Two weeks ago, I was too tired to undertake the one-hour drive home after staying late in the lab. I took refuge in a hotel with the proverbial 57 channels. And so it came to pass that I finally saw 300, purporting to depict the life of Leonidhas and the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae. Except that the Spartans wore black naugahyde diapers, Xerxes was a slim version of Divine, his Immortals looked like orcs and Leonídhas showed his bravery by shoving an unarmed herald down a pit the size of an asteroid crater (in Sparta’s central square yet – bad for tots, to say nothing of fast traffic).
As I watched this dumb dull mess, it came home to me that my culture is deemed common property and used accordingly. Yet few people really know anything about it beyond the cartoon version that passes for world history in most US schools.
As my readers know, I was born and raised in Hellás (as Hellenes, aka Greeks, call their country) and came to the US at 18. Since my transplantation, I haven’t seen a single Anglosaxon film or TV show depicting Hellenic history or myth that was not cringe-worthy. They’ve been so uniformly dismal that the cheerful hodgepodge of Xena was at the top of the pile (no exaggeration). In 2005, literally everyone I spoke with asked variants of “Are all ‘you people’ like those in My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” and I had to restrain myself from wielding a baseball bat – or a spear. There are three Hellene directors of international standing who explore the culture’s myth/history (Michális Kakoyánnis, Theódhoros Angelópoulos, Pantelís Voúlgharis) but their work appears only in art film archives.
I have also read vast numbers of historical and alternate history novels by Anglosaxon authors that take place in Hellas – to name just a few, Mary Renault, Steven Pressfield, Barry Unsworth, Ellen Frye from the literary side; from SF/fantasy, Jacqueline Carey, Guy Gavriel Kay, Greg Benford, Jenny Blackford. Many of these books are fine if judged solely on their literary merits, some are best passed over in silence. In most of them, the stray Hellenic phrases (even when uttered by natives) are at the level of tourist pidgin and the Hellene characters are Gunga Din sidekicks. A few of the stories ring “real” enough that I can lower my shield and relax into them: Jim Brown’s Blood Dance, Roderick Beaton’s Ariathne’s Children, Paul Preuss’ Secret Passages.
In stark contrast, Hellenes have no literary voice in the west. Although ancient Hellenic literature used to be the province of any well-educated Western European man, the same cannot be said of contemporary Hellenic letters. If asked to name recent Hellene writers, people may manage to dredge up Nikos Kazantzákis, and him only because of the popularity of the movie version of Zorba the Greek. If they are intellectuals, they might be able to name the four world-famous poets: Kostantínos Kaváfis, Odysséus Elytis, Ghiórghos Seféris, Yiánnis Rítsos. English-speaking readers can browse through translations of just about any national literature you can name. Yet translations of contemporary Hellenic prose are still non-existent. Nobody knows that Hellas boasts perhaps the best magic realist in the world, Evghenía Fakínou; at least three living poets of giant stature: Victoría Theodhórou, Jénny Mastoráki, Kikí Dhimoulá; and a veritable galaxy of stellar novelists.
At the same time, Westerners are convinced that they “know” my tradition by hazy general familiarity, as I had the dubious privilege to discover. Everyone mispronounces my name even after repeated corrections. In my chosen research domain of alternative splicing, the established terminology of exons and introns betrays the namer’s ignorance of Hellenic: exons stay in, introns are spliced out to form the final RNA. And in a concrete example from another realm, my submission to the Viable Paradise SF workshop contained scenes of contemporary young Hellene men teasing each other. The participants who critiqued the work were American or Canadian; none had ever been to Hellás. Yet they insisted that “only gay people talk like this.” They took it for granted that they knew better than a native how Cretans behave and that their stereotyped assumptions trumped my first hand experience (so much for diversity and cosmopolitanism in SF).
There have been impassioned discussions in the speculative fiction community about whether authors can write with authenticity and moral authority about cultures that aren’t their own – travelogues aside, which invariably say more about the author than the place they are visiting, P. J. O’Rourke being a poster case. This discussion cannot help but be complex because it’s overlaid with issues of race and colonization. Taken to its extreme logical conclusion, the injunction of “Write (only) what you know” would put a fatal crimp on fiction. On the other hand, the sudden emergence of Victorian Orientalism in steampunk is a serious added annoyance in an already self-consciously regressive subgenre.
Hellenes spent four hundred years under Ottoman occupation as second class citizens, subject to whim death and mob violence (flaying and impalement were among the common punishments), forbidden to learn to read and write their language, forced to supply their overlords with children who were turned into janissaries or odalisques. The Hellenes – small from malnutrition and mostly olive-skinned and black-haired – were called “dirty darkies” when they first arrived in Western Europe and the US after the bruising civil war. They were not people of color, but they weren’t considered Aryans either, as the Nazis decided during their occupation of Hellas: each German killed by the resistance merited the execution of at least ten Hellenes, or the slaughtering and razing of the entire nearest village. The Hellas of today is a poor EU cousin currently undergoing a major economic crisis. Unlike AIG or Bank of America, it’s not “too big to fail” even though its debt ratios are similar to those of the US.
Yet the culture had enough élan and vigor to flower four times – Mycenaean, Classical, Alexandrian, Byzantine; the latter, totally ignored even in the anemic world history books, lasted a millennium and acted as a bridge and a buffer between East and West, between the Romans and the Renaissance. Hellas gave the world much of its science, art, politics, philosophy (and before anyone starts emoting, I’m keenly aware of the equally decisive contributions of other cultures). Its people kept their language, identity and spirit intact through all the violations and depradations. Hellenes ace the verbal SAT with little effort, since everything in English longer than two syllables is mostly derived from our language.
So when all is taken into account, I think we are strong enough to survive even the crude cartoonish renditions of Hellas and Hellenes in the media. I’m not sure if we’ll weather the imminent release of The Clash of the Titans remake, however. Judging by its trailers, it will be yet another total chariot wreck. And to Sam Worthington, a word of advice: that buzz cut reduces your hero status to zero. Hellenic heroes had long hair, from Ahilléas to Leonídhas to the untamed outlaws who wrested the country’s independence from the Turks. A shaved head was a sign of slavery. Long hair was a signal of freedom.
Images: The Angel with the Machine Gun, Tássos, woodcut (the figure is dressed like an andártis, a resistance fighter during WWII); Iríni Pappá (Klytemnístra) and Tatiána Papamóschou (Ifighéneia) in Kakoyánnis’ film version of Eurypídhes’ Ifighéneia; Astradhení (Star Binder), Evghenía Fakínou’s first novel; Thémis Bazáka (Eléni) in Pantelís Voúlgharis’ Ta Pétrina Hrónia (The Stone Years); Athanássios Dhiákos, a freedom fighter captured and impaled by the Turks in 1821, age 33.
Note: Now also posted on HuffPo.
Iskander, Khan Tengri
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards
Evgenía Fakínou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism
Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)