Greek Mothers dismember their Sons

The Greek songs that lament a major national or personal crisis are based on the standard pattern of a particular family romance. According to it, Greece is a domineering, cruel mother who torments and dismembers her children, paying no attention to their pleas for understanding and warmth. Out of their frustration sometimes the children are tempted to leave her but they never find the strength to do it because they depend on her, surviving as they do on faded memories of innocence, squandered ideals of beauty, and unfulfilled promises of distinction. Both mother and children are unworthy of their glorious history and magnificent homeland, which they sell to foreign traders in order to make a living.

There are no fathers in this allegorical romance – ever. The nuclear Greek family consists only of an overbearing mother and a son desperate for her affection. Any other woman in the son’s life is a poor substitute for his mother who just acts and sounds like her. He has a sadomasochistic affair with his mother to whom he often confesses: “I love you.” Part Virgin Mary and part Salome, she lets herself be exploited by others (starting with her thoroughly alienated husband) and in turn abuses her son who in vain yearns for her respect. We never hear directly from her since she never responds to his appeals. She remains impervious and silent until she turns into a delusional Agave, tearing to pieces and mutilating her son Pentheus who, as his name indicates, is mourning his grim fate. Again and again she cuts off his head in a castrating sparagmos.* He may briefly become indignant but remains fatalistic, and never considers any collective or individual action since nothing can change.

In this wasteland of memories and desires, Greek sons accept their impotence and can only hope for a return to the womb’s solace. This incestuous relationship has been captured by director Nikos Alevras (b. 1948) in the famous opening scene (below, starting at 3:30) of his 1977 autobiographical movie Πέφτουν οι σφαίρες σαν το χαλάζι κι ο τραυματισμένος καλλιτέχνης αναστενάζει… [Bullets fall like a hailstorm and the wounded artist sighs…] where the adult son (played by the director) is sucking at the breast of his mother (played by his wife).

In addition to songs and movies, Greek mothers dismember their sons in other arts as well, such as the novel.  To take two examples of “castrated” young men from 2014, Sophrosyne by Marianne Apostolides (which includes a conversation about Agave and Pentheus) consists in the delirious monologue of Aleksandros, a college student and diaspora Greek, who cannot make love to his beloved girlfriend because he is having an affair with his single mother; while Η λάσπη by Χρήστος Αρμάντο Γκέζος consists in the delirious monologue of another Aleksandros, a 28-year old and diaspora Greek, who has murdered his father, bids farewell to his beloved girlfriend, and is planning to commit suicide on his birthday in front of his suffocating mother.

* Freud considered the decapitation of a man by a woman as a symbolic image of castration. Also, in The Interpretation of Dreams (5th edition, 1919) he included a dream of castration where, in a visit to the hairdresser’s, a boy’s head is cut off by a stern woman who looks like his mother (The Pelikan Freud Library 4, p. 485).

October 2, 2014

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