In case you couldn’t tell from my considerable absence, I was on vacation. I needed a classical fix and there’s no better place to get it than Greece. I didn’t just need to get out of New York; I needed to get out of the twenty-first century. If you can’t actually go back to the past, at least you can go somewhere where it’s visible. And of course in Greece it is spectacularly in evidence. Sometimes you can just close your eyes, open them again, and you’re almost in the land of the gods and goddesses.
We flew to Athens, and spent a few days there marching around the Acropolis in body-temperature weather, visiting museums and soaking up the local atmosphere. You can see the Acropolis from all over the city, so it’s funny how hard it is to actually find your way up there. But once you do the view is amazing. You can see for two thousand years.
I hadn’t been in Athens since before the Olympics, and I was impressed that it had cleaned up so nicely. I remembered smog and dirt and grunge but now it was mostly clean and bright. It’s not a rich metropolis, and not chic in the present manner of conspicuous consumption. It could pass, in some ways, for a former Communist capital, but it has a real soul to it. The only real blight in sight was the out-of-control graffiti.
When I see graffiti like this in Europe I actually feel pangs of guilt. My generation of New Yorkers had a lot to do with making a case that graffiti was art, or at least could be. Today graffiti is bigger in Europe than in New York, and I’ve heard that much of the ambitious graffiti in our city is done by European graffiti tourists desirous of leaving their mark where it all started. Of course, it didn’t all start here. There are prominent signs on the Acropolis warning against graffiti, but if you look closely those noble marble columns are covered with what we now call scratchiti. And the most graffiti I think I’ve seen anywhere was on the Great Wall. Whether Genghis Khan tagged the Wall or not I don’t know, but I think New York can only take credit for the spray-paint wave of graffiti, as any inspection of ancient sites tends to confirm that graffiti has been going on since long before the Vandals sacked Rome (455 AD).
Here is the defaced Melina Mercouri Foundation. Shame on you! Especially on Sunday!
Here are graffiti artists pillaging Rome, fifth century.
One day recently I went to my local Pilates studio and noticed that the large glass front door had been defaced (i.e., tagged) with acid. I couldn’t help but think that the perpetrator should have at least one hand chopped off. But maybe I’ve been reading too much Xenophon. Actually, that reading had a lot to do with wanting to go to Greece this summer.
For quite a few years we’ve headed to Italy in the summer. And for the last few years our destination in Italy has been Sicily, a.k.a. Magna Grecia, which is where many of the very best Greek ruins are to be found. And where, in ancient days, many of the very best Greeks were to be found. Sicily was an important colony of the Greeks before they blew their empire and got bested by the Romans; and Sicily's architecture, cuisine, and language still reflect the Greek presence. Lately my reading has taken a Greek turn—Herodotus; Aristophanes; Robert Graves’s Homer’s Daughter and The Golden Fleece (and, on this latter subject, The Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum and The Voyage of Argo by Apollonius of Rhodes. Maybe I’m an escapist, but somehow I can’t help but think that the answers to the big problems of today (the ones nobody really talks about) are to be found here.
My son Oscar had never been to Greece and he loved Athens, especially when he learned that they have pizza, and he was really delighted when we visited the National Assembly building across from our deluxe hotel, the Grande Bretagne, to watch the changing of the guard—the Proedrinki Froura or Presidential Guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, a ritual that occurs hourly and draws lots of tourists, especially girls. Apparently only the hunkiest members of the Greek Army are chosen for this duty, performing an elaborate slow-mo drill in their traditional skirted uniforms. It’s really a hoot. Like Borat and Bruno rolled into one.
The soldiers wear a sort of skirted onesie over thick tights. Their shoes have pom-poms. And the scene itself is a little bizarre, as the drill takes place in front of a frieze of a hunky Greek hoplite seemingly in extremis, before which is something resembling a marble bed. It’s kind of erotic and campy at the same time, especially the slow-motion Rockette kicks. But this is a traditional look that goes back to the Greek War of Independence. The fans love it. I’m sure that these guys have no trouble hooking up, whichever way they are oriented.
By the way, the officer in charge when we were present bore an uncanny resemblence to Rhys Coiro, the actor who played the traitorous Sean Hillinger on 24 and the crazed director Billy Walsh on Entourage. What do you suppose he’s saying to his troops?
Here's the full range of Proerdriki uniforms:
A highlight of the trip was the Archeological Museum in Athens—not the new one on the Acropolis, but the old one, which is packed with treasures and provides a wonderful view of the development of Greek art.
Here are a few snaps I took of personal highlights.
The Greeks started with abstraction and worked their way into realism.
They invented the lawn jockey.
They glorified the human form. Gloriously. And made gods in their own image.
They mastered the metaphor.
Two thousand years before Nixon.
The Acropolis is a construction site at the moment, with a major restoration of the Parthenon underway. My favorite building is the Erechtheum, with its Porch of the Caryatids, and with the Parthenon covered in scaffolding this unusual temple really shines. It was devoted to both Athena and Poseidon, but takes its name from Erichthonius, an early ruler of Athens, who was supposedly the son of Hephaestus and the soil. Apparently the weapons-making god was so aroused by the sight of Athena that he spontaneously ejaculated. The disgusted virgin goddess wiped his ejaculate from her thigh and it impregnated the earth. My mother told me a similar story.
The Erechtheum was built on the site of a temple to Athena that was destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C. It contained an ancient olive-wood effigy of Athena that supposedly fell from heaven, and the marks of Poseidon's trident. It reminded me of my first dramatic role. I played Poseidon in the fourth-grade school play about the naming of the city. I remember my speech: "Greeks, I give you a new animal called the horse…" As Poseidon I gave the Greeks the horse, while Athena gave the city the olive. She won. As I recall, Athena was portrayed by Faith Ackerman.
After a few hot days and nights in Athens, we hopped a hydrofoil from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Hydra in the Saronic Islands, about an hour away as the boat flies. The isle of Hydra was supposedly so-named because it was a source of fresh water, from its many wells, but those dried up a long time ago, and today you hesitate to brush your teeth with the stuff in the pipes, which is brought over daily on a tanker from the Pellopenese. It is not named after the nine-headed beast slain by Hercules as his second labor.
Today Hydra is a quiet tourist destination, mainly because it has brilliantly banned automobiles, scooters, golf carts, etc.. The only exception to this rule are the garbage trucks. The only form of transport in Hydra besides feet are donkeys, and these do all the heavy lifting, as this is a very hilly place. This makes it an ideal escape from the present. So it was a vacation with no cars, no TV, no radio, and Internet only at the café (where I felt obliged to have a glass of wine in exchange for my wi-fi).
The author, in Hydra, drinking local rosé by the kilogram.
Maybe the old-world quality of Hydra explains why it is something of an art colony. It is an excellent escape from the unaesthetic aspects of modern life. It is a place artists live and visit. And then there is the Hydra Workshop, run by Pauline Karpidas, an art collector from London who married a Greek and who summers there. Pauline was a bird in the swinging London of yore, and she's kept her grooviness intact—an inspiration to the young artists she cultivates. In past years she has exhibited Christopher Wool, Tracey Emin, John Currin, and Rachel Feinstein. This year her gallery featured work by the young New York artist Nate Lowman. Lowman's paintings are in black-and-white with the blown-out silkscreen Warhol effect, but they are hand-painted renderings of photographs, not photo-generated. Then, outside the town, there's the local slaughterhouse, which has been transformed into an installation by Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton. I think you had to be there for the performance, which involved lifting a glass coffin containing Peyton's portrait of Barney out of the sea, to get the full effect. But this is a great setting for Barney, whose work is all about myth and magic.
Interesting, but I was more interested in my own long-term project of transporting my mind to a more ancient setting. Maybe it’s me, but I keep feeling like I’ve been washed up into some dead end of history, where culture has been replaced by a wax-museum version. Poetry—dead. Theater—dead. Cinema—struggling. Music—golden oldies. Fashion—a shallow receptacle of conspicuous waste. Politics—insanity.
In keeping with Bob Dylan’s sentiment, “There must be some way out of here,” it seemed like a good idea to read as much as possible things written 2,500 years ago. But the more I did, the more sense it seemed to make. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said.
After reading about the "death panels" in Obama’s health care plan, the words of Thucydides (c.460–c.395 B.C.) from The Peloponnesian War seemed so right:
“To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect…"
Who knew that the playbook of Karl Rove was almost 3,000 years old? And: "…There was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion."
And then, reading Xenophon's The Persian Expedition, about the escape of 10,000 Greek mercenaries from certain death in Iraq, I couldn't help but think about my recent adventures in the corporate world. Here's Xenophon at a council of war, writing about himself in the third person: "After him Xenophon stood up. He had put on the best looking uniform that he could, thinking that, if the gods granted victory, victory deserved the best-looking armour, or if he was to die, then it was right for him to put on his best clothes and be wearing them when he met his death." The best advice on dressing that I have ever read.
Xenophon: historian, philosopher, general, and horseman.
What one finds in Greece, or at least what one finds oneself looking for, is what we have lost. Maybe it's there buried under the ruins. We have lost integrity, in the sense of wholeness. We have lost real glory and real honor. And what one finds in the Greeks, at best, is a true sense of honor. For the soldiers in Thucydides and Xenophon, their word is their bond. They live and die by their oaths.
Americans love Rome because of that imperial grandeur that our country has mirrored at times. But Rome, after the Republic, was a decadent mess. The Romans were suspect. If they believed in anything, I suppose, it was in the Greeks. H.L. Mencken writes of the Roman attitude toward the gods: "It goes without saying that no enlightened Roman believed in any of them. Rome had become the sewer of theology, as the United States threatens to become today. All the streams of superstition ran into it, and all the streams of sacerdotal fraud. To be a priest, in the high days of the empire, was to be set down confidently as a swindler." "Cato mirari se aiebat," said Cicero, "quod on rideret haruspex, harusspicem cum vidisset." Cato used to wonder how one priest can avoid laughing when he meets another.
I wonder that, too. On the other hand, as a de facto atheist and anti-cleric, I could slip right into happy of observance of the Greek religion if it made a comeback, because of its beauty and the ideals it promoted. One of the best things to come out of my Greek vacation was reassurance of Ezra Pound's dictum, "A god is an eternal state of mind." Io Pan! This Bud's for Bacchus.