From Michigan’s Cavafy Chair to Greece’s Cavafy heirs

I gave an interview to The National Herald, a NY weekly newspaper, ranging from 200 years of Greek life on the Michigan campus to the Greek poetry Generation of the 2000s. Below the clippings is the full version of my written responses to written questions from Ms. Aria Socratous, distinguished contributor to the paper.



1. Who I am
I was born, nurtured, and educated in Athens. In the late 1970s, while in graduate school, I saw Greece headed for a major national crisis and left permanently to become an academic in the U.S. For the last 35 years I am having a wonderful career as a Professor of Modern Greek. I have contributed substantially to the growth of full-fledged Modern Greek Programs at two major public universities, The Ohio State University and the University of Michigan. I am uncontrollably proud to have as my indispensable collaborator an eminent third-generation Greek American scholar, Artemis Leontis, also a Professor of Modern Greek, who is also my wife. Together we are the even more proud parents of Daphne Vander Roest, a senior resident in Pediatrics at the University of Chicago.

2. The Cavafy Chair at Michigan
I am the first holder of the C.P. Cavafy Chair in Modern Greek at the University of Michigan, which I named and will exist in perpetuity. The Chair is shared by the Departments of Classical Studies and Comparative Literature, and anchors the Modern Greek Program at Michigan. It has been fully endowed by the University and the Greek community of Michigan which, under the pioneer leadership of the regional Foundation for Modern Greek Studies, raised funds only locally because it did not want to ask Greek ministries and foundations for money that could be better invested in Greece. Some twenty years since it was established, the Foundation remains proudly committed to Michigan’s Modern Greek Program and continues to support its educational and cultural endeavors.

3. Why Greece
I have been teaching, lecturing, and writing on modern Greece because modern can help us understand key issues of our world. Over at least the last three centuries it has been functioning as a fascinating laboratory where new ideas and methods are tried out with varying degrees of success. Economic, political, social, cultural, legal, educational, institutional and other measures are constantly applied and examined. Greeks love to experiment, and we can learn from their successes and failures as they have been embracing and rejecting the modern world since they started planning their national independence in the 18th century. Greece is a minor country in terms of power but a major domain in terms of symbolism.

4. My scholarly angle
I am a comparatist, which means that I study today’s Greece and Cyprus in many contexts: I compare them with their diaspora, past, neighbors, Western admirers and critics, travelers, idealizers. I look at what Hellenism has meant to non-Greek painters, composers, political theorists, educators, historians, and director. I never look at Greece and Cyprus in isolation but I place them in a broader framework, real or imaginary.

5. Greece in the Western tradition
During the “culture wars” of the 1980s some people worried about the place of Greece in the Western canon. I never did since I know well that, if you want to criticize a Greek view, there is sure to be another Greek view which has already done that. The strongest critics of Greeks have been other Greeks, which is splendid. Therefore today, in order to criticize values traditionally attributed to the Greeks, we did not drop the Greeks but we are reading them differently and we are also reading neglected Greeks – queer, hybrid, colonial, tragic, post-classical, and others. Now that we are putting back, as it were, the bright colors on their statues and temples, and acknowledging that they were never all-white, the Greeks’ place in the global canon remains secure, and even more thought provoking.

6. Greece in today’s culture
We continue to encounter Greek ideas and principles everywhere in our daily lives, from the perfume counter to the gallery and from advertising to fiction. I am especially interested in cases where it is not flagged yet plays a crucial role. Take American cinema: Have you noticed the importance of Eurydice in Vertigo? Orpheus in The Adjustment Bureau? Perseus in Percy Jackson? Medea in Beloved? Ariadne in Inception? Amazon in The Hunger Games? Odysseus in Cold Mountain? Icarus in Birdman? Oedipus in Minority Report? Lysistrata in Chi-raq? Plato’s cave in The Matrix? Every day Greek thought and imagery pop up somewhere to entertain and challenge us.

7. Cosmopolitan Cavafy
Greece has had many important national poets, like Solomos, Kalvos, Palamas, Sikelianos, Elytis and Ritsos. But it has had only one major global poet, Cavafy. He is a poet for the 21st century: cosmopolitan, multicultural, erotic, ironic, melancholic, philosophical. At a time when in our lives we often feel uncertain or ambivalent about things great and small, it’s always instructive to have a conversation with this consistently skeptical and ecumenical Greek.

8. Cavafy’s children (continuity of great modern literature)
Right now there are some very interesting new cultural trends coming out of Greece that are attracting international attention. The best known is the “Weird Wave” in cinema. The one I follow is the generation of the 2000s in poetry. These are mostly poets now in their 30s. Because of their complex political views, I attribute to them a “Left Melancholy,” but they can also be called “Cavafy’s grandchildren” in that they share many features of the poet’s worldview: they have studied abroad and some live there, they are multilingual and diasporic, skeptical and ironic, and stand “at an angle” in today’s Greece. Recent English anthologies of their work have been edited by Theodoros Chiotis (Futures), Dinos Siotis (Crisis), and Karen van Dyck (Austerity Measures).

9. My book on the hubris of revolution
I have a strong interest in tragedy and politics, in the ways theater and opera present unresolvable moral dilemmas between freedom and death, love and country, or means and ends. My last book discussed how philosophers between 1780s-1930s understood the idea of the tragic. My ongoing project analyzes several plays between 1790s-1960s which warn that revolution holds great emancipatory promise (think of the American one!) but often, though not always, it may violate a sense of measure, commit hubris, and self-destruct. These modern tragedies of revolution present on the stage tremendous conflicts between ethics and politics with heroic rulers torn between the two.

10. What else I do in a day
Apart from the classroom, the lecture hall, the scholarly journal, and the popular press where else can you find me? In my blog Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics, which is not a confessional outlet (no private matters) but consists of reflections on these four words in a rigorous essayistic style. Pianist Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, Senior Lecturer at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, is one of my best friends and also what Aristotle calls my “other self”/heteros eautos, since we share tremendous literary, musical, and other interests. My blog grows out of our multi-faceted collaborative work (recitals, talks, articles, interviews etc.) and represents another dimension of a very creative friendship that belongs to the open world.

11. Michigan’s unique Greek Campus
I have been privileged to work at what is one of the most Greek campuses in the world, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Visit our website The Greek U-M Campus and you will find listed and explained some 50 items that have a Greek connection, from columns to collections, sculptures to frescoes, Departments to Museums. When the University was established in 1817 it had a Greek name (Catholepistemiad), it offered 13 courses with Greek names (like mathematica, ethica, economica, and iatrica), and had a Greek seal (with columns and the word epistemia on it). Over the last two centuries, it has retained and expanded its engagement with things Greek of all periods and places. It is remarkable to think that every year Michigan offers to some 40,000 students from all over the world a physical and cultural immersion in the inexhaustible varieties of Hellenism.

June 23, 2016

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