Friday, 9 November 2007

Paradise partitioned

In Cassavetes on Cassavetes, the genius film-maker John Cassavetes describes the confrontations he had with the producer Stanley Kramer while editing A Child is Waiting (1963) and admits becoming so infuriated by the decisions of the man responsible for Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremburg that he wanted to hit him; but could a young, inexperienced director with a flimsy reputation afford to attack an established, big-shot Oscar-winning producer? ‘If I hit him,’ Cassavetes recalls thinking to himself, ‘I’ll never work again. And if I don’t hit him, I’ll never breathe again.’

Cassavetes chose to breathe and didn’t direct a Hollywood film until Gloria in 1980 – though, of course, outside the system he made the best American films of all time.

What Cassavetes describes is revenge as purification or purgation in which violence is deployed to end psychic disturbance and restore mental equilibrium; a form of revenge I neglected to mention in my cursory overview of revenge in politics.

I have had personal experience of this form of cathartic revenge. A few years back, someone insulted me and, for a couple of days after, I was in what I could only describe as a state of Ajaxian turmoil during which I could not get the insult out of my mind – and for the sake of my sanity – to be able to breathe again – I felt I had no choice but to beat up the person who made the insult, which I did – though not badly – he was lucky – others were there to pull me off him, otherwise my rage was such that it could have been much worse.

Anyway, civilised society now dictates that we are supposed to be able to live with insults and that if we seek to preserve our honour or sanity with violence there must be social and legal consequences, which, indeed, in my case there were, but nothing so severe that it made me regret my actions. Revenge was sweet, the mental disturbance I had experienced over and I was able, like Cassavetes, to breathe again or, like Joel McCrea in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, able ‘to enter my house justified’.

Revenge as purgation or catharsis exists on a political level too. It describes, for example, the violence committed against Muslim colonists in the Balkans by Christians as they liberated themselves from the Ottoman yoke in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, the brutality shown recently by the Serbs to Albanians and Bosnian Muslims – who are all ‘Turks’ to the Serbs – can be understood as a need to purify their country with blood of the Turkish occupation endured for centuries.

In the Greek imagination too, Turks were associated with dirt, filth and pollution. There’s nothing surprising in this phenomenon, which should be regarded as a natural defence mechanism that a subject and vulnerable population develops to establish and delineate boundaries and protect its identity.

Apostasy, under the Ottomans, was a Greek Christian’s greatest fear, the fear of becoming or rather being made to become a Turk or a Muslim – as a result of the devshirme (blood tax) system or the arbitrary excesses of the Ottoman ruling class, in which a pasha, aga, bey or effendi could if he took a shine to your daughter – or son – carry him or her off to his harem.

This identity-defence mechanism had the added bonus of preventing Greeks from developing the self-hate of subject peoples and indeed, throughout the Ottoman period, despite being subjugated at all levels of society, Greeks never ceased to regard the Turks as their inferiors. (This is the reverse of the British empire, where the British managed to inculcate in their subjects a sense of inferiority and self-hate, which in many cases still persists today).

It’s also worth noting that this sense of Greek exclusivity and superiority is part and parcel of Orthodoxy, an aristocratic form of Christianity, which regards all those not fortunate enough to enjoy its sacraments as suspect at best and trash at worst – the Jews and goyim is a reasonable analogy. Indeed, the Byzantine Empire regarded itself as God’s Kingdom on Earth and the Orthodox faithful as the Chosen People, the subjects of a Holy Nation. As Hans-George Beck puts it:

‘Just as everything in the Byzantine space was right, so everything outside that area was, if not wrong, at least slightly suspect. The people who inhabit this space can only be a Chosen People. But only one people can be chosen. The Byzantines claim a monopoly, in which people and Orthodoxy are co-terminous, a monopoly of spiritual culture and thinking, of superior knowledge and savoir vivre which raises them above the outside world.’

In Cyprus, however, this sense of belonging to a superior world and being immersed in a rhythm of life revolving around diachronic Christian rituals and observance which suggested being part of an everlasting and inviolable natural order, and fear of being overwhelmed or annihilated by the inferior other, did not necessarily exclude Turkish Cypriots or translate into a belief that Turkish Cypriots were an alien or miasmic presence in this earthly paradise.

Marriage in Cyprus between Christian and Turk may have been forbidden, but all other social and economic relations were permissible and entirely natural. This only broke down when Turkish nationalist extremists, with the collusion of the British colonial authorities, began to penetrate and take over Turkish Cypriot communities and demand that paradise be partitioned.


Hermes said...

Good article and well written. However, I take issue with the following:

"the brutality shown recently by the Serbs to Albanians and Bosnian Muslims – who are all ‘Turks’ to the Serbs"

The Serbs were very kindly the Turks. The fact they are swarming all over the area is a testament to this.

But this is good:

"Orthodoxy, an aristocratic form of Christianity, which regards all those not fortunate enough to enjoy its sacraments as suspect at best and trash at worst – the Jews and goyim is a reasonable analogy."

Although we should not be compared to Jews, who are history's underachievers, the Greeks are an aristocratic people. Empire builders and culture creaters. And anyone who likes to think we are part of the masses has not historical precedent.

john akritas said...

It's a worthwhile clarification, Hermo, regarding the alleged brutality of the Serbs. It's possible I've been taken in by Anglo-Saxon propaganda here.
I keep coming across articles by James Jatras and Srdja Trifkovic giving a more accurate assessment of the Balkan wars and campaigning to prevent the partition of Serbia/'independence' of Kosovo – and it would have been a good idea to take their version of events into account.