Anti-Hellenism (2)

Anti-Hellenism is a century-old taboo topic that scholars either avoid completely or treat as an irregular version of Philhellenism. Views and actions targeting the Greeks are folded into Philhellenism and marginalized as its aberrations. That is how anti-Hellenism is ignored and tolerated. Here are two relevant remarks from the valuable summary of a Cambridge colloquium on “German Philhellenism.”

a) “One way to tackle the question of what makes German philhellenism distinctly German, [Cambridge faculty Simon] Goldhill suggested, might be to look at audience contexts that reject philhellenism. Who does not love the Greeks, and when?” (Publications of the English Goethe Society 2013, p. 211) This is a good point but one that evades the thorny issue. Why not ask directly who hates the Greeks, who attacks their history and culture? Since we rightly refer to “racists” and “sexists,” rather than people who do not “love” blacks and women, why not talk about anti-Hellenism as such?

b) Another Cambridge faculty, Katherine Harloe, “wondered throughout the day what the role specifically of the hellenic was in each instance of philhellenism” (209). This is another good point, which could be mobilized to inquire whether the hellenic of Philhellenism includes any living Hellenes or prefers its Greeks dead. An insidious form of anti-Hellenism is not to attack Greeks directly but exclude and silence living ones.

The Cambridhe 2012 colloquium in its oral and printed version raised important issues, such as the plurality (as opposed to monolithic singularity) of Philhellenisms and the competition among them for authority. Yet German anti-Hellenism was predictably not among those issues. Given the prestige of Greek culture everywhere (from philosophy to self-help books and from museums to advertising), nobody dares express explicitly and directly their contempt or hatred for the Greeks. Nobody can say in public in so many words that the Greeks are dirty and despicable. Thus scholars, thinkers, and writers find less direct ways to express their discriminatory views, which are harder to detect and debunk and are treated as simply unorthodox Philhellenism.

The locus classicus of such inoffensive anti-Hellenism is Freud’s Acropolis. The father of the Oedipus complex arrives in 1904 on the Athenian hill for the first time and, instead of experiencing “delight or admiration,” he realizes that until that moment he doubted its existence. His earlier depression at Trieste while considering a trip to Athens was “no more than an expression of incredulity” because until then (he was 48) he never wanted the place to exist:

“When, finally, on the afternoon after our arrival, I stood on the Acropolis and cast my eyes around upon the landscape, a surprising thought suddenly entered my mind: ‘So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!’ To describe the situation more accurately, the person who gave expression to the remark was divided, far more sharply than was usually noticeable, from another person who took cognizance of the remark; and both were astonished, though not by the same thing. The first behaved as though he were obliged, under the impact of an unequivocal observation, to believe in something the reality of which had hitherto seemed doubtful. … The second person, on the other hand, was justifiably astonished, because he had been unaware that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis, and the landscape around it had ever been objects of doubt. What he had been expecting was rather some expression of delight or admiration.”

Instead of wishing for the destruction of Greece, what I would call Philhellenic anti-Hellenism denies its reality – and then theorizes the denial, exactly as Freud did following the “disturbance” of his Philhellenism on the Acropolis. As I wrote in 1993, the Moderns “are those who are against the Ancients because they themselves want to be the true Greeks and therefore need the Greeks dead. Indeed, the extinction of Greece is the inadmissible desire at the heart of the post-Reformation world, a desire for which there is no common term (like anti-Hellenism, for example) or tradition of study – no regret or research.”  I was referring to “the philosophical colonization of Greece by the Hellenic ideal and her death sentence pronounced by universal proclamations of philhellenism” (The Rise of Eurocentrism, 170).

Did Freud ever ask any Viennese Greeks whether the Acropolis really existed?  Did Schubert ever ask any Viennese Greeks about the Greek War of Independence? Commenting on Schubert’s setting (1819) of the 12th* of Schiller’s 16 strophes in “The Gods of Greece” (1788), pianist Graham Johnson speculates:

“For the second four lines of the strophe we find ourselves in the tonic minor and the deserted fields of present-day Greece. Is that perhaps what gives the section beginning ‘Ausgestorben trauert das Gefilde’ the feeling of a slow Greek folk dance with instrumental interlude for oboe and plucked strings in the piano’s left hand? Could Schubert have known any Greek music from some of Vienna’s many Greek emigrés? Is it possible that he equates the glories of Greece’s past with the cause of Greek independence from the Turks, the struggle for which was to break out out two years later, in 1821? The piano line intertwines with the tune of the singer, ornamented with weaving melismas, and in rhythm that suggests the Greek open circle-dance known as the syrtos.”

Listening to this lied, I can always hear Pantelis’ left hand.

January 27, 2018

* “Beautiful world, where are you? Come again,/Fair springtime of nature!/Ah, only in the enchanted land of song/Does your fabled memory still live on./The fields, deserted, mourn,/No god appears before my eyes,/Ah, of all the living warmth/Only the shadow has remained.”

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