President of the European Parliament between 1999 and 2002 (with the European People's Party Group), Nicole Fontaine, a lawyer by profession, began her political career in 1984 as a Member of the European Parliament (1984-2002 and 2004-2009). After being appointed Alternate Minister for Industry from 2002 to 2004, she taught at Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, where she held a Jean Monnet ad personam chair for 5 years. She is currently teaching at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris and is also Affiliated Professor at the ESCP Europe Business School. Nicole Fontaine, along with journalist François Poulet-Mathis has co-authored the book “Brexit: An Opportunity?” (Auteurs du Monde, 2016)
On the occasion of Nicole Fontaine’s visit to Greece and speech on “Europe after Brexit: How to reinvent the project of a Europe with Unity and Solidarity?” at the French Institute of Greece (28.01), our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* spoke with her on the biggest challenges facing European integration, the consequences of Brexit and the EU ‘s relationship with the US in light of Donald Trump’s presidency.
What are the main challenges facing European integration right now?
Over the past 10 years, the EU fell ill. It fell ill because its institutions are perceived by the people as part of a constraining technocracy, because of lack of leadership and vision and finally because of its inability to anticipate and manage major global phenomena such as globalization, financial and migratory crises and the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, as a result, the EU lost its citizens’ trust. So today, the priority for the EU is to rebuild itself. Having taken note of past mistakes, it is imperative that the EU is strengthened and able to meet its citizens’ expectations, to whom it had promised "an area of freedom, prosperity and solidarity". The challenge is to restore this aspiration to its full potential and to make it a reality. In a turbulent world we have made our strong and united voice heard. For EU leaders, this is a historical responsibility.
Some analysts claim that Brexit is the beginning of the dismantling of the European project. Do you share this view?
Some had predicted that a Brexit would bring about the final destruction of an already ill Europe. While it is true that there was the risk of a "domino effect", it soon became apparent that the negative effects of Brexit were mostly affecting the British. Only a few days after the result of the referendum, more than 3 million citizens signed a petition asking for a second referendum ... this has never happened before! And today, opinion polls reveal that in the event of a new ballot, the result would be different.
Concerns are strong, despite Theresa May’s conjurations: the British living in Europe are concerned, as is the market and many businesses, some of which have decided to leave the UK. For my part, I always thought that, on the contrary, if Brexit happened, it could be an opportunity for Europe. An opportunity to clarify things, because the British entered the European Community in 1973 exclusively to benefit from the advantages of a large market, and they always refused and prevented the progress that would have made it possible to meet citizen expectations. An opportunity to give us a shock, and to invite European leaders to rethink Europe, making it stronger, more united, more effective. Today, with the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, this is not just an opportunity but an imperative necessity.
In your opinion, does Donald Trump's election move the United States further away from Europe and weaken international cooperation?
The positions presented by Trump during his electoral campaign - some of which were immediately implemented since his inauguration - are extremely worrying. Of course, commercial competition between the United States and Europe has always existed, as we have seen through several emblematic disputes within the WTO. The Presidents of the USA that preceded Trump did not really want a political Europe that interfered in the resolution of world conflicts. The friendship however between the United States and Europe remained, through our cooperation to defeat Nazism during the World War II, an unshakeable bond.
Today, President Trump is changing the geopolitical map with decisions that are likely to exacerbate disorder around the world, and the European Union has a responsibility to react. The threat of calling into question the solidarity of NATO member states in the event of an attack compels the European Union to establish its own defenses.
The coalition between United States, Russia and Iran to bring order to the Middle East, especially Syria, forces the European Union to form a real common foreign policy and to intervene in the name of the values on which the European project is based. Thus, international cooperation is without a doubt in our future and the European Union must seize this opportunity to enhance its influence.
*Interview: Costas Mavroidis amd Maria Oksouzoglou, translation to English: Ioulia Livaditi
Holder of the keys to a nostalgic, bittersweet cinematic universe, director Tassos Boulmetis was born in Constantinople in 1957 and came in Greece in 1964. He studied Film Production and Direction at the University of California (UCLA). His first film “Dream Factory” gained 8 awards in Greece and the Golden Award of Fantasy Movies at the Houston Film Festival. His second film, “Touch of Spice”, was the biggest selling Greek film in the history of contemporary Greek cinema, selling 1.600.000 tickets. The film also won 9 prizes at the Thessaloniki Film Festival and other international distinctions, while it was also screened at numerous Film Festivals around the world. His films “Touch of Spice” and “Mythopathy” are coming of age stories of a male character, sharing a lot of autobiographical elements and taking place in a past that Boulmetis represents in detail, with a sarcastic smirk.
On the occasion of the Best feature film award for “Mythopathy”, Boulmetis talks to Greek News Agenda* about loss, which is the subject matter of his film work. He refers to the 80’s as the decade in which the basis for today’s crisis was set. Commenting on contemporary film production, he stresses that it goes on, despite difficulties and that it produces good festival material, but artistic success doesn’t always translate in ticket sales. He adds that, interestingly enough, the crisis has helped Greek Cinema, as far as International Festivals are concerned, because there is a growing interest on Greece and the outcome of the crisis.
“Mythopathy” was awarded best feature film award at Hellas Filmbox Berlin Festival. Is this your first interview after the award?
It is. “Mythopathy” has participated so far in film festivals that relate to the Greek Diaspora, such as the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, San Fransisco Film Festival, as well as Sao Paulo Greek Film Festival and Nuremberg. It will also be screened at the Greek Film Month in Paris and in Brittany. It appeals to the Greek Diaspora. As far as international film festivals are concerned, “Mythopathy” has been invited to the Constantinople Film Festival and will be screened in April. It has also been invited to the European Union Film Festival, which takes place in the USA, where a selection of European films is presented to the American public. Hellas Filmbox is a new Festival, which began last year. It is organized by young, energetic people and I dare say that it accomplishes its aim in the sense that it brings Greek film to the German public, 20 days before the Berlin film festival. It also brings them in contact with distributors. Some of these distributors have shown interest in “Mythopathy”, which will also be screened around Germany as will happen with the rest of the winning films of the Hellas Filmbox.
Loss constitutes a prominent issue in your films. How do you perceive the feeling of loss at a period of crisis that Greece is going through?
For me, there was a sudden realization. With my second film, “Touch of Spice”, I was faced with a huge success which I tried to manage as humbly as possible. I was enjoying success during a period of prosperity for Greece (Olympic Games etc). At the same time, I was intrigued by an idea which I was trying to approach in a humorous mood, despite the fact it was hiding something serious: what happens to a family or a society when it starts to deconstruct the myths on which it has build its narrative? The entity of a community runs through a history, a narrative. I don’t necessarily mean political or religious history; I mean something more than that, its internal narration, which structures the myths that hold it together. So what happens to this community when you start to deconstruct them? The answer is simple: the community falls apart. As I said, this was a concept that intrigued me, but the only way for me to express it was through a humorous story. I had been working on this concept, when two events occurred in 2010: two unpleasant events that helped me understand what was hiding beneath my thoughts: the first tragic event for me was losing both of my parents within a year; the second was that Greece officially entered a crisis.
I was overcome with emotion as Greek society was going through this loss. On a personal level, I had lost the people closest to me and as a member of society I had lost an era that would never come back. I realized then, looking back at my previous films which include my first, lesser known film that the core of my work is about loss and how people deal with it. In “Mythopathy” I decided to talk about loss mainly on a social level. This is an autobiographical film, in which the basic protagonists are my parents and I, but it isn’t a film about my parents only. Many elements of the father’s persona in “Mythopathy” are drawn from my own father, who used to sell travel items, as well as my mother. I have also drawn many elements from my parents’ life in Constantinople for the parents’ personae in “Touch of Spice”.
By realizing that loss is the running theme in my films, I felt the urge to talk about the time I was a teenager, when I decided to become a film director and study film in the USA. So the film takes place between 1974, after the fall of the Junta, to 1981. I left for the USA in 1980, the beginning of the period during which the script of the crisis we are currently undergoing was written. To me, the whole spectrum of Greek politics from Right to Left holds its own part of the responsibility. In the years following the fall of the dictatorship, all political parties promised prosperity. PASOK, the ruling socialist party of the time, undertook the task of realizing that promise for prosperity and today we are experiencing the results of that promise. “Mythopathy” and “A Touch of Spice” share a bittersweet, “sarcastic nostalgia” as you have described it in an interview. Is contemporary Greece a different country to that of the 70’s?
In a sense it is, as far as values are concerned. Throughout this time, the political parties, accordingly to the time they stayed in power, promoted corruption at the expense of ethical values.
It is not by chance that viewer reactions to “Mythopathy” fall into two groups: the first concerns those aged over 45, who come out of the cinema with a sense of nostalgia, longing for the feelings of hope and optimism of those years. On the other hand, younger viewers tell me they envy the protagonist who left to pursue his dream. So this is the theme of “Mythopathy”, that in Greece we have lost times that are never coming back. And, as you can see in the film, every character is trying to come to grips with loss: the mother’s unaccomplished dream to travel to the south, the father, who is a down-to- earth person, is consciously trying to survive on a fake story, a myth. He represents a social class in post civil war Greece in the 60’s that is trying to survive and construct its own identity. So the father makes up and sells a story, a myth. Mother is aware that the story is a fake, but pretends to believe it, in order to keep her family together. Thus, there is a silent, unspoken and unconscious complicity for the survival of this nuclear family in a society that seeks prosperity.
Parents in your films serve as a comic relief. They represent the “ancient regime” watching the dawn of a new world they don’t understand, while worrying and trying to protect their child. Does this reflect the way you perceive Greek family and parenthood?
I totally agree with your remarks; and yes, it does reflect my personal experiences. I also have a brother whom I love very much and he likes to joke with me because he is absent from my films. I tell him that if I put him in the film not only would the cost of the film rise, but the psychological toll on me as well, because there would be an extra relationship for me to analyze! On the other hand the characters of the parents relate to my cinematic references. I like Woody Allen’s sense of humour and the depiction of his parents in his films, especially in “Radio Days”, where they are arguing over ridiculous things, trivialities. These quarrels reminded me a lot of the ones we used to have at home.
What is the role of women in «Mythopathy»? Has it served as a political allegory in the film?
It has and I have to say that I was worried it might sound sexist, which wasn’t my intention at all. In the film, my hero is trying to understand himself at a time when his sexual awakening is taking place. This is a part of his personal journey towards the construction of his sexual as well as individual identity. Unfortunately, he happens to be extremely unlucky, because he fantasizes of women who are linked to politics. Politics, in one way or another, take away from him the objects of his desire one by one. I used this concept as a vehicle to show that politics have taken from Greeks everything they desired.
You work on your own, carefully elaborated stories with a historical background, persisting on minute detail. How easy is it to fund an expensive film production in the current economic situation?
Not easy at all. I was lucky to get financial support from the Greek Film Centre, Cosmote, as well as the Onassis Foundation. I also had other sponsors with product placement in the film. There were also other co-producers that contributed with digital effects. “Mythopathy” did not cover its production costs, but at least we are not in debt. As far as historical dramas are concerned, digital effects are of a great help but they are also very expensive. I am lucky to be collaborating with the same production company (MAGIKON) as in “Touch of Spice”, which undertook part of the production cost. If I were a newcomer, it might have been impossible to make this film.
You were the first chairman of the Hellenic Film Academy and have invested a lot of time and energy to this endeavour. Could you comment on this experience?
It was my first experience of that kind. At some point, the Gavras committee on Greek cinema, under prominent Greek-French director Costa Gavras was established, and he asked me to join. Other members included Apostolos Doxiadis, Yorgos Tziotzios and Christos Mitsis, an excellent team, which had no corporate interests. We had a lot of fruitful discussions and one of the outcomes was the request for a Greek Film Academy in line with established Film Academies around the world. Film Academies are private institutions founded by members of the cinematic community, which have nothing to do with public funding. For example, the Film Academy in Germany was founded by 85 film directors, in France by a group of producers, distributors and directors. These are private institutions which set targets as well as criteria for member eligibility. What are the targets of a Film Academy? First, to promote national cinematography, secondly to promote the art of cinema in general and, last but not least, to organize events and bring national cinematography and cinema art closer to the audience. The Greek Film Academy succeeded in these targets. It was founded by 106 film professionals, it has established awards and it has organized amazing events. In that sense, I consider my term as chairman as successful.
What do you think of contemporary Greek cinema?
The number of films produced has been very good, despite current economic circumstances. Greek films are doing well in festivals, but they don’t sell at the box office. There are many reasons for that - the public isn’t attracted to these films. Take “Mythopathy” for example: my collaborators and the distributors estimated that ticket sales would be higher, because of the success of “A Touch of Spice”. My expectations were more modest. The film sold 150.000 tickets, which was very good in the current situation, but it was lower than my collaborators’ estimations.
Another positive aspect, as I mentioned earlier, is the interest for Greek films from film festivals around the world, meaning that we have very good festival material. Greece has a very prominent new director, Yorgos Lanthimos, making great films causing a stir. His work has a distinct style, it is globally acknowledged and each film is an original. Lanthimos initiated what is called the New Greek weird wave, which was followed by other Greek filmmakers, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Critics associated the New Greek weird wave with the crisis. This crisis has focused attention on Greece and there is a growing interest on what the cultural product of the crisis will be. This fact has benefited Greek cinema, because festivals are interested in Greek films. The same has happened with Turkish and Iranian films. So, in the context I described above, there have been Greek films that worked on the theme of the Greek family and its distortions. There are some Greek films on incest and are being read as political allegories. Danish cinema has also worked a lot on the theme of incest, bringing it to the fore as a social problem. Personally, although Sophocles was the first to work on the issue of incest, I don’t think it is one that represents Greek society, as it is a problem common to all societies.
What about your future plans?
I’m currently working on a documentary on the AEK basketball team on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary (next year) of the team winning the European Winners Cup, in Athens, in 1968. The year 1968 was a milestone year as regards political events around the world. This Cup was important because it was the first international distinction for a Greek sports team. On the occasion of the Cup anniversary, this documentary talks about the history of the team, the people etc. Let’s not forget that AEK has its origins in Constantinople. When I was living in Constantinople, I would often come across AEK fans and became a fan too, when I came to Greece.
*interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Sia Anagnostopoulou is a SYRIZA MP and associate professor of History at the Department of Political Science and History of Panteion University. She has been visiting professor at the New York University, the University of Cyprus and the Έcole des Hautes Έtudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Her main research interests are nationalism in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and colonialism in Cyprus. She has published two monographies: Asia Minor. The Greek Οrthodox Communities, 19th century-1919. From the Rum millet to the Greek Nation (Athens 1997, in Greek) and The Modernization of Turkey. Islam and Turkish-Cypriots in relation to Kemalism (Athens 2004, in Greek).
Professor Anagnostopoulou is a member of the Paneuropean Committee of the Academy for European History created by Transform! Europe, a member of the Greek Contemporary Social History Archives (ASKI) and a member of the Board of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute.
From 2000 to 2003, Anagnostopoulou headed the Cypriot Foreign Ministry's research team on issues concerning Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community. In the January 2015 Greek legislative elections, Anagnostopoulou was elected as a SYRIZA Member of the Hellenic Parliament for the prefecture of Achaia and was appointed alternate minister for European Affairs. Following the last legistlative elections of September 2015, she was appointed alternate minister for Education, Research and Religious Affairs until November 2016.
Sia Anagnostopoulou spoke to our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* on the progress of the ongoing negotiations on the Cyprus issue, the European contribution to the Geneva Cyprus talks, the importance of installing an institutional framework for the coexistence of two communities of different religions and ethnic groups in one european state as an act of resistance against a galloping nationalism and the EU-Turkey refugee deal:
How would you evaluate recent developments on the Cyprus issue?
Very significant progress has been made. The negotiations between the leaders of the two communities, the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriot community, are at a very good point. First of all, there is a historic development, symbolically and literally speaking: it is the first time since 1974, after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, that the two communities have exchanged maps outlining territorial proposals.
This is important because the leaders of the two communities are trying to define their space -the "border" between their communities- by themselves and through negotiations. In fact, the two communities are trying to reconstruct a "border" of trust and peace between them, thus in practice annulling the consequences of the invasion that has violently imposed a frontier of hatred, dividing the Cypriot area into two worlds, two enemy "countries". Through the presentation of maps, the Cypriot leaders claim that they, and not the Turkish army, are the ones with the responsibility to manage the Cypriot area. This is a first step towards the solution, and it is indicative of the determination of the two Cypriot leaders to move forward.
What is your assessment of the European contribution to the Geneva Cyprus talks?
This is the first time that the European Union has become more actively involved in the Cyprus issue. In my opinion, it is necessary to get more involved, especially since Cyprus is the southeastern border of Europe, the border between Europe and the Middle East. The solution of the Cyprus problem must be at the heart of European policy. Also, through Cyprus (not only Cyprus, of course), the European Union will reinvent itself; it will reinvent its "world" and its region, and the values that prevail in its relations with its neighbours.
The solution of the Cyprus problem, the border problem of Europe, will give out the message that: 1) the European Union has political responsibility for its borders; 2) It does not permit the perpetuation of "grey zones" in its territory, and of zones that lead to the division of its frontiers between a “Christian world” and a "Muslim world", one against the other; 3) It puts a definite end to its colonial past and to nationalist politics that undermine Europeanization efforts of its region; and 4) it turns its borders into a bridge with its neighbours and not a "wall of hatred” between the European world and the "barbarians".
In short, the resolution of the Cyprus problem, especially at a crucial time for the future -not only of Europe but of the whole world- will demonstrate that European values persist and that the world (on a local, European and global level) is not divided by criteria of culture, colour and religion; on the contrary, respect for democratic institutions, equality and justice is the basis of coexistence. Therefore, the solution of the Cyprus problem, i.e. the formation of an institutional framework for the coexistence of two communities of different religions and ethnic groups under the same state -Cypriot and European- can be an act of resistance against a galloping and threatening nationalism.
Some argue that "no solution" on the Cyprus issue is always the best solution. Do you share that view?
Not at all. First of all, by adopting this view, we accept the consequences of the post-colonial period, of ethnic conflicts and, above all, of the Turkish invasion, as something that happened "naturally", without political intervention. As a result, we passively comply with the notion that at this very intense historical moment in time, when problems in the Middle East and Turkey create a framework of instability, Cyprus -at least part of its area- is prey to this instability.
This means that we accept that Cyprus is potentially a gate to the importation of this instability onto European soil. In reality, allowing almost half of the territory of a European area to be outside European control and outside the control of the Cypriot state is not a good sign for the future, particularly at this time when the future does not seem so peaceful.
What is your view on the implementation of the agreement signed between the EU and Turkey on 18 March 2016 on the management of refugee flows?
This agreement could show that Europe is cooperating with neighbouring countries in order to solve a serious problem, a humanitarian problem, in order to more efficiently protect refugees from traffickers etc. However, this agreement is not the result of a humanitarian policy but an emergency management policy, dictated by the rationale of retaining the problem outside European borders. The European Union, which is very effective at imposing economic regulations, proves uninterested in applying humanitarian rules with the same zeal. So the European Union has capitulated to the threats and nationalist policies of member-states that do not accept refugees on their soil, but refuses to deviate somewhat from its economic rules when it comes to countries like Greece, which face a humanitarian crisis and which, at the same time, provide a humanitarian roof for refugees.
*Interview by Irini Anastopoulou, translated to English by Ioulia Livaditi
Anastasia Poulou is a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Munich. Prior to this, she was a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Anastasia Poulou holds a PhD in Law from the University of Heidelberg, which addresses the impact of the Eurozone crisis on social rights in the EU and the role of courts adjudicating social rights in times of crisis. For her doctorate Anastasia received the second prize of the German Thesis Award by the Koerber Foundation. She received the award during a special ceremony at the German Bundestag in Nov. 13, 2016.
In her thesis, Dr Poulou explores the terms and conditions of financial assistance, as stipulated in the agreed MoUs between the countries’ government and EU institutions, as well as the domestic laws used to implement the agreements. She examines whether social rights, as guaranteed under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, in four countries affected by the economic crisis - Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus - had been violated, and who is to be held responsible. Anastasia Poulou’s current work investigates the new typology of European governance in the area of social policies and its impact on the design of national welfare systems.
Greek News Agenda* asked Anastasia Poulou to comment on MoU’s austerity measures and their consequences on social rights in Europe and the prospects of EU’s social policy:
MoU’s austerity measures in Greece and other European countries include cuts in labor rights and the right to free negotiation. Do these cuts violate social rights guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU? Who is responsible for these violations?
In all cases of European financial assistance, Eurozone countries received loans which were made dependent on their compliance with extremely broad in scope economic policy conditions. Even informally regulating economic policies, the conditions related to what one would call the core of social policy, namely healthcare and pension systems, education, and labour sectors. For example, in the case of Greece the minimum wage established by a national general collective agreement had to be reduced by 22%. This reduction, introduced by law and without the consent of the collective bargaining parties, constitutes an interference with the right of collective bargaining protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. This measure was so detailed and left no leeway to the Member State concerned, that the interference with the right of collective bargaining can already be attributed to the EU institutions proposing the measure. On the contrary, in the case of healthcare, the conditions entailed reforms, which aimed at the general objective of reducing public expenditure, but left a margin of appreciation to the national authorities with regard to their implementation. Hence, in this case a potential violation of right to healthcare could not be attributed to the EU institutions, but only to the Member State implementing the measures.
How can social rights be protected in times of crisis? Should social policy decisions be free from EU interference?
The development of the welfare state has been historically linked with the establishment of nation states. In this context, the enjoyment of social benefits is conceived as a key part of national identity and citizenship, and thus every Member State had, at least till the Eurozone crisis, some leeway in the allocation of social benefits. Even if one disagrees with the absolute confinement of the welfare state to the nation state, the question of who has the power to decide on the social benefits available to citizens should be considered carefully. Even though formally the EU has limited competences in the field of social policy, in times of crisis EU citizens feel left out of decisions that affect their ability to design and enjoy their welfare system. Given the fact that alienation from the European project is a real danger, an important challenge that EU social policy has to face is to reconsider ways in which EU citizens could meaningfully participate and co-determine decisions that directly or indirectly affect their social well-being.
Social policy regimes vary across Europe. What do austerity policies in the European periphery mean for the EU’s social policy as a whole?
A significant part of the European population, mainly in the European periphery, is sceptical about the European integration process because they feel that they have lost out in recent developments. The burden of austerity invariably falls on the most vulnerable populations, multiplying the disadvantages to which they had already been exposed. At the same time, the cuts in social benefits and assistance in countries, where social policy regimes have always been relatively weak, sharpens the inequalities between the European periphery and the rest of the Member States. Hence, the big challenge that EU social policy has to face after the financial crisis goes to the heart of what “Social Europe” means and how it can protect a minimum of social rights for all EU citizens.
Can European Commission‘s “Pillar of Social Rights” defend Europe’s values and social model in the context of the current fiscal orthodoxy/“rules-are-rules” policies?
The preliminary outline of the ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’, presented in March 2016 by the European Commission, should be welcomed as an attempt to defend European social values in a period when matters within social policy are framed primarily as a burden on public finances and an obstacle to economic success. Nevertheless, the preliminary outline of the Pillar presented is still far from the desired outcome. The draft text fails to give concrete suggestions on how to operationalize social rights in the framework of the new EU economic governance and treats social policy as subordinate to economic policies. These weaknesses will have to be overcome, if the Pillar aspires to become a weighty reference tool to drive social reforms in the EU and not just a simple reminder of the existing EU social “acquis”.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
Read Anastasia Poulou recent articles: Towards A European Pillar Of Social Rights: An Opportunity Not To Be Squandered; Europe cannot ignore the social impact of economic “recovery”
Kiriakos Gialenios was born in Thessaloniki in 1978. His first novel H νόσος των εραστών [Lovers disease] (Melani Editions, 2011) was shortlisted for the State Literary Award for Debuting Author in 2012 and the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation Award for New Writers in 2011. His second book titled Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα [Only dead fish follow the flow] was published in 2015 (Psichogios Publications).
Kyriakos Gialenios spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα, which, “within two parallel, seemingly unconnected, and yet tied by an invisible thread, stories” combines crime fiction, poetry and a noir atmosphere. He comments on intertextuality as a conscious decision on his part, while he mentions that for him literature is “a vast field of plays and emotions, an ark of genres, techniques, arts and experimentations, through which we can express every aspect of our world, overt or hidden”.
Asked about the imprint of Thessaloniki, a city of great cultural interest, on his work, he notes that in his books, “the city has more of a spectral presence; it constitutes the negative on which the landmarks and the places are only faintly imprinted and it rests with the reader to make the connection between the imaginary and the real". He concludes that “in times of crisis and turmoil, art constitutes both a shelter and a way out; not just for artists themselves but also for those who are called as viewers, readers or listeners, to become participants in whatever form of artistic creation”.
Your latest book Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα seems to combine crime fiction, poetry and a noir atmosphere. Tell us a few things about the book.
I will start with something more or less commonplace. We write the books we want to read. Structured and written the way we want, incorporating as many influences and obsessions we may have. Thus, within two parallel, seemingly unconnected, and yet tied by an invisible thread, stories I try to fit poetry, crime fiction and a noir atmosphere. In places described but never named, through characters that always hide more that what they reveal, with love pulling the strings and settling on fates and lives, in an era when cynicism and irony seem to prevail over sensitivity; in this framework, the book is an effort to capture the most intense human instincts, positive and negative.
The book seems to converse not only with your first book H νόσος των Εραστών but with classic works of literature as well. Was this intertextuality a conscious decision on your part?
Both intertextuality and the connection to the first book Η νόσος των εραστών were conscious decisions from the very beginning. The two novels may of course stand on their own; there is no interdependence, just that sense so eloquently expressed in the saying: Nothing is real, everything is permitted. Literature constitutes for me a vast field of plays and emotions, an ark of genres, techniques, arts and experimentations, through which we can express every aspect of our world, overt or hidden.
The heroes of your book all have ‘exotic’ names, while the titles of the various chapters are quite pretentious. What purpose do both choices serve?
The titles of the chapters are predominant elements of the text. Whenever I read a book divided in such a way, I try to discover what the title refers to, and this, in turn, defines the context of the specific chapter. Thus, on my part, I try to condense into a single sentence the sense and content of each chapter. Let’s say it acts as a point of reference as to what the reader is to expect in the following ten to twenty pages.
As for the names, in an environment where nothing is named and all situations are on the verge of an infinite dystopia, I felt that the naming of the characters should adhere to the atmosphere of the book. Thus, I avoided any relation to the Greek environment, aiming at the same time at dissuading the reader from identifying with familiar faces and situations.
The book takes place in a town and a country that are not specifically defined, while the word “crisis”, though never mentioned, is constantly implied. Would you say that the book describes the end of a collapsing world and the beginning of a new one that is struggling to be born?
I tried to approach the modern era through the daily lives of the characters, which have, however, been defined to a great extent by how things were prior to the crisis. There comes a moment when they are called to face up to the exaggerations and the decisions they made at a time when they felt invulnerable and mistakenly believed that Fate is a pet that can always be put on a leash. In any case, the book seems to balance on the verge of a before and an after, at that critical moment when the characters all realize that their lives will never be the same, even if they don’t really know what is in store for them right after the next turn.
What has been the imprint of Thessaloniki, a city of great cultural interest, on your work?
Undeniably Thessaloniki is a huge melting pot of peoples, religions and cultural influences that go centuries back. In this respect, it can act as a fascinating canvas for artists to create their micro-cosmos. As for my books, the city has more of a spectral presence; it constitutes the negative on which the landmarks and the places are only faintly imprinted and it rests with the reader to make the connection between the imaginary and the real. What I try to convey through the pages of my books is maybe the city’s atmosphere, which I consider ideal for noir novels.
“Art is a fantastic journey into a world where anything can happen and mostly all can be forgotten. This timeless escape from normality acquires even more importance when in crisis”. What is the role art is called to play in times of crisis?
I insist that in times of crisis and turmoil, art constitutes both a shelter and a way out; not just for artists themselves but also for those who are called as viewers, readers or listeners, to become participants in whatever form of artistic creation. For that short or long period of time they choose to “travel” with their imagination or with the talent of the artist as their vehicle, they opt for an escape from the everyday routine and the roughness of the daily survival.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Kiriakos Sifiltzoglou was born in 1983 in the city of Drama in Northern Greece where he lives. He has studied Law and Political Sciences at the University of Thessaloniki. He has published four poetry books to critical acclaim: Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου (Thraka, 2015), Με ύφος Iνδιάνου (Melani Editions, 2014), Μισές αλήθειες (Melani Editions, 2012) and Έκαστος εφ' ω ετάφη (Gavrielides Editions, 2007) His poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies and recently in the anthologies of contemporary Greek poetry Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis, edited by Theodoros Chiotis (Penned in the Margins, 2015) and Austerity Measures, The New Greek Poetry, edited by Karen Van Dyck (Penguin, 2016).
Kiriakos Sifiltzoglou spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest poetry collection which “includes prose-like poems, poems and letters” noting that he “chose mostly persons whose life and art were tried hard by history, death, madness, even by art itself; persons whose works, however, constituted ‘milestones’ in the world of art”. As for the poetic language, he comments that “the theme defines the language, but language may, in turn, alter the theme, offering new perspectives or even a new reason why”.
Asked about whether poetry and photography are communicating vessels, he says that “a poem may contain such intense and potent 'magery' that you feel as if reading a photo or, in turn, a photo may avail of such abstraction that can withstand multiple readings and be read as a poem”. As to the effect of reality on poetry and vice versa, he notes that “reality surrounds us all – breathing, shouting, singing, making us angry, turning its back on us, engulfing us – in an all-inclusive co-existence”, while in turn, for poetry to re-form reality, there is required “a peculiar combination of vision and consistency”.
Your latest poetry collection, titled Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου [In the house of the hanged] was awarded the O Anagnostis Literary Review Awards 2016 for poetry. Tell us a few things about the book.
Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου is my forth poetry collection. The award was both a great joy and honor, not just for the book but as recognition of the ten years I have been writing poetry. This poetry collection was quite different from the previous ones, both in terms of theme and language. It includes prose-like poems, poems and letters. They all refer to real artists, writers, poets, painters, photographers, from Kafka and Cioran to Rober Walser, Tsvetaeva, Mark Rothko etc. I put them in eras and places different from the ones they lived in; they meet and interact with each other, uttering words they have never actually spoken.
I chose mostly persons whose life and art were tried hard by history, death, madness, even by art itself; persons whose works, however, constituted ‘milestones’ in the world of art. In other words, I underwent a “re-mystification” process – like short films on a blank page – for artists that have left their mark on me, either through their work or some aspects of their life; and I felt as if I returned, in writing, the love that they unwittingly bestowed upon me.
As Petros Golitsis notes, Sifiltzoglou, “in his capacity as a traveler, captures snapshots through his photographic writing, resulting in often cryptic ‘conclusions’”. Would you say that poetry and photography are communicating vessels?
A poem may contain such intense and potent “imagery” that you feel as if reading a photo or, in turn, a photo may avail of such abstraction that can withstand multiple readings and be read as a poem. It’s been three years that I am involved in photography and I have come to realize that poetry and photography can go hand in hand, not so much in terms of representation or “a decisive moment”, but mostly in terms of figurative meaning, intense meaning; a bullet that strikes instantaneously and aims straight to the soul, the mind and the eye. A shot that hits all three may act both as a poem and a photo- as long as the artist arms, fires and shoots straight to the target.
Your poetic language decomposes conventional linguistic norms and established conventions. What role does language play in your poetry?
From my first through my fourth poetry collection, language varies, shifts, taking shape in different ways. I’m not just interested in the theme, in ‘what’ I say but I try to baptize and re-baptize it in a new way of linguistic expression – difficult bets not easily won. I sometimes think that the theme defines the language, but language may, in turn, alter the theme, offering new perspectives or even a new reason why.
Language is the vehicle, the engine, but it may also become the fuel, or even the driver, it can move very fast, take dangerous turns and it may even send you down the cliff, straight to the abyss, in a meaningless leap; attention is required and the artist has no excuse saying “I was unaware”. Therefore, I try, by “guessing”, by turning upside down, not just words, but whole sentences to give my poems each time a different form – hoping that, even to some extent, I have managed to do so, given that what we want and what we achieve can be completely different things.
As Fryni Kostara eloquently put it, Sifiltzoglou is “not a poet of the elaborate but a poet of the substantial, who, through the depiction of the simple things of everyday life, urges us to look behind the superficial”. What is the effect of reality on poetry? And, vice versa, how is reality re-formed/trans-formed in poetry?
Reality surrounds us all – breathing, shouting, singing, making us angry, turning its back on us, engulfing us – in an all-inclusive co-existence. Even what we call “everyday reality” is actually a major part of our life, where everything can be found. I often say that I picture reality as a “huge lovely dump”, from where you can fish diamonds; even completely worthless materials that, at a first glance, seem non-poetic, may be transformed into poetry. It all depends on how open you are, how socially aware, how sensitive your ears are to what is calling or whispering to you – what additional windows, doors, skylights, basements or micro-cosmos you are in need of.
As to whether poetry may reform reality, it depends on the individual, from the artist to every single reader; and it’s demanding, tricky, requiring a peculiar combination of vision and consistency. In other words, it comes at a cost – yet a worthy one. I can’t say more, just bear in mind the words “vision”, “consistency”, “cost”.
Should poetry be socially or even politically ‘militant’ in times of crisis?
There are no “musts” in Art, yet there are certain “obsessions” among artists. These two elements can rarely go hand in hand just casually, spontaneously, or unselfishly. Even in extreme situations, social or political ones, “musts” feel strange or raise suspicions. The thing is whether the artist wants or can overcome himself and his obsessions so as to hearken to the extreme and express it in his way. In many cases, the artist considers himself to be the centre of the universe, even when the world around him is on fire, while in other cases he chases after this extreme reality and blows everything up.
In my opinion, extreme situations give birth to intense stimuli, which, depending on the sensitivity and the antennas of each individual, may become landmarks or prove to be nothing. There are people saying that “the era indicates or dictates…”. I, on the other hand, think that when the “natural frequency” – to use a physics term – of the creator, vis-à-vis extreme situations, coincides with the “natural frequency” of society, then yes, the “pace” of poetic verses can even make bridges fall.
You have been living in a provincial town of Northern Greece. How do things stand as far as artistic and literary production is concerned in the Greek province? How easy is for writers of the Greek province to have their voice heard?
Although I have been living in a small provincial town of Northern Greece called Drama, I should say that literary production has and continues to be doing well. Both in the previous decades and during the last few years, there are quite notable writers here. In a small town, time flows slowly allowing for a deep assimilation of everything – if, of course, that’s what you are after. It’s as if you are part of life and as it unfolds, you can take a step back, keeping your distance, so as to make the next few steps on a more solid ground. Not to mention that you really have the time and convenience to read wonderful books by others!
I truly enjoy walking around the town, greeting people every two steps, engulfed by a feeling of familiarity; I can’t stand the myth of the distant, mysterious, unsociable poet. North of my town, there are virgin forests and rivers, uninhabited villages, rare species of fauna and flora; it’s there that you bend your head, free of ostensible poses, it’s there that you can feel living poetry dying and then created anew.
No, a provincial town does in no way deprives you of “a large audience”, especially now with the internet and social media – as for the past, maybe, not to say definitely yes. For an artist, whether living in the capital or in the most distant town or village, the main agony is what to “bring to the table”; the book leaves his hands and starts its journey – it’s somewhere on the way that it will find the “erudite reader”, even if he doesn’t form part of the larger audience.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Nikos Erinakis (1988, Athens) is a Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy (Universities of London and Oxford), having studied Economics (AUEB), Philosophy and Comparative Literature (Warwick) and Philosophy of the Social Sciences (LSE). He has published two poetry books Σύντομα όλα θα καίγονται και θα φωτίζουν τα μάτια σου [Soon everything will be burning and will lit up your eyes] (Roes, 2009) and Ανάμεσα σε όσα πέφτει η σκιά [In between where the shadow falls] (Gavrielidis, 2013), as well as a translation of poems by Georg Trakl and passages by Martin Heidegger under the title Σκοτεινή αγάπη μιας άγριας γενιάς [Dark love of a wild generation] (Gavrielides, 2011). Essays and poems by him have been included in anthologies, have been published in numerous journals and have been translated into five languages.
Nikos Erinakis spoke to Reading Greece* about what drove him to poetry and what is his driving force noting that “what fascinated me, and still does, is the tension between voids and freedom, the quest of a poetry which the only ideal that recognizes is authenticity and beauty; away from a return to the absurd, but close to the configuration of the logical”. Asked about the interrelation between poetry and music, he discusses that “poetry should use all tools together in order to be exalted in the field of imaginativeness until it can become what it was born for or what gave birth to us: a game of beauty”.
He also reckons that “in the face of a contemporary post-modern drift towards a standardized instrumental mass society, it seems to me that through creative creation the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life may be awakened”, adding that “the breaking down of barriers between art and life, i.e. living creatively and thus authentically, may bring the quest of realising a thriving artistic culture back to the centre of poetic and philosophic inquiry”. He concludes that “poetry cannot remain simply a shelter, a lee or an escape; poetry can operate as a path towards a newfound reality. Inside there, in the great risk, we shall find salvation; the marriage, and not the assimilation, of oneness with the whole”.
You have published two poetry books, which seem as a quest for balance and sense in a world that has lost its pace and meaning. What drove you to poetry? And what is your driving force?
Beauty and pain. It was never a matter of choice; it was rather a matter of necessity. Many say that they write in order to be saved, not to lose their minds. As for me, writing does not save me, but rather, I guess, pushes more violently over the cliff.
What fascinated me, and still does, is the tension between voids and freedom, the quest of a poetry which the only ideal that recognizes is authenticity and beauty. Away from a return to the absurd, but close to the reconfiguration of the logical. It seems to me that a certain transcendental [with relation to the sacred and not the religious] range of thought and expression needs to be recreated, in order for us to cross the contemporary pause. We need to achieve the identification of poetic thought with stochastic poetry [as met, for instance, in the Presocratics]. Far away from the plain criticism and irony that characterize postmodernism, Ι feel that the aim of poetry is the development of a new imaginary. It seems the right time for poetry to suggest something novel again, to raise a proposition, to stop following life and convince life to follow her.
“Love, death and revolution. That’s where the game has always been played and will continue to be played”. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
From anything that I find authentic or to be a path towards authenticity. There is no reason to fear the big words, the hackneyed. I always tell to myself: Never put writing above experience. In other words, if you have to choose between being lost in the hair of a girl or inside words, choose the former. And also: never forget the crucial things; for example, what it means to be sun-kissed as, while randomly fooling around, you stare at a bougainvillea. Such are the ways to acquire an identity.
In any case, I consider critically important to read much more than I write. I constantly remind myself that one must write only when one has something new to say, otherwise silence sounds much better.
One, thus, needs to discover words that float above limits and give pace to anything silent that is ready to become something. Words that dig into the soil, seeking to express the urgent. These are the words that supply the necessary means to face the sky as an abyss below us, but also often leave us at the mercy of a strong propensity for silence. This is the kind of poetry into which our steps should burn. Chances are, nevertheless, that one shall most probably fail.
It has been noted that the influence of Odysseus Elytis and his Eternal Moment is evident in your poems both in terms of style and theme. How do you respond to that?
Really? That’s nice to hear—and perhaps it may be also right. But if one asked me about my deeper influences I would answer that my mind has more often got lost in ‘dialogues’ with words of the following literary ‘archetypes’: Heraclitus, Blake, and Rimbaud; Hölderlin, Trakl, and Celan; Keats, Pound and Eliot; Homer, Solomos, and Cavafy.
What role does music play in your life? What about the interrelation between poetry and music in your artistic ventures?
I am deeply interested in the conjunction of creative arts; and mostly, in the marriage of the pre-lingual (pre-Logos) and the lingual (Logos). The difficulty of the encounter and the discourse remains, and that is why the attempt of discovering its structure is based on the secret of the innate rhythm. For me, the only remaining solution is an appeal to the openness.We need an anti-biographic kind of poetry, which, at the same time, will be able to express the biography of us all—an ideal marriage between the individual and the collective. We need an experience of poetry that remains transcendental. We need to restore the experience of the sacred and the element of initiation. Beyond unnecessary manichaeistic dilemmas between logic and emotion, instinct and intuition, poetry should use all tools together in order to be exalted in the field of imaginativeness until it can become what it was born for or what gave birth to us: a game of beauty. In a nutshell, it seems to me that Dionysus is still around, and I ‘m trying to locate him.
"Even if inertia is against everything this word maintains, as it is able to lead to negative thinking, it can inspire us to be authentic, not follow the mass, be creative, autonomous and find joy into moments of complete freedom of thought”. Could you elaborate on that?
We find ourselves ‘thrown’, as Heidegger would say, into a world and a situation not of our own making, already disposed by moods and particular commitments, with a past behind us that constrains our choices. The "ethic of authenticity", if radicalized, may provide us with more fruitful responses to the tensions of post-modern morality and enrich the answers generated by the more mainstream tradition of the "ethic of autonomy”. An authentic life is not one that can be simply discovered and then experienced; it is one that needs to be creatively created. In the face of a contemporary post-modern drift towards a standardized instrumental mass society, it seems to me that through creative creation the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life may be awakened.
One may choose between living a life based on what one rationally believes is best for one, i.e. a life in which one acts on one’s good reasons, and living a life based on what one creatively creates, regardless of whether it is good or bad for one, but with the certainty that it is truly one’s own creation. It seems to me that the breaking down of barriers between art and life, i.e. living creatively and thus authentically, may bring the quest of realising a thriving artistic culture back to the centre of poetic and philosophic inquiry.
It is through this creative openness to the yet unthinkable and unimaginable that genuine authenticity may obtain. There is no possible way to predict exactly what may occur through such a leap into the open and what its consequences could be, but this is also the main source of its beauty—besides, as Hölderlin writes in the opening verses of Patmos: “where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”
“More than a few can write masterfully but only a handful poetically. And what is missing nowadays is an unexpectedly unprecedented, but, most important, timely lyricism”. What role is poetry called to play nowadays? What about the new generation of Greek poets?
You can tell whether a poem is good or not, by noticing whether when you finish reading it, you have a tendency to change yourself or to change the world. Poetic writing of any kind educates; true poetry transforms—that is, I believe, a critical difference. The aim of poetry is not to explain the world, or slightly changed it. The purpose of poetry is to make the world its own—to transform the world into itself.
At a time when language has been exhausted we cannot keep giving away our most beautiful words leaving their meanings and semiotics to the vulgarians. We need to create new symbolic forms for our individual and collective ideas and actions. A poetry that is not just language; it is simultaneous contact with the pre-lingual and post-lingual stage. Poets of a certain height have proved the feasibility of a revival of the language. Such a possible regeneration could regenerate our imagination too, and that would allow us to visualize and thus to induce the regeneration of our reality. Poetry cannot remain simply a shelter, a lee or an escape; poetry can operate as a path towards a newfound reality. Inside there, in the great risk, we shall find salvation; the marriage, and not the assimilation, of oneness with the whole.
Whether the contemporary Greek poets of the new generation are indeed capable of winning, or even taking part in, such a high bet, remains an open and tricky question. In any case, fortunately or not, we live in interesting times--we shall, thus, see.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Lena Kallergi (1978) is a poet and translator. She has published two books of poetry: Κήποι στην άμμο (Gardens on sand, Gavrielides, 2010) – which received the Maria Polydouri Award for New Poets – and Περισσεύει ένα πλοίο (One ship apart, Gavrielides, 2016); as well as two volumes of poetry in collaboration with the ‘Ομάδα Από Ποίηση’ (Poetry Team, Gavrielides, 2010 and 2012). She has translated poetry by Giacomo Leopardi, Luis Cernuda, Mario Vitti and others.
Lena Kallergi spoke to Reading Greece* about her two poetry collections noting that while the former was “about stubbornly defending my dreams even if the soil where I could cultivate them was not always ideal”, the latter is “about coming to terms, at least partly, with uncertainty, with the unknown, and with continuing the journey even when a feeling of being adrift is prevalent”. She discusses the dominant role of the sea in her poems, while she comments that her poems, though not surrealistic in their entirety, bear “traces of surrealism” noting that “poetry and reality constitute both complementary and contrasting concepts”.
She concludes that she is “fortunate to be part of a generation of poets that includes so many diverse and talented voices” and that “the act of creating significant art is an act of faith and resistance in itself and it can become a vessel of, among other things, beauty, truth, and hope. Poets will continue to create and to enclose these treasures in their work”.
Περισσεύει ένα πλοίο was recently published, almost six years after your first poetry collection. What differentiates this collection from Κήποι στην Άμμο? How has your poetry evolved over the years?
Six years is a long time, much has happened, I evolved as a person, and my second book feels to me very different from the first one. It is more about moving away from myself and venturing out into the vast, always unknown world. Κήποι στην άμμο was, in many ways, a book about stubbornly defending my dreams even if the soil where I could cultivate them was not always ideal. Περισσεύει ένα πλοίο can be read as a book of autonomous poems about traveling at sea and about a language evolving, but also as the journey of a person, of a language, and of poetry itself.
The sea is dominant in both books but it assumes a different role in the second one, where the human body emerges as one of the very few certainties a person can have during a lifetime. It is also a book about coming to terms, at least partly, with uncertainty, with the unknown, and with continuing the journey even when a feeling of being adrift is prevalent.
The sea, the journey, travelling, change and their transcription to the body and language are recurrent themes in your poetry. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I grew up near the sea and I carry it with me wherever I go. After I left my hometown in Evia, I lived in Patra, San Diego, Lancaster, Athens, and I travel to other countries and cities. I always need to know where the sea is in order to understand my coordinates, my position on the map. Reading, traveling, moving from place to place and from language to language, working as a linguist and a translator, meeting people and hearing their stories, having access to their writings, being a writer myself, growing older; all these things have defined me, in a way, and I guess they live in my poetry. Other than that, anything can be a reason for a poem.
In his review of Περισσεύει ένα πλοίο, Dimitris Athinakis notes that “in most poems, we delve into what the mind perceives as its own reality, which in no way upsets the waters of the reality of others”. Would you characterize your poetry as surrealistic? What has been the influence of Nikos Engonopoulos on your work?
Nikos Engonopoulos is one of my favorite Greek poets. I am never tired of reading his work. His poetry makes me feel free and makes me want to write poetry, so he must have influenced me a lot. I do not consider my poetry to be surrealistic, even though traces of surrealism can be found in it, but then again, traces of surrealism can be found almost everywhere. I think what Dimitris Athinakis observed is that the world my poems suggest in Περισσεύει ένα πλοίο is not a world which wants to impose itself on others. Different realities can exist simultaneously without necessarily being in conflict.
The poetic voice in Περισσεύει ένα πλοίο is a traveler in awe of his/her own ignorance and uncertainty, be it existential, linguistic, or other. So, there is a lot of room for differences, multiple realities, and undecided routes. The ship mentioned in the title and present in almost every page of the book «περισσεύει», it is the odd one out; it is redundant, but also excessive, superabundant as in surplus, and also a unique, special vessel. I chose this title because it allows for multiple meanings and interpretations and it includes both positive and negative connotations concerning the status of the ship.
“In poetry I find ways to understand, to feel, to communicate a deeper layer of experiences, images and desires”. How is poetry related to reality? Do they constitute complementary or contrasting concepts?
I would say that poetry and reality constitute both complementary and contrasting concepts. At times, “contrasting” means “complementary”, and vice versa. Language has many ways of creating categories that both facilitate and confine communication. I do not find that I escape reality by reading or writing poetry, and I do not think I construct a completely separate reality with my poems. Poetry is my window, my tool, my secret music, my third leg and my limp, my facilitator and my biggest challenge, my beautiful rose and ugly truth, my imaginative reality.
You have published two volumes of poetry as a part of the ‘Oμάδα Από Ποίηση (Poetry Team)'. Tell us a few things about these collective works.
The “Poetry Team”, «Ομάδα Από Ποίηση», was the result of experimentation with a group of poets a few years ago. We met in a creative writing workshop and decided to continue our meetings and working with each other’s poems after the workshop was over. This is how the first group was created. For the second book, we took this experimentation one step further and decided to write on roughly the same subject, drawing from common myths and archetypes that interested all of us. In our second book, entitled Υπέρ Ονειρίας, we did not assign each poem to one poet but considered them all to belong to the Team, thus taking the concept of collaboration to a new level. These experimentations were very fertile and helped me discover a lot about my personal identity as a poet, my preferences, etc. Poetry is essentially a lonely art; going against this reality does not change it, and it shouldn’t, but this journey offered me knowledge, encouragement, and friendship.
What about the new generation of Greek poets? Could poetry act as a paradigm of political action in the current unfavorable social conjuncture?
I am fortunate to be a part of a generation of poets that includes so many diverse and talented voices. It is motivating, challenging and enjoyable to read so much good poetry in our times. I often hear and read about the vast amount of bad poetry that is written and published today, but I want to stress the fact that I encounter poetry of great strength and originality very frequently. These remarkable poems constitute political actions, as far as I am concerned, in any social conjuncture, not only in the – especially unfavorable- current one. The act of creating significant art is an act of faith and resistance in itself and it can become a vessel of, among other things, beauty, truth, and hope. Poets will continue to create and to enclose these treasures in their work.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Michalis Spourdalakis is Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens. Since April 2014 he is also the Dean of the School of Economics and Politics. Professor Spourdalakis is a founding member of SYRIZA and a member of the board of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute.
Professor Spourdalakis holds a Ph.D. from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has published in the field of political sociology in both English and Greek, and part of his work has been translated into Spanish and Chinese. His books and articles have elaborated themes on political representation with an emphasis on political parties' relation to society, culture and the state; on local and regional administration and development; on the welfare state and collective consumption; and on Greek political institutions and policies since 1974. His books include: The Rise of the Greek Socialist Party (1988); Populism and Politics (in Greek, with Nicos Mouzelis and Thanos Libovats, 1990); PASOK: Party-State-Society, (ed., in Greek, 1998). His recent publications in English include “Left strategy in the Greek cauldron: explaining Syriza’s success” (Socialist Register, 2013), Rekindling Hope: Syriza’s Challenges and Prospects (Transform! Network, Yearbook 2016) and Becoming Syriza Again (January 2016). Professor Spourdalakis is the editor of The Socialist Register in Greece.
Michalis Spourdalakis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the evolution of the discipline of political science in Greece, the detrimental effect of the dominance of the "underdog vs. modernist" scheme in Greece public discourse and its role in legitimizing specific policies, the colonization of the social democratic project by neo-liberarism, the elements of irrational dishonesty some opposition parties demonstrate as well as their belief that they have 'property rights' on public inistitutions. Professor Spourdalakis also talks about SYRIZA´s struggle to survive in a hostile political enviroment and the need to support weaker classes while solidifing the board social coalistion that brought the party to power. Finally, he stresses the importance of reversing the current representation crisis, so that the Left can implement one of its prime goals: "to create the conditions and the space so that the subordinate classes and strata can fight for a greater social transformation."
In your 1991 paper with Nikiforos Diamantouros on "Political science in Greece" you mention that “Greek political science has had so far a minimal impact on state and societal development in Greece”. Is this still true?
To begin with, there is no unified and universally accepted theory of political science. There is no such thing as value-free political science, and more generally social science. Thus, one has to qualify the term, especially when we talk about its impact on the field of “state and societal development”. Since there is no value-free science, it should be clear that there is a huge difference between “critical” and “apologetic” political science. We can now qualify this general statement as well as clarify what we mean by state power or societal development. Again, these terms are not neutral or free from competing interests; thus to judge the impact of political science on them, one has to be clear on the criteria used to measure said impact.
At the time the above mentioned article was written, political science in Greece, due to turbulent and undemocratic circumstances, was grossly underdeveloped, especially if one were to compare it to the state of the art in other European countries. Indeed, political science, in all of its traditions, had very little impact on public life. However, it must be noted that the political and social developments of the post-Dictatorship era did affect the course of the development of the discipline and vice versa. This can be seen in the issues with which the rather small community of social/ political sciences, most of them having returned from abroad (usually Western Europe, and North America), was preoccupied. The research was focused on: the transition to democracy; general studies of democratic institutions; the prospects of the country’s membership in the European Community (EC) and after 1981 on the issues arising from its accession to the EC /EU; on the imposition and the nature of the Colonels regime; as well as more macro studies on the key aspects of the Greek social formation (social classes, state power, studies on aspects of the country’s of political economy).
Roughly speaking, in the first couple of decades of the Metapolitefsi, research in political science focused on themes deriving from the pressing challenges the country faced. Within this context, many studies tended to be over-theorized but clearly maintained a strong inclination towards the critical tradition of the discipline and therefore had indeed limited impact on the country’s development. However, since the 1990s, as the country struggled with the challenges of Europeanization, and under the new influence of EU research money, the discipline’s strong critical theoretical inclination gave way to more mainstream studies which, while one has to recognize their technical and even academic superiority, were less theoretical and more issue oriented and thus served as a strong legitimizing force for governmental policies. One of the extreme consequences of the latter was the public intervention of key representatives of the discipline during the crisis, when the borders between research results and propagandistic statements became very unclear.
Simplistic schemas and frameworks for understanding complex macro-phenomena generally tend to become popular. Their simplicity provides an easy and convenient analysis for mainstream researchers and/or laymen, who have no interest in challenging given perceptions and understandings. After all, even the artificial or the fictitious tend to be more easily operational. Even when they appear polarized and divided, societies are an epiphenomenon of very complex processes and never the result of ideological or political choices of the involved parties. Thus, although arguments of cultural dualism were common for analysing issues in countries during periods of de-colonization and democratization, they were proven more politically than analytically useful.
The Greek use of the above mentioned analysis is no exception. The artificial divide between "underdog and modernist culture" has primarily functioned as a legitimizing force to the modernizing strategy led by PASOK governments (1993-2004) as well as to the complementary strategy of New Democracy (2004-2007) which aimed at the "re-foundation of the state". In fact without great risk, I would argue that this understanding of the Greek social formation even affected the content of the political polemics during the 2010 crisis: The unilaterally biased definitions of "populism" and their inflationary use by the dominant political forces legitimized the most unholy political alliances, which not only organized the imposition the most aggressive austerity polices but also promoted the so-called theory of the "two extremes", equating the rise of the extreme right forces with the radical left. This was a development that soon displayed its detrimental effects upon democracy, as Golden Down entered the parliament with a commanding share of the popular vote.
According to some commentators, SYRIZA seems to be taking a social-democratic turn, an example of which is Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras participation in the task force meeting of European socialists in Paris last March, and his appeal to the values of social democracy as a means of ending the crisis facing Greece and Europe. Do you agree with this assessment?
There is no doubt that this assessment is a rather superficial one. To some extent it reveals the shallow analyses that characterized public discourse in Greece. First of course, we must clarify what we mean by "social democracy". Do we mean the left wing current that dominated the politics of advanced capitalist democracies for thirty years after the Second World War, or its evolution in the last some twenty years under the adoption of Blair’s Third Way strategy, essentially hegemonized by neoliberalism? If by social democracy we mean the former, whose close ties with the working class led to programs with strong social considerations, why is this so negative for SYRIZA, or for any other radical left party? After all, SYRIZA is struggling to survive within the framework of the imposition of very aggressive policies and the political turmoil caused by neoliberal domination, both in Europe and worldwide.
This assessment reveals an additional misunderstanding, or rather, confusion. Those who claim that SYRIZA has reoriented its strategy towards social democracy because Alexis Tsipras, as Prime Minister, attended the meeting of the European Socialists, seem to be at the very least ill informed as well as confused, when they identify the government, or in technical terms the "party in office", with the party and its strategic identity. It is necessary to understand that seeking allies in Europe as a "party in office", and in fact in a coalition government, has very little or nothing to do with a change in the strategic orientation of the party, when its cadres consider that the polices implemented are the result of the setback of the summer of 2015 and "the coup" imposed by the country’s debtors, and not in fact actual choices.
To be fair, I must say that this confusion is expressed even by some SYRIZA supporters and even its functionaries, as they operate exclusively within the government with little or no relation to the party. This rather minority view of mainstream social democracy stems from the pressure that comes from the lopsided balance of power faced in the current conjuncture. This pressure makes some -especially those latecomer supporters of the SYRIZA project- settle for a renovated project similar to the modernizing one of the social democrats.
The anti-austerity movements that were so strong during the first years of the crisis in Greece and vital in the Greek Left´s rise to power seem to have died down. Care to comment? Does Syriza maintain its electoral appeal in the lower social classes and those more affected by the crisis?
No movement can maintain its strength, stamina and ingenuity indefinitely. The Greek case is no exception. We should also keep in mind that even the most self-confident movements, with a highly organizational capacity do not avoid the traditional trend of delegating their power to official political organizations. In the case of Greece, following the electoral victory of SYRIZA, naturally this trend became dominant, as the resistance movement sought its validation in the political change.
From day one, SYRIZA’s coalition government took initiatives to support the socially weakest strata. It was a countervailing position met with the vehement opposition of the debtors and their supporters among politicians of the establishment. However, in the long term, this is not sufficient to secure the electoral base of the party. SYRIZA’s rise to power has been, to a great extent, the result of a broad social coalition of a wide range of social strata (workers, unemployed, working poor, new and traditional petit bourgeoisie). The only way for SYRIZA to maintain its political base is to promote policies that somehow solidify this alliance. Therefore, its concerted efforts in support of the social strata hit the most by the crisis and the austerity cannot been seen as a sole guarantor of its future electoral success.
What do you think of the opposition in Greece, minor and major? How do you explain the furious reaction the government has faced from the centre-right despite its moderate policies?
There is no doubt that the opposition to the present coalition government is not only poor and disappointing, but also irrational. Putting aside the fact that it is often arbitrary and certainly off-centre with regard to its constitutional role, it seems clear to me that it utilizes strong elements of irrational dishonesty (see: its reaction to the electoral reform, to the social programs, to the reforms to private education, or its discourse on the government’s attempts to attract foreign investment, etc). The latter is clear among the political forces that in one way or the other have participated in or supported the governments since the crisis. They also have voted in favour of the measures imposed by the debtors since the retreat of the summer of 2015.
It seems that the opposition is either the victim of false ideological premises that in fact have turned them into conservative observers of the political dynamics (this is the case of KKE) or of the propaganda that aimed to legitimize the policies of austerity even before, but especially since 2009 (ND, PASOK, To Potami). To put it simply, the mainstream parties seem to believe their own lies. Using all the available means (media, bureaucratic control of organized interests, local and regional governments) and with the support of all the "traditional intelligentsia", who have always been committed to "efficient governability", they have contributed to creating a climate which is extremely hostile to SYRIZA.
In addition to the shortcomings and the contradictory political strategies which they produce (eg. ND has been calling for elections constantly, almost immediately since September, 2015), the opposition’s entire polemic discourse reveals the fact that the old established political forces have extensive structural relations with both the so-called "deep state" and powerfull socio-economic interests. Obviously, the "cartel parties" of the opposition, having long withdrawn from the social field, know that their survival is dependent upon the maintenance of their links to state resources. This explains the remark made by many observers that the functionaries and the cadre of today’s opposition behave as if they have property rights to public institutions.
There is one more comment that should be made about the so-called left-centre forces. One might have expected that these political forces, given the new (forced) orientation of the government, would have been more conducive to it, disassociating themselves from the centre-right and its eclectic and growing relations with the extreme populist right. However, this has not happened. On the contrary, without any self-criticism on their strategy and development of the last twenty five years, they have failed to reconnect with their historical origins and to break off from the neo-liberalist hegemony. This failure of this part of the opposition has made the term “Pasokification” an international one.
Have recent developments in Greece and Spain affected the Radical Left’s vision of a different politics in the EU? Is it a temporary setback, or is it proof, like some commentators say, that the Radical Left’s proposals for improving the relation between democracy and capitalism are outdated and inapplicable?
For the moment we cannot argue that the radical Left’s development in the European South has led to a clear strategy and a new vision vis-à-vis the EU prospect. However, it is only fair to say that the undemocratic structure and functioning of the EU, in combination with the deepening of socially insensitive policies, have contributed to a spreading of the scepticism for the future of EU. The negative developments (Brexit, rise and strengthening of radical right political forces) will possibly speed up among the radical Left parties -especially within the Party of the European Left- the process of putting forward a new and effective vision and strategy for the European future in juxtaposition to the present dominant one.
How can we rethink of Greece and Europe after Greek Left’s rise to power and one year and a half of government experience?
To me there are no surprises in this regard. Especially after the agreement of July 2015 and the realization that the Memorandum is not just an agreement to 'fix' the country’s fiscal problems, but rather a strategy to restructure the entire social formation so that it becomes completely in tune with market principles. In this context, and given the ammunition of all those to have subscribed to the full success of the Memorandum, under certain conditions we can be optimistic.
Optimism can come from initiatives that aim to reverse the crisis of representation, and to limit the phenomena of post-democracy that alienate the people from democratic processes, eliminate accountability and give rise to political cynicism. To make a positive effect, the Left’s coalition government has to reverse that trend. This is necessary, not just for the rehabilitation of the rule of law but also if the Left is to implement one of its prime goals: to create the conditions and the space so that the subordinate classes and strata can fight for a greater social transformation.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi and Nikolas Nenedakis