Saturday, November 05, 2016


In his masterful foray into the theatre of the absurd, Ὁι Νταντάδες" (The Nannies), Giorgos Skourtis casts the everyman as defenseless prisoners of a thoroughly degraded society, which is so morally, politically and socially flawed, mired as it is in falsehood and injustice, that they are compelled to inhabit a refuge in a cul de sac of threadbare ideologies and nonsensical constructs, much like the buzzwords of today, all the while being forced to deny the duality of life and death as being able to offer a means of escape, given that what the system offers to its inmates are fraudulent survival options and substitutes for real life itself.

Answering an advertisement for a twenty-four hour babysitting position, the two protagonists of the play soon find out that they are required to look after a hideously disfigured corpse. Not content with his charges watching over the corpse, their employer demands that they lament over it and exhibit genuine grief over its condition, much in the same way as we today in the corporate world are expected to display inordinate amounts of pre-orgasmic excitement about our companies’ success and as a corollary, express the appropriate amounts of grief and contrition as we undergo Maoist self-criticism sessions when confronted with a non-compliance with key performance indicators. As the play progresses, we learn that the corpse, which all along we expect to be a metaphor for society, is not even a corpse, but rather, a loathsome papier-mâché construct. What is disturbing, is not that the fact that the society in question is not real, but rather, that in certain poignant points in the play, the protagonists lament, based on self-interest, the promise of remuneration and fear of punishment, IS decidedly real.

Recent Greek media commentary over the funeral of the Old Calendarist Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop of Fthiotis Kallinikos, reveals an unnerving Dadaesque preoccupation with his corpse. During the funeral service, the late bishop was sat upon his hierarchical throne before being carried out of the church at the conclusion of the rite, to his burial. Almost immediately, a media furore erupted, with various pundits opining as to the barbarity and retrogression of such a ritual, equating it, in one orientalist instance, to the religious customs of the Shiites of Iran and ascribing the keeping of this strange (in the eyes of the punters) custom with all that is wrong with modern Greek society. One particularly poetic commentator posited that the presence of the late bishop’s corpse upon his throne, symbolized the Church of Greece, which, as he put it, was a living corpse, a thing, neither living or dead, robbed of its vitality, merely going through the motions while compelling all those around it, believers and the state, to prop up its illusory and irrelevant existence.

The shock displayed by the mainstream media is thought-provoking and mystifying, given that the bishop in question does not belong to the canonical Church of Greece, but rather a small, rigorist splinter group. Furthermore, the Greek Orthodox have conducted the funeral services of their hierarchs in this fashion, in a rite that persists unchanged for more than a millennium. In fact, the installation of the deceased hierarch upon his throne, is a practice that has and is still followed by the millions of adherents of the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the various Eastern-Rite Churches of the Indian subcontinent, in an unbroken cultural continuum, unsundered by doctrinal differences, from the Balkans to Lake Victoria and to the Himalayas. One wonders why then, the Greek media did not express similar sentiments of outrage when exactly the same practices were followed at the recent funerals of Coptic Pope Shenouda, or Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius. Most probably, because in the minds of the indignant, the adherents of those churches, who are culturally indistinguishable from us, are oriental, and are thus prone to such ghastly forms of sentimentality. We, it is to be implied, are made of sterner, European stock, and such incomprehensible practices are obstacles to the achievement of our aspirations, which ill behoove us.

The outraged indeed have short memories, though their bewilderment can be partially excused that the Church of Greece, which enjoys a light tinkering with Orthodox ritual now and again, (notably replacing the words βασιλεύσι, from the hymn Σώσον Κύριε, because it offends anti-royalists, even though in this context the word refers to rulers and has nothing to do with the Greek political system) has discontinued the practice of enthroning their dead bishops during their funeral service over the past fifty years, though prior to that, in 1951 for example, the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki was buried in exactly the same way.

The reasons why the hierarchs, in the Eastern Tradition, are propped up upon their perch, are Dadaesque. One the one hand, they are, as hierarchs, presiding over a service and leading the faithful one last time. One the other hand, much as Skourtis’ corpse in the Νταντάδες, while the faithful perform their leave-taking, their hierarch is no longer there, and in a sense, is not real, his essence having departed (one hopes) for a rest sublime. The presence of his corpse is thus a reminder of the futility of clinging to the chthonic things of life, a powerful man, ensconced upon his throne in death, being a potent symbol of the fleeting and ultimately illusory nature of that power, in which we invest so much importance. Similarly, in the crypts of the St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, one comes across the skeletons of abbots clad in their cassocks. The experience is a confronting one, but then again, so is death itself. One may not agree with the aesthetics of the practice, and in fact, some Orthodox clerics find it disturbing, (one of these commenting: "it displays an ungodly fearlessness in the face of the impending judgement and a frightening disregard for the humility required even to appear before the Judge who is both a God of love and a God of justice,") but it cannot be doubted that as a symbol of the absurdity of all man-made pretensions, the corpse of the hierarch is an exceedingly powerful one.

It is not clear what makes this tradition any more or less ludicrous or barbaric than the disposing of any given hierarch in a cardboard box. What is clear however, is that in pouring scorn upon the inoffensive rituals of a traditionalist Orthodox group and seeking to use these to denigrate the Church of Greece, which no longer continues the practice and which has over the past few years devoted itself to a tremendous grass roots endeavour to alleviate the plight of impoverished Greek people and refugees, the disingenuous, self-righteous commentators and harbingers of progress, have unwittingly assumed the role of the employer of Skourtis’ Dadades, abrogating to themselves the right to dictate to us the system we are to worship, all the while prescribing and proscribing the forms in which that worship will take. They do so, completely oblivious to the deep cultural and historical context from which the proscribed practice arose, and in complete ignorance of the manner in which Greece, a country culturally and geographically on the cusp of two great civilisations, having given of itself freely to both, has been able to synthesise and conflate past, present and future, in a fashion uniquely its own. Instead, in their onto pathologic self-loathing, they accuse others (a marginal group within the broader Greek societal sphere) of being irrelevant to the modern zeitgeist, all the while displaying a complete ignorance of the foundations of that zeitgeist, which are more polyvalent and multi-faceted then they would like to admit.

Rebranding a corpse makes it no less a corpse and says more about the cultural complexes of those who would not afford to the departed, the respect they would have appreciated, within they context that they would have understood, than about those who, reared in that tradition, instinctively follow it. Nor is the late bishop Kallinikos a metaphor for the putrescent and rapidly decomposing dreams of economic greatness and first-world acceptance of Greece as an equal. In seeking out and deriding such simplistic scapegoats, we are participating in our own theatre of the absurd, grieving over a papier-mâché parody of an aspiration that was never entirely real, long after its final exhalation has taken place. May its memory be eternal.

First published in NKEE on 5 November 2016