Tuesday, 13 March 2018

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.