as a symbol of the limited confines of the material world and the self-consuming transitory existence upon it. After the fall of creation, all will return to the Void. Therefore, we are but canines, chasing our own tails.
The reason why the first generation of Greek migrants to Australia have constructed an almost god-like status for themselves is, quite simply put, because they are brilliant people. Arriving in a foreign country, not knowing the language, having no funds and next to know formal education, they proceeded through sheer hard work and determination, to set up households, businesses, a multitude of community institutions including churches, schools and brotherhoods, educated their children, became influential in government and local affairs and acquired a decent real estate portfolio. All this was accomplished in the space of about fifty to sixty years and while its end result it that our dealings with each other and the rest of the world have been characterized by increasing acquisitiveness and devotion to filthy lucre, our community still retains its archaic anatomy.
This in itself presents an aberration within the globalised western world, where the cult of youth prevails. “The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children,” Edward VIII of England once said. He was referring to the fact that in our times, whether through marketing or any other means, the key focus of society is the youth. Being ‘forever young,’ as the popular song states, seems to be the key focus of living, accompanied by ideologies of being able to, as the Stayfree advertisement proclaims, “ be free to do whatever I want, any old time.” In the Western world, youth generally are, or demand to be free of any control or interference in the values they espouse, who they love or the manner in which they live their lives.
Traditionally however, Greek society has always been a gerontocracy. Life decisions were almost always made by parents or elders and the youth were expected to obey or at least, have regard to their progenitor’s wishes on any given matter. Such influence was all pervasive, transcending all aspects of life from the trivial “where are you going now?” to their tender saplings' choice of life partner.
It is conceivable that upon their transplantation to Australia, such values would inevitably clash with those of the native variety and though the passage of the years may have muted their acuteness, they still form the sub-stratum of our hybrid existence. We find ourselves in a paradoxical culture clash vortex, where parents, especially those of the first generation still wish to exercise their traditional prerogatives over their offspring, while the self same offspring view this largely as an impingement upon their home-grown cultural values. It is fitting then that alchemists considered the ouroboros as a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite.
Alia Papageorgiou astutely identified one of the paradoxes arising out of our culture clash in her article “Bank of Mum and Dad” last week. The first generation was largely poor, uneducated and foreign. The second generation is largely affluent, well educated and native. Yet despite the second generation’s privileges and advantages and the expectation that taking these into consideration, they should be progressing further, higher above the achievements of their predecessors, they are still reliant upon them for the most mundane aspects of their existence, primarily, houses and cash.
One can understand why this is so. When a house is gifted from a parent to a child, the transfer of Land, which is lodged in the Titles Offices requests that one states the consideration, or price of such a transfer. In the case of a gift, this usually reads as follows: “for love and affection.” In days of old, it was traditional for Greeks to gift land or homes to their children, usually their daughters, in order to set up a household. However, in return, it was expected that the recipients would continue to care for their parents, especially in old age. Today, first generation Greek parents face a dilemma. Their children find their demands for obedience vexatious and a hindrance upon their lifestyle. They also seek to deviate a considerable way from their own values and customs of behaviour. Knowing that they can no longer enforce such adherence by fiat, they resort to, what is in effect a bribe. Underlying this most mercenary act is the first generation’s knowledge that by and large, they are still foreigners in this country and feel alone. The only thing they can claim to be truly theirs is their children and if the act of giving them a house or some money, despite the fact that such children have or will eventually have the capacity to acquire these themselves will ensure their continuous love and (hopefully) obedience, then so be it. For the question on the tips of the lips of most aging members of the first generation is not whether there is life after death but rather: «Ποιος θα μας γηροκομήσει;»
Of course, underlying this attitude is a tacit belief that the second generation is incompetent and useless, unable to match the divine deeds of their fathers. In many respects, the second generation is to blame for this for it is quite often the case that such presents that are forthcoming from their parents are demanded rather than just gratefully accepted. As a corollary, many aged parents continue to run their children’s households, performing their chores, cooking and shopping for them, making decisions for them and bringing up their children, long after their children have married and had children of their own. Such continuous interference, while benign in intent, again encrypts the assumption that the second generation is useless and cannot do anything without its parents. This in turn is the cause of much strife and often, family breakdown. And when family breakdown does occur, it is quite often the case that the cash or property the parents worked so hard to acquire is frittered away in court costs and property settlements.
So what is wrong with us? Why can we not grow up and look after ourselves? The simple answer is that there is nothing wrong with us and we are more than capable of fending for ourselves. However, having grown fat on another’s pasture, it is expedient for us to play upon our parents’ insecurities in order to make our life easier. Our parents after all, are gods. Since they have proved that they can do anything, their primary responsibility is to satisfy the needs of those they have created. The thought that parents feel compelled to purchase their children’s love and obedience and that their offspring see fit to take advantage of that is sickening. What is even more sickening is the no few cases where recipients of parental bounty, whether out of love or in order to obtain the pension, call off all bets and refuse to care for their parents in old age, in total breach of the original contract. We ought to remember that at the same time that the first generation were bringing up their children and setting up their homes here, they were also sending money back to Greece in order to support their parents and provide dowries for their siblings. Our gift-horses’ mouth truly is abysmal.
It is a sign of the times that the first generation not only feels compelled to gift its property to its children but also purchase and arrange for their own funerals, ostensibly because they do not wish to ‘burden’ their children with their deaths but in truth because they cannot trust them to arrange things correctly. A world where affection must be purchased and love proceeds down a one-way street, is a very unhealthy one indeed and fraught with traffic problems.
Interestingly enough, the conception that wealth belongs to the entire family, not just those to those who are instrumental in its acquisition, is dying off even among the first generation. This is especially so among those of its members, who arrived in this country at a young age, grew up and went to school here. Those baby boomers see wealth, much as the mainstream does, as something that reflects their individual worth, to be disposed of at their own discretion and not something to which their offspring are automatically entitled. Although some of them, along with their second generation counterparts may have received such financial benefits from their parents and others not at all, they do not see why their children should be entitled to privileges that they have not earned for themselves and encourage their children to develop their own ingenuity and reach their full potential because they don’t want to feel taken for granted.
This in turn leads to an unraveling of the traditional conception of the Greek family, as we know it. Given that the quantum is obscure and it is not certain if any money at all is forthcoming, the psychological bond that secures their children to their bosom is sundered. Not being able to trust in the goodwill of those who may not receive their payment when they want it and which most likely will be subject to labyrinthine terms and conditions, they cannot trust their children to provide aged-care services in the future and so, make other provision for their retirement. All bets are off. Or yet again, they resort to bribes, in order to fix the outcome of the race. As one Greek father recently told me: “If I like my daughter’s choice of husband, I’ll give her a house. If not, they can both go to hell. I mean I had to work didn’t I?”
Whatever the works of our hands, Ragnarök will come. Jormungandr the Norse Ouroboros will come out of the Ocean and poison the sky. When he does, it shall be Göttedammerrüng. The gods will fall down dead and in a world full of children, Sir Thomas Browne will look in vain adults to take their place, sighing:
“ that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence.”



First published in NKEE on 5 March 2007