My auto-bibliographical trajectory [in Greek]

“Books by the bedside”/Βιβλία στο προσκέφαλο is a monthly full-page column in the eminent Greek daily Η Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών where writers “leaf through their ‘autobiographical’ bibliography” to present books that have had a major impact on them.  I am grateful to the editor of the series, Michel Fais – himself a major writer, editor, creative writing teacher, and photographer – for inviting me to contribute today’s page, whose title is “I read in order to comment and participate energetically.”

January 4, 201715895652_10211147671263249_2781216011406032575_o

Posted in General Literature, General Philosophy, Hellenism

The friend as teacher

These days many people I respect are arguing that in 2017 we will have an urgent need for old and new friends.  This appeal to a renewed fraternity brings to my mind dear friends, like my “other self.”

I never call Pantelis by his name. I always call him “teacher,” using the demotic Greek vocative daskale. Whether we are alone or with other people, I address him only as daskale.

He is a teacher to me for several reasons. First, being the son of teachers, he is an excellent music teacher himself. Second, as a committed collaborative pianist, he educates his musical partners. Next, he happily shares with people his impressive cultural learning. Above all, his embodied senses of self, his practices of identity formation are a wonderful lesson in the arts of living. Thus I learn from his artistic ethics of conduct.


I started publishing this blog two years ago today as an ascesis in Aristotelian friendship, and I look forward to continuing in 2017 my dialogue with a true daskalos and comrade, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis.

December 25, 2016

P.S.  On January 3, 2017, the day this post is published, the NY Times has an article on friendship in “Well,” its health section, which stresses:  “With strong evidence that friendship does, indeed, help save lives and promote health, social workers and researchers wish we could pay more attention to its central role.”

Posted in Friends, General

Composers on the operatic stage

Two recent musical premieres drew my attention to a very special operatic figure, the composer. The first premiere was the release on CD of Dellaira’s tragic The Death of Webern, which explores the mysterious circumstances of Webern’s demise in 1945, and the other, the first performance of Scene 2 of Hallett’s comic To Music, which looks at the online distractions of the creative process.

Together, they got me thinking about other operas where a major, or even the central, role is given to a composer, often a “double” of the composer of the opera. Here is my far from exhaustive chronological list, with the composer’s role [in brackets] when it is not mentioned in the title. I would be grateful for additional examples.*

Wagner:                     Tannhäuser (1845)

Paolo Serrao:             G. B. Pergolesi (1857)

Wagner:                     Die Meistesinger von Nürnberg (1868) [Hans Sachs]

Rimsky-Korsakov:    Mozart and Salieri (1898)

Janáček:                     Osud/Destiny (1907) [Živný]

Strauss:                      Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) [composer]

Pfitzner:                     Palestrina (1917)

Strauss:                      Capriccio (1942) [Flamand]

Corigliano:                The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) [Beaumarchais]

Schnittke:                  Gesualdo (1993)

Franz Hummel:        Gesualdo (1996)

Leonid Desyatnikov:  The Children of Rosenthal (2005) [Mozart, Wagner, Verdi,      Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky]

Michael Dellaira:      The Death of Webern (2013)

Steven Stucky:           The Classical Style (2014) [Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann]

Nick Hallett:              To Music (in progress) [composer]

This is the kind of collaborative musical game Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and I love to play all the time.

December 26, 2016

*I am grateful to Ms. Litsa Drossos for reminding me of the role of the archetypal composer, Orpheus, in operas like L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, and Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Posted in Classical Music, The Double

The imperial destiny of the Trojans

The goddess of my life, Artemis Leontis, and I made sure last month to catch one of only five performances of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens (1856-58) in a fittingly grandiose new production at the Lyric Opera.


I have been exploring with special interest this Shakespearean grand opera since its revival in the 1960s but, until we saw it live in Chicago, I had not fully realized how directly it rewrites Virgil’s Aeneid (in Berlioz’s own libretto!) as a prophecy of Napoleon III’s Empire. This five-act, five-hour work of imperial scope and ambition stages imperialism as historical destiny. From beginning to end, every episode and motif points explicitly to “Italie!” as the preordained destination of the Trojans, and the lavish orchestral and choral writing reiterates it in a myriad of extravagant colorations. I cannot think of another opera in the repertoire that is so blatantly imperial in both size and ideology.

So what was Katina Paxinou, one of the greatest tragedians of the 20th century, doing on the cover of the Lyric’s program? It didn’t say, and we couldn’t think of any connection to Berlioz or Virgil. Perhaps she represented the archetypal tragic heroine of classical myth, like Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens. Indeed the director, Tim Albery, tried to introduce some tragic intimations of the fall that is the ultimate destiny of all empires but I found them unconvincing. As Edward Said stressed in his review of the Met production, Berlioz admired the ongoing expansion of the French Empire in North Africa. Like the Parisian stage of the 1850s, this opera can amply accommodate melodrama but remains impervious to tragic insight.

December 8, 2016

Posted in Classical Music | Tagged , ,

A transatlantic communication between Greek and American poets

My recent post, “Left Melancholy and its Poetry after the American Elections,” has been published under the title “Η Αριστερή Μελαγχολία και η ποίησή της μετά τις Αμερικάνικες εκλογές” in the excellent Greek literary magazine (as well as cutting-edge publishing house) Θράκα/Thraca (2013-), which appears in printed and electronic form. I am grateful to the editors and, especially to the translator, Thanos Gogos, for this publication.


My post concluded with a suggestion: “But why read poets who wrote for another time, place, and occasion (like Auden) and not living ones who have been writing under conditions of intense socio-political crisis about dignity after despair? This is a great moment to read the Greek poetry generation of the 2000s and explore its disillusioned, defiant Left Melancholy.”

In a highly creative response to my suggestion, the magazine Thraca has launched a series, “Γράμμα σε έναν Αμερικάνο φίλο,” where Greek poets who belong to the “Generation of the 2000s” put together a letter, as it were, to an imaginary American friend by making a small selection from their work to send to those who feel “melancholic” (in the sense of the critical term) over the recent American elections. So far contributing poets have included Nikos Erinakis and Yorgos Alisanoglou. The editors plan to incorporate English translations as well. A very promising collaborative initiative!

December 15, 2016

Posted in Collaboration, General Philosophy, Greek Poetry | Tagged

“World Literature” as cultural institution and disciplinary regime

Aamir Mufti, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a major thinker in the transnational humanities, has written an Orientalism for the early twenty first century:  not a sequel or an update to Edward Said’s epoch-making book but one of comparable breadth, integrity, and urgency. His Forget English! (2016) criticizes capitalism, globalism, colonialism, and Eurocentrism by offering a rigorous genealogy of “world literature” as cultural institution and disciplinary regime.  My review essay, which recommends its wholeheartedly, has appeared in the journal boundary 2.



Posted in Uncategorized

The demonic control of Greek mothers over their sons

Greek men are often controlled by their possessive mothers, especially if they are their only male child. Among male intellectuals, scholars, and artists, in particular, there may be relatively few who are not so controlled. Their oppression is brutal and life-long but they rarely protest it since it becomes an integral part of their identity and they cannot think of their lives without maternal benevolent tyranny.

One way to define this predicament is through the fascinating German notion of das Dämonische/the demonic, the condition of being possessed by the monstrous. The notion suffuses Brahms’ “demonic” Ballade no. 1, the first of 4, op. 10 (1854), also known as “Edward,” because it is based on a grisly Scottish ballade, which the composer found translated in an anthology by Herder (1778-79). Like the poem, the composition consists in a dialogue between Edward and his mother: She questions him, he dissimulates, then confesses that he has killed his father, and leaves forever, cursing her because she made him do it. Thus there are two moments of horror, of unfathomable truth: first, the revelation of the murder, and then, the revelation of the culprit: The mother made her son kill his father in order to possess him through his complicity in murder.

The middle part of Brahms’ ballad (in this clip, 1:47-3:47), the son’s sordid confession, consists of a great manifestation of the Romantic demonic in music as a Beethovenian hammering rhythm of galloping triplets intimates fate, builds through an extended crescendo, and reveals the horrible deed in a fortissimo.

One of the several conceptions of the demonic that Kirk Wetters distinguishes in his study Demonic History (2014) is “Demonic Remainders in the History of Reason and Rationalization” (197). This conception “inheres in the individuals’ contradictory sense of responsibility for events and the simultaneous inability to control their course. Such a relation to events formulates itself retrospectively as guilt: the point of the demonic is experienced most intensely at the point when it is too late to substantially alter the outcome. … The demonic is the justified or unjustified, unjustifiable sense of complicity with a finished course of events” (198).

Greek men who are dominated by their mothers (as well as by their aunts functioning as complements or by lovers as substitutes) are haunted by such an unaccountable guilt, the self-contradictory sense that they are both only partially responsible for their fate and yet unable to change its course. The distinguished poet/performer Vasilis Amanatidis (1970) has published the sixty-poem cycle μ_otherpoem: μόνο λόγος (2014), an extraordinary book-length lament on this traumatic relationship. It is the only subject that Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” is reluctant to discuss at length with me. He will touch on it with indignation and exasperation, and then drop it. Nevertheless, he has drawn my attention to the Maenadic role of mothers of pianists.

My account of this phenomenon, which I omit here, is based on matters pertaining to specific social/gender and economic/class factors and not at all on general genetic or psychological ones. That is why I limit my considerations to Greek society, which is the one I know best, and do not discuss the role of mothers in other societies.

November 27, 2016

Posted in Uncategorized