The Future is Now: Large European Colony – 2012 A.D.
During a very interesting lecture by Dr. Constantine E. Kosmas on the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, it was mentioned that the latest proof of his timelessness was a New York Times editorial about the situation in Greece featuring quotes from his famous poem “Waiting for the Barbarians.” A quick glance through the Cavafy Archive – readily available online – yielded another very timely piece entitled “In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C.” The Alexandrian’s words, written 84 years ago, remain as meaningful as ever today: “That things in the Colony are not what they should be no one can doubt any longer, and though in spite of everything we do go forward, maybe – as more than a few believe – the time has come to bring in a Political Reformer.
But here’s the problem: they make a tremendous fuss about everything, these Reformers. (What a relief it would be if no one ever needed them.) They probe everywhere, question the smallest detail, and right away think up radical changes that demand immediate execution.
Also, they have a liking for sacrifice: “Get rid of that property; your owning it is risky: properties like those are exactly what ruin colonies. Get rid of that income, and the other connected with it, and this third, as a natural consequence: they are substantial, but what can one do? The responsibility they create for you is damaging.”
And as they proceed with their investigation, they find an endless number of useless things to eliminate – things that are, however, difficult to get rid of.
And when, all being well, they finish the job, every detail now diagnosed and sliced away, and they retire, also taking the wages due to them – it will be a miracle if anything is left at all after such surgical efficiency.
Maybe the moment has not yet arrived. Let’s not be too hasty: haste is a dangerous thing. Untimely measures bring repentance. Certainly, and unhappily, many things in the Colony are absurd. But is there anything human without some fault? And after all, you see, we do go forward.
One of the striking things about this poem is that it shows how apt history is to repeat itself. Cavafy didn’t have a crystal ball – although it certainly seems like it when reading this – but like every other truly meaningful and quintessentially Greek text, the meaning remains timeless because it tackles issues that surpass the mere ephemeral.
Faithful to the traditional Hellenic mindset, and like most other great Greek writers and thinkers, Cavafy has an aversion towards simplistic, supposedly pure, and clear-cut solutions. This difference in viewpoints is central to distinguishing the Greek perspective from the Western European one. You’ll find it at the heart of theological differences between Orthodoxy vs. Catholicism/ Protestantism, you’ll find it in the organization of Greek polity vs. Western polity, you’ll find it in the sociological mindset of these two worlds, etc.
Regardless of the outcome of Greece’s second national elections in two months (you’ve gotta love comedian Lakis Lazopoulos’ quote that sometimes you have to put the dirty laundry through a second cycle in order to ensure that all the stains are removed), the issue will probably be much more complex than whether which party wins. Even the dilemma being posed of euro vs. drachma is unlikely to solve matters either way. Greece’s endemic problems existed during the days of the drachma, and Lord knows that the euro hasn’t made them go away.
Western Europe has a nasty history when it comes to clear-cut, simplistic solutions. Let’s not forget the “final solution” Germany once pushed for that sent millions of people to their death… Of course, there is a long history of this sort of thing in the West, i.e. the Inquisition, witch-hunts, etc.
It is characteristic of Cavafy’s poems that he practically always chooses periods of decline for Hellenism as their setting; most often, just before the Romans come to overtake the Greek cities. A common theme in Cavafy’s work is Hellenism’s unique ability to adapt to changing times and make the necessary adjustments to ensure its survival. Sure enough, history tells us that the militarily defeated Greeks went on overtake their Roman conquerors through their culture, and eventually controlled the entire empire (transfer of capital from Rome to Constantinople). The same remarkable power to adapt is seen during the period of Ottoman rule, when Greeks developed the remarkable “community,” with which they kept Hellenism alive and robust despite major persecution.
In many ways, Greece is a “colony” today, just like the title of Cavafy’s poem. Its leaders operate like mere agents of the colonial rulers, and its citizens suffer the fate of colonial populaces. So long as elderly people are committing suicide on the streets of Athens, the sick go without medicine, and households are ruined because Europe has found itself a new guinea pig, there will be cause for righteous indignation.
Colonies were always a penchant of Western Europeans, and old habits die hard. But even the mightiest of colonial rulers eventually lost their colonies to revolution. Let’s not forget the famous words of a one-time colonial subject, Thomas Jefferson, who said “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Such is the turbulence that results from the pursuit of liberty and happiness, but, as Jefferson points out, a dangerous freedom is preferable to peaceful slavery.