Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Case of Greece

Greece has been in the headlines du jour -- in Europe, at any rate -- over what, on the surface, is a complex economic matter, a re-run of what we have seen before, involving  the IMF and a potential rééchelonnement of sovereign debt tranches …..
(ZZZzzzzzzzzzz …. Oh, have I lost you?)
What deeper waters this narrative might tap into, I have little idea, since I do not follow Greece;  taceo igitur;  the point here being merely to notice the oddly canted perceptual stance of Americans in regard to Greece, victims of distance and history.

What occasioned this reflection are the final chapters of Robert D. Kaplan’s outstanding travelogue/history, Balkan Ghosts (1993).
In this slender book, he quite consciously follows in the steps of Rebecca West (“Dame Rebecca”, as he gallantly denotes her), whose massive memoir of a trip to Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II, Black Lamb & Grey Falcon (published 1941) is among the truly great works of the twentieth century.   Knowing that he could not hope to outdo her magisterial historical survey, he treads more lightly but more widely, his final footsteps reaching as far as Greece, where he resided, with his wife, for seven years, during the reign (for “reign” it was) of a very strange figure indeed, Andreas Papandreou. 

The first thing you notice is the very presence of Greece in a book about the Balkans.  Granted -- once you come to think of it -- that country is indisputably geographically a part of the Balkan Peninsula;  Kaplan’s point is that it belongs with the other, Slavic or semi-Slavic countries of the region, spiritually and sociologically as well.
Very few Americans think of Greece in those terms, nor indeed in any terms at all except what we half-remember from school, limited to the Athenian Golden Age, several centuries B.C.  It is as though you were to try to conceive Germany in terms of what had been going on in the primeval forests of that time -- or America, as were it a continuation of its own prehistory of open plains, speckled here and there with miscellaneous blemmyes and buffalo, and otherwise largely empty.

It’s strange how little I knew of the tale that Kaplan tells.  It’s not as though I hadn’t yet come of age during the 1980s;  I did read newspapers.   But perhaps the reason for this ignorance had partly to do with the Western press, which had assimilated just one new Greek stereotype since the Age of Socrates:  the Medi-hippie world of “Never on Sunday” and “Zorba the Greek”.   Indeed, the English Wikipedia entry is astonishingly airbrushed:


I had to blink, to ascertain that this wasn’t an account of his more conventional father George.  (Someone seems to be curating his memory.)

Andreas knew well how to exploit the “Never on Sunday” sort of nonsense.  He appointed its star, Melina Mercouri (who played, one might say, a ταίρα  both onscreen and on the political stage) to his cabinet -- and re-appointed her again and again, while other underlings came and went.  It was a true Société du spectacle: 

In Papandreou’s name, Culture Minister Mercouri organized “human peace chains” around the Acropolis, even as Greek state companies were selling arms to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, and to the two warring African states of Rwanda and Burundi.
-- Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts (1993), p. 269

Likewise an eye-opener were Papandreou’s ties to a raft of morally quite unanchored chevaliers of terror:  PASOK and the November 17th Movement;  Abu-Nidal; Qaddafi’s hit-men, and on.  These, like such later ultraviolent inscrutable groups as Boko Haram and the central African Lord’s Resistance Army, cannot be understood terms of determinate ideology or even calculated, cynical self-interest;  it is not as though they have well-defined ends (whether good or bad) and merely overdo the means.   It seems to be more a matter of the morbido, and of metastatic narcissism.

None of this is part of the general American understanding of Greece.  “Cradle of Democracy” it must be for ever and aye.  For, our brains have only so much bandwidth.  Even in cases where party or interest do not preclude comprehension, we are apt, by acedia, to sink back into the Lay-Z-Boy of our early training and first impressions.  Cognitively, we settle for very little.

[Footnote]  Rather random but -- by way of counterbalancing the overall “down” of Balkan Ghosts as regards Eastern Europe:  there is a truly wonderful chamber ensemble called “Munich Artistrio”, though they seem to be Slovene.

Brahms (truly magisterial):
(In particular the third movement, Adagio.)

Schubert (transcribed):

[Update (alas) 9 III 15]  Greece threatens to flush its cisterns upon the rest of Europe:


Our notes upon this topic ici.

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