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.'