Αsimina Xirogianni was born and raised in Athens. She studied Classics and Theatrology at the University of Athens, as well as Act at the Theatre-Workshop School. She has been honored in various poetry competitions. Ηer poems have been translated in English, French and Spanish. She has translated Carol Ann Daffy, Τed Hughes, Μark Strand, Τseslav Miloz, Bill Collins and a lot of other poets she likes. In 2009 she founded the blog ‘varelaki’.
Her books include: Τhe Prophesy of the wind (pοems) [Dodoni, 2009], His body became shadow (novel) [Anatolikos, 2010], Wounds (poems) [Gavrielides, 2011], My age is poetry (poems) [Gavrielides, 2013], 23 days (play) [Gavrielides, 2015], Audition (play) [Vakhikon, 2015], Second Nature [AΩ, 2018]. She is the editor of 2 anthologies The Theater in Poetry [Μomentum 2017] and Monologues of writers [Vakxikon 2015] Her book Μy age is Poetry (Gavrielides 2013), was published in France in 2016 (translated by Michel Volkovitch).
Asimina Xirogiannis spoke to Reading Greece* about what changed and what remained the same in her poetry since her first poetry collection in 2009, as well as about the role language plays in her writings. She comments on the interrelation between poetry and theatre noting that the two arts “have been conversing through the centuries”, as well as on the poetry’s strong civic awareness and its relation to the world it inhabits. “Poetry must not serve the ideology of a particular party. But it is nice to be inspired by the political and social situation in which the poet creates. […] It is legitimate for poetry to draw its themes from the surrounding environment. I do not know if lyrics can set fire, but they can certainly leave their imprint”.
First of all, during this time, I myself have changed. So, inevitably, my writing has changed as well. However, it is true that I like to experiment. So each of my poetry books is written differently. And their philosophy is different every time. The Prophecy of the Wind has long been exhausted. I especially love my first book because it reminds me of particular aspects of myself. My last book, Second Nature, contains 65 poems (xaikou) that talk about love, time, death, art.
What about language? What role does language play in your writings?
I love the Greek language. I have also studied theatre and classical philology. Greek is a rich language, it offers infinite expressive possibilities. The combination of words and the introduction of new elements, these two factors are among the criteria for Poetry. Thus, as a poet, I use the language to express my thoughts or feelings. I do not like to use sophisticated words just to make an impression. I much focus on the way words are combined to give the meaning I want to give.
Where do theatre and poetry meet? Would you say that they are communicating vessels?
There is a lot to note, but let me mention just a few things. As we all know the theatre was born in ancient Greece! Drama is a kind of poetry, like epic and lyrical poetry. Only in drama there is representation on the scene of the acts described. Our great ancient poets, comic and tragic, filled theatres in the 5th century BC. People went to see works by Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides with the logic that theatre at that time was a school for citizens. Poetry and theatre have been conversing through the centuries.
Poets write on paper, as do playwrights. However, neither of them communicate them to the world orally. Poets may recite their poems live in front of audiences, while theatrical writers animate their works by staging a theatrical performance. However, it is certain that both arts should have specific targets, while they should also have something to say. Still, the poet often wears masks and plays roles in his own poem. Not few are the poets who direct their poems, creating a sense, within them, of a scene or a suggestive direction. A case in point: Cavafy, but not only! Conversely, there are numerous theatrical writers and directors who adopt and impose a poetic atmosphere within their work or performance. Lorca with his poetic theater or Shakespeare or Chekhov are just a few. From directors I cannot fail to mention our own Lefteris Vogiatzis, whose performances were characterized by a peculiar poetic mood and an oblique poetic look.
The poets of The Theatre in Poetry - an anthology of poems for the theatre written by 55 modern Greek poets in which I explore how the two arts are connected - are inspired by the materials and practices of the theatre and are creatively involved with them, bestowing their own indecision with extensions and perspectives regarding the mask, the theatre, the stage, the actor, the classic heroes of the ancient or modern theatre. As a closing remark, let me say that the theatre often comments on the psyche of a person or society as a whole or even a group of people. Poetry reflects on the human condition and the psyche of the person who suffers or creates in a world with which he is often in opposition or rupture.
Your book blog “Varelaki” turns ten this year. Tell us a few things about this venture of yours? What differentiates Varelaki from similar book blogs?
Varelaki is a literary blog. There are many more … It also contains art issues in general. Varelaki has been online for ten years thanks to my personal work and effort and, without the help of permanent collaborators, has managed to create an important literary archive of modern Greek letters and their representatives. This record exists as a deposit for writers, scholars, readers, students. And all this through an easily accessible web site. Let me mention a noticeable difference: on the internet there is a lot of low quality or unreliable material. But in Varelaki, through my personal care, there is quality and reliability in the texts presented. The fact that creators trust me with their work is the proof.
Varelaki has created two anthologies: The Theater in Poetry [Μomentum 2017] and Monologues of writers [Vakxikon 2015]. The basic statement of Varelaki can be summarized in the following: Varelaki investigates, comments, promises, proposes, announces, converses. Inside the crowd there is beauty, as long as you discover it.Varelaki is a collector of beautiful things.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares to mention just a few. How is this strong civic awareness to be explained?
Poetry has a social face. The contemporary poet receives many stimuli, he experiences lots of situations that trigger a variety of reactions, thoughts, acts. Social reality affects him in a fatal way. So it is natural for social reality to be often reflected on his work. In general, the artist does not live in a glass tower. He does not have to live in a glass tower! Through art people feel the need to communicate with each other. To share things. To feel things.
You write that “in difficult times, we are not looking for great poetry but for urgent poetry”. What is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits? What can it mean for poetry to be political, or apolitical, in times of social and economic crisis?
Τhese verses are contained in my book Μy age is Poetry, which was also published in France in 2016, translated by Michel Volkovitch. Poetry can follow the flow of time. The era inspires the poet and leads him to the poem. There is a poetry-era relationship and that's the subject of my book. Poets even in critical moments do not silence. They dictate their presence. They look at the world. They film time in their own way. Poetry must not serve the ideology of a particular party. But it is nice to be inspired by the political and social situation in which the poet creates. In this sense, several poets have written political poetry. When talking about political poetry, the example of Manolis Anagnostakis readily comes to mind. It is legitimate for poetry to draw its themes from the surrounding environment. I do not know if lyrics can set fire, but they can certainly leave their imprint.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Nikos Potamianos is a historian and an associate researcher at the Institute for Mediterranean Studies in Rethymno. He obtained his PhD from the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Crete in 2011, after having completed his doctoral research on the petty-bourgeois class in Athens at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Greek News Agenda* interviewed him on this research, which was published by Crete University Press under the title “Noikokyraioi. Shopkeepers and master artisans in Athens 1880-1925” (in Greek, 2015), as well as on popular carnival festivities in Athens, which will be the topic of his new forthcoming book.
Your research concerns the history of the petty bourgeoisie in Athens at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. What are the main conditions determining the establishment of this social stratum, as well as its political importance?
I consider the traditional petty bourgeoisie to be about a quarter or perhaps a third of the Athens population of the time. Small businesses dominated many industries and benefited from the increase in consumption resulting from the city’s growth. In manufacturing, besides imported and local industrial products, artisans and craftsmen served a large part of the needs of the capital or the countryside: furnishing, footwear, and tailoring were thriving industries in Athens in 1900. Supermarkets and chain stores had not yet been established, neither had department stores, and a much greater part of market demand, as compared to the present, was covered by small and very small enterprises. Employees in several of these consisted only of family members, while the social distance between workers and their small-scale employers was often little. Of course, the once unified “world of crafts" (or "working people", as was the term of the time for manual workers, either hired and self-employed) had already been dealt blows. The attempt to survive through the creation of professional unions in the late 19th century that galvanized small employers and their employees was unable to prevent the organizational independence of workers in the early 20th century.
Small property and small production in Greece have often been noted in bibliography as a particular and dominant condition that has influenced a pattern of so-called "Greek exceptionalism". How does your research address this analytical perspective?
In my book, I have in the main avoided directly addressing this point of view, as in my opinion this requires serious comparative study. I do however believe that the Greek social formation, compared to other European societies, is distinguished indeed by the small size of economic industries that is characteristic of both industrial enterprises and small agricultural lots. This fact serves as a reasonable starting point for comparisons and analyses: I do not consider it a coincidence that the European country Greece appears to have most similarities with in the development of the political preferences of the petty bourgeoisie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is France, where there was also a strong class of small landowners in the countryside as well as in the cities.
However, three factors need to be taken into account before we begin to analyze Greek particularities. Firstly, modern historiography in Greece, and around the world, has surpassed that stage of compulsive and nervous comparisons between any of ‘our’ countries with the model of "culture" and development that is Western Europe. The outcome of any such comparisons was to eternally highlight inadequacies, deficits and weaknesses in societies that "failed" to be like the "normal" countries of the civilized world. There is not however only one path to the modern world: effective comparisons could and should be carried out with other countries; Eurocentrism has been overwhelmed with criticism of the distortions it generates in scientific knowledge; Additionally, Asia's economic rise in recent decades has led to reviewing interpretative patterns that viewed the primacy of the West as a given.
Secondly, the field of "Greek exceptionalism" is mined with earlier apologetic ideologies that rebuffed social conflicts in Greece: organic intellectuals, publications and employers' organizations have a long tradition of claims that there is no working class in Greece or that Greek society has always been fair and equalizing.
Thirdly, our view of this "exceptionalism" could change if we do not take it for granted but try to understand how it came about. Historians, such as Giorgos Dertilis, have emphasized the geographical and economic factors that favored small property ownership in Greek territories. Efi Avdela underlined cultural factors and, in particular, the role of the dominant models of gender relations and division of labor within the household. Antonis Liakos and Christos Hatziiosif have highlighted the critical importance of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 (leading to the establishment of the Hellenic state) for the prevalence of small landownership in agriculture.
Lemon seller in Athens (Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation)
How did small-ownership adapt to the economic crises of the time, and to what degree do you discern similarities and disparities in different times of crisis?
Small businesses are either way distinguished by low survival rates: there are many that perished, both in minor as well as in major crises that originated in 1929 and 2010, applauded by those who thought that healthy entrepreneurship and stability would be thus restored, in a market characterized by too many companies. However, new small businesses are opening up: surely the start of new businesses (especially cafes and catering) by unemployed people, in times of crisis, is a constant. The issue then is whether, regardless if every small business may be experiencing problems or even closing down, the structure of small ownership as a whole is reproduced. More focused research is certainly required by sector, but my feeling is that in some sectors the concentration of capital has accelerated during times of crises.
Nikolaos Gyzis Old Man Sewing (left) and The barber (right) (nikias.gr)
Your work, focusing on Athens in the early 20th century, combines the study of daily practices and collective action with material relations of production. Generally, do you think that, following a possible "cultural turn", focus on material conditions is once again becoming relevant to modern historiographical production in Greece?
Economic history has never abandoned the field of modern historiographical production; I would even say that it seems to have achieved a high degree of maturity, although it is no longer "fashionable" as in the 1980s. The problem is that today, in the context of the retreat of Marxist theory and, more generally, of a sociological vulgata that emphasized material conditions, economic history is a specialized field whose findings are not widely used for historical understanding. I consider it is necessary that social and political history remain in dialogue with historiography, as well as with cultural history, and this is an open bet.
Nikolaos Gyzis Carnival in Athens (nikias.gr)
Your study deals with, among others, the Carnival celebrations in Athens and highlights a process of "gentrification" of such popular events. Is this study characteristic of a cultural heteronomy of the lower strata in Athens as compared to other cases?
My next book will deal with the transformations that the Athenian carnival underwent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These may, to a great extent, be described as the prevalence of bourgeois culture, although that is not all. On the other hand, in the middle of the 19th century, a vibrant popular carnival culture developed in Athens, while in the interwar years new trends of independency of popular culture developed, although this did not appear to touch carnival culture. "Heteronomy", therefore, was not a fixed feature of the lower classes of Athens, but occurred during times of tension and deepening of bourgeois cultural hegemony.
* Interview by Dimitris Gkintidis, translation by Magda Hatzopoulos.
Read also via Rethinking Greece: Christina Agriantoni on Greece’s industrial development and its future prospects; Thomas Maloutas on the “Athens Social Atlas” project
Kostas Gavras was born in 1933 in Loutra Iraias, Arcadia. Following his graduation from high school he went to France, where he did film studies at the French national film school, IDHEC. Following work on several films as assistant director, he directed his first feature film, Compartiment Tueurs, in 1965. His 1969 film “Z”, a fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This was followed by a series of successful films such as L'Aveu (The Confession, 1970), State of Siege (1972), and Missing(1982), which won an Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation and the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. His 1989 film Music Box, another film inspired by real events, won the Golden Bear at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival. His more recent films are “Amen” (2002), “Le Couperet” (2005), “Eden is West” (2009) and “The Capital” (2012). Further to his acclaimed directorial career, Gavras is also President of the Cinémathèque Française and founder of the Gan Foundation.
While shooting his latest film, “Adults in the Room”, Kostas Gavras was interviewed by Greek News Agenda and its sister publication Grece Hebdo*. Gavras stressed that what he is mostly interested in his work is a person’s place in society and interaction with power and authority. In his long experience as an internationally acclaimed film director and producer, Gavras elaborates on what constitutes a successful national cinema policy, stressing the need for robust and consistent support from the state. Talking about his experience on filming in Greece, Gavras stresses the positive impact of the new incentives for investments in audiovisual productions in Greece, while he refutes the view that there are no experienced film crews in Greece.
Yves Montand, "Z" (1969)
You have been described as a political filmmaker. Do you think that this description successfully summarizes your work?
This characterization is one by journalists, it is not my problem. I think that the arts in general and not only cinema have a political function in society - not in an ideological sense, but as in influencing our social behavior. Aristotle has famously said that man is a political animal. Why a political animal? First of all, an animal lives in the company of other animals in a group, like human beings. The difference between animals and human beings is that animals only decide about themselves, while humans try to form societies and face difficulties together. Thus, that’s politics for me: what we do in our daily lives and how we interact with power and authority. For me, politics is everywhere; it’s not only about political parties and elections, which is of course a very important part of politics. My films are about our place in society and how we use power. I think that all films are political, even comedies, because they offer us pleasurable moments. A moment of pleasure is important in our life, as long as it’s not vulgar and degrading.
Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, "Missing" (1982)
In your recently published autobiography"Va où il est impossible d'aller" (“Go where it’s impossible to go”) you describe how you left Greece on account of your family’s political history. Which of your films reflects most that period of your life?
My father was labeled a communist, when he was actually only against the monarchy. He had fought in Asia Minor, he saw many of his friends losing their lives, and because he was against the reinstatement of King George at the end of WWII, he was accused of being a communist and repeatedly thrown into jail. He had fought in the Greek resistance with EAM (National Liberation Front) but he didn’t belong to the Communist Party and he didn’t take part in the Greek Civil War. During that period, I wouldn’t have been able to study at a Greek University. The best way for me to study was to escape abroad; as was the case in Greece in 2010, when thousands of young people fled the country. Many went to Australia, others left for the US. I went to France, because it was the only country where I didn’t have to pay fees for my studies. My parents had no money to send me, so I had to work to finance myself.
As far as where this period of my life is reflected in my films, I think that in each of my films there is a part of me as a young man who has lived this kind of adventure. This experience has definitely influenced my work and my choice of films, at both a conscious and subconscious level.
Yves Montand, "The Confession" (1970)
You have worked in France, Greece and the US. In which country and which period did you feel you had more artistic liberty?
I’ve always felt this freedom in France, because the system facilitates those who want to make films. Following the end of the German Occupation in France, a period during which French Cinema was in the hands of the Nazis, all American production of the previous five years entered the French film market and almost wiped out French cinema. The de Gaulle government decided that France had to have national cinema and all subsequent governments continued on the same path, finding solutions to every problem that arose. The advent of television was a threat for French cinema but the state had an answer for that as well. The National Film Centre (CNC) would always find solutions and French cinema enjoys freedom and state support. And support does not only mean money; I’ll give you an example. We filmmakers asked television stations to stop screening films on Saturday nights, because they used to air American blockbusters in that time slot. Now there are no films on TV Saturday night and people go out, view films in cinemas or go to restaurants, instead of watching American blockbusters on TV, as was the case before. We also requested for films not to be interrupted by TV commercials, and only one big channel inserts one commercial break. These facilitations help French film production. That is why 200 French films are produced every year, 30 of which are by first-timedirectors. There are also 30 to 40 films by women filmmakers, which is also unique in the world.
Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl, "Music Box" (1989)
Ancient Greek tragedy is recurrent in your films. Your heroes are confronted with Power and Authority in its various forms and they either lose or their victories are hollow. What is the meaning of tragedy for you?
Greece is the birth place of drama. Ancient Greeks introduced tragedy ex novo as a genre and structure. All spectacles in the world follow the rules of Ancient Greek tragedy and follow the same structure as it was defined by Aristotle, having a beginning, middle and end. From the moment we are born, we live with tragedy. The tragedy of life, the tragedy of Greece, which has gone through so many tragedies…then we come to tragedy in drama. For me tragedy is similar to life. Life comprises everything. I don’t really understand those who say we should always be happy. What does happiness mean? We are able to relish happiness, because it’s not something that we enjoy every day. The contrast between happy and unhappy moments in life makes instances of happiness or unhappiness more intense.
And what about power? Has the meaning of power changed in recent years?
We live under authority since childhood; do this, or don’t do that … Power can be positively used, when it is followed by reasoning why something should be done or not. The worst form of exertion of authority for me is when there is no explanation as to why and how. We are endlessly under authority but we also exert authority on other people. This is, as I said before, everyday politics.
In his letter to Igmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa claims that artists reach their creative peak after the age of 80. How do you feel about that?
I don’t know... it is true that Kurosawa kept making films after he reached 80, but there are certain prerequisites for this, including good physical condition, because film making is like running the Marathon. I myself I'm 86 and I can tell that what changes with age is experience, the way you look at other people and the way you see life. If physical health and experience coexist, then you can expect things. And Kurosawa had both.
Gad Elmaleh, Gabriel Byrne, "The Capital" (2012)
Do you follow developments in Greek cinema?
Yes, I do. At times the state helps cinema, at others it doesn’t. Greek filmmakers feel abandoned. It is not enough to have a National Film Centre; constant help and resolve to support Greek Cinema is necessary, because a Greek film can travel the world and say so many things about Greece. It is imperative to have national cinema with solid and continuous state support and the right legal framework: Greek film makers should be facilitated to shoot in Greek archaeological sites; the Greek Film Centre should enable even “difficult” productions, which are more demanding for the audience. Time and again audiences exceed our expectations and the state must generate those conditions of freedom and support that encourage scriptwriters and directors to create. Many years ago, a Minister of Tourism asked me what changes are necessary to attract foreign productions. I offered him my thoughts, but nothing happened.
Currently there are radical changes taking place regarding the new financial and tax incentives which I find very positive. It’s important to attract foreign producers, because Greece interests them. I know that from discussions with them. They tell me that things are difficult in Greece. These changes are beginning to make things easier for filmmakers and producers. There has to be an ongoing relationship between the state and the filmmakers. If these changes continue, they will bring vast improvements both for economy in general and for filmmakers themselves.
I have to stress that Greece also has excellent crews and technicians. Working on my new film here in Greece, I work with Greek crews and I am really amazed by the quality of their work. First of all, I’m working with internationally acclaimed Director of Photography, Yiorgos Arvanitis, who has a highly competent crew. The sound unit is also excellent and the same goes for the settings. All of the Greek crews I’m working with speak English; they are always prepared and highly skilled. So, it’s not true that there are no skilled film crews and technicians in Greece.
There are small countries with strong national cinemas, such as Sweden or Israel. If smaller countries can do it, why can’t we?
Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Tukur, "Amen" (2002)
In retrospect, do you think that the Golden Era of European Cinema is over? Are you optimistic about contemporary film production?
Film production today is undergoing revolutionary changes, of which we have only seen a fraction, the digital part. The way we think about films, the way we make films and the way films are viewed are changing. The way films are produced is changing. This cuts both ways; the big companies finance films but they impose great limitations to their distribution, in the sense that films can only be available on TV networks. If this continues, the big companies will get more and more power which will escalate to choosing which films are actually produced and which not. We need to fiercely resist this in Europe. Not the system, because the system exists and, from a certain point of view, it has a positive side, in the sense that it offers people living in areas without access to cinemas the ability to watch films in the comfort of their homes. What is negative is that this system can take control of world cinema production, threatening personal and national cinema. But the system does not care about that; it is only interested in the box office. They think they have the recipe for commercially successful films, and this will have bad repercussions on film making.
The notion of National as well as European Cinema must be strongly supported. We frequently appeal to J.-C. Juncker about the actions and steps that need to taken in this direction. Cinema is part of the grand path towards peaceful cooperation that the EU is about. By saying we need to have European cinema I am thinking in terms of financing and a legal framework, because cinema is firstly personal, national and can later become European. Europe must adopt a very positive stance to cinema and we are working a lot in this direction in France.
Would you like to tell us a few things about your work at the Cinémathèque Française?
In the context of film preservation in France, there was an effort to preserve and save silent films (which were never really silent, but this is another issue). Henry Langlois, director of the Cinémathèque, began selecting film and non-film material (scripts etc). Coming to the present, I was asked to become the President of the Cinémathèque with its vast material. We plan to make a European Film Museum and we try to find the necessary funding for that. This project is conducted by the French Cinémathèque but it concerns a European museum, because we have a vast collection in storage which should be exhibited. The young should find out more about cinema history and its educational function in contemporary society. Cinema has helped us come in contact with other cultures, as is the case with Kurosawa, whom you mentioned earlier. When Greek films travel abroad, they inform foreign audiences about the Greek way of life and the Greek way of thinking and this is what makes Greek cinema so important.
Coming back to the purpose of existence of a Cinémathèque, its aim should be to be screening as many films as possible, not only saving them. Every year at the French Cinémathèque we screen about 2.200 films; this means screening four to five films per day. Sometimes we have large audiences, at others we have smaller. That’s what the Cinémathèque is for.
Kostas Gavras interviewed
One last question; are you afraid that home entertainment may substitute cinema screenings?
There is always that risk, but the same has been said about theatre, which is still here after 2.500 years. Cinema is only 120 years old. I believe it will keep on, for the reasons I explained earlier.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi (Greek News Agenda) and Kostas Mavroidis (GreceHebdo).
Read also: One more reason to film in Greece: A new legal framework of economic incentives, General Secretariat for Media and Communication boosting Greek Gaming & Animation, Lefteris Kretsos on bringing Greece on the global map of the Game and Film Making Industry.
Maria Koulouri works as a speech therapist, psychotherapist, and an animator at a theatre group of autistic and intellectually challenged adults (Μunicipal Theatre of Piraeus). She also works therapeutically through creative writing sessions with adults and children. She worked in poetry workshops at the Hellenic Open University (Master of Creative Writing). She is studying European Culture at the Hellenic Open University.
Bare Museum (Melani Books, 2013), her first poetry collection, won the First Appearing Poet - Hellenic Authors’ Society Award. She was also nominated for the National Poetry Prize. Clocks and other beats, her second poetry collection, published in 2015 (Melani Books), won the Athens Academy of Letters and Fine Arts-Lyric Poetry Award. Ordinary beds, her third poetry collection, was published in 2017 (Melani Books). Lits quotidiens, an anthology of her poems translated in French by Michel Volkovitch and Myrto Gondicas, was published in France in 2018 by Le miel des anges. Her one act plays have been presented in the form of a staged reading by the Hellenic Centre of International Theatre Institute. She is also the screenwriter of the short film “Possibly strangers”, directed by George Paterakis, and presented in domestic and international film festivals.
Maria Koulouri spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest poetry collection Ordinary Beds, which was written on the occasion of the massive influx of refugees in Europe, noting that the book actually refers to “the path of every person's life […] the life journey and the seeking of a safe destination”. Asked about the main themes her poetry touches upon, she mentions “death, the mortal human nature and what this awareness implies, the acceptance of defeat, the impermanence of life, the position of women” as the thematic core of her poetry so far.
As for the relation of poetry to the world it inhabits, she comments that “poetry has never motivated people to protest in the streets” and that “this should not be the aim of poetry”, and adds that “political action arises from the readers of poetry”, that “shutting down television, disconnecting from the social media and opening a book is an act of resistance”. She concludes that “modern Greek literature has the potential to stand deservedly in the international literary field”. “However, state support will play a decisive role to this end. Of course, what is urgent is to support the Greek creators mainly within Greece, as well as to make an effort to expand readership”.
In contrast to your first two books, which focus on short poetic forms, your latest poetry collection Ordinary beds comprises five rather long poems. What is that differentiates your third book? Was the form dictated by the content?
In my third book of poems, Ordinary Beds, I had to deal with a specific subject. The poetic composition was not my initial idea. It came up through writing, and I thought I should keep on experimenting on this form. It was also a challenge since my first two books contain mostly short poems. The poetic composition allowed me to develop a continuum, a single strand narrative. Moreover, in Ordinary Beds, there is another form of experimentation: automatic writing. I focused on a particular subject, but I was writing without the control of logical thinking. Of course, at the final stage improvements and corrections were made, but they did not change the original idea. Thus, the theme and the writing process led me to compose five long poems.
Yet, I still believe in the power of short form. In poetry, a genre where the economy of expression is important, short form seems to be the ideal device for a poet. Besides the elements and the features of poetry, I think that short form corresponds to the fast-paced modern life. The fast-paced everyday life orders the direct, full of meaning and effective manner of expression. After all, it's been a long time since Art had something new to say. Everything has already been said and today's artist knows that he should start from this point.
How are the notions of anguish, wear and death imprinted on your poetry? What are the main themes your poetry touches upon?
Studying the themes that poets choose to write for, we can see there are no surprises. Death, love, the search for god, the meaning of life, are issues that concern poets over the centuries. So, through poetry, I myself am interested in writing about what is not easy to say, about those that are repressed and emerging in the empty space between the conscious and the unconscious. Death, the mortal human nature and what this awareness implies, the acceptance of defeat, the impermanence of life, the position of women I think is the thematic core of my poetry so far. I do not know if I could write erotic poetry. At least not to praise beauty. Although great poems have been written on this subject, I think I would approach love through loss, following the contradiction between love and death. Generally speaking, I do not care about the beauty that glorifies life in poetry, but as the opposite of ugliness, anguish, and decay. After all, it is so rare to see pure beauty.
You have stated that Ordinary Beds was inspired by the image of unaccompanied refugee children sleeping in the forests of Europe. How does poetry interrelate with life in your work?
Due to the massive influx of refugees in Greece a few years ago, some artists have, probably, overused the subject of refugee. This was difficult for me. I mean, I did not like the idea of being in my warm home, with all comforts, using the human tragedy to satisfy my artistic anxieties. This, of course, requires a lot of discussion, and I know there is a reply, which says that creators wrote about the refugees' issue to highlight the problem. It may be so, but I felt that by writing directly on this subject, I would just take away my responsibilities as a citizen.
At the period of the massive refugee influx, I read an article on the internet, which spoke about unaccompanied children traveling alone. Until they arrive in the country they had chosen, they were sleeping on the soil in European forests. The article and the accompanying photos shook me, and I felt the need to write. But, because of the reasons I mentioned above, I did not write about the refugees but on this occasion. I borrowed the title of the article, and I used it as the first verse of my composition. I applied automatic writing, having in my mind all the information and images related to this tragedy. Thus, I fundamentally talked about the path of every person's life. I wrote about the life journey and the seeking of a safe destination.
In other words, I tried to move from the specific to the general. This is the only way I can see everyday life connecting with poetry. I am interested in the universality of the experience, how my experience or of someone else could become the experience of the whole.
What is the role a poet is called to play nowadays? Is it in the capacity of poetry to be ‘politically militant’?
Given that in poetry the transition from personal to universal is necessary, we would say that poetry plays by definition a role in politics. I do not think that poetry has ever motivated people to protest in the streets, and I do not believe it may happen. In fact, this should not be the aim of poetry. I do not know whether we can define a certain purpose for poetry or a single role for the poets. In the 1960s and 1970s, modern Greek poems were set to music by famous Greek composers, and in this way, poetry exerted a great influence over the public. However, it was not poetry that drove people to revolt against the Dictatorship.
Nowadays, political action arises from the readers of poetry. Someone who opens a book of poetry ruptures the decline that characterizes social values as they have been gradually shaped since the onset of the economic crisis. Shutting down television, disconnecting from social media and opening a book is an act of resistance.
I see no need to give any further purpose in poetry. It existed before us, and it will continue to exist. It is an Art with a long journey through centuries, and it is directly connected with language. As the ability to speak remains alive, poetry will be written and be read by some. Everything else seems more like tools for selfish purposes.
Vassilis Lambropoulos has commented that “the Greek poets of the 2000s, the Generation of the Left Melancholy, have a strong civic awareness and are very interested in the public presentation of their work. To them, poetry making does not end with writing verses but extends to the domain of their circulation broadly understood”. How is this trend to be explained? Could poetry offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
It is true that young poets are particularly interested in turning their work into literary material for further creation. We often see poems accompanied by representation, either a video or a performance. This activity keeps pace with the dominant role of the image in our time. The generation of young poets is familiar with technology and the opportunities it offers, as they often use it to publish their work. Very impressive results have appeared from the association of language and image helping to widen the initial venture and its reception from several points of view.
If we think the notion of representation in the course of History, we will see that it began to concern creators during the Baroque era. That is when man came to the center of the theories about the world. Since then, capitalism has not only established the omnipotence of man, but it has transformed man and his works into expendable material. In the post-capitalist era in which we live, what dominates is the acceptance of the loss of individual and social freedom, as well as the acceptance of defeat and compromise. Professor Vassilis Lambropoulos defines the concept of "left melancholy" considering that the frustration coming from the old regime creates the need for collective action on the part of younger poets, the need to focus on cooperation and alliance. And, of course, this co-action should only be positively commented. The only doubt is that there is a risk of altering the uniqueness of each creator, as well as the risk of his entrapment in a prevailing collectivity.
Karen Van Dyck, editor of Austerity Measures, has characterized the new generation of Greek poets as “multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational”. How would you comment on current literary, and more specifically poetic, production in Greece?
I believe that poetic production in modern Greece is remarkable. The generation of young poets respects the legacy of ancient Greek literature, they often discourse with it, while they also have a powerful connection with major Greek poets about whom they were taught at school (Palamas, Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis, Ritsos, etc.). Young poets, having the advantage of distance, are emancipated from the awe of the grandeur of the past, so they write poems in a modern and lively language. I am particularly pleased with the fact that a lot of new generation poets explore the limits of language and the poetic form. I find it interesting that they choose to experiment, and when the experiment corresponds to the feeling, it bears effective outcomes. At the same time, I am fully aware of the impressive results that come from the osmosis between younger and older living creators, obvious in the work of both.
Something additional that should be noted is the many female poetic voices. I have the feeling that women who decide to publish their work are more today than in the past. Although I do not believe in the separation between female and male literature, the strong female presence in contemporary Greek poetry broadens the boundaries of creation.
I would say that modern Greek literature has the potential to stand deservedly in the international literary field. In recent years, some attempts have been made to publish modern Greek literary works abroad. However, state support will play a decisive role to this end. Of course, what is urgent is to support the Greek creators mainly within Greece, as well as to make an effort to expand readership.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Vangelis Hatzivassileiou was born in Athens in 1959. He studied Political Science and Regional Economics. He cooperated with the newspapers Proti and Kathimerini as well as with various literary magazines, while he worked as a book reviewer for Avgi (1982-1991) and Eleftherotypia (1991-2010). From 1998 to 2009 he was a member of the editorial team of the “Bibliothiki” section of Eleftherotypia. At present, he cooperates as a book reviewer with Vima tis Kyriakis and is a member of the editorial team of the literary magazine O anagnostis. He is also a regular partner of the literary magazines Βοοks’ Journal and Entefktirio and cooperates with the Athens News Agency. His scholarly study titled Η κίνηση του εκκρεμούς: Άτομα και κοινωνία στη νεότερη ελληνική πεζογραφία 1974-2017 [The Move of the Pendulum: Individual and Society in Modern Greek Fiction 1974-2017] was recently published by Polis Editions.
Vangelis Hatzivassileiou spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest writing venture The Move of the Pendulum, a study on Modern Greek fiction that begins in 1974 and extends to the present. He comments on the relationship between the individual and the collective represented in Greek fiction during the period under study, as well as on the major convergences and divergences that are observed in the literary production of the last forty years, noting that “multilateralism is a structural feature of fiction since 1974, and this is exactly where I focus in my book: to show the crossroads and the convergences, but also the variations and heterogeneities of the material available”.
Asked about the special emphasis he lays on the historical novel, he explains that from 1974 onwards, the historical novel “attempts to bravely open up to the Other and the notion of otherness”, to “the heterogeneous cultural identities and their multiple levels of co-existence, contradiction or interdependence”. He concludes that his scholarly study “aspires to act as a historical snapshot: a snapshot which at the same time seeks to move beyond the random, the occasional and the fleeting, recording the literary momentum produced in a specific era”.
Υοur latest writing venture The Move of the Pendulum delves into Modern Greek fiction of the last 45 years (1974-2017). Tell us a few things about the book.
My study on Modern Greek fiction begins in 1974 and extends to the present; yet, in reality, its time span goes beyond this milestone, covering the entire post-war period: my research comprises the post-war generations of writers, who remained intimately connected to the thorny issues of politics and history and produced a significant part of their works from 1974 onwards. The book attempts to answer a fundamental question in my judgment: how is the relationship between the individual and the collective reflected upon fiction written following the regime change in 1974, which radically changed the pre-dictatorial reality of Greek society?
“The course of Greek literature since 1974 is neither inescapable nor one-way: it rather resembles the movement of the pendulum: from society to the individual and from the individual back to society”. How is the relationship between the individual and the collective represented in Greek fiction during the period under study?
Those who began writing immediately after the collapse of the military junta in 1974, hastened to disengage their works from the drama of politics and history and gradually severed ties between the individual and public space. The individual thus loses his identity as a citizen, while his individualism parts ways with his social character. In such a context, these writers will clearly differentiate themselves from the attitudes and choices of their predecessors, when literature was translated into a political act, even if it tried to break free from the suffocation of collective elements, bringing forward instead, in a spirit of opposition and freethinking, the importance of individual identity and independent being.
Freedom, however, in this avant-garde form, will quickly prove, from the early years following the change of regime, an empty word. The individual may have priority now, yet he seems ready to be cast away by his environment, tending to be identified with an immensely discontinuous and meaningless present. It’s the time when History loses its timelessness and comes to be experienced as a history of specific events and special circumstances, while literature moves from the collective to the individual, ready to push the collective aside at the first opportunity. What we are seeing is a rather degenerative version of freedom, which will lay the ground -despite the absence of any endogenous relevance whatsoever- for the parody writers of the 1980s, who by means of the depressing irony of their monstrous world will move to a further downgrading of the individual, confining him into a strictly private space.
In contrast, crime and historical fiction move with passionate force towards the collective, as do to a smaller or larger degree other categories of writers of this specific period. Writers, for instance, who depict everyday social life, will portray various aspects of modern collective co-existence without ignoring its social or historical background. A more intense narrative will be produced in this perspective by socio-political writers who by delving into either deep political waters or shallower ones will mark out deeply rooted economic and social frictions. Writers who act as prophets of the future, constitute quite a significant parameter of literature from 1974 onwards, and will go a step further by illustrating an ominous universe both for the present and the future.
Specific social desiderata would be detected among writers of sci-fi literature, while writers of heterotopias (a substantial and active category) would portray their marginal worlds as places where a person’s vida nuda is merely a socially manipulated and devalued life, trapped by the absence of the political while also confined in an existential suffocation caused by the dark hierarchies whose will remains unknown.
In the book you attempt to interpret the literary co-existence of many, quite distinct generations, which unfolded during the same period, and expressed different aspects of the same collective experience. Which are the major convergences and divergences that are observed in the literary production of the last forty years?
Literature constitutes the prime framework that brings to light the different perspectives developed in a common environment. Yet, literature itself is not characterized just by the different ways the social environment is being perceived, but also by its wide morphological and thematic variety. I would say that this multilateralism is a structural feature of fiction since 1974, and this is exactly where I focus in my book: to show the crossroads and the convergences, but also the variations and heterogeneities of the material available. It wouldn’t be easy to name the major or minor convergences and divergences – and even if we were able to detect them, we wouldn’t avoid a schematic presentation. This wide variety doesn’t allow for the dominance of certain tendencies over others. If we had to delve into something in this respect, it would be the writers’ interest in historical and crime fiction. Both genres have been substantially renewed.
You lay special emphasis on the historical novel, commenting that the renewal of the historical novel inaugurates a turn towards a new collective experience, which will lead to the dominance of the collective in the literature of the crisis. Tell us more.
From 1974 onwards, the historical novel keeps distance from the patriotic triumph and national complacencies that were, to a large degree, its main traits in the 19th and 20th century, attempting bravely to open up to the Other and the notion of otherness. The absence of a coherent self, which was a primary characteristic of a great number of heroes that appeared in the literary production of this period, will find in the historical novel a vital counterbalance: the heterogeneous cultural identities and their multiple levels of co-existence, contradiction or interdependence.
Likewise, although the individual has not moved an inch away from the post-modern fate of his volatility and indefiniteness, and despite having given up on the pursuit of self-efficiency, he nevertheless endeavors to regain citizenship and integrate himself, in line with Herder’s old aphorism, into a network of collective commitments. We should of course clarify the obvious: under such conditions, the collective doesn’t arise from the intense turmoil of politics and History, but through the memories of civilization, scholarship and culture. As for fiction written during the crisis, it is largely a product of specific political and social circumstances: it has no particular relevance to the historical novel and actually constitutes a different chapter.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
This argument is largely a fable, which no way could be applied to Greek fiction, at least not since the 1930s. In Greece we have indeed a strong tradition in short stories extending to the present, but longer forms (with all the narrative, stylist and technical problems entailed) have long been at the forefront of literary processes; the sheer volume of post-war novels, which rose dramatically since 1974, attests to this. In recent years, Greek prose writers have been following closely international literary trends, mainly focusing on the novel – at least in terms of quantity.
Where does the subjectivity of the book reviewer meet the objectivity of the literary scholar in your writings?
A book review constitutes contemporary appraisal par excellence: what is good and what is bad, what went right and what went wrong, what is important and what isn’t in a literary book. In contrast, scholarly research needs to be skeptical of such reasoning right from the beginning and not get caught up in zealous reactions. A literary scholar should neither condemn nor praise, but rather talk about the conditions under which literary success or failure occurred within the volume of the works he has singled out. Because a literary scholar, unlike a contemporary book reviewer, does not have to recommend to readers what to read without any reservations and what to ignore at any cost, but to indicate to future, and presumably more dispassionate and thoughtful readers, the context (social, cultural and aesthetic) within which literature won or lost the bet.
As for the history of Greek fiction since 1974, I have tried to follow the rules that govern scholarly research, but to what extent have I managed to avoid value judgments as regards my interpretive and historical framework? My research hasn’t dealt with previously classified and ranked material that other researches had already delved into. In such a context, it’s highly unlikely to avoid evaluation, i.e., some kind of appraisal drawn from contemporary book reviews. That is where, after all, the literary canon produced by the present scholarly research is based: a canon that is still unstable as far as older writers are concerned, and a regulatory framework that is constantly adjusted and revised in the case of contemporary ones. In this respect, an impartial catalogue or index is not really the solution.
Τhe only option is to trust your intuition and experience once again – and take the risk of your choices, even though you know that a great part of literary production will most probably stay out of the scholarly research that will be carried out later for the same period. My book constitutes research in the making, one that attempts to offer a historical perspective to its material, while it cannot and doesn’t want to ignore the structure of feeling of its time nor its evaluative basis. It is a writing not addressed to a remote reader, an unknown person in an unforeseeable future, but to a reader who has experienced things also experienced by the critic who became a scholar. I am talking about scholarly work that is not synonymous to philology but which aspires to act as a historical snapshot: a snapshot which at the same time seeks to move beyond the random, the occasional and the fleeting, recording the literary momentum produced in a specific era.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Professor Michael Scott is one of the most prominent and passionate classicists in Britain, also well known for his public engagement and outreach work as a speaker and broadcaster. His research and teaching focuses on aspects of ancient Greek and Roman society, as well as ancient Global History, while he has written several books on the ancient Mediterranean world as well as ancient Global History. In 2015, Scott was declared an honorary Citizen of Delphi in recognition of his work related to the sanctuary of Delphi.
Michael Scott is a Professor in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick and member of Warwick’s Global History and Culture Centre. He is a National Teaching Fellow and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, President of the Lytham Snt Annes Classical Association and in 2019 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has written and presented a range of TV and Radio programmes for National Geographic, History Channel, Nova, BBC & ITV, including Delphi: bellybutton of the ancient world (BBC4), Who were the Greeks? (BBC2) and Ancient Invisible Cities (BBC2).
On 12 February Professor Scott gave an illustrated talk to the Anglo-Hellenic League and the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies about the making of his latest BBC2 TV series, Ancient Invisible Cities, which combines real-life exploration of hard-to-reach ancient locations with high resolution laser-scanning and virtual reality to open up spaces and landscapes never before seen on TV.
On this occasion, Professor Scott was interviewed by the Press & Communications Office at the Embassy of Greece in London, and spoke about the portrayal of ancient Greece throughout the centuries and the contribution of ancient Greek studies to self-knowledge. Studying the ancient Greek and Roman world is crucial to a good education, he notes, while highlighting the possibilities of pedagogical and technological innovation in the field of classics, as well as the importance of engaging with the wider public in discussions about the ancient world.
How did you decide to study classics?
I was 17 and spent my 17th birthday in the ancient sanctuary of Olympia, on a school trip to Greece. Up to that point I had not intended to study Classics. But spending that day in such a wonderful ancient site completely changed my mind. I have never looked back since.
How have portrayals of ancient Greece changed over the centuries?
Dramatically! The ancient Romans did a good job of portraying ancient Athenian democracy for example as little more than ‘mob rule’ - an impression whose legacy can still be seen in the debates about the American Constitution by the US Founding Fathers. The 19th century however saw a crucial change in attitudes towards Athenian democracy and to ancient Greece more generally, as many European nations in particular began to express a direct link to the political, philosophical and cultural achievements of the ancient Greeks. It was at this time also that the archaeological investigation of ancient Greece began in earnest, with the Acropolis declared the first archaeological site, changing our understanding of the physical world of the ancient Greeks. But even today, the best known aspects of ancient Greece remain its philosophical debates, the democracy of Athens, and its military activities, particularly in the struggle against the Persians in the 5th century BC and in the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.
In one of your lectures you argued that “studying the ancient Greeks actually offers us a mirror with which to study ourselves.” How relevant is ancient Greece in today’s world? What can we learn from the ancients about ourselves?
It is because we, as modern nations, have, particularly in the last two centuries, claimed such a strong link to the political, cultural and philosophical achievements of the ancient Greeks, that as a result studying the ancient Greeks tells us about ourselves. By studying them, we not only learn more about their achievements, but also more about ourselves as we continually reflect on the similarities and differences between us and them.
Classics used to be an integral part of a good education. To what extent do you feel that this still applies today?
Those who study the ancient Greek and Roman worlds today have worked very hard to ensure that the study of these incredible ancient societies is NOT only the privilege of those who go to expensive private schools. We fundamentally believe that studying the ancient Greek and Roman worlds is of importance and use to every child in every school - and thus that it should be an integral part of every education - that indeed it is crucial to a good education. We in universities work closely with teachers in schools across the country, as well as with organisations like Classics for All to ensure everyone has a chance to study this incredible moment in our bigger human story.
From the making of Ancient Invisible Cities
You have been awarded the National Teaching Fellowship for your contribution to teaching in higher education. What are the possibilities of pedagogical innovation in the field of classics?
Endless. It is often remarked at my university - the University of Warwick - that despite the fact that the Classics department teaches about some of the oldest material anywhere in the university, it is often doing so using the most advanced and new technological equipment or using the latest pedagogical techniques and ideas. Studying Classics is the study of what makes two ancient cultures tick - and there is a vast array of fun, innovative and exciting ways to do that. It is what makes my job the most fun - having the chance to constantly innovate in the ways I teach the ancient world.
You recently wrote a book on ancient Greece for 8-year-old children. How can life in ancient Greece capture the imagination of young children?
I think young children are always fascinated by ancient cultures that can be so different from our own. In the UK, all children aged 7-9 learn about the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians as part of the national curriculum. But we currently don’t then continue that learning as a core part of the curriculum into later years - when we should!
You have written and presented some of the most fascinating documentaries on ancient Greece. What are the challenges in visualising ancient Greece on TV?
Ancient Greece has a unique problem not shared by its cousin Ancient Rome. Ancient Greece was never one place - it was a patchwork of other 1000 poleis, all quite different from one another. You cannot thus look at Athens and see Greece in the way that you can look at the city of Rome and see the Roman Empire. As such, the public I think simply does not have in their heads such a clear picture of ancient Greece as ancient Rome and this has all sorts of implications for how successfully any documentary, drama or film can represent the ancient Greek world (when no one is in agreement about how it looked or felt). Again the comparison here is with ancient Rome - where the public I think can more easily visualise what ancient Rome look and felt like - and such can buy into films set in these landscapes (think of the success of Gladiator for example).
From the making of Ancient Invisible Cities
How can the use of digital technology make the ancient world more accessible to the wider public, and especially to younger generations?
I have been lucky enough to be involved in a BBC documentary series Ancient Invisible Cities, which uses laser scanning to create 3D scans and VR worlds of ancient sites. I think these techniques have huge potential to help make the ancient Greek world more accessible to the wider public, because they offer a middle way between just looking at ruins and fully re-creating an ancient landscape which no one can agree on. I think the technology also allows us to think about how the ancient Greeks constructed their buildings, and thus puts the emphasis on the incredible craftsmanship of its artisans and architects, as well as the skill of the workmen actually building these structures, allowing us to access a different level of ancient Greek society from those normally most visible in the ancient texts (politicians, military generals, dramatists or philosophers)
You regularly take part in live online Q&As, answering questions and sharing the latest news and events on classics. How important is engagement with the wider public in debate and discussion about the ancient world?
I see it as fundamentally part of the job of being an academic to engage with as wide an audience as possible over why I think this topic is worth studying. I also see huge benefit in the two-way dialogue between my research, my teaching and my engagement with different audiences, with each of those strands of my work benefitting from being in contact with the others. I think also right now, especially as the ancient world is being employed as justification for a myriad of ideas and values in our modern society, some of which are absolutely the antithesis of the reality of the ancient Greek world, that we engaged actively in that debate over what the ancient world can and should be taken to mean, support, and justify.
In a recent article in the Guardian, you wrote that modern Athens is a “battleground of an ancient versus a modern world”. In your documentary Ancient Invisible Cities: Athens some of the most hidden aspects of ancient Athens are revealed. Which of these aspects do you find most fascinating?
Any city with an important ancient past finds itself something of a battleground: constantly having to weigh up the destruction of modern buildings to uncover ancient ones, or leaving ancient wonders covered over in order to prioritise modern structures. What we tried to do in Ancient Invisible Cities was to explore some of the ancient spaces that have ended up out of sight and reach of the ordinary visitor and use the laser scanning technology to make them visitable for everyone via laser scans and Virtual Reality.
Michael Scott in Delphi
In 2015, you were made an honorary Citizenship of Delphi, in recognition of your work related to the sanctuary of Delphi. What is unique about Delphi? In what ways did Delphi shape the ancient world?
It was a huge honour for me to be made an Honorary Citizen of Delphi. Delphi is like no other place on earth - an incredibly important ancient site in a beautiful and wonderous location, which has a magical power to it felt by I think everyone who visits. In the ancient word, Delphi was one of the most important locations across the Mediterranean and beyond: we even find sayings from the oracle of Delphi inscribed on a monument at the ancient site of Ai Khanoum in modern-day Afghanistan!
On 20 February 2019 you delivered your professorial inaugural lecture at the University of Warwick. What are your plans for the future?
My research interests at the moment are focused on the ways in which different ancient cultures interacted with one another both inside and outside the Mediterranean, across the ancient Silk Roads, all the way to China. At the same time, I am also interested in bringing modern understandings of cognitive behaviour and psychology to the study of the ancient Greek world, particularly the study of ancient Greek religious ritual. You can watch my inaugural lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pa7aZHeuKSg
Read more via Greek News Agenda: Dr Stephen Miller on uncovering the Sanctuary of Zeus and the revival of the Nemean Games; Sharon Gerstel: “Byzantine History opened my eyes to a culture that has long been marginalized in our studies”; Reading Greece | Professor Gonda Van Steen on her lifelong fascination with all things Greek; Study Archaeology in Greece: English-taught Undergraduate and Postgraduate Courses
Stamatis Polenakis was born in Athens in 1970. He studied cinematography in Athens, and attended Spanish literature and culture courses in Madrid (Complutense University). He has published six poetry collections: Το χέρι του χρόνου [Hand of time] (Omvros, 2002), Τα γαλάζια άλογα του Φραντς Μαρκ [The blue horses of Franz Mark] (Odos Panos, 2006), Νοτρ Νταμ [Notre-Dame] (Odos Panos, 2008), Τα σκαλοπάτια της Οδησσού [Οdessa steps] (Mikri Arktos, 2012), H ένδοξη πέτρα [The glorious stone] (Mikri Arktos, 2014), Τα τριαντάφυλλα της Μερσέδες [The roses of Mercedes] (Mikri Arktos, 2016).
His poems have been translated in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan. His monologue Emily Dickinson’s Last Dream was translated in Romanian and was broadcast by the Romanian Radio. For his latest poetry collection The roses of Mercedes he received the ‘Anagnostis’ Award for Poetry in 2016 and the National Poetry Award in 2017.
Stamatis Polenakis spoke to Reading Greece* about The roses of Mercedes noting that “the book comprises two extensive narrative poems united by a single thread: the passions of man in the tremendous throes of History”. He comments that his poetry keeps coming back to the same themes, that is “the idea of revolution, both continuous and glorious in its failure, the effort of man to become what he is, to break his ties with the historic time and enter the messianic one, man’s unremitting effort to ennoble the world, love, memory, search for happiness, disaster and loss”.
Asked about the relationship of poetry with the world it inhabits, he expresses his uncertainty about whether “poetry can, even remotely, save the world from destruction”, and concludes that “despite the respective attempts, contemporary Greek poetry hasn’t yet managed to interweave with the global state of affairs”, although “there are ventures under way, a kind of restlessness, a kind of movement”.
Your latest poetry collection The roses of Mercedes received the National Poetry Award in 2017. Tell us about the book.
The book comprises two extensive narrative poems united by a single thread: the passions of man in the tremendous throes of History. The first poem is an almost delusional narration of a veteran volunteer, perhaps a survivor of the American Lincoln Brigade who fought in Spain during the civil war on the side of the Democrats. The second poem, through a cinematic narration, refers to the fateful August of 1914, when a gunshot in Sarajevo triggered once more the sinister forces of History and disaster.
From Hand of time in 2002 to The roses of Mercedes in 2016 what has changed and what has remained the same in your poetry?
Everything has changed and at the same time everything remains still and immobile. I am not the same person I once was. 2002 seems an eternity away. The years are lost and will never come back. Lost time cannot be regained. However, the past, the present and the future are all the very same. Time is a unity. Whatever happened once may easily happen again, Primo Levi once said. We must be extremely careful and always on the alert. Our era bears monsters as did all previous eras.
To use Dinos Siotis’ words, “Stamatis Polenakis belongs to the tradition of poets whose every poem is a revelation, an apologia of poetry made anew, a fresh acknowledgement of authentic visions and melancholic convergences, instant flashes which last for ever”. Which are the main themes your poetry delves into?
I keep coming back to the same themes. It’s probably too late now to part with my obsessions. The idea of revolution, both continuous and glorious in its failure, the effort of man to become what he is, to break his ties with the historic time and enter the messianic one. Man’s unremitting effort to ennoble the world. Love, memory, search for happiness, disaster and loss. Art and poetry as a distant memory of paradise lost.
In his review of The roses of Mercedes, Giorgos Lillis notes that you “use the technical means of a theatrical play in order to create more tension in your texts”. Where do poetry and theater meet in your work? What is their binding thread?
I reckon that all arts should be linked through an invisible thread. I really love the theatre and even more the cinema I grew up with; movies made by major, unique film-makers, such as Visconti, Antonioni, Tarkovski, Bergman. This great cinema that I fear is no longer to be created, has somewhat influenced my writing.
Vassilis Lambropoulos comments that “the Greek Generation of the 2000s has been composing a poetry of the melancholic history of intermittent insurgency, a revolt which functions irregularly as it starts, stops, and starts again”, naming your elegy “Ποίηση 2048” [Poetry 2048] (Τhe Steps of Odessa) as a case in point. What is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits? What can it mean for poetry to be political, or apolitical, in times of social and economic crisis?
I am not at all sure that poetry can, even remotely, save the world from destruction. However, even this downfall of man that seems so imminent, is not an inescapable reality. Man is not something that must be overcome, as was once supported. Man is something we should attain. Poetry, with its magical though minimal powers, can do nothing less but contribute to this struggle for the liberation of Man. God does not exist. Yet.
It has been argued that the new generation of Greek writers is multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. How do they relate to world literature? How does the local/national interweave with the global?
I am afraid that despite the respective attempts, contemporary Greek poetry hasn’t yet managed to interweave with the global state of affairs. There are of course ventures underway, a kind of restlessness, a kind of movement. An anguish that we don’t know yet where it may lead. And there is also the stance of the Greek state, which is traditionally indifferent or, at best, doesn’t know how to make use of all this artistic potential that seeks to break free.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
The Balkan region has long been associated with violent conflict, ethnic unrest and the fragmentation of states. Political scientist Vassilis Maragos’ recently published the book «Only of this boast I: that I loved the fatherland». Romantic patriotism and transformations of the fatherland in the case of Grigor Pûrlichev(1830-1893), (Herodotos publications, Athens 2018), sheds light on a historical figure representative of his time, the mid-19th century, which saw the birth and consolidation of nationalist ideals in the Balkans.
Grigor Pûrlichev, also known by his Greek name, Grigorios Stavridhis, was a poet born in the city of Ohrid (part of present-day North Macedonia). He had a Greek education but later espoused pan-Slavic ideals and played a part in the forging of ethnic identity for Slavs and Bulgarians. This switch in languages and identities is illustrative of the volatile nature of ethnic and national consciousness at the time, hence Maragos’ interest in his life and thought.
Vassilis Maragos has studied law, international politics and holds a PhD in political science. He has been living in Brussels since 2005, working for the European Commission. He has published a study on the formation of modern Bulgarian identity (Paisii Hilendarski and Sofroni Vrachanski. From Orthodox Ideology to the formation of the Bulgarian identity, in Greek, Athens 2009), a book of poems (Το προσωπείο του χρόνου / The mask of time, Athens 2010), essays on historical and national identity issues and he has translated poetry from Bulgarian and Polish.
Maragos spoke to Greek News Agenda* on the remarkable case of Pûrlichev, the nascence of nationalism in 19th-century Balkans, the fluidity of identities in the region and the way we can benefit from studying these issues today with an open mind.
Who was Grigorios Stavridhis or Grigor Pûrlichev? Why a book about him?
Grigorios Stavridhis or Pûrlichev was a poet in the Balkans in the 19th-century. He wrote poetry mainly in Greek. In 1860, while a student at the Athens University Medical School, he won the first prize at the National Poetry Contest held annually by the University, with his patriotic poem O Armatolos (The Armatole, a Greek mercenary under Ottoman rule). This contest was an institution of major cultural and national significance for Greece at the time. His victory stirred quite a debate in the Press (he was even described as a "modern Homer"!), as did his feud with Professor of Botany and senior prominent poet Theodore Orphanidis, who accused Pûrlichev of being a Bulgarian and an instrument of anti-Greek propaganda having used fraudulent means to win the award. It is quite telling that the Press almost unanimously rose in defense of the "young and virtuous Stavridhis ", given that Bulgarians were considered to be "dear brothers" of the Greek people, who had shed their blood for Greece’s freedom in 1821!
Left: Grigor Pûrlichev, Right: Title page of The Armatole
The fame and popularity brought to him by obtaining the laurel at the contest, however, was not enough for the young poet from Ohrid to make a caerer in Greek letters. At the next National Poetic Contest, which took place in 1862 – sponsored by the Odessa Greek merchant Ioannis Voutsinas – Stavridhis submitted a more ambitious poem, Skenderbeis (which was Skanderbeg, a Christian Albanian leader who rebelled against the Ottomans) but he did not manage to win the award. He thus returned to his hometown of Ohrid, and around the mid-1860's he embraced Bulgarian nationalism and put himself at the forefront of the movement for the ecclesiastical and educational autonomy of the Bulgarians.
His ambition to pursue a literary career, writing in Bulgarian, led him to the Principality of Bulgaria, which was founded in 1878, but despite his efforts he never fully mastered the use of literary Bulgarian. Under the influence of pan-Slavic theories of the time, it appears he even tried to invent a pan-Slavic idiom (based on the Bulgarian vernacular) – perhaps inspired by Homer's Greek as well as the Katharevusa Greek which he’d mastered – but after a poorly received attempt to translate Homer’s Iliad in this idiom (which he called Bulgarian), he abandoned his plans and returned to Ottoman Macedonia where he continued to work as a teacher in Bulgarian schools. He also left behind an interesting Autobiography in prose, written in Bulgarian, published posthumously.
Whilst not the only example of fluid ethnic consciousness at that time, Pûrlichev was an extraordinary case: originally a member of the Eastern Orthodox community (Rūm millet – Roman or Romaic nation), whose ideology he articulated in his poems, he initially – and perhaps somewhat hesitantly – moved towards a Modern Greek identity, which he probably perceived as compatible with the Bulgarian element of his genealogy and his Slavic local idiom) before moving on to a Bulgarian Slavic identity. This concept of a fluid homeland that we find in Pûrlichev, along with its romantic patriotism, is of immense importance for the understanding of Balkan nationalisms.
Besides, there has not been enough research into the relationship between the weak but culturally and ideologically ambitious Greek state of the mid-19th century with its “irredenta”, i.e. the variety of "unredeemed" populations of the Balkan hinterland, who had a complex relationship with Greek culture that had still an important influence in the region. Moreover, the 1860s turned out to be a milestone for the separation of the Christian population into the modern national communities of Greeks and Bulgarians. April 1860 marks the first attempt by the Bulgarian clergy in Constantinople to challenge the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and throughout the decade there were movements in several towns of the Balkan hinterland with a Slavic population defying the Greek metropolitan bishops appointed by the Patriarchate.
Pûrlichev (third from the left) among other teachers and students of the Bulgarian highschool in Thessaloniki (Wikimedia commons)
In short, this is a personality whose paradigm (and when compared with other figures who, despite their different native languages, did not renounce their Greek culture and identity) takes us back to the question of relations of Hellenic culture and ideology, in the course of the 19th-century with the diverse anthropogeography of the Balkan hinterland, highlighting ties and conflicts but also challenges which, to some extent, still affect us today.
It is also worth noting that Pûrlichev is among those figures which Bulgaria and North Macedonia have recently agreed to honour jointly in the context of good neighborly relations, as part of a recently ratified friendship treaty.
You discuss the national phenomenon in the 19th-century Balkans. At the end of that century, do subject peoples of the collapsing Ottoman Empire put their traditional religious identity first, or do they espouse the supremacy of a national identity?
By the end of the 19th century, this shift was largely completed especially in urban areas, yet the religious identity remained strong and continued to shape the increasingly national consciousness of the various groups. Despite their differences, the emerging new ethnic communities are based on the common framework of their preexisting religious identity. All Christian nations of the Balkans have some common features, since they come from a common melting pot, the Orthodox community. In fact, the severity of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans among Orthodox Christians who were previously united as the great Christian nation of Romaioi or Greeks in the pre-national meaning (the Rūm millet), with its predominantly Greek culture, is akin to a civil war. The partaking of all Orthodox Christians in this wider community is clearly asserted in various writings of the time presenting either the perspective of the Enlightenment, as in Rigas Velestinlis’ works (especially the New Political Constitution), or a defensive stance against modern nationalist ideology, as is the case with Historical and critical defense of the clergy of the Eastern Church, published in Pisa in 1815.
Can you elaborate on the subject of fluid national consciousness in the Balkans, allowing for easy moving from one to another, different identity? From what point in time onwards do national identities consolidate?
This fluidity is characteristic of Pûrlichev’s generation, especially for the region of Macedonia where we encounter many such examples. Comparisons with some of his fellow Ohrid townsmen – such as jurist Michael Potlis, who served as Minister of Justice under King Otto, and philologist Margaritis Dimitsas, who both chose to remain in Greece and embrace Greek culture – underlines the fluidity of individual and collective consciousness at the time. In fact, Ohrid’s "Bulgarisation" (a term used by acclaimed Bulgarian historians to define the process of imposing the use of the Bulgarian language in the city which had played such an important role in Medieval Bulgarian history) was initially challenged by a part of the city’s urban population, who wished to maintain their contacts with the Greek merchants of Thessaloniki and of Durrës in Albania. It was a time when the term "merchant" was often perceived to have an “ethnic” character as most merchants were considered to be Greek.
However, after a period of fluidity, national identities crystallized through the creation of state structures and the existence of national institutions meant to consolidate national identity (e.g. schools, national churches and so on).
Thessaloniki Bulgarians (late 19th century) by Paul Zepdji (Wikimedia commons)
At this point I would like to emphasise the relationship of the Bulgarians in particular with Greek culture. Until the mid-19th century, many Bulgarian scholars had received a Greek education and had often been taught the concept of the nation in Greek schools, which they later tried to apply to their own nation. Moreover, those who did not renounce Greek culture were assimilated into the Greek "imagined community". They were the ones dubbed "Grecomans" regardless of whether their family or local environment was originally Bulgarian or Slavic-speaking, Albanian or Arvanitic-speaking or even Aromanian-speaking. Stavridhis, however, although having been accused as a "Grecoman", later turned against Greek culture, which he sought to besmirch in various writings he intended either for publication or for teaching. It is in fact interesting that – apparently influenced by the ideas on the continuity of Greek civilisation since the antiquity – he tried to invent a rival Bulgarian tradition originating in antiquite times, centred around historical phenomena of the northern region of Greece and Thrace (Alexander the Macedonian , Orpheus, the Pierian Muses, etc.).
When and why do Slavic-speaking populations diverge from Bulgarian and Serbian nationalism and claim a distinct national identity? Do you consider the ethnicisation process of Slavic-speaking Macedonians to be successful?
This issue is very delicate and of crucial importance for comparative Balkan history, but it is not addressed in my study which focuses on the previous period, when the key issue was the connection between Greek culture and the ethnic emancipation of populations turning to their Slavic vernacular in search of a distinct identity centred on the general concept of a Bulgarian historical nation. It is quite revealing that Pûrlichev wrote initially his speeches (which were intended for rallies) in the local Slavic vernacular of Ohrid, which he calls "Bulgarian", actually using the Greek alphabet. My research highlights Pûrlichev’s difficulty in embracing Bulgarian identity, since he was not happy with the way this identity was handled in the newly-founded Bulgarian state. I believe that, though he remained loyal to this identity, he never fully identified with Bulgarian ideology the way it was shaped by a new generation of scholars and politicians in Bulgaria, in the later period of his life.
To address your question, I think that this ethnicisation is the result of historical and political developments in the region, especially in the early 20th century. There is of course a prehistory of distinct cultural or territorial elements on which this effort is being founded. In this context, I think we ought to study, through a new unbiased perspective, the various processes of ethnogenesis so that we can better comprehend – beyond clichés – the identity of our neighbours, with whom we coexist and cooperate in order to meet the challenges facing today's world. This is an issue of substance that can contribute to the modernsation of our Balkan mentality and to the stability of our region, which is a prerequisite for our prosperity and security. I also believe that future cooperation can be inspired from older forms of cultural and social coexistence.
Pûrlichev’s bust at his house in Ohrid (Wikimedia commons)
In your opinion, does the agreement on the name of North Macedonia appease or aggravate aggressive nationalistic views today?
The comprehensive and comparative evaluation of the history of nations and national movements in the Balkans shows that these are communicating vessels. Various national movements (in their pursuit of self-determination) have at times tried to appropriate elements of their neighbours’ heritage (and Greeks, having the oldest civilisation in the region, have been subject to such appropriation). We have very close bonds with all our neighbours due to our previous coexistence within the community of the Orthodox or Romaioi, but also because of Byzantium, Christian Orthodox culture and the influence of Greek language in the region since antiquity. What is needed today in the Balkans is developing a joint historical consciousness that transcends the limits of each distinct national history, placing the peoples of the region within the broader history of empires and other formations in this part of Europe. After all, every people benefits from a deeper understanding of its neighbours. We enrich ourselves spiritually and we benefit politically when we understand and compare our identity with the identities of others without arrogance and narrow-mindedness. And the generosity of Greek civilisation is undeniable. Let’s not forget the enormous contribution of the classical Greek culture (a quintessential part of our identity) to the formation of modern Europe.
My personal view is that the Prespes agreement represents an approach for the conciliatory resolution of historical disputes, which could and should prove to be mutually beneficial by future developments, in the context of a clearly positive perception of interdependence in the region, contributing to regional stability and cooperation, within the framework of European integration. Let us keep in mind that the unification of Europe is principally a peace project, based on compromises and amicable relations and cooperation between neighbouring peoples.
*Interview by Costas Mavroidis. Translation by Nefeli Mosaidi. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are strictly personal.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Agreement on the name issue ends disputes between Greece and FYROM ; International leaders and press on the Prespes Agreement ratification by Greek Parliament; Rethinking Greece: Alexis Heraclides on foreign policy formation in Greece, the Macedonian Question and the need for a secure national identity; Othon Anastasakis: We must focus on the positive outcomes of the Prespes Agreement; Loukas Tsoukalis: The Prespes Agreement puts an end to a long and divisive dispute; Miroslav Grchev: the Prespes Agreement leaves the faux-patriots without fuel; “The name issue and the inescapable national road” by Prof. Nikos Marantzidis
Yannis Goranitis is a fiction & non-fiction storyteller. He was born in Athens, where he lives and works as a journalist and ghostwriter for Viografi.es | Boutique Publishing House, that he co-founded in 2015. For his first book, a short story collection entitled 24 (Patakis, 2017) he was awarded with the 'Anagnostis' literary magazine “Best newcomer prose writer” and was shortlisted for the “Best newcomer writer” award of Hellenic’s Authors Society. Various short stories have been awarded in literary contests and published in short stories collections, literary magazines and websites.
John Goranitis spoke to Reading Greece* about 24, “a modular collection of 24 short stories, which are numbered according to the respective electric railway stations”. He explains that “all stories take place, originate or are inspired by its passengers, while all incidents take place in wagons or platforms”, and adds that “the convenient literary condition 24 was based upon is that the same train moves throughout the city, thus offering a single narrative context that includes heterogeneous characters and unpredictable situations”.
Asked about the main challenges that new writers face in order to have their work published, he comments that “the Greek book market has been hit hard during the crisis, which is the primary reason publishers appear quite reluctant to publish works by newcomers”. He concludes that “writers who make ends meet solely by writing fiction are no more than a dozen”, and “it’s not just that the Greek book market is small (and continues to shrink), but that there is almost no interest in translations to other languages”. “The situation could possible be reversed in case there were applied the necessary policies; I don’t mean sinecures and political favors but a balanced policy that would not only support the book market but may also boost readership”.
Your first short story collection 24 received rave reviews upon publication. Tell us a few things about the book.
The book constitutes a modular collection of 24 short stories, which are numbered according to the respective electric railway stations (from #1 Kifissia to #24 Piraeus). All stories take place, originate or are inspired by its passengers, while all incidents take place in wagons or platforms. I call the collection ‘modular’ because many of the short stories continue at next stations, while some of the characters pop in and out of the stories of others. Several book critics noted that the book is not a short stories collection but rather a novel due to the dense interconnecting threads. They are probably right and it’s true that I wrote the book within a single framework; yet I prefer to fulfill the promises I give to readers.
Most of the stories take place within the Athenian urban landscape, which, in your words, constitutes “an ideal reflection of modern life, in which the characters try to integrate and survive”. What led you to choose railway stations as the protagonist of the book? Would you say that Athens is a literary city?
The convenient literary condition 24 was based upon is that the same train moves throughout the city, thus offering a single narrative context that includes heterogeneous characters and unpredictable situations. Another thing is that the day the short stories take place coincides with a taxi drivers’ strike and a long-lasting strike of petrol stations. That’s why people of different economic and social backgrounds and origins use the train; and the same goes for passengers who wouldn’t normally take the train: from a doctor returning home after being all night on duty to the partner of a patient treated by that doctor, from a drug addict to a Troika executive, from a claustrophobic writer to a naughty boy that escapes his mother’s attention and is lost in the wagons.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
Indeed there is a strong tradition of short stories in Greece, with the work of Alexandros Papadiamantis as its obvious starting point, while major short story collections and individual short stories were published throughout the 20th century. Despite the commercial downturn in the Greek book market overall and the anti-commercial nature of short stories, remarkable mobility has been recorded in recent years, with many young and older writers opting for short form. On the other hand, contemporary Greek literature has quite important novels to display, as well as many distinct attempts in longer forms. I reckon that the distinction between literary genres is, after all, obsolete. What actually matters is the dynamics of the story, the narrative means and the distinctive style. Which mold will be used to fit all these, is, as far as I am concerned, of minor importance.
“What differentiates journalism from literary writing is neither creativity nor form or style. It’s actually the special weigh that each carries after reading”. Tell us more.
The differences between journalistic and literary writing are definitely numerous and unquestionable. Yet, there are also common elements, primarily language. This does in no way mean that the two fields are identical. Simplifying that, I’d say that words for writers and journalists are like color for artists and wall painters. That’s why I lay emphasis on the ‘imprint’, the feeling a reader gets when reading a book. And, all the more, the writer himself. I definitely don’t want to underestimate the work I have been doing for the last twenty five years, neither to be accused of unfair generalizations, but I still have to note the following: of course there are innumerable well-written, thoughtful and creative journalistic texts, as there are innumerable badly written literary texts.
Which are the main challenges new writers face nowadays in order to have their workpublished? What role do the social media play in the promotion of new literary voices?
The Greek book market has been hard hit during the crisis. This is the primary reason why publishers appear quite reluctant to publish works by newcomers. Thus, there are numerous new remarkable voices that go unnoticed and many books that never leave the drawers, while many writers are forced towards self-publishing, covering publishing expenses themselves. Personally, I was fortunate enough to have my book published by a major publishing house, which has both the network and the experience required to support a new book by a virtually unknown writer.
As for the role of social media, I reckon that they exert a positive influence vis-a-vis new publications, notification of events, contests etc, while they enable introverted authors like myself to be promoted. Yet, on the long-term, their influence may prove quite negative given that artists are exposed, sometimes irreparably, while readers may feel quite annoyed when their timelines are literally inundated with publications, comments, photos, reviews etc of books written by hundreds of authors and publishers. Not to mention the long hours in front of a screen. So balance is the happy medium.
For the majority of Greek writers, writing is not a main profession but rather a leisure time activity. Would you agree that in a country stricken by the crisis, earning a living through writing is the exception rather than the rule? Could things be otherwise?
Of course there are an exception to the rule. Writers who make ends meet solely by writing fiction are no more than a dozen, and this will unlikely change in the years to come. It’s not just that the Greek book market is small (and continues to shrink), but that there is almost no interest in translations to other languages. The situation could possible be reversed in case there were applied the necessary policies; I don’t mean sinecures and political favors but a balanced policy that would not only support the book market but may also boost readership.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Henriette-Rika Benveniste is Professor of European Medieval History at the Department of History Archaeology and Social Anthropology of the University of Thessaly. She studied History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed her doctoral studies in Medieval History at the Université de Sorbonne (Paris I, Panthéon). Her research interests include Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages and Jewish History and Historiography.
Professor Benveniste has been the Academic Head of the Project: “From Between the Wars to Reconstruction (1930-1960). The Experience of the Jews of Greece in Audio-Visual Testimony”. (Database of Greek-Jewish Survivors’ Testimonies, University of Thessaly). Her recent book “Those Who Survived: Deportation, Resistance and Return of the Jews of Thessaloniki in the 1940s”, (in Greek: Αυτοί που επέζησαν, 2014; in German: Die Überlebenden. Widerstand, Deportation, Rückkehr. Juden aus Thessaloniki in den 1940er Jahren, 2016; English and Hebrew translations forthcoming) received the National Book Award for Promoting Dialogue on Social Issues in 2015.
Rika Benveniste spoke to Rethinking Greece* on the long process of making Greek Jewish communities visible again in Greek history and the Greek public sphere after decades of silence, the need for research on Greek Jewry that challenges Greek exceptionalism and espouses a transnational perspective ― as "the history of the Jews of Greece is a Jewish history, a Greek history, a Mediterranean history and a European history all at the same time". Regarding the social and cultural diversity of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki, she points out that their political beliefs run the whole spectrum; from those who advocated assimilation to Greek language and culture, to Zionists with visions of a national homeland in Palestine, to Liberals and Socialists leading the worker’s movement of the city. Benveniste stresses the importance of encouraging complex narratives on the Shoah, instead of simplistic ones that ignore the indifference or the betrayal of collaborators, or moralistic ones that emphasize a generalized abstract “shame”, while omitting the fact that some were really guilty, in very precise and concrete ways.
Professor Benveniste emphasises that, while the extermination of the Jewish communities was a Nazi project, its implementation "was, at every step, relative to the obedience of Jews and non-Jews, the collaboration of the politicians and local authorities, the passive or active support of the Jews’ neighbours, the desire of the victims to gain time and their room for action". Finally, she asserts that studying Greek Jewish history may serve as a “referential framework” for developing historical sensibility and a critical mind, in order to resist both the racist and antisemitic discourse in Greece as well as the rise of the extreme right and the alarming rate of normalization of historical and political revisionism that is taking place all over Europe:
Jews were almost invisible in Greek history, until the 1990s, when we witnessed what you have described as the ‘coming out’ of Jewish history. Why do you think deliberations on Jewish communities and the Shoah in Greece had been absent in Greek historiography for so long?
In the article you mention, I was pointing to the fact that, for a very long period, Greek historiography had erased Jews from the Greek national entity -considered to be homogeneous. To a reader of Greek history Jews were “invisible”. When Jews, occasionally, appeared in the Greek history of the Ottoman period or the Greek nation state, they were perceived as a force disrupting the nation. There was practically no historical research conducted outside the Jewish milieu, and it was conducted mostly outside Greece. On their part, historians of Jewish history were mostly interested in the religious and intellectual aspects of the history of Jewish communities.
The interest in Greek-Jewish history coincides with the breaking of the silence on Shoah. The absence of Jews in the Greek public narratives of the post-war period was determined by a will to silence the destruction of Greek Jewry. However, we should not dismiss the fact that this was by no means a Greek particularity. In the political climate of the Cold War, German atrocities were downplayed, while the scope and the significance of the Holocaust was not understood. The victors of the Second World War were unwilling to realize that the war was not over for the Jewish survivors, whose lives had been saturated by the loss of their families and their communities. In countries like Netherlands and France, the experiences of Jewish victims were subsumed into the narrative of national heroism that pervaded postwar reconstruction. In Germany, deep-seated feelings of resentment towards the post-war political and social environment accompanied oblivion and silence about the crimes and a too quick will to leave the past behind.
In Greece, political persecutions during and after the Civil War were coupled with censorship on the memory and history of the Resistance and the genocide of the Greek Jews. The right-wing victors of the Civil War imposed silence because Greek collaborators of the Nazis were quickly incorporated into the anti-communist state and their crimes remained unpunished. Later on, the 1967-1974 military dictatorship and its slogan “Greece of Christian Greeks” tried to impose the idea of an exclusively Christian Orthodox character of the Greek society. In other words, beyond the moral and material annihilation, the haunting feelings of loss, the pressing demands of rebuilding a “new life”, the unwillingness to listen to their sufferings -characteristics which were common to survivors all over the world- Greek Jewish Holocaust survivors faced also the terrorism and censorship exercised by the victors of the Civil War.
The first chronicles of the Occupation and the deportation, at the crossroads between history and testimony, were published by Jews in the first post-war years. However, these first attempts to write the history of the Holocaust in Greece remained locked inside the Jewish community. Again, there was no willingness to hear the Jewish sufferings when the victors of the Civil War had imposed silence. The silence on the destruction of Greek Jewry imposed a silence of the communities’ pre-war history as well.
Historiography turned to the study of the destruction of the Greek Jewish communities with a delay. It was as late as 1986, when a book by Hagen Fleischer on the Nazi Occupation (“Im Kreuzschatten der Mächte: Griechenland 1941-1944 -Okkupation, Resistance, Kollaboration”, translated as “Στέμμα και σβάστικα” in Greek) devoted detailed chapters to the Holocaust; this was followed in 1993 by Mark Mazower's book “Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44”. In 1996, the Society for the Study of Greek Jewry organized a conference which dealt with the Jews of Greece under the Occupation; its acts were published in 1998, edited by me.
The breaking of the silence on the Shoah on an international level had sparked interest in Greek Jewish communities’ past. Moreover, during the 1990’s, the voices of Greek Jewish survivors were heard in a new environment dominated by the rise of identity politics. Hesitantly, Greek Jewish communities adopted a policy of cultural presence and turned towards the surrounding society. Projects of collecting and publishing oral and written testimonies were a major aspect of that decade and Fragiski Abatzopoulou’s work was an important contribution in this field. In a new space of public history, the collective memory of new comers or older ethnic groups met with official history.
The first international conference on “Jews in Greece. Questions of History in the longue durée” took place in 1991 and its proceedings were published some years later. The conference was held in Salonika and had been organized by the “Society for the Study of Greek Jewry”, which remained active for about ten years. The “Society” was run mostly by academics and it had absolutely no institutional basis. This first conference aimed at showing the complexity, the continuities and the ruptures in a long Jewish presence in Greece. It opened the new historiographical era in which the Jewish past became more visible. Up to that time, historians provocatively ignored Salonika’s Jewish past. Rena Molho’s book on the particularities of the Jewish community of Salonika (Οι Εβραίοι της Θεσσαλονίκης 1856-1919) published in 2001 was the result of the first systematic research on Salonika’s Jewish past.
After this “coming out”, Jewish history has become more visible in the Greek public sphere, with the proliferation of academic projects and relevant publications. What are the dominant narratives that have emerged and what has been neglected?
It has been demonstrated by Odette Varon-Vassard and other scholars that Jewish presence has become more visible in the public sphere with the erection of monuments, the organization of commemorative events and educational projects. This is partly due to the international conjuncture of the rise of identity politics and memory studies, which has also influenced Greece. It is also true that since 2000, people from various disciplines contributed with their work and queries in mapping the Jewish presence in the Greek past. Publications in the field of history have proliferated and we may even say that Greek Jewish History has gained some legitimacy.
This has been the result of debunking old dominant narratives regarding Greek society as culturally and ethnically homogeneous, of studying antisemitism in historical terms, of revealing differences between various traditions in the Greek Jewish communities, of working on sensitive subjects of the Holocaust such as the Collaboration and so on. Holocaust studies and memory studies prevail. This is an international trend but the hesitation in studying earlier periods is also related -though only in part- to the difficulties of accessing sources composed in different languages and researching archives located in different places.
I believe that it is too early to judge the historical work produced up to now. It is nevertheless necessary to reflect on the current historiographical situation in order to see the research’s lacunae, constraints, stakes, and perspectives. The accumulation of historical publications does not necessarily correspond to an advancement of historical knowledge or understanding. Much of this historical work is presented in meetings which stand halfway between academic events and memorial practices, between research and political conformity, between sensibility and the needs of funding an academic career. The quality of the works varies greatly, going from narratives full of platitudes (sometimes erroneous) to deeply researched, original and thought-provoking contributions. Unfortunately, monographs are still rare, but some PhD dissertations, which are now under preparation, will probably make up for this scarcity.
If you ask me what directions research should take, I would insist on the need to encourage monographs that would take into account regional factors, challenge Greek exceptionalism and espouse a national as well as transnational perspective. The history of the Jews of Greece is a Jewish history, a Greek history, a Mediterranean history and a European history, all at the same time. The research should engage with the history of the Sephardic and Romaniote Jews in the Ottoman era (today mostly conducted outside Greece) and the Greek state. A new history of the Jews of Greece under the Occupation should take into account the diversity of the history of the Greek Jewish communities and attempt to integrate it into the context of the European war. Maria Kavala’s work on Salonika and the fate of the Jews during the Occupation and in the aftermath goes in this direction. Research would benefit by seeking the continuities and raptures between the Interwar years, the Shoah and the post-war period.
We still lack bottom-up approaches; we still need to appreciate Jewish communities as multi-class entities, composed by men and women, who interacted with each other, with non-Jews and with the state. We have to examine the communities’ heterogeneities and the cultural changes they went through. We still have to study the complex Jewish-Christian relations and not only antisemitism, while at the same time we need to historicize it, to avoid a “lachrymose perception” of Jewish history. Archives wait to be researched. We have to keep in mind that research has its own slow rhythms and work has to be carried out less loudly and independently of the mass media’s own purposes. Last, but not least, the practice of historical research should go hand in hand with a critical stance towards public history.
You have said that “it is very difficult to speak in general terms about the extermination of the Jews of Greece during the Occupation.” What were the particular elements of the persecution and extermination of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki?
Nazi ideology was responsible for the Holocaust, but the extermination of European Jews is strongly related to the war’s progression, the attitudes of their fellow citizens, the role of the Resistance, the different choices that Jewish groups and communities faced. The deportation and extermination of the Jews was a German project, but without local collaboration the numbers of the deported would have been lower. There are questions which are hard to answer: What information existed and how wasit perceived and evaluated in a universe of fear or hope? What were the possibilities for protest and expression of solidarity on the part of the fellow citizens? In Greece, the three occupation zones (German, Bulgarian and Italian) had determined the temporality of the deportations. When the Germans invaded Greece, the decision to exterminate the Jews had already been taken, and in procedural terms it was formulated in January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference. However, anti-Jewish measures increased only gradually and the deportation of the Jews of Thessaloniki began only in March 1943. At that time the Resistance movement was only in its beginning. Let us recall that Athens’ Jews were deported one year later, in March 1944, and the deportation of the last Jews of Greece took place in the summer of 1944, when the Reich had already collapsed.
The case of Thessaloniki, with its large Jewish community and extremely high rate of losses, has -partly rightly- dominated the study of the Holocaust in Greece; it still presents unexplored aspects. The implementation of the German measures was, at every step, relative to the obedience of Jews and non-Jews, the collaboration of the politicians and local authorities, the passive or active support of the Jews’ neighbours, the desire of the victims to gain time and their room for action. Institutions, networks, rivalries and solidarity played a dynamic role.
In the introduction of your book “Those who Survived: Deportation, Resistance and Return of the Jews of Thessaloniki in the 1940s” you write that your research is "a methodological proposal for a new history of the extermination of the Jews of Greece". Could you expand on that?
In my book, “Those who survived” as well as in “Louna. An Essay of historical biography”, I make some methodological assumptions. When you think about it, survivors' trajectories are always extraordinary. Nothing is normal in the Shoah and every story of survival is exceptional. I don’t dismiss the possibility of documenting Holocaust by testimonies, nor the insight provided by a witness's story.
However, to what extent can one accumulate stories that are always exceptional and normal at the same time, each one with its own particular sufferings, cruelty, compassion and accidental encounters? Do we risk falling into the trap of a litany of repeating motives that crushes us? Are we motivated by a residue of positivist illusion that drives us to record all cases exhaustively? How does this influence historical understanding? It seems to me that an answer lies in a historiography that seeks a narrative of a collective history in which we will manage to integrate, in a meaningful way, the stories of cases that diverge.
The modalities and the suffering of deportation are not limited to a single theme with variations. Our understanding depends on our ability to take into account the differences in space and time of the persecution, the need to approach our subject by reducing the scale of observation, only to rethink again on a macroscopic level; a focus that shifts from collective Jewish destiny to the observation of a group that shares a common experience or to individual trajectories (sometimes within the same family) allows us to better understand the spectrum of constraints and risks, dilemmas and choices, while remaining inscribed to a much larger historiographic body. Archival documents, oral archives, private documents: from the administrative bounds to the common experience, from the reconstruction of a collective story to the individual case and then back to the collective. The Holocaust, a German crime conducted on a transnational level, reduced the importance of national borders. If we want to imagine a total history of the Shoah, the postwar traces of a whole generation of Jewish survivors should be taken into account as well.
Thessaloniki’s Zionist associations in the 20s and the 30s tried to forge a new Greek-Jewish identity, a “supplementary nationality”, sustained by the belief that one could be both "a good Jew and a loyal Greek". However, these efforts were cut short by the WWII and the Shoah. How has Greek-Jewish identity evolved since then?
During the Interwar period Greek governments recognized the Jewish community of Salonica as an institution, accepting its political autonomy and its members’ equality before the law. The Jews of Salonika had initiated the process which led to the law that formalized the structure and rights of Jewish communities as religious minorities. Before the war, almost all the Salonika Jews observed the Sabbath and the religious holidays. However, this did not make the Jewish population socially and culturally homogeneous nor did it reduce their self-understanding to religious terms.
Language, for instance, played an important role. The old aristocracy spoke Italian; the educated bourgeoisie had adopted French; the language that united them all, rich and poor, was Judeo-Spanish, the Castilian of the immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula. Proletarians and petty merchants lived in poor neighborhoods, at the 151 and the Regie Vardar, in wooden houses with a common courtyard. Rich merchants lived in imposing edifices at the suburb of Campanias. The community was characterized by cultural variety and social conflicts. There were Jews faithful to tradition but open to modernity, and Jews covering the whole spectrum of political tendencies and currents: those who advocated assimilation to Greek language and culture, Zionists with visions of a national homeland in Palestine as well as Liberals and Socialists leading the worker’s movement of the city. All this has been extensively discussed in the works of scholars such as Minna Rozen and Rena Molho.
In other words, Zionism was only one among the different ideological tendencies and cultural associations that characterized the Jews of Thessaloniki. It was formed in communication with the international Zionist movement, in opposition to competitive currents that penetrated the Jewish population, in opposition or in harmony with the new Greek nation-state and responding to the social and economic conditions as they were perceived by its members.
Despite obstacles arising out of political tensions and antisemitism, 1912 paved the way for the emergence of a dynamic Greek Jewish culture in Salonika. The Italian attack of October 1940 brought young Jews fighting with their Christian fellows as brothers in arms against the invader. A trajectory with many conflicts but vivid nonetheless, wastragically cut short at the time of the German occupation, as the overwhelming majority (95%) of the Jews in the city were deported and exterminated in the Nazi camps. In the war’s aftermath, the old identities such as Zionists or Socialists took different meanings, became permeable one to the other, interchangeable. They were affected by the traumatic common experience, by the State’s policies, by economic needs. Immigration to Israel, for example, was by no means the choice of the Zionists alone. To my opinion, and contrary to K. E. Fleming’s argument, the Holocaust did not complete the formation of a Greek Jewish identity; on the contrary, it made it even more complex. After all, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted Greek Jews for being Jews. More than ever, I think, today one can be “a good Jew and a loyal Greek”. However, only the second part of the phrase has a clear, literal meaning. Considering myself Jewish, I see many ways of being a “good Jew”.
Last year, the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, gave a widely acclaimed speech on the occasion National Holocaust Remembrance Day and the inauguration of the project for a Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki. The mayor talked about the importance of remembering and honoring Thessaloniki’s Jews and the Museum as a symbol of “shame for what happened, for what we did, and especially for what we couldn’t or didn’t want to do”. Would you like to comment?
I cannot but recognize the mayor’s courageous role in making the Shoah an issue of public concern in the city. However, as a historian I feel quite unease with the rhetoric of his speech. We often overlook the fact that silence, forgetfulness or concealment are always linked to people and causes; in other words, concrete people forget, omit or conceal for very specific reasons, under specific circumstances. There are variations of silence. I already mentioned the censorship on the history of the genocide imposed by the right-wing victors of the Civil War, the unpunished collaborators of the Nazis who were quickly incorporated into the state machinery.
On the other hand, as we know today, those who survived the Holocaust had not forgotten anything; they had not stopped talking about itand commemorating it inside the Jewish world. It is just as likely that the witnesses of those times remembered as well the Jewish drama, with either indifference or compassion. There were also all those who had economic, political and social interests to keep quiet. The “shame” and the blame should fall on those who deserve it. In other words, in a city like Salonika, the generation of those that witnessed the deportation, knew facts, people and names.
Today Salonika is inhabited by new generations and newcomers. It is therefore time to think historically, to put an end to dominant and complacent narratives of any kind: narratives that ignore the indifference or the betrayal of collaborators, but also, the more recent moralistic rhetoric emphasizing a general “shame” which implies that all were guilty in the same way (all ultimately equals to nobody), while omitting the fact that some were really guilty, for complex reasons (which combine antisemitism and personal interests) perhaps, but in very precise and concrete way. The same goes for the state institutions. Andrew Apostolou's deep historical research on Collaboration goes in this direction, i.e. against simplifying narratives.
I feel equally unease regarding the ambitious project of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki and I certainly don’t agree with the mayor’s rhetoric statement which decontextualizes (in an almost sacrilegious way) Primo Levi’s saying on Auschwitz: “here there is no why”. Because, on this specific issue, there must be answers to many questions: Why (another) Museum? Why not another Institution, or the reinforcement of the existing ones? Why so little is known on the planning, on the content, on who and how is taking care of all that? Why the Museum’s Institute should be based in Brussels? I think I am not alone in posing these questions.
In conclusion, what can the study of Greek Jewry and the Holocaust tell us for contemporary Greek society and the various political issues it is faced with?
Free from moralizing conformism, the study of Greek Jewry and the Holocaust may positively complexify history writing and nourish a more self-consciously critical stance towards phenomena such as antisemitism, the rise of the extreme right and revisionist trends in politics. In other words, Greek Jewish history may serve as a “referential framework” for developping historical sensibility and a critical mind.
A critical stance coming from historical sensibility, i.e. the ability to recognize and interpret phenomena from the past may help us on decide how to react on various issues. For instance, to resist the racist and antisemitic discourse that spreads through many channels and in various areas of social life, disseminating poisonous prejudices. In Greece these prejudices often pertain to ideas on order and security, which justify exclusion and violence -against refugees for example. There are also conceptions of society imagined in terms of health and illness, conceptions that are discriminatory and destructive. There are stereotypes of Jews pulling the strings behind the bankers or/and behind the Left, working together for the destruction of the Greek nation. In all these fantasies, in all these discourses -coming sometimes from official lips- we recognize the language of fascism and antisemitism. This is extremely dangerous; Golden Dawn is just the top of the iceberg.
For about forty years after World War Two, no respectable scholar or public figure would have thought to attempt a rehabilitation of fascism and antisemitism. Today, the normalization of revisionist discourse is shocking: for example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's national conservatism claims to reconnect Hungary with the so-called ‘natural course of events’ and to stigmatize the Left as supporters of a hated history; the ultra-nationalist Polish right is engaged in a policy which aims to conceal the antisemitic dark past of Poland. No doubt, critical alert against historical and political revisionism is much needed today.
Interview by: Ioulia Livaditi and Nikolas Nenedakis