The Place of Greek Literature in the World Republic of Letters

Greek writers who live in Greece play no role in what Pascale Casanova has called «the world republic of letters» (1999). Recognition in this prestigious republic eludes them. They are not unknown, and their presence is sometimes noted, but they have not achieved the distinguished reputation that is generated by the broad and lasting interest in works, «schools,» or genres. That is why no Greek author or trend is included in surveys of, say, Romanticism or the Avant-Garde, feminism or post-colonialism, the ballad or the short story. Greek works have not made much of a difference anywhere. «Η διεθνής των Ελλήνων συγγραφέων» δεν διαδραματίζει ρόλο στη διεθνή λογοτεχνία.

A promising development is that, perhaps more than ever, in recent years Greek poets and novelists have been circulating all over the world. They travel to gatherings, receive fellowships, participate in international projects, and serve on boards. Their works are translated in several languages, nominated, awarded, displayed, included in festivals, presented in readings, even reviewed occasionally. Representative fiction writers of this commendable trend include Christos Chrissopoulos, Minos Efstathiadis, Vangelis Hatjiyannidis, Persa Koumoutsi, Dimitris Sotakis, Dimitris Stefanakis, Fotini Tsalikoglou, and Makis Tsitas. However, the kind of well-deserved attention these authors and their colleagues attract is often based on tokenism, «equal opportunity,» today’s headlines on the “Greek crisis,” or simply networking. None of these things is in itself bad. But will these authors be able to maintain this attention for an extended period, cultivate and expand it, or will they soon drop out of sight, like most of their equally deserving predecessors?

Past history is not encouraging. Broadly translated and noticed authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis and Angelos Sikelianos, Odysseus Elytis and Yannis Ritsos, Antonis Samarakis and Vassilis Vassilikos, have faded away or disappeared altogether. More recent cases have not fared better. Consider the poetry of Katerina Angelaki-Rooke, Tzeni Mastoraki, and Nanos Valaoritis, or fiction by Amanda Michalopoulou, Alexis Stamatis, and Thanassis Valtinos: The books and their creators have circulated widely, sometimes with the admirably dedicated support of wonderful translators such as Jane Asimakopoulos, Patricia Barbeito, Peter Constantine, Karen Emmerich, Gail Holst, David Mason, Vassiliki Rapti, Dinos Siotis, and Karen van Dyck, yet they have not been integrated in the global conversation and competition of letters. The challenges of integrating Greek literature in an international field has led Emmerich to advocate convincingly support for «the crossover work of academics engaging a broader public with their work» within the university and beyond («The Academy in Crisis and Scholarship in the Public Sphere,» Journal of Modern Greek Studies 33:1, May 2015).

From the genealogies of canons in the 1970s to contemporary debates about «world literature» (Emily Apter, Alexander Beecroft, David Damrosch, Djelal Kadir, Franco Moretti, Aamir Mufti, Gayatri Spivak, to name just a few participants) we have learned that the global republic of letters is constituted by literary histories, anthologies, textbooks, syllabi, essays (more than reviews) in eminent periodicals and web pages, scholarly papers in conferences and journals, as well as interaction among distinguished works in several arts, such as music, cinema, and painting. All these institutional sites and mechanisms are involved in cultural canonization and accumulation. Operations of canon and capital formation do not necessarily make everything they process canonical and profitable, but they make nearly all of them central to the life of the republic in that they locate them in discussions and debates in places that shape taste and determine rank, sanctioning them by high aesthetic, cultural, and ethical criteria.

Greek books are translated, exhibited, recited, praised, and honored but do not become primary sources of value, knowledge, power, judgement, learning, selfhood, and conduct, and sooner or later they are relegated to the introverted reading and teaching purview of Greeks and Philhellenes.  The Greek author is still trying to figure out the Law of the Republic.

Like the hero of a Kafkaesque parable, after standing for a long time «before the law» and imploring the gatekeeper to let him through an open doorway, the Greek author has gained entry and has been admitted to the Republic but its Law remains a mystery to him. He has heard about lawmaking but has never witnessed it, let alone participated in it. So he has taken a seat in the waiting hall, together with other new and anxious arrivals, and waits till his number is called. The office closes before his turn comes and he has to return to the same place next day, get a new number, and wait again.

News about the latest wave of translations of Greek literature in any language is always welcome, but it translates into little since it represents only an arrival, a mere emergence in the powerful regime (Eagleton calls it «empire») of world literature. It is too early to tell what will transpire. The first book publication of George Seferis in English (The King of Asine and Other Poems, 1948) became important not when it appeared but after influential critics reviewed it in close to 20 eminent British periodicals. That incontestable ruler of the small but fiercely contested Greek republic of letters knew well that the point is not to be promoted but to be linked in. Therefore it would be far more interesting if we were told, in addition to the number of languages into which writers have been translated, how many times books translated over the last twenty years have been featured in opinion-making periodicals, research-setting panels, and education-shaping tools – in short, how many times they have played a role (as opposed to just being merely cited) and were recognized for it. We could then find out whether they participate in discipline setting and self forming within the dominant artistic, moral, and epistemic regime, and we might encourage others to aspire to the same consequential (as opposed to circumstantial) contribution. If, as Roland Barthes famously wrote in 1969, «literature is what gets taught» (that is, what is deemed discursively and disciplinarily important enough to be included in curricula and Schiller’s «aesthetic education of mankind»), translated Greek texts will be ignored by the sophisticated citizens of the global republic of letters, and will not become literature, let alone a distinguished one, unless they get taught and studied.

January 5, 2015

An earlier version of this post has been re-posted here

I am grateful to Christos Chrissopoulos for the invitation.

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