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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 19 October 2019
DIATRIBE 22 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 19 OCTOBER 2019 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM The Zliten mosaic is a Roman floor mosaic from about the 2nd century AD, found in the town of Zliten in Libya, on the east coast of Leptis Magna. Coming home from Greece DEAN KALIMNIOU I remember my last homecoming from Greece. Seated on the aeroplane next to an irate elderly gentleman, by way of introduction, he exclaimed: Άχρηστοι αυτοί οι Έλληνες. Τελείως άχρηστοι. Όταν έρχονται εδώ (the meaning of the word ‘here’ defying geographical definition as although we were still flying over the Aegean, he was referring to the environs of Port Phillip Bay) τους μπαμπακίζουμε, τους δίνουμε ξηρά καρπιά και όταν πάμε εκεί, μας ρωτάνε: «Ήρθες; Πότε φεύγεις;». * Τι να κάνουμε Έρμιππε, I sighed. * Γιάννη με λένε, the elderly gentleman corrected me. He then launched into a detailed discussion as to how his fellow villages made fun of his garish, as they termed it, taste in shirts and how much he missed discussing the footy. In the village in which he was born, no one was able to understand his humanity. As much as he identified with his birthplace, he felt that he was no longer counted as a part of it by his peers. AND THEN THERE'S CAVAFY Hellenism as diasporan discourse is founded on the division between the 'authentically' Greek and its opposite, the degrees of un-Hellenisation comprising assimilation which haunts the paradigm like a spectre. This process is the subject of one of Constantine Cavafy's most profound poems: "Going Back Home from Greece". Much like my own experience of two Greek-Australians returning home in an aeroplane plane, Cavafy casts two Greco-Syrian philosophers returning to Syria after a jaunt in the motherland. Their dialogue takes place in a boat, half way between Greece and Syria, between the cultural metropolis and the periphery, a powerful metaphor for a nomans land in which an identity discourse can take place. An unnamed philosopher thus addresses his friend Hermippos: "Well, we're nearly there, Hermippos. Day after tomorrow, it seems— that's what the captain said. At least we're sailing our seas, the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt, the beloved waters of our home countries. Why so silent? Ask your heart: didn't you too feel happier the farther we got from Greece? What's the point of fooling our- selves? That would hardly be properly Greek. It's time we admitted the truth: we are Greeks also—what else are we?— but with Asiatic affections and feelings, affections and feelings sometimes alien to Hellenism. It isn't right, Hermippos, for us philosophers to be like some of our petty kinglets (remember how we laughed at them when they used to come to our lectures?) who through their showy Hellenified exteriors, Macedonian exteriors (naturally), let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then, a bit of Media they can't keep back. And to what laughable lengths the fools went trying to cover it up! No, that's not at all right for us. For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won't do. We must not be ashamed of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins; we should really honour it, take pride in it." The diasporan Cavafy, unlike modern neo-Greeks who whoop enthusiastically at the prospect of holidaying in Santorini and wearing the latest designer swimwear, implies the relief felt by many diasporans seeking to negotiate their identity while in the motherland, at the point of leaving it. In the poem, despite reference to it as a geographical and cultural focal point, the land of Greece remains aloof, impenetrable, unintelligible, and unable to absorb them. Nonetheless, as a result of her undefinable attributes, Greece personifies the discourse by which the two travellers can be defined as 'Hellenic', and also excluded as 'non-Hellenic' on the basis of their own inauthenticity. arbiters of Hellenism in their home country, gleefully poke fun at the hysterical ontopathology of the rulers emulating Macedonian ways, all the while trembling lest signs of their inauthenticity, an Arabian or Median expression or attitude, extrude from their carefully cultivated Hellenised exterior, yet are evidently hurt when the same treatment is meted out to them and they are marked as the 'other', by 'higher' arbiters of the standard. The philosopher's reaction, however, in contrast to the shame and embarrassment of the Hellenistic kings, which tacitly reinforces Greece as the epicentre of the Hellenic Cavafy’s provocative poem offers no solution to the quandary of the authenticity, existence or perpetuation of the Greek identity in the diaspora, or the reception of its particular culture by the ancestral homeland. “ WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HELLENE To express relief that one's travel to Greece has concluded because they do not belong there, constitutes a dynamic re-appraisal of what it is to be Greek. It is evident that the philosophers, like the Hellenistic (ie, Greek-like but not authentically Greek per se) monarchs they mock, have had their foreign behaviour, accents or dress sense pointed out to them, much as a beloved cousin in my village pointed out to me in the nineties that I should refrain from wearing corduroy pants, not because they constitute a crime against fashion, but rather because they mark me as a foreigner. The two Greek philosophers, discourse, is an aggressive one. He initiates a process of re-evaluating and re-determining his identity that is complemented by a contemporaneous process of re-asserting his own definition of Hellenism in contra-distinction to its metropolitan articulation. For him, it is axiomatic that: "We are Greeks", regardless of the fact we may be possessed of "Asiatic affections and feelings,…sometimes alien to Hellenism" or that we may have "Syrian and Egyptian blood in their veins." Rather than be ashamed of such non-Greek admixtures, the philosopher asserts that this should form a subject of pride. Ostensibly, he is telling us to accept ourselves in the form and manner in which we abide. Of course the irony in this particular assertion of 'Hellenism' is that it is fraught with tension and contradiction. Presumably, admitting that one's attitudes, interests and bloodline is not Greek gives one the right to identify with that particular ethno-cultural world, or at least to admit a syncretic, composite identity, comprised of the sum of its parts. Yet it no way is the philosopher attempting to engage in such a mirror-image process. He is not resiling in any way from his assertion that he is Greek. Nor is he providing any rational or consistent criteria for his own definition of Hellenism. There is no argument here that racial background does not preclude one from Greekness, although education and culture (he is after all that most Hellenic of beings, a philosopher) may. Nor is there any analysis of the unique forms of Hellenism developed on the periphery of the Greek world. The reader gets the feeling that the philosopher is making it up as he goes along, re-applying, re-arranging and re-locating the disparate elements of his own life, in order to circumvent or override his exclusion from the tribe. As much as his assertion of his hybridity as a form of Hellenism is revolutionary, it is also reactive, in that it cannot stand up on its own feet, nor does it have a discernible geographical location. It is unable to have as its point of reference, anything but the metropolis he seeks to reject, and its denial of his own ethnic purity. Thus, the philosopher expresses the desire not to act in a non 'properly Greek' manner. The word used in the original, ἑλληνοπρεπές, denotes a form of conduct that is "Greek-like" but possibly not truly Greek. Thus the term associates but also retains a distinction between the Greek and the other, reinforcing the central tension undermining the philosophers own attempt at cultural emancipation. Try as he might, the philosopher remains unable to negotiate a distinct or alternate form of Hellenism, in contrast to that of the mainstream. He does not for example, display an insight into the act of exclusion by the metropolis as being symptomatic of a perceived threat to their own form of Hellenism by Hellenes of the periphery. Instead, the form of "Hellenism" articulated by him is nothing but a construct erected at the expense of the ontopathology of the Hellenistic kinglets, his pupils who in turn are considered as barbarous. Herein lies further irony: what is the use of the philosopher and the Greek education he purveys, indeed of Hellenism in the East and by extension the diaspora, if, for all his efforts, by both his own standard and that of the motherland, his pupils cannot be considered to by Greek? In his act of identity emancipation he negates his very self. Cavafy's provocative poem of- fers no solution to the quandary of the authenticity, existence or perpetuation of the Greek identity in the diaspora, or the reception of its particular culture by the ancestral homeland. It does however, highlight its fundamental tensions and as such deserves to be closely considered by diasporan purveyors of Hellenism and all of those who seek purchase into the Hellenic paradigm. As the elderly man, sighed, while lamenting the demise of Olympic Airways as denying him the opportunity to enjoy a high-altitude smoke: «Έλληνας γεννιέσαι, δεν γίνεσαι, αλλά καμιά φορά παραγίνεσαι.» I raised a Cavafian eyebrow in enigmatic riposte.
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