Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MOMUS, MUMMERS AND MOMOGEROI


“If you chance to be pinch'd with the colic, you make faces like mummers, set up the bloody flag against all patience, and, in roaring for a chamber-pot, dismiss the controversy bleeding, the more entangled by your hearing.” William Shakespeare, Coriolanus.

 Of all the Greek gods, my undoubted favourite would have to be Momus, the spirit of unfair criticism and irony. The son of Night (Nyx) via an immaculate conception, according to Hesiod, and twin of the misery goddess Oizys, his name is derived from the greek word μομφή, meaning 'blame', 'reproach', or 'disgrace.' Momus’ caustic wit proved to be too much for the Olympians. They decided to expel him from their company and Greeks have lacked irony ever since. Since the devil finds work for idle hands, according to the seventh century BC epic Cypria, Momus applied himself to fomenting the Trojan War in order to reduce the human population.

 A deity that has nothing good to say about anyone is one that should be feared. According to Aesop, while giving the breathtakingly beautiful Aphrodite a visual appraisal, Momus noted that he could not find anything about her to fault except that her sandals squeaked. In Lucian’s “The Gods in Council”, Momus takes a leading role in a discussion on how to purge Olympus of foreign gods and barbarian demi-gods who are lowering its heavenly tone, thus providing a perfect role model for Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton.

 As a result of his outspokenness, from a mean, curmudgeonly figure, Momus gradually became a symbol of social criticism. During the Renaissance, Erasmus presented Momus as a champion of earnest criticism of power and authority, admitting that the god was “not quite as popular as others, because few people freely admit criticism, yet I dare say of the whole crowd of gods celebrated by the poets, none was more useful.” In Giordano Bruno's philosophical treatise The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, Momus plays an integral part in a series of dialogues conducted by the Olympian deities, as Jupiter seeks to purge the universe of evil.

 In England, a renewed interest in the classics saw Momus in Thomas Carew’s masque Coelum Britannicum of 1634, which was acted before King Charles I and his court. There, Momus and Mercury draw up a plan to reform the ‘Star Chamber’ of Heaven. The famous saying: “Tis better to laugh than to cry,” is attributed to Momus in John Dryden’s satire on sports, “Secular Masque.” Two centuries on, it was to influence Henry David Thoreau as he was preparing to write his seminal work ‘Walden.’

Over the passage of time, in popular culture, Momus became softened into a figure of light-hearted and sentimental comedy. Momus slowly took the place of the Fool on the French playing-card pack. The mummers, who are still to be found in England, France and Germany, so-called after the ancient Greek momos, a word derived from the god Momus, meaning mask, assumed the guise of masked or black-faced men, who between Christmas and Epiphany, enact, a set number of humorous or satirical plays, usually where two actors engage in a combat, and the loser is revived by a doctor-type character. Often, these mummers are associated with sword dances.

 Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, far from the world of masques, literary criticism and mummers, the Pontian Greeks also developed a Momaic custom surprisingly akin to that of the western mummers; the Momogeroi. Like the mummers, the momogeroi emerge between Christmas and Epiphany. Like their western counterparts, they are generally masked, wearing animal costumes, or as elderly soldiers bearing weapons. Momus-like, they are tasked with spreading humour and sarcasm, enacting a set play whose origins appear to lie in a fertility ritual that marks the passage of the seasons. The set play revolves around the story of Kiti Goja, (a corruption of the Turkish for old codger), an elderly gentleman, possibly a personification of the god Momus himself, who assists an “Arab,” (in black-face) to claim his beloved as his bride, only to attempt to substitute himself as the bridegroom. The actors cover themselves in garlands of dried fruit, symbolizing the bounty of creation and of course, poke fun at old man Kiti Gotsa, the interloper who seeks to fertilise, when his realm is properly that of decay. The themes of life, fertility, decay and death, are all encompassed in the ritual, which views the cyclical nature of life as the sick joke of the gods, a gesture that the old god Momus, would undoubtedly approve of.

 The rituals of the momogeroi have not taken place in their land of origin, Pontus, since the Pontian Genocide. In Thrylorion, the village founded for Pontian refugees by the great Ballarat hero, George Divine Treloar, the ritual, transposed to the Greek mainland, began to die out in the fifties. However, it has of late, enjoyed a revival in the Pontian-settled villages of Northern Greece, to the extent where in 2016, a successful application was made to register the Momogeroi ritual with UNESCO as a part of the world’s cultural heritage.

 The old god Momus would find irony in the fact that in a far off continent which we call the Antipodes, but should actually be called Antioecia, because according to second century geographer Crates of Mallus, that is the proper name for the land mass presumed to exist in Australia’s position, while the Antipodes instead, denote South America, Pontian Greeks continue to enact his ritual, with the vibrant youth of the Central Pontian Association: Pontiaki Estia devotedly indulging in much mummery as they celebrate and vivify a heritage that was almost entirely lost, owing to human intolerance and humanity. Only Momus would appreciate the irony of the fact that despite their best efforts, the perpetrators of genocide not only did not succeed in effacing the descendants of Momus from the face of the earth but merely, served to egg them on to further mummery.

 At this year’s Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, Momus will make his presence known through the participation of Momogeroi from Kozani, Greece. These easternmost mummers, who are being brought to the festival at the expense and instigation of Pontiaki Estia and its sponsors, will indulge in momentous mummery, momogery and more besides as they munificently attempt to spread mirth and merriment among sundry Melburnians. Performing on stage, mingling with an unsuspecting crowd, they will invite us to seek enlightenment in futility, and in the tragic ironies, the bile and sarcasm of the human condition. Sir Francis Bacon knew this well when he observed: “Truth is a naked and open daylight, that doth not shew the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candlelights.” Let us therefore set forth to receive Momus and his devotees on Lonsdale Street, this Festival, with irreverence but plenty of awe, in the spirit of the great Anna Akhamtova:

“From childhood I have been afraid /of mummers. It always seemed / an extra shadow / without face or name / had slipped among them...”

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 February 2018

Monday, February 05, 2018

TRAITORS IN OUR MACEDONIAN MIDST



“Cruel are the times when we are traitors, and do not know ourselves.” Macduff, in the Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

Apparently, Professor Anastasios Tamis is a traitor. If you believe social media, he is also scum and a few other choice expletives also apply to him. The reason for this invective is that he caused to be published on behalf of the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies (AIMS), a carefully nuanced position on the naming dispute. That position, to paraphrase, opposed the inclusion of the word Macedonia in any  name for FYROM, but went on to state that if the word was to be used, it should be clear that it is used in geographical, not ethnological terms, and should be preceded by an untranslatable Slavic prefix, so no confusion with ancient Macedonia could ensue.

The fact that from the eighties, Professor Tamis, through AIMS, has been at the forefront of Australian research with regard to the history of Macedonia, has organized international conference pertaining to aspects of that history and was at the forefront of articulating a cogent Greek-Australian position on the naming dispute in the nineties is irrelevant to those possessed of few spelling skills but vast stores of righteous anger. Because Professor Tamis does not write in slogans, because he does not think in aphorisms of the Orwellian: “Four legs good, two legs bad” nature, because a lifetime of research into the issue grant him a unique understanding not only of the history but also the constantly changing international and domestic political context in which the naming dispute has evolved, because he does not jump up and down to wave a Greek flag, thereby to “prove” his patriotism, he is branded a traitor by contemptible keyboard warriors, the vast majority of whom have not even bothered to read, let along consider and understand his position.

These keyboard myrmidons are mostly absent from the life of the organized Greek community. One does not generally see them joining the diminishing ranks of those who annually protest the continuing Turkish occupation of Cyprus. They are nowhere to be seen during fundraisers for aged-care or cultural events. Instead, they lead a parallel existence of their own, more Greek than any other possible Greeks, emerging from the meandric fringes of their reality, comprised of putrescent facebook pages existing only to pander to the most repellent forms of racial intolerance and rabid jingoism,  to hurl invectives and impugn the loyalty of those who they do not know, or comprehend. When their paroxysm of patriotism is over, having successfully maligned, defamed and in some cases, threatened their quarry with physical harm, they retreat again to the outmost regions of cyberspace, virtually patted on the back by their hyper-patriot peers, for “outing” another subversive element, during their own two minute hate.

If one is to believe the members of our community who howled in derision when respected academic Dr Christos Fifis rose to address those present at the recent meeting at the Pan-Macedonian Association, he too is a traitor. Further, as one incensed patriot told me, wiping flecks of foam from his mouth as he did so, most academics hate Greece and are traitors, so this should be unsurprising. Dr Christos Fifis, a well respected academic who has devoted his life to teaching the Greek language, literature and history to younger members of the community and has spent countless hours trawling through Greek community archives in order to articulate a particularly Greek-Australian perspective towards our communal history, is a traitor because in his opinion closer ties between Greece and FYROM would benefit both countries and considering that the last letter in the word FYROM stands for Macedonia, stubbornly resisting a compromise solution should be viewed from the perspective that since the nineties, via tactical error, Greece has permitted FYROM to use a name that includes the contentions term. Dr Fifis was not permitted to expound his position. The howls and cat-calls from a crowd that heard one sentence, determined that it was nothing like the slogans it has taught itself to digest and regurgitate, became so intense, that Dr Fifis was compelled to bow before the might of the ochlocracy and exit the room, leaving his opinion only semi-articulated.

Semi-articulation of opinion is no loss to an ochlos that is not interested in listening to any viewpoint that does not reinforce its own narrow prejudices. After over one hundred years in this country, we are still unable to relate to each other as humans, let alone kin. At the first given opportunity, a difference, not even of opinion, but of nuance, can cause friendships to rupture, and basic human respect to evaporate. When one ventures, or is seen to venture to make an utterance that does not accord with the Party line, then, in our community, sadly, this gives us the right to treat our interlocutors with complete contempt, absolving us of any obligation to have regard to their dignity. Once one splutters but a syllable in the wrong direction, their previous service to the community notwithstanding, this apparently allows us to denigrate them in the worst possible terms and cast them out of the fold. We may all love Greece, but it appears that we are experiencing an inordinate difficulty in loving Greeks.

The fact that our community has not evolved sufficiently to allow debate and criticism places all of us in peril. For it is in the clash of ideas and beliefs upon the anvil of human interaction, that plans are formed, defined and a sense of unity and commonality of purpose emerges that binds our community together. Parroting slogans in order to establish patriotic credentials is not tantamount to love of people or country. It is through doubt, questioning, analysis, criticism and planning that the best ways forward emerge. This however, requires humility, mutual respect and love and foremost, a mutual acceptance of the fact that all of us generally have the best of intentions when it comes to our community and our place of origin, that there are, painful as it may appear to some, no traitors, only people with differing viewpoints. Sometimes, those viewpoints may be challenging to our sensibilities, but we would do well to consider them, especially when they emanate from personages who know much more about the issue at hand, than we do. We need to learn how to listen. We need to learn to respect and give due consideration to those who have devoted their lives to our community. We need to understand that governance by slogan and invective stifles progress and creativity.

 
There is a much with regard to the Macedonian name dispute that our community, fixated solely upon appearing patriotic, is leaving unsaid and is not discussing or preparing for. What plan of action exists vis a vis Australian government policy, should the Greek government capitulate/compromise? So far, we have asked the Australian government
 
(successfully) to adopt whatever stance Greece does on the naming dispute. If Greece capitulates, will we, as a community follow? Will we differentiate ourselves from Greece? If so, in what way? Has a draft policy been drafted? Have preparatory consultations been made in the appropriate areas? If the Australian government decides to respect Greece’s position and not follow the recommendations of the Greek-Australian community, how will we deal with this? Given that in the past, during particularly sensitive times, acts of vandalism and violence were targeted against both the Greek-Australian and Skopjan-Australian communities, what steps is our community taking to minimise such occurrences? What consultations, if any, are envisaged with that community, or counselling provided given that many Greek-Australians have intermarried with Skopjan-Australians and times like these cause strain upon family relationships? What public relations plan exists to counter the likely negative criticism from the usual intolerant sections of the mainstream media, when as a united community, we pursue our protest against the Greek government’s possible compromise on the naming dispute  with vigour on 4 March? What plan of action exists once the 4 March protest is concluded?

None of these pertinent questions have been discussed, let alone raised for consideration, within a community for whom planning is often an alien concept and that appears not able to see beyond the staging of a rally as an end and the rooting out of imaginary traitors from its dysfunctional midst. Crowing patriotism is easy and absolves us of the responsibility of actually undertaking the constant hard work that is necessary to achieve a desirable outcome on both the domestic and international level. And when our lack of planning, consensus and foresight will cause us stumble, we can always, as we invariably do, blame the traitors in our midst.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE online on 5 February 2018
 

Saturday, February 03, 2018

HELLENISM 2221: TALES OF DYSTOPIA


 
An event of historic importance took place, within the annals of our community some weeks ago; the publication of John Vithoulkas' fictional story: "Hellenism 2221, Tales from the Antipodes. 'The Centre'" in Neos Kosmos. As far as can be discerned, this is the first time that the future of our community, as an organised entity, (as opposed to that of Greece) has been imagined and expressed through the prism of science fiction, a genre that is not generally employed in order to articulate matters pertaining neither to Hellenism, nor the diasporan community.

 This would appear strange: since the future is inscrutable, a resort to science fiction or fantasy to construct plausible versions of it, would seem to be a natural impulse for sundry writers. In the common conception of the panhellenion however, a high and noble destiny that has already been mapped out for it awaits, one of reclamation of the glories of the ancient past or, of a failure to do so, and consequently, up until now, we have been incapable of envisaging any other alternate of divergent path.

 Ostensibly, Vithoulkas' conception of the Greek community's future in 2221 is, (rather than a bleak dystopian de-hellenised wasteland where the few remaining male descendants of the current members of the community worship a god called Hellas in South Melbourne, cause domestic strife by insisting upon giving their first-born males the name of Ashleigh, or Xander because they were the names of their fathers, and naming one's offspring after their male progenitor is the last remaining 'Greek' custom, and the community, such that it is, is split between two rival groups, the Billists and the Papastergists, both paying homage to conflicting interpretations of the ideology of a legendary but by now historically obscure former Greek community leader who a century ago, achieved something herculean, except that no one can now remember what that was, since the archives have been lost), inordinately technologically advanced, breathtakingly organised and incredibly benign.

 A transport jet lands at the "Hellenic Centre" positioned at the 'Lonsdale Russell Hub.' By means technological and inordinately invasive, chiton-wearing 23rd century interested parties are treated to a continuous narrative of the twentieth century migrant experience, including the founding myth of ancestral migration, the fragmentation of the primordial community into a post-modern panspermia of regional organisations complete with a glimpse of their interminable dinner dances and its re-unification as a co-ordinated body. All the while, the visitors are immersed in slogans and buzzwords that assist to adhere the narrative to their consciousness: "transition" "educate and enlighten," "forever true," "enrich," "smiling," "grows" and "shines."

 We can assume that the narrative of our antipodean history is neither lengthy or particularly interesting, which is why Vithoulkas relates that the rest of the visit to the "Centre" is devoted to an astounding sensory exploration of aspects of the history and customs of the Greek motherland, rather than those of its Melburnian imitation, including the tantalising opportunity to converse with such historical figures as Dionysios Solomos, Nikos Xylouris and Panagiotis Tountas.

 Part Westworld, part class-room, this virtual reality Hellenic theme-park has only come into existence via bequests by what appear to be long defunct Greek clubs, to an undefined, nebulous "Hellenic Foundation," whose unrevealed guiding principals apparently have the power to set homework.

 The genius of Vithoulkas' futuristic vision lies in how he masterfully cloaks his future dystopia in the type of self-delusionary, self-indulgent language and imagery that so characterises contemporary mores. For, beyond the sensory delights of an ersatz actuality, Vithoulkas' future Greek community is a veritable dystopia. We neither know, or in fact is it considered important that we know, what constitutes the blindingly brilliant, all pervasive "Hellenic Foundation," how it is governed, who it represents, or indeed, why it is the sole arbiter of Hellenism in Melbourne. We do not know what language is spoken by it. Instead, what is important is that we submit to its education, that we "thank them," and that our "love for Hellenism [at least the version of it propagated and sanctified by it] grows." 

 Just as monolithic is the narrative foisted upon the youth, clad uniformly in retrograde but ideologically acceptable gear. The myth of arrival, settlement, decline and then salvation through the miraculous intercession of the "Hellenic Foundation," from which all good Hellenic things derive, appears to be not so much history, than gospel. At no stage, are we told, that the Greek-Australians of the future will be able to have the means to assess their past, personal, ethnic and national, for themselves. Nowhere, it appears, is there room for dissent, discussion, critical re-appraisal and a multiplicity of narratives. Instead, according to Vithoulkas, our critical faculties will be massaged and numbed by "real life" forays into the distant past, with the interpretation, re-construction and presentation of that past being managed by the ubiquitous Hellenic Foundation. Thus, the boy who was set as homework, the weighty task of discovering Odysseus' Cave of the Nymphs, is not given the opportunity to assess whether the Homeric hero was a literary character or indeed, had a corporeal existence. Neither does it matter. What is important is that he accepts reality as imposed upon him by the Foundation, for this forms an integral part of his "enhancement lessons."

 Perhaps the most dystopian aspect of Vithoulkas' 23rd century Greek community in Melbourne is that in fact, it possibly no longer exists. There do not appear to be any "Greeks" living in the area and they have to be flown in from somewhere else. Even if it does exist in some other discernible geographic area, it has no vitality. The whole premise of Vithoulkas' insightful analysis is of a society so fixated upon the past, its re-creation (which is why the future reconstruction of community lectures and dinner dances as envisaged by the author, and to which dance groups could be added, is a masterstroke) and re-enactment, that outside of its role as custodian of a time-capsule of history and an Ark of culture, or high-priest of a cult of ancestor-worship, it has developed no identifiable culture or identity of its own. Instead, this is a community in crisis, where nothing of the hallowed past appears to have evolved organically through the centuries to meld with the local environment and as a result it exists as a entity completely separate and foreign to the understanding of the rootless community that is supposed to be its heir, requiring the intervention of others in order for the past to be "re-discovered" and in the process rendering it and the community, susceptible of gross manipulation.

 If ever there was a cautionary tale about ancestor worship and the consequences of crystallising the past rather than employing its constituent parts to interpret and vivify, rather than rarefy the present, then this is it. Significantly, Vithoulkas embeds within the text, with a virtual Cavafy shedding virtual tears "as he considered what he had passed." For this, if we do not heed the gentle author, is our future: That of Cavafy's ritualistic Poseidonians, stuck within an Orwellian time-loop in the Ministry of Greek Love, with a little bit of the Matrix thrown in for good measure.

 Vithoulkas ends his vision of a future Hellenism that shines brightly, flourishes, and enlightens by stating, ominously, that it sows, leaving it to us to imagine what will be reaped. What he has sown in terms of Greek-Australian literature is a remarkable way of gazing into the time vortex itself, unphased and, if we are not careful, re-Hellenised. May his successors and imitators be legion.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on 3 February 2018