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.’

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy on civilisation, tragedy and the end of the world

Good discussion in the above video on the links between art and science, the origins of civilisation and the end of the universe, involving Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy, during which the American writer responds to the charge that he depicts the world as ‘grim’ by saying: 
‘If you look at classical literature, the core of literature is the idea of tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you. Tragedy is at the core of human experience. It’s what we have to deal with. That’s what makes life difficult and that’s what we want to know about, what we want to know how to deal with. It’s unavoidable. There’s nothing you can do to forestall it; so how do you deal with it? All classical literature has to do with things that happen to people they really rather hadn’t.’

Friday, 19 October 2018

Wisdom in the era of Donald Trump

Above is a talk by Victor Davis Hanson on the reasons behind Donald Trump’s unexpected US presidential election triumph in 2016. Hanson, a classicist and not so much a Trump supporter as a critic of leftist-liberal visions and versions of American history and destiny, employs Demosthenes, Aristotle and Euripides to explain why he thinks Trump – a repugnant figure to Hanson in many ways – was able to win the White House.

In the case of Euripides, Hanson uses the quote from the Bacchae, in which the playwright states, via the chorus, τὸ σοφὸν δ᾽ οὐ σοφία, to demonstrate that while Trump and his supporters were often castigated for being stupid – a basket of deplorables, in Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase – and those who opposed Trumpism were regarded – or regarded themselves – as possessors of superior knowledge or education, wisdom, in fact, comes in many forms and does not always equate to intellect.  Sometimes, according to Hanson, it can come in the form of ‘animal cunning’ – which Hanson attributes to Trump; what is most useful to a society – such as workmanship, physical expertise and manual skills; and, ultimately, the recognition by society of the boundaries that cannot be crossed and by humans of their limitations.

Τὸ σοφὸν δ᾽ οὐ σοφία has been translated into English as ‘that which is wise is not wisdom’ or here as ‘wisdom is not cleverness’. In his talk above, Hanson suggests Euripides is making a distinction between ‘who is wise and who is a wise-ass’ and, in this article, he translates the playwright as saying, ‘cleverness is not wisdom’.  The latter – ‘cleverness is not wisdom’ – is the translation I prefer.

Hanson begins his piece:

At the height of the sophistic age in classical Athens, the playwright Euripides asked an eternal question in his masterpiece, the Bacchae: “What is wisdom?” 

‘Was wisdom defined as clever wordplay, or as the urban sophistication of the robed philosophers in the agora and rhetoricians in the assembly?

‘Or instead was true wisdom a deeper and more modest appreciation of unchanging human nature throughout the ages, which reminds us to avoid hubris, tread carefully, always expect the unlikely, and distrust the self-acclaimed wise who eventually prove clever fools? At the end of the play, a savage, merciless nemesis is unleashed on the hubristic wise of the establishment.

‘Euripides would have appreciated the ironies of the 2016 election.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Sparta: its political regime and grand strategy

I mentioned in a previous post the tendency among Sparta’s detractors to caricature it as a despotic, tyrannous, even fascistic regime, suggesting it was a model for Nazi ideologues or resembled Soviet society – in the latter case, it’s often pointed out that, just like the communist Eastern bloc, Sparta did not welcome foreigners and prevented its citizens from travelling beyond its borders for fear of ideological contamination. I also mentioned that rather than trying to interpret Sparta adopting modern preoccupations and prejudices it’s more useful to consider Aristotle’s view that the Spartan political system was a mixed regime – oligarchic, monarchical and democratic.

This nuanced approach to the Spartan polity is emphasised by Paul Rahe in the talk above, in which he draws attention to those elements in the Spartan constitution that could be described as democratic – general participation in the assembly, the selection of ephors by lottery, the checks and balances inherent in Spartan government designed not to allow one branch to exert sole and untrammelled influence over any other.

In The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, Rahe expands on his analysis of the Spartan constitution and way of life, before explaining how this revealed itself at the high point of Spartan civilisation, i.e. its command of allied Hellenic forces in the repulsion of the Persian invaders in the fifth century BC.

Rahe insists, however, that Sparta’s leadership in securing Hellenic independence against the Persians should not mislead us about Sparta’s ‘grand strategy’, which, Rahe says, was limited and conservative and dominated by anxieties closer to home, of helot revolt and the threat this posed to the Spartiates’ aristocratic way of life – with its disdain for work and emphasis on military training, hunting, wrestling and athletics. 

Thus, Rahe points out, although Sparta has the reputation of being a belligerent and belicose power, in reality the Spartans tried to avoid fighting and were loathe to engage in wars outside their immediate sphere of influence and vital living space – i.e. the Peloponnese. Indeed, for Rahe, echoing J.E. Lendon’s account of the Peloponnesian War, if any Hellenic power deserves the label of aggressive and imperial, it was ambitious democratic Athens not cautious authoritarian Sparta. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Philosophers' Football Match

Above is the Monty Python sketch
The Philosophers' Football Match, featuring teams from Greece and Germany. The sketch was originally part of two shows Monty Python made for German television in 1972 – Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus – and was also included in the film Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

You will notice in the sketch that Socrates scores the winning goal for the Greek philosophers. This is deeply ironic (and prophetic) since 10 years later,
Sócrates – or Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, to give him his full name – was captain and one of the star players of the Brazilian national team in the World Cup finals held in Spain; a team which, as well as Sócrates, included Zico, Falcao, Junior, Eder, Leandro and Cerezzo, and is regarded as the most thrilling and aesthetically satisfying footballing side of all time – even more so than the Brazil team that won the World Cup in Mexico in 1970. The 1982 Brazil side did not win that year's World Cup, getting knocked out by the eventual winners Italy 3-2, in one of the greatest upsets (and disappointments) in football.

As a player, Sócrates was renowned for his grace and guile, while off the field he is regarded as the most intelligent Brazilian ever to put on the famous yellow shirt, with doctorates in medicine and, of course, philosophy. Below is the magnificent goal he scored against the USSR in the group stages of the 1982 World Cup.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Jacqueline de Romilly: defining and defending Hellenism

Jacqueline de Romilly was a renowned French classicist who died in 2010, though it doesn’t seem much of her work has been translated into English. I’ve only managed to find her Short History of Greek Literature, which covers Greek writing in all its forms from the eighth century BC (Homer) to the fourth century AD, that is, to the early Christian fathers and Julian the Apostate. The book is a little over 200 pages long and so de Romilly is only able to devote just a few pages each to the various authors and literary and philosophical movements that characterise this 1200-year period, and yet I can’t imagine that there are many, if any, better introductions to Greek literature. The book is particularly good when it comes to Thucydides and Plutarch and, in general, is a resounding defence of Hellenism, whose lifeblood de Romilly describes in her conclusion as consisting of: ‘inquiry and debate, political struggles and struggles over ideas, discoveries, effort, criticism and hope – all in search of the best possible life’.