Friday, June 12, 2009

Lord Elgin's Thefts

          Yesterday in my course on “The Trial and Death of Socrates,” I walked with my students up to the Acropolis. We were accompanied by Mr. Thanos (Athanasios Bobos), the teacher of my student Jonilda Dhamo, and a passionate defender of the meaning of Greek democracy for the world, the class conflict of the people with the rich that brought it into being, and the ideal of isonomy (equality and ruling and being ruled in turn). He pointed out the ruins of the friezes which had once been high up on the Parthenon. Those friezes, he said, celebrate not the gods, but the story of the Athenian people. The first Athenian democrats he recounted, once met three oligarchical armies at Elefsina (English: Eleusis, for which the mystery religions are named). The Spartan army and the others had been told that they were to fight the mercenaries of a tyrant. Instead, they saw before them in the field the citizens of Athens prepared to fight, the more middle class to the fore, the poor, as bowman, behind. That is roughly the opposite of a modern American military arrangement (few middle class people at all; among the children of Congresspeople, Jim Webb’s son). Democracy triumphed. In a great act of solidarity, those armies chose not to make war on the Athenians.

         The friezes are not there. Athens is the peculiar place where the greatness of its democracy, the first democratic regime, 2100 years departed, is up on a hill, glowing at night, above the city. The “glory that was Greece” was vanquished by the “grandeur that was Rome.” The Roman Empire chillingly threatened its foes with submission or destruction. In 76 BC, The Empire cut the throats of the Athenians who resisted in the Acropolis; their blood flowed down the Panathenian Way. Greece has been beaten down for centuries. It was swallowed by the Ottoman empire, It has been ruled by fascists in the late 30s, in World War II, and again in a coup in 1968-75. Last year when I first gave this course, Athens had a beaten-down feeling.

            But this year the mass student revolt aganst the shooting of a 15 year old by the police, joined by many workers (the unions in light industry, the teachers) had revived the vibrancy of Greek democracy. We went to a performance last night in the 2300 year old Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis, where the sound, anywhere in the amphitheater, is perfect (a similar amphitheatre exists in Epidauris) , and heard the fabulous poems of Giannis Ritsos, with music composed by Mikhis Theodorakis. Last year we had been to Tosca sung by the Greek National Orchestra. The amphitheater was but 2/3 full. For Ritsos, this year, there were many thousands of people of all ages; the audience sat even on the steps. People clapped to the words of revolutionary and anti-fascist melodies composed to these poems (Ritsos is also, among other things, a subtle surreal imagist, with a profound sense of the nearness of death, of passing over). There is a new current alive in Athens, one in which the people again demand a voice. The Greek people stand up, much as young Americans, and eventually all Americans, did for Obama and against Cheney. The vibrancy of the gathering stemmed from the student revolt. Electrifyingly, we found ourselves, beneath the Acropolis, in the circle of the polis. We found ourselves somehow in the midst of Greek democracy

       In 1689, the Ottoman Empire had possessed the Greeks and used the Acropolis to store gunpowder. A fleet came from Catholic Venice; a cannon fired a shot that hit the Acropolis, set off the powder, and exploded the Parthenon. Lord Elgin, the representative of British colonialism, subsequently appealed to the Turks to let him take the fragments of statues scattered on the ground. There was no Greek people to protect them.  Only the British empire, Lord Elgin said, could. Instead of the image of Greek democracy, the friezes would become an ornament or plaything for British imperial power. The Ottomans did not permit Lord Elgin to take the friezes still on the Parthenon. But he went zealously about his work, cutting down these objects and the caryatids on the Erechtheion. Elgin stole these realities of Greek democracy so that they could be put up in the dead Imperial space of the British Museum. He cut the living stone from the Parthenon. The British government is yet to apologize. After long struggles, Britain is a democracy today or at least an oligarchy with parliamentary forms. It had a vibrant movement against the imperial Blair-Bush aggression in Iraq. But the keeping of these objects in Britain is a betrayal of democracy.

        Still it is odd today to observe the signs near the Erechthion, once built to house a 40 foot high statue of Athena. None of them tell about Athena. There are messages about the reconstruction of the building. Architectural work goes on apace, financed 25% by the Greek government and 75 % by the European Union. Archaeology students are finding every stone, every fragment. A painstaking effort is being made to reconstruct everything exactly as it once was. It is a beautiful and determined project.

          Today’s British government has told the Greek Ministry of Culture that it can’t have the democratic friezes. Only the British, these imperialist suggest, know how to care for the marble. In the colonized mentality of the Greek curators, the careful signs around the Acropolis are all designed for the British masters: look at the care we are taking, have taken, in reconstituting the Acropoli. The signs have barely a sentence on the significance of democracy; we know the curators aren’t interested. The thought that the tourists who come by should see the living tradition of Greek and international democracy by directly experiencing or feeling or learning about the first democracy that is gone is a distant one to the curators. Still, they tell the masters, we can provide for the objects if you give them back. The new Acropolis Museum, beautifully constructed with paned glass as part of the metal walkways to reveal the ruins below, the stages of Athens, is putting every object into a wonderful and secure context. As Hegelian subalterns, the Greeks have apparently even pointed out to the Imperial masters that they are preserving the marbles in the British museum with chemicals which are ruining the color. Even the “technical” boasts of British superiority are being revealed as hollow by the increasing insights of the Greeks.

         Malcolm X is famous among black people and others for pointing out exactly what the subjugated mind feels like, how an oppressed people often takes on some or many of the beliefs about themselves of the oppressor. The Greeks need to clear away the technical illusions, to say what the Acropolis means. The Acroplis, built by Pericles, celebrates the achievements and the freedom of the first democracy in the world (it is also a grand and imposing center for the Athenian empire; in this sense the austere gate of the Propylae is the model for the Prussian Brandenburg Gate). But now the democracy in Athens has risen. The Greeks are asking for the stolen marbles back. The British Empire and its minion Lord Elgin had nothing but contempt for democracy abroad and at home. Americans especially, who once rebelled against the Empire, should know this. Asked about British “civilization,” Gandhi once remarked: “it would be nice.” All over the world, people have now stood up to the Empire which, as a condition of oppression, has faded. Still the British Museum clings ravenously to the spoils. The Athenians, British ideologues say, can’t be trusted to take care of their own heritage. A museum, those British say, must have objects to put in it. Take away all or most of the objects in room with the Parthenon frieze and what will be left of the splendor of the British Museum?

       But the objects will then, restored to and by the Greek democracy, be in Athens. They will resume their democratic significance, no longer an ornament to the plundering of civilizations by the British. The claim of the British about the Athenian curators is of course racist and has a sad motivation – the British museum will be less attractive and hence make less money without the marbles. And who knows, those Britons might complain, where such restorations will stop? But the greatness and decency of the “British” Musuem will still draw tourists even if it becomes a smaller and more British Museum.

         Mr. Thanos commented on 12 fascists who came out in togas on the Panathenian way this spring to celebrate their alleged Athenian bloodlines – as if they were dogs - and advocate the rule of one, a fascist leader. Instead, Thanos invoked the Greek democracy which captures the freedom of each citizen everywhere, the combination, as Pericles said, of coming together for a public good and tolerating individual freedom (in Hobbes’s translation, we do not cast censorious looks upon one another for our eccentricities, so long as we come together to defend what we have in common). It is this spirit of democracy, however limited (its aggressions, its slaveholding, its subjugation of women), which radiates out through European and world history. It also offers to each people the idea of equal freedom, the rule of law and toleration. It begins the slow process of the unfolding of freedom, the freeing of many subjugated groups and peoples. It is marked by the resistance to aggression, the stunning triumph of the Athenian democrats at Elefsina.

        The Greek people are, once again, standing up. Those of us of many nations, especially the citizens of Britain, need to join our voices with theirs, to express our solidarity with Greek democracy. Lord Elgin’s thefts must finally find their way home.

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