The Owl’s Legacy Brings Home Ancient Greece’s Modern World Idea

FILE - The sun rises behind Propylaea, the monumental gate of the ancient Acropolis hill, left, and the 2500 BC Parhenon temple in Athens, on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Banned for two decades because it was impertinent enough to suggest ancient Greece had little to do with contemporary Greece, the 1989 TV series The Owl’s Legacy, by the late French media artist is now bringing its symposium-style intellectual praise of what Greece brought to the world to a new audience, its 13 episodes streaming on VHX.

Somewhat akin to the late Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds, in which four characters from different times of history would sit to debate politics, philosophy, religion, history, science, and many other topics, the look back at ancient Greece and its ties to the country today bring a provocative air and illuminate again the contributions that helped shape Western civilization, from democracy to math, science, history and, that most Greek of ideas and ideals, philosophy.

It is, the New York Times said in a review, also highly entertaining, difficult to do in a format that, while it resembles how ancient Greeks would sit down with wine to let ideas flow, still depends on talking heads, albeit very smart ones.

It was the brainchild of Marker, who died in 2012, and was the greatest film essayist of his time, and written by Jean-Claude Carriere in another French nod to celebrating what the Greeks brought to the world, and which endures today.

A stream of cognoscenti, most of them Greek or French, give a lively discourse that combines Greek words with ideas, at times disputing the influence of Greek antiquity on the contemporary world and civilization, what’s left of it during a time of terrorism, suicide bombers, runaway corruption, government-sponsored assassination and dictatorships fraying sanity.

It takes place in Athens, Paris, Berkeley, California and Tbilisi, Georgia, with tables adorned with fruits, symbolic perhaps of what we enjoy today, the fruits of thought of ancient Greeks whose minds didn’t have the benefit of modern technology or science but just boundless wonder.

Mostly, it’s one person talking and you can imagine perhaps Plato under a tree or Pericles on the Pnyx on that hill across from the Parthenon carrying forth, the air above him flowing with invisible persuasions.

The Owl’s Legacy, telecast in Britain in 1991, was not seen again until 2007, when it was shown for the first time in Greece as an art installation, the series presented simultaneously on 13 monitors. “Even on one, it can be dizzying. Ideas whiz past and rebound like balls on a squash court,” the Times said.

The talk is punctuated by film clips — including excerpts from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi-inspired Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics where Germany – five years from invading Greece during World War II – was so enamored of the Games that its organizer, Dr. Carl Diem, created the torch run.
There’s also contributions from Norman McLaren’s number animation Rhythmetic and Elia Kazan’s “America, America” — as well as images of ancient statuary and documentary footage of contemporary Greece.

The showcase speaker is Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis; the most provocative is the French-American literary critic George Steiner, who, among other things, wonders whether the death of Jesus Christ or of Socrates was more meaningful, the report said and his questioning of modern Greece’s link was what got it barred for almost 20 years in the homeland of thought.

Each half-hour episode is given a title that consists of a Greek-derived word followed by an often provocative phrase: Symposium or Accepted Ideas is followed by Olympics or Imaginary Greece, Democracy or the City of Dreams, Nostalgia or the Impossible Return, Amnesia or History on the March, Mathematics or the Empire Counts Back, Logomachy or the Dialect of the Tribe, Music or Inner Space, Cosmogony or the Ways of the World, Mythology or Lies Like Truth, Misogyny or the Snares of Desire, Tragedy or the Illusion of Death and Philosophy or the Triumph of the Owl.

It plays like in critical thinking and examination, the roots of ancient Greek teaching with Marker’s narrator comparing Greek words to the angels in director Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, unseen but everywhere presences, noting how many Greek words are part of English.

The singer and composer Angélique Ionatos, born in Athens and living in Paris, remarks how proud she feels to hear Greek words in French and the profundity of Plato and Socrates’ high thinking is compared to Greeks arguing in the streets today, hot top politics.

Castoriadis and the Italian scholar Guilia Sissa connect Greek tragedy to democracy, concerned as tragedy is with the clash of contradictory individual rights. More fanciful is the questionable notion, derived from Greek mythology, that Athens invented music, writes the reviewer J. Hoberman, an American film critic, journalist, author and academic.

Greeks will love Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili declaring that “all philosophy is Greek philosophy,” and British classicist Manuela Smith pointing out the injunction to “know thyself,” or whether Freud was Socrates’ heir.

In the episode Misogyny, which deals partly with Greek eroticism, Marker addresses an issue that has been troubling throughout the series — namely, patriarchy, which, Ionatos remarks, persists in contemporary Greece, carried on unwittingly by the lack of women with central parts of the series.

The final episode Philosophy talks of the owl, the goddess of wisdom Athena’s sacred bird and spins from Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am,” to Castoriadis turning it on its head, in typical Greek examination of a life worth living that, “What should I think?”

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