What is “Modern” about Modern Greece?

Opening remarks to the public debate of the Symposium on the Future of Modern Greek Studies

London School of Economics and Political Science, November 7, 2014


I will open up our conversation tonight by focusing on the domain of culture, which is highly pertinent to our topic since some of the most ambitious and influential arguments about the uniqueness of Greece’s modern identity have been made in areas like literature, music, the arts, scholarship, thought, and high-brow media. I have four suggestions to make.

1.  Greece became a highly contested notion during the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns” in France, which started in 1688, and the “Battle of the Books” in England, which started in 1690. At issue in these debates were a new sense of historical time (involving a radical break with the classical past), the norms of reason, the conventions of imitation, and the standards of interpretation. The two debates touched literature, art, religion, philosophy, and scholarship. Their outcome was very interesting: the Moderns won the Battle by arguing that Moderns ought to be Greeks not Romans, Homeric not Virgilian, critical not dogmatic, egalitarian not despotic. (Three centuries later the Quarrel is far from over – witness the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s that were often fought over the infamous Dead White European Males and their relevance to our global world. Critiques of the Western canon were conducted by Afrocentrism, Feminism, Postcolonialism, and other movements.) What makes modern Greece “modern” is that it is constantly caught in a dispute about modernity’s Hellenic identity, and in comparisons of this identity with other ideals, such as the Hebraic one. That is why, as testified by hundreds and hundreds of cartoons from around the world commenting on the current crisis, any discussion of contemporary Greece must also consider her place within Western classicism.

Ελλάδα, γλώσσα τυφλή στην γεωγραφία/Ελλάδα, οικόπεδο και αποικία.

2.  In this framework a particularly forceful position is taken by those Moderns who claim that they are the true Greeks of modernity because they do not imitate the Ancients but constitute a radically new Hellenism. Here let us recall German philosophy, French taste, Jeffersonian architecture, Arnoldian “culture,” Decadent homosexuality, Modernist dance, African tragedy, Latin American film, Odysseus in fiction, Dionysus in theater, Eurydice in opera. Claims about an authentically modern Hellenism put in a very challenging position people who speak Greek, have Greek lineage, live in Greek lands, celebrate Greek traditions and in general embrace this ethnic heritage. Is Hellenic identity something they need to prove or practice? And who is threatening to question, appropriate, or discredit it?

Παραπονεμένα λόγια έχουν τα τραγούδια μας/γιατί τ’ άδικο το ζούμε μεσ’ από την κούνια μας.

3.  As one of its responses to Western Hellenism, modern Greek culture invented its own Hellenism which is a topos under the earth, above the sky, beyond borders, outside reality, independent of rule. Even when it encompasses the land, the sea, the sun, and the birds, this Greece is transcendental. It is something to contemplate and not inhabit. While Westerners since the Romantics wander, Greeks dwell. Consider topographical ideals from Megali Idea to Romiosyni, poetry from Solomos’ The Free Besieged to Elytis’ To Axion Esti, painting from Nikolaos Gyzis to Sotiris Sorogkas, and essays from Spyridon Zambelios to Stelios Ramfos. The modernity of their Hellas consists in its transhistorical essence/ousia and its transubstantiated presence/parousia in an Attica still ravaged by foreign Atticisms.

Ποιά νυχτωδία το φως σου έχει πάρει/και σε ποιό γαλαξία να σε βρω

εδώ είναι Αττική φαιό νταμάρι

κι εγώ ένα πεδίο βολής φτηνό/που ασκούνται βρίζοντας ξένοι φαντάροι.

4.  Together with a transcendental domain under the sole jurisdiction of nature, modern Greek culture constructs a myth of cosmic injustice. According to it, throughout the centuries Greeks have been attacked, occupied, enslaved, exploited yet they have always rebelled. What makes Greece modern is the collective belief in a grand narrative of resistance to all authority. Since the time of the Quarrel, the Ancients have been portrayed as Romans exercising their administrative, legal, military, and physical might. Today’s Greeks are modern by refusing to obey any rule, whether Roman or Western Hellenic. This defiant narrative fits into the framework of the Quarrel but at its extreme edges. It finds its supreme celebration in hugely popular songs that still echo in large stadia:

Τη Ρωμιοσύνη μην την κλαις/εκεί που πάει να σκύψει
με το σουγιά στο κόκκαλο/με το λουρί στο σβέρκο

Νάτη πετιέται απο ξαρχής/κι αντριεύει και θεριεύει
και καμακώνει το θεριό/με το καμάκι του ήλιου

Greek-speaking Orthodox merchants, doctors and administrators who in the late 17th and 18th centuries excelled in trade and the professions all over the Mediterranean and Europe entered modernity by becoming “Greek,” by launching an agonistic debate with other Europeans who had been advocating Hellenism as a cultural path to modernization – what Schiller called “the aesthetic education of man.”  Since that time, for Greeks identity has been a contentious engagement with Antiquity, with the legacy of the ancien régime – a quarrel through artistic and intellectual practices over who is entitled to being recognized as “Greek.”

October 30, 2014

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s