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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Politics

Shoulders


“If I have seen farther than other men,” Isaac Newton famously said, “it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” It’s not coincidental, of course, that a scientist, and one of such enormous dimensions himself, whose investigation of the world fundamentally reoriented and then forever established our understanding of it, would so lucidly describe the workings of reason and human knowledge. And since knowledge — despite the opposition to it by most religions — is the only indisputable road to ethics, it is also not coincidental that this synopsis of the scientific method is also a concise definition of moral education.

In an age of dwarfs, it is salutary to remember the giants. In the last few weeks, it’s been difficult not to, as the ground beneath our feet has repeatedly shaken with the crash of redwoods. It’s been a bad time: a season of death, and killing. Lately, it seems, September is the cruelest month. This last one has surely added to the loss and emptiness.

***

Elia Kazan died at 94 after an extraordinarily full life, and an almost paradigmatically cautionary one. Indeed, his life was a virtual parable of America in the twentieth century. I have no intention of speaking ill of the dead — not here, at least — but I do believe that the dead (and the living) deserve honesty and honorable reflection. At one point — very early on actually, in his early thirties — Kazan was arguably the most important theater director in America. A decade later, some of his closest friends would not speak to him ever again. Elia Kazan’s decision to “name names” before the House Committee on Un-American Activities has become a landmark — more accurately, a land mine — in the moral terrain of postwar America. Even Kazan’s own “defense” of his actions many years later echoes with self-accusation: “What I’d done was correct, but was it right?” Kazan was a man of great intelligence, and he knew that to ask that question was also to answer it.

Kazan went on to make one of the signal films of American cinema in the Fifties, On the Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando memorably played a pug who “could have been a contender” but, instead, ends up as a stool pigeon — albeit on the “correct” side (to use Kazan’s painfully dishonest term), betraying friends and foes to the government. The movie’s transparent self-justification was not lost on anyone, least of all Kazan’s former friends and colleagues, who he had fingered to HUAC (although he had called them “comrades” once upon a time). Art was imitating life and, as art is wont to do, distorting it. Still, as moral testaments go, On the Waterfront is not an ignoble one, and certainly as complex and contradictory as the man who directed it. In this age when even malevolence has become predictable, and indistinguishable from civilization as we know it, at least Kazan’s sins were those of panic and of a peculiar kind of immigrant insecurity and alienation, as opposed to arrogance and bored patrician contempt. Some giants, after all, impress us precisely because of their paradoxical smallness.

***

Elias Petropoulos died in Paris last month at the age of 75. Although he had left Greece almost three decades earlier and, in act of singular will, refused to return, I, for one, cannot imagine the state in which the study of modern Greek culture would be today without him. Petropoulos himself was one of those rare human beings of whom one can honestly say that their lives were thoroughly self-invented. He was also someone who continually gave others the courage to believe that the idea of freedom was still capable of disruption, if only because his own principles were so obviously hostile to — and uncompromised by — propriety, prior authority, or even “good taste” (let alone “good sense”). It goes without saying that in Petropoulos’s polymorphously perverse world, political correctness, respectability, and, especially, flagwaving were not only suspect but downright repulsive. Petropoulos despised the normal because he knew that behind it lurked the normative, and behind that prowled the socially and politically repressive, ready to pounce at the first sign of an otherwise free human being’s concession to convention.

Thessalonikê/1865 (1959), Elytis, Moralis, Tsarouchis (1966), Rebetika tragoudia (Rebetika songs, 1968), Glôssario tôn rebetidôn (Glossary of the Rebetes, 1968), Sôma (Body, 1969), Kaliarda (1971), Autoktonia (Suicide, 1973), Tês fylakês (Of Prison, 1975),
Le kiosque grec (The Greek Kiosk, 1976), Cages à oiseaux en Grèce (Birdcages in Greece, 1976), Album turc (Turkish Album, 1976), Ypokosmos kai Karagiozês (Underworld and Karagiozis, 1978), O tourkikos kafes en Elladi (Turkish Coffee in Greece, 1979), Fist-Phallus (1979), Encheiridion tou kalou kleftê (Manual of the Good Thief, 1979), The Graves of Greece (1979), Pseirologia (Liceology, 1979), To bourdelo (The Brothel, 1980), Epaggelmata tou dromou (Professions of the Street, 1981), Old Salonica/1885-1965 (1981), and Thessalonikê/Ê pyrkagia tou 1917 (Salonika: The Fire of 1917, 1981): Take a look at the titles, follow their chronological progression (the years of publication are within the parentheses), and then, if you know anything about Greece, let it sink in. That’s right: You now begin to understand the seminal contribution made by Elias Petropoulos to modern Greece’s understanding of itself.

Publishing a book in Greece on Ottoman (and Jewish) Salonika in 1959 (four years before Lambrakis’s assassination, when Orthodoxy was the good cop to fascism’s bad cop in the city), or producing what would become his justly renowned series on rebetika, or his even more provocative Kaliarda — his “amateur linguistic study,” as he put it, of Greek gay argot — during the years of military dictatorship, gives a bit of the sense of Petropoulos’s unique notion of “cultural resistance.” Petropoulos, of course, never used the term himself. He abhorred the left-wing culturati (and their academic fellow travelers) almost as much as he hated the reactionary consensus undergirding Greek society. Indeed, Petropoulos believed that left and right were, more often than not, two sides of the same cultural coin — especially in Greece. He was right, of course, as the subsequent cultural and social history of the left — in both its KKE and PASOK variants — confirmed.

I purposely stopped at the critical year of 1981 in delineating Petropoulos’s work only because conventional wisdom (not to mention partisan apology) has it that when the “socialists” — I mean PASOK, of course — came to power, creative freedom exploded in Greece, along with the country’s critical self-examination. O Karagiozês sosialistês (Karagiozis the Socialist) is closer to the truth. PASOK breathlessly (and, almost always, stupidly) turned popular culture into cultural populism — and, in so doing, drowned Greece in a wave of pseudo- and even lumpenculture exemplified by an ersatz “return to the roots” that was about as genuinely rooted in Greek cultural reality as Andreas Papandreou himself. (If Papandreou ever read a novel or listened to any music other than that of Tolis Voskopoulos, it has not yet become part of the public record.)

Petropoulos was not a man for movements. When, in 1981 therefore, PASOK promised Greece the sun (literally), he wisely stayed in Paris, on the Rue Mouffetard, and continued his remarkable work. Academic anthropologists who claim contemporary Greece as their field of inquiry are still, roughly, about a century behind where Petropoulos was a generation ago. Which, of course, explains both the wretched state of modern Greek studies and, more important, Petropoulos’s genius — and audacity. As Petropoulos wrote in the opening paragraph of Kaliarda, written in the midst of dictatorship, both political and intellectual, there comes a time in every country and culture when “authors…must not write beautifully, but hard.”

***

Edward Said wrote both beautifully and hard. And, by the time he died last week at the age of 67, the whole world knew it — although much of the world, especially the richest, most Western part, did not particularly appreciate it. At his death, Said was university professor at Columbia, that institution’s highest academic position. Just three years ago, however, a group of Columbia students had demanded that he be reprimanded (and worse) as a supporter of “terrorism”; indeed, Commentary magazine, that ideological wellspring of Bushism, once referred to him as a “professor of terror.” It wasn’t easy being Edward Said.

On the other hand, Said knew that he was infinitely luckier than most of his fellow Palestinians, and tried to do something about it. What made the decades-long attacks against Edward Said so slanderous and contemptible was that there was probably no other Palestinian of his generation who was more conscientious in trying to reason with his — and his people’s — enemies, attempting to engage them morally as human beings on a common ground of mutually recognizable, and therefore mutually acceptable, principles of exchange and coexistence. It was this recognition of recognition, of intellectual perception — and of misperception, and conscious self-blinding — that marked Said’s most famous work as a scholar. It also marked his existence, however, both as a native-born Palestinian and as a citizen of the United States, in whose public life, he was — unlike most of his fellow citizens — passionately engaged until the very end.

In the event, of course, Said was not so much an immigrant as an exile, which is why he could never be defined by a process unnaturally called “naturalization” (or why, unlike so many other fearful “new” Americans, he would never allow his citizenship to be held hostage to loyalty oaths, real and imagined). Said knew that there was nothing “natural” in society, that we all made it up as we went along, and that a nation was, first and foremost, a notion. Like so many other notions: “the West,” for example, or “the East.”

It’s been 25 years since the appearance of Orientalism, and it’s hard for me to believe that when I first went to graduate school at Columbia (1972), it was still years away from publication. No matter what one thinks of Said’s most important work, and despite all the criticism of the book during the last quarter of a century — much of it relevant — it is by now central to any informed (and rational) inquiry into the confrontation between power and culture. Every so often, a text comes along — why is it that the one example that keeps popping into my head is The Communist Manifesto? — that is important not so much for what it says as for what it does: which is obviously to make us understand that what we think we know is not the same as what we know, and that if we configure our thinking in a new way, and then, maybe, use this newly configured thinking to reconfigure our sense of the world, and of our place in it, we might actually figure out a few things about both the world and ourselves. (Which process, furthermore and uncoincidentally, gets us back to the scientific method, and far from that revelation that is so popular with every party of God, whether it’s Hizbullah or the Republicans.)

While Said was an unrelenting critic of Israel and Zionism, he was, especially in the last decade of his life, even more unremitting in his criticism of the Arab world (particularly of its monstrous corruption and suppression of democracy), the Palestinian leadership, and, above all, Yasir Arafat. Although he had urged Arafat to recognize Israel’s right to exist years before the Palestinian leader actually did so, Said resigned from the Palestine National Council in 1991 and was adamantly opposed to the Oslo accords signed in 1993. His opposition to Oslo came as a particular shock to many liberals, both in the United States and Israel, who thought of Said as an ally in their touchy-feely, Kumbaya-chanting, one-world self-delusion, stripped of all political reality and — this was always Said’s most trenchant point — historical truth. Said knew that you cannot make a desert and call it peace, which is precisely what had happened at Oslo. And, of course, in what is undoubtedly the most astute, principled, and even prophetic stance taken by anyone in the last decade, Said foresaw from the very beginning exactly how — and why — the Oslo accords would break down. Naturally, he also knew that George Bush’s “roadmap” was the road to nowhere, at least as far as Palestinian freedom and self-determination were concerned.

At a time when pure intellectual opposition to the political consensus has never been so meager in the history of the United States — and when, precisely for that reason, dissent needs to be transformed into utter and thorough refusal of a grotesque governmental and partisan propaganda apparatus — the loss of Edward Said is, in truth, irreplaceable. Our only consolation — which, considering the injury, is almost trifling — is that, as Newton knew, knowledge, because it engenders freedom, is as much a moral project as an intellectual one. It’s up to us, in other words, to recognize the giants among us, and then to raise ourselves on their shoulders for an unobstructed view to the horizon.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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