- An Ethico-Political Portrait of the Greek Imagination
A year ago I published in these pages (JMGS 15:197–208) a critique of the current ethnographic trend across the disciplines entitled “Modern Greek Studies in the Age of Ethnography.” I concluded this by suggesting that “what we need right now is a history of heroes, of achievements, of virtues, of important works, of effective innovations, of beautiful structures—a history of freedoms, equalities, values, and distinctions.” I could not have hoped for a more dramatic confirmation of my critique or a more convincing illustration of my suggestion than Michael Herzfeld’s pathbreaking Portrait of a Greek Imagination. This book is mandatory reading for every scholar, student, and friend of Greece. As he has often done in the past, Herzfeld once again sets the agenda for the field of Modern Greek while also charting new paths of inquiry for the social and human sciences at large.
Starting in the 1960s, a textualist turn in scholarship generated a wide-ranging and productive exchange between literary study and other disciplines such as history, philosophy, sociology, and law. While those disciplines were inspired by criticism and theory to turn to literature itself and to explore its potential for interdisciplinary inquiry, literary inquiry also learned from their approach toward evidence and argument. As a result, we witnessed the emergence of comparative courses, conferences, and journals devoted to philosophy and literature, law and literature, medicine and literature, gender and literature, and the like.
In this regard, a surprising exception was anthropology. One would have thought that the recent history of literary and anthropological studies should have greatly facilitated a broad exchange between the two disciplines. On the one hand, the transmutation of literary theory into cultural studies alerted its practitioners to the ethnographic dimensions (practices, rituals, institutions) of their area. On the other hand, the textualist turn of cultural anthropology alerted its supporters to the interpretative aspects of their research. And yet, despite a few isolated efforts, an encounter between anthropology and literary study did not take place; nor did anthropology express any systematic interest in literature itself.
However, the potential for cross-fertilization remains tremendous. Limiting [End Page 349] ourselves to Modern Greek, one may consider, for example, the contribution anthropology can make to the study of literature as an institution through ethnographies of its sites and discourses, and the ways in which literary study can reciprocate by opening up the work of authors such as Stratis Myrivilis, Pandelis Prevelakis, George Seferis, or Melpo Axioti for anthropological exploration. Reading a short story by Sotiris Dimitriou, a novel by Evgenia Fakinou, or a collection by Dimitris Kalokyris; watching a play by Dimitris Kehaidis, a TV series by Lakis Lazopoulos, or a film by Theo Angelopoulos, many people find themselves responding through a combination of aesthetic judgment and anthropological speculation. Given the fact that Greek literature and the arts have never abandoned their socio-historical preoccupations, it would be hard to find any creative works that would not reward, indeed that do not require, such a combined response.
In general, one can envision many directions of inquiry where the two disciplines may converge: anthropology in literature (depictions of ethnographic inquiry in literary works); anthropology as literature (literary aspects of ethnographic writing); anthropology of literature (ethnographies of practices in literary markets); anthropology through literature (ethnographic exploration of literary works); anthropology and literature (comparative study of the same work or phenomenon); and anthropology like literature (literature that takes the form of ethnography). Several of these possibilities are explored in Michael Herzfeld’s latest book.
The obvious choice for a first anthropological reading of Greek literature would have been writers like Vizyenos, Karagatsis, Myrivilis, and Takhtsis, whose work represents the narrative trend known as ethographia. A parallel study of the graphe of the ethos and the graphe of the ethnos itself would have been a self-evident starting point. Instead, Herzfeld opts for an utterly marginal figure: a writer who is little known in his own...