Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Angelopoulos and Seferis in Epirus

There’s an irony in the fact that Epirus, its landscapes, ambience and music, deeply influenced Theo Angelopoulos and featured so strongly in his films – Reconstruction, Travelling Players, The Hunters, Megalexandros, The Beekeeper, Landscape in the Mist; and that irony is that George Seferis – whose poetry and attitudes permeate Angelopoulos’ work – spent a year just before the second world war as Greek consul in Korytsa in Northern Epirus and found the mountains, rain and mist oppressive and did everything he could to engineer a move back to Athens. Still, while pining for the sea and Maro Zannou, he wrote some of his most powerful and melancholic poems, including these lines from Epiphany, famously set to music by Theodorakis below. 

I kept hold of my life I kept hold of my life travelling
among the yellow trees beneath the slanting rain
on silent slopes where leaves of beech drift deep,
no fire on the peaks. Darkness is falling.

Κράτησα τη ζωή μου 

ταξιδεύοντας ανάμεσα σε κίτρινα δέντρα,

κάτω απ'το πλάγιασμα της βροχής

σε σιωπηλές πλαγιές φορτωμένες

με τα φύλλα της οξιάς

καμιά φωτιά

στην κορυφή τους βραδιάζει.

Above is a version of Κοντούλα λεμονιά, Angelopoulos’ favourite folksong, from Epirus, which mourners sang to accompany him to his grave.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Cyprus talks: Catastrofias strikes again

Cyprus’ president Dimitris Christofias certainly lived up to his nickname of ‘Catastrofias’ at the summit just held in New York with the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon and the leader of the Turkish occupation regime, Dervis Eroglu, aimed, allegedly, at paving the way for a Cyprus settlement, talks for which, in the latest phase, have been going on for four years.

Christofias said before he went to New York that he would not agree to a timetable or road map for the talks, nor would he accept an international conference being called to finalise any deal on the Cyprus problem before there is an agreement on the internal aspects of a settlement.

Both the roadmap and international conference ideas are Turkey’s. An expedited process with a roadmap and a clear end point would allow Turkey to stifle the talks and bring about their curtailment without agreement, after which Turkey would be able to declare that reunification is no longer possible and that the ‘TRNC’ must now be recognised; while Turkey’s demand for an international conference – similar to Burgenstock in 2004 – is made in the belief that at such a conference the Greek side will have to accept another Annan plan or otherwise find itself branded intransigent, which would, again, provide Turkey with the excuse to say reunification is not feasible and recognition for the pseudo-state must follow.

So, how did Christofias do in his mission to convince the UN secretary general not to announce a timetable for the process or an international conference? Well, in what can only be described as a debacle, the president came away from the summit having consented – wittingly or unwittingly – to both a timetable/roadmap and an international conference.

Thus, Ban announced that for the next two months, there will be an attempt to achieve what has not been achieved in the last four years of talks – namely, agreement on the internal aspects of the Cyprus problem, mostly to do with property, citizenship (i.e. the Turkish settlers) and governance; and that, in consultation with the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides, the UN secretary general’s special representative on the island, Alexander Downer, will then recommend or not the holding of an international conference, to put the finishing touches to a Cyprus settlement.

Now, Christofias is pretending that an international conference – the end game – will only be activated with the agreement of the Greek Cypriot side, after it’s satisfied that the internal aspects of the Cyprus problem have been resolved.

But he’s fooling no one. It’s clear that the UN bureaucracy, backed by the UK and the US on the Security Council, likes the Turkish idea of an expedited process aimed at closing the Cyprus problem once and for all, and in which case it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen next.

The Turkish side will continue to put forward proposals unacceptable to the Greek side; and that when Christofias tells Downer that there has been no agreement on internal issues and he can’t consent to an international conference, Downer will tell him: well, that means I’ll have to tell the secretary general and the Security Council that there is no longer any point in this procedure; or he will say to Christofias: my judgement is that there has been sufficient progress and that an international conference is justified.

Christofias will then be faced with the dilemma of accepting that the talks have collapsed – leaving Turkey to pursue recognition of the pseudo-state; or he will have to go along with an international conference, in which Cyprus will be up against Turkey, the UK, US, EU and UN, as they try to tie up the Cyprus problem with another Annan plan, Greek Cypriot resistance to which will be met with threats of ending the UN’s involvement in Cyprus – including the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers from the island – and the upgrading of the occupation regime.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Angelopoulos is dead and Greece is dying

Following on from the appallingly violent and banal death of filmmaker Theodoros Angelopoulos, above is a clip from Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), in which Thanasis Vengos proclaims to Harvey Keitel the demise of Greece.

Below is another extract from the interview Angelopoulos gave to Andrew Horton, published in The Last Modernist: The films of Theo Angelopoulos, in which Angelopoulos explains his thinking behind the scene. Also, read here Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw’s tribute to Angelopoulos; and go to Diary of a Screenwriter for a transcript of a speech Angelopoulos gave at Essex University in 2001 on being awarded an honorary doctorate, in which he details his relationship with cinema and with Greece.

Horton: You have the taxi driver tell Harvey Keitel when they stop in the snow in Albania that “we Greeks are a dying race”. Those are strong words. Would you care to comment on them? 

Angelopoulos: The lines the taxi driver speaks are taken from poems of George Seferis. And there is more that is not in the film, including “What do our souls seek journeying on rotten, sea-borne timbers from harbour to harbour/Shifting broken stones, inhaling the pine's coolness with less ease each day.”

Yes, these are strong words for Greeks, “we are a dying race”. But they mean something more. I was at a conference in Paris once, and a young Greek woman who was working on her PhD at the Sorbonne came up to me. And she said, “Mr Angelopoulos, we Greeks who are living abroad in Europe are in a great identity crisis. We are almost ashamed at times to say we are Greek because of all the problems that are going on with the Albanians, with the economy and the Common Market, the Skopje Question. We are not sure what to think anymore about being Greek”.

Well, her comments made me remember how different it was for me and my generation when I arrived in Paris in 1960. Whenever I said, “I'm a Greek” back then, or my friends said, “We are Greek”, it was something wonderful, something to be proud of, something with meaning. This young Greek woman said, “We are like a people who are dying”. She was, of course, echoing Seferis in her life, and yes, so is the taxi driver in my film.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Theo Angelopoulos killed in road accident

The dreadful news emerging from Greece tonight is that filmmaker Theodoros Angelopoulos has been killed in a road accident, aged 77. Apparently, he was struck by a motorcycle while shooting his latest film, The Other Sea, in Piraeus and, despite being rushed to hospital, he died of head injuries.

Above is a clip from Angelopoulos’ Travelling Players (1975), the best Greek film ever made – ‘a meditation with three dimensions: history, myth and aesthetics’, according to Dan Georgakas – and below is an excerpt from an interview Angelopoulos gave to Andrew Horton in 1995, and published in The Last Modernist: The films of Theo Angelopoulos.

‘Seferis is my favourite modern poet. Long before I became a filmmaker, I was interested in poetry. I began writing poems when I was sixteen, under the influence of Cavafy, Seferis and Odysseus Elytis in Greece and also T.S. Eliot, Rilke and others. By 1950, I was deeply into their poetry, which was not taught at school, I might add (except some of Cavafy). Then in fiction I was deeply influenced by James Joyce, Stendhal, Balzac and Faulkner. In Greece, I liked Papadiamantis, who is not known even by Greeks now!

‘So it’s more accurate to say that I spent my youth with these influences rather than with cinema. And perhaps I was slow to discover cinema, because in our culture, literature, especially poetry, has always been first, and even music has been ahead of cinema. Yes, I was quoting Seferis and referring to him in Alexander the Great and also in Ulysses’ Gaze, when Nikos, the old friend tells Harvey Keitel that the first thing God made was the journey. That is a line from Seferis. Likewise, when Harvey says “in my end is my beginning”, he is quoting Eliot.’

Christianopoulos: no to state prize, yes to Tsitsanis

I noticed (here) that in the Greek State Literature Prizes for 2011 announced yesterday, the poet and rembetologist Dinos Christianopoulos was awarded the most prestigious distinction, the Great Prize – for his overall contribution to Greek letters. Not that Christianopoulos was enamoured by the award:

‘I will not appear to receive the award or stretch out my hand to take the prize. I don’t want their prize or their money… I’m against any kind of honours. There is no more disgusting ambition than to want to stand out; this horrible 'triumph over others' (υπείροχον έμμεναι άλλων), left to us by the ancients. I am against prizes because they diminish man’s dignity.’

You can go here for an interview in Greek with Christianopoulos, in which he discusses Elytis, Ritsos, Seferis, Kiki Dimoula, Hellenism, the Macedonia name issue, the future of the Greek language and so on. While Christianopoulos doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about the above-mentioned poets, he heaps praise on another ‘poet’, Vassilis Tsitsanis.

‘It's been some 25 years since Tsitsanis’ death. Normally, you would have expected him to be forgotten. But the opposite has happened. He is more loved and in demand than ever. A similar phenomenon to Cavafy. Even though many years have passed since their deaths, their worthiness hasn’t been extinguished; rather it has soared.’

Christianopoulos has not only published three books on Tsitsanis and rembetika, but also created Η παρέα του Τσιτσάνη, to perform songs from Tsitsanis’ repertoire. The video above is from a concert Η παρέα του Τσιτσάνη gave on Greek TV.

You can go here for  examples of Christianopoulos’ poetry, in Greek with English translation. Below is his Ithaca:

I do not know if consequences forced me to leave
or because I needed to escape from myself—
from that narrow-minded Ithaca of little grace
with its Christian organizations
and its stifling morality.

At any rate, this was not the solution, but only a half-measure.

From then on I wallowed from street to street
acquiring wounds and experience.
The friends I once loved have now vanished
and I have remained alone, fearful that someone may see me perhaps
to whom I had once spoken of ideals...

Now I have returned with a final attempt
to seem irreproachable, integral; I have returned
and I am, dear God, like the prodigal who has forsaken
his vagabond wanderings, embittered, and returns
to his good-hearted father, to live
in his bosom a private prodigality.

I bring Poseidon within me,
who always keeps me far off;
but even if I could put into harbor,
could Ithaca possibly find me the solution?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The myth of the Greek ‘dark ages’ and the Orientalising revolution

Except the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origins. (Sir Henry Maine)

Robin Lane Fox’s book, Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer is a mesmerising account of the journeys Greek traders, settlers and adventurers made across the Mediterranean in the eighth and seventh centuries BC,  their contact with beguiling landscapes and exhilarating stories that helped them explain the origins of the Greek gods and advance Greek civilisation.

Not that Lane Fox’s book is an exercise in wonderment at Greek endeavour or an anthropological quest to explain the origins of Greek myths. Rather, it is an assertion that the so-called Greek ‘dark ages’ were, in fact, quite luminous; that between the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation (1200 BC) and the Archaic Period (800 BC), Greek civilisation was not introverted and lacking in ambition but sophisticated and progressive and the evidence of this is the intrepid seafarers from the island of Evia who, in their journeys to the Near East, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily and Italy – where they mingled with Greeks and barbarians alike –  absorbed what they saw and returned to Greece not with a new culture or new ways of thinking but with a deeper understanding of their own culture and an enhanced appreciation of their distinctive worldview.

Cyprus plays a key role in this narrative, the island’s strong Greek presence providing a natural place for western Greeks to trade and settle, and an ideal launching pad for further Greek exploration of the Levant. Lane Fox doesn’t deny these Levantine adventures left cultural and intellectual impressions on the Evians – it was from Phoenician colonists in Cyprus that Greeks learned the Alphabet – but he does refute the suggestion that this amounted to a Levantine or Oriental colonising of the Greek mind.

The theory that Greece only emerged from its ‘dark ages’ due to an Orientalising revolution, the massive importing and borrowing by Greeks of religion, literature and crafts from Anatolia, Assyria, Phoenicia and Egypt, is most associated with Walter Burkert, who is explicit about his objective; which is to mock the West’s traditional anti-Semitism by showing how Semitic culture shaped Greek and hence Western civilisation. For Burkert, the denial of formative Semitic influences on Greek culture was a calculated act of anti-Semitism devised by 18th and 19th century German classicists.

But for Lane Fox, these modern political considerations fly in the face of the evidence; which is that the East did not come to Greece, it was the Greeks who went to the East and that the Greeks used what they found there not to transform their identity but to embellish or explain what they already knew or believed. Thus, Greek originality and innovation not Oriental influence and models remain the key elements in any narrative on the origins of Western civilisation.

*The video above is the BBC documentary with Robin Lane Fox based on his book. Watch it while you can, before Metacafe takes it down.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Revisiting Greece’s defeat of fascist Italy

Some interesting pieces (in English) in the current issue of the American Hellenic Institute’s Policy Journal. In particular, there’s a very moving extract from Konstantinos Fotiadis’ book on the Pontian Genocide – the desperate efforts of the Pontic Greeks to impress on Eleftherios Venizelos and other Allied leaders after the defeat of the Ottoman empire not only the depredations the Pontians had suffered from 1914-18 but their continuing vulnerability to Turkey’s extermination campaign.

Another good piece is by Alexandros Kyros on George Blytas’ book, The First Victory: Greece in the Second World War. In his review, Kyros stresses that British historians have downplayed the importance of Greece's repulsion of the Italian invasion 1940-41 in order to elevate Britain’s role in defeating the Axis powers. Along these lines, Kyros says, a myth has developed that Greece’s defeat of the Italians was critical in postponing, and therefore undermining, Germany’s fateful invasion of Russia when, in fact, the main consequence of Greece’s heroics was to deflect Axis attention from Britain and save that country from further defeats at the hands of the Germans and Italians. Below is some of what Kyros says:

‘Although it is doubtful that the Greek victory in Albania was important to the ultimate outcome of the German-Soviet conflict, it was crucial to the survival of the British war effort in the Mediterranean. In short, the Greek victory against Italy contributed decisively to the failure of the Axis to vanquish Britain, not the Soviet Union.

‘The Greeks’ victory in Albania diverted crucial Italian, land, air, and sea forces at a time when they were desperately needed in North Africa to defeat the British forces in Egypt.

‘From October to May 1941, the Italians dispatched five times as many troops and supplies to Albania as they did to North Africa. Albania had the first call on armor, motor transports, artillery, and aircraft. As a result of the Greek crisis, the Albanian front monopolized the attention of the Italian High Command and remained Rome’s all-consuming concern at the expense of other operations, especially those in North Africa.

‘Had Rome defeated and occupied Greece, and not been tied down fighting a desperate defensive war in Albania, the Italians would have been able to concentrate an enormous, mobile, and far more lethal force in Libya with which the Axis might well have taken El Alamein and successfully advanced to the Suez in 1941, rather than failing to do so in 1942.

‘In short, the Greeks’ victory against the Italians in 1940 probably saved the not yet firmly organized, poorly led, and still underperforming British forces in Egypt from defeat, a development which would have had disastrous consequences for Britain’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean.

‘Furthermore, it is clear that Italy’s failure in Greece persuaded Franco to remain neutral in the European conflict. Conversely, had the Italians defeated the Greeks, Spain would have likely entered the war on the side of Hitler and Mussolini.

‘With Spain as a member of the Axis camp, Gibraltar would have been easily overrun and the British presence in the Western Mediterranean would have been wiped out. Such simultaneous strategic losses for the British at the opposite ends of the Mediterranean – Gibraltar and Suez – would have been catastrophic for Britain and its ability to continue the war against the Axis.’

Friday, 13 January 2012

Rauf Denktash, Turkish Cypriot terrorist leader and war criminal, is dead

The Turkish Cypriot terrorist leader Rauf Denktash is dead. A Turkish ultra-nationalist dedicated to the partition of Cyprus, he initially collaborated with British authorities in the 1950s, prosecuting for the crown EOKA fighters seeking to liberate Cyprus from colonial rule. He was then, with the collusion of Britain and Turkey, instrumental in establishing the Turkish terror gang, TMT, which targetted Greek Cypriot civilians and Turkish Cypriots who did not share its vision of Cyprus partitioned along ethnic lines.

In 1958, with Denktash leading it, the TMT planted a bomb outside the Turkish consulate in Nicosia, an incident blamed on Greek Cypriots and which led to Turkish attacks on Greek shops and homes across the island, including the massacre of eight Greek Cypriots outside the Turkish Cypriot village of Kioneli. Widespread intercommunal violence followed and, as Denktash hoped it would, the tension fostered a siege mentality among the outnumbered Turkish Cypriots. Even after independence in 1960, guided by Denktash, Turkish Cypriots proceeded to break off all political, social and economic relations with Greek Cypriots and retreated into armed enclaves, from where they sought to challenge the authority of the Republic of Cyprus and provoke clashes with government forces, all in the hope of creating a crisis and providing a pretext for Turkey to invade and partition Cyprus.

Denktash’s plan was realised in 1974, when a coup against the Cyprus government, engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece, was followed by Turkish invasion and the seizing of 37 percent of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. The Turkish assault was accompanied by the usual atrocities associated with ethnic cleansing, as 200,000 Greeks were driven from their homes and land.

With northern Cyprus under Turkish army control, Denktash, as leader of the occupation regime, then set about zealously destroying the Greek and Christian heritage of northern Cyprus and turning the occupied part of the island into a Turkish province. A cornerstone of this Turkification policy was the importation of hundreds of thousands of settlers from Turkey into northern Cyprus.

In 1983, Denktash proclaimed the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, a puppet ‘state’ immediately declared illegal by the UN and still to achieve recognition from any country, except Turkey. For the next 20 years, Turkish Cypriots led a North Korean-type existence, cut off from the outside world and encouraged to believe that their self-imposed isolation was necessary to protect them from Greek Cypriots hellbent on revenge and massacre. Denktash retired in 2005, but his efforts to diminish Turkish Cypriot identity and create a stronghold for the Kemalist deep state ensured that his nightmare vision for Cyprus remained alive, if not completely fulfilled. 

Denktash’s legacy is one of bloodshed and suffering. His goal of partition was predicated on ethnic cleansing, on forcing Greek Cypriots from one part of Cyprus and terrorising Turkish Cypriots into fleeing to the other. His politics were characterised by fanaticism and hatred and the result was violence that devastated Cyprus and scarred both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. For such wickedness in a later era, men were brought before international tribunals and accused of being war criminals.

ADDENDUM: Reading this piece again, it is wrong to imply from what I’ve written that Denktash’s plan of retreating into enclaves and provoking Turkey to invade was a success. Actually, it was a failure, because Greek Cypriots were able, from 1967-74, to keep both the TMT and the threat of Turkish invasion at bay. Indeed, the 1967-74 period was a period of despair for Denktash. What allowed for the realisation of Denktash’s plan was, of course, the coup and the excuse it gave the Turks to invade. Without the coup, the travails Denktash put the Turkish Cypriots through would have amounted to nothing.

Anastasiades: Israel plans new relationship with Cyprus, Greece

As I mentioned in my last post, Nikos Anastasiades, head of centre-right DISY, Cyprus’ largest political party, and favourite for next year’s presidential elections on the island, was in Israel these last few days, for meetings with that country’s senior political leadership.

Evaluating his visit this morning on Cyprus radio, and as reported by the Cyprus edition of Kathimerini, Anastasiades had the following to say:

Israel is studying all aspects of its relations with Cyprus and will shortly make firm proposals on the mutual management of the natural gas deposits that have been discovered in the Exclusive Economic Zones of the two countries. The proposal, Anastasiades said, will extend to Greece.

Anastasiades added that the proposals under discussion will lead to a new relationship between Israel, Cyprus and Greece, which will create new opportunities for all three countries.

The partnership that will develop between Cyprus and Israel in the exploitation of hydrocarbon deposits, according to Anastasiades, will lead to increased co-operation in other fields, such as research, commerce and tourism.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Energy, common threat connect Israel, Cyprus, Greece

There’s been a lot of traffic between Israel, Cyprus and Greece these last few days, with the Cypriot defence minister in Israel, the Israeli defence minister in Greece, Greece’s energy minister in Cyprus and Cyprus’ likely next president Nikos Anastasiades in Israel, meeting that country’s president, prime minister and so on.

All this toing and froing has been prompted by the vast natural gas finds recently discovered in the Israeli and Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zones, and the need this has created for greater economic and defence collusion between the two Greek states and Israel, especially given Turkey’s traditional aggression towards Greece and Cyprus has now been extended to Israel.

Indeed, one senses that it is Israel that has decided that its dramatic fallout with former ally Turkey amounts to a long-term breach and that Greece and Cyprus have been surprised by Israel’s overtures and are not sure of the implications of this burgeoning relationship.

Anyway, below is an article from UPI that provides some more detail on the deepening economic and strategic relationship between Greece, Cyprus and Israel.

Israel tightens Med defense links over gas
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to upgrade his country’s defense links with Greece and is reported to have signed a defense cooperation pact with Greek Cypriots to counter Turkish threats against joint exploration of gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean.

Israel’s emerging military ties with Athens and the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia stem in part from the rupture of its strategic alliance with Turkey, Greece's historical foe, that climaxed in May 2010.

But the shifting relationships also reflect the common interest shared by Israel, Cyprus and Greece in exploring and exploiting the vast natural gas reserves that lie deep under the Mediterranean seabed that will transform their economies for decades to come…

Read full article here.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Fry, Hitchens and the Parthenon Marbles

Below is a piece written by British actor, writer, broadcaster Stephen Fry on the justice of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, which was published shortly after the death of Christopher Hitchens, another prominent campaigner for the repatriation of the works to Athens (See Hitchens’ piece The Lovely Stones, here).

Fry largely bases his case on philhellenism – ‘we owe the Greeks; they made us who we are’ – which is fine and laudable. However, in his book on the subject – The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification – Hitchens, while sharing Fry’s fascination and admiration for the achievements of classical Greece and, indeed, affection for modern Greece, emphasises a subtler point that goes beyond the argument of which country should possess the marbles and that point is an aesthetic one; that they should be reunited because we would be able to appreciate and enjoy them more as a whole and not partitioned as they are now. In this respect, Hitchens portrays the British case for holding on to the marbles as an act of gross philistinism.

A further point: while Hitchens (and, to a lesser extent, Fry) is more than adept at elucidating the Greek case for the return of the marbles and exposing the obvious flaws in the British case for keeping them; he seems to ignore one of the shabbier truths behind Britain's determination to keep the stones: which is that the British arguments for their retention ultimately emerge from the same mindset that is determined to retain sovereignty over Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and even the military bases in Cyprus, i.e. other forlorn remnants of Britain's defunct empire.

A Modest Proposal, by Stephen Fry
I have a modest proposal that might simultaneously celebrate the life of Christopher Hitchens, strengthen Britain’s low stock in Europe and allow us to help a dear friend in terrible trouble.

Perhaps the most beautiful and famous monument in the world is the Doric masterpiece atop the citadel, or Acropolis, of Athens. It is called the Parthenon, the Virgin Temple dedicated to Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom who gave the Greek capital its name.

The Acropolis contains other temples and represents in the minds of scholars, historians and all who care about our past and the source of our civilisation, the pinnacle of Athens’s Golden Age under the leadership of Pericles; that period of peace between the wars against Persia which they won, and the wars against their neighbours Sparta, which they lost.

For students and lovers of architecture the Acropolis (over which I made a spectacular fool of myself some years ago) will always remain one of the most perfect examples of the Doric order ever constructed. The Romans and Arabians later added arches, ogees, domes, pendentives, barrelled vaults and squinches to the basic elements of architecture, but the Parthenon’s grace has never been surpassed. Its influence is all around us. Pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, entablatures, triglyphs and metopes may sound strange but we see them every day in high street buildings, town halls, 18th century churches, squares and crescents. Some people who spot trains or birds are called sad. I am a sad corbel, buttress and apse spotter – one who loves that there is a name for everything in architecture, a full and rich anatomy…

Read the rest here

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Owl’s Legacy: Castoriadis on democracy

I’ve been looking for Chris Marker’s The Owl's Legacy for ages and have finally found it. The 13-part series was made by the French avant garde film-maker in 1989 and is a veritable who’s who of intellectuals of the period – mostly French and Greek – pontificating on the cultural legacy of classical Greece on the modern world, each 25-minute programme discussing a particular theme – Olympics: or Imaginary Greece; Democracy: or the City of Dreams; Nostalgia: or the Impossible Return, and so on, you get the idea: this is an attempt to provide – as much as a TV series can provide – a fairly sophisticated account of the way Greece has shaped Western civilisation.

Interestingly, the series also wants to explore the owl’s legacy on modern Greece and how modern Greeks have navigated the culture they have been bequeathed – especially since that culture has been filtered to them through the imaginations of others, notably European classicism, in the form of German romanticism and so on.

You can watch the entire series here. It seems to have been uploaded from video tape, so the visual quality is not that good, but this really is the best non-Greek documentary series you’re likely to see on Greece, so it’s tolerable.

The video above, which gives a good indication of the style and content of the series, is part three, Democracy: or the City of Dreams; which starts off with legendary Greek-American film director Elia Kazan’s silly observation that Athens was a slave society and therefore could not have been a democracy – the epitome of democracy, for Kazan, being America; but continues with Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greek philosopher, explaining the essence and depth of Athenian democracy and making clear that it is a misuse of the term and misunderstanding of the concept to suggest that modern liberal societies are ‘democratic’.