Monday, July 23, 2007


In our Sinn Fein-like conception of the universe (where the Gaelic denotes the meaning “we ourselves”), where everything exists to resound to our greater glory, it may surprise us to learn that our influence upon and interaction with other peoples is not always considered to be a benign and illuminating experience. The Romanian national myth, which emerged in spite of Hellenism, is a case in point. While Greek historians wax lyrical about the modernizing spirit of the Phanariot Hospodars, (Greeks of the Fanari quarter of Constantinople who were appointed as suzerains of the Ottoman Sultans to govern the tributary principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia), who introduced a school system profoundly influenced by the enlightenment, encouraged the study of the Greek classics and made lasting contributions to the unique architectural heritage of Romania, Romanian historians dwell upon their rapacity, corruption and Hellenocentricity. Similarly, while Greek historians rail at the perfidy of Greek-educated Romanian national hero Tudor Vladimirescu, who promised to assist Alexandros Ypsilantis’ uprising against the Ottomans only to desert him at the last minute and attack the Greek administration in the Romanian principalities instead, Romanian historians see his revolt as the first act in a Romanian national awakening, which could have only taken place once the shackles of Greek cultural and temporal domination had been cast aside. In short and put crudely: Romania exists because the removal of the Greeks allowed it to do so.
Romanticised nineteenth century petty-Balkan nationalism notwithstanding, a large number of Greeks in Romania continued to make lasting contributions to the formation of a Romanian national identity and culture. One of these Alexandros Chrysovergis, known in Romanian as Alexandru Hrisoverghi, owes his esteemed position in the Moldavian and Romanian pantheon of poets to his reading of another hybrid poet previously featured in the Diatribe, the Franco-Hellenic André Chénier. During his typical of a Romantic poet, short life, Chrysovergis established a reputation as a Casaonova-like figure and it is one of those quaint ironies of history that permits one to claim, with considerable historical authority, that this archetype of a Romanian Romeo was in fact, Greek.
Not only was Chrysovergis Greek, but he was also born into one of the families traditionally despised by the Romanian populace, the Phanariot hospodars. Born in Iaşi, Modavia in 1811, to Nikolaos Chrysovergis and Elena Rosetti, Alexandros belonged to one of the Phanatiotes families who were present in Moldavia during the rule of Prince Dimitrie cantemir. True to the canon of Romanian nationalism however, his friend and biographer Mihail Koğalniceanu hastens to assures us: “Hrisoverghi took absolutely no pride in this vain noble origin; he had sufficient personal merit, without needing any more from his parents.”
Chrysovergis’ childhood and youth took place amidst the context of the Greek War of Independence, during which Alexandros Ypsilantis’ Filiki Etaireia troops occupied Moldavia and Wallachia. The Chrisovergis took refuge in the Russian ruled portion of Moldavia, known as Bessarabia, where he was tutored in ancient Greek.
Returning to Iaşi, he enrolled in a French-language boarding school headed by a professor Mouton, while being tutored in Ancient Greek literature by a Greek teacher named Frangoulis. Again, this portion of his education is given a deprecatory nationalistic gloss by Kogălniceanu: “His education was superficial; but this was no fault of his, rather that of a lack in educational institutions that was being experienced in Moldavia at the time.”
As a consequence of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Moldavia and Wallachia were occupied by Russia, and, soon after, achived nominal independence. This notably provided for the creation of a Moldavian milita force, which the idealistic youth of the principality joined in large numbers after 1830. Chrysovergis, inspired by romantic ideals of independence was one of them, but withdrew in 1832, after just two years of service — dissatisfied with military life. At the time, he became an avid reader of his compatriot André Chénier and other French Romantic poets and was inspired by their example, while leading a Bohemian lifestyle and becoming noted for his affairs with women. Reportedly, he was quite the looker, and the object of compliments, which took multifarious forms, from women in high society, a sort of precursor of the ever virile Gabrielle D’Annunzio.
By that time, and given the enormous amount of compliments paid to him by flocks of admiring women, to whom he generously dispensed his poetry, Chrysovergis was showing the symptoms of an unknown disease, which first manifested itself as renal colics. As doctors recommended exercise and fresh air, he left for the Ottoman Empire, visiting the Thracian province of Rumelia on his way to Hadrianoupolis. Kogălniceanu, adopting the usual discourse of the superiority of Latin-based, Romanian culture over the other, ‘less-developed’ cultures of the Balkans, views this journey as instrumental to Chrysovergis’ poetic inspiration: “The patriarchal life of the Bulgarians, their customs so unlike those of any other, more civilized and thus more commonplace, nations, the magnificent view of the Balkans still full of souvenirs from the Russian victories, all that primitive nature left vivid imprints in his memory and awoke within him the poetic genius.”
Returning to Moldavia in 1834, Alexandros Chrysovergis published his debut work, Ruinelor Cetăţii Neamţu, an ode which had been prompted by news that the inhabitants of Târgu Neamţ were planning to raze the nearby medieval complex and use it as a source of building material. lts final stanza began with the following, stirring, nationalistic words that mark the first attempt to oppose urban planning permits through the use of verse: “O, Moldavian brethren, young and old alike, don’t you think that you’ll be called to answer in future eras? And will you, in cold blood, witness that demolition? Will you not stop that barbaric deed, will you not raise your voices? Gaze upon the sole witness left to us from another age, for your nation is a successor to the nations of the brave, how gluttony ruins and spoils it into ostentation, for it to build palaces for itself, in order to gain satisfaction.”
If only Chrysovergis was around when the modern Athenians were demolishing their neoclassical masterpieces, transforming their city into a drab nightmare of Ba’athist aesthetics, without the kufic calligraphy.
Ruinelor Cetăţii Neamţu had instant appeal, persuading Prince Mihail Sturdza to block the Târgu Neamţ demolition projects, as well as popularizing historic preservation throughout Moldavia. Over the following years, Chrrysovergis pursued a romantic affair with Catinca Beldiman, the wife of nobleman and amateur Nicolae Dimachi. According to Kogălniceanu : “She was a young, beautiful woman, with a vivid imagination, who had kept alive all the illusions of her childhood and who, resonating with the young poet's fiery words, answered him: love me, be blessed; make yourself a luminous name among men, so you may cover me with your glory.” Apart from serving as a constant feeder for his egotism, Chrysovergis found in her “the ideal heroine he had previously read about in works by Byron, Dumas and those of so many novelists; he gained a soul to understand his own soul, a heart for his heart, a star for his horizon. He thus forgot everything else, glory, honors, future, in order to live for his loved one.” Kogălniceanu noted that all of Chrysovergis’ works after that moment, his poems as well as his translation of Dumas' Antony, published posthumously, evidenced the inspiration of his muse.
Chrysovergis was wily enough a Greek to sense from which direction the political wind was blowing. In 1834, he welcomed the arrival of Prince Mihail Sturdza, and the end of Phanariote rule, by authoring a poem in his honour. His sycophancy knowing no bounds, he also decided to rejoin the Militia. In late December, Sturdza welcomed him on his personal staff, where he served as princely adjutant, being promoted Captain in January 1836.
In February 1836, after attendinga masquerade ball in Iaşi, he left on mission to Pribeşti, romantically traveling through a blizzard. This contributed to the subsequent decline of his health. In constant pain for the following year, he died soon after turning 26, and was buried in Iaşi. His funeral was attended by a large group of officers and young civilians and was accompanied by attempts at mass suicide by swooning Moldavian ladies. The autopsy reportedly uncovered that Hrisoverghi died of complications from tabes dorsalis, a polite word for syphilis which medicine of the time attributed to tuberculosis and which undoubtedly was the true reason for so many Moldavian ladies attmepting to end it all.
In connection to his death, Gheorghe Sion later claimed that Chrysovergis was severely injured after jumping from a window, when caught in his lover's arms by her husband; allegedly, his rival took him into his care. This account, which probably referred to Catinca Beldiman and her husband, was doubted by Călinescu, who noted that it may have been entirely borrowed from his translation of Dumas’ Antony.
A book of his collected works was published in 1843, and included his sycophantic paygerics to various potentates of his day. Most of his poems were left in unpolished stages, including one he composed on his deathbed which is eerily reminiscient of the Greek demotic song «Αχ μώρε σεβντά, αχ καρά σεβντά, πώς με έχεις καταντήσει το μαύρο/Αχ δεκαοχτώ χρονών παιδί/στον Άδη με έχεις στείλει»: “Ready to part with life, I cry, I sob uncomforted,/ The hope in my bitter days has scattered./ With a pining gaze I still lovingly look/ To the world’s joys I could not have tasted.”
Besides his translation of Dumas' novel, Chrysovergis noted for those of poems by Chénier (to which he notably added his own verses), Friedrich Schiller, Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo. He is also the main character in a 1943 novel by Tudor Raşcănu (Fermecătorul Hrisoverghi).
Though naïve and slightly nauseating to today’s taste, Chrysovergis’ poetry is noteworthy for the influence exercised by André Chénier on his style, and one may draw parallels between the two authors' lives (including their ambivalent attitudes toward military life). In addition, Chrysovergis was instrumental in introducing a national focus in Moldavian literature. Perhaps poet Vasile Alecsandri, is compassionate and generous when he sums up his opus as follows: “Old people would only read the lives of the saints; and youngsters would read nothing at all, holding Romanian books in contempt, and among those youngsters only a Chrysovergis would tap his forehead, saying, like Chénier in the hour of his death: “Et pourtant je sens que j'ai quelque chose là.” (And yet I feel that have something here.)
In later periods, literary critics took more reserved stands in respect to Chrysovergis’ contribution to Romanian literature. Călinescu noted that Ruinelor Cetăţii Neamţu was “a disgraceful replica of Cârlova's Ruinurile Târgoviştii.” He also stressed the misogyny present in several lyrics authored by Chrysovergis, which he defined as having “the stray impulses of Romantic jokes and featuring ridiculous invectives.” When one reads the following stanza: “You giggle you wicked woman, and you even mock me, But consider that the knife can also be used on you,” one begins to appreciate this point of view. Yet the Romanian Romeo and Latin lover was no hater. He was merely a rip off merchant of Greek demotic songs. We leave you this week, with the Grecian lines that may have incited this unfortunate parexigesis: «Η σκύλα η πεθερά σου, θέλει μαχαίρωμα, ως το ξημέρωμα.»

First published in NKEE on 23 July 2007