On taking a journey into the spirit of the Balkans

American bard Christopher Merrill does not fit easily into any stereotype. He has a poetic approach to the world and an ideology that is opposed not only to official US policy but also to capitalism itself. He is one of a minority among a minority of intellectuals in his own country. Merrill spent a few days in Athens recently for the launch of the Greek translation of his book «Things of the Hidden God,» brought out by Metaichmio as «Taxidi ston Atho.» The book describes his revelatory experiences on Mount Athos, which moved him deeply and helped him to overcome personal problems and see the world differently. «It was something completely new for me,» says Merrill. «Nothing I had read or heard about Athos could compare with what I experienced there.» He speaks with enthusiasm as he sips a Greek coffee at his Athenian hotel. There is something calm about him – he might be a priest, though, as he says, he never had the vocation. Our conversation gradually reveals a man with political ideas and a readiness to challenge accepted opinion. His view of the Balkans proves complex. In «Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars» – a title borrowed from a poem by Slovene poet Tomaz Salamun – Merrill writes about the war in the Balkans from his personal perspective, maintaining, as he says, a long tradition of writers who were also war correspondents. In the same spirit, when he visited Mount Athos, he was maintaining a long tradition of many Europeans and some Americans who have written about «this experience of catharsis.» «After the uproar of war, there was an intense need for absolute tranquility,» he says. It was literature that first brought Merrill to the Balkans. He was starting to get into Slovene poetry and then, in response to an invitation from a poet friend in the Balkans, he «came and stayed.» «The war in Yugoslavia left me physically and mentally exhausted. My marriage was in crisis, I had stopped writing poetry, and the very thought of war was traumatic. I felt that everything that meant something to me was leaving me.» In Belgrade in 1992, Merrill read an article on the front page of the Politika newspaper. «I read about the pilgrimage of young Serbs to Athos. I was impressed by the size and prominence of the article in what just three years earlier had been a communist paper. It was that, combined with other information, that made me begin to understand how important Athos was to people in the Balkans. Since then, I have made six pilgrimages. Mount Athos changed me in a way I could not have imagined.» Merrill does not idealize Athos. «There is some anti-Semitism, but that’s only part of the whole. The natural beauty of Athos stirred me deeply. I was impressed by the Byzantine hymns, the icons, the liturgy, even by the food. Before I went there, I expected I’d be starving, hungry, but I was wrong. I simply had to adjust to a different diet.» Philosophical Merrill extends his analysis beyond the bounds of travel and history and gives it a philosophical wrapping. He places special emphasis on the perception of time and of death. «I had often thought that poetry, which I serve, is also – like life on Athos – a diametrically opposite way of measuring time from that of ‘normal’ life. I had already transformed the sense I had of time during the war in Yugoslavia. The boundaries had shifted and on Athos I observed the power of spiritual time. In the West, we often think of a monk’s life as a waste of precious time. Poetry is seen in the same way. On Athos, I discovered the virtue of creating silence.» Merrill has a strong educational background in language, art and cultural anthropology. He has traveled widely, from Europe to Southeast Asia, and is preparing a volume of essays and analysis about his travels. Born in Massachusetts, he has spent the past five years in Iowa, where he works at the university. He leads the university’s international writing program and his job is to secure funding and travel to build cultural bridges. Many foreign writers have already been invited to Iowa University (including Greek author Alexis Stamatis). «I had my own stereotypes before I went to Athos,» jokes Merrill. «We all have stereotypes. For example, Americans don’t connect Greece with the Balkans at all. Greece brings to mind the Olympic Games and the 12 gods. That’s exactly what my struggle is – to provide a deeper view. I’m reminded of the case of Robert Kaplan, whose books on the Balkans – full of prejudice, stereotypes and shallow ideas – have become best sellers in America. We have a tendency in the US to see everything in terms of black and white. Opposing camps.» Coming into contact with «another light» on Athos made Merrill feel his soul «opening.» He doesn’t speak of a religious experience but a holistic one. «I never thought of getting seriously involved in religion, even though I grew up in a family of Episcopalians, which is the closest you get to Catholicism in the US. Through Catholicism, I was closer to Orthodoxy.» In the Balkans, Merrill discovered that the collapse of the old regimes had created a vacuum which in many cases was filled by the church. Only the future will show how the need for a spiritual counterweight will be absorbed in these new societies. Vitality In his view, the spiritual experience was indirectly linked to his experience of writing poetry. «The value of poetry is not measured by sales but by its vitality. As the 1920s generation slowly disappears, new poets are emerging. It is a sign of spiritual force, something that comes from within society but is considered extraneous to it. Like Mount Athos. An unworldly world.» This interview was translated from the Greek text. ‘Things of the Hidden God’ Christopher Merrill’s book «Things of the Hidden God» is published in Greek by Metaichmio as «Taxidi ston Atho,» translated by Nikos Koutras and with a prologue by Anastassis Vistinotis. The book contains photographs taken by Fred Boissonas and Takis Tloupas from their trips to Athos and which are part of a long tradition of photographing the peninsula. It has already been translated into Czech and Korean, and will soon be published in Iran.