One thing Greece certainly isn’t short of, besides sunshine and beaches, is mythological and historical referents. On Friday, Larry Elliott in the Grauniad offered us Sisyphus – “Alex Tsipras has also angered the gods”, and so has to keep pushing the boulder of reform proposals up the hill again and again.* This morning brings Brian M. Lucey’s hilarious parody of the whole “cultural mine that keeps on yielding” thing, presented through the myth of Tantalus:
He was condemned to stand in a lake of water with a grapevine over his head. If he stooped to drink the water receded, if he stretched to eat the grapes drew back. If Greece tries to cut its way from a depression the debt burden worsens, if it seeks aid the aid is yanked out of reach.
Tantalus hid the golden hound of Hephaestus, and Greece hid the true state of its finances; Tantalus killed his own son, baked him in a pie and served this up to the gods, and
Syriza have killed, baked and served up to the Eurozone their own mandate and policies, only to have them thrown back faceward. Mind you, in myth Pelops was revived, repaired, and taken on board by the gods, Demeter (the bountiful goddess) having eaten of the pie and wanting to turn back time. The IMF, under Lagarde, have eaten of the pie and taken on board its central spice, the need for debt relief, and are now busy with time travel experiments.
Does any of this help? Well, it gives journalists and other commentators hooks for their stories (and an opportunity to comment on the fact that everyone else is doing it), and it does seem entirely possible that (at least in the European media) we’re not hearing nearly so much about, say, Puerto Rico or the Chinese stock market, because neither offers a sufficiently rich store of cultural baggage and inherited cliches to be worth exploring. This may explain why countries like Slovakia are so vehemently opposed to bailing out Greece, with their sense that the Greeks have an unfair advantage in attracting attention, whereas they could drop out of the Eurozone without anyone noticing or bothering to offer an updated reading of the legend of Juraj Janosik.
Much more interesting and productive was an exchange I had on Twitter with Tom Holland, who’s currently in Greece, about the production of Aristophanes’ Acharnians he saw at Epidauros last night. As Tom suggests, Aristophanes’ play – in which the put-upon Dikaiopolis, weary of years of crisis and of politicians who seem dedicated to prolonging it for their own ends, establishes his own private peace – cannot help but have contemporary resonances. He sees it as unavoidably anti-oxi and anti-Syriza, at least in current circumstances, and mentioned that many passages were listened to in nervous silence. Not having seen the production, I’m less certain; one of the fantastical ideas that Aristophanes puts forward is that of escaping the power of external forces (for the warlike activities of the Greek states we could easily substitute the forces of global capital) and establishing a relationship with the world on one’s own terms, which looks rather like a plea for Grexit, or at least for a return to the days of national independence and self-sufficiency.
But of course this is why works like Aristophanes’ plays can actually be illuminating for present concerns: not because they tell us something about a timeless Greek character (“Aha! Dikaiopolis shows us that all Greeks are stroppy bastards who make fun of the lawful power of the state and seek to evade taxes!”) but because they dramatise situations and problems, and force us to think about them – and argue about the interpretation. As Jean-Pierre Vernant said of Greek tragedy in contrast to myth: it highlight’s society’s problems and dilemmas without offering anything in the way of solutions. Even if we assume that we should wholly identify with Dikaiopolis because he’s the protagonist (and I’m not entirely sure that we are supposed to go that far), we still have to engage with the mis-match between his personal solution and the world in which we live; we can’t make our own personal peace with the forces of neoliberalism and globalisation, so where does that leave us? Utopian thinking (including Greek comedy) can be a source of despair, if it seems too distant from our own position, just as it can be a source of inspiration and energy as we contemplate the gap between its ideals and the reality of our own situation. Tom reports that the director added a passage about the need to get out onto the streets to fight for right, which suggests either a lack of confidence in the play itself as an energising experience, or a determination to impose a single meaning and Message onto a play that actually leaves things open.
Quite simply, we need more Aristophanes (in this crazy, ever-changing world in which we live in…). The obvious candidate is surely Wealth: not one of the most famous plays, admittedly, but the central idea of curing the blindness of global economic forces so that wealth is distributed according to justice and merit, and the debates about the possible adverse consequences of this – above all the fantastic debate with the personification of Poverty – is surely perfect for our times. There’s a fascinating discussion available online about a staging of the play in post-Katrina New Orleans (including important points about the sticking-points in most if not all modern productions of Aristophanes: meta-theatricality, generic confusion and sheer unfamiliarity with the conventions of Attic comedy), but I haven’t yet found any signs of European performances in recent years. What is genuinely great about the classical Greek cultural tradition is that they devoted themselves to worrying and arguing about ideas: why are some people rich and others poor? is poverty inevitable, or even sometimes positive? (In the UK production I am currently imagining, I can see a central role for George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith…). This is what we need right now.
*This is really not an original idea; I couldn’t remember this morning where I’d seen Elliott’s comment, and so googled keywords like Sisyphus and Greece; to judge from the results, this must have been used at least twenty times in the last few months, and the first examples appeared years ago…