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Can Athens live up to its own past?

Sigmund Freud was astonished that it just existed. Henry Miller, Mark Twain, John Milton and Lord Byron were equally awestruck. The Olympic spotlight falling on Athens in August will be the latest illumination of a city that has fascinated thinkers, poets and writers down the ages. Athens has much to live up to, having been romanticized through history as «The Cradle of Western Civilization.» Setting foot in Athens for the first time, Freud wrote to a friend: «Amidst the temple ruins, looking out over the blue sea. «A feeling of astonishment mingled with my joy. It seemed to say: ‘So it really is true, just as we learnt at school!’» John Milton, writing «Paradise Regained,» hailed the city as the «mother of arts and eloquence.» But the chief suitor in visitors’ bids for the affections of Greece was Lord Byron. Initially, the archetypal adventurer struggled to square the peasants he found with the inhabitants of the land of Aristotle and Plato that he had imagined. In his epic poem «Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,» written during his travels in Greece, he asked: «Ancient of days! August Athena! Where, Where are thy men of might? Thy grand in soul?» and went on: «Is this the whole?» He soon warmed to the place after falling in love with his landlady’s 14-year-old daughter, whom he immortalized as the «Maid of Athens.» «Maid of Athens, ere we part/ Give, oh give me back my heart!/ Or, since that has left my breast/ Keep it now, and take the rest!» Teresa Makri became a romantic legend and inspired paintings representing frail virgins who, in the words of one art critic, «generally gaze shyly sideways out of the lower right-hand corner of their frames.» Byron’s romantic evocation of Athens helped to give birth to a passionate international empathy for the plight of the Greeks which came to be known as philhellenism. Architect and historian Savvas Condaratos describes it as «a (turn-of-the-century) cultural movement that established the myth of neoclassicism, an ordering philosophy beginning in the ideal of Greek democracy and leading to the very fibers of all major art forms.» Historians credit the spread of philhellenism with giving the otherwise reluctant great powers a final shove into creating an independent Greece in 1830. Still, the romantics kept coming with their ancient baggage in tow, as Mark Twain’s fanciful account of his first contact with Athens in «Innocents Abroad» shows. «The wild excitement upon us of approaching the most renowned of cities! What cared we for outward visions, when Agamemnon, Achilles, and a thousand other heroes of the great Past were marching in ghostly procession through our fancies? What were sunsets to us, who were about to live and breathe and walk in actual Athens.» Fellow American Henry Miller was no more immune to the ancient glamour when he arrived at the onset of World War II, more than a century after Byron’s death. «In one way or another, at some time or other, we have all been there, even if only in a dream,» the author said. Miller penned the travel literature classic «The Colossus of Maroussi» during his travels; a book that still finds its way into the luggage of many cultured visitors. Greeks themselves have retained an admirably ambiguous response to this romantic onslaught from abroad. Historian Thanos Veremis warned of the dangers of accepting foreign stereotypes when he cautioned against «accepting caricatures fashioned by complacent onlookers.» Were he alive today, Byron would recognize little of his romantic Athens in the bustling metropolis straining to stage a successful Olympics from August 13 to 29. «Modern Athens is the result of unforeseen circumstances, a sleepy village that was rapidly transformed into the capital of a new state,» Veremis wrote in «Greece: The Modern Sequel.» As for Miller’s wartime wanderings, the closest modern-day Maroussi can boast to a colossus is the gigantic steel arch being raised over the Olympic Stadium in the northern suburb of the capital. The multimillion-dollar metal sunscreen, fashioned by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is destined to be the centerpiece of the Olympics. Not everything has disappeared, though. Byron’s landlady’s house still stands in the central neighborhood of Psyrri, a bustling area now known for its trendy late-night bars and clubs. But it does little to evoke its romantic past. The house is derelict and abandoned, the roof has caved in and the crumbling neoclassical facade boasts no plaque to say the poet once lived or loved here. Athenians gearing up to welcome the Olympic hordes would do well to borrow another line from Byron’s «Childe Harold»: «I am not now/That which I have been.»