Monday, November 10, 2008


"When I have tried and failed, I shall have failed," Sophocles, Antigone

Gloating over a fallen corpse is decidedly unhellenic. If anything, the precedent set by our august ancestors is to weep over the corpse of our enemies and to honour them with a decent burial, as Achilles did, with Priam, over the corpse of Hector and Alexander the Great did with the corpse of Darius III. Ancient literary sources, especially the Iliad, emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity. Contrariwise, to defile, scorn or dishonour a corpse is a recipe for disaster, as King Creon of Thebes found out when he refused to have Oedipus' rebellious son Polynices a burial but instead, ordered (under penalty of death) that Polynices' corpse be left to rot on the battlefield as punishment for his treason. This act of hybris was the catalyst for a chain of events that caused the extirpation, by suicide of his wife and son.
The Underworld is definitely not a tourist attraction. In the Odyssey, Homer describes it as being deep beneath the earth, where Hades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures—the "shades" of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld. Nonetheless, entry into this dismal world was necessary. Homeric belief suggests that the Greeks saw death as a time when the psyche left the body to enter Hades. This psyche could be seen, but was untouchable. Beginning in Classical times there came to be the concepts of punishment after death or a state of blessedness. The soul responsible for a person’s personality and moral decisions received the eternal punishment or bliss for the choices of the human form. The burial rituals perhaps spawned from this belief that the soul must be guided into the afterlife. If the body was not given a proper burial according to Greek ritual, the soul would remain trapped between the worlds of the living and the underworld.
One would venture to say that there are two ways in which one could dishonour a corpse. The first, and most consistent method would to continue to execrate it, its associates and doings in the same manner as one had during its life. For example, if you were one of the enemies of EKEME, the now deceased centre for National Centre for Hellenic Studies at LaTrobe, who frequently lambasted it in the press, questioned its director's motives, the regulation of its finances and its activities, you could presumably remain consistent with this course of action and desecrate its corpse by maintaining your barrage of invective, post mortem. On the other hand, you could vocally lament the demise of the institution, wail over its body and visibly scratch your head, wondering aloud whence the ark of Greek culture shall now come, all the while fiendishly delighting in the fact that yet another spectacularly tall poppy has come crashing down.
Both forms of desecration have become publicly apparent as forensic Hellenists sift through the rubble of the aforementioned institution and attempt to determine what went wrong. As a community, we tend to delight or at best become absorbed with the misfortune of some of its more prominent members and institutions. EKEME's demise is thus vocally expressed by many as being just divine punishment for hubris - that hubris taking the form of perceived arrogance over the success of creating a fully funded tertiary institution to promote Hellenism. There are cackles of vengeful laughter by those who could not bear to see it holding functions at Parliament House or receiving accolades by the Greek government. At the same, being a community that values "front", "face" or "form" rather than substance, we are concerned that following the demise of the RMIT Greek Centre, EKEME's demise means that we are left with no other like institution which we can utilise to fill the "educational-cultural" slot. When we consider that some ten years ago, there were Modern Greek courses in at least five tertiary institutions in Victoria, this loss becomes ever so more apparent. Older members of the community, who would remember the mobilization and activism (which derived from all facets of the Greek community) surrounding the institution of a Modern Greek program at the University of Melbourne would, in the aftermath of EKEME's demise, secretly shudder and consider that somewhere along the line, we have all failed - not the directors of EKEME, or its funders, or indeed the co-ordinators of other Modern Greek programmes - but all of us. And it is this secret consciousness of guilt that makes gloating even more so titillating.
EKEME did not ever receive full community support. It was widely perceived as an institution that existed to provide a living for its employees and directors. But then again, beyond the usual lip service paid to the necessity of maintaining institutions that teach Modern Greek as intrinsic to our community's survival, our community has not invested nearly enough time and money as it could have, (after their founding that is) to ensure these institutions' relevance and survival.
However, it should not come as a surprise that those members of the community who strove and fought for the erection of lofty educational institutions are now unwilling or not in a position to display the same energy in striving to arrest their terminal decline. At the time that most of these institutions were founded, these members of the community were in the 30-40 year old demographic. Thirty or so years later, why should they be called upon to defend their foundations? Should not their successors in the demographic of activism take that role upon themselves?
Apparently not. In a community where the reception of Hellenism, in most of its facets, is a passive, rather than an active process, comprising of snippets of information being interpreted, utilised by its primary partakes and passed down to latter generations, this demographic group, in its vast majority either has not the requisite knowledge of the significance of these foundations, or the passion, let alone the time and the expertise, to see them continue. Like everything else about Hellenism in this country, these are matters that are perceived to concern only the first generation. It is only because that first generation insists that Greek customs, traditions, language and education is important that these things exist. Remove the first generation and the fragile house of cards that appears to be the Greek community appears to come crashing down on itself. Thus, what is remarkable in the aftermath of EKEME's demise then, is not the existence of ineffective incredulity and gloating, but rather the manifestation of an entire adult demographic that is in its majority a) professionally trained or tertiary educated b) integrated within Australian society c) excelling in all spheres of life's total indifference to what could well likely be a landmark event in the history of our community.
Sadly, it appears that the most telling parallel to the development of our community is increasingly, the fabled bridge of Arta. According to the demotic muse, that bridge would be built during the day, only for the day's work to collapse at night. Similarly, the first generation of Greek-Australians expended the spare time of their youth in constructing various arches in their attempts to span the Greek-Australian cultural divide, in the form of schools, clubs and organisations only to see these crumble one by one into the abyss of oblivion and/or assimilation. They continue to construct these arches, though they all seem doomed, lacking an overarching superstructure of a guiding ideology that can be shared by all.
The argument that community institutions like EKEME are doomed to failure because they alienate other generations or do not represent their interests does not hold water. While the first generation set the foundations for the framework of our community, latter generations on the whole, seem to have rejected that framework, not for something more relevant, or attuned to their own needs, but rather, for absolutely nothing at all. The tragedy of the demise of EKEME thus is not the fact that it failed to capture the support or recognition of a gloaters too old and tired to be materially benefited by it, but rather that the generation that should have used this educational institution, critiqued it and demanded that it be adapted to the needs of an increasingly globalised and fragmented Australian lifestyle, or in the event that this could not be achieved, form their own similar institution, did not do so.
Gloaters are apt to gloat. They told us that x, y or z organisation was of no use and that it would fail and they are happy to see it fail because they dislike seeing a, b or c at its helm. Would they be perhaps sobered by the thought that their gloat is tantamount to a morituri te salutant by world-weary, superannuated gladiators since the corpse of their derision is but a prophecy of the demise of all they have stood for? Truly then the biblical injunction, found in the Gospel of Luke: "let the dead bury the dead," would be a particularly apt one.
Mark Anthony may have come "not to bury Caesar, but to praise him," but we find ourselves incapable of doing either of these. Unless a way is found for the living to bury the dead and to build upon their foundations rather than obliterate their tombstones, the unhappy spectre of failure will continue to haunt us, unable to find passage across the Styx into Hades and rest, and it will inhabit everything that we do.
For those possessed of ears, hear this, from Sophocles' Teiresias and let us be roused to action, before it is too late: "A corpse for a corpse the price, and flesh for flesh, one of your own begotten. The sun shall not run his course for many days before you pay. You plunged a child of light into the dark; entombed the living with the dead; the dead dismissed unmourned, denied a grave- a corpse unhallowed and defeated of his destiny below. Where neither you nor gods must meddle, you have thrust your thumbs. Do not be surprised that heaven- yes, and hell- have set the Furies loose to lie in wait for you, Ready with the punishments you engineered for others. "
First published in NKEE on 10 November 2008