Translation: Dora Skali
Presentation January 16, 2018 (Polis Art Cafe)

Few times in my life I have been stressed so much and I have found myself so embarrassed thinking that I must stand before a group of experts and talk about a subject that is not my specialty, even if I have undergone -or been subjected to?- the familiar processes for years. I was encouraged by Gregory Abatzoglou’s introductory note, where the author of “The faces of the stranger” appears, on the eve of a public speech of his, not to “know what to say” – and that on a subject he knew very well. These were my anxious thoughts as I was reading this extremely interesting and profound book. What could Isay? In what capacity would I be talking to you?  It is true that my former stint in journalism provides a sort of excuse: journalists are used to talking about everything. Usually, though, this “everything” is about everyday life, about “hot” current affairs, about stopping on the surface of things and not exploring the bottomless depth of this surface.

An excellent article about this book by the psychoanalyst Marialena Spyropoulou was published in “Kathimerini” newspaper on December 17th. She aptly concludes that the aim of the book “is to search for and consolidate subjectivity, as it is promoted by psychoanalytic thought”. A manual for the use of experts, more or less. Why not? But a book such as “The faces of the stranger” is open to many readings. Just as the literature on which the author draws can be read from a psychoanalytic slant, so inexpert non-specialist reader can take a text primarily “aimed” at something specific and wander or even be sidetracked -this is also a fruitful process- into other paths. What I am trying to say is that Sotiris Manolopoulos can also access a wider audience. On behalf of this audience, I will try to formulate some thoughts.

The “stranger” is in fashion, we all are aware of it. It is no coincidence that book’s first chapter is titled “Life jackets”. No one who follows the news can help the automatic association: the life jacket no longer points to sunny holidays and joyful little children. The life jacket has a hard-orange color and is sometimes washed up on the beach, wrapped around corpses.  The author opens the chapter with a figure: 65.3 million. This is the number of people were uprooted from their homes in 2015. “This figure has never been so great before”, he says. Also for the first time, the world’s population is 7.5 billion, having doubled in less than half a century. But let us not stop at that. “How does the psychoanalyst stand against this mass trauma?”, the author wonders. The reader, however, has already received a first answer before continuing below: through memory, among other things. The dedication “to the refugees of 1922” strongly indicates it, as well as all the references to works of art, as he calls them, which he uses as tools of his thought, and which recall old memories and readings, at least for our generation: “Works of art [that] are the life jackets and the vessels of our sorrow”, as the writer points out from the outset, lest anyone had any illusions to the contrary.

In any case, psychoanalysis struggles to bring buried memories to the surface, digging into that dark space which is called the unconscious, and the choice of Sotiris Manolopoulos to use literary texts and films as “prisms” through which to distinguish the faces of strangers, of uprooted, displaced people, gives the book a special literary dimension.

“We begin our life with a stranger on whom we depend to survive”, he says, and the desideratum is to become “autonomous subjects”. As far as we can go, one could say. He draws his examples from various sources, such as Homer or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Papadiamantis, Camus or Tennessee Williams and Tarkovsky, and to the characters he invokes, fictional or otherwise, the stranger is always a stranger. It is an unanswered question, as much for Hamlet’s theater-within-the- theater as for the anonymous individual who is washed up on an unknown coast wearing a stranger’s life jacket-outfit. The “stranger” has many faces not only one. We all are strangers to others and to ourselves, and if this is not a “massive” trauma, such as the trauma of a crowd forced to leave its country, it may still be at the root of a collective drama. Sotiris Manolopoulos is interested in both: in the individual’s psychic configuration as well as in the social aspect of the problem. He even poses political questions. He raises issues that always remain open, unsolved, such as the complete understanding of the Nazis’ psychotic configuration or the role of institutions and social contexts. He says: “We keep moving between the individual and the whole, between “I am everything” and “I have something”. Once an individual differentiates himself from the “environment-body-me” ensemble, he undertakes a debt”. He goes on to speak, if only in passing, about the dubious and controversial role of the media, and at some other point about the “sentiment” that has been removed from the public codes of communication. No doubt about this. Yet the question that immediately arises is: could sentiment not be eliminated, given that information is conveyed in such a high-speed and generalized way? He reminds me of a much-debated and criticized essay of Baudrillard’s: “The Gulf War did not take place”. Do you remember it? He referred to the “strangers” all over the world who, at once indifferent and spectacle-hungry, watched the live broadcast of the war from their home couch. Meaning, they enjoyed watching fireworks on television, played by some other “strangers” somewhere else. Since then the show has been repeated, and less and less people are touched by it. It is the same with the sight of the orange life jackets. This piece of news is no longer a headline, as we used to say, in a bygone era of communication.

There are many points in Sotiris Manolopoulos’ book which could be described as very distressing, if this is not too melodramatic.  I stop at of these: “We are the refugees of many worlds” because “we have many origins” (our body, our mother’s body, the father as a third element, the individual-social-family existence). Of course, he goes right on to a psychoanalytical interpretation of the sentence he has just said. Yet if, as an exercise, a joke or an experiment, we gave this sentence to a teenager – open-minded and not of a psychoanalytic frame of mind – I am sure that we would be amazed with what he might write.  This is, I believe, the key added value of this book: the thoughts expressed, the questions raised that lead to other openings and extend into many fields.

Sotiris Manolopoulos is, among other things, a low-profile, modest person. “I do not know the issues of philosophy,” he warns us at some point in his book. However, he refers to Levinas, to Heraclitus and to Parmenides, when he says that “existence” likes to hide in here (and not in the nature), and that “The demon that inhabits man is the agent”. And even more, he points out somewhere that “thought is founded on abstraction”. How could it be otherwise? Many things have been written about the so-called “abstract thinking”. And since we are talking about memory, mourning  and anything that lies unmourned and unburied, the kinds of things we all keep and which build isolation walls of isolation around us, should we think about what has happened with the infinitive in our language? We don’t use the infinitive anymore, and thus we have also abolished the way of expressing ourselves on an abstractive level. So, we use it secretly when there is an imperative need to express extreme isolation and alterity.

There are too many phrases, remarks, thoughts, and conclusions in this very important book that would require pages upon pages to be analyzed. Naturally, I cannot and do not intend to do this. Τhe psychoanalysts who spoke before me about the book highlighted the most important points. I would like to emphasize again that it is a book that also concerns non-specialists. The “stranger” within us, and the “stranger” opposite and around us is a daily encounter. Since Sotiris Manolopoulos somewhere uses the term “geography”, in a much broader sense than the purely geographic, and I cannot resist to think that the “stranger” becomes even more of a stranger at a time when we are talking about “globalization” and “a global village”; at a time when there is a unique mobility on the planet, not just the painful one of the “displaced”. Psychoanalysis gives its own interpretations: it is evident that there are more, and that the future has many masks. There is, however, a crucial question that is being put forward, and perhaps it is the psychoanalysts’ priority to provide an answer, if there is any: are we human beings, having tasted the forbidden fruit of knowledge, structured so that there is always something inside him that remains “strange” to both ourselves and others? This is not about social rules or cultural norms or the civilized, proper handling of the “life jackets” of this world, but about a deeper inner anguish, inherent in humankind. “I am another,” the poet has said, and there are many examples of great creators who felt alienated from themselves. What is the possible relationship of a differentiated individual within such an isolation? Does he have to deal with a boundary problem? I draw from a philosophical paper: “Since the human being’s isolation is unbeatable, the human being remains stranger to himself and to the world, with the world being stranger to him, despite all his habits, all his morals and his intimacy”. These words belong to Kostas Axelos and this is his take on isolation from another point of view, but the question remains open.

Sotiris Manolopoulos’ book refers a lot to the “meaning” and to “quest for the meaning”, although at some point he also wonders “if there is any meaning at all”. The meaning that seems to be of interest here refers to the consolidation of subjectivity that must defeat the unknown part of itself to reach Ithaca. (And if Ithaca is a mirage?) “With every conception of meaning, a small islet of subjectivity is created”, the author says, and one can see the psychoanalyst’s passion and commitment to his work. But what is the meaning of the phrase “Give me a place where I can stand, and I can move the earth»[1]in these radical, nihilistic times? When the void is so appealing? “The culture of the attractive chaos, the annihilation, is attractive to us” the book points out. So the good old rules still apply, then?

Finally, I would like to thank the author once again: for a greedily-read, highly scientific, enjoyable, lively and well-written book; for the memories it made me retrieve; for the thoughts triggered by its restless, reflective ideas; and even more for the many fruitful questions it raised in me.

[1] Archimedes’ historical comment on the use of levers (Archimedes, 287-212 BC) Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer.)