restricted access Modern Greek Studies in the West: Between the Classics and the Orient
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Modem Greek Studies in the West: Between the Classics and the Orient* Margaret Alexiou Three voices from the past—classicist, orientalist and neohellenist— may be invoked to introduce the question of the position of modern Greek studies in European scholarship today: At a distance, in the past, and removed from its everyday reality, only thus should the Ancient World appear to us. The sky and the sea are still there; the Oriental sky and the Ionian sea give each other the sacred kiss of love each morning; but the earth is dead, dead because man has killed it, and the gods have fled. Let us remind the young that if demoticism is for us one of the most important events of our Race, it is because, above all, it symbolises her first collective turning towards Truth. And let us advise the young to seek Truth, as did the first demoticists, not asking how to be Greeks, but in the belief that since they are Greeks, the works that their soul will bring forth cannot but be Greek. The first voice is that of Wilhelm von Humboldt, leading philologist of the German neohellenist school, who exercised no small impact on classical scholarship and aesthetic theory during the first decades of the nineteenth century.1 His view, that the classics must be removed from everyday reality, expressed at the outset of the "modern" and "scientific" phase of classical scholarship, is characteristic of the early Romantic period, but by no means extinct today. It renders the study of the classics an exclusive kind of game, played according to the rules of western academics, safely isolated both from contemporary contexts and from post-classical developments in Byzantine and "This paper opened the Literature Panel of the Symposium held by the Modern Greek Studies Association in Columbus, Ohio (November 1985), and was subsequently given to the Modern Greek Studies Seminar, University of Birmingham. Thanks are acknowledged to all participants in discussion. It is intended as no more than a preliminary exploration of a set of problems which deserve more systematic investigation and research. 4 Margaret Alexiou modern Greek. The second voice is that of Gérard de Nerval, French poet and writer, whose Voyage en Orient (1851) epitomizes what Edward Said has termed the western appropriation and mystification of the Orient (1978: 1-28). Although extreme in his romanticism, Nerval , in his obsession with Oriental nature stripped of humanity and divinity, stands at the end of a long tradition of western scholars, travelers and poets, who visited the classical lands in search of an ideal, enamored of the landscape and ruins, but oblivious to (or contemptuous of) the contemporary inhabitants, both Greek and Turkish, and their culture.2 Greek scholars have been quick in rejecting such forms of "anti-hellenism," but slower to deconstruct the underlying romantic premises on which they are founded. The third voice is that of George Seferis (1962: 102), who identifies demoticism with the search for Truth and defines literary creativity as the spontaneous expression of the collective Greek "soul," in common with demoticist tradition as defined from the 1880s (Tziovas 1984, 1985). Although the three perspectives are different, each rests on an idealized conception, whether of the classical past, the Orient, or Greekness. It is the purpose of this article to sketch some of the factors that have contributed to the idealization of Greece and to discuss some of the consequences ofthat idealization, both positive and negative, as a preliminary survey of a question that is urgent, if complex, since it has practical as well as theoretical implications. If the only result is to suggest that a fuller study of the "genealogy" of modern Greek might prove fruitful, especially when examined alongside the western appropriation of the classics and Oriental studies, then some progress will have been made.' To start with some of the practical issues. First, to which discipline does modern Greek belong? A cursory glance at university departments to which it is attached reveals the following diversity: Classics, Byzantine Studies, Modern Languages, "Other" Languages (!), Judaic and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, English , Comparative Literature, Linguistics, Balkan Studies, Sociology , History, Anthropology. A time span from antiquity to the present...