Translation: Konstantinos Matsoukas, translator
Speech at the Hestafta Conference "Collective and Individual Identity in Times of Destabilization", which took place in Athens, 22/1/ 2016
2001, July mid-afternoon, Chania, Crete
In the reflected sunlight of the small kitchen, my 95-year-old mother and myself are silently stripping green beans, the others are asleep, the whole neighborhood is quiet, it's the siesta of summer. At one point, my mother takes hold of my hand, the one with the knife, lowers it down to the plastic tablecloth, looks at me in the eye and whispers, “Not a day has gone by without me thinking I could have done something more to prevent Yannis' and Panayotis' dying, not a single day without thinking about how much I am to blame.” For seventy years minus one, up until 2010 when she died, my mother lived in daily guilt, relentless and unspoken since rarely was there talk of the two boys whom we, the next seven siblings, had not met anyway.
Up until that afternoon she had never confided to anyone the burden in her soul, the load she carried. Nothing in all of this of Medea or of My mother's sin, by Viziinos. Yannis, aged three and Panayotis, two, the first of the nine children she gave birth to, died in a dysentery epidemic in 1941.
My father had been absent then, a soldier making his way back from Albania on foot. Our house in the old city had been bombed. And my mother with her two boys and another fifteen or so neighbors rendered homeless by the bombs, lived on raw greens, hiding out in a small cave outside Chania with a German machine-gun set up across the fields, rapid-firing at frequent intervals when something moved in the nearby bush.
My mother's confession upset me. I hugged her, I laid the blame on the war, I pronounced her innocent. It didn't work, I could tell by the look in her eyes. Internally, though, I skipped over the real events and disengaged from them, erased them. I was thinking exclusively about the durability of guilt, all these decades later, the damning present tense, “how much I am to blame”.
Having recently read Titus Milech's autobiographical book, Place of Crime – Germany – Strange Homeland, I must say that I wondered for the first time why my mother took so much responsibility onto herself, why did she not take cover behind the identity of war victim, distributed massively to millions of people, why did she not consider Hitler and the war machine as solely responsible for her children's demise so that she might, I believe, reasonably and justly, avoid the enduring and crushing personal sense of guilt.
Retrospectively then, I processed and comprehended yet another case in point of what is a personal belief of mine: that man, whether he is forcefully included in a collectivity or willingly chooses one for himself, is not an identically repeating instance, not a vague figure in the crowd; the individual spark smolders and on occasion erupts, the personal stance always counts, conscience cannot dissolve inside an intense collective grouping.
“A true artist, therefore a sad person”, Gorky used to say. And we literary writers, enmeshed and often lost in the unstable, insecure and self-indulgent collectivity of artistic creators, hope someday to become true artists by earning a trophy of sadness.
Moved by the intense need and desire for personal expression, forever seeking a pass into the landscapes of the human adventure, the right to step into forbidden zones, we need to be discerning in relation to suffering, fear, injustice and in readiness to voluntarily engage with the melancholy expanses of the pain of existing, even when we suspect that we will buckle. Which does happen, rather often.
Perhaps all good poetry, music, painting, genuine art in general, is the product of the creators' continual relapses, since their work reflects the doubt about their worth and records the chronic vigilance, the repercussions of every tribulation, the scars of every loss, the obsessions as they diminish or intensify, the insatiability for the mind's multifarious adventures, the oscillation between staying true and quitting, the intolerance towards certain aspects of social reality.
Digging into Oneself
And all of this, in art, cannot look like an academic exercise where, under expert cover, one is pilfering the scientific conclusions of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists. Beyond the necessary readings and the research, art needs to spring from instinct, spontaneity, from the risk of digging into oneself, and it needs to contain longing in its folds. Each of the mere eight literary books I have written was born of a powerful shock to my system. They all refer to peak human experiences.
Love, the most infamous emotion.
Death, the most hated master.
Heavy illness, the greatest fear realized.
Friendship, the most comforting relation.
Enforced living abroad, the most vicious kick.
Conciliation, applied self-assessment.
Guilt, the never-ending pain.
Forgetfulness, the dismal void.
I don't decide a priori in which literary genre or trend the book which concerns me will fit; never once did I say ‘and now I'm sitting down to a political novel or a historical thriller, a love story or psychological portrait in magic realism or a campus novel or an identity novel’. Nevertheless, that last one, “identity”, is an absolute cornerstone. All the more so since I don't focus on major events and major personalities of History, but instead the pen persists in pursuing the ups and downs of time's passage, paying homage to the small scale and sticking with the inconspicuous and the unsung, with humanity by the truckload, it is required that I give an account for them, what manner of creatures they are, how they stand alone, whether, how and to what degree they coexist with others. The crafting of individual identities becomes a goal. In the pile of every collectivity, in the ordered or scattered archive of identities, I need to look for the individual cases, the individual identities, whether sparkling and easy to decipher or smudged and mingy.
I throw in the mix the optional or occasional ones which also fashion the characters and often exert a decisive influence on their lives — as when, for instance, my protagonist belongs to the communist party or the right wing, to the marines, teachers, nurses, hairdressers, lawyers, merchants, the flock of the Lord's faithful, the league of those in wedlock, the cuckolds or the tribe of the unattached, the army of PASOK party voters or the major-league soccer fans, or the currently great big river of the unemployed.
I study and compare and follow certain developments; for many decades there were large communities of political prisoners in jails and on rock islands, after 1974 the stretchable and self-serving practices started by “us who put up a resistance”.
But, in search of the primary matter, I take greater pains, more detailed, to the best of my ability anyway, with the collectivities in which one belongs by duty, which are not amenable to change and constitute a permanent obligation if not a fetter.
It seems to me that every person's first and primary collective identity is the family. Family members are defined by several shared and permanent traits — same parents, same surname, same house, same songs, same financial status for everyone, the first “we” in life, us Joneses, us Papadakeses.
Life at the paternal home is training for what comes later since the family is a miniature society, it has a hierarchy, it distributes roles, there are power games, alliances and contestations, some members coming closer together, some positioning themselves at a fixed distance.
Above all, relations are not circumstantial. You can't start out with Thanos as your dad, then pick a Miltos and later a Vangelis the best one of all, or change your mom because she is boring until you get one you like, or replace your siblings with brand new ones every so often. The relations are permanent and the bonds indissoluble, even if challenged and redefined, they are living organisms that live on after death, the marble slabs and the cypress trees keep on adding or subtracting this, that and the other thing.
Thus every person's individual identity gets imprinted and inscribed, including by means of lullabies, kisses, slaps, complaints, tastes, wishes, celebrations and funerals, orphanhood.
The Maternal Tongue
It flows to the child with the mother's milk, it is the ticket to entering and occupying a shared way of making sense. Concrete, it is tangible on the lips, the hands, the yards, the rocks, the mountains. It fits well into the recesses of history, it grooms the mind's impassable landscapes, where shadows throng, people's triumphs and losses. Condensing and codifying the social experience of centuries, it transfuses memory from generation to generation and becomes the most generous legacy of the crowd towards the individual. It opens his mouth, it tills his mind, it starts his engine of emotions, it offers him the tools for making connections and syllogisms. An identity for keeps, at the same time participatory, a field which feeds many, and individual, since each one's expressivity is also a personal matter, you winnow the crop of words and choose the ones for you, your sound, the echo of your very own silence.
A third collective identity, also of decisive import, is the one handed down and signified by the homeland. Whether this is a local society, branded by an event of enormity such as Distomo, Kandanos or characterized by a near total vocational identity, such as the seafaring Andros or the cattle-growing Sfakia, the electrical energy-producing Ptolemaida, the touristy Mykonos and the formerly industrial Eleusina, or whether the place has no identifying mark of its own, every person's birthplace signifies their first steps out of the paternal home, the first exit into the streets. It's where the pleasure and fear are tasted of sneaking outdoors, of beginning to explore the meaning of neighborhood, of fraternization, of meandering unaccompanied, encountering the signs of time, the changes of season, the presence of others. Everyone's birthplace is the most familiar because that is where he opened his eyes, where he apprehended the dynamics of the gaze and slowly honed the capacity for observation, surprise, ecstasy, disenchantment or succor from the images of life, where he acquired the inaugural sense of the horizon; and first times are an indelible experience.
The birthplace is a powerful identity born along against your skin, no matter where the waves of life may eventually deposit you. And it's a permanent bond, whether you like it or not: everywhere you go you'll be the one from Thessaloniki, the one from Kolonaki, Pireas, Mani, the guy from Zoniana. The poet Takis Sinopoulos would write “I am someone who keeps arriving from Pyrgos”.
In the end, your birthplace, a city or a village in the country, make you Greek more than the Golden Century of Pericles, your grandmother’s shaky knees win out over the grand Parthenon, the orange tree under whose branches you gave and received your first kiss of love marks you more than a famous historical battle, your parents' graves are your tie to your homeland rather than the Calatrava arches of the spectacular Olympics. All these rather self-referential considerations might look insignificant, picturesque details which fail to admit that they have been hard-won in the battlefields of time. But then, every life is a construction from what is tangible and within reach, what is on offer locally or within a short distance. And those things also help us fall in step with others in life's joint tracks. The national identity with the many layered appellation “country” has the birthplace as its seat and source and as its emotional capital. It radiates further out than the main, single, all-inclusive term of collective identity, the Belgians, the Portuguese, the Mexicans, the Japanese, in references such as the Russian soul, the British phlegm, the Gallic courtesy, the Italian temperament, the Germanic industriousness, the American dream.
In certain cases it is amenable to subdivisions or multiplications, which might be of historical origin, the Asia Minor residents now outside Asia Minor, or racial, the Kurds divided over five countries, or due to geopolitical interests, the country-less Palestinians, or to religion, the deadly opposition of the Shiite and Sunni groups in several Arab countries. A country may travel with the diaspora, may only exist in memory. In today's reality, with the unabashed power of the markets favoring homogenization, human beings throughout the globe are useful in their capacity as clients of industrial and bank products, as cheap labor.
National collective identities are assessed with money as the criterion. The first rate countries are those that provide tax exemptions, the countries with cutting- edge industry, unstoppable even in its invention of illegal methods for its ends.
Prosperity as an individual and collective aim is legitimate and innocent only when it does not presuppose the use of violence, the exploitation, pauperization and annihilation of other people. The contemporary fiscal-political reality is inhospitable, abrasive or even threatening for a number of peoples and civilizations, it cancels out homelands, empties out countries, sets heavy penalties, sows winds and harvests storms, since the wars for gain that are designed and conducted away from home find their way back as unpredictable consequences, the Islamic Caliphate comes to Paris.
A wave of Dostoyevskyan dread and Kafkaesque paranoia is spreading around the world at a gallop. In the face of the prevailing mindlessness, Milech's book takes on the value of an alarm sounding. He analyzes the soft and homely way in which the feeling of superiority is nourished, what the outcome is of nationalism, what the price of subjection, which are the war's unpaid debts, the impossibility of vindication, the unfeasibility of expiation.
For as long as the collectivity of victims, the living embracing their dead, remains unvindicated, the guilty parties are not acquitted.
A war does not end with the ceasefire. The multiple consequences, impunity and the scenarios it entails, do not endorse its definitive termination. All the more so since war is a generalised circumstance, though not an impersonal one. It has masterminds and executive agents, it has resisters, collaborationists, profiteers, it has casualties with a face and a full name. It has people who are in pain for years to come. Such as my mother, such as Milech for whom it is as if he's still in the German Occupation, in a condition of self-punishment over his national identity.
Each Person, an Individual Story
Starting with the family, the mother tongue and the birthplace, these three interwoven identities by and large determine what is entered in the individual's ledger of traits since these comprise the springboard for life's small or large leaps and tumbles. In prose, they are structural materials in setting up the main idea, plot building, character development and creating an ambience. And I think that if one values and esteems, as one ought, their essential contribution to the human adventure, they'll not become a trap that encases in an ill-fated, suffocating introversion but on the contrary, will build bridges of communication and mutual understanding, of an ecumenical range. The reading of literature is a case in point. It familiarizes one with foreignness, transcends national, religious racial identities and the bounds of time. Personally, I read Melville and experience the ride on the whaleboat; Tolstoy and I sow the fields of Kostya Levin who, when the snow melts, loves nature with a thousand hearts; Papadiamantis, and I'm out to sea with Nostalgia; Chekhov and I empathize with my uncle Vania; Thoman Mann and I don't hate the rich Buddenbrooks; Joyce and I feel like a Dublin spinster; Primo Levi and Imre Kertιsz and I feel Jewish; Barry and I feel a two-minded Irish; Alexandrou and I hear the bullets of the Civil War; Carver and I become a poor sod of the American countryside; Becket and I happily become insane and all those many death-enamored poets whose lament is at the same time, a great hymn to life that raises me up and upholds me, present, to the extent that is my portion, to the human venture. Literature, art in general, perhaps harkens to, copies and transcribes the endless need for the reconfiguration and deepening of solidarity, the humble interdependency exalted by Papadiamantis. The solid “individual-collective” identities are also shaken up in the disordered circumstances of periods of destabilization. A destabilization that may result from an isolated event with repercussions on a limited human and physical environment, e.g. a heavy illness that mobilizes tenderness or instigates mutual blaming, a provocative, incendiary love that radically disrupts the surface order of things, a murder that submerges in mourning but also, as a blinding act, illuminates a myriad pathologies, an ecological disaster that destroys local beauty and resources or a war as the ultimate collective human experience of inhumanity. But let us come specifically to our collective present, let us land in the tracks of brute realism. A diffusion of disappointment, helplessness, confusion, suspicion and distrust towards our very selves. The until recently reassuring certainties we shared, smashed to smithereens. Destabilization is carrying the day hands down. How long does a household last with both parents out of work? What does a main street look like with dozens of padlocks? In practical terms, how much does it count in terms of personal identity, being disabled or hungry in the face of your tax number, your municipal registry code, the privately owned property certification? What are tomorrow's consequences for kids whose childhood and adolescence are all used up taking the hyperintensive test of insecurity? What are the mass psychological repercussions, today and in the future, for a people who for six years and counting, are uptight on a round-the-clock basis inside the borders and slandered non-stop internationally? How much has the literal meaning of language been disfigured by the confabulation which, for the sake of greater vagueness, revamps the plundering of public resources as opacity, the swindle as interfacing of interests, the decrying as political cost, massive lay-offs as flexibility? The period in which we are living, breathless, financially stripped or very tight, psychologically weary and ideologically rumpled, is a time cram-packed with ongoing reviews, recaps, reflections and ambivalent self-critiquing, but it is simultaneously a strong floodlight, illuminating what is truth and what is a lie about the modern world's much-applauded and coveted collective identities. Are we free citizens in a framework that's stable and safeguarded by the principles of Democracy and Justice?
The Fading of Myths
How much of a family is the widely advertised, so called “European” one, which considers half of its children, the southern ones, as latecomers to the fold? How euphoric is the European collectivity once it's inside closed borders and behind iron gates? What kind of a civilized world is this with millions of uprooted, perennially moving and universally unwanted refugees? Human beings, no matter where, are finally divided to roughly the few “over” and the many “under”; with their respective gradations, these are the two most legitimate collectivities. The former display the numbered fancy ID's of fiscal-political power, the latter, in lieu of an identity hold up their mandatory file, all of them with a record. The documents of their cultural heritage, the receipts of personal toil, the honest degrees,, the notebooks with the expectations, the dream cards, all bear on them the X of deletion. Rather, the file heavy and overflowing with debts, fear and sadness. Art can react “in the heat of the moment”, while events are boiling over as well as in due course, when it possesses a more detailed and clearheaded line of argument for a more comprehensive appraisal. Both types of response are necessary and complementary, they embody the immediate and the long-term consequences in people's lives, privately and in public. I recall, study, observe, think, conclude, reconsider, start from scratch, discuss with others and with myself how people abandon themselves, how they are tricked, how they succumb, when they rise to their full height, individually and collectively. The Greek case, perhaps eloquent. Us Greeks still have the title but it doesn't work reliably, it doesn't inspire confidence in its authority. The present leaves us embarrassed and the coat of arms with the ancient glory can't get us out of the tight spot. Your colleague Andreas Yannakoulas had said that “whoever doesn't become a tragic figure for part of his life, is vacant.” In this place, up until and including the 70s, we became tragic collectively. We had no necessity to further dramatize reality, nor to de-dramatize it, a rapid succession of wars, uprootings and foreign interventions, a civil war and a coup d'ιtat and shadow mechanisms of political manipulation and immigration, the destiny and identity of the many being poverty in a state of unrest. Almost all of our beautiful songs are sad like the Psalms of David, we are like the Sicilians who, as Lampedusa writes in The Leopard, perceive the totality of life and the world through sadness. The end of the dictatorship and especially the 80s inaugurated a new scene. So deprived from basic material and cultural goods and rights that we hurried bulimically, we galloped along to fall in step with other societies well ahead of us and, with an acceleration of consumerism, we bit into Eden's forbidden apple. Maybe when nations and societies are redeemed, when they are finally rid of their burden, their pain or their curse, they speed onward without wanting to turn and look back for even a moment. They think it's a waste of time or, else, can't bear delving into the remnants of the past. Without realizing it, they are buying on credit a future that will at some point turn up demanding to be fully paid up. A lot of times, under duress, analogies and identifications are urgently sought with situations in the past or in other countries, and readymade solutions from near and far are tried on for size. And what if the situation is unprecedented? What if its complexity cannot be handled with old tools? I am not a politician, economist or social scientist, my word doesn't carry the same weight as theirs, I know less, a lot less, I am only weighing the cost of the disarray on the scales of everyday life, skimming worriedly through the blank pages of our collective diary. The question of Manolis Anagnostakis “what is there to say now?”, naked, pointed and still unanswered. As a citizen, I've had enough of calculations of percentages, how much it is the foreigners' fault and how much it is ours, I've grown frustrated with the shrieking rivalries of many prominent personages, I have resigned from waiting for the notorious plan of rebuilding which remains the heading in an unwritten volume and I have been disheartened with the engorged ego of leaders of the Left, justified by I know not which triumphs, new or old. Several up-and-coming collectivities claim the attention of the numb, harassed and bamboozled voters and I wonder if and when we might make sense of reality without using big, fat words. The least and at the same time the greatest goal is honesty, the cornerstone for a new collective framework, the necessary guarantee for the restart contract. Might this be an old fashioned, romantic quest in these cynical times? Have our lips and ears grown used to making do with half truths, with vacant words? Have we made a pact with our defeat? I honestly don't think so. Certainly, educators at all levels could produce good results. Honesty, individual responsibility, the making of a politically aware self are matters of cultivation. The school hall is fertile ground for bearing fruit, whether good or bad.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Whenever I veer off towards more political tracts, it feels like I become destabilized, like I dissociate from my more real self, as if I consent against my will to what I feel is blackmailing and captivity for an artitst, to write, paint, photograph, stage manage, interpret, sing the crisis or, even worse, invent farfetched symbolisms and allegories so that they'll not be charged with indifference to people's suffering, with being aloof. At times I wonder if the one-track imperative to dissect consequences doesn't tend to refashion all of life into a chain of consequences, into one gigantic consequence. Can it be tolerated? Does it perhaps contribute to the increase of passivity, fear, isolation? “Fear is a mind worm”, I had a character of mine say, being myself afraid. In art, Greek and worldwide, I look to catch my breath, and for company, for things that last through time, for a horizon, for the longing for humanity. I watch Fellini's Amarcord and find myself again. I read the improvised Cretan verses, the mantinades, collected at one time by Maria Lioudakis with the help of the then sixteen-year-old Napoleon Soukadzides, and I sing along about passions and tribulations, joys and sorrows, with a myriad sensuous words. Poring over my own papers, I reinstate the simple facts that are dismissed by the strategy of forgetfulness, of depersonalization, of treating a crowd as if it were a flock, of bypassing human complexity and the importance of the individual person.
With a first and last name, however undistinguished.
With a birthplace, however insignificant.
With a daily life, however unglamorous.
With an individual conscience regarding whatever burden, great or small, no one is exempt from blame.
With a personal voice and gaze.
With running emotions.
With individual desires.
People everywhere and always have the right to the enjoyment of love, to a celebration, to a carefree walk, to all the time they need to mourn a loved one, to not be deprived of the reasons, one after the other, for aching over your place of origin, for remembering, for considering the other, for feeling, for feeling deeply, for being truly sorry, for loving a great deal. “Man's greatest virtue is having a heart”, says Tasos Livadites. If you don't love, then you don't dream, don't fight, don't seek membership in a collectivity that resists robustly and with full awareness, the turning of people into cogs that can be manipulated to serve the designs of every dynast, every charismatic figure. Will there be collectivities which respect their members one by one? Maybe that is the only way people will try to bring to them an ever-improving self.
On the last page war again erupts before me, on account of Milech's book, which tore me up. Not at all unexpected, besides in The Gorge, on the lips of a now ancient Cretan woman, I deposited the phrase, “the war never did leave my head.” In Germany, I visited Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald but also the military cemeteries in a lot of towns, usually very early in the morning. I read the German first and last names on the plaques, and the ages, 18, 19, 20 years. Back in Crete, I told my parents. My mother asked, did you leave a couple of flowers for them? Aware, alas, of the treacherous bond we share by virtue of our mortality and before we line up in the last and final collective, six feet under, let us be merciful toward the smooth-jowled youth never even given the chance to repent, let us not think of them in their hell as on a par with the great heads of the Third Reich, of Gestapo, of Krupp, of Beyer, of Siemens. They will be apart there, too, relegated to the side.
Dear Titus, my mother set out the table for us in the little kitchen. She cooked in your honor her specialties, a burek from Smyrna and one from Chania, she loved and bonded with not one but two homelands. As she speaks no German or even a little English, but feels it's appropriate to welcome her foreign guest in a foreign tongue, she will recall some Turkish from Smyrna which she left in 1922, at the age of thirteen. Thus royally, respectfully and generously, she received in 2003 the astonished American and Chinese artists I had brought her. Our home has good wine. And my father's ancient radio, kept together by a piece of string, is permanently on a station playing the mountain songs of Western Crete, the rizitika.
Ioanna Karystiani January 2016