Imagining and Reimagining GreecePosted: June 1, 2017
Posted by Clayton Miles Lehmann
Clayton M. Lehmann, Professor of History at the University of South Dakota, here contributes an essay about American college students coming to Greece, as part of study-abroad programs. This post represents a modified and shortened version of the 63rd Annual Harrington Lecture, which he delivered 28 October 2015 to the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of South Dakota. Lehmann was a Regular Member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1982/3, lived in Greece while he wrote his doctoral dissertation, and has returned often, three times as the Director of the Summer Session for the American School and regularly since 2005 as one of the professor-captains of the University of South Dakota’s short-term faculty-led study-abroad program “The Isles of Greece!”.
After disappointing tourism numbers for the 2004 Olympics, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched a major campaign, “Live Your Myth in Greece,” to rekindle Greece in the world’s imagination. When a group of my students arrived in Athens in 2005 for the study-abroad program The Isles of Greece!, they saw the advertisements for this campaign on the billboards and buses on the way into the city. At first glance, the images appeal to the typical touristic expectation of the Greek quartet of sea, sun, sand, and sex. But the classical architecture and supernatural figures suggest a more complex imaginary mix. The fine print on some of these posters read:
Greece: a land of mythical dimensions. Where the spirit of hospitality welcomes you as a modern god. And the siren song draws you into its deep blue waters. Where a gentle breeze through ancient ruins seems to whisper your name. And a dance until dawn can seem to take on Dionysian proportions. In Greece the myths are still very much alive. And in amongst them sits your own . . . patiently waiting for you to live it. Live your myth in Greece. Ask your travel agent.
The campaign successfully captures the aura of Greece’s magical, mythical, and sensual appeal. Many people seeing these images, however, would have known perfectly well, without consulting a classics professor, the potential danger of falling victim to Eros’s arrow, or what happens when Dionysus takes control of a community or the Sirens draw you not into deep blue waters but upon the dangerous rocks at their edge. Τhe illustrator of James Forsyth’s cover story for The Spectator on 12 September 2015 captured the hazard of failing to plug up one’s ears when about to hear the Sirens’ song: Forsyth decries Angela Merkel’s brave and humane policy welcoming Syrian refugees to Germany by cloaking xenophobia with a disingenuous concern for the refugees’ safety.
Images from Greek mythology and the Greek landscape work so powerfully on us because of the multiple layers of meaning they have, and every time we encounter Greek persons, events, places, and works of art in new ways, we add more layers of meaning to them. For example, when Greece’s sovran debt crisis preoccupied the international news in the spring and summer of 2015, the flamboyant finance minister of the new Syriza-led Greek government, Yanis Varoufakis, became a hero not only for Greeks but also for all those struggling against the hijacking of the democratic process by financial institutions; altered images in social media and online news outlets portrayed him as Superman, a Terminator, the Guy Fawkes-masked Vigilante, Mr. Spock, and Walter White—images all based on modern Western popular culture.
But another image, which derives from a native Greek visual tradition, will seem unfamiliar to most people outside of Greece. Varoufakis appears as a saint in an icon of the Orthodox Christian church, here styled as άγιος Βαρουφάκις ο Τροϊκοφάγος: “St. Varoufakis the Troika-Eater,” Greece’s savior from the troika of financial institutions imposing austerity during the debt crisis: the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund. This image evokes the powerful saints popular on Byzantine icons and affords a striking way to imagine a critical episode of contemporary Greek history to those familiar with Byzantine religious art. To non-Greeks, however, it will resonate less than do the images appropriated from Western popular culture.
Even before arriving in Greece people have strong expectations of what they will find: ruins and museums, brightly painted houses, clear skies and brilliant sunlight on sandy beaches, and an impossibly blue sea. The present and the past come together with an eternal landscape in the touristic imagination. The gateway to the Greek National Tourism Office’s website, visitgreece.gr, expresses the current advertising slogan (in 2015-17), “Greece: All Time Classic” and evokes all these elements, ancient and modern, through images of beaches, ruins, yachting, and mountains and sea. The website encourages us to make our travel plans, and once in Greece we experience its rocks and water and light, and we imbue the reality with the ideas we bring from previous personal and cultural associations.
Thus people who come to Greece for the first time, such as my students, arrive with a host of imagined Greeces that integrates with the realities they encounter as they engage with and think about the people, culture, and landscape. In the fall of 2015 I asked past participants in The Isles of Greece! to tell me how they imagined Greece. One said she expected to see “historic buildings, ancient architecture, and ruins almost everywhere” (Ellie Dailey). Another commented, “I pictured Greece as very picturesque—white buildings on a hillside in a bay with sun reflecting off of clear blue water” (Kayla Pochop). Others thought in terms of how their previous reading about Greece prepared them for the real thing: “Before arriving in Greece, I had only the images rendered from books . . . : open skies and crisp waters; old temple ruins that shimmered softly in a dry sun” (Michelle Corio). Others considered first the natural environment and noticed how the reality compares to the expectation: “I have always loved the ocean and expected it to be beautiful on the coast of Greece, but my experience there was so much more breathtaking than anything I have ever seen. The blue waters of the Aegean Sea are unlike any color I could point out and describe at home” (Susan Wik). Others again added figures to the landscape:
“Steep, resilient, cutting, forging. From winds to rocks to waves, the magnitude of the landscape was raw and enthralling. . . . The islands have changed. The trees are gone. The seas have shifted. The Greece I experienced was a very different place than the Greece of antiquity. But at the same time, when sailing the warm waters or roaming old sheep herders’ trails, the very same weather-worn and wisdom-encrusted landscape stands guard. And the Hellenes of old are as near as ever” (Michelle Corio).
These ways of imagining Greece do not differ greatly to those of a young Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), although he had the advantage of a classical education and the Greece he visited still labored under Turkish rule. Many know of him as the president of the Second Bank of the United States in the 1820s and 30s, some as the original editor of the journals of Lewis and Clark. Biddle visited Greece in the spring and summer of 1806 while on the Grand Tour. As Lewis and Clark traveled eastward on their return from the Pacific, the twenty-year-old Biddle wrote in his journal:
“I had long felt an ardent desire to visit Greece. The fate of a nation whose history was the first brilliant object that met my infancy . . . was so interesting that I had resolved to avail myself of any opportunity of witnessing it. The soil of Greece is sacred to Genius & to letters. The race of beings whose atchievements [sic] warm our youthful fancy has long disappeared. But the sod under which they repose; the air which listened to their poetry & their eloquence; the hills which saw their valor are still the same” (Biddle Journals, p. 49).
In two important respects my students’ reactions differ to Biddle’s: their liberal education includes no hefty doses of the classics, and the Ottoman Empire no longer rules Greece. Therefore they do not share his nostalgia for a Greece long gone and regret at encountering a people so unlike what he expected.
Nostalgia and regret for a good old Greece that never really existed has a long history. The Romans saw Greece’s current military and political weakness even as they admired its cultural achievement. One thinks of Horace’s “Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit et artes / intulit agresti Latio” (“captive Greece captured its savage conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium,” Epistulae 2.1.156-57). Or consider this famous, moving passage from one of Cicero’s correspondents: “On my voyage from Asia, as I was sailing from Ægina towards Megara, I began to survey the localities that were on every side of me. Behind me was Ægina, in front Megara, on my right Piræus, on my left Corinth: towns which at one time were most flourishing, but now lay before my eyes in ruin and decay.” (Epistulae ad familiares 4.5.4, trans. Evelyn Shuckburgh.)
Or compare Byron’s “Fair Greece, Sad Relic” (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 2.73) or the young Biddle’s thoughts in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi: “How sad & solitary a picture. This spot once the center of Grecian arts & religion where the genius & the superstition of the first of nations loved to display its power & its extravagance, now oppressed by a foreign people, its altars changed for a new religion, its monuments dispersed & ruined by barbarians, has [just?] scanty enough remains to indicate its position & proclaim its misfortunes. . . . These ruins are indeed complete & desolating to the mind. This awful abode of the Gods . . . now lies defaced, & mutilated. The hum of his people has ceased. His oracle is silent…” (Biddle Journals, pp. 94-95).
Or when he reaches Athens: “Athens presents every visage of desolation & despair. When I walk amongst her ruins & first recalling her ancient greatness meditate on her fall, the mind sickens over the melancholy picture. When I see her citadel adorned with temples which have defied not only the barbarian rage of conquest, but the shock of the elements, now degraded by the hand of violence or idle curiosity [he means Lord Elgin’s]; when I see her temple of Theseus which teaches us to admire the grand simplicity of a great people, her temple of Jupiter, the most stupendous of all ruins; when I see all this I feel for the decline of human greatness.
But even worse, the Areopagus and Pnyx, ancient centers of government, have fallen silent, the orators have left to inspire foreign nations while their modern countrymen have forgotten their names and become like the “beasts whom they drive heedless over the ruins” (Biddle Journals, p. 112). Typically of early travelers to Greece, Biddle found the actual experience unsatisfying once the initial enthusiasm wore off: the people he encountered led an impoverished, squalid life debased by the tyranny of their Turkish masters.
Modern ways of imagining Greece depend mostly on the way we imagine ancient Greece (as does Biddle) and partly on the romantic construction of revolutionary Greece that began to develop just as Biddle visited Greece. Add the touristic expectation of a holiday destination and a spattering of news reports—these days mostly about the debt crisis. These ways of imagining Greece need reimagining through further study and informed travel in Greece. As Lincoln MacVeagh, US ambassador to Greece in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote, “Perhaps of no country could it more truly be said that she requires to be better known because she is already known so well. Certainly none is in greater need of being seen in perspective” (MacVeagh 1955). (For MacVeagh’s campaign to restore the Lion of Amphipolis in the 1930s, see Betsey Robinson, “The Pride of Amphipolis.”)
As I mentioned, unlike Biddle, my students do not come to Greece with much more than a few preparatory meetings with the faculty. On the other hand, unlike Biddle, once in Greece they encounter free and independent people, and the fact that our hosts do labor under harsh economic conditions hardly affects the kindness, interest, and generosity they show to us visitors. My students engage wholeheartedly in the leisure culture—the cafés, βόλτες, slow meals. The extent of popular political activity, from demonstrations to posters and graffiti to the variety of newspapers, fascinates them. Above all, they enjoy getting to know the people.
“Before traveling to Greece, everyone stateside bombarded me with warnings about the danger of the country and the people. On our first day, I journaled about how friendly everyone was and how interesting and exciting it was to meet Greek people and hear their stories. We witnessed a scheduled protest during our initial time in Greece, something that I was coerced to be afraid of by social media as well as friends and family. However, it was a completely peaceful display by citizens who are taking action and standing up for their beliefs. I actually found it inspiring. The other surprising factor was how comical it was to communicate with so many people who didn’t speak the same language. I was amazed to find that I really could have a conversation even though we had minimal words in common” reflected Susan Wik, one of my students, recently.
Perhaps my love for Greece and its people appears so palpable that my students hide any negative responses, but I like to think they share my affection. Indeed, the great reward for me as I lead these tours comes from reimagining through the students my own first impressions of Greece. Even from a distance of thirty-five years, those impressions remain vivid. My first strong memory has to do with very first visit to Greece as a college student in 1978. Our car started to overheat, and we stopped at a gas station on the national highway in Thessaly. I tried to ask for water, using the ancient word ὕδωρ rather than the modern νερό; like Biddle I had certain unconsidered expectations about Greece based on my undergraduate training in classics. Only appropriate gestures got what I needed from the patient and good-humored attendant. I made sure to work hard learning modern Greek the summer before I returned to Greece as a regular member of the American School in 1982. The effort paid off: because I came with a young family, we had to live off-campus and deal with Greeks on a daily basis. Our landlady made us members of her family, and we went on vacations with them and attended their grandson’s name-day ceremony. Generosity, hospitality, genuine interest in their guests, and appreciation at the interest visitors show in their county have constituted my essential impressions of the Greek people ever since.
But let me conclude with more of my students’ own words. Michelle Corio read Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek in preparation for our program in 2012. Soon after arriving she found herself in Syntagma Square, where she had a conversation with a Greek. He told her:
” ‘Only by truly appreciating something can you love something. And only by truly loving something can you truly enjoy it.’ He was 78 years old, and every day, his life was just beginning. I had met Alexis Zorba himself. Like the man I met in the Square, Zorba has mastered the art of appreciation, love, and pleasure. His character is inspiring, raw, and pure” (Michelle Corio).
Hannah Nagy remembers a waiter running after her as she rushed from a restaurant to get on the bus; he had packed up a complimentary desert for the ride. She describes another encounter that reminds me of my trouble getting water many years before: “I was looking for a dream book in Greek and stopped in a bookstore. I tried using my limited Greek to describe the type of book and the two ladies looked at me like I was a top notch idiot and yet made me feel so welcome and they sympathized with my plight at the same time. When impromptu charades/sign language succeeded when poor Greek and non-existent English failed, the two of them were so proud of themselves and me for getting across the barrier that the earlier embarrassing feeling fled completely. I always felt liked even if there seemed to be a reason to dislike me—it’s a very disconcerting and confusing feeling that I have only found to exist when visiting with the Greeks.”
Hannah did comment with regret on the sexism she sometimes felt from Greek men: “There are attitudes or beliefs towards women that impact the decisions men make, such as smacking lips [or] taking pictures of women without permission; there’s a sense that women should bend to men’s wills/desires. Greece isn’t the only place I’ve traveled to like this by any means (and the US can be no better sometimes), but it is the reality I had there. I found this characteristic to be more prevalent in big cities, such as Athens, compared to smaller cities or islands.” But, she continued: “Overall, the Greeks were simply wonderful. I would go again in a heartbeat, not only for the stunning sites along the way, but also, if not mostly, for experiencing that famed hospitality . . . . I’m eternally grateful I had the opportunity to experience Greece and its people, and would gladly jump at another chance.”
I’ll let Chris Zimmer have the last word. He found Greece:
“… rewarding in all of the expected ways: the sights, sounds, and tastes were impeccable. The most rewarding experience though, was the one I expected least: building relationships with Greeks. After all, how realistic is it to forge meaningful relationships with strangers of a foreign land and language in just three weeks? With Greeks, the answer is simple . . . a lifestyle . . . that fuses the warmest, most welcoming hospitality imaginable and an embrace of our shared experiences, similarities, and differences.”
Chris returned to Greece last fall as a Fulbright Teacher at Athens College and will continue there for another year.
 For this program see http://islesofgreece.org/ and Clayton Miles Lehmann and Nelson Stone, “Greece from the Sea: An Interdisciplinary, Intercollegiate Adventure in Teaching and Learning,” The Classical Journal 105.2 (2009/10), pp. 163-73. The website includes students’ testimonials with more examples of how they imagined Greece.
 Nick Squires, “How Greece’s Finance Minister Became a Viral Web Sensation,” The Telegraph, 5 February 2015. The last image I mention, Varoufakis as Walter White, appeared on Mr. Varoufakis’s personal website (http://varoufakis.com) in October 2015; the website no longer exists, but the image appears widely on the Internet, as a search of “Varoufakis Breaking Bad” shows.
Biddle, Journals = R. A. McNeal, ed. 1993. Nicholas Biddle in Greece: The Journals and Letters of 1806. University Park.
MacVeagh, L. 1955. “Introduction,” to Perspective of Greece, The Atlantic 195.6 suppl (June, 1955), p. 100.
Wainwright, N.B. 1975. “Nicholas Biddle in Portraiture,” Antiques, November issue, pp. 956-64.