Vassilios Lambropoulos delivers lecture on the role of the Acropolis in Greek Literature
July 23, 2008
“Unbuilding the Acropolis in Greek Literature”
Professor Vassilios Lambropoulos
Forthcoming in Susan Stephens and Phiroze Vasunia, eds.: Classics and National Culture (Oxford University Press 2009)
“Whatever the Acropolis may be,
It doesn’t exist without us”
(Montis 1978: 22)
Do Greeks care about the Acropolis? If we look at their literature, we hesitate to answer. In both poetry and prose, the “sacred hill” appears very rarely, and when it does, it is usually an object of attack rather than admiration. Greek writers of the last two centuries seem profoundly uninterested in visiting or discussing the famous site. Given the importance of antiquity for modern Greek culture as well as the centrality of the Acropolis in the literature of travels to Greece, the literary stance is puzzling. This paper will offer an answer to the puzzle.
The Acropolis is one of the best-known and most-visited places in the world, a place that people recognize and admire even without ever visiting it. In addition to its ancient glory, it has acquired the aura of a modern topos that has been discursively and institutionally constituted. The Acropolis is a countersite in that it exists both in an archaeological location and in the collective imaginings of Western tradition – both in and outside history. The Acropolis evokes not only the classical Athenians who built it but also modern creators like Melville, Thackeray, Flaubert, Freud, Hofmannsthal, Woolf, Durrell, Malraux, Heidegger, Golding, Walcott, and Derrida who recorded their visits in literature, theory, and reflection. In marked contrast, it does not evoke contemporary Greeks. In turn, we find that Greeks do not exhibit a corresponding enthusiasm but instead something entirely different. The reason is that the “technology” of travel writing on Greece has disciplined them into oblivion.
Artemis Leontis has discussed fields like archaeology, aesthetics, and history in terms of Foucauldian disciplinary technologies. At least since the early nineteenth century, travel writing has also functioned as such a technology, disciplining Greeks into inferiority or irrelevance. In nearly all travel literature, Greeks do not speak about the hill, usually because they are not found there. Hence the dramatic difference between the Hellenes of eternity and the Greeks of history.
To find a Greek on the citadel we have to go to Greek literature. The Broken Hands of the Aphrodite of Melos (2002), a postmodern exploration of modern Greek hybridity by writer Nanos Valaoritis (b. 1921) set in 1820. The hero Sebastian Moronis, a Greek of Italian descent living in colonial Corfu as a British subject, is accused of having stolen antiquities and is imprisoned in the Propylaia. Eventually the Turkish judge spares his life, offers him as a servant for life to his adopted son, the Janissar Selim, but the new master turns out to be a lost cousin from Egypt who was sold as a slave and raised Muslim.
Once the Acropolis was liberated, visitors spent their time on the Acropolis in quite different ways. Distinguished scholar and writer Georgios Tertsetis (1800-74) describes his visit with four eminent Greek politicians in 1836. It is interesting to see their different attitudes once they passed through the Propylaia. One of them asks somebody to show him where a hero of the War of Independence was killed. Another meets somebody who criticizes the late President of Greece. The third goes to the highest point and takes in the open sea. Only the fourth walks up to the Parthenon and contemplates it in silence and absorption, which is particularly interesting if we recall that a Turkish mosque has been still standing within it since the early eighteenth century.
The hero of The Tumblers (2004), the second novel by actor and writer Yiorgos Kotanidis, is a diaspora Greek who comes to Athens that same year to establish the first theater in the free nation. He attests the clearing of the Acropolis from Venetian and Turkish remains so that nothing but ancient ruins will be visible on the site. The Acropolis as we know it today was created in a few decades.
Contrary to what students of modern Hellenism may expect, the Acropolis does not have a prominent place in Greek literature of the last two centuries. In fact, it makes only a rare appearance. In the twentieth century, even when the Acropolis makes an appearance, instead of generating ideas of greatness and glory, it finds itself under attack from internal or external forces. As we shall see, Greek literature consistently unbuilds the Western heterotopia.
This “destructive” (in Heidegger’s sense) tradition was inaugurated by the avant garde and Trotskyite writer Nicholas Calas (1907-89) with a piece which appeared in his first collection, Poems (dated 1933 but released in October 1932 under the pseudonym Nikitas Rantos). The poem, “Acropolis,” draws on the infamous bombardment of 1687 that irreparably damaged the Parthenon during the siege of the Ottomans on the Acropolis by Venetian artillery under captain Francesco Morosini. Ironically, this time the monument is being destroyed not by being reduced to pieces but by being photographically restored. As the most legendary ruin is reconstructed daily by all the means of mechanical reproduction, it turns into a popular modern commodity: it becomes a slogan, a sign, a spectacle.
In addition to its photographic reconstruction, in the years 1922-33 the Parthenon underwent its second modern restoration, following the first one in 1898-1902. The project inspired the famous French historian André Charbonnier to propose the revival of the Panathenean Festival following on the model of the successful revival of the Delphic Festivals in 1927 and 1930. It produced The Athens Charter for the Restoration of Historic Monuments.
No work better represents the idealism ridiculed by Calas than the work of the Swiss photographer Francois-Frédéric [Fred] Boissonnas (1858-1946). His extensive work (13 albums) commences right after the Acropolis conservations of 1885-90 reached down to the natural rock, removing from it the last post-classical ruins, and (in albums like Le Parthénon of 1910-12) it memorializes the place as it has never looked since its days of ancient glory.
Two famous visitors who arrived in Athens just months after the publication of Calas’ poem can be taken as emblematic of opposite approaches to the Acropolis. The futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti traveled to Athens in February 1933; his advice to the Greeks was to turn their back to the Acropolis and kill their melancholy and nostalgia with original discoveries (Tournikiotis 1994: 245). The second visitor, Le Corbusier (1933), had identified classicism as inherently modern and hoped that design would learn from classical scale and simplicity. His renewed call for a modern classicism was eagerly adopted by the Athenian press. Not by writers, though.
In another unpublished poem, Calas mocks Psycharis him for demoticizing the word Parthenon into “Parthenos” (Psycharis 1971: 159). Apparently he has in mind the chapter “The Ancients” in Psycharis’s controversial travelogue My Journey (1888) where the scholar narrates his first ever trip to Greece in 1886. Psycharis climbs the Acropolis at noon and encounters all the famous ancient Greeks from the archaic to the Hellenistic era, working and conversing. Predictably, he glorifies his ancestors yet his visit ends on a very different note when Aristophanes asks him about modern Greek achievements, and Psycharis is embarrassed to admit that they are non-existent. Even a nineteenth-century Greek expressing tremendous admiration for antiquity can depict the Acropolis as a threat to modern life.
The three major Modernists, Nicholas Calas, George Seferis (Six Nights on the Acropolis, 1926-8), and George Theotokas (Argo, 1933-36; and The Bells, 1966, published posthumously), present the Acropolis as a site that falls prey to commercial, technological, and natural forces. Instead of praising its transcendent qualities as did nearly all the contemporary foreign travelers, they see it as vulnerable and defenseless. They find that great art and classical values cannot protect themselves from appropriation and manipulation, let alone the passing of time. As Gregory Jusdanis has noted, Greek “Modernism reacted against the calcification of classicism. Moreover, it became disenchanted with the restoration project in which archaeology was a chief participant. Instead of taking the past as a given to be exploited, modernist writers problematized their relationship to it. They increasingly asked themselves whether we could know the past at all as archaeology had promised, whether it could be resuscitated in a way still meaningful to the present, and whether the past had become a dead weight” (Jusdanis 2004: 43-4). It is not that Greeks do not subscribe to aesthetic idealism, but, when it comes to the greatest symbol of their culture, they exhibit a remarkable skepticism toward its ability to still function as an eternal, sublime model.
This theme is not uncommon in Greek prose. The prologue of the short-story collection The Bidet and Other Stories (1970) by Marios Hakkas (1931-72) opens with the dazzling whiteness of the incandescent Pentelic marble. Two pages later, at the end of the prologue and the painful monologue, the hill now appears ashen like cement with the Temple of the Wingless Victory a graveyard for broken, defeated wings. The novel The Inconceivable Landscape (1991) by Takis Theodoropoulos (b. 1954) includes the story of an old archaeologist who is suffering from depression caused by his obsessive idea that the Parthenon is doomed to disappear. This skepticism which was first articulated by Modernists is pushed further by writers of the first post-World War II generation, who take the next step and propose that the Acropolis be deliberately destroyed.
Yiorgos Makris, a friend of Nanos Valaoritis, was a man of letters who at twenty, in November 1944, wrote and circulated among his many eminent friends a manifesto, “Proclamation no. 1,” calling for “the blowing up of ancient monuments, propaganda against antiquities, and every object we don’t like” (Makris 1986: 253). Appearing just months after the Acropolis, like the rest of Athens, was liberated from the Germans, the idea of the demolition of the monument must have been shocking, yet it captured the views of those marginal intellectuals who felt trapped by the dilemmas of the civil war (1944-1949). The Parthenon that had been conquered by time and tourism now offered a lesson in the despotism of history and the tyranny of form. Liberation of creative instincts could only be achieved through the destruction of permanence.
Christos Chrysopoulos’ book-length story The Bomber of the Parthenon, describes a series of explosions on the Acropolis in 1996. X.K., a twenty-two year old unemployed idealist remains a visionary adolescent and is possessed by a certain neurosis: he has matters to settle with the Parthenon. The real power of the Parthenon is not aesthetic but symbolic. The narrator realizes that he can fight the symbol but not the collective unconscious that reproduces it. His only option is to destroy this inheritance that inhibits instead of enabling so that people can begin all over again as if born yesterday (30). He is executed, and his testimony is locked away and will eventually be burned unopened. A replica of the temple is under construction to be completed the following year.
Similar foreign interests seem at first to lie behind the catastrophe that hits the Acropolis in Sacrilegious Flight (2003), the third novel by writer and attorney Vassilis Gouroyannis (b. 1951). The story takes place in the 2020s. The latest restoration on the Acropolis is approaching completion. An unidentified jet fighter flies dangerously close to the monuments on the hill. The tremor caused by the low flight leaves the Parthenon seriously damaged in an unprecedented way: its famously curved columns which rise in the shape of a pyramid, creating the illusion of straight lines, have been shaken out of shape and have been straightened. As a result, the architectural integrity of the temple has perished: every line appears crooked. The country is in shock: who could have done this and to what end? The country is engaged in a large-scale restoration project, caught in a “feverish paroxysm of antiquity worship” (Gouroyiannis 2002: 132). This is the “national illness” which finds expression in returns and restorations. The most virtuosic use of deconstruction is its deployment in discussions about the Parthenon itself. In all these views, the Parthenon has taken on a life of its own, a life that is simultaneously artistic, cultural, ethnic, and symbolic. It no longer symbolizes, or even embodies – it lives. The Parthenon may also be conceived as a mirror that reflects not only the barbarians who attack it but also the Greeks who worship it (74). Another metaphor deals with performance. Everybody on the hill performs the Greeks – the guides do it for the tourists, the autochthons for the heterochthons, the scholars for the media, the press for its audience, the professors for the students, and so on. They all lay claim on Greekness by enacting in public an identity which they argue is coherent, authentic, and ancient. In general, Gouroyiannis undermines classical notions to question stereotypes of all kinds – to show that straight lines, white marbles, ethnic homogeneity, cultural continuity are all constructs. Together with almost all writers of his generation he can claim that the Parthenon “is above all a locus/topos of our imagination” (Theodoropoulos 2002: 115).
These writers know that the Acropolis as an imperial and colonial construct leaves no place for living Greeks (Gourgouris 1996: 128-40). Travel literature has silenced them. Photography has edited them out of its timeless locations. Advertising has erased them from its images of blue sky. In film, if there is an encounter at all, it will resemble either that of an American archaeologist with an uneducated sponge-diving girl (Sophia Loren) from Hydra in Boy on a Dolphin (1957) or that of an American intellectual called Homer with a prostitute from Piraeus (Melina Mercouri) in Never on Sunday (1960) who cannot even keep Medea’s story straight. Even recent academic books, like The Parthenon (2003) by Mary Beard or The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present (2005), edited by Jenifer Neils, do not mention any modern Greek writers, thinkers, or artists. It is as if the locals cannot visit, write, paint, or remake the Acropolis. Twentieth-century Greek authors understood this well: the Acropolis as heterotopia has no room for them. That is why, when they call for its “destruction,” they are trying to undermine a classicism without living Greeks. Their approach can be defined by another Heideggerian term: they are “unbuilding” the edifice of Western Hellenism – not destroying it but taking it apart and revealing the layers of its construction, the history of its metaphysics. Commentators who have referred to the burden of the glorious past may have seen only part of the picture. Moving beyond belatedness, Greek writers have been conducting a critique of classical ideology. By doing so they create the possibility of a different culture, one that is not beholden to conservative classicism, reactionary humanism, oppressive monumentalism, and a Hellenism that disciplines Greeks.
We encounter similar attitudes in the arts too. The title of the first Athens Biennial International Art Exhibition (September to November 2007) was “Destroy Athens.”
In exhibits and other events, participants attacked both negative and positive stereotypes of Athens, questioning dominant notions of place, past, and identity.
We can find an alternative Athenian view of the Acropolis in the chapter “New World in the Old Place: The New Panathenaea” of the futuristic young adult novel From the Departing World to the Coming World (1935) by writer Petros Pikros (1900-56). Two young people, a Greek boy and a black girl, travel the world in a utopian future where socialism has prevailed in the world. As their flying machine circles the Acropolis, they find that the Parthenon has been fully repaired. After centuries of damage inflicted by Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, English, and certain Greeks, the temple has been restored to its original form by the ruling “universal civilization,” the global regime of brotherhood. Now it occupies an eminent position in world culture but it is no longer considered the perfection or completion of anything. It is just a great page in the story of humanity. Obviously Pikros’s novel belongs to science fiction. But it is remarkable that its Greek vision restores the Acropolis by the whole world for the whole world.
“With all due respect
We have more important issues than the Acropolis”
(Montis 1978: 22)
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