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Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος
(Greek Linguistics)

2011-02-02

Epictetus, Discourses I 1

Well, I don't know if this is a good idea at all. But this is one of my favourite passages of Ancient Greek. Rendered in GoAnimate, with pseudo-Laurence Olivier Text-To-Speech. Epictetus, Discourses I 1, in the Loeb Oldfather translation from 1925.



2011-01-24

Vamvakaris: The flood

In the previous post, I wrote about the 1933 recording A raid on the hashish den, a comedy sketch with music, featuring one of the earliest recordings of Markos Vamvakaris. In the process, I got the bug for GoAnimate, and so I created an animated music video for the song. (Now with subtitles.)

My second such attempt involves Vamvakaris' Η Πλημμύρα (The Flood), recorded in 1935:

(You'll need to watch on YouTube to get the subtitles through Captions.)

I had not heard the song before buying the box set of Vamvakaris 1933–1937; in fact, I hadn't heard many of the songs, because early Vamvakaris is not radio-friendly. The Flood stood out for me—even before recent events in Australia made it topical.

The song presents direct, chilling vignettes of hardship after an urban flood; there is some filler in the lyric ("Mother's, it's no lie"), but in all it's brutally effective. And while Markos' more usual vignettes of lowlife posturing are also brutally effective in their own way, this is a surprising change of topic for him. The musical form of the song is also distinct: it's more relentlessly strophic than is usual for Markos—all A A A A instead of his typical AB BA A′B′ B′A′. He's presenting direct vignettes, and he uses a relentlessly straightforward style to do it.

He does so with a sparing number of notes, and with a hypnotic jangling (I think it's hand cymbals) in the break between verses. The sessions Markos recorded in, early on, each had their own mix of instruments and collaborators, and there are a few more songs from the '35 session with the hand cymbals in uses. Here though, they really come to the fore as a grim punctuation.

I was wondering whether the formulaic online animation packages for the masses that have recently come forth, like GoAnimate and XtraNormal, really can be suited to artistic expression more serious than tirades against mobile phones.

I don't think my animation of The Flood proves that it can; not least because I've got a lot to learn about cinematography—and about making the most of a very restricted repertoire. (XtraNormal As Kabuki: I can see the inflexibility of the packages turning into a codified convention for gestures.) But this has captured my interest.

2011-01-20

A raid on the hashish den

Among Markos Vamvakaris' 1933 recordings—among his very earliest, that is—is Έφοδος στον τεκέ, "A raid on the hashish den". This was a musical revue number by Giannis Kamvysis and Petros Kyriakos. Kyriakos was a musical theatre actor, and the underworld that gave rise to rebetiko music was part of what he documented in song. With all the attentiveness of an anthropologist. Or of a linguist, to judge from his "Dictionary of the mangas", recorded the previous year:

(Inevitably, the song is analysed at length in slang.gr)

The transcription below of Έφοδος στον τεκέ may not be perfect, and if anyone's ears of Greek are better than mine, I'll be grateful for corrections. It's substantially improved by the fact that the first verse has already been posted online, in a collection of rebetiko songs about hashish.

—Μπούρδα μπούρδα! Μάζεψε ασβέλτα τα συμπράγκαλα και καήκαμε.
—Γιατί ρε Τσικρικόνη;
—Ρε την κορόιδα παρισταίνεις ρε ή θέλεις να πα να κοιμάσαι στον Ωρωπό στον άσφαλτο;
—Ναι γιά ρε. Μαζέψτε ρε λεχρίτες τους τζουράδες και ξηγηθήτε τους ζούλα
—Μα τι τρέχει ρε Τσικρικόνια;
—Ρε είσαι μεγάλο χάπι εσύ ρε κύριε, και μια που δεν αντιλήβεσαι δια ζώσης, άκου το πεντάγραμμο και έχεις το δικαίωμα της αναίρεσης, α δε σου γουστάρει.
—Μπράβο

Αδερφάκι κάνε μόκο
Μαύροι πλάκωσαν για μπλόκο
Τώρα στη γωνιά τους είδα
Κάνε ζούλα την καρύδα
Θα μαγκώσουν τα δερβίσα
Θα μας πάρουν τα χασίσα
Τα καλάμια θα μας βρούνε
και τις ζούλες θ' ανθιστούνε

—Μην κουνηθεί κανένας. Στον τόπο γιατί θα σας κάψω
—Μπράβο κύριε μόλισμαν μπράβο. Τέτοια αναθροφή σε μάθανε ρε στην Κέρκυρα ρε στη σχολή;
—Ρε άσε τις εξυπνάδες εσύ ρε Τσικρικόνη και ο άλλος ο Μπάτης, και να μου πείτε τώρα αμέσως που έχετε κρυμμένο το μαύρο και τους λουλάδες. Ακούτε;
—Τι λες μωρ' αδερφέ; Λοιπόν κύριε μόλισμαν, έχεις πέσει όξω εχτρά [= οικτρά]. Μα την Αγία Ανάσταση έχεις πέσει όξω. Μα τι θα πει «μαύρο», κύριε μόλισμαν;

Ένα μαύρο μόνο ξέρω
Δεν μπορώ να σας το φέρω
Η ψυχή μου τού σπαράζει
Μα εγώ τη λέω μαράζι
Τι ντουμάνι δεν γνωρίζω
Την καρδιά μου δεν ορίζω
Μ' έπιασε μεγάλη ζάλη
Έκανα βαρύ κεφάλι

—Τώρα τραβάτε κάτω στο τίμημα [= τμήμα], και κει ξηγιόσαστε με τον αστυνόμο.
—Μπράβο! Δεν πάμε πουθενά κύριε μόλισμαν.
—Έλα μέσα ρε, που δεν πας πουθενά, α;
—Δεν πάμε πουθενά είπαμε! Είμαστε έντιμοι επαγγελματίαι
—Κάτσε παραπέρα ρε κορόιδο εσύ
—Μωρέ πάψε μωρέ αδερφάκι Μάρκο! Είμαστε έντιμοι επαγγελματίαι και έχουμε τον καφενέ μας το νταραβέρι μας τουτέτιξ δηλαδή και στρίβε με το καλό που σου λέω κύριε μόλισμαν.
—Μωρέ τράβα μέσω θα βγάλω το γκλομπ ρε.
—Ποιο γκλομπ να βγάλεις;
—Ναι το γκλομπ θα βγάλω
—Ρε, μάγκες! Βουρ ρε μπλόκο! Βουρ ρε Μπάτη! Βουρ ρε Μπάτη!
—Πάει το καφενείο...
—[??] Gather up the gear quickly, 'cause we're ruined!
—How come, Tsikrokonis?
—Are you playing dumb, then, or would you rather go sleep on the ashphalt of Oropos jail?
—Yeah, scumbags, gather up the tzouras [musical instruments] and stash them away.
—What's the matter, Tsikrikonis?
—You, sir, are a major dimwit. And since you don't get my meaning viva voce, have a listen to these dulcet tones; and you have the right of refutation, if you don't dig it.
—Good work!

Brother, keep it quiet.
The blackguards are swarming for a raid
I've just seen them around the corner
Hide that bong away
They'll snatch us dervishes
They'll take our hash
They'll find our pipes
And they'll get wind of our stash

—Nobody move! Freeze, or I'll do you in!
—Good show, Mr Shmoliceman. Is that how they brought you up in the academy in Corfu, is it?
—Cut the smart talk Tsikrikonis, you and that Batis guy, and tell me immediately where you've hidden the hash and the pipes. Do you hear me?
—What are you talking about, brother? Now Mr Shmoliceman, you are egregiently mistaken. By the Holy Resurrection, you are mistaken. What do you mean, hash?

I only know one hash
And I can't bring it to you
My soul breaks because of it
But I call it the blues
What's that smoke? I can't tell
I cannot keep my heart in check
I've gone mighty dizzy,
And my head feels heavy.

—Right, you can get down to the station now, and you can explain yourselves to the sergeant.
—Oh, good show! We're not going anywhere Mr Shmoliceman.
—Get inside! "Not going anywhere", he says!
—I'm telling you, we're not going anywhere! We are honourable businessmen—
—Cool it you fool
—Oh keep quiet brother Markos! We are honourable businessmen, and we have our café, our commerce and the like, I mean; so I'm asking you nicely, Mr Shmoliceman, you'd better get lost.
—Get inside, damn it, or I'll use my baton.
—Baton? What baton?
—That's right, I'll use my baton.
—Dudes! It's a raid! Get him, Batis! Get him, Batis!
—… Well, there goes the café...


The song has been uploaded onto YouTube once already:

... And now, courtesy of GoAnimate and Yr Obt Svt, it has been uploaded a second time:

2011-01-09

Markos Vamvakaris: Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο

Rebetiko music was a fusion of styles, and the fusion can be seen in progress through the '30s. The antecedents of rebetiko are murky, but the most visible antecedent is Smyrneika, the music of Anatolian cafés, which came with the Anatolian refugees to Greece in the '20s, and was taken up as the emblem of the dispossessed in the underworld.

A tidy narrative, but there are more currents in Rebetiko than that. Markos Vamvakaris, who is deservedly termed the patriarch of rebetiko, promoted a Piraeus Sound that was at some distance from Smyrneika. He shared a musical vocabulary with them, and recorded a few tracks with Smyrneika singers; but the Piraeus Sound was more rhythmical, more upbeat, more Western. He only infrequently uses the Maqam Saba—the bluest of modes in rebetiko music, so blue it even has a blue IV note.

(That's nothing; the Arabo-Persian original even has a blue VIII note. Yes, you read right. But I digress.)

The refugees from Anatolia recorded plenty of Amanes—the slow, chromatic laments that were emblematic of Smyrneika, and which I've looked at before, in the context of Muslim Cretan music. Vamvakaris on the other hand recorded just one amanes, and made a point of binding it with Peiraeus rather than Anatolia: Πειραιώτικος Μανές, The Peiraeus Amanes.

But Markos' path took him westward rather than eastward—not without some heavy shoving by the censors of the Greek government. By 1937, his style had matured into what is recognisably the classical style of rebetiko; it had foregone much of the raw impact of early recordings, but it had gained in musicianship and smoothness.

Not that Vamvakaris in 1937 was completely consistent; some songs are too trivially cantabile, some are powerful riffs reminiscent of his earlier music. One song in particular though, Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο, "You're dark and cute", is incoherent in a way surprising for Vamvakaris, early or late.

The song starts out with the Classic Peiraeus sound. A two beats to the bar, jaunty riff on the accordion followed by the bouzouki. The riff is in the Peiraiotikos Dromos scale—a variant of the Maqam Hijaz, and Vamvakaris' favourite: it too, after all, is named for Peiraeus:


But in the introduction to the song, the exotic intervals of the Peiraiotikos are defused:

The flattened II and sharpened IV are glossed over as passing notes; the riff is solidly anchored on the major triad. The riff wears its tonality on its sleeve.

Then Markos starts singing (0:22). And what he starts singing has nothing to do with the riff:

Where the riff was straightforwardly tonic-anchored, all I and III and V, the song is lost far from the tonic: V at best, and more VII and II. That doesn't translate to a simple Dominant chord, which wouldn't be a problem in Western music: the band is still on the tonic, and these are Hijaz VII and II, not Major key. With a tonic of A, the voice gravitates to B♭ and G♯: it teases the listener, with a leading tone a semitone below the tonic, and another leading tone above, outright dodging the tonic in bar 18. So while the riff has defanged the Peiraiotikos' exotic notes, the voice has let the exotic notes take over, and has undermined the scale's tonic.

Where the riff has jaunty sixteenth notes, the voice drags in slow quarter notes—even more so in later verses. Where the riff hops up and down the triad, the voice moseys up and down the scale, a third each bar, adrift. Where the riff has a tonic triad note twice a bar, the voice holds off landing back on the tonic until the very final bar in the phrase. And that's in the first verse: with each subsequent verse (0:33), the voice adds a bar to the eight-bar phrase (bar 29):

—so where the riff was foursquare to the bar, the voice ends up on the tonic one bar too late, in a nine-bar phrase that sounds like it forgot to keep count. And the riffs and verse keep alternating through the song, establishing and dismantling and establishing once more two different kinds of musical order.

It took me a little while to work out what on earth Markos was doing, until I realised that what the voice is doing—slow-moving, metrically free, stepping by thirds, untethered from the tonic—was the antithesis of the Peiraeus sound. In Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο, Markos is singing an amanes.

It's unsurprising for an amanes to dodge the tonic like that, or to ignore metre; that's what an amanes does. What is startling about Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο is that Markos is singing an amanes with a hasapiko introduction, to a hasapiko beat, in a hasapiko tempo, with a hasapiko sensibility, and against a hasapiko tonality. He is singing an amanes in the context of the Peiraeus Sound, which utterly clashes with the amanes. I may not be excused the anachronism, but Markos is here committing a mashup.

And the incongruity of the combination makes it startling, it isolates what was commonplace within its native context. The tonic-dodging and metrical freedom become a statement, rather than a convention; a dialectic rather than a recitation. I don't know what made Markos experiment this way, and it's not a path he went further on, either. But it foregrounds, as nothing else Markos did, how hybrid rebetiko music is; how the one Peiraiotikos Dromos could have two quite different interpretations, before they were blended in the Peiraeus Sound.

I haven't mentioned the lyrics, btw, because by this stage, the lyrics aren't particularly notable—Markos is done singing in praise of getting stoned and beating girlfriends up. But, in case you're interested:

Είσαι μελαχροινό και νόστιμο

Είσαι μικρό μελαχρινό τσαχπίνικο τα δυο σου μαύρα μάτια

Όποιον θα δούνε μόρτικα μελαχρινό τον κάνουνε κομμάτια

Είσαι παραπονιάρικο μελαχροινό κανένα δεν κοιτάζεις

Κι όλοι με σένα τα’χουνε μελαχροινό γιατί δεν τους πειράζεις

—Γεια σου Μάρκο

Τα τρυφερά χειλάκια σου μελαχροινό και τ’άσπρο σου χεράκι

Όλα αυτά μικρούλα μου μελαχροινό λυώνουν κι έχω μεράκι

—Να ζήσουν τα μελαχροινά!

Περνάς και δε με χαιρετάς μελαχροινό γιατί δε με γνωρίζεις

Και ντρέπομαι να σου το ειπώ μελαχροινό γιατί έμαθα πως βρίζεις

You're dark and cute

You're petite, dark, flirty; your two brown eyes

make whoever they look on saucily—oh dark one—fall to pieces.

You're a grumbler—oh dark one—you don't look at anyone

And everyone's annoyed at you—oh dark one—because you won't tease them.

—Go Markos!

Your tender lips—oh dark one—and your white hand

All these make me melt—my little dark one—and I'm lovesick.

—Long live dark chicks!

You go by and don't say hello—oh dark one—because you don't know me

And I'm too shy to tell you—oh dark one—because I've found out that you curse.

2010-11-14

While I was away

I: May


As if I was the first
To sail beyond the west,
Fall off the end of Earth,
Sink, swim, and gasp for breath.

As if no man knew thirst,
Before I stopped to rest
Beside the spring; or birth,
Before I heard of death.

Beyond the west: each day
A year, each step a road.
Winding to the unknown.

Roads trod by mortal clay
A thousandfold. A ride
I've hitched now. By your side.



II: May


This fulsomeness, this loveliness, this care,
This playfulness, this trust and troth laid bare,
This passion, this impulsiveness, this shock,
This pressing—this inexorable lock,

These waves and curves, this storm of skin and hair,
This push and pull and pause, this fear and dare,
These shades, dim monochrome, that sway and rock,
This stillness, lulled at by the ticking clock,

All this you teach me. All of this you hold.
All this I witness with you. Watch it flow,
Like mercury, like phlogiston, like gold.

This Here-and-Now, this Hence, this Old Made New,
This secret that not even we can know,
This you and I have claimed.
                                                        It's half past two.



III: May


So, there's this girl. Unruly, quite the knave.
Will not stay put. Does what she damn well will.
Frets that she'll fall asleep if she stands still.
Makes mirth of solemn stuff. Derides the grave.

So there's this girl. Can't take her anyplace.
Won't talk on tragedy. Will not wear frills.
Talk French cuisine, she's running for the hills.
And laughs at me about it to my face.

So there's this girl, who's got me all worked out,
piercing my artifices and my doubt.
And still stays put, and won't go anywhere.

What do I do with her? What has she done,
To make my reason and my pomp go dumb?
How have I come to earn reproof so fair?



IV: August


Grace pooling from above. Grace trickling down.
Grace mingling with the common and the base,
Granted unbidden, and divulged unbound.
Grace that suffuses all, for gain or waste.

Grace filling puddles, muddying the ground,
In which the errant wretch begrudged his haste:
Splashed past his shins, only to end up drowned
In startling, blinding, and uncalled for Grace.

Thy grace, thy charm, thy steadfastness, thy blithe
And easy gait: I, far from thee and these
Behold and cannot fathom. Where these thrive,

Where thou hast joy, I hear of now and then:
Reports of floods and mud that boil and freeze
And thaw, and bring this world to grace, and mend.



V: October


Each year Adonis dies, pierced by the boar.
Each year the maidens bear him, singing dirges,
To a tomb. Adonis each new year emerges
To live again, eager to hunt once more.

Each year the black earth, bound in snow, and sore
With grief, bewails its loss in crystal churches.
Each year, Lent breaks: up from the ground life surges
Anew, to bloom, to fade, to exult, to mourn.

Each week, each day, we dance, and draw apart,
And back again; we stop, we spin, we start,
We try anew. It works, it fails, it muddles.

Each time, we don't know that the Spring will come.
Each time, we know that soon the frost will numb
Our hands. Yet still a flame glows, where we've huddled.



VI: November


The cold has come. The stony showers flood
Blurred memories of one-time warmth, as brusque
As Melbourne weather. Now a bleary dusk
Alone recalls the sun, in faded blood,

Soon to grow dark. These feet pass through the mud,
Their pace agnostic, doubting. A boar's tusk,
They'd wailed, has struck. But pilfered myths won't mask
That chill that numbs its prey, and binds it shut.

Now stories leech away. I never sailed
Beyond the west; the storm at half past two
Was merely rain, and bore no grace. I failed

To hear their music. Now they've fallen dumb,
Too drained to praise a summer that was due
to pass. And so it sets. The cold has come.

2010-07-04

The ashes of Sukhumi

This story picks through the ashes.

When I was finishing my undergrad and moving through to linguistics in 1993, the war in Abkhazia was underway. There was plenty of grubby conduct on both sides, and Abkhazia was in the end thoroughly ethnically cleansed; but outsiders with no stake in the Caucasus had sympathies for the most superficial of reasons. As a linguist, I wished the bizarre consonants of Abkhaz well. Yes, it was that superficial—though I did also know someone who knew Viacheslav Chirikba, Abkhaz specialist on Abkhaz, linguistics lecturer in Leiden (and now in Sukhumi), and representative of Abkhazia to Europe for years.

Robert Haupt was the Soviet Union/Russian correspondent at the time for the Fairfax newspaper group (The Age, Melbourne, and the Sydney Morning Herald). This was a pre-Web age, and his dispatches, which I consumed with pre-Web leisure, alternated between leisurely whimsy and urgency, from a correspondent in the midst of the disruptions shaking the Soviet Empire. When he finished his five year stint, Haupt published a memoir of his time in Russia, Last Boat to Astrakhan (see review 1, review 2).

Halfway through his time in Russia, Haupt wrote an editorial on the Abkhazian War. My sympathies were with the Abkhaz consonants; his sympathies were with a sustainably-sized polity, which meant Georgia, and he treated Abkhazian independence as "a sort of Ruritanian joke". His sympathies led him to diss Abkhaz consonants:

The amazing thing is that even in Abkhazia the Abkhazians are a minority. In fact, they constitute 17.1 per cent of the region's population, Georgians making up 43.9 per cent. The total number of Abkhazians anywhere is just over 90,000. Put together, they are a football crowd. About half the Abkhazians are Sunni Muslims, but judging from my meetings with some of them before the civil war it was a lightly-worn faith, with few mosques and veils and with the prohibition on alcohol honoured not so much in the breach as by the barrel.
The Abkhazian language is an issue. A strange tongue, apparently related to Circassian, it sounds like the noise a Chinese speaker might make on the point of being strangled. When the Soviet Union existed, mandatory Russian obscured the problem of whether the official language here was to be Abkhazian or Georgian. As Moscow's grip slackened, disputes arose, particularly over what was to be the language used at Sukhumi University. Georgians point out that their language, having a written literature going back to the 5th century BC, has some claims to precedence as a means of instruction over a tongue that achieved a fully written form only in 1928.

I've said worse a decade later about Montenegrin, but I was scandalised at the time. Given the practicalities of bureaucracy and business and scholarship, Georgian does have more of a claim as an Ausbausprache than Abkhaz—spoken by only two thirds of that "football crowd"; the current moves to make it the language of government business in Abkhazia are not meeting with success, and the business of Abkhazia is being conducted in Russian.

But what had happened at the start of the Abkhaz war was no Ruritanian joke. Abkhaz would have had more Ausbau in place, if Georgian paramilitaries had not torched the Abkhaz national library and national archives.

Abkhaz is a small language, with a small written footprint—much smaller than Georgian. Burning down the place where all books in Abkhaz were deposited made it even smaller, and was intended to. The National Library has since managed to restore a lot of the 40% of books burned—in no small part because Soviet Abkhazia had made sure a copy of every Abkhaz book also went to Moscow. The library is still damaged and scaled down, but basically functioning.

It is otherwise with the National Archives (account in Russian). Its fate is heartbreakingly documented by Thomas de Waal:

Of the 176,000 archival documents in Abkhazia, 168,000 are estimated to have been destroyed. What the Georgian paramilitary did not burn in the National Archives (despite the efforts of both Abkhaz and Georgian neighbours), was in the archives stored in the Communist Party Archives. Georgian and then Abkhaz troops did away with those archives as the war went on.

There is a Greek component to this blotting out. Abkhazia had a substantial Pontic community before the Stalinist purges and deportations, as documented by Daniel Müller: 7% of the population in 1926, 10% in 1939 (as ethnic Abkhaz started to leave the region), but just 2% in 1959. As I noted in the Other Place, the historian Vlasis Agtzidis has recently published his doctoral dissertation on the Greek press of the Soviet Union. His focus is Κόκινος Καπνας, Red Tobacco-Worker, the Greek newspaper of Sukhumi.

The entire print run of the Red Tobacco-Worker was one of the many items to go up in flames in October 1992, after Agtzidis had already been to Sukhumi—though as the introduction notes, the print run had been microfilmed in Moscow just in time. The newspaper was of course only one of thousands of testimonies of the Greek history of Abkhazia that was destroyed.

As de Waal's accounts tell, the archive's last custodian was himself half-Greek (and spared deportation in 1949 through his German mother): Nikolai Ioannidi. Ioannidi was the director (or deputy director) of the archive, and was working on a history of the Greeks of Abkhazia. He published the first volume of Греки в Абхазий in 1990, the first published account of the Stalinist purges of Greeks (see comment #15, Pontus and the Left). The manuscript of the second volume turned to ash in his office safe, before his eyes.

And Ioannidi spent his last days in an empty room in the University of Sukhumi, drinking Greek coffee and brooding over the remnants of the National Archive, uncatalogued, unrestored, unrecognisable. De Waal reports Ioannidi's death on 1 July 2007, eight months after he had interviewed him.

De Waal paints a tragic picture of Ioannidi, but I will take his epitaph instead from the Pontus and the Left blog, in the discussion about the historiography of the purges of Greeks. Ioannidi did manage a second book shortly before he died, about the exile of the Abkhazian Greeks to Central Asia in 1949; the discussion on the blog was about the opinion of some historians that the exile was connected to the defeat of the Communists in the Greek Civil War. Commenter M-P (one of the blog owners) attributes the opinion to Ioannidi in his first book (comment #20). (Agtzidis also mentions that as Ioannidi's position in an article on the purges, fn. 188). Commenter Dimitris (comment #21) retorts that Ioannidi was merely posing it as a question, and rejected it in his second book.

Yet even while disagreeing with Ioannidi, M-P paid him tribute—the kind of tribute Ioannidi would have welcomed:
Ioannidi was a Soviet historian. He wrote during the Soviet era, relied on Soviet archives, and because of his age and circumstances, he was not influenced by post-Soviet ideological trends. Until the end of his life he struggled with other comrades of all ethnicities against the nationalisms sweeping through Abkhazia.


Robert Haupt died on his way back to Australia in 1996, just before his memoirs were published. A few years later, the columnist Peter Ryan was writing a told-you-so piece about the scandal surrounding Prime Minister Keating's investment in a piggery while in office. The teaser starts with:
IT IS A STRANGE SENSATION when you feel that a dead man is trying to send you a message, but it happened to me a couple of weeks ago, shortly after Australia's Attorney-General announced that no further inquiries would be pursued into the circumstances of Paul Keating's piggery. The dead man was Robert Haupt, one of the ablest and most respected journalists in recent Australian media history.

From the teaser, it looks like Haupt had written something prescient about the scandal. Haupt's analysis about Russia is challenged in Jennifer Marohasy's blog, just as Ioannidi's analysis was challenged in Pontus and the Left's blog. But the dead do still send us messages, through what they have left behind; and they do not ask that they be right all the time, merely that they be remembered.

The fires in Sukhumi denied others their rememberance. Haupt and Ioannidi have not been so denied. Requiescant.

2010-05-10

… "We're talking about people's lives!"

I have been wanting to write, since reading of it, about the deaths in Athens. And unhealthily (because of such recursion is our society enmeshed), I have been wanting to write about the reactions to the deaths. What I would write would be reactionary, and vindictive, and uninformed. I don't particularly want to say I'm not entitled to my own opinions about what happened, or that I cannot identify with class struggle because I am, after all, the class enemy. But the dead deserve more respect than that, and better reasoning than I can come up with on the other side of the planet. It is as offensive to make them a departure point for my sloganeering, as it is for the parties that I took offence to.

Instead, I wanted to post what someone else has said: someone who has a stake in the country, and the protest march, and the struggle on the streets of Athens. Someone whose response—I admit it—I could make sense of, but would still challenge my complacent notions.

The following article by Stratis Bournazos, which I am translating with permission, appeared in the Sunday issue of Avgi [Dawn], the newspaper affiliated with the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), on May 9, and is republished in the column's blog.


"What is a diamond worth
when people's souls are coal.
Once you're in Dante's Hell,
there's no way back to Earth."

It's Wednesday night, and I'm listening to the Winter Swimmers (Χειμερινοί Κολυμβητές). They wrote that piece for another reason and another time, but I'm thinking: what are words worth, when three people have burned? So our souls don't turn to coal as well: that's what they're worth. That's why I'm writing this, with an unbearable sense of burden. For the dead. But also, and mainly, for us.

A lot happened on Wednesday, a whole lot. We could say even more. On the huge crowd that deluged Athens. On the rage. On the savage joy. On people's laughter. On the gas that choked us. On the crowd surging, shouting "burn the whorehouse, burn the Parliament" (a harbinger of an uprising? or the prelude to a dangerous backlash against representative government?) On the fluidity of things. On how we got from the sadness of the First of May to the enthusiasm of Wednesday. On that, and a lot more. Until we learned of the dead. From that moment, nothing is the same. For all of us, the three dead have haunted our day. Their names: Paraskevi Zoulia. Angeliki Papathanasopoulou. Epaminondas Tsakalis.

It is a horror that three people found such a death. Because it was no accident, it was the result of a process of blind violence, of a conscious indifference for human life. It was going to happen. It was almost predictable—just as it is predictable that we will in the future mourn deaths from the indiscriminate use of tear gas. In protest marches for the past few years, a certain party has exalted and exercised violence for violence's sake—sometimes to the protesters' reproof, sometimes with the protesters standing aside. They have done so without caring whether there are people in danger—inside, next door, upstairs, further down.

So for the first time in our entire recent history, people have died in a demonstration not because of State violence (the case of the K. Marousis store in 1991 remains controversial), but because of anti-State violence, because of the actions of people who took part in the march, who were part of it in a way—however marginal, and who acted in its name. The Molotov cocktails and fires had a pretext: they were an act of protestation, an act of anti-State, anti-capitalist, anti-government violence. We can disagree with them, but how can we deny it?

A little after the news was confirmed, various items started circulating. That the bank had no emergency exit. That there was no fire security. That the employers forced the workers not to strike. That the door was locked. Even if all that is completely true, it is politically and morally shameful to resort to it as an alibi, to claim that Vgenopoulos [the bank owner] is ultimately at fault, or to adopt the statements of Rizospastis [the Communist newspaper], enraging in their ridiculousness, that "the three employees were killed by the urban class, whatever sheepskin their instruments may have been disguised with." Let our judgement not be clouded: this time the ongoing scandal of employer irresponsibility is not what matters. It wasn't a lightning bolt or a cigarette butt that started the fire.

Thousands of stores throughout Greece lack fire security and emergency exits. It's illegal, and it's terribly wrong. But if it was the riot police that had thrown tear gas into one of them, or the Golden Dawn [neo-fascists] had thrown in an incendiary device, and we were now mourning the dead—would we be blaming the lack of emergency safeguards then? We should not trample on our common sense or our decency.

And as for the other opinion heard—that the bank should have shut down beforehand because it was a "target": public opinion can say that, but we don't get to say it. We, who have been shouting "To the street, to the street, break the terror of the State"—we don't get to say that stores should close down, barricade, become impregnable forts, or else they will turn into deathtraps. We certainly don't get to blame the owners responsible, because they failed to regard the protest march like an earthquake, a hurricane, a looming storm, a mortal peril. If we think like that, we have fully capitulated to a perversion of the meaning of protest: we have yielded to the dominion of fear and terror.

We left-wingers of all shades, anti-government, anarchist, libertarians, we are all struggling for social emancipation, for the spread of freedom, against the capitalist barbarism which crushes peoples' lives and dreams, against the exploitation of people by people. Aren't we? So what do our values have in common with the fetishisation of violence, violence which is raised to an utmost and unitary goal in itself, and—most terrifying of all—has contempt for human life? In dismissing human life, there is no emancipation: there is no service done to the struggle for freedom, justice, and a better life. We cannot but stand face to face against this, making no excuses.

We. I'm talking about us. Each of us, wherever we have staked our ground. Representatives of the government and the establishment can see the dead as an opportunity to get out an awkward spot. Investors can fear for the consequences in tourism. Scholars and scientists have to analyse the sociological, psychological, and other causes of the phenomenon. But the question is, what do we do. All of us, who have protested worker "accidents", army suicides, the attack against Kouneva, the violence of the riot police, the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, the deaths of immigrants, and so much else, all with the common theme of defending human life and dignity: we don't get to forget the three dead, or offload the blame anywhere we can, as quickly as we can—on Vgenopoulos, on the State, on "agents provocateurs". We don't get to speak cynically of collateral damage, and we don't get to tally them up against the other dead. And that is nothing to do with bourgeois niceties: it touches on the core of our stance, in politics and in values. After all, what were we shouting in the march on Wednesday? "You're talking about market dives, we're talking about people's lives!"

If we have a sense of how tragic what happened was, if we feel contrition, if we allow ourselves to mourn without looking to drown our sorrow in a sea of analyses and excuses—that would be a start. Even if it is belated, because many of us—and I include myself—should have thought of all this much earlier. Even now, we must convert this tragic experience into both individual and collective thought; each of us must acknowledge their responsibilities, different though they may be. We must try to understand. We must speak with honour. We must stand up where we ought to, morally and politically. Without trying to deceive the Others—or above all, ourselves.

PS: of the many texts circulating online, I'd like to refer readers to two: Kostas Svolis' (indy.gr/analysis/tria-fantasmata-planioyntai-pano-apo-to-kinima), and Radical Desire's (radicaldesire.blogspot.com/2010/05/greques-encore-un-effort-si-vous-voulez.html).

2010-04-17

Jottings of New York

I'm leaving New York. I haven't been leisurely blogging for the twenty-four hours I've been here; I've been too busy talking with my regular commenter John Cowan (6 hrs, finishing 2:30 AM—good to know I can still do that kind of thing, though jet lag helps), and my friend Genevieve (1 hr, and we had to be efficient about it—bon voyage à Angleterre!)

There have been past Jottings of New York, and I have been to New York several times before; this was a lightning visit, and I'll just quickly note the following:

  • My dinner was around the corner from the Polish consulate, which had an improvised shrine to the dead president. That kind of improvised shrine is now common in the West, which doesn't have the institutionalised religious channels to commemorate death that it used to. I'm assuming you won't see that kind of improvised shrine in Greece, for example, because people until recently built actual shrines by the roadside, with icons and oil lamps.
  • The restaurant was Asia de Cuba, and I'm impressed that it impressed Genevieve. It is fusion Chinese–Cuban. The fusion is organic and not self-consciously experimental as much fusion is (Chinese people did move to Cuba). The food was certainly worth the money: the Shanghai noodles were correct, the pork honeyed and melt-in-mouth, the kind Greeks exclaim "Turkish Delight!" over. Pity I can no longer put away the quantities I could.
  • New York now, and always, strikes me with its urbanity: the dressed up young things talking over drinks or noodling with their Crackberries, jostling for drinks—this was familiar, this was how the world should be. I don't know that I would last if I actually lived here, but the switch-on, fashion-savvy, over-caffeinated New Yorker is a plane of experience to aspire to.
  • That, and its no-prisoners, no-nonsense purposefulness, that comes of wedging a gajillion businesspeople in a couple of square km. My anecdote of choice when I used to live in California: after two years of toothy, insincerely grinned "Hey, how ya doin'" from random strangers in the street, I got to New York, where the random strangers would shove me out of the way as they went to where they had to be—and it was heaven. This time around, the contrast was the casual jaywalking, right in front of the cops, who after all have better things to do in NYC than prosecute jaywalkers. Genevieve tells me the cops get a "hey, how ya doin'" from the jaywalkers for their trouble.
    • I interrupt this transmission to thank the Qantas staff in Premium Economy for resolving my power supply issues to my laptop, and for the complimentary champers on top of it. The station to which I shall have been accustomed, indeed...

  • There is a beauty to this subjugated, engineered, piled on landscape of towers of brick and concrete. My friend Jana, whose idea of beauty is the Central Australian desert, gets antsy when she comes here. I grin. And it's not all unrelieved gauche glass towers, like Brisbane is (or least would have been, if Joh had demolished everything he saught to). It's Art Deco sky-piecers Midtown, lots of more squat and humane brick uptown (because, as John informed me, the soil outside Midtown can only support so much weight), and plenty of trees still, welcoming and verdant and tamed. Like in DC.
  • Coincidentally, when I got to my hotel at 2:30 AM, the History Channel was playing a show on reconstructing the pre-urban landscape of NYC. It was overwrought like all History Channel shows are—though at least this show didn't feature Hitler, as is the channel's default. But the reconstruction isn't that amazing a feat: we do have a British map, and pristine woodland still left on the northern tip of the island: unlike Greece, America gets that parks matter, and keeps them inviolable. Still, I wasn't expecting that Times Sq was originally a beaver pond.
  • And a tree-strewn Manhattan with beavers and porpoises and just the occasional Amerindian wandering down what would become Broadway: that's not "a green paradise". Chill out, History Channel. It was a tree-strewn island with beavers and porpoises. I'm not saying all of North America should be terraformed and levelled and piled with buildings and packed with a gajillion businesspeople per square km; but I'm glad this bit was.
  • The pile of buildings looks wondrous from New Jersey, and it was an excellent suggestion of Genevieve's to take the ferry across to see it. A giant's playblocks scattered into the sea.
  • The gajillion people make NYC have microcultures, just like the hills it used to have would have made it have microclimates. This time I confined myself to Midtown–Upper West Side; but Upper West Side isn't Midtown, which isn't Chelsea, which isn't The Village, and you can see it. In Melbourne, none of my friends go any further south than St Kilda; so it's rare they visit Oakleigh. (Or even, by God, South Yarra—which is as New York urbane as Melbourne gets.) I take that as cowardly parochialism. Here at least, I don't begrudge the locals who never bother to venture north—or south—of 14th Street. Their Village is world enough; and so is the next one up.
  • Thank you btw Genevieve for translating for me "Upper West Side = Malvern". And "they still think Asian fusion is exotic here, when we in Melbourne did that 15 years ago." It's good to have Rosetta Stones.
  • And thank you John for a seminar I cannot summarise or reproduce, but which was as always rollicking good fun. The comparison between the clout in their homelands of the Greek and Jewish diasporas is not one that would have occurred to me; but it gave me the opportunity to lambast Greek morning TV host & pontificator Giorgos Papadakis once again, which is a good thing.
    • (Israel cares what the Jewish diaspora thinks, because that's where the money comes from. Greece remembers its diaspora when it's expedient to raise it to a nationalist frenzy over a National Issue; otherwise, they ignore them, and I'll never get over Papadakis' patronising tone when Greek-Americans rang in over the Iraq war, indignant about the Greek take on events. I'm not saying I wouldn't patronise them either. I'm saying that's dissing a whole lot of your fellow Grecophones, with unearned arrogance.)

  • Oh, and I know about food servers saying "To have here or to go?": "To go?" is starting to displace "Have here or take away?" in Australia. (Or maybe that's just me.) But have people been saying "To go or to stay?" for a while? It was new to me, but not to Genevieve.

2010-04-14

The green highways of Northern Virginia

I'm in a hotel in Northern Virginia this time, and am negotiating its large highways on foot; ten years ago, I was visiting a residence, and not really going anywhere much. So I had not been subjected to its large highways any way other than how God intended them to be encountered—out the car window.

So I'm warming less to the place than I had on previous visits; this is a work visit, and on the perfunctory side.

Still, especially around the grounds I am at, there is an delightsome orgy of green, of trees that are not threatening and peeling, but soothing and sensible. The gaps in the concrete in Irvine make it look like the scrubland is threateningly poised to take back over. The gaps in the concrete here make it look as if the forest has already staked out its niche, and is more at ease with its urban neighbours—more humane.

View Larger Map



At least, that's what it looks like from N. Beauregard; walking down S. King, it was as much a jumble of big buildings out of place as anywhere else.

2010-04-13

US, so far

You'll have noticed even more extended radio silence than is usual for me on a trip overseas. I've spent three days in Irvine CA, and am now heading to DC, on a plane four hours delayed.

Which brings thoughts of decaying infrastructure. An unsustainably greened Orange County, with the same gargantuan buildings and brobdignanian freeways (just as I'd bemoaned here about Oracle HQ), a vista which will host tumbleweeds in my lifetime. Airline fleets with bits falling apart as I type. Western Civilisation, throwing out its books for PDFs, to leave behind neither.

Well, no, I'm not happy I'm missing my dinner out in DC, and my Monday has been killed in waiting lounges and overnarrow seats. I'm never happy to be anywhere near an American airport, and even less so an American domestic flight, whose desperate piling on of carry-on luggage is not a million miles away from the chickens and farm implements piled onto a bus in the Third World.

I had a great time of it nonetheless in Irvine, great enough to make a point of staying offline. Not because it is Irvine. I lived in Irvine for three years, and never reconciled to it, never got it or tried to. Irvine's hex on me has by now been broken, I don't have the feeling of dread and emptiness I used to (except when I contemplate its infrastructure); but I still find little in the landscape to detain me. Except the bookstore monopolies, though even those are starting to be shut down by the internets, and nudge towards eBooks.

But what detained me in Irvine was who was in it. I spent three days of chatting with old friends, and that was a glory. (Well, two and a half days chatting, and half a day photocopying references—another of my Luddite hangups.) The chatting wasn't consistently profound—I use chatting advisedly; but it wide-ranging, familiar, and lots of fun.

The kind of chat, I am not ashamed to admit, that led us to giggle for a quarter of an hour over this confluence of YouTube memes:

*Why* this confluence of memes is so knee-debilitatingly funny to my culture is a topic that deserves at least one post. (You can start here for an intelligent take on the Russian song, and some good comments taking it further—not least my own.)

The fate of a society that spends more time on Bread And Memes than infrastructure deserves another post, but I think it would get too depressing to write.

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