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’.


Hermes said...

I watched the Democracy episode. It was interesting but if one is familiar with Castoriadis then there is nothing new. I think Castoriadis gets himself into a knot when he says that contemporary democracries are oligarchies, then says that ancient Greek democracy is not possible in practice, but then says it can act as a germ. However, aren't modern forms of democracy taking ancient Greek democracy as a germ?

Elia Kazan is embarrassing.

Then, I watched the Nostalgia episode but I only got about 2/3 of the way through it. Most of the speakers were embarrassing. Worst of all was Theo Angelopoulos. Perhaps he should stick to talking about film rather than history; although, this may be difficult as most of his films are about history. Unfortunately, it is these feeble minded progressives that have dominated Greece for 40 years. Fortunately, the Neo-Orthodox movement and their Leftist offshots like Zouraris and Karabelias provide an antidote to their thinking.

John Akritas said...

I'm sure Castoriadis would say direct democracy and mass participation is the germ not representative democracy, which is a form of oligarchy. But, it's true, Castoriadis narrows right down what that germ is and won't accept that it could only operate in Athens with a deep sense of patriotic duty – and which in Athens' case led also to arrogance and an assertive imperialism – and he won't take on board any of Plato, or Aristotle's, criticisms of democracy, that it tends to mob rule, demagoguery and all the rest.

Kazan, for obvious reasons perhaps – to do with justifying to himself his complicity with McCarthyism – has fallen for American ideology: that everything in the old world was oppression, horror and violence whereas the new country is all freedom and democracy. In this respect, America is a land of lotus eaters, where you are made to forget who you are.

And, it's true Angelopoulos does say some silly things in the programme; but I would say, in his defence, that he is – like most Greek intellectuals of his generation – immersed in Greek culture and they are cultural patriots if nothing else. It is the generation after – the Varoufakises – who we should worry about, because they see cultural patriotism, Angelopoulos' assertion that 'we come from the ancient Greeks', as nationalism.

Other episodes are better than three; the one on music, amounting to a 20 minute interview with Xenakis is very enjoyable. Xenakis is from another world – the pre-Socratic one. But then Xenakis is another Greek who emerges from radical politics, like Ritsos, Theodorakis and so on. What can you do?

Hermes said...

The other aspect of Athenian democracy which Castoriadis hardly mentions is that it was so ethnically-centred. There was very little room for multiethnicity or multiculturalism. Fortunately, a Greek academic on a program of Antigone recently pointed this out to the somewhat stupified listeners.

How can Angelopoulos be immersed in Greek culture when he says that the only thing that separated Greeks and Turks was language. He forgets religion, why? Not to mention other distinguishing features like culture (including literature, arts etc) and Byzantine law which was part of the basis for the law of the modern Greek. Angelopoulos, like most of his dimwitted generation developed such a hatred for organised religion that they ignored the inheritance of Byzantium. In fact, a thorough knowledge of Byzantium reduces the level of filtering through the imagination of others, where Byzantinism is directly inherited from antiquity rather than via European Classicism. This is why the Neo-Orthodox, Makryiannis, Papadiamantis, Solomos and so on are so important because they presented a Hellenism relatively untouched by European Classicism.

It is good to see the legendary Svoronos and Georgosopoulos on one of the episodes. Georgosopoulos wrote the great lyrics to the Xylouris/Markopuolos album, Ithigeneia.

John Akritas said...

I don't know, H. Angelopoulos does strike me as being quite immersed in Greek sources. Nearly all his films are about exile, journeys and return. Reconstruction has the theme of a husband returning from abroad to be murdered by his wife and her lover. Travelling Players has the Agamemnon/Clytemnestra theme brilliantly woven into it. Voyage to Kythera is another exile returning film; while Eternity and a Day is about a poet obsessed by Dionysios Solomos…

I agree with you that, in that one instance in the Owl's Legacy, Angelopoulos talks nonsense about Greeks and Turks; but it strikes me it's just one of those stupid things Greeks occasionally say to foreigners in order to be ingratiating. But it doesn't matter. It's the same with Theodorakis. Half the things he says are rubbish, but we forgive him because of Axion Esti and so on.

Hermes said...

Angelopoulos, like much of his brethren, is immersed in select Greek sources but he woefully ignores others because of European filtering of Greek culture. When are we going to see more Greek artists immersing themselves in the totality of Greek sources? Solomos was one. Elytis, Pikionis and Tsarouchis were others. Even the politically irresponsible, Ritsos and Theodorakis successfully mined medieval Greek history for motifs, symbols, ideas and so on.

Perhaps there should a fine system. If a Greek states something which is unhistorical and unscientific, and which is against the national interest, then the accused is fined and asked to pay via their electricity bill, like I just had to for our family's real estate. Maybe in Angelopoulos’s case he is obliged to give back the money the Greek state has provided for his films. This may sound absolutely insane but the Spartans had a similar system and they were an incredibly successful state on very meagre resources. I was reading a few nights ago that Agesilaus’s father was fined for marrying a short woman because it might mean Spartans would become short. This would be a sure fire way to reduce silly comments like Angelopoulos’s and reduce Greece’s fiscal deficit!

John Akritas said...

Below's a link to an article from the appalling Ferentinou on Angelopoulos visiting Turkey. He doesn't seem to like it very much. This is nice: 'The centre of his world is a Mediterranean which includes Greece, Italy, Spain and France. He told me that he was never attracted by anything eastern other than the Aegean. In fact, he confided in me that he feels “some kind of melancholy each time he finds himself in the East.”'

I note, however, that A's new film is going to be a joint Turkish-Italian production.

Hermes said...

So he does not like Pontos, Cyprus, Cappadocia, Asia Minor? Angelopoulos sounds more idiotic by the day.

Hermes said...

I watched the History one last night. Quite good. Nothing really new but well summarised. Vassilikos was interest and even Kazan done well.

John Akritas said...

Last night, I watched episode 9, which was Castoriadis and Xenakis talking about Chaos. I do like Xenakis. Indeed, we may know the arguments, but it's good to see Castoriadis, Xenakis, etc, presenting them, even if it's only snippets. I guess they are 'germs', as Castoriadis would say.

And I meant to ask you: you mention the Neo-Orthodox movement above – do you think there's anything more to it other than its hellenocentricity?

Hermes said...

Before we make judgments about the Neo-Orthodoxy movement, we have to be careful, to reduce the centrality of epistemology, strong Cartesian (and Enlightenment) and empirical bias in our own thinking or modes of thought. Once we do that, we not only open ourselves to some of the contributions of the Neo-Orthodox but even Russians like Solovyov and Berdaeyev. Of course, their strength is metaphysics even when we remove the overtly New Testament, Patristic and Philokalian content. But if we accept that Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Camus and later Continental philosophy had something interesting to say about existence then why not the Neo-Orthodox. They also have something to say about ethics (based on Aristotelian experientality), history, identity, aesthetics and political philosophy. And let’s not think that this school is sterile and conservative. Their periodical was shut down by the Junta in 1967.

Hermes said...

One more thing, I have seen supposedly cultured Greeks laud the works of Tarkovsky, Solzenitsyn, Sokurov and others. However, they dismiss the Neo-Orthodox. Little do they realise that these two groups drink from the same fountain of Orthodoxy and patriotism.

By the way do you know what happend to the English language translation of O Drakos. I am doing a review for someone.

Have you seen this site?

John Akritas said...

Drakos with English subs was, unfortunately, taken down by youtube because the owner of the copyright in Greece complained of infringement.

Anonymous said...

I have just watched episode 4 on notstalgia.

George Steiner's baiting of modern greece didn't get a proper riposte. If modern greece is a parody of ancient greece so too is every other western democracy including Israel.

In contrast to what he sees as a discontinuity between ancient and modern greece Steiner wants to assert a continuation between modern and ancient Israel.

But what sort of cultural and intellectual heritage did ancient Israel bequeath its people apart from monotheism?

It is ofcourse easier to compare favourably with your ancestors when your ancestors were little more than cave dwelling savages. It is also easier to find continuities if you adopt one narrow measure of continuity.

It is self evident that the ancient Israelites were practising Jews as are the modern Israelis. However that measure of continuity overlooks the cultural, linguistic and ethnographic anihillation that befell the Jews during their exodus from ancient Israel.

What the Jews retained was religious continuity and arguably little else. In contrast we Greeks can claim an uninterrupted occupation of at least part of the ancient Hellenic lands as well as the retention of the Greek language and with it the cultural and intellectual legacy of the Hellenic enlightenment. That we don't measure up to our ancestors is a cross we can proudly bare. They were giants the likes of which will not be seen again.


Hermes said...

The Judaism that is practicised today, Rabbinic Judaism, has very little relationship with the Judaism of the Old Testament. Rabbinic Judaism arose from when Jews were expelled from Israel and gradually developed into modern day Judaism. Therefore, it is difficult to argue that Jews have religious continuity.

Anonymous said...

Yes you have a point. The rabbinical Judaism following the fall of the second temple was different from the sacrificial Judaism that preceded it. However there was no political rupture within Judaism.The Jews by and large followed the Rabbis.


Owl-Wise said...

Just now encountered your blog. Yet to read through it and make any other observation than to inform you of the availability of the FULL interview with Cornelius Castoriadis by Chris Marker. It is available at Vimeo with English subtitles and is 81 mins in length. So if it is of any further interest you can watch it here -

I will re-attend to your interesting looking Blog sooner or later ... so much information, so little time.


John Akritas said...

Thanks Owl-Wise for pointing out the Castoriadis interview in full. Looks very interesting and I'll definitely watch it.

I doubt very much if you'll like my blog.