Sunday, April 02, 2017


The word revolution, is a noun of action from the past participle stem of Latin revolvere meaning to turn, or roll back. Thus, it describes a process of change whereby things are returned to their rightful starting point and was especially applied in English, to the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty under the Catholic James II in 1688, in what was termed the “Glorious Revolution” and the transfer of sovereignty to the Protestant regal duo, William and Mary.
The word επανάσταση, however, which is how the term revolution is rendered in Greek, has other connotations. Rather than a turn or roll back, it is a compound word derived from the ancient ἐπί and ἀνίστημι, signifying, a rising. As such, it is related to the word ανάσταση, which signifies a resurrection.
The semantic differences between the two terms are significant because they represent two different perspectives of history. The first connotes that history is circular, and that the same patterns succeed each other predictably, so that a fallen nation, especially one that has pretensions to greatness, will inevitably achieve the exact heights from which it has fallen, though the ancillary inevitability of it once more plummeting to the depths of decay in due course is glossed over. The second, indicates a linear view of history, one where somewhere along the line, a nation has been crushed. The act of revolution is thus inevitable. It is a special, possibly unique occasion, where that nation has managed to extricate itself from the quagmire of servitude, and has actually stood up and asserted itself. Nowhere is it implicit that in doing so, that nation has to ‘turn’ or ‘roll back’ to, or indeed replicate the prevailing conditions, political, cultural or economic, at the time of its fall. The act of arising is thus not linked and indeed is emancipated from the past. Instead, having arisen, the nation is free to carve its own destiny (as long as it is a great one of course).
While it should be noted that the early Greek historians talk about αποστασία και εξέγερση sometimes about παλιγεννεσία, it is fascinating that the modern Greek people, in viewing their own revolution, chose to ascribe to the term επανάσταση, in use since the 1840s, the connotations of the Latin ‘revolution.’ Thus, in constructing a ‘nation,’ they engaged in a process which Anthony D Smith views, “is essentially one of political archaeology: to rediscover and reconstruct the life of each period of the community’s history, to establish the linkages and layerings between each period and hence to demonstrate the continuity of the nation.”
Once the nation is constructed and defined, a process not without trauma or controversy in the modern Greek context, then revolutions such as the Greek Revolution of 1821 inevitably become viewed in the Latin light. In expelling the Ottomans from part of our world, which period of ‘greatness’ is the ‘nation’ supposed to be rolling back to? For a time, contemporaries conceived of a ‘roll back’ to the last time that Greek speaking people enjoyed some sort of sovereignty, this being during the time of Byzantium.
Yet it is important to note the discourse of revolution as understood by Greeks was not framed by them alone. The western, Enlightenment tradition of historiography viewed Byzantium as an example of cultural decay, political corruption, despotism and religious fanaticism. As the nineteenth century Greek intellectuals and socially aspirant bourgeoisie internalised western mores and values, they came to reject a ‘roll back’ to a disreputable Byzantine past, one which was seen as an impediment to the earlier integration of Greece with the western world as a result of its cultural retrogression. Thus in 1842, Markos Renieris, an Athenian lawyer, could write of the Crusades (which fragmented the Byzantine Empire into Catholic controlled duchies and caused the brutal sack of Constantinople in 1204), “Oh, how different the fate of Greece would have been, if those chivalrous virtues [of the Crusaders] had been permanently grafted onto Hellenic civilization!”
Thus, in a bid to purchase into the material and political benefits of the Western world that was framing the modern Greek narrative, Greeks increasingly began to view their revolution as a ‘roll back’ to a time that the West accepted and agreed was truly ‘great,’ this being the classical period of times ancient. Given that the West had adopted this period and its achievements as the basis for its own civilisation, a “roll back” to this point in history would signify a deletion of all those historical events and eras that had seen Hellenism diverge or alienate itself from the West, and thus provide a useful reintegration point.
For a time, it appears that this ‘roll back’ worked, at least in so far as European public opinion was concerned. Inspired by their studies in the classics, romantics were eager to cast the foustanella clad klephts and petty chieftains, many of whom spoke Arvanitic, rather than Greek, in the panoply of a Leonidas or an Achilles. When the facts on the ground indicated a divergence too vast to comprehend, let alone bridge, the West, in a process Edward Said brilliant describes in his scholarship on Orientalism, appropriated ancient Greece for its own, leaving the modern Greeks as oriental, irredeemable elements, unworthy of their ancient forebears and unable as a nation, to truly “roll back” to them. Significantly, we also adopted this approach, creating an ontopathology about our identity that endures still.
The energy spent in Hellenic “roll backs” is truly phenomenal. With Adamantios Korais at their head, linguists attempted to “roll back” a Greek language they considered to be bastardised and impure to a “clean” and “pure” form that was both contrived and incomprehensible. A similar process was played out in Constantinople, where the Patriarchate sought to mediate between those who sought to incorporate western polyphonic music into the Orthodox liturgy, on the grounds that the current music tradition was “oriental” (ie. retrograde) and those who tried in a Korais-like fashion to “cleanse” Orthodox music of its “oriental” accretions and “roll back” to the imagined purity of ancient Greek music. At all stages we see a society locked in a discourse of insecurity and inadequacy with regards to itself, for the roll-back position was ever shifting and consensus could never be found as to the optimal roll-back point. In so far as consensus could be found, it was in that “roll backs” were infinitely to be preferred, to the ‘true’ etymology of an επανάσταση, of picking oneself up of the ground and rather than looking backwards, carving a future for oneself in the present world.
In collectively ruminating over the Greek Revolution, recently, a friend lamented to me: “1821 I understand, but why do we not, as a nation, commemorate the Battle of Marathon, or the Battle of Salamis, when we saved the world from Persian domination? Why do we not, as a people, celebrate the battle of Issus and the victories of Alexander? It is this failure to celebrate the true greatness of the time when Hellenism was pure that is the cause of our troubles.” Reared in the roll-back discourse of Modern Hellenism, I almost found nothing singular in this point of view, that is, until I asked:
“Why do you think that the British do not celebrate the Battle of Hastings?”
“That’s different. Why would the British celebrate an invasion of foreigners?” came the response.
“Well are they foreigners? The Normans changed the English language and culture forever. They created what we understand to be modern Britain. Why don’t the British celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or Glorious Revolution, or indeed the victories of Marlborough, all events that took place a millennium and a half after the ancient Greek victories? Does this make them any less great as a people? Does this denote a diminished sense of history, given that the modern Greeks could learn a thing or two from the British when it comes to respect for history and preservation of historic sites?”
“When we were building the Parthenon, the British were living in caves,” came the stock, roll-back response, closely linked to the: “When we worshipped the Twelve Gods, we were great, so we should worship the Olympians again,” mantra.
To suggest to any English-speaker except possibly Mel Gibson, that the key to their greatness lies in adopting the dress, social organisation and mannerisms of a fixed point in their collective past, be it Jacobite, Elizabethan, Brucian, or Druidic, would be the height of implausibility. To suggest to them that their society is inferior because since the time of the ancient Britons it has incorporated the cultures of the Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Scots and half the world besides, would be ridiculous for it is the hybrid nature of that culture that has created its relevance and vibrancy. And yet, to us as a people, such a prospect appears perfectly natural. For implicit in the “roll-back” view of revolution is a smug conviction of the perfection of our own culture, in and of itself. Somehow, we have been taught to believe that our ‘nation’ achieved socio-cultural perfection millennia ago and if we are to achieve the power and respect they enjoyed, all we need to do is work backwards, discarding the dross that has accreted since those times. At its heart, it is a racist and historically misleading narrative, which is why it is possible to have Greeks supposedly possessed of mental faculties justify the execution of the fascist salute in contemporary Greece, with the roll-back argument that this was an ancient Greek salute. Gadzooks.

In this sense, 1821 marks the point when the Greek people stood up, looked backwards, and for the most part have been wanting to walk backwards ever since, indulging in cosmetic retrogressions (remember the Junta’s mangled speaking of katharevousa) that have done nothing to further the relevance or vitality of the modern Greek nation. When we return, rather than roll-back, to 1821 therefore, it should be as a point of embarkation, than a point of gyration, in the hope of engaging in a serious debate about the future direction of the nation, rather than as a weekend meeting of a historical re-enactment society, dress ups and all.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 April 2017