Sunday, 16 December 2018

Isaac Asimov on the Spartans

Sparta was the dominant land power in Greece for two centuries, not that Isaac Asimov, in The Greeks: A Great Adventure, thought much of the Lacedaemonians: 

‘Sparta was never really suited to the task of leading Greece. The Greeks were at home on the sea and Sparta was not. The Greeks had interests from end to end of the Mediterranean and Sparta was interested, in her heart, only in the Peloponnese. The Greeks were quick, artistic and free and Spartans were slow-moving, dull and enslaved either to each other or to the military way of life. 


‘In later years, the Greeks of other city-states sometimes admired the Spartan way of life because it seemed so virtuous and seemed to lead Sparta to such military glory. However, they were wrong to do so. In art, literature, music, love of life, all that makes it worthwhile to be on the earth, Sparta contributed nothing. She had only a cruel, inhuman way of life to offer, dependent on a brutal slavery of most of her population, with only a kind of blind animal courage as a virtue and her way of life soon became more show than substance. It was her reputation that saved her for a while when her core was rotten. She seemed strong as long as she won victories but whereas other states could withstand defeats and rise again, Sparta lost her domination of Greece after a single defeat. The loss of one major battle [at Leuctra, 371 BC] was to expose her and dispose of her.’

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Leda and the Swan, by W.B. Yeats


Leda and the Swan

W.B. Yeats, 1865 - 1939

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

I’ve been reading Alberto Moravia…

I’ve been reading a few of the novels of the Italian writer Alberto Moravia – Conjugal Love, Boredom, Contempt and The Voyeur. They’re all good and share themes of intellectual, creative and male impotence. Boredom – about the obsession an artist develops against his instincts for a teenage girl – is the best of the novels; The Voyeur – about the intellectual, political and sexual antagonisms between a French literature professor and his father – is the least interesting.

Contempt is the novel Jean-Luc Godard filmed in 1963. I've previously written about Le Mépris here. The film is fairly faithful to the book and where it deviates from it, it enhances it. Le Mépris is, in fact, a sensational work of art. Both the film and the book, as I said in my previous post, are ‘among other things, a meditation on Homer’s Odyssey, [and] a celebration of Mediterranean landscape’. The story involves a struggling writer employed to write a screenplay of The Odyssey. He is unenthusiastic about the project, but takes it to earn money to impress his beautiful wife.

In the novel, the German film director Rheingold, explaining why he's interested in making a film of The Odyssey, says that ‘the Anglo-Saxon races have the Bible and you Mediterranean peoples, on the other hand, have Homer… To the Mediterranean peoples, Homer is what the Bible is to the Anglo-Saxons.’

Elsewhere in the novel, the writer Molteni objecting to the German director’s modern, psychological interpretation of The Odyssey says that the northern European wants to change Homer's ‘bright and luminous world, enlivened by the winds, glowing with sunshine, populated by quick-witted lively beings, into a kind of dark, visceral recess, bereft of colour and form, sunless, airless.’

Indeed, the ascendancy of the Bible over Homer is the greatest catastrophe to have befallen Greek civilisation. ‘Bright and luminous’ Greek culture was superseded by a culture formed in deserts and caves. In fact, if anyone wants to appreciate how repellent and un-Greek Biblical culture is, then one only has to read – as I have recently read – the climax of the Bible, Revelations, and compare the personality of John the Theologian and his nauseating, emetic ravings, with that of Odysseus, ‘a man’, as Moravia says, ‘without prejudices and, if necessary, without scruples, subtle, reasonable, intelligent, irreligious, skeptical, sometimes even cynical.’

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Nikos Gatsos: The Knight and Death

This is a good translation by Diana Gilliland Wright of Nikos Gatsos’s The Knight and Death (Ο ιππότης κι ο θάνατος).








Monday, 26 November 2018

Philip Sherrard: on the grizzly fate of Byzantine emperors

Philip Sherrard is known for his seminal translations into English of all the main twentieth century Greek poets – Seferis, Ritsos, Eltytis, Sikelianos, Cavafy, etc – and for his numerous books on Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy, particularly his four-volume English translation of the Philokalia, which comprises the core spiritual texts of the Orthodox church, to which Sherrard was a convert and a traditionalist adherent of.

At some point later on, I will post on Sherrard’s book, The Greek East and the Latin West, which examines the metaphysical and ideological schism separating Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and how this has contributed to the modern western world’s slippage, according to Sherrard, into spiritual dereliction and systematic barbarism. The book may be pertinent in the current circumstances.

But, for this post, I want to draw attention to Sherrard’s book, Byzantium, which is an introduction to the empire, its politics, history and culture. It was published in 1967, as part of Time-Life’s Great Ages of Man series, and is as immaculately written as it is illustrated. My favourite chapter is the one on the nature of the emperor in Byzantium – An Emperor Under God.

Here, Sherrard manages to get to a great Byzantine paradox: that while the rulers of the empire were regarded as divine – ‘as the chief representatives of Christ and of God Himself’ – and, indeed, God-like, since the emperor’s duty was to bring ‘all mankind into ordered harmony within a universal state under the ordered rule of the monarchy’, thereby replicating God’s mission of bringing ‘all heavenly principalities into an ordered harmony under His absolute rule’; then how do we account for the fact that throughout the 1,000 years of its history, the Byzantine Empire was known for the precariousness of its throne and for the ruthlessness of its court politics – the viciousness with which supposedly God-like emperors were replaced or overthrown – all of which resulted in 29 of the 88 emperors who ruled the empire meeting grizzly fates – decapitated, poisoned, stabbed and so on – while another 13, to avoid such an end, retreated to live in monasteries?

Sherrard offers this explanation for the Byzantines’ apparent disregard for the sacredness of their emperors. Since, Sherrard says, an emperor emerged by divine decree – i.e. it was the will of God and the will of God is by definition opaque – this meant that the ‘only certain method of knowing the divine will was to see who actually occupied the throne. In other words, all means of becoming an emperor were legitimate – so long as they were successful. An unsuccessful attempt to reach the throne, on the other hand, was unforgivable and disastrous for the would-be ruler.’

‘Furthermore,’ Sherrard goes on, ‘what God had given He could also take away. An emperor’s throne might be seized from him in as unpredictable and sudden a manner as it had been given to him in the first place – and the consequences for him were usually as terrible as if he had tried to seize power and failed.’

Thursday, 15 November 2018

What Sikelianos said to Gatsos about Amorgos


If you know Greek, then someone has put together this youtube channel largely consisting of Greek TV documentaries on some of Greece’s best poets, including Cavafy, Sikelianos, Engonopoulos, Andreas Embirikos, Nikos Gatsos, Kiki Dimoula and so on, which are well worth watching.

Above are a couple of clips from the documentary on the poet and lyricist Nikos Gatsos. The clips are of nice anecdotes, which I’ve recapitulated in English below. See the entire documentary here. Gatsos’ masterpiece Amorgos is available in Greek with facing English translation.

1. The poet Nanos Valaoritis recalls in 1943, after Gatsos had just published Amorgos, that he and Gatsos were walking and talking in central Athens when they ran into an animated Angelos Sikelianos, who said to Gatsos: ‘I was reading your Amorgos on the boat on my way back from Aegina and I said to myself like Homer, like Homer.’

Valaoritis says he was surprised by Gatsos’ apparent indifference to receiving such praise from this most important and prestigious poet, and when asked about his reaction, Gatsos replied. ‘He hasn’t even read it. He’s just saying he has.’

 2. And then, Haris Vlavianos recalls an exchange he had with Gatsos regarding Gatsos’ great friend, Odysseas Elytis. Gatsos asked Vlavianos if he liked Elytis’ poetry. Yes, said Vlavianos. Which of his poems do you like, Gatsos went on rather insistently. The Light Tree and Six Plus One Remorses. Good, you’re on the right path; thank God, you didn’t say Axion Esti.

Vlavianos explains this unusual for Gatsos expression of malice, particularly aimed at his close friend Elytis, as reflecting Gatsos’ slight annoyance with Elytis and his tendency, as Gatsos saw it, to write certain poems that were consciously designed to establish him as the poet of the nation.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Nikos Gatsos: on the Greek character



Here we have the poet and lyricist Nikos Gatsos in a short documentary for Canadian TV shot in 1964 in which he talks about the elements he believes constitute the common Greek identity –  philotimo, ambition, materialism, grand gestures, egotism, volatility, extremism, gregariousness, love of solitude, sensuousness, sorrow, melancholy, defiance, sentimentality – though what he is really referring to is what informs his own art.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Cyprus, Rimbaud and the British empire

Long ago, if my memory serves me, my life was a banquet where everyone’s heart was generous, and where all wines flowed.
One evening I pulled Beauty down on my knees. I found her embittered and I cursed her.
(Rimbaud: A Season in Hell).

In return for the Ottoman empire ceding it Cyprus in 1878 under the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin which ended the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, Britain agreed to continue its support to preserve Turkey against perceived Russian ambitions in the Balkans and the Caucuses.

Britain’s support for Turkey was hugely controversial domestically. Gladstone was appalled that Britain was backing Turkey in the Balkans, particularly after the atrocities committed by the Turks in suppressing the Bulgarian uprising in 1876.

‘Let the Turks’, Gladstone wrote, in his famous pamphlet The Bulgarian Horrors and the Eastern Question, ‘carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Blmhashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned.’

The Anglo–Turkish Convention, it seemed to Gladstone, was a tawdry deal – ‘an act of duplicity not surpassed and rarely equalled in the history of nations’ – another demonstration of Disraelian showmanship and vanity in which Britain committed itself to preserving the Ottoman empire, a murderous and base entity for Gladstone, in exchange for Cyprus, a pointless adornment to the British empire, which was accumulating colonies like a thief accumulating swag.

But Disraeli was convinced that Cyprus would be a vital asset for the British empire – an Eastern Mediterranean Malta or Gibraltar – a military and naval bastion to protect Turkey in Asia Minor and British imperial interests in the Suez Canal and the Middle East.

During the 300 years of Ottoman rule, Cyprus had lost its reputation for prosperity acquired under the Lusignans and Venetians and suffered neglect, depopulation and the arbitrary oppression associated with the worst excesses of the Ottoman empire.

Indeed, the British appear to have been taken by surprise by the extent of the destitution the Turks left behind on Cyprus and soon realised that if the island were to serve the interests of the British empire its infrastructure and sanitary conditions would have to be dramatically improved.

Thus the British occupation of Cyprus began with grand plans for roads, railroads, harbours, forts, hospitals and canals – hardly any of which materialised, but did initially encourage an influx of Europeans and European capital looking for employment and profit.

One of those to arrive on the island in 1878 was Arthur Rimbaud, the brilliant French poet/ex-poet/anti-poet, aged 24, who, helped by his knowledge of Greek, found work at a quarry in Larnaca and then – after catching typhoid and returning to France to recuperate – as a foreman on the project to build the new British governor’s summer residence in the Troodos mountains.

(Sir Garnet Wolseley, the first British governor of Cyprus, was so appalled at the state of Ottoman Nicosia – and was ‘very anxious to get out of [it]… it is one great cesspit into which the filth of centuries has been poured’ – that one of his first acts was to order the construction of a villa in the more salubrious surroundings of Troodos from which to rule the island).

Regarding Rimbaud’s Cypriot sojourn, we know through letters he wrote to his family in France of the arduous conditions of his work, that he complained about the heat of the plains and the cold of the mountains, that he requested arms to protect himself from the workers under his authority dissatisfied with irregular pay, and that he left the island suddenly – either because of illness, an argument with his employers or, according to Ottorino Rosa, who knew Rimbaud a few years later in Ethiopia – where Rimbaud was a merchant, gunrunner and, possibly, a slave trader – because Rimbaud had killed a subordinate in a fight.

But the details concerning Rimbaud’s year in Cyprus remain sketchy – Christopher Hitchens mischievously speculates that Rimbaud may have had a homosexual relationship with Captain Herbert – later Lord – Kitchener, who was on the island at the same time as Rimbaud, conducting the British Survey of Cyprus – and all that’s left of Rimbaud’s presence on the island is a plaque in the governor’s – now president’s – summer residence, which reads: ‘The French poet and genius Arthur Rimbaud, heedless of his renown, was not above helping to build this house with his own hands.’