Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Colonialism

        Three days ago, I spoke with a wonderful older Cretan woman, Krissa, who has run a small store in Athens near the Acropolis for 32 years.  She had lived down the street from Giannis Ritsos and spoke of his kindness (she prefers the poetry of Seferis and Elytis, whom she also knew).  Even Athens is a community.  She loves the Symposium beyond all the other works of Plato.  She spoke of the word “Greece” with disgust.  It emerges in the Roman conquest of the Greeks and reaches a pitch of ugliness in the German “Griechenland” (one must say it aloud, as she did, and with distaste to get the feeling).

          The name for this long conquered territory, she told me, is Hellas (the H is not pronounced), the name for its people Hellenes.  One might think that this beacon of civilization would be allowed to speak its own name  – we all know of Athens from Thucydides, the English upper classes have learned the language for ages while stealing the treasures and missing the spirit (surprisingly, there are no interesting English academic writers on either ancient democracy or even Thucydides, empire, and the collapse of Athens). Germans and British go to vacation in the sunny South in Athens and Crete.   But one gets to speak one’s name only with self-assertion among nations, and the Hellenes have been long beaten down (but see here).  Indigenous people have a parallel case.  Their names survive – the Adirondacks, the Dakotas – without the meaning.  The political arrangements of the Iroquois are barely glimpsed. 

       Hellas is still radiant.  In our universities, most students still read of the trial and death of Socrates, at least Plato’s Apology.    Still, it is uncanny how the names of Empire – Roman and European - have obtruded and continue to obtrude themselves over the original words.   


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