Writers local and foreign gather in Delphi to share ‘Greek experience’

Greece in all its manifestations has been an abiding influence and a fertile source of material for a starry group of writers from abroad who gathered in Delphi last weekend to share their «Greek experience» with their local counterparts. The meeting, jointly organized by the Greek Culture Ministry and the European Cultural Center of Delphi, was something of a Greek experience in itself. While a sense of the foreign writers’ deep engagement with Greece did emerge, the concerns of the home team, marked by a pervasive anxiety about identity, dominated much of the discussion. ‘A son of Hesiod’ Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney explained how he felt at home in Greece as «a son of Hesiod,» having grown up on a farm, and «a foster son of Hermes,» whose appurtenances of hat, staff and fancy shoes were a visual parallel to the poet’s father in his cattle-dealer’s outfit. Steeped in the classical canon but also familiar with contemporary Greece, Heaney draws on images ancient and modern in his work. Thinking of art and culture as «an emergency power system,» he believes that we can turn to the Greek experience for help. In his case, the «soul-saving» experience of working on a version of Sophocles’ «Philoctetes» clarified a matter of conflicting loyalties. In the 1980s in Ireland, he said, writers were constantly being asked to support various causes: «It felt like one long test of integrity.» Poet and teacher Rachel Hadas, professing an «allergy to abstraction,» presented the hard evidence of her own experience of Greece, distilled and transformed into verse. What she termed the «multifacetedness of Greece as poetic material» is exemplified in her poem «The Gaze,» which takes James Merrill’s translation of Cavafy’s poem «The City» as a starting point for reflections on the past, poetry, September 11 and the perception of loss. Here she captures the moment of creation: «I apply / pressure to the notion of that gaze / lean on the poem till it suddenly / opens like a door through which to peer […] at quite another scene.» Recounting his longstanding contact with Greece, writer and translator Erasmus Shoeffer said he had attempted to give his German compatriots a «more realistic» picture of Greece in his novel, «Death in Athens» (1986). Rather than picking up on the particularity of the presentations, the ensuing discussion circled around competing definitions of «ellinikotita» or «Greekness,» which ended with Titos Patrikios claiming the word itself was an ideological construct «while ‘Greek experience’ comes from what is lived and has hopes of living on,» and novelist Rea Galanaki suggesting that simply talking about «Greek identity» was a way out of the dilemma. At times it seemed the locals conflated and blurred the visitors’ experiences into a generalized notion of what «they» think about us, perhaps missing some valuable insights along the way. Writer, translator and critic Edmund Keeley recounted his experience of Greece as a child at the American Farm School in Thesssaloniki, absorbing «nourishment for nostalgia.» Crediting his Greek experience with having made him a writer and translator, Keeley cited later encounters with Greek poets, from whom he learnt «economy and simplicity,» and prose writers who taught him how to record dramatic moments by reworking myths or focusing on contemporary accounts. Writer Michel Deon contrasted the reactions of Chateaubriand and Henry Miller to Greece – the former meeting only Turks, getting a migraine from the wine and seeing the locals completely cut off from their glorious past, while the latter was dazzled by what he found. Publisher Michael Kruger detailed the «German-Greek love affair,» born in the 18th century. «It established German culture,» he said, «and changed our image of ourselves and the world.» Citing a canonical translation of Homer that «still determines our notion of the Greek world,» he stressed the need for every generation to produce its own translations. Kruger contrasted the traditions of Athens and Boeotia, where the former meant Weimar and the latter the German romantics. The responses to these three speakers put the away team somewhat on the defensive, with the locals often mistaking the particular for the general and the use of Greek images by foreign writers for evidence of a superficial understanding of Greece. What novelist Thanassis Valtinos referred to as «ancestor obsession» and critic Nasos Vagenas termed the Greeks’ «fear of external dangers» interfered with mutual understanding. But the idea that writers write about themselves, using whatever material they find to hand, was eventually voiced. Deon explained that, like all writers, «Chateaubriand looked at Greece and saw himself.» Hadas noted that «writers are predators on ancient material, not only Greek antiquity; we browse, we graze.» «Mythology is a great structure,» said The Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard, citing Petrarch’s deliberate recreation of the Greek experience as an example of hanging a work on an earlier frame. ‘Transmittable’ values The two most touching accounts came from opposite hemispheres. French writer and translator Jacques Lacarriere learnt the Greek myths at school, and staged a performance of Aeschylus’ «Persians» at the Sorbonne in 1945. His account of the impact that production had, and his visit to Greece during the civil war and collaboration with Seferis, ended as a passionate speech about the relevance of the Greek heritage, whose values, he said, are «transmittable.» Japanese writer and translator Natsuki Ikezawa told of how, feeling ill at ease in his own country and overshadowed by the fame of his novelist father, he came to Greece, where he felt at home despite the huge cultural differences. He now lives in Japan, as he said, because «I am bound to my country by my language.» This confirmed a feeling many Greek participants voiced about the centrality of language, though, as poet Titos Patrikios summed up, «what matters is not what language we use, but what we say in it.» Unfortunately, this opportunity to hear the great and good was not extended to students or the general public, who were largely excluded from what was, after all, a publicly funded occasion.