Dream on

Alexander Nehamas

  • Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace
    Granta, 398 pp, £17.99, February 1997, ISBN 1 86207 033 4

Adebate about language is currently raging in Greece. Should Classical Greek be a required part of the school curriculum, or should it be optional? Should the works of the ancient authors be taught only in the original, or should students study them in Modern Greek translation? The debate is intensely political. Conservatives insist that an education in Classical Greek is indispensable to educated Greeks, who cannot know their heritage and history without it. Liberals and radicals argue that such an education is reactionary, reinforcing an emphasis on the past and on the separateness of Greece from the rest of the world, particularly the West. It is easy to overlook the idea that is common to both sides in this debate: that reading Homer, Pindar, the tragic poets, the historians, Plato and Aristotle is an essential part of all Greek education. The debate presupposes that this literature, which few Greeks can now read in the original and many are unwilling to read even in translation, is their literature. Everyone agrees it should be taught; the only question is in what form.

It could be that this idea is correct: perhaps contemporary Greece does constitute a continuation of Classical Greece, as well as of Byzantium. The debate over language seems continuous with the first and second-century BC fight to preserve the purity of Attic Greek – the language used six centuries earlier – uncontaminated by later, particularly foreign, intrusions. ‘The Romans,’ James Davidson wrote recently in these pages, ‘were so thorough in forestalling the possibility of any actual heroics that might disturb the Roman peace that the dream-world of discourse was the only space left to the Greeks for great deeds’ (LRB, 23 January). Though one might think that consigning discourse to the world of dreams is to rob it of reality, Patricia Storace’s remarkable memoir of a year spent living in Athens and travelling around the Greek countryside should remove that idea. As powerless now as it was under the Romans, Greece is debating the proper mode in which to transmit its culture. And if that culture is formed of dreams, it is also a reality which defines the lives of millions of Greeks living on the edge of Europe and, as a huge diaspora, all over the globe.

Storace brought with her to Athens a copy of Artemidorus’ Oneirokritika, a compendium of dreams and their interpretations composed in the second century AD. And since our dreams change as the world changes, within two days of her arrival she had bought one of the countless contemporary books that tell you what your dreams mean: not what they may reveal about your past or your soul, but what they predict about your future. The pervasiveness of such oneirokrites, or dream interpretations, in Greece represents both a continuity with the past and the country’s essential doubleness: they are a pre-Christian survival in a nation of official and aggressive Greek Orthodoxy, where people say things like ‘Orthodoxy is not a religion but a way of life,’ or believe that the relationship of Jesus to God and the Virgin Mary is a new version of the triangle constituted by Zeus, Thetis and Achilles in the Iliad, or insist that ‘the best-preserved fragment of the Ottoman Empire is the Greek Orthodox Church.’

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[*] Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonisation and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford, 1996).