Friday, 30 March 2012

Antigone: heroine or death-obsessed zealot?

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With the backing of the king of Argos, Polynices attacks Thebes and attempts to seize the throne from his brother, Eteocles. Thebes repels the invasion, but in the process Polynices and his brother are killed. Their uncle Creon ascends to the throne and proclaims that Eteocles is to be buried with full honours deserving of a patriot and a hero; while Polynices will remain unmourned and unburied, exposed to the birds and dogs, a fitting punishment for a traitor. Defiance of Creon’s order will be judged an act of treason punishable by death. Antigone cannot accept Creon’s decree and secretly performs burial and mourning rituals over her beloved brother’s corpse. The devoted sister is caught, brought before Creon and makes no effort to disguise her guilt or contempt for the king and his ‘laws’, claiming she acted according to ‘higher’ laws, on the correct treatment of family dead as defined by Hades and Zeus…

Sophocles’ Antigone is probably the most popular Greek tragedy in contemporary times. Moderns have liked to interpret Antigone as a rebel who defies a tyrant and the state; a proto-feminist protesting patriarchy; or a dissident youth who refuses to accept the strictures of her elders. This famous BBC version of the play, with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone, depicts Creon as a cruel dictator, who has usurped the law in the service of his rule and deploys it as part of a cult of the ‘state’. (Throughout Don Taylor’s otherwise powerful translation, polis is translated not as ‘city’ but as ‘state’ – to emphasise, for Taylor, Creon’s totalitarian disposition).

However, this insistence on interpreting Antigone as a drama of the individual against the state is facile. A Greek-filmed version of Antigone (above), with Irene Papas in the lead role, has a more complex portrayal of Creon who, rather than an implacable tyrant, is shown to be a weak and vacillating ruler. Having made his decree against Polynices’ burial and stipulated the death penalty for anyone who should defy it, Creon is inclined not to invoke the law now that Antigone – his niece, member of the Theban royal family and betrothed to his son, Haemon – and not Argive sympathisers or traitors, has been revealed as the party guilty of tending Polynices’ corpse. However, it is the gloomy, death-obsessed Antigone’s almost deranged defiance of her uncle and king that force Creon into a corner, and compel him to assert his authority and insist on the defence of the polis and its laws.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Markopoulos/Solomos: ‘The Free Besieged’

I’ve made available before some songs from Yiannis Markopoulos’ musical interpretation of Dionysios Solomos’ poem The Free Besieged (Ελεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι), which, as mentioned in my previous post, is about the siege and exodus from Messolonghi and, more broadly, the rebirth of Greece. Now, above, is the entire work, which is brilliant, Markopoulos’ masterpiece, as good as Theodorakis’ version of Elytis’ Axion Esti. Irene Papas narrates, while Nikos Xylouris, Lakis Halkias and Ilias Klonaridis sing. If you want to download the mp3 – and you should – just copy the youtube address of the video (, then go to and follow the instructions to download an mp3.

Exodus: with swords to cut their path
And I see in the distance the children and the brave women
About the flame they have lit and have painfully fuelled
With well-loved articles and modest marriage-beds,
Not moving, not lamenting, not even shedding a tear;
And a spark touches their hair and their worn-clothes;
Come quickly, ashes, so they can fill their hands.

They are ready in the relentless flood of weapons
With swords to cut their path, and in freedom to stay,
On that side with the comrades, on this with death.

Like the sun that suddenly cuts through dense and sombre clouds,
It strikes the mountains on its slopes and there! houses in the verdure.

And from where the sun rises
To where it goes down,

I did not set eyes on a place more glorious than this small threshing-floor.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Heroes and villains: comparing the Greek sacking of Troy to the Turkish conquest of Constantinople

I had the misfortune to watch the dreadful, contemptible blockbuster Troy last night, which purports to bring to the screen Homer’s Iliad. I’d seen the film a few years ago and remember disliking it then, but had forgotten how bad it was and decided to watch it again.

Everything about the film is awful and wrong. The worst butchery in the film is not that which we see on screen in the fight scenes but that inflicted on Homer, whose narrative is mutilated not to bring out any new or interesting points about the Iliad, but to pander to the most facile Hollywood clichés. (In this travesty, Hector kills not only Menelaos and Ajax but Briseis slays Agamemnon. Can you believe it?).

Anyway, the film isn’t the point of this post. The point is how the Iliad is not some patriotic diatribe – like Virgil’s dreadful Aeneid – aimed at extolling the virtues of the Greeks and denigrating the enemy Trojans. Indeed, as we all know, in the Iliad, the Trojans are, generally, more sympathetic and sophisticated than the Greeks. Priam is a much more noble king than the odious Agamemnon; Hector is more honourable than Achilles and when Troy is sacked (this is not in the Iliad but is recorded elsewhere in the Epic Cycle), the Greeks admit that this was accompanied by slaughter, rape and looting, crimes of hubris that will be paid for.

What we have in Homer, then, is a very early example of how in Greek culture it was imperative to admit your own shortcomings, examine your own motivations and to look to the ‘other’ for your better self. Indeed, this impulse towards self-criticism and self-loathing reflects that part of Greco-Western civilisation which is prone to self-destruction. This isn’t to say that the Greco-West always and necessarily sympathises with the other – often, it doesn’t and hasn’t – but the point is that it’s an essential component of our Greco-Western culture.

But, again, this isn’t really the point of my post, or it is but it’s not an original point. It’s been made a million times before. My point is to compare how Homer – 2700 years ago – dealt with the Greek siege of Troy and how Turkish culture has recently dealt with the siege and fall of Constantinople in the film Conquest 1453, which has been packing them in in Anatolia. According to this review, we have pious, heroic, fair-minded Turks against debauched Greeks:
‘The Ottomans are devout and resolute; the Byzantine emperor, Constantine, and his aides drink and lounge with women in wispy outfits. When Mehmet finally enters the gates, he tells cowering Orthodox Christians that they are free to worship. They smile in wide-eyed, wondrous gratitude.’
What nonsense, and what a disturbing inability to look at history critically or intelligently; and what fascist propaganda, showing how retarded and dangerous Turkish national ideology remains. We will know when Turkey has grown up – and ceased to pose a threat to Greece – when a film is made in Turkey about the Fall of Constantinople that reveals the Turks as villains and the Greeks as heroes.

(The clip above is the fight scene in Troy between Achilles and Hector, which I quite liked).

Thursday, 22 March 2012

First skirmishes in Cyprus presidential elections

I should mention the developments in the race to become Cyprus’ next president, elections for which are due in February 2013.

Last Saturday, right-wing DISY, the largest political party on the island, decided that its leader Nikos Anastasiades would be their candidate. Anastasiades easily saw off a challenge from MEP Eleni Theocharous – winning by 87 percent to 13 percent of the party executive vote. Theocharous had sought to rally those in the party who haven’t forgiven Anastasiades for supporting the Annan plan in 2004 and who still suspect that he’s weak on the Cyprus problem. Indeed, because of his dubious credentials on the national issue – and the vitriolic way he opposed Tassos Papadopoulos during his presidency, 2003-2008 – opponents of Anastasiades wondered how it was he was going to attract votes from supporters of the four parties – DIKO, EDEK, EVROKO and the Greens – who were at the forefront of the NO campaign against the Annan plan and were Papadopoulos’ strongest supporters. But Theocharous, while being more palatable to DIKO, EDEK, EVROKO and the Greens, was never going to be able to command the support of the DISY rank and file and her decision to contest the nomination must have been kite-flying to see if there was enough backing for her within the party to justify a shot at the presidency as an independent. It seems that her meagre showing has dampened down her presidential ambitions because she said today that she intends to work towards getting Anastasiades elected.

The main reason Anastasiades, despite being damaged by his support for the Annan plan, has got such a good chance of becoming president next year is because the incumbent Dimitris Christofias is largely detested – last poll figures show his popularity at 22 percent – and because it appears that Christofias wants to put that loathing to the test by edging towards a decision to stand again.

Previously, Christofias has said he would only seek re-election if it appeared that a solution to the Cyprus problem was imminent and required him to see it through. But since a Cyprus solution is not imminent and since Christofias has absolutely no chance of being re-elected – the parties that backed Papadopoulos in the first round of the 2008 elections and who switched to Christofias after Papadopoulos’ elimination have all categorically stated they will not be supporting Christofias in 2013 – there existed the possibility that to save himself personal humiliation and to avoid consigning his party AKEL to the political margins, Christofias might not stand again. Except, yesterday, during a live televised press conference, Christofias dropped a big hint that he was going to stand in 2013; he said he was receiving encouragement from (unnamed) European leaders to seek re-election on the basis that they could not imagine Cyprus without him as president. All music to Anastasiades’ ears. His greatest fear would have been his opponents collaborating to come up with a ‘Stop Anastasiades’ candidate.

The unknown factor at the moment is what DIKO, EDEK, EVROKO and the Greens will do. Having decided not to support either Christofias or Anastasiades, they now face the challenge of coming up with their own candidate. The obvious candidate would have been DIKO’s Markos Kyprianou, but, as foreign minister in the Christofias government at the time of the Mari disaster, he’s now up on manslaughter charges. Mention has been made of Giorgos Lillikas, former foreign minister in Tassos Papadopoulos’ government; but he is anathema to AKEL – to which Lillikas used to belong – and if, as seems likely, Christofias is facing elimination in the first round in the presential elections, then the DIKO block would need to bring AKEL on board if its candidate is to beat Anastasiades in the second round.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Beatles sing Theodorakis

In 1958, Mikis Theodorakis recorded a song for Michael Powell’s Spanish/flamenco dance film Honeymoon – Theodorakis had worked with Powell on Ill Met By Moonlight in 1957. The song was sung by Gloria Lasso and set to the poetry of Rafael de Penagos and was called Luna de Miel. In 1963, the Beatles recorded the song as the Honeymoon Song. In the meantime, a Greek version was made with lyrics by Nikos Gatsos, Αν θυμηθείς τ' όνειρό μου (If you remember my dream), sung, first, by Giovanna and then by Mary Linda. Linda’s is the most famous version, though it has been sung and recorded by many, many Greek singers since – everyone from Marios Frangoulis to Anna Vissi. Above is the Beatles’ version, below is the Mary Linda version, followed by the Spanish version, a video with an excellent version by Photini Darra and Gatsos’ lyrics for the Greek song.

Αν θυμηθείς τ' όνειρό μου
Στην αγκαλιά μου κι απόψε σαν άστρο κοιμήσου
δεν απομένει στον κόσμο ελπίδα καμιά
τώρα που η νύχτα κεντά με φιλιά το κορμί σου
μέτρα τον πόνο κι άσε με μόνο στην ερημιά

Αν θυμηθείς τ' όνειρό μου
σε περιμένω να 'ρθεις
μ' ένα τραγούδι του δρόμου να ρθεις όνειρό μου
το καλοκαίρι που λάμπει τ' αστέρι με φως να ντυθείς

In my arms tonight once more sleep like a star
There’s no hope left in the world
Now that the night is knitting your body with kisses
Measure the pain and leave me alone in the wilderness.

If you my remember my dream
I’ll wait for your return
With a song from the street, come, my dream
In summer, as a shining star clothes you in light.

Monday, 19 March 2012

What Sikelianos said to Gatsos about Amorgos

If you know Greek, then someone has put together this youtube channel largely consisting of Greek TV documentaries on some of Greece’s best poets, including Cavafy, Sikelianos, Engonopoulos, Andreas Embirikos, Nikos Gatsos, Kiki Dimoula and so on, which are well worth watching.

Above are a couple of clips from the documentary on the poet and lyricist Nikos Gatsos. The clips are of nice anecdotes, which I’ve recapitulated in English below. See the entire documentary here. Gatsos’ masterpiece Amorgos is available in Greek with facing English translation.

1. The poet Nanos Valaoritis recalls in 1943, after Gatsos had just published Amorgos, that he and Gatsos were walking and talking in central Athens when they ran into an animated Angelos Sikelianos, who said to Gatsos: ‘I was reading your Amorgos on the boat on my way back from Aegina and I said to myself like Homer, like Homer.’

Valaoritis says he was surprised by Gatsos’ apparent indifference to receiving such praise from this most important and prestigious poet, and when asked about his reaction, Gatsos replied. ‘He hasn’t even read it. He’s just saying he has.’

 2. And then, Haris Vlavianos recalls an exchange he had with Gatsos regarding Gatsos’ great friend, Odysseas Elytis. Gatsos asked Vlavianos if he liked Elytis’ poetry. Yes, said Vlavianos. Which of his poems do you like, Gatsos went on rather insistently. The Light Tree and Six Plus One Remorses. Good, you’re on the right path; thank God, you didn’t say Axion Esti.

Vlavianos explains this unusual for Gatsos expression of malice, particularly aimed at his close friend Elytis, as reflecting Gatsos’ slight annoyance with Elytis and his tendency, as Gatsos saw it, to write certain poems that were consciously designed to establish him as the poet of the nation.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Nikos Kazantzakis speaks

Above is a rather unusual gem I found here on youtube. It’s an interview with Nikos Kazantzakis on French television, in which the great author discusses his novel on St Francis of Assisi, God’s Pauper. The interview is from May 1957 and Kazantzakis, who was ill at the time, died five months later, which accounts for his frail appearance.

The person who uploaded the video also provided an English translation of what is said, which is below. (The reference in the interview to ‘the one who must die’ is to Kazantzakis’ novel Christ Recrucified, which was filmed by Jules Dassin in 1957 as He Who Must Die).

Pierre Dumayet: that Zorba has existed?

Max-Pol Fouchet: Absolutely. Me, I’ve never doubted that he existed and I have even less doubts, tonight, ever since I‘ve known Mr Kazantzakis because earlier, Mr Kazantzakis was saying that he would have liked to be Zorba but he is Zorba. He is Zorba through what he writes, what he thinks, through his sensitivity, absolutely. Besides, I must say that the main character of what we refer to in cinema as ‘the one that has to die’, right? (I give this title voluntarily so that listeners can relate to your book more easily), well, he’s also someone who's very close to Zorba. Your shepherd who, at a certain time, chooses justice, chooses charity perhaps doesn’t dance, but, you know, he could dance. And I always get the impression that your books are very close to the principles of Greek mythology because your Zorba is, after all, a sort of Antée (Antaeus), if you will. He makes contact with the earth and finds his force there and he finds his strength and his order in this very earth, since, we could easily say, he’s an anarchist, he has an order that he respects and it’s that which is the order of the earth which is the Plutonian order by excellence.

Pierre Dumayet: Now, I think we should ask a few questions about [your novel on] St. Francis of Assisi that was just published. You told me that you wrote this book in gratitude, because Francis of Assisi saved your life twice.

Nikos Kazantzakis: Yes. I owed Francis of Assisi something, that’s why I had... I had the great desire to explain my gratitude by writing a book about him. And the first time he saved my life, it was during the German Occupation. The Germans... I was on a small island near Athens, so the Germans... We had nothing to eat. And I was almost dying of hunger. And everyone around me was dying. So one day, I received a letter from a Franciscan friar who lives in Athens. He told me: ‘If you would translate St Francis of Assisi’s biography, done by Jurgensen, then we will send you a case of provisions.’ So right away I’m... I received... it was a case that had marvellous things, almost unheard of, and I had forgotten them, meaning sugar, coffee, macaroni, rice, etc... And I wrote this book with a long prologue.

Pierre Dumayet: And the second time?

Nikos Kazantzakis: The second time was when I was very ill so, all of a sudden, I thought about St Francis of Assisi. I mean, I wanted to think about a man who was able to conquer death. And right away I thought about St Francis of Assisi. And while... I had a fever, fever, 40, 41, I don’t know how. And my wife would come, she told me: ‘Take this pen and I will dictate.’ And I started to dictate to her St Francis of Assisi. And poetic things, especially. One day, I remember that I told her... Because, you know, this book isn’t a biography, it’s a summary of a biography, the poetry and things that St Francis didn’t say but that he could say because he was [inaudible]. So I told my wife: ‘Take the pencil and write. I’m going to dictate something that St Francis didn’t say but that he could have.’ One day, St Francis saw an almond tree in the middle of winter. So St Francis said to it: ‘Brother almond tree, talk to me about God.’ And all of a sudden, the almond tree became covered with flowers. That’s very Franciscan, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Odysseas Elytis: on Greece’s place in Europe

Above is an interview from Greek TV (circa late 1980s, I’d say) with Odysseas Elytis, in which the great poet discusses Greece’s place in Europe, and whether it would be better for Greece to insulate itself from European trends and rely on its own cultural resources or use these resources to shape Europe, which Elytis characterises as decrepit and in decline. Again, like Georgios Babiniotis and Eleni Glykatzi-Ahrweiller in my previous two posts, Elytis stresses that the only way Greece can negotiate a position for itself, one way or the other, is on the basis of paideia. My translation of the interview is below. (Video first seen here).

At some point, Europe is going to have to come to terms with its roots. It can’t carry on believing it’s some autonomous unit, without theoretical foundations. And there will also come a point when Greece will have to decide if it wants to remain isolated and stick to its own values or if it will enter some wider collective with, undoubtedly, some benefits of a practical nature, but with the danger that it will distort its true character.

From this point of view, I admit that I am an isolationist. All my life I have fought for that which we call Greekness (Ελληνικότητα), which is nothing other than a way of observing and feeling things, whether on a large or humble scale, on the level of the Parthenon or a pebble. It’s all about nobility and quality as opposed to size and quantity, which is what characterises the West. This is where the difference lies between Greece and the West.

The West drew on Greek values to create the Renaissance, but their Renaissance is very different to the one we would have created, if we hadn’t been stopped by the Turkish occupation.

We get a glimpse of what might have been when we consider the courtyard of an island home or the grounds of a monastery, which are much closer to the spirit that created the Parthenon than all the columns and metopes that adorn the royal palaces of Europe.

Which means that if Greek sensitivity was preserved, then it was exclusively down to our folk civilisation, which today is under threat. The Greek bourgeoisie (with the occasional exception) imitated the Europeans and their pretend version of Greece, and now the rest of the Greek people are imitating the Greek bourgeoisie imitating Europeans.

To the point where one asks oneself what good would isolation do, what will it actually protect?

And at risk of contradicting myself, I'm drawn to the other extreme, by suggesting that wouldn’t it be wiser if we joined the course of history, if we adopted a different strategy that would enable us to stand out by going down another path?

Hellenism has always had an amazing ability to adapt and become active in foreign societies. There are any number of Greeks who distinguished themselves in the Diaspora era, in the great cities of Europe and the East. And this in a period when Europe was at its peak and states were powerful and harsh, unlike today where they are decrepit and in decline, and in need of the vigour of new ideas.

This helps to reassure the sentimental Greek that hides inside me and makes me think that wouldn’t it be better if we went forward, without fearing conflict and rivalry [with Europe]? Though, naturally, we should always do so on the basis of quality, which means on the basis of the spirit. This is why I insist so much on paideia. We need serious and far-reaching paideia – not this technical type of education we have today – because only with this paideia can we stand out and chart a a new course, while preserving the special elements that comprise Greek style and character.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Eleni Glykatzi-Ahrweiler: When Greece is being wronged, it is a disgrace to keep quiet

Above is a wide-ranging interview from Greek TV given last October with the formidable Eleni Glykatzi-Ahrweiler, the renowned Byzantinologist and pedagogue, former president of Sorbonne university in Paris, in which she talks about the crisis affecting Greece and, like Georgios Babiniotis in the previous post, insists that the roots of it are not economic but political and cultural, the perennial Greek predilection for discord and division and the degeneration of paideia in the country.

Glykatzi says there has never been a time in Greek history when one half of the population has not hated the other half and she tells the following joke: when a Frenchman is asked what he wants most of all in the world, he says: the loveliest woman. A German asked the same question, answers: the finest gun; the Englishman, the best football, while the Greek, when he is asked what he desires most in the world, replies: that my neighbour’s donkey should die.

Glykatzi continues to bemoan this apparent Greek inability to act collectively or in solidarity with one another, drawing on many examples of discord in Greek history, including the cleavage, at the end of the Byzantine Empire, between religious purists who refused at any cost union with the Roman Catholic church and those – Westernisers or Europeanisers, in today’s terms – who were prepared to sacrifice a certain amount of ideology and identity to preserve a Greek state. (Throughout the interview, Glykatzi is quite scathing of the Greek church, and calls for church-state separation).

Greeks, Glykatzi says, are know-it-alls, who believe they are the best at everything, the bravest and most intelligent, the true and only heirs of Odysseus, Achilles, Miltiades, Leonidas, Plato, Aristotle and Pericles. When fortune has turned against them and they were subject to foreign rule, Greeks never considered themselves slaves, only hostages. In contemporary Greece, this egoism and sense of always being right has taken on a destructive pattern, in which one section of society acts without any consideration for the consequences of their actions on other parts of society. Glykatzi says this kind of selfish behaviour is not only anti-social, but also against civilised living.

Glykatzi goes on to draw parallels between later Byzantine emperors traipsing around the courts of Europe, like mendicants, asking for financial and military aid to preserve the last vestiges of the empire against the Turks, and today’s Greek politicians; and recalls that, in times of crisis, Byzantine governments would tackle financial difficulties by tapping into church wealth and ensuring any tax shortfalls caused by the inability of poorer citizens to pay their dues was made up by richer members of the community.

The most substantial part of the interview concerns the state of education in Greece, which Glykatzi suggests has degenerated to such an extent that it threatens to propel Greece towards barbarism. The major national issue facing Greece, Glykatzi says, isn’t the question of the territorial waters between Greece and Turkey, but paideia, education in its widest sense.

Glykatzi makes a distinction between παιδεία and εκπαίδευση. Ekpaideusis is education in the narrow sense, that which is taught at schools and universities. whereas paideia is the cultivation of the individual and involves the way a society forms and shapes individuals from the beginning of their lives. Paideia, Glykatzi insists, begins at home and the small rules we learn from our parents.

Glykatzi says that without paideia, there can be no society, and if there is no society, then soon enough there will be no Greek nation.

The interview continues with Glykatzi detecting a rising neo-Fallmerayerism in Europe, which questions the continuity of Greek identity, the links between modern and ancient Greece. She also disputes the well-known dictum that Greeks in the diaspora tend to love Greece more than the Greeks of Greece. Glykatzi urges Greeks who live abroad never to forget that they are Greeks and, above all, to learn Greek. If Greeks in the diaspora truly love Greece, then their first task should be to learn to speak Greek, she says.

Glykatzi concludes the interview as she began it, by quoting Demosthenes, from one of his orations against Philip of Macedon and his threat to subjugate the Greek city-states: Αισχρόν έστι σιγάν, της Ελλάδος πάσης αδικουμένης – When Greece is being wronged, it is a disgrace to keep quiet.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Babiniotis: six weeks to save the world

Below is an interview with Greece’s newly appointed education minister, Georgios Babiniotis, which appeared last month in Athens News. In the piece, Babiniotis says Greece’s problems are political not economic and that he wants an ‘uprising’ and a ‘spiritual reawakening’ to arrest the decades-long moral and social decline that is behind Greece’s current predicament and which he also attributes to the ideological domination of left-wing intellectuals. Nice words, and true words; but the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Good luck putting it back in, especially since you’ve only got six weeks to do it, before elections and a new government.

Wanted: A Greek Enlightenment
A new Greek enlightenment is Yiorgos Babiniotis’ answer to the economic, political, social and moral crisis that is bedevilling the country.

‘The greatest problem Greece faces today is politics and its citizenry,’ he told the Athens News.

The well-known professor of linguistics and author of popular Greek dictionaries is convinced that the decline in education and culture is the root cause of the current crisis and that transcending it is the first step to national recovery.

Babiniotis and physics professor Dimitris Nanopoulos, a member of the Academy of Athens, unveiled the proposal for a modern Greek enlightenment during their public dialogue in December at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens. They saw it as an antidote to the spiritual, moral and social decline that is widely viewed as the root cause of the economic crisis.

‘We need an uprising with a spiritual awakening, with thinking people who will change our way of thinking and change education,’ Babiniotis argues.

He views the recent proposals for an overhaul of secondary education as a key step in training people to become thinking citizens that can begin to reverse decades of decline.

‘If we do not attain this educational awakening, and we rely only on loans and managing the situation, things will only get worse.’

Read the rest of the article here:

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Oscar for bumptiousness goes to Egemen Bagis


This year’s Oscar for bumptiousness goes to Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s so-called European affairs minister, for his recent performance on BBC News’ Hardtalk. In a part risible, part nauseating display of hypocrisy, cynicism, arrogance, obtuseness and vulgarity, Bagis talks about how Turkey is standing up for democracy and human rights in Syria and for free speech in France. He also boasts that Turkey inspired the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and lectures the EU on fairness and racism. On Cyprus, he puts forward the Taiwan scenario – direct trade with the occupied areas without formal recognition – and also reveals what we all knew anyway: that the permission granted in 2010 and 2011 for 15 August religious services at Panagia Soumela monastery in Pontos was designed precisely so that Bagis could come on the BBC and tell its journalists and viewers – who cannot possibly know the details – that Turkey’s Greek and Christian communities are now enjoying unprecedented levels of freedom and thriving, thanks to the benevolent leadership of Erdogan the Magnificent.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Does Turkey really want to annex northern Cyprus?

Turkey’s so-called European affairs minister Egemen Bagis was reported yesterday to have said in an interview with Turkish Cypriot daily Kibris that if the UN-sponsored talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots do not produce a conclusion by this summer, then Turkey could annex northern Cyprus.

It’s a strange statement to make, which shows that Turkey is rather confused regarding its Cyprus policy or is, at least, having problems articulating it.

For a start, Turkey already annexed northern Cyprus in 1974. Everyone knows that Turkey runs the show in the occupied areas, with its 40,000 troops and 200,000 settlers and that the political regime it has established there, the so- called ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, is entirely subordinate to it. Indeed, when the Turkish Cypriots took up arms in the 1950s for ‘partition or death’, this partition of Cyprus wasn’t meant to end with an independent Turkish Cypriot state, but with the annexation of the spoils to Turkey. Pan-Turanism is what motivated men like Rauf Denktash, not petty notions of community rights or autonomy for Turkish Cypriots.

So, of course, what Bagis meant when he said Turkey was considering annexing northern Cyprus was that it was considering a formal annexation; of announcing to the international community that which already exists on the ground, that northern Cyprus would be Turkey’s 82nd province.

However, this article (in Greek) in yesterday’s Phileleftheros suggested that annexation won’t be done through a grand declaration of a fait accompli, but would amount to further steps aimed at integrating occupied Cyprus into Turkey. According to Phileleftheros, this would involve promoting Turkish settlers to key political positions in the pseudo-state and encouraging Turkish businessmen to make massive investments in northern Cyprus, particularly in infrastructural projects.

The Phileleftheros scenario makes more sense because it’s difficult to see what Turkey would gain by formally annexing occupied Cyprus. As we’ve already noted, since Turkey’s invasion in 1974, annexation has already taken place, and there is no reason to suppose that formalising this would attract any more legitimacy than the declaration of an independent Turkish Cypriot state did in 1983.

Moreover, for Turkey to announce a formal takeover of northern Cyprus would be to admit that it was limiting its ambitions on the island. This is because Turkey’s aim in Cyprus is not to control half of the island, but to control all of it. And Turkey knows that the only way it can achieve this is by depriving the Greeks on the island of political power – by dismantling the Republic of Cyprus and replacing it with an emasculated United Federal Republic of Cyprus, in which the Turks are independent in the north – independent in this context means entirely dependent on Turkey – and partners in the south.

Thus, if Turkey were to formally annex northern Cyprus, this wouldn’t resolve Turkey’s central problem, which is the existence of the Republic of Cyprus, able, as it is, to block Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, sign hydrocarbon agreements with Israel, project the influence of countries like Greece and Russia, and generally obstruct Turkey’s aim of dominating the Eastern Mediterranean. For Turkey to overcome these obstacles, it needs to suffocate or eliminate any significant Greek state entity on Cyprus, and for this it needs the Turkish minority on the island to be involved in the administration of the entire island, to be given the rights and powers envisaged for it in the Annan Plan.

EP to investigate Diyarbakir missing persons claim

According to this article on, the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee has said it will investigate the possibility that skeletal remains recently discovered in southeastern Turkey belong to some of the 1,619 Greek Cypriots missing since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

The president of the foreign affairs committee, Elmar Brok, has accepted the request of Cypriot MEP Eleni Theocharous that the committee seek further information from the Turkish authorities on the remains found in the grounds of Diyarbakir prison.

Kathimerini says Brok has asked Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, to request a meeting with Turkey’s permanent EU representative to pursue the matter.

Last week, Mrs Theocharous revealed that all 38 of the skeletons found at Diyarbakir jail had 9-mm bullet wounds to the head, consistent with execution, and that DNA tests had indicated that the victims were unlikely to have been Turks or Kurds. Mrs Theocharous says information exists that following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Greek Cypriot prisoners were taken to Diyarbakir prison.  

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The limits of Pericles’ living with beauty and living with wisdom

A final word, for the time being, on Pericles, his funeral oration and Athenian democracy.

Having taken into account Robin Lane Fox’s lecture on Why Pericles Matters, which wants to rescue Athenian democracy from modern critics – determined to subject it to their anti-colonial, anti-imperialist fixations – and assert the radical and unique nature of Periclean Athens; and Cornelius Castoriadis’ insistence that we transform Pericles’ famous dictum, of loving beauty and loving wisdom, into loving and living with beauty and loving and living with wisdom; it is important to note that when Pericles speaks of Athens and the Athenians in the funeral oration, he is speaking of a vision for Athens and Athenians. Not that Pericles is conjuring up a utopia, because Pericles with his democratic reforms, his revival of the city’s monuments and subsidisation of the arts, put flesh and bones on his vision, but a vision is what his exhortations in the funeral oration amounts to.

Thus, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that Athens was a pristine society that lived up to Pericles’ hopes for it. Indeed, although there is a chronological justification for including Pericles’ funeral oration so early in Thucydides’ account of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, its early mention also allows us to see how, through the next 27 years of the Peloponnesian war, Athens and the Athenians fell catastrophically short of Pericles’ advice to love and live with wisdom and love and live with beauty.

We also note that Pericles’ vision of an entwined city and citizenry was hotly contested and deeply resented by significant sections of the Athenian body politic.

In particular, Athens’ aristocratic class – to which the blue-blooded Pericles belonged – loathed Pericles and his innovations, and this hostility to Periclean democracy was shared by Plato, Thucydides, Aristotle, Aristophanes and so on, who all regarded it as inclined to demagoguery, mob rule and recklessness. (Indeed, Plato was not only antipathetic to Pericles’ democratic ideals but also his promotion of the arts, with the philosopher notoriously proposing the banning of poets from his Republic).

Thus, Athens’ surrender to Sparta after the Battle of Aegospotami (404 BC) was put down to a succession of disastrous decisions taken by the Athenian assembly, while other decisions in the course of the conflict – such as the slaughter of the Melians and the execution of the six generals (one of whom was Pericles’ son) following the Battle of Arginusae (406 BC, for failing, after victory, to rescue stranded sailors) – reveal the limits of loving and living with wisdom and loving and living with beauty. (And, of course, loving and living with wisdom didn’t stop the Athenians condemning Socrates to death in 399 BC).

Castoriadis would also have us believe two things about Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian war. First, that it signified the end of Athenian democracy and the extraordinary flourishing of culture that accompanied it; and, second, that the gravediggers of that democracy were Alcibiades and Cleon.

On whether Alcibiades was a gravedigger of Athenian democracy: you could, in fact, make a stronger case that it was the vagaries of Athenian democracy that destroyed the life and career of the brilliant general – by bringing trumped up charges of sacrilege against him, prompting him to abandon his command in the Sicilian expedition (perhaps, the defining episode in the Peloponnesian war) and go into exile and, worse still, seek sanctuary in Sparta – and that, therefore, it was the fickle, myopic Athenians, who dug their own graves, not Alcibiades.

Nor is it clear that the Peloponnesian war did end, as Castoriadis says it did, Athenian democracy or terminate that remarkable period of creativity in the arts that characterised Periclean Athens.

John R. Hale in his book, Lords of the Sea, makes a case for an Athenian recovery after the defeat at Aegospotami, the pulling down of Athens’ walls and Sparta’s occupation of the city. Spartan leadership of the Hellencic world soon became detested and Athens’ military prowess, particularly its sea power, revived, as did Athens’ cultural invention, with Plato teaching at the Academy and Isocrates at the Lyceum, while the sculptor Praxiteles was adorning Athens with his masterpieces. Thus, it was Alexander the Great and the Macedonians who buried Athens and its unique society, not Sparta and certainly not Alcibiades.

Ultimately, then, we note that living with wisdom and living with beauty does not preclude – and did not preclude in the Athenian case, as Thucydides demonstrates – living with sickening violence, injustice and rank stupidity.

*The video above is a reading of Plutarch’s life of Pericles. It’s an old-fashioned rendering – and it even refers to the goddess Athena as Minerva, which is unacceptable – but Plutarch is an essential source for our knowledge of Pericles.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Cornelius Castoriadis: Why Pericles Matters

I mentioned in my previous post on Robin Lane Fox’s defence of Pericles and his funeral oration that the Athenian statesman’s address is also regarded by the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis as ‘the most important political monument of political thought I have ever read’.

And, indeed, it’s worth dwelling on why Castoriadis believes this because in so doing we can make an important amendment to Lane Fox’s interpretation of Pericles’ funeral oration, particularly that part of it where he refers to Athenian culture and education inculcating among Athenians a ‘love of beauty’ and ‘love of wisdom’ as part of a process of creating better and fuller citizens.

Essentially, Castoriadis argues that the traditional translation (which Lane Fox ascribes to) of Pericles’ Philokaloumen gar met’euteleias kai philsophoumen aneu malakias – we love beauty without ostentation and we love wisdom without being soft – is too literal and limits our understanding of what Pericles is saying and of the nature of Athenian democracy.

Rather, Castoriadis says:

‘Pericles’ sentence is impossible to translate into a modern language. The two verbs of the phrase can be rendered literally by “we love beauty… and we love wisdom”, but the essential would be lost. The verbs do not allow this separation of the “we” and the “object” – beauty or wisdom – external to this “we”. The verbs are not “transitive,” and they are not even simply “active”: they are at the same time “verbs of state.” Like the verb to live, they point to an “activity” which is at the same time a way of being or rather the way by means of which the subject of the verb is

‘Pericles does not say we love beautiful things (and put them in museums), we love wisdom (and pay professors or buy books). He says we are in and by the love of beauty and wisdom and the activity this love brings forth, we live by and with and through them – but far from extravagance, and far from flabbiness.

‘The object of the institution of the polis is for [Pericles] the creation of a  human being, the Athenian citizen, who exists and lives in and through the unity of these three: the love and “practice” of beauty, the love and “practice” of wisdom, the care and responsibility for the common good, the collectivity, the polis.

‘Among the three there can be no separation; beauty and wisdom such as the Athenians loved them and lived them could only exist in Athens. The Athenian citizen is not a “private philosopher,” or a “private artist,” he is a citizen for whom philosophy and art have become ways of life.’

The Greeks, Castoriadis says, never stopped asking: what is it that the institution of society ought to achieve? It is a question to which the Athenians answered, he says, in this way: the creation of  human beings living with beauty, living with wisdom, and loving the common good.