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.’

Dinner with Persephone pays close attention to the everyday objects which appear in Greek dreams and to the interpretations these dreams receive in books and in ordinary life (the women of Mani, in the Peloponnese, are reputed to be the best dream interpreters). Among others, Storace cites dreams of mothers, whom Artemidorus only depicts sleeping with their sons, but which are today concerned with the mother’s own moods; dreams which reveal who your husband will be; dreams of weddings (taken as premonitions of death, from the second century to the 20th); dreams of the popular pastry known as kataifi (a symbol of good fortune); dreams in which St Constantine calls the dreamer to join the Anastenarides, who walk barefoot on red-hot coals carrying the saint’s icon in their bosom and emerge intact from their ordeal.

Everywhere Storace turns in this essentially twofold country – located, as it is popular to believe today, between East and West, past and present, pagan and Christian, medieval and modern, peasant and bourgeois, and marked by traces of its old enemies (there are, Storace points out, as many Turkish elements in Greece today as there are Greek elements in Turkey) – she is confronted by collective dreams. These inform the view of the country shared by most contemporary Greeks, many of them well educated and highly sophisticated, and shape their sense of identity. In a sense they constitute the actual history of Greece, that ‘dream nation’, as the title of Stathis Gourgouris’s book has it.[*]

The Virgin Mary of the island of Tinos, the most miraculous of Greek icons, is celebrated every year with a festival which combines medieval piety and modern militarism. The icon was discovered after the Virgin herself revealed its whereabouts in a dream to St Pelagia, who led a party to unearth the icon in 1822, just after Greece had begun to fight for its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The icon shows the Annunciation and was immediately linked to the War of Independence, officially declared to have started on 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation; the icon was thus taken to symbolise the rebirth of the nation. In 1940, a Greek battleship was sunk off Tinos by an Italian submarine on the day of the Virgin’s feast, making it seem that the war was an attack on the nation’s religion, as well as on the nation itself. ‘The event,’ Storace writes, ‘is commemorated in Tinos on this day as Pearl Harbor is by the Americans.’ Medieval Christianity, 19th-century nationalism and 20th-century military history can thus be seen to come together as vision, culture and politics intermingle. The icon, which ‘emerged from a dream’, represents a ‘dream of the Virgin Mary that is one of the most common dreams of modern Greece’. It represents a fact about the nation today as relevant as any table of economic indicators.

Again according to myth, the Gorgona, the sister of Alexander the Great, was transformed into a mermaid. Even today, she stops ships sailing in Greek waters and helps those sailors who assure her that her brother is still alive to arrive at their destination, while destroying those who tell her the sad truth. A Greek friend remarks to Storace: ‘The story teaches that if you are Greek you have to learn to lie in order to live. Because we all know that Alexander is in fact dead, but we are doomed to keep saying he is not in order to survive. And the only Greek who doesn’t know that he is dead is the Gorgona, and she is mad.’ Myth and fact live together in precarious balance, each forming, reflecting and transforming the other. But they are in large part responsible for the continuity with the past which, to the country’s inhabitants, is quite palpable. Whether or not that continuity, as some argue, was ‘constructed’ during the Enlightenment (along with the ‘purist’ language which until a few years ago was the official language of government, newspapers and most academic institutions), it is now a hard fact of Greek political and everyday life:

Like a great river whose changing course alters the boundaries of the earth that contains it, the changing boundaries of dream and reality can never be permanently fixed, as they destroy and create and re-create each other. Like those fertile rivers that sustain settlements and cities, dreams make life possible, bring it into reality; we ourselves are bred in dreams. And like great rivers, dreams can destroy us if we do not patiently, delicately observe their barely perceptible changes in breadth and depth, the new tributaries and branches they sculpt.

Storace, herself an adopted child with a stake in establishing her own ‘heredity’, visits Greece to learn how to dream the kind of dream that can create an actual history. She learns about them during a dream-year of her own and relates them in the form in which we usually tell our dreams to others.

What is Storace’s subject, then? Greece and the Greeks ‘as they really are’? Greece and the Greeks ‘as she perceives them’? Greece and the Greeks as she dreams of them? I am tempted to say the last. Storace’s dreamworld is inhabited by a remarkable crowd of people – teachers, artists, intellectuals and peasants – who, at the slightest provocation (and often without it), engage in eloquent disquisitions on Greek history, politics, culture, ideology and folklore. There are many such people in Greece. But I can’t quite believe that every time Storace met a friend for a drink or for dinner, she was given lessons – very sophisticated lessons – on Bacchus and Ariadne, the transformation of the Hebrew God into the Greek Logos, the origin of the shape of the church of the Hagia Sophia, the role of St Basil of Caesarea in initiating the custom of baking a special pie on New Year’s Day, or the history and politics of Macedonia. This last is believable: passions over Macedonia were at their highest at the time of Storace’s stay, and her emphasis on the overriding importance that was attached to the new Balkan nation’s appropriation of the name ‘Macedonia’ is absolutely right.

Storace’s erudite friends are in part her own invention, I suspect: a strategy designed to avoid didacticism. Their voices are lively and engaging, and one learns a lot from them. But now and then, I found myself longing to meet more people like the womanising Christos, whom Storace assails with questions about the unfamiliar names of the streets they are crossing, but who ‘doesn’t know what the streets commemorate either, or why the district is called Pangrati, or how to translate into Greek the café’s Italian name’.

There are many people like Christos in Greece; they represent a whole other side of the country about which Dinner with Persephone has too little to say. They are the new working and middle-class Greeks who are as proud of their heritage as they are ignorant of it, people whose dreams of their country are based on knowing that others have dreamed them. They are people primarily concerned with making a living in the hostile atmosphere, both meteorological and psychological, of contemporary Athens, who, when they can afford it, turn their minds to (another dream of) the West. One of the few instances where such people enter Storace’s narrative occurs during her description of a fancy wedding party. The dancers begin with West Side Story – ‘I like to be in America, everything free in America’ – move on to Elton John, and eventually mouth the English words to the tune the band is playing: ‘This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to New York island.’ ‘In Athens,’ Storace writes, ‘they are dancing at lavish weddings to American protest songs of the Depression.’ It is part of the same phenomenon which, thirty years ago, allowed the mayor of Piraeus to introduce ten-pin bowling – a characteristically working-class sport in the US – as an amusement for the Athenian élite.

Storace, perhaps because she is primarily concerned with the differences between Greece and her own world, exaggerates its impermeability to Western popular culture. St Valentine’s Day, for example, is not a ‘half-hearted’ holiday because the saint ‘belongs to Rome’. Rather, the holiday is still primitive because it was introduced only recently. In a few years’ time, the saint will find nothing to complain of in Athens.

Though she sometimes strives too much for effect, Storace has a poet’s eye for detail and a gift for telling observation. In Northern Greece, village houses are commonly built of stones of various shades of brown and grey, sometimes even black: they have, Storace writes, ‘tweedy stone walls’. Greek wines can sometimes be a bit weak on the palate, and rush down your throat – the taste of such a ‘stony’ white is, appropriately enough, in the Peloponnese, ‘laconic’. The way some Greek men look at foreign women is a ‘frank, assessing, concentrated staring’. ‘Home’ is a different concept in different languages:

The home Greeks yearn for is not the mystical better world of true freedom and dignity across the Jordan of African-American gospel music. Nor is it the storybook Jerusalem of the Jews, the place in which the Old Testament stories are perpetually relived and therefore true, nor is it the transfigured cottages of Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. It is not the home of the pioneers of the American West, which must be sought through the hardships of a physical and spiritual journey, and in the end be created, since it can be found in no other way. The home of the Greek ballads is a literal place, the familiar place where you grew up. Where your mother and father were, where you were known as a boy, your childhood, your neighbourhood.

Storace’s central idea is right: Greece is always dreaming of a world which it does not occupy. In Artemidorus’ tradition, we should ask not what these dreams say about the past of the country that dreams them, but what, along with the culture battles they generate, they say about its future.

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