Thursday, 28 December 2017

Nothing in excess

I should have written this post about excess before Christmas; but never mind.

When the Greeks said Μηδὲν ἄγαν (Nothing in excess), they meant in all aspects of life – in politics, ethics, aesthetics, culture, art, architecture, psychology and so on – defiance of which invited hubris, discord and catastrophe and amounted to the repudiation of what the Greeks aspired to more than anything – living with beauty and truth.

Nevertheless, it was Nietzsche who pointed out the essential deceit of the Nothing in excess maxim – carved into the temple of Phoebus Apollo at Delphi – and asserted the root of Greek art and life is not rationality and moderation but strife and pain, and that only a people – like the Greeks – who experienced an ‘excess of strength and courage to gaze into the horror of individual existence and not be turned into stone by the vision’, who were familiar with the ecstatic dream world of Dionysiac art, would have dared to unravel the mysteries of beauty and truth.

‘What suffering [the Greek] race must have endured to reach such beauty [in their culture],’ Nietzsche says at the end of The Birth of Tragedy.

Here’s another view of excess, from Odysseas Elytis, as expressed in his poem The Sovereign Sun, in which he prefers to extol the virtues of moderation, praise the man who has few needs in life and pity the tragic fate of those – like the Greeks – who create modest paradises and then find themselves at the mercy of the avaricious, the envious and resentful, of those whose needs are excessive and malicious.

There’s nothing much a man may want
but to be quiet and innocent

a little food a little wine
at Christmas and at Easter time

wherever he may build his nest
may no one there disturb his rest.

But everything has all gone wrong
they wake him up at break of dawn

then come and drag him to and fro
eat up what little he has and lo

from out his mouth from out of sight
and in a moment of great delight

they snatch his morsel in an evil hour.
Hip hip hurrah for those in Power!

Hip hip hurrah for those in Power
for them there is no ‘I’ or ‘our’.

Hip hip hurrah for those in Power
whatever they see they must devour.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

It’s a Wonderful Life… or is it?

‘Frank Capra… in my estimation is the greatest of all American directors, a man so beautiful, so forgiving, so democratic, so damned talented, so full of life and energy that his films patrol the imagination of America today’. John Cassavetes

As you settle down this Christmas to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, remember that you are not watching a sentimental or light-hearted film, but a film about a desperate man, George Bailey, in irreconcilable conflict with the full range of social, bureaucratic and discursive conventions conspiring to thwart his hopes for self-expression and self-realisation; a film which depicts a ‘wild-eyed’ dreamer relentlessly frustrated and disappointed, who goes from one crisis to the next, suffers one wound after another, until his sense of defeat and estrangement is so great that he wants to kill himself.

This, at least, is the interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life provided by Raymond Carney in his book, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra, which touts Capra as a ‘poet of suffering and tragedy’ and aims to rescue his films – which include other classics such as American Madness, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Ladies of Leisure, Lost Horizon, It Happened One Night, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe – from accusations of ‘sentimentality’ ‘corn’ and fatuous celebrations of the American Dream, and establish him in a tradition of artists – such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, William James, Edward Hopper and John Cassavetes – who examine the conflict between what American society offers and what it delivers, the gap between imagination and reality in which alienation exists, who are advocates for the man or woman who dares to dream or desires too much, and defenders of the visionary individual battling against systems, ideologies and cultures out to repress, control or crush passionate impulses and creative energies.

The phone scene (in the above video) gives a good idea of the almost unbearable emotional strain and tension that Capra makes George Bailey endure in It’s a Wonderful Life, the turmoil and suffering that permeate the film and which not even the film’s notoriously ‘happy ending’ can heal.

Indeed, in relation to the ending, Carney says that even though George doesn’t commit suicide and seems to have found renewed reason to live thanks to the love of his family and friends, he has gone through too much to be so easily redeemed or reintegrated into society.

‘Capra wants us to know that George Bailey's life is wonderful – not because his neighbors bail him out with a charity sing-along, and certainly not because of the damnation of his life with the faint praise embodied in Clarence [his guardian angel's] slogan, "No man is a failure who has friends," but because he has seen and suffered more, and more deeply and wonderfully, than any other character in the film.

‘This Cinderella, unlike the one in the fairy tale… is returned to the hearth… [but] with no future possibility of escape and with only the consciousness of what has just been lived through in the preceding dark night of the soul as consolation – [although] that, Capra argues, is enough. The adventure of consciousness that George has lived through in dreamland is greater than any of the romantic adventures he has talked about going on – but it is at the same time only an adventure of consciousness.’

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Byzantium: a tale of three cities, episode three

I wasn’t intending to watch or post on the third and final part of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s series, Byzantium: a tale of three cities, which deals with the history of the city under Ottoman occupation, but I succumbed. Montefiore’s not much of a historian and he trots out the usual nonsense about the Ottoman empire being a beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism, a claim made even more absurd by the overwhelming evidence he himself presents that reveals Turkish rule and rulers to have been mind-bogglingly perverse and sadistic from beginning to end.

* Click on links for episodes one and two.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Kazantzakis: ‘here we were shamed, here glorified’

Travels in Greece has always been one of my favourite Nikos Kazantzakis’ books, in which the Cretan writer takes the opportunity of a journey through the Peloponnese to meditate on Greek past and present. It’s a melancholy work, written in the 1930s, heavily influenced by Ion Dragoumis – whose spirit, Kazantzakis says, accompanied him on the journey – and echoes  Seferis’ ‘wherever I go, Greece wounds me’. No doubt, in contemporary Greece, this Dragoumian view of the Greek self as inseparable from the travails of the Greek nation, is anathema.

Some excerpts from the opening chapter of Travels in Greece:

‘The face of Greece is a palimpsest bearing twelve successive inscriptions: Contemporary; the period of 1821; the Turkish yoke; the Frankish sway; the Byzantine; the Roman; the Hellenistic epoch; the Classic; the Dorian middle ages; the Mycenaean; the Aegean; and the Stone Age.

‘Pause on a patch of Greek earth and anguish overcomes you. It is a deep, twelve-levelled tomb, from which voices rise up calling to you. Which voice should you choose? Every voice, every spirit longs for its body; your heart is shaken, and cannot decide.

‘For a Greek, the journey through Greece is a fascinating, exhausting ordeal… For a foreigner the pilgrimage to Greece is simple, it happens without any great convulsions… But for a Greek, this pilgrimage is fraught with hopes and fears, with distress and painful comparison. Never does a clear and unencumbered thought arise, never a bloodless impression.

‘A Greek landscape does not give us… an innocent tremor of beauty. The landscape has a name, it is bound up with a memory – here we were shamed, here glorified; blood or sacred statues rise up from the soil, and all at once the landscape is transformed into rich, all-encompassing History, and the Greek pilgrim’s whole spirit is thrown into confusion.

‘Merciless questions arise to lash our brains. How were so many wonders created, and what are we ourselves doing? Why has the race become debased? How can we carry on once more?’

Byzantium: a tale of three cities, episode two

Above is episode two of Byzantium: a tale of three cities, in which we are taken on a tour of Byzantine history from the Great Schism in 1054 through the Fourth Crusade in 1204 to the fall of the City in 1453.

* Click on links for episodes one and three.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Byzantium: a tale of three cities, episode one

Above is the first part of a three-part series shown on the BBC called Byzantium: a tale of three cities. Episode one concerns the founding of the city up until the Great Schism of 1054. What’s striking about the show isn’t Simon Sebag Montefiore’s take on Byzantine history – which is fairly traditional – but the sight of the barbarians, and their barbarian ways, now occupying and disfiguring the city and the warning this should provide to any thinking Greek.

* Click on links for episodes two and three.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The origins of Marseille and the end of Phocaea

It’s good to be reminded me of the scope and magnitude of Hellenism, the fact that, as Henry Maine put it: ‘Except for the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origins.’

France’s second largest city Marseille is Greek in its origins and the supporters of its football club commemorate this fact not only in the name of the club, Olympique de Marseille, and in the azure and white colours of the team’s kit, but also in the waving of Greek flags at home matches.

Indeed, in the recent Europa League game between Marseille and Fenerbache, from another city with Greek origins (Byzantium/Constantinople), the fans of the Turkish team were so incensed by the Hellenic national symbols, which they took to be a provocation, that they began to riot in the stadium – smashing seats, attacking Marseille fans – prompting the French police to require the home fans to put away their Greek flags.

Three days later, in the league match against Lille, the Marseille fans reiterated their esteem for the Greek flag by forming, as the video above shows, a giant human version of it, beneath which a banner read: ‘NE RENIONS PAS L’ORIGINE DE NOTRE VILLE’. (We do not deny the origin of our city).

As to the origins of Marseille/Μασσαλία, the city was founded by Ionian Greeks from Phocaea in Asia Minor in 600 BC, themselves colonists from Phocis in central Greece – Olympique de Marseille’s original name was US Phocéenne.

Phocaea was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1914, an event recounted in George Horton’s The Blight of Asia. Horton, who was US consul general in Smyrna at the time, states that the fate of the Phocaeans would have been worse had it not been for the intervention of a group of resident Frenchmen, who felt a bond and obligation towards Phocaea because of its status as the ‘Mother of Marseille’.

Below are a few passages from The Blight of Asia describing the massacre and destruction of Phocaea.

‘The complete and documentary account of the ferocious persecutions of the Christian population of the Smyrna region, which occurred in 1914, is not difficult to obtain; but it will suffice, by way of illustration, to give only some extracts from a report by the French eye-witness, Manciet, concerning the massacre and pillage of Phocea, a town of eight thousand Greek inhabitants and about four hundred Turks, situated on the sea a short distance from Smyrna. The destruction of Phocea excited great interest in Marseilles, as colonists of the very ancient Greek town founded the French city. Phocea is the mother of Marseilles. Monsieur Manciet was present at the massacre and pillage of Phocea, and, together with three other Frenchman, Messieurs Sartiaux, Carlier and Dandria, saved hundreds of lives by courage and presence of mind.

‘The report begins with the appearance on the hills behind the town of armed bands and the firing of shots, causing a panic. Those four gentlemen were living together, but when the panic commenced they separated and each installed himself in a house. They demanded of the Kaimakam gendarmes for their protection, and each obtained one. They kept the doors open and gave refuge to all who came. They improvised four French flags out of cloth and flew one from each house. But, to continue the recital in Monsieur Manciet’s own words, translated from the French:

“During the night the organized bands continued the pillage of the town. At the break of dawn there was continual ‘tres nourrie’ firing before the houses. Going out immediately, we four, we saw the most atrocious spectacle of which it is possible to dream. This horde, which had entered the town, was armed with Gras rifles and cavalry muskets. A house was in flames. From all directions the Christians were rushing to the quays seeking boats to get away in, but since the night there were none left. Cries of terror mingled with the sound of firing. The panic was so great that a woman with her child was drowned in sixty centimeters of water.”

‘This extract is given from Monsieur Manciet’s description of the sack of Phocea in 1914, of which he was an eye-witness, for several reasons. It is necessary to the complete and substantiated picture the gradual ferocious extermination of the Christians which had been going on in Asia Minor and the Turkish Empire for the past several years, finally culminating in the horror of Smyrna; it is a peculiarly graphic recital, bringing out the unchanging nature of the Turk and his character as a creature of savage passions, living still in the times of Tamerlane or Attila, the Hun;— for the Turk is an anachronism; still looting, killing and raping and carrying off his spoil on camels; it is peculiarly significant, also, as it tells a story strongly resembling some of the exploits of Mohammed himself.

‘Monsieur Manciet says [in his account]:

“We found an old woman lying in the street, who had been nearly paralyzed by blows. She had two great wounds on the head made by the butts of muskets; her hands were cut, her face swollen.

“A young girl, who had given all the money she possessed, had been thanked by knife stabs, one in the arm and the other in the region of the kidneys. A weak old man had received such a blow with a gun that the fingers of his left hand had been carried away.

“From all directions during the day that followed families arrived that had been hidden in the mountains. All had been attacked. Among them was a woman who had seen killed, before her eyes, her husband, her brother and her three children.

“We learned at this moment an atrocious detail. An old paralytic, who had been lying helpless on his bed at the moment the pillagers entered, had been murdered.

“Smyrna sent us soldiers to establish order. As these soldiers circulated in the streets, we had a spectacle of the kind of order which they established; they continued, personally, the sacking of the town.

“We made a tour of inspection through the city. The pillage was complete; doors were broken down and that which the robbers had not been able to carry away they had destroyed. Phocea, which had been a place of great activity, was now a dead city.

“A woman was brought to us dying; she had been violated by seventeen Turks. They had also carried off into the mountains a girl of sixteen, having murdered her father and mother before her eyes. We had seen, therefore, as in the most barbarous times, the five characteristics of the sacking of a city; theft, pillage, fire, murder and rape.”

(Read the whole of Horton’s chapter on the Massacre of Phocaea here).

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Kazantzakis on Greece and Japan

In my recent post, Angelopoulos, Takeshi Kitano, Cacoyiannis, I mention that Greek and Japanese civilisations have some striking similarities. In his book, Travels in China & Japan, recording his impressions of imperial Japan and revolutionary China in the 1930s, Nikos Kazantzakis explains what I mean:

‘There is no country in the world that reminds me more than Japan of what ancient Greece might have been in its most shining moments. As in ancient Greece, so in old Japan and here in whatever of it still lives, even the smallest thing that comes from the hands of man and is used in his everyday life is a work of art, made with love and grace. Everything comes out of agile, dexterous hands, which crave beauty, simplicity and grace – what the Japanese call in one word: shibui (“tastefully bare”). 

‘Beauty in everyday life. And many other similarities: both peoples had given to their religion a cheerful aspect and had placed God and man in goodhearted contact. They both had the same simplicity and grace in dress, food and abode. They had similar celebrations devoted to the worship of nature, the anthesteria and sakura; and also from the same root (the dance) they produced the same sacred fruit, the tragedy. Both peoples had tried to give to physical exercises an intellectual aim… 

‘The ancient Greeks received the first elements of their civilisation from the Orient and from Egypt, but they succeeded in transforming them and in freeing the sacred silhouette of man from monstrous gods by giving human nobility to the monsters of mythology, theology and fear. In exactly the same way, the Japanese took their religion from India and the first elements of their civilisation from China and Korea, but they, also, succeeded in humanising the physical and the monstrous and in creating an original civilisation – religion, art, action – adapted to the stature of man.’

Friday, 1 December 2017

Wikileaks: Chris Patten says Cyprus ‘foisted’ on EU

Dribs and drabs are coming from Wikileaks relating to Cyprus. There’s been some remarks by Chris Patten, formerly the EU’s External Relations Commissioner, made to a US official in Brussels, on 28 April 2004, shortly after Cyprus entered the EU having rejected the Annan plan. Patten was a senior Tory politician and government minister in the 1980s and 1990s and was, indeed, the last British governor of Hong Kong. He is currently the chancellor of Oxford University. His remarks regarding Cyprus and Tassos Papadopoulos are not surprising, but here they are:

Next Steps On Cyprus/Papadopolous’ Dubious Character...
3. (C) The next steps for the Commission are figuring out how to spend money in Northern Cyprus. Patten expects the EC to open an office to oversee their assistance. While there will be legal hurdles to managing the process, he was confident the Commission would find a way. Patten doubted the Greek Cypriots would openly oppose any efforts, noting that they were “on their heels” diplomatically after their blatant efforts to stifle opposing views on the referendum. This incident, Patten said, was a sad reflection on the realities of EU enlargement: Some of the new members were people you would “only want to dine with if you have a very long spoon”. Not that the EU should have been surprised by Papadopolous’ behavior, Patten said, since they knew well who they were dealing with: Milosevic's lawyer.XXXXXXXXXXXX...  
And on Turkey

4. (C) Patten noted that he was the biggest proponent in the Commission for Turkey’s admission. In his view, based on the technical merits alone, the Commission has no other option but to give a positive avis to begin accession negotiations. Still, he said the political climate in Europe is not receptive to Turkey’s candidacy. The problem, in his view, was not Chirac in France, since “he can change his policies on a whim”. Patten considered the opposition of conservative parties in Germany and Spain the most serious obstacles to Turkish admission.

On the Difference Between a Union and an Alliance
5. (C) Patten also said he felt at times the US does not fully appreciate the difference between expanding an alliance like NATO, and a Union like the EU. When a country joins an alliance, it becomes a distinct member of a group committed to a common cause – but nothing more. When countries join the EU, they become part of the whole, formally and practically indistinct in many areas of EU competence. “We have to be ready to trust their food and sanitation standards, for instance.” In this regard, he noted that some of the accession countries were foisted on the EU as part of a larger bargain. Cyprus, for instance, probably should not have been admitted (as Papadapolous’ behavior prior to the referendum indicated), but the Greeks insisted on Cypriot admission as the price of agreeing to some of the northern European candidates. Croatia, Patten said, is probably far more prepared for EU membership than either Bulgaria or Romania, who will likely enter the Union earlier. Romania, in particular, was a “feral nation.”

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Poverty: from Plato to Laurel & Hardy

‘Poverty, first of all was never a misfortune for me; it was radiant with sunlight… I owe it to my family, first of all, who lacked everything and who envied practically nothing.’  (Albert Camus)

Poverty (Penia) is a goddess with two sisters, Amykhania (helplessness) and Ptokheia (beggary). In Plato’s Republic,  poverty is a terrible evil, a source of meanness, viciousness and discontent. Similarly, Aristotle, in the Politics, regards poverty as a social ill, the parent of revolution and crime. In Wealth (Plutus) – read an excellent, Australian-dialect translation here, by George Theodoridis) – Aristophanes asks what would happen to society if everyone suddenly became rich and answers, paradoxically, that inequalities, conflict and misery would increase. In the play, the goddess Penia appears as an old hag, who warns those who think bestowing wealth on all Athenians will be an unmitigated blessing that:

‘[Poverty] is the very fountain of all joy! Of all life, even!… If Wealth were to… spread himself around to everyone, who’d be doing any of the work then or even any of the thinking?'’

The goddess then goes on to suggest that the poor are in fact more virtuous than the rich:

’And let me tell you another thing about the poor. They are modest and civil, whereas the rich are all arrogant.’

The virtues – or otherwise – of poverty become of increasing interest in Greek ethics. Although never endorsing the alleged moral advantages of penury, Socrates does make clear, in the Apology, that he is indifferent to wealth and that a preoccupation with wisdom is far more important than, and perhaps even incompatible with, any pursuit of money or luxury.

The belief that neither wealth or poverty have much to contribute to virtue is shared by the Stoics and Epicureans – who regard poverty as just one of life’s many misfortunes, fear of which should be confronted and overcome. (Seneca advocated living rough from time to time, for a period of three to four days, to get used to poverty in case we should fall victim to it).

The Cynics, however, didn’t just denounce wealth as a prohibition to virtue, they went one stage further and developed a cult of poverty, embracing indigence as a positive way of life, ‘an unending task in which one strives for a more and more complete renunciation of possessions and the desire for material possession’.* Previous Greek virtues of beauty, honour and independence were turned on their head by the Cynics, who valorised, instead, ugliness, humiliation, dishonour (adoxia) and dependence – begging and, more radically, slavery, were positively accepted.**

Finally, we note that it was not a big leap from Cynic humiliation to Christian humility, from Cynic destitution to Christian asceticism, and from the Cynic exaltation of poverty to Christian love of the poor.

 *E. McGushin: Foucault’s Askesis.
**M. Foucault: The Courage of Truth (The Government of Self and Others II).

Monday, 27 November 2017

Angelopoulos, Takeshi Kitano, Cacoyiannis

In the Guardian, Ronald Bergen wrote:

‘Thessaloniki's international film festival, which will celebrate its half-century next year, again reinforced its reputation for being a festival where directors are the stars. For example, when one walks up the stairways of the large Olympia cinema, the walls are plastered with scores of photographs of film directors – not an actor to be seen.

‘This year, tributes were paid to the Dardenne brothers, Oliver Stone and Terence Davies, who all gave masterclasses to packed, enthusiastic young audiences, and there was a nine-film homage to Ousmane Sembène, who died last year. Takeshi Kitano was also presented with an Honorary Golden Alexander, for lifetime achievement.

‘Kitano, whose latest film, Achilles and the Tortoise, has Greek connections (the title comes from Zeno's paradox), said that it was a real pleasure to be so honoured especially by Greece, the home of great playwrights and philosophers, and "the cradle of western civilisation". Although these remarks are always flattering to Greeks, they also get on their nerves. It implies that Greece did its bit for civilisation centuries ago and has rested on its laurels ever since.

‘Despite the cradle being a bit battered these days, having gone through wars and revolutions and social and political upheavals, they have still produced many great artists since the days of ancient Greece, including two internationally renowned film directors – Michael Cacoyannis and Theo Angelopoulos, both of whom were represented at the festival.

My Life and Times: Michael Cacoyannis, a documentary by Lydia Carras, reminded us how the 86-year-old was once the embodiment of Greek cinema, reaching his peak of popularity with Zorba the Greek (1964). Yet with his Euripides trilogy, featuring the magnificent Irene Papas, Cacoyannis proved that the classic plays on film could still grip modern audiences…’

(Read the article in full here).

Just a couple of additional points.
It’s good to see that Angelopoulos is still going strong. His vision has always been epic, tragic and poetic. Above is a clip from his breathtakingly brilliant Travelling Players (1974) – which is not only the greatest ever Greek film, but also a masterpiece of cinema full stop.

Takeshi Kitano, who has rightly been honoured by the Thessaloniki festival for lifetime achievement for his films – which include Hana-Bi, Sonatine, Violent Cop, Brother, Boiling Point, Kikujiro – is also a visionary filmmaker with a strong sense of the tragic, heroic and poetic. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that the only civilisation in the world of any significant interest besides that of Greece’s is Japan’s – and, of course, the similarities between Greek and Japanese civilisation are striking.

Finally, regarding Cacoyiannis’ Euripides trilogy – Electra, Trojan Women and Iphigenia; these are all good films, but Cacoyiannis is a filmmaker with a predilection for realism and he misses a fundamental aspect of Greek tragedy, which is that, as Nietzsche says, it takes place in an ‘ecstatic dream world’.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Nick the Greek and The Mask of Dimitrios

I’ve been reading Harry Petrakis’ novel Nick the Greek, an interesting and entertaining piece of Greek-Americana which is about the greatest gambler of all time, Nick Dandolos, who originated from Rethymnon. Dandolos, apparently, won and lost millions, although Petrakis suggests that an authentic gambler isn’t motivated by money, but by an extreme form of philotimo, a fearless gesture informed by self-abnegation and, ultimately, self-destruction. There’s a good chapter in Nick the Greek in which Dandolos spends time in Paris gambling and womanising with a fellow Greek high-roller, a sympathetic portrait of the arms dealer, the original ‘merchant of death’, Basil Zaharoff (Vasileios Zacharias). Zaharoff is supposed to have provided the inspiration for the character of Dimitrios Makropoulos in Eric Ambler’s brilliant noir novel The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), which relates the obsessive quest by an English writer to trace the career of the Smyrniot Makropoulos, who is a thief, killer, spy, assassin, drug dealer, drug addict, white slave trader and all the rest, a quest that takes him on a journey through inter-war Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and France. The book was made into a classic film noir in 1945, a clip from which is above.

Coriolanus: 'There is a world elsewhere.'

The clip above is from the BBC production of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Coriolanus, with Alan Howard playing the eponymous Roman general, an arrogant patrician with a violent temper forced into exile after clashing with the plebeians who suspect the trenchant soldier is plotting to establish a dictatorship and so do away with their rights.

Shakespeare's source for the life of Coriolanus is the Greek writer Plutarch, who in his
Parallel Lives compares the Roman to the Athenian general Alcibiades, another aristocrat who, despite his military prowess, found himself at odds with the citizenry's democratic whims and suffered exile, not once but twice, decisions which proved disastrous for Athens in its conduct of the Peloponnesian War.

Alcibiades' narrative suggests the limits of democracy in the pursuit of national aspirations. The realisation of national aspirations more often than not requires vision, ruthlessness and hardship – qualities which the masses and their leaders are rarely capable of showing and reluctant to advocate. Venizelos, for example, at a moment of national crisis, put his trust in the judgement of the masses and called elections, with fatal consequences, climaxing in the Asia Minor Catastrophe; whereas Alexander the Great – a king – had much greater, though not total, freedom to decide the affairs of state and men's fortunes and in this way spread Hellenism far and wide. Would Alexander have conquered the East if he had been an Athenian constrained by the city's democracy? Certainly not. And would Alcibiades have realised his ambition of attaching the West to the Athenian empire if he had had at his command the latitude of a Macedonian basileus? Maybe.

On Steven Runciman’s 1453: The Fall of Constantinople

1453: The Fall of Constantinople, by Steven Runciman (ISBN: 9781107604698). Paperback: £10.99.

I’m not sure if there’s much consolation in being a tragic hero – better to prevail than be transfigured – but tragic heroes is precisely how Steven Runciman describes the Greeks in his essential account of the siege and fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, which has recently been reissued by Canto Classics.

Beleaguered, outnumbered 10 to one, waiting in vain for the Western aid they had been promised for agreeing to church union, the Greek defenders (and a small group of Genoan and Venetian confederates) refused the besieging sultan’s offer to surrender Constantinople or convert to Islam, and chose instead to trust in their own bravery, the righteousness of their cause and divine intervention to preserve one of the last vestiges of Greek liberty.

But after two months of relentless siege and assault, the Turkish
warlord, Sultan Mehmet, frustrated by the resistance of the Greeks, ignoring the advice of some of his commanders to lift the siege and avert further humiliation, decided to make one, final overwhelming attack to take the city.

The speeches made by the Greek and Turkish leaders on the eve of the decisive assault reveal what the two sides believed they were fighting for.

The Byzantine emperor Constantine Palaiologos tells his soldiers that a man should always be prepared to die for his faith or country, his family or sovereign; but now, he says, we are being asked to give up our lives for all four; while Mehmet’s words to his forces are in stark contrast to the heroism and dignity of the Greek emperor. Mehmet urges his troops on by reminding them of the three days of looting they will be allowed should they capture the city, and he inspires his commanders not only with the promise of booty, but also by stressing their sacred duty as Muslims to vanquish this famous Christian capital.

And indeed, once Constantinople is taken, the story of the city becomes one of plunder and depredation.

Runciman describes the pillaging of private homes, churches, businesses; the massacres of men, women and children, the ‘rivers of blood running down the streets’; a slaughter that only abated when the Turkish soldiers realised that keeping the Christians alive and selling them as slaves was a better idea, not that this spared the elderly, infirm and infants who could bring no profit, and were consequently killed on the spot.

As commander in chief, Mehmet was entitled to the greatest share of the loot, which he had paraded before him so he could decide precisely what he wanted. Then the sultan selected 1200 Greek children to be sent as slaves, 400 each, to the three most important Muslim rulers of the time, the sultan of Egypt, the king of Tunis and the king of Grenada; while, from the most prominent Byzantine families, Mehmet had his pick of youths, girls and boys, for his personal seraglio, with those resisting a life of sexual slavery being put to death, as Runciman illustrates with the case of the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras and his son and son-in-law:
‘Five days after the fall of the city [Mehmet] gave a banquet. In the course of it, when he was well flushed with wine, someone whispered to him that Notaras’s fourteen-year-old son was a boy of exceptional beauty. The Sultan at once sent a eunuch to the house of the [Grand Duke] to demand that the boy be sent to him for his pleasure. Notaras, whose elder sons had been killed fighting, refused to sacrifice the boy to such a fate. Police were then sent to bring Notaras with his son and his young son-in-law, the son of the Grand Domestic Andronicus Cantacuzenus, into the Sultan’s presence. When Notaras still defied the Sultan, orders were given for him and the two boys to be decapitated on the spot. Notaras merely asked that they should be slain before him, lest the sight of his death should make them waver. When they had both perished he bared his neck to the executioner. The following day, nine other Greek notables were arrested and sent to the scaffold.’
But even if Runciman does not flinch from describing the Turkish capture of Constantinople as being a ‘ghastly story of pillage’ and is not prepared to cover up Mehmet’s ‘savageries’; he is not a crude Orientalist, out to demonise the Turks and Islam and portray Byzantium’s demise in terms of a heroic West versus a barbaric East.

For not only would associating Byzantium with the West be problematic, but it is also clear that, for Runciman, the external agents most responsible for the downfall of Byzantium were not the Turks, but the Franks and Latins, with the disaster of 1453 overshadowed by the catastrophe of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, during which Western Crusaders seized and devastated Constantinople and dismembered and irreparably weakened the Greek empire.

In the third volume of his history of the Crusades, Runciman famously says that ‘there was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade’, and describes the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 as an act of ‘barbarous brutality’, ‘unparalleled in history’, committed by ‘Frenchmen and Flemings… filled with a lust for destruction’.

Thus, the powerful, wealthy and magnificent city seized and sacked by Crusaders in 1204 (and which the West held until 1261, before Greek restoration), was not the city the Turks captured in 1453, which Runciman describes as dying and melancholy, poverty-stricken and sparsely populated.

For Runciman, the Turkish seizure of Constantinople in 1453 did not destroy Byzantium, it merely provided the coup de grâce to a doomed city.

Indeed, memories of 1204 and experience of repressive Western rule in places like Crete, Cyprus and the Peloponnese, provided evidence to many Greeks that the pursuit of church union with Rome in exchange for military support to fight the Turks was both a religious abomination and politically misguided. Not only was there no difference in terms of brutality between Western and Muslim rule – indeed, many Greeks believed the Franks and Latins to be less civilised than the Turks and Muslims; and not only did the policy of church union overestimate the ability and willingness of the West to aid Byzantium against an assertive and powerful Turkish empire; but there was also a case for maintaining the integrity of the Greek church and Greek culture, avoiding the bitter division bound to follow any attempt to enforce religious subordination to Rome, and accepting a period of Turkish subjugation as the most effective way of preserving the Greek nation and offering the best chance for its long-term revival.

Nevertheless, Runciman’s reluctance to demonise the Turks does, in places, lead him to express an undeservedly generous assessment of their ascent to power and rule, which is matched by an excessive willingness to pin the blame for Byzantium’s tragedy on the West.

Thus, after Byzantine defeat at the Battle of Manzikert (1071), Runciman is keen to stress the ‘orderly and tolerant state’ established in Anatolia and Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks. He describes their government as ‘wise and able’ and argues that ‘the transition of Anatolia from a mainly Christian to a mainly Moslem country was achieved so smoothly that no one troubled to record the details’. Similarly, Runciman praises Osman, the founder of the Ottoman dynasty, as a ‘leader of genius’, while his son, Orhan, is described as a ‘great ruler’, whose administration was so reasonable that many of his Christian subjects preferred it to that of the Byzantines. There were no forced conversions, Runciman declares, and apostasy only occurred when Christians followed a natural inclination to join the religion of the ruling class. As for Mehmet, Runciman says, despite his savageries and the destruction in the immediate aftermath of conquest, under his rule, Constantinople was rebuilt and soon became a thriving city of commerce and finance. ‘Long before his death in 1481,’ Runciman writes:
‘Sultan Mehmet could look with pride on the new Constantinople… Since the conquest its population [of Turks, Greeks, Jews and Armenians] had increased fourfold; within a century it would number more than half a million. He had destroyed the old crumbling metropolis of the Byzantine Emperors, and in its place he had created a new and splendid metropolis in which he intended his subjects of all creeds and all races to live together in order, prosperity and peace.’
However, the ‘details’ that Runciman said do not exist to record the Islamisation of Anatolia and Asia Minor are, in fact, painstakingly chronicled by Spyros Vryonis in his The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century, in which the author describes a period of savage conquest, a succession of raids and annexations characterised by pillaging, massacre, enslavement and forced conversion of the Byzantine population. Thus the four centuries it took the Turks, from 1071 to 1453, to subjugate Anatolia, Asia Minor and Thrace, did not involve, as Runciman suggests, a ‘smooth’ evolution but was accomplished in a way that amounted to a holocaust for the vanquished.

As for Mehmet’s alleged vision of a tolerant, harmonious empire, this never materialised and could never materialise, given the nature of the Ottoman state, in which religious discrimination and persecution were ingrained. Order was maintained through terror and repression and peace dependent on the whims of the sultan or his pashas or beys who, at any moment, could decide that their Christian subjects, their culture, shrines and very lives, were an affront to Muslim ascendancy and should be suppressed if not extinguished.

Moreover, just as there were Greeks who believed, prior to the fall of Constantinople, ‘better the sultan’s turban than the cardinal’s hat’*, many others, from the political and intellectual elite, admired the West and believed church union would bring about a rich fusion of Greek and particularly Italian humanist culture. Indeed, something of this fusion occurred in Crete and the Ionian islands, on the periphery of the Greek world, where Turkish rule was delayed or never penetrated, with Venetian sway eventually contributing to a cultural breathing space and even flowering for Greeks that was never possible under the Turks. As Runciman himself acknowledges, the Ottomans’ narrow-mindedness, informed by fear and loathing of their Christian subjects, ensured that Greek learning, art and letters were discouraged and ceased to exist for the duration of the Turkish empire.

* Ironically, this statement is attributed to Lucas Notaras, who, as noted above, was executed for refusing to give up his son to become the sultan’s sexual slave.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Shock Corridor

In Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Johnny Barrett is a brilliant journalist who feigns sexual perversion to get committed to a lunatic asylum where a murder has been committed, which he wants to solve and win the Pulitzer Prize.

Once inside the mental home, Barrett ingratiates himself with the three witnesses to the crime – an operatic uxoricide; a black Klansman; and a genius nuclear physicist who has regressed to childhood to escape the guilt over his catastrophic discoveries – and cracks the case but only at the expense of cracking up himself.

The film begins and ends with the famous quote from Euripides – ‘whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad’ – and Fuller seems well versed in Greek tragedy.

Johnny Barrett is like Oedipus, a man with a brilliant intellect, supremely confident of himself and his mental powers, trying to track down a murderer, to uncover the truth of a horrible crime, only to succumb to insanity and ruin.

Barrett like Oedipus fails to realise the dangers inherent in the obsessive pursuit and acquisition of knowledge; is oblivious to the limits of self-knowledge (know thyself/gnothi seauton does not mean acquire self-mastery but know the limitations of human nature); and aspires to the truth not for its own sake, or for the love of enquiry, but to subdue the truth and satisfy his ego.

Christopher Rocco and Bernard Knox say that, in the figure of Oedipus, Sophocles is satirising Periclean/imperial Athens – Oedipus tyrannos as Athens tyrannos – and warning of the perils for individuals and cities in love with power:

‘Oedipus embodies the splendor and power of Athens: his attempt to assert dominion over nature and his unquenchable drive for human mastery; his forcefulness of purpose, his impatience, decisiveness, and daring, bordering on recklessness; his intoxication with his own accomplishments, his liberation from the constraints of all traditional pieties; his restlessness, innovation, and ingenuity; his designs that are swift alike in conception and execution, all recall the “fierce creative energy, the uncompromising logic, the initiative and daring which brought Athens to the pinnacle of worldly power.”’

Not only do Oedipus’ attributes recall Athens, but they also recall America, and Fuller, too, in Shock Corridor is interested in unveiling America tyrannos and showing us a hubristic society, prone to self-destruction and insanity.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Rimbaud returns to Cyprus

Interesting this new French school in Nicosia. No doubt it’s intended to rival the English School, which is traditionally where most of the Cypriot elite have sent their children for secondary education and was established in 1900 with the specific purpose of producing a class of Anglicised Cypriots better able to help Britain maintain colonial rule over the island. To a large extent, the English School, 50 years after Cyprus won its independence, still performs that function. The three poles of influence in modern Cyprus have been the British, the Greek Orthodox Church and AKEL, the Cyprus communist party. But now the French – as part of a wider strategy to re-assert themselves in the Eastern Mediterranean – are looking for a slice of the Cypriot pitta. Interestingly, President Christofias, who wouldn’t know Paris from Phnom Penh, has been instrumental in getting the proposed French School off the ground, presumably because he sees it as impinging on British influence on the island.

And the name of new French school is going to be the ‘Arthur Rimbaud’. I’ve written about the great French poet’s connections to Cyprus before. The greatest outlaw and misfit – anarchist, if you like – in modern literature is a strange person to name a school for elite Cypriot kids after; but if there is going to be a French school on the island – and, personally, I don’t know what’s wrong with Greek paideia – one who wrote the following lines, from A Season in Hell, is allright by me:

If only I had a link to some point in the history of France!

But instead, nothing.

I am well aware that I have always been of an inferior race. I cannot understand revolt. My race has never risen, except to plunder; to devour like wolves a beast they did not kill.

I remember the history of France, the Eldest Daughter of the Church. I would have gone, a village serf, crusading to the Holy Land; my head is full of roads in the Swabian plains, of the sight of Byzantium, of the ramparts of Jerusalem; the cult of Mary, the pitiful thought of Christ crucified, turns in my head with a thousand profane enchantments-- I sit like a leper among broken pots and nettles, at the foot of a wall eaten away by the sun. --And later, a wandering mercenary, I would have bivouacked under German nighttimes.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Achilles and the Tortoise

I’ve been watching Takeshi Kitano’s recent film, Achilles and the Tortoise, which uses Zeno’s paradox of the same name as a metaphor for artistic and human failure. The film is an extraordinary combination of comedy, tragedy, pathos and so on, which in its depiction of frustrated desire and thwarted endeavour reminded me very much of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Kitano has been a truly great artist for a long time, and Achilles and the Tortoise confirms that he is a man that remains at the height of his creative powers. My admiration for this genius knows no bounds.

The above clip is from the start of the film, which explains Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise while, just in case you thought the film is an animation or set in ancient Greece, the clip below is more illustrative of the film and one of its themes, which is the insane and self-destructive lengths people will go to for the sake of art and self-expression.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Greece, between ultra-nationalism and radical internationalism; plus some thoughts on Isocrates, Cavafy, Alexander the Great and Odysseus

Below is a piece I’ve translated from Greek that illustrates how issues over Greek national identity and direction are becoming increasingly polarised, with the extreme left, represented by Syriza, proposing a radical revision of Greek history and identity while the far-right Golden Dawn insists on the exclusivity of Greek culture and experience.

The author, Theodoros Spanelis, who I don’t know anything about, wants a Hellenism somewhere in the middle, patriotic but ecumenical and draws on Isocrates and Alexander the Great to make his case. He argues that Isocrates defined as Greek anyone, regardless of race, who shared in Greek education and culture (paideia) and he notes that Alexander established a vast Greek empire based on racial and cultural fusion and actively encouraged his soldiers to take Persian brides as part of this supranational vision.

Regarding Isocrates, I’ve written before that it is a complete misinterpretation to propose Isocrates as a precursor to the modern virtues of racial tolerance and integration based on shared values. Nothing could be further from the truth. Isocrates was making the case for pan-Hellenism, arguing that Greeks – and only Greeks – were united by a shared culture and that for the greater good of the Greek race they should put aside regional, tribal and political differences.

As for Alexander, his ‘fusion’ of cultures was politically motivated, designed to facilitate the better operation of his new empire (in which, in any case, Hellenism would dominate) and, indeed, this met with a good deal of hostility and resentment among Greeks, unwilling to accept barbarian culture on equal terms. Mixed-raced marriages were, again, mainly motivated by the politics of managing the spear-won territories – the offspring of such marriages were intended to create a Greek-oriented cultural and military elite – and, in fact, we know those Macedonians encouraged to wed their Persian concubines divorced them after Alexander’s death.

Also, it’s best not to take too seriously Mr Spanelis’ last paragraph, where he gets caught up in a rhetorical flourish about Hellenism without borders and distinctions and suggests a patriotism based on Cavafy’s Ithaka – in which Odysseus is a Bronze Age Marco Polo and the poet seems to suggest that engaging with alien cultures broadens the human experience.

Cavafy famously travelled very little, rarely leaving Alexandria, so we invest his poem (which should also be compared with The City) with the irony it deserves; while it’s difficult to regard Odysseus, back in Ithaca, after all he’s been through, as an enlightened cosmopolitan. Rather, as he sets about clearing the suitors from his palace, he is the same cunning brute and ruthless king he was the day he left his homeland.

Thus, Odysseus is many things, but not a paradigm for Hellenic patriotism. Actually, thinking about it, off the top of my head, none of the Greeks in Homer display patriotic virtues. Maybe the Trojans, but not the Greeks. However, this is another story.

The tailors of nationalism and internationalism
Since, at this time in Greece, Golden Dawn is the party of extreme nationalism and Syriza the party that expresses the spirit of internationalism, one has to ask, as a citizen who doesn’t identify with either side, is there another path one can take?

Thus, I was genuinely shocked by Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros when he said that he does not consider Greece’s international basketball star Sophocles Schortsanitis [whose mother is Cameroonian] to be a Greek, as if Sophocles is a common name in Africa; and by the article in Avgi newspaper by Nassos Theodoridis, a member of Syriza and the Anti-nationalist Movement, who suggested that Greece should have allowed the Italians to occupy the country in 1940 and because of our ‘stubbornness we became mixed up in an imperialist war’?

In the case of Golden Dawn disputing Schortsanitis’ Greekness, it ignores Isocrates’ famous phrase that a Greek is whoever shares in Greek education and culture (paideia), a view that enabled Hellenism to establish a global empire, transcending borders, peoples and transient kingdoms. It further ignores Alexander the Great’s promotion of mixed marriages, encouraging his soldiers to take Eastern brides and, indeed, he himself married Roxanne, who today would be regarded as an Afghan!

As for the Syriza’s internationalism, it forgets that in 1940, despite the fact that Greece’s prime minister was a dictator (an enlightened one, as it transpired) sympathetic to Germany, he chose to lead a heroic anit-fascist struggle in the name of freedom. For Syriza, no doubt, even Leonidas at Thermopylae was a nationalist and a futile one at that, since he should have, presumably, let the Persians pass and prevented the massacre of the 300 Spartans.

Golden Dawn-type nationalism wants to make us a ‘suit’, which has, historically, for those who possess Greek education and culture, been too tight, taking an outward-looking Hellenism and transforming it into a miserable, poor and subordinated nation-state.

Alternatively, Syriza’s ‘suit’ is too loose and would reduce Hellenism to an odourless, tasteless mush, which, ironically, would coincide with the aspirations of Greece’s political elite – in favour of a Greece internationalised and globalised, without identity and form.

But for those of us who are sensitive to and immersed in Greek letters, we still proudly declare ourselves Greek and raise high the flag of Ecumenical Hellenism, which retains a distinctive identity, has no borders and makes no distinctions on the basis of colour or gender, paralleling Odysseus, who went everywhere and returned in rags to his homeland, but wealthier for all he saw and experienced. To put it more simply, we are patriots.

*See original piece here.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Elytis on the heroic resistance of Greece

Above is a fascinating short from Finos Films capturing the liberation of Athens from German occupation in October 1944, while below is a repeat post with an extract from Odysseas Elytis’ poem From the Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, followed by reflections from the poet on how his participation in repelling the Axis invasion shaped his poetry and view of Greece.  

From the Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign
Now the dream in the blood throbs more swiftly
The truest moment of the world rings out:
Greeks show the way in the darkness:
For you the eyes of the sun shall fill with tears of joy.

Rainbow-beaten shores fall into the water
Ships with open-sails voyage on the meadows
The most innocent girls
Run naked in men’s eyes
And modesty shouts from behind the hedge
Boys! There is no other earth more beautiful

The truest moment of the world rings out!

With a morning stride on the growing grass
He is continually ascending;
Around him those passions glow that once
Were lost in the solitude of sin;
Passions flame up, the neighbours of his heart;
Birds greet him, they seem to him his companions
‘Birds, my dear birds, this is where death ends!’
‘Comrades, my dear comrades, this is where life begins!’
The dew of heavenly beauty glistens in his hair.

Bells of crystal are ringing far away
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: the Easter of God!

Elytis on his war experiences
As a reserve officer, the poet Odysseas Elytis was called up immediately after the Italian invasion and served on the Albanian front with the rank of second lieutenant in the First Army Corps. The translator Kimon Friar says of Eltyis’ war experiences that the poet ‘saw in the heroic resistance of the Greek people against superior odds, throughout their long history, a recklessness of spirit, a divine madness. In the spontaneous reaction of the Greek people to Mussolini’s invasion, he saw the victory of a beautiful rashness over self-calculation, an instinct that could distinguish between good and evil in a time of danger’.

In a letter to Friar, Elytis describes the impact of the war on his life and poetry:

‘A kind of “metaphysical modesty” dominated me. The virtues I found embodied and living in my comrades formed in synthesis a brave young man of heroic stature, one whom I saw in every period of our history. They had killed him a thousand times, and a thousand times he had sprung up again, breathing and alive. His was no doubt the measure and worth of our civilisation, compounded of his love not of death but of life. It was with his love of Freedom that he recreated life out of the stuff of death.

‘Later, with an order in my pocket, I set out to meet my new army unit at the front somewhere between the Akrokeravnia Mountains and Tepeleni. One by one, I abandoned the implements of my material existence. My beard became more and more unkempt. The lice swarmed and multiplied. Mud and rain disfigured my uniform. Snow covered everything in sight. And when the time came for me to take the final leap, to understand what role I was to play in terms of the enemy, I was no longer anything but a creature of slight substance who – exactly because of this – carried within him all the values of material life stressed to their breaking point and conducted to their spiritual analogy. Was this a kind of “contemporary idealism?” That very night it was necessary for me to proceed on a narrow path where I met repeatedly with stretcher-bearers who with great difficulty tried to keep in balance the heavily wounded whom they were bearing to the rear. I shall never forget the groan of those wounded. They made me, in the general over-excitement of my mind, conjure up that “it is not possible,” that “it cannot otherwise be done,” which is the reversion of justice on this earth of ours. They made me swear an oath in the name of the Resurrection of that brave Hellenic Hero, who became now for me the Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, that I would advance into battle with this talisman of my lyrical idea… Nothing further remained for me but to fulfill my vow, to give form to the Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign on multiple levels woven together with the traditions of Greek history, but also involved – in particular – within and beyond death, in the Resurrection, the Easter of God.’

Monday, 23 October 2017

Trahanas: Byzantine porridge

I’ve been slightly unwell with a cold – sore throat, runny nose, chest infection – I have been prone to chest infections since a nasty bout of pneumonia a few years ago.

A cold, obviously, is no big deal, but it is still an inconvenience that requires attention and confrontation. And who is our greatest ally in this battle to restore our health? Our mothers, of course. Our mothers’ advice, our mothers’ honey and lemon drinks and our mothers’ trahana – pictured above.

Trahanas is a Cypriot national dish, a thick, creamy soup, mostly eaten in winter and bound up with Cyprus’ ancient and Byzantine past. Trahana is so important to Cyprus that it has been the subject of academic research, most notably by William Woys Weaver, professor of Food Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who wrote The Origins of Trachanas: Evidence from Cyprus and Ancient Texts.

Trahana is also widely eaten in Greece, and in their essay Byzantine Porridge: Tracta, Trachanas and Trahana, Stephen Hill and Anthony Bryer trace the origins and history of this pastoral food through ancient Greece and Byzantium.

(A by-product of all this academic research into trahana is the suggestion that rather than Marco Polo bringing pasta to Europe from China, pasta is an offspring of trahana and therefore a traditional European food, which comes to us via the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines).

My mother’s trahana soup uses one cup of homemade trahana – a dried mixture of soured milk and crushed wheat – (trahana can be bought in the shops, but obviously homemade is better), water (some cooks use half milk, half water), chicken stock and avgolemono/beaten egg and lemon. I like to sprinkle grated cheddar cheese on top, though chunks of halloumi, kefalotyri or feta is more authentically Greek.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Godard’s Le Mépris

Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt), made in 1963, is, among other things, a meditation on Homer’s Odyssey, a celebration of Mediterranean landscape and culture and an exposition of the filmmaker’s love/hate relationship with America.

Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is invited by American film producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the screenplay of The Odyssey because he feels the version being filmed by the director, Fritz Lang – who plays himself – is too intellectual.

The American wants more sex in Lang’s Homer – and not just more sex, but more of everything, without being able to define what he wants more of, he just wants more – and although Paul is reluctant to undermine Lang, the money Jerry offers him for joining the project, which Paul thinks will please his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), overcomes his doubt and guilt.

In fact, Paul becomes so impressed by Jerry’s money and power, so enamoured with the glamour of filmmaking, so anxious not to alienate his benefactor, that he encourages his wife to go along with the advances of the voracious American, virtually offering her to him on a plate, prompting her to lose respect and love for her husband, to feel the ‘contempt’ which constitutes the title of the film.

Paul and Camille’s disintegrating marriage – revealed in an extraordinary 30-minute sequence of fighting, insults and arguing – encourages the writer to accept Jerry’s interpretation of The Odyssey as a tale of a poisoned marriage, of Penelope’s infidelity and Odysseus’ ennui.

For Jerry, Odysseus leaves Ithaca to fight the Trojan war because he is bored with Penelope, and stays away for so long because he can’t stand the prospect of returning to his wife, who far from being faithful and patient is, according to Jerry, resentful of Odysseus for abandoning her and cuckolds him with the suitors.

Lang, the personification of European sophistication and old world charm, always ready with a quote from Holderlin or Dante, hates this interpretation of Odysseus as a ‘modern neurotic’, but is impotent to impose his view on Jerry – the bullying, crude American film producer, who quotes trite aphorisms written on scraps of paper he keeps in his pockets, who expects the world to conform to his desires, and who ‘likes gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.’

When Fritz Lang defends his vision of The Odyssey – ‘it’s a story of man’s fight against the gods’ – and tells Jerry that in his film ‘finally, you get the feel of Greek culture’ – Jerry says: ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my chequebook,’ echoing Gestapo chief Hermann Goering: ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.’

The exchange is an early hint of the anti-Americanism which infamously characterises Godard’s films – though Le Mépris, infused with references to Rancho Notorious, Hatari, Bigger Than Life, Some Came Running, Rio Bravo, Griffith, Chaplin and United Artists, also shows how much Godard’s imagination has been shaped by American film and culture.

In Eloge de l’amour (2000) – in which one of the plot lines involves Spielberg Associates and Incorporated trying to buy the rights to make a French resistance movie – Godard has his protagonist Edgar say: ‘Americans have no real past… They have no memory of their own. Their machines do, but they have none personally. So they buy the past of others.’

But in Détective (1985), Godard shows his abiding love for American film and American culture by dedicating his film to John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood and Edgar G. Ulmer.


Saturday, 21 October 2017

The 300 Spartans

The 300 Spartans (1962) – purporting to tell the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae – is pretty silly but not as bad as I remember. When I first saw the film a few years ago, it struck me as a shoddy piece of Cold War propaganda that would have also satisfied the Greek state (particularly the Royal Family and Royal Hellenic Army) – which was heavily involved in facilitating the film. I found the crude patriotic exhortations and calls for Greek unity under the leadership of a brave and benevolent monarch a little hard to stomach. However, watching it again, I enjoyed the spectacle and David Farrar’s portrayal of the inept and bewildered King Xerxes. ‘This is no answer. I’m surrounded by incompetent fools,’ he bellows at his generals after the Spartans, in probably the best scene in the film, infiltrate and set alight the Persian camp. Above is the trailer for the film, which you can watch in its entirety, and in good quality, here.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Western duress and Greek self-preservation: thoughts on Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century, by Steven Runciman (ISBN-13: 9781107604742). Paperback: £12.99

Canto Classics has recently reprinted Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers, which expertly guides us through the murky world of 13th century European high politics, its twists and turns, sudden shifts in fortune, alliance, tactics and strategy; and compellingly depicts the brigand-dynasts of the West vying for each other’s thrones and fiefdoms, conspiring, plotting and murdering their way in vain pursuit of power and wealth.

A tumultuous period crescendoed in Sicily at Easter Vespers, 1282, when the local population – as the spearhead of a conspiracy organised by the Byzantine emperor Michael Palaiologos and drawing in King Peter of Aragon and disgruntled supporters of the erstwhile king of Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen – rose up against the loathed French dynast Charles of Anjou, massacred 8,000 French colonists and liberated the island from his regime.

Central to the history of the Sicilian Vespers is the fate of the Byzantine Empire and the efforts of its emperor, Michael Palaiologos, to consolidate his hold of Constantinople, which he had, in 1261, taken back for the Greeks after 57 years of Latin rule.

The Palaiologan re-conquest was met with shock and dismay in the West, and the ousted Baldwin was sympathetically received in various courts and particularly by the pope and Manfred Hohenstaufen, the king of Sicily, who both vowed to help him recover his throne in Constantinople.

However, for Baldwin’s hopes to be realised there would have to be a reconciliation between the papacy and Manfred. Because even if Manfred believed that nothing would be more pleasing to the papacy than if he were to help restore the Latin Empire of Constantinople and bring to heel the schismatic Greeks; for the papacy, the Hohenstaufens remained German usurpers who had illegitimately wrested Sicily and southern Italy from papal control and were now threatening to create an Italo-German empire that would diminish the papacy’s political role on the continent even further.

Thus, increasingly tormented by the gains of Manfred in central and northern Italy, successive popes scoured Europe in search of a potentate who would end the Hohenstaufen dynasty in Sicily.

After courtship of various English royals had floundered, in 1263 the Sicilian throne was offerred by Pope Urban to Charles of Anjou, the ambitious and underemployed brother of the French king. In June 1265, Pope Clement had Charles anointed king of Sicily, and within a year, Angevin and French forces had invaded Italy and, at the Battle of Benevento, succeeded in killing Manfred, routing his troops and paving the way for Charles to take full possession of his kingdom.

For the Greeks, Charles’ accession to the throne of Sicily significantly increased the danger to Constantinople. Not only had Charles inherited Manfred’s desire to see the Latin Empire in Constantinople restored – with Charles able to extract from the ‘exiled’ Baldwin far more generous terms on how to divide Greek spoils in the event of Charles’ armies expediting restoration; but also, with the Hohenstaufen issue settled to the papacy’s satisfaction, there was now nothing to stop the pope from pursuing his enmity towards the Byzantines.

Michael’s response to the threat from Charles was twofold.

First, to appease the papacy, Michael agreed, at the Council of Lyons in 1274, to the Union of the Churches. By doing so, Michael expected the pope to act as a restraining influence on Charles, which would free the Byzantines to deal with rival Greek kingdoms; hostile Serbs and Bulgarians in the Balkans; and Turks in Anatolia and Asia Minor, where Michael was lobbying the pope to organise a Crusade.

However, it was one thing for Michael to put his name to a document accepting subordination of the Greek church to Rome, but another convincing the clergy and ordinary Greeks to accept the West’s terms, meaning that Michael, to stave off the restless Charles, was having to continuously placate increasingly skeptical papal delegates that he was doing all he could to implement the agreement on church union.

For the Westerners, it was becoming clear that, despite Michael’s reassurances, the Greeks were ‘unflinchingly’ opposed to church union and that Michael could do little to quell the dissent and riots over the issue. Indeed, either to test Michael’s commitment to the terms of union or, as Runciman says, because the pope was ‘deliberately trying to wreck the union’, the West’s conditions for unity became increasingly onerous and more humiliating to the Greeks.

In 1281, Pope Nicholas finally declared that the Greeks were not fulfilling the conditions they’d agreed to, that Michael was a ‘heretic and fosterer of heresy’ and that he was to surrender his empire (by 1 May 1282) to the pope or be overthrown. The way was now open for Charles to oust the Greeks from Constantinople, and he immediately began amassing money, troops and a fleet in preparation for the enterprise.

For Michael, with his policy of preserving his empire (by promising church union in exchange for the papacy restraining Charles) now falling apart, it was time to advance the second strand of his strategy, which was to depose Charles before Charles could depose him.

Thus, Michael not only fomented and financed rebellion in Sicily, where locals were bristling under Charles’ repressive rule and where a large Greek-speaking population still (according to Runciman) felt affinity with the Greek emperor in Constantionople; but he also funded and organised Manfred and Hohenstaufen stalwarts out for revenge against Charles; and persuaded King Peter of Aragon, who ruled Western Spain (including Catalonia), to pursue his claim to the Sicilian throne, which was based on Peter’s Norman ancestry (the Normans had ruled Sicily from 1072 to 1194) and the fact that his wife, Constance, was Manfred’s daughter.

With Byzantine gold and diplomatic craft, then, Charles was pre-empted. Before he had the chance to launch his campaign against Byzantium, which was planned for the spring of 1282, Sicily, after initial violence at Easter Vespers on 30 March outside the Church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo, erupted in a wave of anti-Angevin fervour and bloodletting that drove the French from the island. The rebels initially established Communes on the northern Italian model, but papal disapproval and Angevin counterattack soon had the Sicilians turning to King Peter of Aragon for protection, who accepted the island’s throne in September 1282, and from which, with more gold from Constantinople, he was able to dispose of the remnants of Charles’ forces in Calabria.

Michael Palaiologos died in December 1282 feeling, Runciman says, his life’s work complete. He had restored the empire and thwarted a counterattack from the West.

‘Should I dare to claim that I was God’s instrument in bringing freedom to the Sicilians, then I would only be stating the truth’, was Michael’s valedictory boast.

However, in the event, Michael’s triumphs were illusory and the respite for the Byzantine empire short-lived. For it soon became apparent that all the Sicilian Vespers had achieved was to replace a French king with ambitions to create a Mediterranean empire with a Spanish equivalent.

In 1303, Catalan mercenaries, surplus to requirements at the Aragonese courts in Sicily and Spain, offerred their services to Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos, to aid his wars against the Turks in Anatolia and Asia Minor. The Catalan Company’s initial successes against the Turks only encouraged its avarice and ambitions and the Catalans soon became another threat to Byzantine integrity and legitimacy. In 1305, the Catalans devastated Thrace and Macedonia, including Mt Athos, while in 1311, the company conquered the duchies of Athens and Neopatria, which remained part of the Aragonese crown until 1388-1390, before the Navarrese Company and then the Ottoman Turks intervened, the latter for a more enduring period.

Still, the legacy of the Aragonese interlude in Greece continues, with Spanish kings to this day including ‘Duke of Athens and Neopatria’ among their titles, while, in 2005, the government of Catalonia decided, 700 years after the Aragonese/Catalan invasion and occupation of Greece, to make amends for its ancestors’ pillaging of Mt Athos (on which, all these years, Catalans had been banned from setting foot) by contributing 200,000 euros to restoration works for Vatopedi monastery.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The House of Strangers and Greek tragedy

Above is the opening sequence from House of Strangers, an American film noir from 1949. Thematically and stylistically the film is a precursor to The Godfather. The protagonist in House of Strangers is Max Monetti – played by Richard Conte – the smartest and toughest of the four sons that belong to successful immigrant banker, Gino Monetti, played by Edward G. Robinson. Conte later portrayed Don Barzini in The Godfather but, in his heyday (1940s and 1950s), Conte specialised in depicting tough, working-class, immigrant heroes – Conte himself was the son of Italian immigrants. Notably, Conte played Nick Garcos in Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) based on A.I. Bezzerides' classic crime novel Thieves' Market.

The plot of House of Strangers revolves around the hatred of three of the sons for their overbearing father and the misplaced loyalty that Max shows the old man that lands Max in prison for seven years, coming out of which he vows revenge on his less scrupulous siblings, who've since taken over their father's business, declaring: 'Vengeance is a rare wine. A joy divine; says the Arab. And I'm gonna get drunk on it.'

Revenge is, of course, a major theme in Greek classical culture, which regarded it as a demonstration of hubris, a move towards becoming apolis, that is someone who 'exits from the political community of men (and the concrete result cannot but be death, flight, or exile)' [Castoriadis, Cornelius: Aeschylean Anthropogony and Sophoclean Self-Creation].

These themes of revenge, hubris and becoming apolis are often present in the best film noirs and Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, which sometimes allow the hero to accept the strictures of civilised society and rejoin it, and sometimes reveal that there's no way back for him into society and 'death, flight or exile' is all he can expect.

The screenplay for House of Strangers was written by Philip Yordan, who penned a number of significant film noirs – House of Strangers, The Chase, Edge of Doom, The Big Combo, Detective Story – and Westerns – Broken Lance, Johnny Guitar, The Last Frontier, Day of the Outlaw, The Man from Laramie – in this period. Yordan admitted the influence of Greek tragedy in his work:

'I detest a certain type of modern would-be "hero", people who are obsessed only by getting their daily bread. I have tried to react against this petty bourgeois mentality and attempted to discover again the purity of the heroes of classical tragedy. I have always wanted to re-create a tragic mythology, giving a large role to destiny, solitude, nobility.'

g The whole of House of Strangers can be seen in 12 parts on youtube or downloaded as a torrent from here.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

From the Life of the Marionettes

Full of astonishment I look back on our lives, on our former reality and think it was all a dream. It was a game. Lord knows what the hell we were doing. This is true reality and it’s unbearable. I talk, answer, think, put on my clothes, sleep and eat. It’s a daily compulsion. A strange, hard surface. But under the surface, I’m crying. I’m crying for myself… because I can no longer be the way I was. What was, can never be again. It’s been destroyed. It’s gone… like a dream.’ (Katarina, From the Life of the Marionettes).

Philemon and Baucis, an old married couple, poor but devoted and therefore content, are the only ones in their town in Phrygia who show hospitality to two bedraggled strangers – who it transpires are Hermes and Zeus. The gods spare the couple as they destroy the town that repudiated them and offer them a wish; they choose to be together forever and that when one of them dies the other should die at the same time. Their wish is granted and when they die they are changed into intertwining trees.

A myth about the sacredness of hospitality, honouring the gods, global hubris, how poverty of circumstance need not lead to poverty of heart, fidelity, love and so on.

The idea of two people who have become inseparable, who have got to know and depend on each other so much that they have almost become one person, is an aspect of the Philemon and Baucis myth that appealed to Ingmar Bergman when he made From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) – except that in Bergman, Peter and Katarina’s inseparability and intertwining have bred hate, humiliation, torture, loneliness, perversion and a fervent desire to kill each other – repressed rage which the smallest detail – ‘a word, a gesture, a tone of voice’ – could release, and is eventually released, leading to shocking violence, to a murder or, as Bergman repeatedly refers to it in the film, to a ‘catastrophe’.

From the Life of the Marionettes – which I saw yesterday – is a dark and brutal film about being trapped – by our childhoods, families, lovers, desires, dreams, society, time and so on – about how, as Peter repeatedly states, ‘there is no way out’ – from the past, present and future; but it is not a depressing film, and this is because the film presents the truth – of our own vulnerabilities, suffering and chaotic existence – and the truth is always uplifting.

* (The above clip is the only one I could find of From the Life of the Marionettes. It is a montage put together by a Youtube user, with music added not belonging to the film. The clip has some female nudity in it, so Americans should be careful before they click play).

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Theodorakis, Elytis, Venetsanou

This is Nina Venetsanou singing Marina, music by Theodorakis, from the poem by Odysseas Eltytis.

Give me mint and basil
verbena too to smell
For with these I would kiss you
what first would I recall

The fountain with the doves
the sword Archangels keep
The orchard with the stars
and the well so deep

The nights I took you out
to the sky’s other vista
And as you’d rise I’d see you
like the Dawn-Star’s sister

Marina my green star
Marina Dawn-Star’s shine
Marina my wild dove
and lily of summertime.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Vengeance of Hell Boils in My Heart

Mozart, Bergman, Castoriadis

Ingmar Bergman’s films are not normally associated with optimism and joyfulness, yet his version (1975) of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is, on one level, a rapturous tribute to love, a fervent affirmation of life, which endorses Mozart’s Enlightenment imbued repudiation of darkness, superstition and tyranny.

On another level, however, the film of The Magic Flute clearly incorporates Bergman’s more recognisable themes – despair, death, suicide, madness, family dysfunction, the absence of meaning in a world devoid of God and hope, and the centrepiece remains the bloodcurdling and exhilarating aria (above video) – The Vengeance of Hell Boils in My Heart – in which the Queen of the Night urges her daughter Pamina, to murder her father, Sarastro, the queen’s estranged husband.

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

A world without the solace of God and hope is the Greek vision of human life too, says Cornelius Castoriadis in his essay The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy.

Hope, in this sense, according to Castoriadis, corresponds to that ‘central human wish and delusion that there be some essential correspondence… between our desires and decisions, on the one hand, and the world, the nature of being, on the other. Hope is the ontological, cosmological, and ethical assumption that the world is not just something out there, but cosmos in the archaic and proper sense, [i.e.] a total order which includes us, our wishes, and our strivings as its organic and central components. The philosophical translation of this assumption is that being is ultimately good. As is well known, the first one who dared to proclaim this philosophical monstrosity was Plato…’ (For more on Castoriadis’ confrontation with Plato see here).

At the core of the Greek imaginary, then, according to Castoriadis, is not being as good but being as chaos, the world rooted not in cosmos but in void and nothingness. The absence of order in the world also, necessarily, permeates human experience and human endeavour, which Castoriadis characterises as ‘the lack of positive correspondence between human intentions and actions, on one hand, and their result and outcome, on the other’.

Humans striving for knowledge and meaning, in a vain effort to unite thoughts, desires, decisions and actions, in which self-awareness proves elusive or catastrophic, resulting in despair and self-destruction, as the chaos we sought to confront, obscure or deny ends up overwhelming us, is more like the Bergman we know and love, the Bergman of Scenes from a Marriage, Hour of the Wolf, From the Life of the Marionettes and so on.

All of which might suggest that the excessive joyfulness and optimism of The Magic Flute is an aberration for Bergman. But this is not the case.

For just as Greek creativity was predicated on an awareness of the latent and not so latent ubiquity of chaos – an awareness producing, at its most accomplished, at its most creative – in the instance of the Athenian polis – not only Athenian tragedy but also Pericles’ Funeral Oration – in which Pericles defines Greek creativity as the creation of human beings and Athenian citizens who can live with and practice beauty and wisdom and love the common good – so in Bergman’s The Magic Flute, creativity, the creative possibilities he offers Tamina and Pamina, remain circumscribed by a world which is chaos.

Certainly, Bergman allows the young, tormented lovers, Princess Pamina and Prince Tamina, to emerge in triumph from the House of Trials, having overcome ‘death and despair’, ready to take their place as guardians of the Temple of Wisdom in preparation to rule, after Sarastro’s abdication, over a kingdom, as Tamina puts it, based on ‘art, wisdom and beauty’; but there is no way Bergman is suggesting that their victory is complete or everlasting.

We know this not only because we have Marianne and Johann in Scenes from a Marriage and Peter and Katarina in From the Life of the Marionettes – who no doubt had moments of joy before their unions and lives disintegrated into brutality and humiliation, before joy gave way to catastrophe – to refer to, but also because in The Magic Flute Bergman is careful to remind us of the ever-present possibility – indeed, the certainty – that in any contest between beauty and wisdom, on the one hand, and strife and chaos, on the other, strife and chaos will always have the upper hand, by having the Queen of the Night, at the end of the film, as she and her followers retreat from a failed attempt to seize control of the Temple of Wisdom, and having declared ‘our power is shattered, our might destroyed’, then smile contemptuously at Sarastro, who returns her mocking glance with one of fear and recognition – recognition that the Queen of the Night is not done yet, that she’ll be returning to the fray shortly, proving that for Bergman, like Castoriadis and the Greeks, the essence of being can never be good, but is always chaos.