Greek consolations in stone


Statue of Liberty in KalamattaThe last time I was in the Athens-Kalamata bus I happened to sit next to an older woman, a widow, who was very excited to be returning to her patritha. Having married a German, she had been away from the scenes of her youth for a long time, so that she gasped and sighed over familiar sights, and at the changes time had wrought.

As the bus neared its terminus, she clutched my arm, pointed, and said, 'There it is: that's my work; that's why I'm here.' I saw nothing but a large white plinth. But a few days later, I observed a Statue of Liberty in place, and the name inscribed on the plinth made it obvious the statue had been donated by my travelling companion.

The bronze edifice follows convention: Liberty/Eleftheria is a female usually swathed in flowing robes: she holds aloft either a sword or a flame. Beneath this particular statue is a relief that shows the events of 23 March 1821, when the Greek War of Independence started, two days ahead of schedule, right here in Kalamata. The scene of priests and warriors bears the legend: With one voice, we have decided to live or die for our freedom.

The problem is that the town already has two similar statues. Did it need another? Statues are, of course, a very Greek thing. Busts of military heroes and departed civic dignitaries are all over Kalamata, while rows of long-gone bishops grace the forecourt of the Cathedral. Predictably, my foreign friends and I rumbled and grumbled. All that money. What about the hospital? What about the poor and unemployed? What about children going hungry?

I was in a state of doubt. As usual. Perhaps people will feel encouraged and uplifted, I ventured, but subsided when my ex-Sydney friend came forth with a scathing Oh, come on!

In Jessica Anderson's fine novel Tirra Lirra by the River, narrator Nora Porteous, reflecting in a series of seamless flashbacks on her difficult life, tells the reader that she is in love with beauty. She becomes a dressmaker who also does exquisite embroidery. Much of her life, during which she moves from Brisbane to Sydney to London and back again, is spent in an often unconscious search for sensibilities that match her own.

During the search she consoles herself with her work, and with reading what a like-minded friend calls 'the great big beautiful classics'. At the end of the novel, Nora recalls her father's funeral, and a voice that makes the comment: A fine ceremony, madam! A verry fine ceremony! Nora's last words and those of the novel are: I think it consoled me, a little. I think ceremony always has, a little.

Although the tourist season in Greece was better than expected, there is otherwise not much cause for cheer. PM Antonis Samaras says that recovery will take six years: other people are more pessimistic.

Suicide rates have risen alarmingly in a country where formerly they were very low, and the young continue to seek opportunities elsewhere. Strikes and demonstrations occur regularly, and until recently the political scene has been marred by the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. But in a shocking episode, a left wing musician was last month stabbed to death by a Golden Dawn member. Pavlos Fyssas was 34, and his death led, in a move itself fraught with hazard, to a long-overdue governmental crackdown on the party.

Nora was in love with beauty; Greeks have always been in love with freedom. And they know that ordinary people have fought for it, and are keeping on fighting. Fortuitously, I have come across some lines written by another novelist, the mighty George Eliot, who maintained that the 'growing good of the world' (a concept with which I struggle) 'is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.' Such good, she went on to say, was 'half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs'.

Perhaps that's it. The newest Statue of Liberty, donated by an exile, certainly acknowledges that age-old love that countless hidden and unknown Greeks have lived and died for. And perhaps the statue also consoles. A little. 

Gillian Bouras headshotGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River



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Thanks Gillian, lovely. If I may also quote George Eliot: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
Pam | 12 November 2013

Another thought provoking piece from Gillian Bouras. i have read her work for all the time she has been writing and enjoy her view of the world and her ability to put it into the written word. Thank you!
Rosalie | 13 November 2013

An interesting article, Gillian. Ceremonies do console us in life, as you point out, but I think it is also possible for everyone to have those moments of personal illumination, which authentic mystics in all traditions chronicle, where life means something. There has, I believe, been a horrific and often publicly unacknowledged trend of suicides amongst young people in this country, including amongst indigenous youth. My feeling is that suicide is often committed in that metaphorical "moment" when the suicide is alone; in utter despair and life seems to have no meaning. I think a highly materialistic and overly intellectual society such as modern Australia needs to recover its ability to feel. I believe it is only through a feeling response, whether through literature; music; art; a religious service or nature that you get a sense of value and meaning. That sense of value and meaning is often expressed differently by different people. I am amazed at the quiet dignity and bearing of a cousin, a Quaker, who recently lost his much loved wife. If the same ever happened to me I hope I could behave as he did.
Edward F | 13 November 2013

In times of economic difficulty one can excuse mutterings in favourite of hospitals or social services when yet another statue to liberty is raised - and yet... I lived 13 years in a town in western Japan. Formerly a coal and cement town - it had re-imagined itself - green (streets edged with zelkova and dogwood - hedged with azaleas of various kinds) and as a centre of sculptures - hundreds scattered throughout the city. There were mutterings from pursed lips about the waste of public money - at times I probably nodded - but then I thought about the poetry, the form, the lift to the spirit -the aesthetics of the artistry - and I saw it as a kind of public balm. Every two years it held a major international sculpture exposition - not unlike Sydney's annual "Sculpture By The Sea" exhibition just finished. People travelling to visit - free - something for the spirit -inspirational! Like the intent of your bus companion - liberty within the heart of those passing by her tribute to her native land.
Jim KABLE | 13 November 2013

Music to a writer's ears. Thank you, Rosalie. And Pam: George Eliot is always right!
Gillian Bouras | 13 November 2013

Byron was pretty right least about Greek independence, and Elgin's epic vandalism. He has some interesting lines about the Greek marbles being stolen: 'Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed/ By British hands, which it had best behoved/ To guard those relics ne'er to be restored./ Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,/ And once again thy hapless bosom gored,/ And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!' (Just pasted from Wilkipedia here as I can't chase it up properly now. Lines may not hold in the comments form, which tends to muck things up. They are from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and I think Byron may have another go in Don Juan, IIRC.) Seems apposite on the statue front.
Penelope | 14 November 2013

As always, a joy to read and a fascinating view of the world through your eyes. You are ever refreshing and express beautifully your views and ideas. You never fail to give me food for thought. Thank you!
di | 14 November 2013

This article; indeed a breath of fresh air. Blessed are those that seek beauty when the world around them seems to be crumbling.
John Whitehead | 15 November 2013

Greece abounds in monuments to liberty, personified as a woman: Eleftheria. In Australia, by contrast, I am not aware of any monuments to liberty per se, although there are numerous memorials to the human price paid in conflicts embarked upon in liberty's name; but no monument comparable with that icon of freedom that greeted the boatloads of immigrants and refugees arriving in the United States - the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, where the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity once sparked a revolution. Does the absence of sculptural representations and images of liberty in the Australian context imply that we take our liberty for granted (or associate it with wars fought mostly on foreign soil), even though many of the earliest British arrivals were transported here in fetters to perform what amounted to slave labour? Or does the concept of liberty imply an uncomfortable element of ambiguity in a country whose Indigenous people were brutally dispossessed, frequently deprived of liberty, and continue to die in custody to this day? (A fate that is also known to befall some of the asylum seekers languishing in detention centres.) For many, liberty would seem to be a work in progress.
Jena Woodhouse | 19 November 2013


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