Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Parthenon, Costa-Gavras, and the Church of Greece

The title of this post may sound like the recipe for the perfect sitcom, but it is merely my first attempt to get wet in a controversy that has hit especially close to home for me.

Costa-Gavras is a renown French film-maker, born in Greece, whose credits include that timeless masterpiece: Z. He had directed an animated short film for the new Acropolis museum
depicting the history of the Parthenon. The video shows the monument being progressively vandalized through the ages, starting with a few robed figures who knock down a good portion of the building to make way for a giant cross. Allegedy, the Church of Greece raised a row at this (though they claim they said nothing), saying that the film specifically depicted priests engaged in vandalism. In response, the museum removed the controversial part from the film. Costa-Gavras cried foul (and Stalinism), explaining that the figures were just dressed in the garb of the time and that the Church was trying to cover up to protect its "dogma".

You may see the uncut video for yourself below; the vandalism begins at 1:34.

Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for the Acropolis museum, the controversy ended quite anti-climatically just a few hours ago. The conspiracy theorists who believe that everything corrupt in Greece is tied to the Church will crawl back into their holes, and the fundamentalists will do the same.

But why is the depiction of Christians destroying idols, something celebrated in many lives of the saints still read, so problematic for the Church of Greece? Well, for centuries the Church and the Ethos of the Greeks have been almost irreversibly tied together: it was the Church that helped to sustain the Greek language during the centuries of Turkish occupation and helped to facilitate the revolution of 1821. But the theocratic conservatism of the military junta produced such gems as
"Greece for the Greek Christians"(Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών), their still repeated slogan. This tie of nationality and religion is extremely problematic and tantamount to heresy (depending who ask), but it is a reality in Greece and other traditionally Orthodox countries. But what happens when two aspects of the Greek ethnic identity, Classical Greece and the Greek Church, clash? Naturally, an ethnically confused narrative is written. So often myths have to be related from both sides (either that the Church is perfectly tied with Classical Greece and has always been a part of Hellenism, or that the Church is the natural enemy of the Classical ideal). It's no wonder such a controversy can emerge form a ten second video segment.

In my opinion, both Costa-Gavras and the Church are in the wrong to some extent. Costa-Gavras is right to complain of censorship and indeed the Church has much corruption within it. But, to the Church's defense, no one is quite sure what happened when the Parthenon was converted into a Church. In fact, as far as we can tell, part of the reason it existed for so long in such a pristine shape is due to its preservation as a Church.

What is at stake is the understanding of the Parthenon which is a symbol not just of Greece, but of Europe, humanity, reason, and the desires and whims of mankind. How does the 21st Century comprehend a building that spent most of its life as a Church rather than the building it was intended to be (a great monument to an even greater ego)?

But here again the confused narrative of Greece, specifically the one that alternates between Classical Antiquity and Modernity, clashes once more. It's a confusion that has extended into the West and that I, as a Classics student, encounter very regularly. The Classicist wants to see Classical Greece in Modern Greece while cleansing it of what it's inherited from the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Industrial Revolution. The humanist likewise wants to see the ideals of Classical Greece (specifically a few decades of Athenian history)in the same nation cleansed of it's pagan, folk, and Christian traditions. Such were the attempts of the well-meaning folks who ventured to tried to find Pericles's Greece in the 18th century and instead found countless ruins and villages.

Yet these attempts are futile as Professor Anthony Kaldellis, the author of Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition
illustrates in a wonderful piece on the Byzantine history of the Parthenon. Essentially, there's a general lacuna in the Western mind between the point when Alexander the Great died and when Lord Byron surveyed the Acropolis. What happened to this symbol when the Romans (or as the West likes to refer them, the Byzantines) were in complete control of their destiny? Kaldellis explains, in an attempt to dispel the myths of the Parthenon, that

we have to acknowledge that the Parthenon was not regarded in antiquity as anything so special. Few of the extraordinary things that have been said about it in modern times are even so much as hinted at in ancient sources, and when they are they do not refer to the Parthenon exclusively. The building was never placed on the list of ancient “wonders.” There were too many far more magnificent structures in the lands around the Mediterranean that contended for that honor, though they were later destroyed and so no longer pose a challenge. As far as we can tell, the Parthenon was never associated with any ideal, whether democracy (it only happened to be built by one, but could have been built just as well by a tyrant), philosophy, humanism, or what not. Unlike in Byzantium, we know of no one in antiquity who traveled to Athens to see it or pray in it. It was not even an especially important religious site in the classical age, and seems to have been used as a treasury.

The Parthenon, it seems, was a more important and revered monument in Byzantium than it was in antiquity. Only then did it elicit religious enthusiasm; only then was it associated with a “divine light,” a theme that would continue through the Latin period and on to the early travelers, to finally climax in the outpourings of literary light-worship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So it is possible that we owe to the Byzantines not merely the survival of the monument itself but also the devotion to it that has been secularized and aesthetized in our times. Again, the story’s polarity has been reversed. Modern classicism present itself as a return to pure ancient ideals and an overcoming of medieval superstition and barbarism, but it is found, at least in this case, to be a secular extension of Byzantine piety.

But lest we imagine that the Parthenon was nothing more than an object of devotion Kaldellis also points out that

Of course, this Parthenon was a church, and some even tried to pretend that it was only a church, that all the fuss about it was only the honor due to the Mother of God, the true Parthenos who had replaced the false virgin Athena. But there was more going on beneath the surface. First, we have to remember that the building had hardly been altered in its conversion from temple to church. Even the pediments were left more or less intact. So it did not look at all like any Byzantine church in honor of the Mother of God. Standing on the Akropolis, surrounded both there and in the city below by so many other ancient buildings that had also not been changed much, the Byzantine visitor was transported to another time. He knew that, or felt it, but he could choose to ignore it. The idea in many of our texts, that this was just another church of the Mother of God, fails to persuade, and is often asserted with defensively enough that it raises suspicion. What’s curious about many of our accounts is that they focus on the building itself, which is highly unusual, if not aberrant, considering the norms of Byzantine piety and pilgrimage. Normally, one was drawn to the relics or the icons or the saint in a more abstract sense, but here there were none of those things: all attention was on the temple, the building itself (only in the case of Hagia Sophia do we have something similar, though it is different in its own way).

The history of the Parthenon, for better or for worse, is the history of Greece. This is why the Elgin marbles are so important for the Greek ethos. There is something salient about that building which was treated with such honor by the Greeks, centuries after its prime, that it rivaled Hagia Sophia. It may not have been a marvel Before the Common Era, but then again, neither were the Greeks. It has survived with the Greeks and it has been through what the Greeks have been through, and its fate will be that of the Greeks. It is definitely our most prized ethnic treasure.

1 comment:

Camels With Hammers said...

Superb post, Evangelos. I have no expertise in these areas so all I cannot really comment very much more than to say your gut on this is similar to mine, that ultimately regardless of what the Parthenon meant when and how and to whom at different times and in different contexts, above all what it is NOW is a fundamental symbol of Greece and its exalted place in Western history.

Beyond that, you do a magnificent job here of weaving together all the various things that the Greece has stood for both to Greeks and the rest of the West at various times and places and explaining how the competing attempts to co-opt Greece into these various narratives are in so many ways in tension with each other.

Keep up the great work! I'm really impressed with this first substantive post on the revived blog!