The worst thing about rebooting a country after it has suffered a crisis with tectonic consequences is the feeling that things are being recycled, the feeling that the country is trying to stand on the precarious remnants of yesteryear. This process involves a ritual that is known to be ineffective: the reuse of symbols – preferably national symbols.
This is not necessarily a desire to revive the memory of historical events, and it is not a fear that we will feel poorer unless we pay tribute to the nation’s outstanding cultural figures. Rather, it is a sign of confusion as well as of the unwillingness to deviate from the beaten path – to come up, as it were, with a different interpretation of our present and, by extension, our future.
On Wednesday, Zappeion Hall in central Athens hosted an event to mark the upcoming 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Salamis. Despite the courageous efforts by officials to extend the meaning of the past into the present by styling 2,500-year-old events as “the starting point of a reverse course of national self-understanding,” the substance remained intact.
The idea was that some people would be registered as “present” while others would be seen as having missed out on our unresolved issues with history. As the 2021 becentennial of the start of the Greek War of Independence nears, and before we find ourselves captivated by a surge of national pride, we should be wary about how easy it is for the patriotic to give way to the claustrophobic, to the intolerant and to the self-deifying.
The Culture Ministry said that 2020 will be the year of Melina Mercouri, to mark 100 years since the birth of the late Greek actress and politician. A number of events will be held during that year. Will it be a tribute or yet another token gesture dictated by the angst of numbers (“It’s been 100 years, we need to do something”) regarding a woman and a personality who was larger than life?
In order to avoid routine, anniversaries require risk, they demand that you move out of your comfort zone. Or you will end up with an endless worship of myths and totems in their official and time-consolidated version. Memorial services do not always honor someone or something. This is especially so when they are based on the recycling of much-used materials. The Zappeion events seem to come from a past that has proved not to serve the interests of the future.