Why does Greek criticism have a problem with translations of new Greek poetry?

The arrival on my desk of yet another brand new anthology shows that international interest in Greek poetry continues to develop in several languages. Translations appear now regularly in magazines, books, festivals, performances, and other fora. They take the form of anthologies, compilations, special sections, or individual selections.

This broad dissemination, which has not happened to Greek poetry since the era of the 1970s, is treated unsurprisingly in Greece (only!) with (at best) silence or (at worst) scorn. In public and in private, in print and social media, journalists and scholars express their nervousness over this multilingual circulation, invoking one and the same predictable reason: Current global interest in Greek culture, they argue, can only be explained by the ongoing economic crisis, and therefore it has an exoticizing, if not colonizing, function; once the crisis recedes, it will evaporate. Yet this argument is little more than a defensive and isolationist reservation coming from media and academic domains that until now have paid very little attention to new writing and continue to favor poets who are over 75 years old, aesthetically modernist, morally avuncular, and nationally defiant.

A close look at the introductions of recent anthologies of translations from Greek into several languages shows that, apart from the reference to the crisis in some of their titles/subtitles, their criteria of selection are far from uniform: For example, Theodoros Chiotis (English, 2015) uses “public discourse,” Nathalie Karagiannis (Spanish and Catalan, 2016) the “South,” Marie-Laure Coulmin Koutsaftis (French, 2013) the generation of the 1970s, Dinos Siotis (English, 2014) the life of “every poet,” Karen van Dyck (Enlish, 2016) a “cross-cultural” view, and Pavel Nattsol Zarutskiy (Russian, 2016) the “Underground.” Each anthology offers a different view of the current landscape. I have not seen a single editor claim that their anthology was meant to reflect the crisis, and most of them say explicitly that it does not.

It is therefore both unfair and misleading for eponymous and anonymous commentators writing this year in print publications like Kathimerini, Vima, and Athens Review of Books as well as electronic ones to criticize these valuable projects for exploiting the crisis. On the contrary, introverted and old-fashioned Greek criticism can learn a lot from the innovative approaches of translators and editors to the new and exciting Greek writing that it still ignores.

My pianist self, Pantelis Polychronidis, might recommend to critics a simple exercise in discernment: Compare these beginnings of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto:

August 10, 2016

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The erotic gaze of the piano player

The playing of pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” reminds me of cultural and psychological associations between the musician and the listener’s body, like the figures in “Titian’s dumbfounding Venus With an Organist and Cupid, dating to 1550-55. Venus lounges on a red velvet blanket, which Titian renders with stunningly free brushwork; gashes of purple and mauve run through the velour. Her son whispers in her ear, making her turn away from the musician in her bedchamber — who indiscreetly gazes at her uncovered genitals. The goddess of love has an untroubled face and a slight paunch in her belly. They make her seem more mortal, and make the painting even lewder.”

Since we became friends, I am fascinated by the erotics of piano performance – not so much the sensual relation of musicians to their instruments as their desire for their listeners, and the ways their playing embodies it. Pantelis is often captivated by beautiful women, real and imaginary, and loves to admire them and share his admiration with me in a warmly poetic language. Thus when I see him perform, I can’t help marveling at the way he addresses many pieces to goddesses of supple grace and radiance. Trying to think of famous contemporary pianists with a comparable erotic disposition and delivery, the first names that come to mind are Daniil Trifonov playing Scriabin and Lucas Debargue Liszt as well as Hélène Grimaud playing Chopin and Yuja Wang Schumann.

August 12, 2016

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The Greek Generation of the 2000s and the politics of new European writing

Reading a rich review essay posted today on the current political turn of young European writers I am struck immediately by the similarities of this turn with the politics of the Greek generation of the 2000s. To show how well the Left Melancholy of the Greek poets fits into the general trend, I quote here selectively the essay’s general points, omitting the comments on the three specific writers it discusses. These general points describe equally well the poetics and politics of new Greek writing. Everything below is quotations.

August 3, 2016

A new generation of young European writers is reinventing political literature—and people are listening. Some of the brightest new voices on the continent are making their names through overtly political books, showing that literature, even books of poetry, can still play a significant role in shaping public discourse.

A new Europe is taking form in literature, one that reflects the continent’s diversity, and the growing pains that come along with it. This new generation of writers is reshaping the old idea of the artist as political activist, this time with a social media twist.

What we are going to do about it. That’s the issue. These three writers all seem to take it for granted: It is up to them as citizens, it is up to art as a form, and it is therefore up to them as artists, to change things.
Like all writers they deserve to be read for the quality of their own work, and the books certainly warrant it. Still, reading these three it’s hard not to feel something is going on that transcends individual texts.
After decades where the most prominent writers in European literature have often preferred to see political issues as, at best, an incidental topic of literature, it seems significant that the major literary breakthroughs in three different European languages in a short period of time have come from writers who are overtly political. And just as important: That there’s an attentive audience for this kind of writing.

As writers, they also invigorate the public sphere. All three are as unapologetic about taking center stage in public debates as they are about perceiving literature as part of a bigger political endeavor: to point to injustice and ask for the remedy.
They speak of the necessity of looking critically at political language—who gets to talk and from where—as essential to their literary projects. All three challenge stereotypes and resist simple identity politics. All three take on big issues— gender, class, race, religion—through fiercely individual forms of expression, while advocating collective change with a 1960s-like energy that treats the everyday as highly political and infused with meaning. They all seem to embrace, in updated fashion, the idea of the personal as political.
In addition, all of them reinforce the effect of their writing with strong public appearances. All three draw packed houses, and are unusually stage savvy.
All express a marked interest in literary traditions, and seem more interested in seeing themselves in a line of thinkers, writers, even political activists, than in distinguishing themselves by underlining their difference from the past, “anxiety of influence”-style. If there is an aesthetic reorientation going on here, it doesn’t take the form of calls to “make it new” or lofty statements about change. In fact the generational perspective of this essay would most likely be rejected by the writers mentioned in it. Neither of them seems particularly interested in the idea of the new or the young, or even the unique and original as the highest values of artistic creation.
They also seem more concerned with the kind of belonging that takes place within a tradition of thinking or writing or art, than the kind that comes from being born in one place or into a particular social group.
But all three aim at breaking down language barriers. Whether it be between Swedish and Romanian, between the speech of the working class and the bourgeoisie, or between the language of the majority and the immigrant minority, the endeavor to mix languages normally not used on the same page is part of larger project aimed at crossing boundaries and scaling walls in order to build new political collectives.

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“Deus absconditus” and the emergence of modern radicalism (2)

A very special book that deserves a place among major treatises on Protestant political theology is the post-modern novel Q (1999) by “Luther Blissett,” the nom de plume of four Bolognese post-anarchist activists. It is an absorbing exercise in what the authors call “mythopoesis,” a literary practice for which they acknowledge explicitly religious scholar Furio Jessi but has also been explored with astute sophistication by literary scholar Stathis Gourgouris in his splendid study of “literature as theory for an antimythical era.”

This sprawling novel traces the emergence of modern religious and political radicalism in the revolutionary function of Christianity in the world of a hidden God. What kind of secular meaning does the hiddenness of the divine reveal or prefigure? What fear of sight directs anticlerical protest into religious and cultural iconoclasm and radicalizes it to apocalyptic (Karl Kautsky) or messianic (Ernst Bloch) politics?

The heavily populated story is set between 1517-55, during the violent upheavals caused by the Reformation. It focuses on a multi-named, anonymous theology student, follower of Thomas Müntzer (leader of the failed Great Peasants’ Revolt in 1524-25), who becomes an armed rebel as he attempts (and fails) repeatedly to spread the Anabaptist message in Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy and is shadowed by Q, a Vatican agent spying for the head of the Roman Catholic Inquisition.

If God is hidden from the poor, who are then exploited by both princes and bishops, is it their religious duty to rebel? With its roots in peasant poverty, illiteracy, and despair, Anabaptism grows politically insurgent as it promotes communal ownership, defending God’s kingdom from church, court, and commerce. The book aspires to turn into popular myth the rise of capitalism and the formation of bourgeois subjectivity and, with its deeply melancholic conclusion, it has been seen as an allegory of the decline of the European protest movements in the 1970s.

Pantelis would bring up an earlier magisterial treatment of the same period: Following the success of their Les Huguenots (1836), composer Meyerbeer and librettist Scribe worked on another, equally successful grand opéra on the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Le prophète (1849), which dramatizes the Anabaptist uprising of 1532 in the Netherlands.

August 1, 2016

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“Deus absconditus” and the emergence of modern radicalism (1)

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Michael Triegel: “Deus absconditus” (2013)

The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology by Marius Timmann Mjaaland is a new, important study of the emergence of the notion of deus absconditus which helps trace the distinction between the hidden and the revealed God in the political theology backwards from Derrida’ Of Grammatology (1966) to Goldmann’s The Hidden God (1955), Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Pascal’s Pensées, Thomas Müntzer, and Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518). It identifies the origins of the 20th-century deconstruction of metaphysics in the Lutheran destruction of the self-assertion of man in Aristotelian anthropology by the “crucifixion” of old Adam. More generally, it reflects on the hiddenness of meaning, truth, the divine, and the future in hermeneutics and phenomenology, and on the operations of the combined two approaches in textualism and secularism under conditions of homelessness or abyss. It is particularly interesting on the religious origins of the idea of the revolution which my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, and I discuss when visiting St. Stephens Cathedral at night.

June 10, 2016

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Leaving Plato’s cave for his studio (3)

What happens when a ceramic analyst of prehistoric excavations cultivates her own ceramic craftsmanship? When, in addition to returning, an an archeologist, to an ancient source, she is making her own start by sourcing something new?

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Dr. Despina Margomenou is a highly sophisticated anthropologist who has been working on ceramics as one of her non-professional creative projects. She makes intriguing small batch or one-of-a-kind cups, mugs, platter, candle holders, vases and other practical or decorative items, which she often gives away as gifts. Artfully arranged, they invite reflection on parameters such as material (clay), means (wheel), process (hand), form (design), place (studios), and use (function). They do not claim any originality or authenticity. They actualize molds, not models. They are elementary without being austere, artisanal without being artistic. Their baked affects are clay-philic, not eco-friendly.

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They are conscious of being hand made. Theirs is not the hand of an artist or villager but of a craftsperson: its does not perfect or assert, it just shows how it’s done right. It combines a ceramist and a scholar in the generative gesture of the anthropologist who is embedded in a pottery workshop.

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Margomenou’s work has a destination: it shapes its own destiny. In the process the maker’s hand is extended: as it is creating something, it is already offering it to you. The object is not given but offered, and when you receive it, you feel it was meant for you all along, and you want to have it around and show it off proudly – “Look here what I was offered!”

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Margomenou’s splendid creations are vessels of signification: they are not made to hold but to be held, that is what makes them unique gifts. When you receive them, you fill them with your acceptance. This is also the case with their elliptical Greekness: it resides not in what they are but in how you hold them. Like the ancient containers which she studies in her interdisciplinary research, the hollow receptacles Margomenou makes move from an economy of settlement, storage, and surplus to a semiotic economy of thinging materiality.

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This multi-faceted body of work comes from a very different Platonic space, one which is not a cave’s machinery of shadows and illusions but a studio’s oven for firing pottery that people can hold and gift. It does not provide a false reality but a grand furnace to create new realities by making visual repositories where images are not imitated but repositioned and repossessed.

August 28, 2015

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Leaving Plato’s cave for his studio (2)

In 2007, Eleni Kalokyri, a wonderful Greek painter, turned her studio outside Athens into an installation that could be called “Plato’s Studio.” She populated it with representative examples from Όστρακα/Potsherds, a project that consisted of some 250 real untitled potsherds illustrated by the artist with shells, birds, fish, animals, plants, fruit, faces (like those haunting the cover of Neni Panourgia’s indispensable study Dangerous Citizens), and other motifs.

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Individually and collectively they combined an inviting familiarity with alluring elusiveness. For example, it was hard to tell whether their images were fading or emerging, drawn stylistically from Bronze-era or Hellenistic art; whether they were fragments or self-contained pieces, representational or decorative; whether they were done as studies or notes for future work. Individually, they defied definition. Collectively, they created a “heterotopia” (Foucault) of antiquity as well as a “plateau” (Deleuze/Guattari) of art making. Neither nostalgic nor anticipatory, they effected an entire “distribution of the sensible” (Rancière) by coordinating classicizing codes. Guests in the studio felt tempted to get involved by rearranging the installation and thus redistributing the sensible and experiencing “another freedom” (Boym).

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In the project “Potsheds” work at Plato’s studio focused on the study of forms through τέχνη/”craft” (Arendt), not thought or art. Like fellow artist Eleanor Rappe, Kalokyri prefers to work on long-term, multi-piece projects, rather than individual works, which give her the opportunity to explore a wide range of combinations and variations on a visual question. Thus each project evolves from form-making to forming to morphing (to allude to the Greek μορφή): it does not give form to something amorphous but it re-cycles and re-functions shape and scheme/σχήμα through modes of allo-morphing and meta-morphing.

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In this particular project Kalokyri worked with artistic codes of “the classical” (Settis), repertoires of modern “Hellenism” (Leontis). It is unfortunate that so far the field of classical reception has dealt so very little with the visual arts, and thus we are conceptually ill-equipped to discuss artwork like this which refers not to the ancients as “truth in painting” (Derrida) but to what moderns perceive as ancient. Everything in it looks/feels Greek but it’s an “aura” (Benjamin), not a quote, a resonance, not a reference. You try to remember where you have seen it before but the truth is, you have not. It is Kalokyri’s virtuosic skill and iconoplastic craft that make you think that you are recollecting what in fact she is presencing.

July 1, 2016

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