Reading Greece

By Mason, David | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Reading Greece

Mason, David, The Hudson Review

Awake! (not Greece-she is awake!)

Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake,

Awake my spirit! Think through whom

And then strike home.

George Gordon, Lord Byron

Where is the truth?

I too was an archer in the war;

my fate, that of a man who erred.

-George Seferis

Cultures misread each other, just as individuals do. It's hard enough-perhaps impossible-to know oneself, as Plato advised, let alone to know another. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. The whole field of postcolonial literature, which could encompass most literatures of the modern world, arises at points of change that complicate our knowledge; empires recede, new nations clamor for recognition and individuals live at this busy intersection of tradition and modernity, communal identity invaded by a belief in individual freedom. Though its nature varies from culture to culture, this perceptual intersection can be found at any geographical point in the world. It is an essential reality of life on our planet at the present time, in which most international or intercultural conflicts can be understood in post-- colonial terms. As I've said elsewhere, only the most reductive studies of these phenomena blame the West and its empires for all the world's troubles and misreadings; the East is equally culpable, and honest investigation reveals that all human beings are caught in this web to greater or lesser degrees. This is one of the problems of being human, and one of the reasons that no human being lives outside history.

Having made these broad assertions, I turn to the specific case of Greece, which has at times been thought of as a sort of transitional point between East and West. What would it mean to know Greece, or to represent Greece accurately in literature? Why should anyone care about this tiny modern nation whose language is spoken by relatively few non-Greeks and whose ancient currency, the drachma, has just been replaced by the euro?

What is Greece? What borders in time and space do we use to comprehend it? Do we start with the ancient world, Alexander the Great, Byzantium, the four hundred years of Ottoman domination? Do we use the borders established at independence in 1829, or 1833 when the fledgling monarchy was formally recognized? Those of the Balkan War of 1912-13? The Treaty of Sevres in 1920? The Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922? Along with the geopolitical reality of its present borders (smaller than the state of Alabama) and its advocacy of border stability in the Balkans, this nation of ten million people remains a cultural presence in Cyprus, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and the global diaspora. Remember El Greco in Spain? And one Ferdinando Paleologus, descended from Byzantine kings but buried in Barbados? Even north of Seattle, where I grew up, the Strait of Juan de Fuca got its name from a sailor who was born Apostalos Valerianos-a Greek. Greeks are everywhere. And so is the Greek language, which was the language of commerce at the time of Christ when the Mediterranean seemed the globe's most essential sea. One source tells me that Greek words comprise 12 percent of the English language-especially in the vocabularies of science, medicine and literary criticism. Aristotle refers to the Greikoi, a people of Epirus, and this name may have come to the Romans as Graeci, which was eventually applied to Hellenes and Romaioi and other peoples united by language, geography, and for most, Orthodox Christianity.

Of course there is also that other "Greece"-the classical world we learn about in school and know in part from fragments in museums, from Homer, whoever he was, from Herodotus and Thucydides and the phenomenal drama of the fifth century B.C.E. The vestiges of that "Golden Age" and so many others are on show all over Greece (not to mention southern Italy and Asia Minor), and even decorate the new Athens Metro. The modern nation, younger than the United States, identifies with this ancient world, sometimes ironically, and its language and geography are the strongest reasons for doing so. …

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