Tuesday, 18 September 2007

My Greek revolutionary friends: part two

My dialogue with Greek revolutionaries over at Castoriadis blog continues. We got sidetracked by the Cyprus issue for a while – during which my Greek revolutionary friends showed how revolutionary they were by adopting the Turkish nationalist position on the occupation of the island, suggesting that the Greek Cypriot refugees don’t really want to return to the towns and villages from which they were ethnically cleansed, and arguing that Greek Cypriots are so full of nationalist hate for the Turkish Cypriots that they can’t countenance the idea of coexisting with the minority, which is why Greek Cypriots, according to my Greek revolutionary friends, rejected the equitable Annan plan; before, thankfully, we returned to the subject of Castoriadis and Greek nationalism – or, in more specifically Castoriadian terms, the Greek national imaginary.

My Greek revolutionary friends insisted that Castoriadis in a lecture he gave at Tripotamos in Tinos in 1994 explains how regressive and reactionary the Greek national imaginary is and how it must be replaced by a more democratic and internationalist vision.

I’d not come across the Tripotamos lecture, so asked my Greek revolutionary friends for more details. They said I could find it in the archives of Eleftherotypia (20/8/94) and listen to an audio clip of the lecture here. Unfortunately, the Eleftherotypia archives don’t go back to 1994, but I did listen to the audio clip and found other references to the lecture, which is called “Οι μύθοι της παράδοσής μας” (The myths of our tradition).

Anyway, here’s my comment on the Tripotamos lecture as posted on the Castoriadis blog:

'Regarding Castoriadis’s Tripotamos lecture, I couldn’t find the Eleftherotypia article you refer to, but did listen to the audio clip and found references to the lecture and its thesis in these places:

1. An article by Teta Papadopoulou, The legacy of Castoriadis.
2. An article by Giorgos Oikonomou, Christian Byzantium against the Greeks.
3. An article by Takis Fotopoulos, The ahistorical relationship between religion and democracy.

Now, I have problems with all three articles, particularly Oikonomou’s, which falls into the category of ‘not letting the facts get in the way of a good story’; nevertheless, regarding Castoriadis, Papadopoulou sums up his assault on Greek national mythology as follows:

‘Πρώτον, καυτηρίαζε την “αντιφατική και ψυχοπαθολογική σχέση μας με τον ευρωπαϊκό πολιτισμό και με τη Δύση γενικότερα”. Δεύτερον, τόνιζε με ιδιαίτερη έμφαση - το έκανε και εδώ στην Τήνο στην ομιλία του στον Τριπόταμο, το 1994 - “τη θεμελιώδη αντινομία της ταυτόχρονης επίκλησης στην αρχαία Ελλάδα και το Βυζάντιο, δύο παραδόσεων τελείως ασυμβίβαστων μεταξύ τους”. Τρίτον, στηλίτευε τη βολική και δημοφιλή αντίληψη σύμφωνα με την οποία “για όλα τα δεινά στην Ελλάδα φταίνε οι άλλοι”.’

‘First, he is scathing of “our [i.e. the Greeks’ – my emphasis, in order to draw attention to the tradition Castoriadis sees himself belonging to] contradictory and psychopathic relationship with European civilisation and the West generally”. Second, he stresses “the fundamental antinomy present in the contemporary invocation of ancient Greece and Byzantium, two totally incompatible traditions”. Third, he condemns the convenient and popular perception according to which “it is the others who are responsible for the suffering of Greece”.’

My reaction: Is this it? Is this the remorseless assault on Greek nationalism, on the Greek national imaginary, you’ve been going on about?

To be honest, anyone – left, right, nationalist, communist, anarchist, liberal, Greek, non-Greek – with half a brain, could agree with Castoriadis’s views in this instance, which do not amount to a brilliant epiphany – unless the level of debate and intellectual life in Greece is at such a low level that perfectly fair, reasonable and long-standing criticisms of the Greek national imaginary are construed as political and philosophical dynamite.

Point 2 – regarding the distinction between the democratic Greeks and the theocratic Byzantines – is important and should be pursued, diminishing the role of the priests in Greek society is a worthy cause; but Points 1 and 3 could just as easily apply to the left in Greece as to the right – probably even more so – while it is quite possible to accept all of Castoriadis’s criticism of the Greek national imaginary and still emerge from it an ellinolatris – in fact, there is nothing there to stop you from emerging as a raving, foaming-at-the-mouth nationalist.

Indeed, variations of Castoriadis’s criticisms have been made by virtually every Greek intellectual of note for more than a hundred years.

‘I am sorry that teaching in our country has distorted and disfigured so many values, thus preventing the formation of a steady, robust and free didactic style which could very well be the foundation stones for an enduring modern Greek tradition.’

Castoriadis could have written this, but it was actually written by Seferis in 1938 (Dialogue on Poetry: What is meant by Hellenism?).

In fact, Castoriadis’ criticisms are even reminiscent of the criticisms made of Greece by the 1897 generation of Greek nationalist intellectuals – Dragoumis, Giannopoulos, et al; that is, opposition to artificial and imposed cultural forms – such as katharevousa; a plea for Greek self-reliance, Greeks taking responsibility for their own actions and for the state of the country; and a hope for a new or renewed Greek tradition, overcoming the burden of association with Byzantium and Ancient Greece. See my piece on Dragoumis.

Castoriadis’s repudiation of certain aspects of the Greek national imaginary is hardly revolutionary and it makes me wonder whether this wave of antinationalism in Greece at the moment amounts to anything more substantial than a Dadaist pose, Johnny Rotten on stage singing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ or ‘God save the Queen, her fascist regime’, snarling and spitting at the audience. I’m all for teenage rebellion, but in the realm of ideas I don’t take children seriously.

I’m all for rewriting and reinterpreting history to make it more complete – for example, noting that Greek life in certain parts of the Ottoman empire – Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria – particularly after the Tanzimat Reforms in 1839 – could be described as thriving, contradicting the view that Greek existence under the Ottomans was simply and always 400 years of slavery; but it doesn’t seem at the moment that Greece has reached this state of maturity, neither on the right or the left, who – represented by the clowns Alavanos and Karatzaferis – deserve each other, need each other. Poor Hellas. Poor, poor Hellas. Thankfully, there is the diaspora.'


Stavros said...

This is a post that cuts to the heart of the key problems facing modern day Greeks. I was cheering you on until you got to that part about theocratic Byzantines and reducing the role of priests in Greek society. You disregard the seminal role of both in the survival of Hellenism. Then again, I rather enjoyed you taking those who reject our collective history and identity in lieu of foreign ideologies to the woodshed. Greek history seems to be cyclic. We keep having to learn the same lessons over and over again.

Hermes said...

Although I am not a great supporter of the priests I believe Castoriadis and some other Greeks throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just like the early Christian theologians took what they believed to be useful from Hellenism we today can also take what is useful from Byzantium and Orthodoxy. It does not have to either/or. They are not two "totally" incompatible traditions. The fact that Byzantine scholars were in a perpetual dialogue (and sometimes conflict) with Hellenism shows they are not "totally" incompatible. These people also forget there were mystery religions during the archetypal Classical period which are reasonably close in nature to Orthodox Christianity.

I cannot wait until Kaldellis's new book is released.

john akritas said...

Initially, I didn’t write ‘priests’, I wrote ‘church’ and then ‘Christian theology’, but then it crossed my mind what Greece would be like without the church and a little bit of Christian culture – it would be like England or Australia – and we wouldn’t want that, would we? I decided on ‘priests’ – and I meant big-wig priests, rather than your run-of-the-mill parish priests – because, in my view, they are hypocrites and I don’t like the way they walk round with a hand outstretched waiting for someone to kiss it. Who do they think they are? I can’t imagine anything more un-Greek than kissing someone’s hand in this way. Generally, there’s too much genuflection, too much bowing and scraping in Greek Orthodoxy. One of the reasons Alexander’s generals rebelled against him was because of his adoption of the ‘proskynisis’, because free men were horrified by such oriental-style indignities.

The Byzantine tradition represents both a radical break with and a continuum of the Greek tradition, and it seems to me to be a completely legitimate enterprise to enquire – like Kaldellis – into the connections. Some of them are quite pronounced and well-documented. ‘The myth of the wounded god who dies and is born again’ – as Philip Sherrard puts it – Christ as Adonis – is the cornerstone of both Greek and Byzantine religious experience.

Margaret said...

"then it crossed my mind what Greece would be like without the church and a little bit of Christian culture – it would be like England or Australia – and we wouldn’t want that, would we?"

God forbid. You may write beautifully, with great polish, you sometimes don't seem to have the faintest idea what you are talking about. Tell me how England is ... devoid of all those beautiful churches and cathedrals, their lively congregations and faith schools ...

Why do you have to make such facile comparisons to make your points?

john akritas said...

I forgot to ask you: what’s the story behind the continuing success of KKE in the Ionian islands? I’ve been to Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Lefkada and Ithaki and – apart from Ithaki – they all seemed pretty well off to me, and I imagine Kerkyra – which I’ve never been to – the low-quality – some would say, degenerate – tourists from Hyperborea put me off – is similarly prosperous; so what’s the attraction of Marxist-Leninism and scientific socialism in this, the loveliest part of Hellas?

Hermes said...

Firstly, I'd like to say you are absoloutely correct in saying that the Ionian Islands are the loveliest part of present day Hellas.

Secondly, Kerkyra (aka as Corfu to the neanderthals) is probably the wealthiest of these islands and the one with the grandest history. Kapodistrias was a Kerkyrean.

Finally, progressive politics has historically been popular in the Ionian Islands. It was here that Enlightenment and Republican ideas seeped into mainland Greece during the French revolutionary period. Also, modern innovations in European literature, art and music made their first appearance in this part of the Hellenic world. The Ionian political world took pride in their Fabian and syndicalist ideals. Freemasonry was, and still is, popular. And remember Turkdom never made inroads into this part of the world. This could explain the historical domination of Venizelism and later PASOK. Although we should not confuse Venizelism with contemporary PASOKism. Generally, rational, progressive, liberal, utopian ideals have met with a receptive audience with Ionians. However, we should remember Metaxas was a Kefalonian. And these islands are also deeply Orthodox where almost every island venerates with incredible zeal their patron saints, Agios Gerasimos, Agios Spyridon and Agios Dionysios. Protectors of the islands during war, earthquakes and famine.

The reception of liberalism could explain the enduring popularity of Marxist-Leninism, an ideology which is an extreme extension of liberalism, that hopes for a better world beyond the existing one.

But what explains these seeming contradictions?

Perhaps our bewilderment derives from our mistakes not from theirs. We should be careful not to allow the rigid and empirical Anglo-Saxon mind to pollute the strangely idealistic, syncretist and malleable Mediterenean mindset where Marxist-Leninism, Republicanism, Orthodoxy and Fascism can co-exist in the same person. Where paradoxes like the the idea of God made flesh have fascinated the Italians, Spanish, French and Hellenes for millenia. Where Camus can ruminate about socialism and Augustine in the same breath.

The United States could never give rise to a Gabrielle D'Annunzio, Georges Valois, Mikis Theodorakis, Georges Sorel and Ion Dragoumis!!

I notice in many Greek Diasporan discourses expressing dismay that Communist ideals are still popular in Hellas. And they cannot fathom how some KKE luminaries express a belief in God and Orthodoxy. There are even some Orthodox theologians in KKE.

However, the fault is not really with the Greeks but Greeks in the Diaspora, who have been bludgeoned with Anglo-American materialism, legalism, pragmatism, utilitarianism, empiricism and small mindedness. More recently, their narrow political worlds have become deadened by economism. It is they, in their bourgeoise smugness, their shopping malls, their quaint dinner parties, their clumsy attempts at romance, their uncreativity, micky mouse machismo and underlying tacit violence and corruption, who are wrong. Not the Greeks.

The Greeks are never wrong because the concepts of right or wrong never remain absolute for very long.

Stavros said...

In fact the Greeks are often wrong. Thankfully other Greeks are always available to tell them so, such as Castoriadis, Dragoumis, Kazantzakis, Socrates etc.

"the concepts of right or wrong never remain absolute for very long."

Now that sounds like something you heard from a smug bourgeosie at one of those quaint dinner parties you dislike. If KKE luminaries or right-wing politicians profess their belief in Orthodoxy, it is only to because they believe, as you do, that Orthodoxy might serve their own narrow purpose.

Hermes said...

Dodecatheists were recently elected to the Hellenic parliament.