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Monday, June 02, 2003

Our Opinion

Zeus Xenomaniac


There is an expression in Greek: “Mên to psachneis.” It is untranslatable. It literally means, “Don’t look for it,” but is actually much closer to the classic Nooyawkese “Fuggedaboutit.” Essentially, it is a statement of wise, albeit almost poignant, resignation to a world not so much beyond logic and rationality as so deeply self-invested that its resulting intellectual corruption is a clear and universally recognizable form of idiocy. It is also a reminder that, in Greece, intellectual coherence is defined as force majeure.

The preceding is meant as an introduction to the following, which, of course, should be filed under “Rubbing Your Eyes Won’t Make It Disappear.” We quote from an item published last week (May 30) in Kathimerini’s daily English-language newsletter:

Greece yesterday paid tribute to 10 individuals, Greeks and foreigners, who, through their works, have helped increase awareness of the country, its culture and peculiarities. The 10 individuals…follow a path first laid out by the ancient poet Homer, Ioannis Patellis, head of the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) said.

“Homer was the first to advertise the attractions of our country to the outside world,” he said. Contemporary figures such as composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis, author Nikos Kazantzakis, opera singers Maria Callas and Agnes Baltsa and the legendary Melina Mercouri, through their achievements, have further continued the tradition of promoting Greece, he said.

Patellis said the success of these well-known personalities in their respective fields had been invaluable in promoting Greece as a tourist destination.

The 10 individuals singled out this year have played an equally effective role in raising Greece’s profile abroad, he said. Starting this year, the GNTO intends to honor such individuals with a distinction aptly named Zeus Xenios (god of hospitality). The first Zeus Xenios awards were yesterday bestowed upon French-born Greek TV presenter Nikos Aliagas, Briton Patrick Leigh Fermor (who joined Greeks in fighting the German occupation during World War II and stayed on), Russian doctor of literature and translator of Greek poetry Mikhail Gasparov, Greek violin prodigy Leonidas Kavakos, Greek music composer Periklis Koukos, Greek singer Vicky Leandros, film director John Madden, Greek artist Mina Papatheodorou-Valyraki, Greek stage designer Nikos Petropoulos and Hollywood director-cum-actress Nia Vardalos.

It would take a master deconstructionist to begin to separate out the layers of sheer stupidity magnified by abysmal ignorance in the comments ascribed above to the director of the Greek National Tourist Organization (GNTO), beginning with the inimitably inane, “Homer was the first to advertise the attractions of our country to the outside world”! As for Kazantzakis and Theodorakis and Hadjidakis and Callas, they, too, apparently were simply flacking for Greek hoteliers and ferryboat-owners. It all makes sense now: the entire history of Greece and of its cultural presence (such as they both are, according to the GNTO) can be reduced to one single-minded and endless campaign to push the tourist traffic in Mykonos and Santorini.

That being the case, the leap from Homer to Kazantzakis to Callas to…Nia Vardalos is obvious; in fact, it’s predetermined. We will not insult the intelligence of our readers by commenting on the (grotesque) disproportionality between Kazantzakis, Theodorakis, Hadjidakis, and Callas (let alone Homer) on the one hand and Nia Vardalos on the other. As for the comparison between Melina Mercouri and Ms. Vardalos, suffice it to say that it is unspeakable — and unspeakably offensive to an extraordinary actress (and, not at all coincidentally, comedienne) whose screen presence was (and remains) emblematic of an entire era of Greek history and culture.

Under the circumstances, however, the issue is not Ms. Vardalos’s predecessors but her contemporaries — or, more precisely, her co-laureates (if I can use such a term for the unfortunate recipients of the GNTO’s pathetically preposterous prize). Several names stick out as being sorely disrespected in the list of 10 above, but none more so than that of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece and, most famously, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese have, of course, become classics of a certain kind of literature that is unfortunately called travel writing but is actually a sublime form of intercultural exchange and civilizational discourse. As far as Greece is concerned, only Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi has had a more iconic literary presence than Mr. Fermor’s books. Indeed, the Briton singlehandedly put a tiny Peloponnesian village by the name of Kardamyli on the international literary map. In the event, from the moment he took up permanent residence there decades ago, it’s become a site of perennial pilgrimage for every writer, would-be writer, and litterateur du jour who wants to say that s/he’s shared the sun of Mani with the British author.

It is, to put it simply and baldly, crass and unconscionable to give Patrick Leigh Fermor the same “prize” one gives to Nia Vardalos. To even put the two of them on the same plane of acknowledgment requires a particularly gross insensitivity that should immediately disqualify the person(s) responsible for it from any kind of public position. It is, unfortunately, impossible to phrase this in any other way: The GNTO has deeply embarrassed Greece with its transparently ridiculous awards. (What is it with Greece’s government bodies entrusted with cultural stewardship, by the way? From the ministry of culture to the tourist organization, it appears that national embarrassment has become their specific institutional mandate.)

To be fair to Ms. Vardalos, there is more than a touch of kitsch to the selection process (that might have to do with the nature of Greek “peculiarities” the GNTO seems intent on promoting). From Mina Papatheodorou-Valyraki to Vicky Leandros, what is, in fact, most peculiar about the list of GNTO honorees is how it combines literary translators with pop singers, classical pianists with sports painters, and, of course, Mr. Fermor with Ms. Vardalos.

What is most offensive about this entire affair, however, is that in honoring Ms. Vardalos, the GNTO is actually honoring someone who has profited obscenely from publicly and continually ridiculing Greece and Greeks. At the same time, the generosity and commitment of literally hundreds — actually, thousands — of Greeks and non-Greeks throughout the world who, for decades, have silently but consistently contributed financially, culturally, intellectually, and morally to Greece remain unacknowledged by the Greek state and its various organs. (We’d be delighted to hand over a list of at least a thousand individuals to the GNTO who’ve done more for Greece than Nia Vardalos will ever do — which, naturally, is not all that difficult.)

In the end, it all comes down to a paradoxical syndrome of which we Greeks are all aware and from which we suffer incessantly. It combines profound, and culturally rooted, hospitality (philoxenia) with a deep suspicion of the Other (xenophobia). Its most pathological expression is therefore a xenomania notoriously exemplified by the fact that we don’t care if foreigners despise us as long as they notice us. (The endless monitoring of foreign commentary about Greece is the most conspicuous media example of that collective neurosis inside the country itself: that is, we don’t care what you say about us as long as you say something.)

So, finally, it doesn’t matter that Nia Vardalos could care less about Greece; what matters is that she’s put Greece “on the map” — albeit as a laughingstock. As for why the GNTO feels compelled to honor such an attitude and thus add (self-inflicted) insult to the injury suffered, we’ve got a lot of theories, but only one sensible response: Mên to psachneis.

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