July 25, 2015
I think back to my Greek childhood and longing for the once coziest and most romantic of cities overwhelms me. Actually it’s too painful to think back, all the blood spilled during the Communist uprising, the beautiful neoclassical buildings destroyed by greed and lack of talent, the impeccable manners of the people that showed respect for the elderly, the church, and the nation. They all went with the wind, that horrible sirocco from the south that has been used as an excuse for crimes of passion committed under its influence. This ache for a lost past is nothing new. Elsewhere and memory are most vivid in one’s mind, as is loss and the innocence of childhood. Mind you, the distilling process of memory can play tricks and is also extremely selective. The extreme poverty, the beggars, the sick without medical insurance—all these I’ve tucked away, just like the extreme poverty of the miners in Yorkshire during the turn of the last century did not dampen the spirits of house parties in stately homes of the region.
Holding the world at a remove should not become a permanent state of mind. In my case, Greece has become such a mess, removing its past helps. The biggest irony is the anger of the present bunch, brought up as hardcore Marxists while sustained by EU funds, and employed in worthless jobs invented for them by an omnipotent state. This bunch who are angry and at the helm right now bring Philoctetes to mind. Philoctetes was hardly mentioned in Homer, yet Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles wrote tragedies about him. There are incomplete accounts of the plays by the two former, and only Sophocles’ drama, which presents Philoctetes in exile and does not have a typical tragic end—it actually almost ends in comedy—supplies us with what resembles our modern Greek politicians.
In brief, the demigod Heracles has himself burned on Mount Oeta after being poisoned by Deianeira’s dress, and persuades Philoctetes to light the pyre. He rewards him by bequeathing him the bow given to him by Apollo, one that never misses its mark. Philoctetes joins the Greek leaders in the Trojan War, but is left behind on the island of Limnos suffering from a snakebite that makes him stink like hell. The Greeks go on without him and get bogged down for 10 years, while losing their greatest hero-warrior, Achilles. (Believe it or not, I knew about the smelly one at a very early age, as my great-uncle—prime minister, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and a great classicist in both German and Greek—had told me about him in the context of being clean in order to get along.)
The mysterious wound never heals. In the meantime, the Greeks kidnap the soothsayer of the Trojans, who predicts they can never win until they have sent for Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, and brought over Philoctetes and his bow. In one play, the wily Odysseus is dispatched to bring the stinky one and his bow to Troy, and ends up stealing it. In another drama, Odysseus is not recognized by the sick man in Limnos, but presents himself as yet another Greek warrior who had been wronged by the Greeks. The moral theme in both dramas is like the theme of the wrath of Achilles, the conflict between the passions of the individual and the demands of duty to the common cause.
In Sophocles’ play, Neoptolemus seeks out Philoctetes in his wretched cave, where the sick one begs Achilles’ son to take him back to Greece. The youngster pretends to consent, but as they are about to embark, Philoctetes’ poisoned foot erupts and he implores the boy to throw him in the crater of a Limnos volcano. The boy refuses—he is, after all, honorable—but then Odysseus appears and demands he grab the bow and to hell with the smelly one. Again the boy refuses, and Odysseus, always prudent, beats a retreat.
At the end, the son of Achilles and the Limnos patient are rescued by Heracles, who advises them to go to Troy and carry the day for the Greeks. All’s well that ends well, I suppose. Which brings me to the present. Philoctetes is obviously the present Greek state. Impoverished, humbled, abandoned by the rest of Europe, exacerbated by hardship and chagrin. The Greeks fighting in Troy are obviously the meanies of the EU. They first played up to Phil because he possessed a bow and arrows that never missed. (A Europe without Greece is like Lady Thatcher without her handbag.) Odysseus has to be the Greek character, cunning but resourceful. (Lend us the money, but we are not obliged to pay it back.) Neoptolemus is what used to be the Greek people—this according to the ancient dramatist Taki—brave, honest, fair, and compassionate. The poisoned foot is the most obvious of all: the EU, and the stink being Jean-Claude Juncker and the rest of the bureaucrats.
What a pity the three great Greek tragedians are not around nowadays. What terrific subjects they would have to investigate and dramatize. There is nothing more corrupt than the EU, nothing less democratic, and nothing more delusional and worthless than Greek political life. But perhaps Aristophanes would be best. Both sides—the Greek politicians and the EU tyrants—are comic figures and should be laughed at until they leave center stage.