Sunday, 2 September 2007

Dragoumis, and Kazantzakis

‘I am free because I create everything’

Ion Dragoumis – born 129 years ago today – was the most important theorist and exponent of Hellenism in the modern era.

In essays and books – such as Hellenic Civilisation, Those Who Are Alive, The Footpath, Samothrace and My Hellenism and the Greeks – and through direct engagement as a soldier and diplomat in the struggle to liberate Macedonia and advance the cause of Greeks in Constantinople and elsewhere, Dragoumis informed the views and deeds of a generation of Greek intellectuals and men and women of action who managed to double the size and population of Greece.

Dragoumis belonged to the generation of Greeks appalled by Greece’s defeat to the Turks in the war of 1897 and the despondency that followed it. He denounced Greek society, which he described as listless and mediocre, blindly imitating Europe – which he associated with enervating materialism, cosmopolitanism and socialism – and urged Greeks to look inwards, to their own culture and history, to find the solutions to national revival. An ardent demoticist, Dragoumis argued that the Greek state had become a burden to Hellenism – which he described as ‘family of Greek communities’ – and advocated local self-reliance to reverse the trend of emigration and rural depopulation and promoted an education system that went beyond ‘the false worship of the Ancient Greeks’ and expressed and taught instead the living culture of the Greeks (which would include learning the meaning of ‘danger’ and ‘war’).

Dragoumis’s nationalism also possessed a strong Nietzschean streak, in which devotion to the nation and its advancement is the realm where the will to power becomes possible, the means by which the individual can overcome himself – become ‘better than myself’, as Dragoumis puts it in Samothrace – and ascend to the status of an yperanthropos (superman).

Dragoumis is one of Nikos Kazantzakis’s ‘pale shadows’, men who accompanied and influenced the Cretan personally and intellectually throughout his life. Radical voluntarism, the rejection of bourgeois and liberal society, the creation of a new Greek civilisation, the identification of Hellenism as a fast current ready to overcome the ‘tubercular’ Turks, were all beliefs and attitudes Kazantzakis learned from (his friend) Dragoumis.

Writing in 1936 – 16 years after Dragoumis’ assassination – Kazantzakis refers to Dragoumis as a ‘brilliant man full of contradictory forces and lofty anxieties’; who, in 1937, Kazantzakis says, Greeks should admire most if they still aspired to create a new Hellenic civilisation’; while, in 1940, Kazantzakis refers to Dragoumis (along with the poet Petros Vlastos) as one of ‘the two people I have most respected and loved in my life’.

In his manifesto For Our Youth, a patriotic call to arms written in 1910, two years before the Balkan wars, Kazantzakis reveals the crux of Dragoumian nationalism and how much at the time he was under its sway:

'The more fanatically patriotism manifests itself, the more completely and quickly does it serve humanity. For if it destroys its neighbour-nation, is not that destruction, when viewed in perspective, a benefaction to mankind? It is proper for all those who are old and tired to vanish — all who have already fulfilled their destiny and given to thought and action what they could. In this way they relinquish their place to other nations that are young and vigorous… nations that will vanish in their turn as soon as they fulfil their destiny. Then they, too, will grow tired, will preach cosmopolitan ideas, will consider patriotism a leftover relic from barbaric times, and will die. That is how it always happens: cosmopolitanism and patriotism are the results and not the cause of a nation’s withering or vitality… As soon as cosmopolitan ideas, philanthropy, tolerance, and Christianity begin to prevail, that moment is an infallible symptom of fatigue and death.’


alex papamichael said...

Greece in the aftermath of 1897 doesn't seem that different to Greece in the aftermath of 1974.

Stavros said...

Dragoumis is definitely someone Greeks need to read and think about.
Some of his views are still resonant today. He was, however, strongly against the irredentist views of Venizelos and as you point out the need for a Hellenic State. In fact, he saw Hellenism from a very different perspective. He believed that Greeks could prosper within the Ottoman Empire. How do you reconcile his views about patriotism and his opposition to the "Great Idea?

john akritas said...

My understanding is that in Constantinople, Asia Minor and Alexandria, Dragoumis found flourishing – and model – Greek communities, which he felt would not necessarily have benefitted from being incorporated into the Greek state – which he generally despised. (Dragoumis regarded the advancement of the Greek nation as far more important than the advancement of the Greek state). These communities also lived in the heart of the Ottoman Empire – which Dragoumis did not foresee collapsing as dramatically as it did in WW1 nor did he foresee the rise of a vicious, genocidal Turkish nationalism. His idea, then, as I understand it, was that the strategy of Greeks in the City and Asia Minor should be to increase their economic and political influence in the Ottoman Empire and take it over from within.
This view/strategy did not extend to Macedonia, for example, which could more feasibly be annexed to the Greek state and where the struggle with Slavs at the time was more acute. There is a strong streak of pragmatism in Dragoumis, I think.

This distinction Dragoumis makes between the Greek nation and the Greek state – and his definition of Hellenism as a ‘family of Greek communities’ – is important for places like Cyprus and Northern Epiros and for diaspora communities generally.

Stavros said...

Thanks for the clarification. It only increases my respect for the guy.