HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Ioanna KarystianiWriter

Periklis Antoniou Photo

These are the main points of my speech in the presentation of Katia Charalabaki's book "Families in Leap Years-Notes of a Psychiatrist".

Translation: Konstantinos Matsoukas, Translator I am well pleased that Katia's book, a demanding work of many levels and great quality, also makes the reader work hard.

Clearly, I am not qualified to hold forth to an audience of psychiatrists and psychologists on “schizogenesis”, “triangulation” and the “undifferentiated mass of the familial ego”.

You speak comfortably amongst yourselves in a language which, to outsiders, is cryptic and encoded in scientific jargon and a great many references to the publications of your colleagues, in Greece and abroad.

I will even confess that sometimes I unwittingly resist and defensively criticize your profession's persistence in revisiting wounds and poring over scars, in continuously adding to the list of past mistakes and possible future consequences, in raising in your arguments the specters of disharmony, intolerance, discontent.

I read your works and think to myself, is to become a parent, finally, such a frightening prospect?  So unattainable to be a good mother? Can family life be like an incarceration of many years

Nevertheless, our lot, literary writers, don't lag far behind.

We fill pages upon pages with family disasters, loneliness, social estrangement, poverty, injustice of various kinds, murder, suicide, natural catastrophes and national tragedies, we strain the human adventure and do battle, as much as our understanding allows, with the making and unmaking of relationships and, as much as we can stand, with the pain of existence.

On top of that, living a by and large conventional life, it is only on the page that we find the space and the courage to cross into “the forbidden zone” of extreme situations and dark characters.

On page 103, there is Bateson's dictum that “art is an expression of the unconscious”, a phrase which, in my opinion, intersects with Fernando Pessoa's “literature, and all of art, is proof that life isn't enough.”

As human beings, we all live a double life.

And art is something like an endless to and fro between the external and the inner life which, usually, from gazing at a distant, even imaginary, horizon, gathers ever closer, hesitates and prevaricates at a distance of a few feet from the self, loses courage, until it plunges into the limitless expanse of the inner self.

So, then, art is a passport for the interiority of existence, for the ditches where consciousness has been wrecked, for the things unsaid that persist as a muffled echo.

Yet, the interiority is also thrown into relief or overshadowed by the prevalent social circumstances since it is, I believe, impossible to disconnect and dissociate the individual, and every intensely personal story, from surrounding events.

I read Katia's book as a staircase with a great many steps, a descending staircase which ends up decisively lifting the hatch of the trapdoor into the dark basements, where, however, the foundations lay.

On every printed page an encounter takes place between the things which the writer bears and those borne by the reader, the things borne in the mind and on the skin.

The first reading happened in fragments and took a whole three weeks as I was on location, shooting a film in Crete, on 17, 18 even 20 work-hour days, in a state of constant overdrive.

As the film's subject was the 200 prisoners at the camp of Chaidari who were executed at Kesariani on May 1st, 1944, I was living in parallel leap years, those of the book and of today, and those terrible ones of the German Occupation.

It was thus inevitable that I should accumulate melancholy and dejection, engage in reflection and comparisons.

As I read, I underlined several parts and, in the end, the total list of notes was of interest, they were the ones that bore on my own experience of family, friendship, the Left, prose writing, and my own questions that are suspended directionless in the dreary and inhospitable present.

On page 13 there is reference to the “paucity of spiritual life” and on page 20, to  “linguistic tyranny”.

In Crete, before the actors impersonating Napoleon Soukatzides and the camp's Commander, Carl Fisher, I was thinking that the most heinous crime in the history of humanity was committed within the German language, the one that produced unsurpassable poets and philosophers.

Manolis Anagnostakis has put is with simplicity and to the point, in just two phrases in P.S.:

The first, “there is no spiritual heroism”, the second, “in looking for the words, the lie started.”

I land, therefore, thoughtfully and with humility, to the core of the book in question, the family in contemporary circumstances, and I record, fragmentarily and unsystematically, some considerations that were triggered or that draw on that.

What reserves of courage do people have left, who are financially sucked dry, morally humiliated, ideologically betrayed, in order to fight for the material and emotional survival of the family and, moreover, of every relationship whether with lovers, friends or colleagues, relationships, that is, which found human existence and provide it with meaning?

Freud's “war neurosis” sojourns to today's “crisis neurosis”, a protracted state of unrest and generalized destabilization, the collapse, even, of familiar institutions, with the advancing of fascism and nationalism, as all hope retreats in disarray.

When the social and spiritual landscape is decimated, how is the family to remain an oasis amid the ruins?

Charalampaki interprets thoroughly and wonderfully every aspect of the myth with leading characters Demeter, the daughter Persephone and the son-in-law Hades, exploring the myth's projection onto the present.

I would say that the myth conjured up a kind of Solomonic solution, with Persephone staying periodically at her husband's and at her mother's.  I would further claim that the Solomonic solution is also the two-story house in whose upper, brighter, level the young couple resides, while the mother occupies the basement, a guardian of the foundation but also of the entrance and exit.

In the times of unemployment and government taxes on property, it does happen that everyone lives piled up in the same apartment or people move into many less square meters, one on top of the other, and on everyone's mouth and eyes is drawn fatigue and disappointment.

In the mornings, not all adults get dressed to go to work, at around eleven the postman delivers bills from the Tax Department, utilities, insurance funds, pre-schoolers are more familiar with the name Merkel than Red Ridinghood.

The suffocating noose of financial difficulties, the diplomas that have no demand or value on the job market, the shrinking of the feeling of safety in the home-refuge, the fluctuating redefinition of roles, the continuous annulment of all hope of securing or returning to a functional day-to-day, make people's heads hang and give rise to delirious soliloquies that are either delivered openly or remain unspoken, eating away at their insides.

Sometimes people, unwilling to charge those morally responsible for the state of things, as this would imply the obligation to resist or even rebel, search for a visible and accessible culprit within the familiar environment.

And, then, fights break out within the family, exaggerations and unfair words are uttered under pressure and the outburst looks like a settling of bills by the Mafia.

Emotions can be a tangled skein, awkwardly wrung and dripping bile.

There are other ways I could list in which those at the bottom carry the price for the failures of those at the top, insofar as all politics is weighed on the scales of everyday life, in the concrete terms of citizens' lives.

Should I sidetrack into political commentary about the sad family group of the local political system and the equally pathetic “European family” or should I stay within my appointed realm through my engagement with life and writing?

My own SOS assigns to resilience and solidarity the status of absolutely urgent priorities, they are what molds the stamina of existence.

People lose themselves when they lose their humanity, and they lose that when everything around them and inside them is soiled and swept away and there is nothing left to love, nothing worth fighting for.

“Everywhere the world all prepared to grow old”, the terrible verse of Kiki Dimoula.

With an opposite, almost joyous meaning, Bachtin's position, “Old age is expecting, death is knocked up.”

With both these in mind and a host of others as well, and a great many enlightening formulations Charalampaki intersperses in the chapters of her book, I will make two or three points that may be of some value in relation to the family as well.

The concept of the unassailable

While digging into family bonds and restraints to get rid of the weeds, let the pickaxe stop short of the foundations, as disagreements, blaming, even strain, are legitimate, functional and liberating within a household where relationships are live, rather than moribund, provided they don't lead into irrevocable despair.

Home means “we”, it means “I am not all alone in everything.”

Under the present conditions of destabilization and the attribution of uncertainties and threats, I believe that there is a need to defend by tooth and claw what is considered a robust root of origin and, at the same time, a cohesive shelter.

The family as a primary collectivity is training ground for coexistence and a rehearsal for participation in wider collectivities cohering under the shelter of unassailable values such as human rights and social justice.

The persistent quest for the good

Today, when communication exhausts itself in the commerciality of the loud denunciation, when the thousand score versions of cheating, suspiciousness, generalized disbelief and cynicism monopolize the visible present, the good is either persecuted as dated, picturesque and counterproductive or, after being forgotten for decades on end, is nowadays unrecognizable.

How can people traverse the brute realism of the present in the absence of something warming their hearts?

Kindness is a shelter and a fortification against decomposition, a motive for rekindling solidarity.

The appeal of Thanassis Veggos, “my good fellows”, sounds to me so full of camaraderie, so very important.

The persistent quest for the good helps to filter views and positions, it distinguishes selflessness and anything that bespeaks of creative labor, the recreation of the good self.

The pure poetry of patched trousers

During the 80s, when poverty with all its tribulations became a thing of the past,  the hubris broke out, like an epidemic, of unbridled consumerism impacting among others on the family, as a means of social distinction and, also, of buying off or settling enmities.

No reasonable man would extol the virtues of scarcity and of the empty wallet but now, when “there is no money”, let us not mortgage dignity, there is no stigma in poverty.

Let people in their clothing of last year or the one before, or of many years back, sitting in their old-fashioned and a bit rickety couch, figure out what they truly need in terms of material, spiritual and emotional goods for life to have a worthwhile meaning.

To me, patched trousers are the pure poetry of our times.

And a minimal response to the chapter in Katia's book about symbolism of various kinds and the need for creating symbols. I do, though, sometimes ponder on how tiresome the quest for symbols is, the need to have a symbolism for every single thing.

Perhaps that is an obstacle in experiencing a small story the way and to the extent it deserves, to let ourselves ride on its small wave without wrapping it in symbolic yarns.

In some instances, this is the kind of work done of its own accord by cryptomnesia, the return of memories not recognized as such, since all things of yesterday, of history, traditions, art, constitute a framework that encloses and nurtures us, all of yesterday is a parent.

Personally, I don't seek recourse to symbolism in my writing, it is not something I am consciously after.

Recognizing, nevertheless, that some symbols reveal, warn, remind, console, unite, facilitate and fit in happily with the human adventure, I, too, welcome their effects.

Let me not go on any longer.

I live and think and write fully aware now of the intense desire to love, respect, be grateful for, insist on the inexhaustibility of the trivial, and to take on that which is not whole as a size to be reckoned, to cultivate tenderness for the defect, to recognize in silence a valuable, restful gap for existence. I think of the words 'critique' and 'self-critique' as depleted, since we use them to excess in order to present things as it suits us.

In her book, Katia also refers to Jung who, studying the mother-daughter relationship notes that, to an extent, the two mutually contain one another.

The same is the case with two women friends, a species of affinity or a form of a couple, who count over half a century of friendship, whose lives unfold in parallel, zigzagging through the school-desks, the student years, the love affairs, the births, the blows.

The relationship encompasses things said and unsaid, safekeeps unforgettable occurrences and live emotions, and an enduring love which from time to time goes into hibernation for the sake of avoiding conflicts based on political differences in our respective evaluations of the Left.

Love united us, politics temporarily separated us. Until we would be brought back together by our joint concern for life which tends to degenerate into an “event” but about whose value we both care deeply.

With eternal love – Ioanna Karystiani, 05/27/2017

Read the next article:

ARTICLE 8/ ISSUE 11, October 2017

Five Thoughts on Politics based on the Book of a Psychiatrist

Alekos Alavanos
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