On Elytis’ Centennial, Greece Looks to Recapture Glory
Greek Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis would have turned 100 this past November 2nd. It’s been a little over 15 years since Elytis left his beloved Aegean for the shores of eternity, so we are bereft of his thoughts on Greece’s current crisis; but not completely. For one thing, it was a long time in the making, so a look at his sublime poetry or didactic essays like “Things Public and Private,” “Carte Blanche,” or “The Open Papers,” to name a few, offers insight into his mentality – a mentality that if would surely have helped keep Greece out of the mess it’s in today if more of the country’s “leaders” thought like him. We’ve also got Mikis Theodorakis, who famously composed the music for Elytis’ signature work – To Axion Esti (It is Worthy). Even at age 86, Theodorakis continues to have more fight in him than most people do in the prime of their lives.
Announcing that Elytis would receive the Nobel prize in 1979, the Swedish Academy wrote: “Elytis's extolling of existence, of man and his potentialities, and life in communion with the rest of creation, is no idealizing or illusory escapism. It is a moral act of invocation of the kind to be found so many times in Greek history, from the present-day struggles for freedom against fascist or other oppression far back through the centuries to the heroic phase of the classical era. What matters is not to submit. What matters is constantly to bear in mind what life should be, and what man can shape for himself in defiance of all that threatens to destroy him and violate him.”
During his acceptance speech, Elytis underlined that “poetry is the only area where the power of numbers doesn’t prevail” and that “art is the only opponent left to fight against the power that quantifiable assessment of values has ended up getting in our time.” Today, Elytis’ legacy and art stand as a last line of defense, when just about everything in Greece has been quantified and the nation’s future rests on numbers and statistics. That’s a pretty sad turn of events for the country that Elytis extolled in his poem “An Heroic And Funeral Chant For The Lieutenant Lost In Albania,” accounting Greece’s heroic uphill battle against fascism and the forces of Mussolini. The valor that Greeks displayed in that campaign caught the attention of the world and dealt the daunting Axis forces their first loss in World War Two.
But since the world is so focused on things like CDS spreads, debt-to-GDP ratio, and a boatload of other terms no one but a banker could love, Elytis condescends and makes an argument in terms we can understand.
“I write in a language that’s spoken by only a few million people. But above all, a language that has been spoken for over two-and-a-half thousand years uninterruptedly and with few divergences. This apparent irrational divide corresponds to the material-spiritual existence of my country, which is small in size but boundless in time… If language was just a means of communication, there wouldn’t be a problem. But it so happens that it represents a tool of enchantment and a bearer of moral values. Over the long centuries, language takes on a particular ethos. And this ethos begets duties…. Each day, we say and confirm that we’re living in moral chaos. And this is happening at a time when the distribution of the elements of our material existence has never before been conducted so systematically, with such military order, or unsparing control. We can learn from this contradiction. When one leg is hypertrophic, the other one atrophies. The praiseworthy inclination of the peoples of Europe to come together as one is hitting a snag today due to the inability of the atrophic and hypertrophic legs of our culture to come together. Not even our values make up a common language.”
Elytis concluded his speech by pointing out that “in the end, the material world is just a pile of materials. The final outcome will depend upon just how good or bad architects we are. But that… despite everything, our fate lies in our hand.”
So far, Greece has seen some pretty bad architecture, from the politicians that brought it to its sorry state, to the EU/IMF technocrats bludgeoning the ailing economy with their pencils and calculators, and the European leaders who won’t stretch out their hand unless it’s to collect a usurious interest payment.
But that’s not Elytis’ idea of “good architecture.” Instead, he describes just how much dignity or stateliness a people can produce even under the most harsh and unfavorable circumstances, like the Greek people did under the period of Turkish occupation, when the simplest embroidered shirt, the poorest boat, the must humble church, an icon-screen, a jar, a rug all gave off an air of magnificence that surpassed the palace of Versailles…
When it comes to quantifiable arguments, Greece may in fact always be Europe’s perennial ugly stepchild, but the wealth of its culture and legacy of people like Elytis who sprang from among the people will always give it a qualitative advantage, so long as the people stay true to their ethos and connect with their lost magnificence.