[ Philhellenic Perspective
[ October 1996 Issue ]

[ Choose to proceed ] In this issue:
  • [1.] Philhellenic Perspective - On the Web
  • [2.] Greece In Print Show
  • [3.] Greek Poetry
  • [4.] Translation
  • [5.] Who is a Greek?

  • [6.] The Future of "Greece in Print"
  • [7.] Finding Greece: Ouzo Quest 96
  • [8.] Coming up next time
  • [9.] About the journal

Philhellenic Perspective - On the Web

Thanks to the volunteers at the Hellenic Resources Institute, this journal has a home on the web! I'm proud to be associated with the other sites and resources maintained by the HRI.

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2. Greece in Print Show in New York

Over the weekend of September 28-29, the first annual "Greece In Print" show took place in Manhattan, New York. This event mixed a book display with a full round of speakers on a variety of topics relating to Greek culture. A costume exhibit, food and wine sampling and a movie or two spiced things up. Attendance was more than expected: perhaps 200 present at the peak, significantly more must have put in an appearance during the two day event. Attended primarily by Greeks and Greek- Americans, the show offered a real window into the culture.

Organized by the Hellenic Literature Society, and the Hellenic American Educators Association, many were involved in making it work. Without slighting anyone, Ioannis Fakazis of Cosmos Books should be recognized for his efforts to make this event come to pass.

I met some interesting people who made portions of Greek history come alive: a woman who had lived through the famine in Athens in WWII, a man whose father commanded a ELAS brigade and was exiled to Romania after the war. As with most conferences, I wish I could have met and conversed with more.

I'd like to pass on some thoughts about the event as it relates to understanding Greek culture. I'm not covering all the aspects of the event, of course, just relating some themes.

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3. Greek Poetry

I admit that I do not read much poetry simply because I seldom understand it: people ooh and ahh at what seem to me to be a random collection of images. Poetry of another culture seems therefore hopeless: if I understand it, I probably wouldn't enjoy it; and if I enjoyed it, I probably misunderstood it. Nonetheless, some Greek poetry does speak to me because it is often about the quest for the ultimates in life and the ironies and limits of the human condition.

A surprising percentage of "Greece In Print" was devoted or touched upon poetry with sessions on: Greek literature; Greece's nobel prize winners Odysseas Elytis and Tagopoulos; translation of modern Greek literature; Greek women poets; and an address on the essence of hellenism that used poetry as its starting point. It certainly increased my interest in reading some modern poets.

And there are the little epiphanies. Elytis has a line (see below) about "windbeaten verbs" -- that did it: I was transported to be standing near the Greek shore, the wind blowing possibilities and journeys off the ocean, all the impossible blues and whites of the Greek landscape filling my eyes, and simultaneously in my mental eye the language appeared like an ancient ship, battered after a long, but successful thousand- yeared voyage, bearing the mark of all the cultures that had shaped its meaning, altered its pronunciation and added weight to its associations. Now, THAT is poetry.

Standing outside Greek culture and looking in, I saw much of the discussion at "Greece in Print" in terms of translation. Let me relate several incidents.

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4. Translation: into the cultural gap

Several translators were recognized and they spoke of the primitive beginnings of their work a few decades ago when there were not even decent Greek dictionaries and a translator had to cultivate a circle of Greek friends to rely on to be "living dictionaries." Now, more and more poetry is available in translation, and much of it was on display at the book exhibit.

Even though I am not a fluent reader of Greek, what I really want is an edition with Greek and English on facing pages, like the Loeb Classical Library books. Such books would be expensive, of course, and, if translations of modern works, have a market of about 6 copies, unfortunately. I know enough biblical Greek to appreciate the point the translators made at the conference: even the best translation is a struggle to shoehorn the rhythm, idioms and connections of one language, into the different set of possibilities of another language. This must be even more true of the translation of poetry than of prose.

Translation of the words is only the first step. There is the translation required by cultural distance. This requires an exegesis. Liana Theodoratou, Director of the Cultural Outreach Program of the Alexander Onassis Center in New York, offered us such an exegesis of a portion of the "Axion Esti" by Elytis. Taking the section that begins:

The language they gave me Greek;
poor the house on Homer's shores.
My only care my language on Homer's shores.
There bream and perch
windbeaten verbs,
green sea currents in the blue, ...

She broke this apart, line by line, explaining the cultural references and bringing out its meaning, or enough of the background so we could assess its meaning. This is what is needed to make Greek poetry fly in another culture, not only the translation of it but its explanation. Without it the non-Greek is lost. As lost, if I may say so, as the naive reader of the Bible is.

At one point in the proceedings, there was a recounting of how some poetry had been set to music. Some of it was played for us. Initially, I was surprised: the poetry had been dramatic, tragic, even gloomy, certainly invoking the big themes and hard, hard dilemmas of the human condition. The music seemed light, up-beat, chipper. I spoke of this contrast with Prof. George Balogou (from New York University in Oswego and the hls-d discussion list). He could see what I was seeing, but to him, standing inside the culture, the combination worked. The music served to provide a hopeful slant on the ultimate resolution of the struggles referred to in the poetry.

Another incident of translation occurred for me during the session on Rembetika, the Greek "blues" or "deep songs." This genre first came to public awareness in the 20s and 30s as the music of the refugees from the Anitolian disaster. The conference speakers related stories and played the music. But what brought it to life was when several audience members, with the encouragement of the speakers, got up and began to dance. The dance provided a translation: revealing which of the many lines afforded by the unfamiliar beat one should choose and, in the dancers movements, offering an interpretation of the emotional content of the music. It was a high point of the conference.

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5. Lefkowitz and Theodoratou: Who is a Greek?

In various ways the question of Greek identity arose, but not at all in the standard fashion. The keynote address was given by Mary Lefkowitz of Wellsey College. She is attracting attention as the leader among those debunking the "Afro-Centrist" interpretation of ancient Greek history. This Afro-Centrist view, drawing on writings by Martin Bernal, is that the miracle of the ancient 5th century in Greece was stolen from Egyptian philosophy. Other ideas surround this: Cleopatra was black, Socrates was black. It's not only a view of the facts, it also challenges how facts are determined, claiming a privilege for people of color to establish their own history, immune from the critique of white people.

Lefkowitz reviewed the evidence: we have some ancient Egyptian writings, and they look nothing like ancient Greek philosophy; evidence for the blackness of Cleopatra and Socrates is taken out of context and ignores much more evidence that points the other way; and much of the 'evidence' for the existence of elaborate mystery cults that look 'Greek' in ancient Egypt comes, amazingly, from taking 19th century Masonic rituals as reliable historical evidence. There just is nothing, she said, outside of Greece that looks like the philosophy or the political arrangements found within Greece.

Of course, Lefkowitz said, everyone influenced everyone else. Of course, there is commerce and interaction in the ancient Mediterranean, but the evidence is that the ancient Greek accomplishment is truly Greek.

Theodoratou, cultural director of the Onassis Center, raised the identity question from a completely different direction. She read the "Axion Esti" to be saying that "Greekness" is not a matter of ethnicity but of identification with certain "Greek" ideas: the ideas of the 5th century of liberty and democracy. Those who make a decision for these ideas are Greek: "you don't have to be Greek," she said, "to be 'Greek'".

And she nudged the audience as well: if we, she said, just came here, congratulated ourselves on how superior we are as Greeks, and went home, the conference would be a failure. She did not put it this way, but perhaps her meaning is that just because you are Greek, it doesn't make you 'Greek.'

Now for my own spin on these two presentations. Lefkowitz and Theodoratou both close and open doors to the appropriation of Greek culture. The door of blood descent is closed, but the door of the intellect is open. A black person, a white person, can claim the Greek miracle as his or her own, but the claim is based on a conscious identification with it, not by blood.

This seems analogous to what we used to say about the United States: that to be an American did not depend on being third generation native-born, but on identification with the American dream of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Both speakers offer us hopeful words. The descent of blood lineage is a delusion - it only leads to tribalism on a grand scale and we need to reject its siren call even when we might seem to be its' beneficiaries. To privilege a particular line of blood descent, either via northern Europe or via Africa leads away from the very ideas of the ancients we are trying to claim. The descent of intellect is the only one open to all. Hopeful thoughts for us philhellenes.

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6. The future of "Greece In Print"

Ioannis Fakazis and the people of Cosmos Publishing are to be commended for pulling off what appeared to be a very successful first effort. Discussion in the hls-d mailing list among those attending has been largely positive as well.

It wasn't perfect, of course. No matter how many times the moderators requested questions rather than speeches from the audience, speeches prevailed. Some speakers were a bit disorganized. At times it became to much an in-house affair among the Greek-Americans. I and others wished for name tags (so us internet friends could actually meet), more book displays and the ability to actually buy the books on site. This latter problem occurred because the event was held in the offices of a non-profit: to sell profit-making books in such a setting would have caused legal problems. Since the event drew so much more than expected, it forced a shrinking of the book displays to accommodate those who wanted to attend the lectures.

More food, more space, more films and slides, more time for discussion - all would have been great as well. But you notice that these are calls for more of "Greece in Print," not calls for a change of direction. Apparently plans are already underway for an expanded Greece in Print next year. Good luck. I hope to be there.

7. Finding Greece: Ouzo Quest 96

Believe it or not, I like Ouzo: many do not, and many Greeks don't either: at least a rather large percentage of Greeks I encounter think I'm nuts for liking the stuff. One goal for my trip to New York was to come back with a decent bottle of ouzo - believe it or not, ouzo is hard to find in Waterloo, Iowa. Encouraged by Fakazis' recommendations, I headed to Grand Avenue Liquor, under the elevated subway line in Astoria, and there it was: Ouzo heaven. Ten brands all lined up on the shelf, and not just the dreaded Achaia Clauss (available in Waterloo) and the ever-present Metaxa, but Samos and Sans Rival, and the two brands I came home with: Barbayanni and Tsantali. Success.

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8. Coming Up Next Time

It's time for some book reviews. I've actually read a couple of decent travel guides, and Kazanzakis should be noted for more than "Zorba" and "The Last Temptation."

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9. Philhellenic Perspective

is published once a month to the newsgroups soc.culture.greece and rec.travel.europe as well as appearing on the web. It is published by John P. Nordin who is solely responsible for its contents. You may reproduce this material, in whole or in part provided you provide proper acknowledgement of the source, and you don't distort the content.

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