A.E. Stallings on what Greek poetry can teach us about the upcoming referendum
ONE OF THE first of many puzzling things in Greece—should you spend time here, or move here, as I did in January of 1999—is the gestures. I would polish up a sentence of my baby Greek, and walk into a shop and ask for something, only to be met with an inscrutable head movement or click of the tongue. Back outside the store, my husband would ask if they stocked what I wanted. “I don’t know,” I would reply, embarrassed.
For me, a back and forth shake of the head meant “No” and an up-and-down nod was “Yes.”
But in Greece, “Yes” is expressed by bowing the neck and lowering the head down to the left, and “No” by raising the head up and to the right, sometimes emphasized with a raised eyebrow and a click of the tongue. My ten-year-old son as early as four or five had mastered the macho abbreviated version of this gesture—just the eyebrow and the click.
Anglophones and Europeans largely associate words that start with an 'n' sound with negatives, but in Greek, nai (NAI) is yes.
The Greek word for No—OXI (omicron chi iota), o-hi—is the first word a Greek child learns to write. (And of course, as toddlers, it is one of their favourites to say.) After all, in capital letters, it is just a circle, an x, and a straight line: a preschooler connects the dots of this word on a handout for OXI day and hands it proudly to her parents. The Day of No is here a national holiday, falling on October 28th. It is one of two independence days—the first being March 25th, which marks the beginning of the war of independence from the Ottoman Turks in 1821. October 28th marks the date in 1940 that the crown-appointed prime minister Ioannis Metaxas, faced with an ultimatum by Mussolini to allow Italian forces to tromp unimpeded through Greece, said “No.” Historically, he is supposed to have said, in a shrug of diplomatic French, “Alors, c'est la guerre,” but the popular imagination prefers the Laconic, indeed Leonidas-like, “Ochi.”
“No” and negation feature importantly in Greek literature. At the calling of the referendum, I was put in mind of Cavafy’s poem, “Che fece . . . il gran Rifiuto.” The title is fetched up out of Dante’s Inferno, Book III—generally the passage is assumed to refer to Pope Celestine V, who abdicated the papacy in 1294 after only a matter of months, to return to a humble life. The figure is among the crowd of souls in the ante-chamber to Hell after they pass the Gate that has “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” inscribed on it—souls condemned for not having taken sides, damned for not giving a damn. But Cavafy’s ellipses slyly call attention to the words that are absent—“per viltade”—“through cowardice.” For Cavafy, the great refusal is out of courage, or perhaps the fate of character.
Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto
For some, a certain day comes when they must
Utter the great Yes, or the great No,
It’s clear who has the Great Yes in him, ready,
And as he’s saying it, he crosses over
There to his honor and his own self-trust.
The denier does not regret it even so,
Asked again, his refusal would be steady.
Yet that No—the right No—founders him forever.
“Denial” (Arnisi) or “Refusal “ also happens to be the title of one of George Seferis’s early poems, from his collection Strophe (“Turn” or “Stanza”), a cryptic love song that, set to music by Theodorakis, was banned under the Junta (1967-1974), and subsequently became an unlikely anthem of protest. At the funeral procession of Seferis in September of 1971, huge crowds processed through the streets singing it.
Here, in my loose translation:
There in the secret cove,
When the noon sun seemed to halt,
I thirsted with my love,
But the water there was salt.
We wrote out her name
Upon the blinding sand,
Then—ah—the sea-breeze came
With its erasing hand.
So fiercely did we long
With spirit, heart, and strife,
To grasp at this life—wrong—
And so we changed our life.
That word, “wrong, error, mistake,” “lathos,” looms in huge graffiti on abandoned billboards all over Athens in the hand of one anonymous artist.
As I write this, a "Yes" vote—which is a “No” to Syriza (the flags read “Menoume Europi”—We “live in” or “remain in” Europe)—seems to be inching ahead in the polls, as the populace is shaken at the sight of queues at the ATMs and pensioners lining up at banks for a fraction of their pensions. But “No” (pitched as a "Yes" to sovereignty and dignity) still has a patriotic glamor for Greeks. “No” will be listed above “Yes” on the ballot, in defiance of the alphabet.
We have friends on both sides—a friend’s husband looks at me with sudden intensity and declares “I am a European!” Another thinks only a “No” vote will redeem the wounded dignity of Greece. In local shops, people who have lived as neighbors for decades are calling each other Communists or Fascists, reopening the angry cicatrix of the Civil War.
We are left with the inscrutable gesture of a referendum. There are two answers and a million questions. All anyone agrees on is that there has been a mistake; life has to change.
3 July 2015
A. E. STALLINGS is the author of Olives (2012) and other books. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Parnassus, The New Criterion, and other magazines. In 2011, she became a MacArthur Fellow.