The melancholy of the long-distance Greek acrobat

Greek poet, critic, and essayist Thomas Tsalapatis published recently the “Introduction” to a new weekly newspaper column, which he calls Diaries of Dystopia. The hero of the piece is an acrobat balancing with difficulty on the crest of a dam that is on the verge of breaking. On the one side of him is the abyss and on the other the surge of water pressing against the dam. He does not look to either side. All he does is try to maintain his faltering balance on the ledge so as not to fall or be saved. Each one of his steps causes another crack on the dam. Content and self-sufficient in his extreme precarity, he is doomed to his utter exposure and isolated in his proud solitude. Like most of the Greek readers of this story, he is caught in a dystopic present between a future that never came and a future that has already arrived.

Since Tsalapatis writes that his hero represents our faltering era, the story may be read as an allegory of the temporal specificity of the modern, which resides in a vacillating present-ness, putting the notion of “the Greek” in an ambiguous position. English faculty Vassiliki Kolocotroni and Drama faculty Olga Taxidou describe it succinctly: “Versions of the Hellenic past […] figure in all the arguments about tradition. This process involves drawing an analogy between ‘the moderns’ and ‘the Greeks’ and it establishes a model for a tradition of modernity as a transhistorical and universal constant. In this context, the Greeks are not merely predecessors but also contemporaries. […] This ‘presentness’ of the Hellenic model, however, is invested with a sense of melancholia. This we understand as a constitutive tension in modernity’s relationship to a posited Hellenic past – each encounter with this past compounded by a sense of loss and belatedness while, at the same time, reinforcing the imperative of recuperation. What we then propose to call ‘the melancholia of the modern’ is a temporal relationship which is based on the essential ambiguity of the transitional moment, being both belated and the harbinger of the new. The ambiguity lies in the coexistence of a sense of loss, or absence, and one of exhilaration and the celebration of the now. What we are describing here is both an approach to temporality and a conceptual and artistic mode” (“Modernism and Hellenism: Aspects of a Melancholy Sensibility,” in Dimitris Tziovas, ed.: Greek Modernism and Beyond, 1997, 12).

The melancholy of the modern manifests itself with unique urgency in Greek modernity. In an in-depth exploration of this condition, Architecture faculty Yorgos Tzirtzilakis has been tracing elements of melancholia as an “artistic mode” in Greek painting, sculpture, architecture, cinema, and poetry in collaborative and authored projects such as the work Atlas Horribilis: A Novel of Inauthenticity (Athens 2009), the exhibition Ντέρτι Humanism (London 2011), and the exhibit Hell as Pavilion: A Contemporary Greek Peripeteia (Paris 2013). In his essay in the last catalogue, “Sub-Modernity and the Aesthetics of Joy-Making Mourning: The Crisis Effect in Contemporary Greek Culture,” he examines modes of disengagement, such as adynamia/impotentiality and argia/inoperativity, and comments: “What is at stake is the potentiality of the modern without the modern, a cancelled modernity, a sub-modernity which tends to become the unconscious of the modern – the dark place where it banishes its weaknesses and ‘dirty secrets’” (p. 126).

If Tzirtzilakis’ systematic project offers a genealogy of the Greek melancholy over a future that never came (to recall Tsalapatis’ sub-modernity), what about the melancholy over a future that has already arrived in Greece? Such is the case with the famous grand-scale biennial exhibition Documenta, whose Athenian incarnation is already in the plans. How can it balance the belated and the new at a minimum psycho-intellectual cost for the locals? An “Institute for the Management of Athenian Post-Documenta Melancholy” [sic] has come to the rescue. In February, it announced its ambitious plans: “For the first time in its long history, the renowned art exhibition Documenta 14, will take place in 2017 both in Kassel and in Athens. This unprecedented decision by the curatorial team of the Documenta, came as a thunderbolt from a clear sky upon the emerging Athenian art scene, triggering a series of phantasies, expectations, plans, discussions, actions and reactions, well before the highly expected opening of the exhibition. [] The Institute for the Management of Athenian Post-Documenta Melancholy (hereinafter IDAMM) aims to function as an observatory of this event, to study and understand the consequences of this curatorial decision on the Athenian art scene and on all the people who will one way or another invest on this project. The actions of IDAMM include the identification and development of ways of dealing with the issues that we are confident that will emerge during the traumatic period following the departure of the Documenta from the city. At the same time, IDAMM will function as a platform for the management of expectations, in order to prevent the existential void and the exchange of blames, that will follow as part of the usual domestic self-reflective practice, once the Documenta moves out of its Athenian offices.” This is how the new Institute can take care of long-distance acrobats who may decide that they want to be saved from the dam after all!

In the penultimate scene of György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre (written in 1978 and revised in 1996), the despotic Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre himself, enters with a processional of musicians, ranting about the impending end of the world. After too much wine, suddenly he realizes that it is two minutes to midnight and his promised apocalypse. At the end of the scene all lights go off but the conclusion does not make it clear, and Ligeti himself refused to explain – is he death or a charlatan? Is this the end or a fraud?

I’m sure Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self” (who loves Ligeti’s 18 piano etudes), would relate this operatic dystopia to Tsalapatis’ story and wonder whether the melancholic acrobat is closer to Kafka’s K or to Becket’s “tragicomic” tramps, trying to keep their balance over the abyss of a country road while waiting for their deferred future.

March 17, 2016

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