Sunday, 12 September 2021

Mikis Theodorakis: living with beauty, living with wisdom and loving the common good

All the accolades and outpouring of love aimed at Mikis Theodorakis, who died last week aged 96, are justified. The Greek government declaring three days of national mourning, his lying in state at the Athens Metropolitan Cathedral, the large crowds who filed past his body and accompanied him to his last resting place in his father’s ancestral village of Galata in Crete, were not an overreaction, counterfeit or mawkish. They were expressions of genuine grief at the demise of a figure who immeasurably enriched Greek culture and society and a strong desire to celebrate his life and legacy. 

Theodorakis’ music – full of beauty, wit, intelligence, love, optimism, humanity, joy, overcoming, thirst for justice, eulogising Greek nature, the Greek spring and summer, rejecting bitterness, cynicism and despair – defined modern Greek sensibility at its best.

In Grigoris Bithikotsis, with his bright crystalline voice, his lucid enunciation of the language, Theodorakis found the perfect vocalist to express his aesthetic. Indeed, this combination of Theodorakis’ music, Bithikotsis’ voice and the poetry of Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos, Gatsos and so on, marks one of the high points of Greek civilisation, in any period. Theodorakis’ songs will be sung for hundreds of years to come in Greece, assuming the country still exists.

As for Mikis Theodorakis’ politics – his life-long and frequent interventions in public affairs – even if his communism increasingly gave way to the stronger pull of patriotism – his left-wing leanings were always informed more by The Sermon on the Mount than Das Kapital. The composer once asked Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens if the Orthodox church couldn't do away with The Old Testament – which he thought un-Greek – and just preach The Gospels. These works of Greek literature, with their message of love, justice and the Resurrection (the triumph of light over dark, life over death) were more in line with what Theodorakis understood to be the Greek vision of the world than the violent, intolerant harangues of the Hebrew Bible.

In his essay, The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy, Cornelius Castoriadis discusses what Pericles is trying to get at in his Funeral Speech, paying particular attention to the famous phrase Philokaloumen gar met’euteleias kai philosophoumen aneu malakias, which in its usual translation of ‘we love beauty without ostentation and we love wisdom without being soft’, Castoriadis regards as too literal.

‘Pericles’, Castoriadis says, ‘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: 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.’

Castoriadis’ interpretation of Pericles’ words, the Athenian statesman’s exhortation to Athens to create human beings living with beauty, living with wisdom and loving the common good, is a good description of how Mikis Theodorakis lived and wanted us to live.

Above is three hours of Grigoris Bithikotsis singing Mikis Theodorakis to the words of Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos, Gatsos and so on. It’s worth considering how many Greeks would know these exceptional poets, if it hadn't been for Theodorakis.

Below is Mikis Theodorakis singing Άρνηση (Στο περιγιάλι το κρυφό), from the poem by Giorgos Seferis.

After the composer had successfully set the poem to music, Theodorakis recalls Seferis’ reaction to his words being sung so enthusiastically in the tavernas and clubs of Athens.

‘In the fall of 1962 Seferis, George Savidis, my father and I spent a whole night going from taverna to taverna in Plaka. The poet wanted, with his own eyes, to see the artists and the people singing On the Seashore in all the clubs. He wanted to hear it with his own ears… Maybe never before had someone like Seferis become like a small child. He laughed, he radiated happiness and I think that night he permitted his stern heart to love me.’