- The Old Greeks: Photography, Cinema, Migration by George Kouvaros
The title of The Old Greeks: Photography, Cinema, Migration perfectly captures the cultural work that film studies scholar Kouvaros's memoir performs. By moving back and forth between personal narrative and readings of photography and film, this memoir forges a bridge between, on the one hand, the generation of Greeks who emigrated as blue-collar workers and became business owners, financially stable but linguistically excluded from the host cultures, and, on the other, the author's world of educated, white-collar workers who live in the shadow of Greek culture's obsession with belatedness, nostalgia, and νόστoς (yearning for home). Kouvaros's parents belong to the former generation. Kouvaros (not without some welcome misgivings about speaking for his parents) gives them a voice in his narrative segments. We academics, readers of the JMGS and of this memoir, largely belong to the latter group. We—currently young or middle aged—have had access to English-language education. We are steeped, too, in the cultural symbols of the old Greeks and conversant in the theoretical idiom of Walter Benjamin and Edward Said, an idiom that makes us hyperaware of the origin and the constructedness of our every nostalgic or patriotic emotive response. Benjamin and Said number among a veritable pantheon of scholars who figure as a sort of spectral, imaginative chorus alongside Kouvaros himself in this informative exploration of migration's meaning, its legacy, and the questions which that legacy raises for a generation of scholars whose lives are shaped by Greekness and the problem of return.
Epigraphs from Cavafy, Seferis, and John Berger signal the book's dual intellectual investment, which is in the theory of visual art and in Greek literature. The site where theories of visual art converge with Greek literature is the object, and the object's inevitable symbolic force. One of the first things aspiring writers learn is the power unlocked by simply describing an object in meticulous detail, while restraining the impulse to explain away its symbolic force. Accordingly, The Old Greeks is replete with such well-described objects, beginning with a photograph of an old, colonial era Cypriot identity card that Kouvaros's mother handed down to her son. The identity card's description, with its "British subj.," immediately evokes the island's contentious political history, and in providing the required historical context, the book anticipates from the first page how the author's own existence will be repeatedly intercepted by geopolitical events. The "establishing" object (like the establishing shot of a film), made of paper and already very worn, quickly introduces another key theme of the book, which is what Kouvaros terms an "expectation that these things [End Page 441] will not be forgotten" (10). Calling into question the truism that the function of objects-turned-memorabilia, like the function of memoir, is to preserve forever the memory of what happened, the paper identity card suggests a more painful truth: the very tools of memory are subject to wear, and any preservation act reaches ahead into time for only so many generations.
One of the book's key contributions is to suggest a new way of thinking about the intersection of photography and migration. Many of us, especially the creative writers, are so focused on narrative (whether oral or written) that our analyses are limited to the verbal. Kouvaros invites such verbally-prone readers to recognize the major role that the image has played in constructing the alluring image of ξενιτιά (living in a foreign land) which plays a dominant role in the cultural imagination of Modern Greece. Kouvaros explains that Greeks and Greek-Cypriots have frequently sought, through photographs, to link the present with the "restless persistence of the past" (26). The book problematizes that effort and helps readers comprehend the way images have been themselves romanticized, even as they have also facilitated the romanticizing of the past. Thus, Kouvaros helps readers face the difficult truth that such memorabilia not only support memory but at the same time undermine...