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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

For I come from an ardent race that has subsisted on defiance and visions.

Two weeks ago, I was too tired to undertake the one-hour drive home after staying late in the lab.  I took refuge in a hotel with the proverbial 57 channels.  And so it came to pass that I finally saw 300, purporting to depict the life of Leonidhas and the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae.  Except that the Spartans wore black naugahyde diapers, Xerxes was a slim version of Divine, his Immortals looked like orcs and Leonidhas showed his bravery by shoving an unarmed herald down a pit the size of an asteroid crater (in Sparta’s central square yet – bad for tots, to say nothing of fast traffic).

As I watched this dumb dull mess, it came home to me that my culture is deemed common property and used accordingly.  Yet few people really know anything about it beyond the cartoon version that passes for world history in most US schools.

As my readers know, I was born and raised in Hellas (as Hellenes, aka Greeks, call their country) and came to the US at 18.  Since my transplantation, I haven’t seen a single Anglosaxon film or TV show depicting Hellenic history or myth that was not cringe-worthy.  They’ve been so uniformly dismal that the cheerful hodgepodge of Xena was at the top of the pile (no exaggeration).  In 2005, literally everyone I spoke with asked variants of “Are all ‘you people’ like those in My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” and I had to restrain myself from wielding a baseball bat – or a spear.  There are three Hellene directors of international standing who explore the culture’s myth/history (Michalis Kakoyannis, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Pantelis Voulgharis) but their work appears only in art film archives.

I have also read vast numbers of historical and alternate history novels by Anglosaxon authors that take place in Hellas  – to name just a few, Mary Renault, Steven Pressfield, Barry Unsworth, Ellen Frye from the literary side; from SF/fantasy, Jacqueline Carey, Guy Gavriel Kay, Greg Benford, Jenny Blackford.  Many of these books are fine if judged solely on their literary merits, some are best passed over in silence. In most of them, the stray Hellenic phrases (even when uttered by natives) are at the level of tourist pidgin and the Hellene characters are Gunga Din sidekicks.  A few of the stories ring “real” enough that I can lower my shield and relax into them: Jim Brown’s Blood Dance, Roderick Beaton’s Ariathne’s Children, Paul Preuss’ Secret Passages.

In stark contrast, Hellenes have no literary voice in the west.  Although ancient Hellenic literature used to be the province of any well-educated Western European man, the same cannot be said of contemporary Hellenic letters.  If asked to name recent Hellene writers, people may manage to dredge up Nikos Kazantzakis, and him only because of the popularity of the movie version of Zorba the Greek.  If they are intellectuals, they might be able to name the four world-famous poets: Kostantinos Kavafis, Odysseus Elytis, Giorgos Seferis, Yiannis Ritsos.  English-speaking readers can browse through translations of just about any national literature you can name. Yet translations of contemporary Hellenic prose are still non-existent.  Nobody knows that Hellas boasts perhaps the best magic realist in the world, Eugenia Fakinou; at least three living poets of giant stature: Victoria Theodorou, Jenny Mastoraki, Kiki Dimoula; and a veritable galaxy of stellar novelists.

At the same time, Westerners are convinced that they “know” my tradition by hazy general familiarity, as I had the dubious privilege to discover.  Everyone mispronounces my name even after repeated corrections.  In my chosen research domain of alternative splicing, the established terminology of exons and introns betrays the namer’s ignorance of Hellenic: exons stay in, introns are spliced out to form the final RNA.  And in a concrete example from another realm, my submission to the Viable Paradise SF workshop contained scenes of contemporary young Hellene men teasing each other.  The participants who critiqued the work were American or Canadian; none had ever been to Hellas.  Yet they insisted that “only gay people talk like this.”  They took it for granted that they knew better than a native how Cretans behave and that their stereotyped assumptions trumped my first hand experience (so much for diversity and cosmopolitanism in SF).

There have been impassioned discussions in the speculative fiction community about whether authors can write with authenticity and moral authority about cultures that aren’t their own – travelogues aside, which invariably say more about the author than the place they are visiting, P. J. O’Rourke being a poster case.  This discussion cannot help but be complex because it’s overlaid with issues of race and colonization.  Taken to its extreme logical conclusion, the injunction of “Write (only) what you know” would put a fatal crimp on fiction.  On the other hand, the sudden emergence of Victorian Orientalism in steampunk is a serious added annoyance in an already self-consciously regressive subgenre.

Hellenes spent four hundred years under Ottoman occupation as second class citizens, subject to whim death and mob violence (flaying and impalement were among the common punishments), forbidden to learn to read and write their language, forced to supply their overlords with children who were turned into janissaries or odalisques.  The Hellenes – small from malnutrition and mostly olive-skinned and black-haired – were called “dirty darkies” when they first arrived in Western Europe and the US after the bruising civil war.  They were not people of color, but they weren’t considered Aryans either, as the Nazis decided during their occupation of Hellas: each German killed by the resistance merited the execution of at least ten Hellenes, or the slaughtering and razing of the entire nearest village.  The Hellas of today is a poor EU cousin currently undergoing a major economic crisis. Unlike AIG or Bank of America, it’s not “too big to fail” even though its debt ratios are similar to those of the US.

Yet the culture had enough élan and vigor to flower four times – Mycenaean, Classical, Alexandrian, Byzantine; the latter, totally ignored even in the anemic world history books, lasted a millennium and acted as a bridge and a buffer between East and West, between the Romans and the Renaissance.  Hellas gave the world much of its science, art, politics, philosophy (and before anyone starts emoting, I’m keenly aware of the equally decisive contributions of other cultures).  Its people kept their language, identity and spirit intact through all the violations and depradations.  Hellenes ace the verbal SAT with little effort, since everything in English longer than two syllables is mostly derived from our language.

So when all is taken into account, I think we are strong enough to survive even the crude cartoonish renditions of Hellas and Hellenes in the media.  I’m not sure if we’ll weather the imminent release of The Clash of the Titans remake, however.  Judging by its trailers, it will be yet another total chariot wreck.  And to Sam Worthington, a word of advice: that buzz cut reduces your hero status to zero. Hellenic heroes had long hair, from Ahilleas to Leonidhas to the untamed outlaws who wrested the country’s independence from the Turks. A shaved head was a sign of slavery. Long hair was a signal of freedom.

Images: The Angel with the Machine Gun, Tassos, woodcut (the figure is dressed like an andártis, a resistance fighter during WWII); Iríni Pappá (Klytemnístra) and Tatiána Papamóschou (Ifighéneia) in Kakoyannis’ film version of Eurypídhes’ Ifighéneia; Astradhení (Star Binder), Evghenía Fakínou’s first novel; Thémis Bazáka (Eléni) in  Pantelis Voulgharis’ Ta Petrina Hronia (The Stone Years); Athanássios Dhiákos, a freedom fighter captured and impaled by the Turks in 1821, age 33.

Note: Now also posted on HuffPo.

Related posts:
Iskander, Khan Tengri
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards
Evgenía Fakínou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism
Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

31 Responses to “Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!”

  1. Neo says:

    Sometimes, I really feel sorry about Greece. It gave so much to the world at such an ancient time. It’s a real loss for the world that it’s in such a state of affairs as today’s.

    I don’t know what how practical I will sound, but I would share my thoughts. Is it so impossible for at least one Greek to wake up, to make it rise from ashes to glory, which it so deserves? If it can rise again, who knows, Greece may give ideas to solve problems haunting the world today.

    Sometimes, I wish I were a Greek.

    Neo

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks so much for this.

    While I don’t pretend to a well informed knowledge of Hellas, the several months I spent there in the early 1980s (Igoumenitsa, Ioannina, Meteora, Athena, Delphi, Heraklion) were among the best of my traveling youth.

    I’m curious whether you know Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, and what you think of it.

    Blessed Be,
    Michael

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    I’m sorry about it also. The naming of the examples in media that have poorly depicted Greek culture effectively underscores just how extensive misrepresentation of it is. (And how is it that some think general familiarity equates to really knowing?) Likewise, the mention of the periods when Greece thrived speak volumes of its resilience.

    Even in view of the factors in question, it sparks hope to consider that it may rise above its circumstances and flourish again.

  4. Athena says:

    Dear Heather, Michael and Neo, thanks for the good words! My natal cultures had/has its biases and blind spots like all cultures. It gives its descendants a very powerful identity, which is a challenge in itself. What I tried to convey indeed is the resilience.

    Michael, Ioaninna is my mother’s birthplace. A place with incredibly interesting history and layers upon layers of tradition and culture. I started Soldier of the Mist, but wasn’t able to finish it. Something about the constant amnesia put me off it (probably my impatience).

  5. Neo says:

    Athena, can you do me a favor? Can you suggest me a couple of good books about Ancient Greece and how it could develop such novel concepts and ideas? And that captures the essence of Greek Civilization, culture and politics (I know. No one book can capture essence completely, at least near to that one :) )

    I would be thankful, if it is available in the market.

    Thank you for writing about Greece.. :)

    Neo

  6. Athena says:

    I’ll put my thinking hat on! I know a very good book along these lines for the Byzantine era: John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. The full treatment is 3 volumes. But the condensed version is a great starting point.

    Postscript: I browsed Amazon, and two books sound like a good introduction. Thomas Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times and Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History by Sarah Pomeroy et al. What’s great about them is that they start from the Bronze Age, including both Minoan and Myceanean eras, and go all the way to the end of the Hellenistic (Alexandrian) period.

  7. Caliban says:

    Another eloquent, sharply written and keenly felt essay.

    Now I must pull myself up by the bootstraps out of ignorance and read Fakinou and the modern poets you cite…

  8. Neo says:

    Thank you so much! :)

    Neo

  9. Athena says:

    Thank you, dear Calvin! English versions of two of Fakinou’s novels (Astradhení and The Seventh Garment) are listed in Amazon, though I have no idea how good the translations are — a crucial variable in the equation!

    The contempoary poets I mention have been translated in bits and pieces, some of which are floating around in the Internet. The Big Four, of course, exist in very good translations. Two of them (Seferis and Elytis) were Nobelists and Ritsos would also have received the Nobel had he not been an active Communist (he got the Lenin prize instead, the Iron Curtain equivalent ). I wrote two reviews about specific aspects of these issues during my stint at The Harvard Review. I can e-mail them to you if you’re interested.

    Neo, you’re very welcome! If you read the books, let me know your thoughts.

  10. Eloise says:

    Another great essay, Athena. Or rather, ?????.

    In your development, I could not help but notice you didn’t mention three fantastic Hellene women, who, each in their own way, put their stamp in the arts or in the politic word.

    Here I am thinking of Irene Papas, perhaps one of the most extraordinary character actresses of our time. However small the part, she makes it her own and shines through it.

    I am also thinking of one of the greatest divas the opera world has ever known, Maria Callas. Her recordings make me shiver, and I can but only imagine how impressive she must have been live.

    And I think of one young princess named Sophia who, simply by showing unswerving support to her husband, furthered one of the most astonishing political coups of our time: the peaceful Spanish transition from a dictatorship to a parliamentary monarchy. She may call herself Spanish now, but it is obvious her troubled childhood experiences in Hellas, in the wake of the German invasion, informed her character and her decisions.

    Hellenes are everywhere, though they might not use their language or affirm themselves as such. One has but to look to find them…

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  11. Eloise says:

    By Zeus! I put your name in Hellenic, but it didn’t show up… One more proof of the gross under-representation of Hellenic culture on the web.
    E :)

  12. Athena says:

    Don’t worry, Eloise. It has to do with the encoding of the web browser. The intent counts plenty.

    Irene Papas is implicitly in the essay — her image is there, in one of her many, many roles (and in the image credits). I restricted myself to mentioning a few names of film directors and writers because I used films and novels as my springboard. I could make long, long lists of famous, influential Hellenes from scientists to composers to politicians to freedom fighters (who included women generals and admirals) but the article was already getting too long!

  13. THANK YOU.

    And hello from Greece. ;)

    As a writer of SF who’s struggling to get my stories out there, stories that draw much inspiration from Hellenic history, culture and lore, you have voiced many of the issues that have been troubling me.

    And it was awesome to see Fakinou’s name somewhere outside a bookstore in Athens. :)

  14. Athena says:

    I’m happy that the essay resonated with you, Christine, and even happier to hear of the background of your stories! I think that US/UK SF/F authors like to think of themselves as wildly imaginative — but the vast majority of the stories is based on very narrow Anglosaxon contexts or cartoon versions of other cultures. The editors reinforce this by asking for more of the same, the readers get conditioned for it, and right there is your vicious cycle.

    As I wrote in another blog article (Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst), if I were Supreme Dictator I would have every teenager spend at least six months, and preferably longer, immersed in another culture. The specific culture is immaterial, the shift is the key. It would make everyone examine their assumptions and see other viewpoints. It would certainly improve fiction. Who knows, it might even prevent wars.

  15. Heath says:

    As a kid, my only “knowledge” of Hellenistic culture came from a couple of different unreliable sources…the movies (the original “Clash of the Titans” came out right at a time in my youth when I was particularly susceptible to that sort of thing) and the perfunctory introduction to the mythology, which also excited me greatly as a kid.
    It wasn’t until I was an adult that I read about the remarkable Greek Resistance during WWII and began to understand that this was a culture that I had absolutely no understanding of whatsoever. They are underrepresented in our own American hodge-podge, which is weird considering that almost everyone agrees that we owe our entire method of telling stories to them.
    Thanks so much for yet another fascinating essay, Athena!

  16. Athena says:

    Yes, Hellenic culture is the great unknown. Everyone in the West think they know it, but they don’t. As you said, its reality is very different from the cartoon version. The fantasy authors who go further afield could actually enrich their works significantly by exploring cultures closer to their own back yard.

  17. Eloise says:

    I actually had a modicum of hope for Clash of the Titans, always giving people (and artistic creations) the benefit of the doubt.

    But after reading the NYTimes review, available at http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/movies/02clash.html?ref=movies , I fear that those hopes have crashed, and abysmally so. One has to wonder when they will finally make a movie about mythology that’s not under-produced or overwhelmed with CGI and action sequences. 300 was actually passable if not fine in that respect, if only because of Zack Snyder’s unapologetic attention to the source material, namely Frank Miller’s graphic novel.

    But the majority of mythology films I’ve had the opportunity to see didn’t have nearly the same production standards. Perhaps one of the most telling exceptions is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where the CGI and special effects are fully integrated into the flow of the movies and the artistic decisions completely justified in relation to the story.

    Is it that we have lost our sense of wonder in favour of in-your-face spectacular effects? If so, what does it tell about ourselves?

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  18. Athena says:

    The trailer alone is well-nigh unwatchable and the Tomatometer rating is currently at 34%, which tells you something! I feel sorry for Neeson and Fiennes, although I guess they have bills to pay like everyone else. I laughed out loud at this phrase: “That glower suggests that Mr. Worthington either believes he’s in a significant movie or worries he’s made a huge career mistake.”

    I agree about in-your-face effects, Eloise, as I discussed in Lab Rat Cinema. For LotR, Jackson had a compelling “libretto” (as did Wagner, which is one reason why I like his operas more than most, especially the lower-key ones like Tristan und Isolde). Even so, with the decisive input of his two women collaborators, Jackson showed incredible respect and sensitivity for his source — especially given that his previous directiorial stints were as a schlockmeister.

    Go see The Secret of the Kells. It has enough depth, nuances and wonder to fill half a dozen crappy Hollywood mythology films.

  19. Eloise says:

    People Magazine made a poll to see who was the sexiest contemporary gladiator: http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20357363,00.html .

    I think it is rather telling that, up to date, Leonidas is leading the way with 38%, with Achilles and Maximus (for whom I voted, if only because Ridley Scott’s film was vastly superior to the others, historical inexactitudes notwithstanding) following ex aequo with an honorable 27%, and Perseus closing with a disappointing 9%.

    Truth will out in the end, which is one of the strengths of democracy. The lowest common denominator might enjoy a no-brainer, but put them all together and you’ll get some good old common sense.

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  20. Athena says:

    I’m with you, Eloise. At least, Gladiator was a good story (even if terrible history) and Russell Crowe played Maximus with flair and conviction.

  21. Eloise says:

    Just to open up the debate a wee bit…

    http://www.totalfilm.com/features/12-myths-that-should-be-movies

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  22. Athena says:

    It’s interesting that the examples in the link are primarily Hellenic and Japanese with a dash of Egyptian. No mainland Asian (Hindu, Altaic, Chinese…), no American (North, Central or South), no African, no Polynesian… which may reflect the writer’s knowledge.

    I have seen outstanding versions of Hindu myth epics at two ends of the spectrum: Peter Brook’s 9-hour Mahabharata with an international cast, and the recent animated film Sita Sings the Blues, a retelling of the Ramayana from the viewpoint of Sita, Rama’s wife.

    Also, Mihalis Kakoyannis, whom I mentioned in this article, made haunting film renditions of Eurypidhes’ Ifigeneia, Ilectra and Troads (Trojan Women).

    Speaking of Egyptian mythology, we just started a conversation in the forum about DNA lineage analysis of Egyptian mummies. I plan to check out the original genetic papers, which are controversial for a lot of reasons. More soon!

  23. Walden2 says:

    Ancient Greek coin may have depicted astronomical event:

    http://www.unreportedheritagenews.com/2011/01/2100-year-old-greek-coin-may-have.html

    And in APOD for January 17, 2011:

    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap110117.html

  24. Athena says:

    Interesting, Larry! Though I could have done without Professor Weir’s misogynistic rant about Antiochos’ mother.

  25. Walden2 says:

    Monday, April 4, 2011

    Trash to treasure…a rare clay tablet

    “Ancient tablet bears writing, to scientists’ surprise”

    A 2-inch-by-3-inch clay tablet is older than expected — dating to 3,350 years ago — and is found at a site in Greece where researchers did not expect to find writing.

    by Thomas H. Maugh II

    April 2nd, 2011

    Los Angeles Times

    Archaeologists have found a clay tablet bearing the earliest known writing in Europe, a 3,350-year-old specimen, which makes it at least 150 years older than other known tablets from the region.

    Found in one of the palaces linked to Greece’s King Nestor of Trojan War fame, the tablet not only is older than expected, but also appears at a site, called Iklaina, where researchers did not expect to find writing, said its discoverer, Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

    The tablet, fortuitously preserved when someone discarded it in a trash pit and burned it, was part of the state’s formal record-keeping process, and its discovery sheds light on early state formation, Cosmopoulos said.

    Archaeologists “had grown more and more comfortable” with the idea that writing was limited to the major ruling centers of the time and was not to be found at secondary sites such as Iklaina, which was the equivalent of a district capital, said archaeologist Thomas Palaima of the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the research.

    Full article here:

    http://philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com/2011/04/trash-to-treasurea-rare-clay-tablet.html

  26. Walden2 says:

    Ancient Greek Computer Had Surprising Sun Tracker

    By Lisa Grossman

    April 1, 2011 |

    6:28 pm |

    The world’s oldest astronomical calculator is famous for having intricate gear systems centuries ahead of their time. But new work shows the Antikythera mechanism used pure geometry, as well as flashy gears to track celestial bodies’ motion through the heavens.

    The device, a 2,000-year-old assemblage of gears and wheels that matched 19th century clocks in precision and complexity, was salvaged from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901.

    Called the Antikythera mechanism, the machine gracefully kept track of the day of the year, the positions of the sun and the moon, and perhaps the other planets. It also predicted eclipses and kept track of upcoming Olympic games.

    Most of the mechanism’s calculations were driven by a series of 37 interlocking dials, which may have been manipulated by a hand crank. The front of the mechanism had a clock-like face that denoted the calendar date in two concentric circles, one showing the signs of the Greek zodiac, and one carrying the Egyptian months of the year.

    Three hands denoting the date and the position of the sun and the moon moved through the zodiac and the months as the gears turned.

    “It’s a pretty elaborate piece of machinery,” said science historian James Evans of the University of Puget Sound in a presentation at the University of Washington in Seattle on March 31. “Nobody would ever have guessed that there could be something this complex in the second century [BC].”

    Full article and images here:

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/04/antikythera-mechanism/

  27. Athena says:

    Not unexpected — it’s Linear B. The place of discovery is interesting, since it was not a major palace center. Suggests the presence of a merchant class, at least, not just warrior aristocrats and downtrodden peasants and slaves.

  28. Walden2 says:

    Bettany Hughes on Socrates

    The biographer and author of a new book discusses what new there is to learn about the ancient Greek philosopher

    By Megan Gambino

    Smithsonian magazine, April 2011

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Bettany-Hughes-on-Socrates.html

  29. […] out her Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture, too. It concerns cultural […]