Saturday, August 04, 2018


The almost apocalyptic catastrophe afflicting Athens recently is truly immense. Over eighty people have perished and hundreds more have suffered terrible wounds in sense reminiscent of the 1922 Smyrna conflagration. Is this a tragedy? Absolutely. Is it a ‘Greek tragedy?’ Arguably, it is.

A Greek tragedy, as opposed to any other type, broadly refers to a form of theatre whereby the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.

Applying this definition, Greece, a country of immense importance to the world for reasons that are well known and superfluous to mention here, has experienced disaster owing to circumstances it could not deal with. Arguably, ‘personal’ failings may have contributed to that disaster in the sense that ailing and beleaguered Greek society, struggling for almost a decade under an economic, social and political crisis that threatens to pull apart the country at the seams, has produced, it is widely believed, the arsonists that are responsible for this heinous crime. It is also being argued that fire prevention and protection readiness was nowhere near what it should have been and that this is a major failing of the state. As such, all the elements are there to plausibly maintain that the fires do signify, a Greek tragedy.

Given the above, why do we as Greek-Australians, instinctively recoil at Adelaide advertiser cartoonist Jos Valdman’s cartoon entitled: “Another Greek Tragedy?” Why have Greek-Australians found it demeaning and chafe at its connotations? Ostensibly, the cartoon does not appear to offend. To the right, it depicts some burly hoplites bearing water filled amphorae, engaged in the process of extinguishing the fire. The conflagration itself is suggested by a few wisps of flame to the extreme upper and lower right, as if the cartoonist wishes to draw the viewers’ attention away from it and onto the humans who are suffering as a result of it.

To the left, a Grecian couple is locked in an embrace. Dignified in their sorrow, they shed bitter tears. A determined man kneeling behind them, his stern gaze imbued with a sense of purpose, seems to be collecting those tears in an amphora, suggesting that this vessel, brining with tears will be handed to the heroic aquarii, who will then use them to put out the fire. The message here seems to be one of a Greek people who are utterly alone, stripped bare and totally dispossessed of any means to protect themselves, reduced to using their own tears, a powerful symbol of mourning, in order to deal with the latest catastrophe to afflict them. Nonetheless, they do not flee, nor do they give up. Nourished by the collective anguish of the Greek people, the stronger amongst them, hasten to protect them and provide them succour. Owing to their resourcefulness in the face of adversity, they have not let the flames consume them. Instead, they have banished the flames to the edge of the cartoon. On the extreme right, one of the hoplite fire-fighters bears a shield emblazoned with the image of Pegasus. Not only is the white Pegasus a symbol of purity, his white wings are a symbol of hope, suggesting that the Greek people can and will manage to see their spirits soar as they slowly recover from the tragedy. Moreover, according to Greek mythology, everywhere this winged horse struck his hoof to the earth, an inspiring water spring would burst forth. Triumph over adversity. The victory of life, over death.

The ancient Greek vase the tableau unfolds itself upon is cracked, but it is not broken. Some cracks can be mended, some cannot, but this particular crack does not appear to affect the structural integrity of the vessel. The cartoonist here seems to imply that though Greece is battered and bruised, she is not damaged beyond repair. She will endure. And she will reach the heights once more, not through the intervention of other parties, but rather through the endeavours of its own people.

Valdman’s cartoon, is thus an extremely well-considered pictorial representation of a tragedy, imbued with a multiplicity of meanings that are designed to evoke in their decoder, sympathy but not condescension. Instead, he has afforded both the victims and the Greek people themselves immense nobility. There is a synergy to the figures portrayed on the vase that suggests that the Greek people, though afflicted have, to use the vernacular, “got this.” They have the inner resources to deal with every single tragedy that comes their way. The depiction of the modern Greeks in the guise of their ancient forebears further reinforces this message, as does the title of the cartoon, where the word ‘Another’ is of vital significance to the overall meaning of the piece: The Greeks are a very old people who have being dealing with tragedy since the dawn of time. They will overcome.

There is thus nothing offensive about Valdman’s sensitive and respectful cartoon. Granted, Greek-Australians profoundly dislike being stereotyped and are often indignant at the perceived inability of the mainstream to deal with or portray Greeks on their own terms, as they really are, without resorting to clichés that reduce and ultimately trivialize Greeks, portraying them either as an eternal subversive, an antiquated relic, or a trifling, orientalised entity of little or no substance, thus relegating them to the margins of the discourse. Yet this is definitely not the situation with Valdman’s ‘Another Greek Tragedy.’

Rather than stereotype the Greek people, the cartoonist has employed his arts expertly, in finding a common denominator that will speak to the heart of the non-Greek viewer and assist him to find common ground with the victims of the fires. Valdman has achieved this by recognizing that ancient Greece is widely considered to by the foundation of western civilization and drawing from that knowledge. In depicting the fire-fighters as hoplites, he hearkens back to the heroic battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, events that in the West have become synonymous with valour, dedication and courage. He implies that the modern Greeks who stand in their ancestors shoes retain the same attributed. He connotes that such values are eternal within the Greek. In fact, in choosing to portray the modern Greek victims of the terrible fires as ancient Greeks, (and how many times do we as Greeks shove our ancient past in the faces of westerners, demanding homage as a consequence of it, and how many times do we use it as a birch twig with which to flagellate ourselves for our perceived comparative incompetency?) Valdman has cleverly broken down barriers of bigotry in order to find a common cultural denominator where victim and empathiser can look upon each other, not as equals, but as one. This is a remarkable achievement and one that deserves praise, not condemnation.

If there is a tragedy outside of Valdman’s inspired cartoon, it is this: that in our own ontopathology, enmeshed within a quagmire of conflicted attitudes to our identity and the way we and others represent it, we are unable to accept a compliment and a genuine gesture of solidarity when it is proffered, unless we dictate its terms. It is sad the editor of the Adelaide Advertiser was compelled to apologise to righteously indignat Greeks stating: "The cartoon was meant to be a poignant tribute to the Greek people, both the tragedy they are now facing and their undeniable resilience.....It was never our intention to add to the hurt or distress the Greek community has been suffering as a result of the fires."

Ultimately, in castigating the well-meaning and fabulously polysemic efforts of Valdman to laud the Greek people, respect the victims and lionize the firefighters who have saved their lives, we run the risk of contributing to our own, tragedy of pettiness and our complete alienation from the mainstream narrative, for fear of offence.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 4 August 2018