Behind beauty's veil: The mystical world of Eva and Angelos Sikelianos by Euthalia Papadaki
The name of Angelos Sikelianos (1884–1951) appears on almost every shortlist of Modern Greek canonical authors. Yet the writing of Sikelianos does not read easily today, and some people even suggest that it was outmoded when it first appeared: too vatic, too effusive, too lacking in irony, too confident in its ability to communicate with layers of the past, too esoteric to be read as literature of the twentieth century. Twenty-one years younger than Cavafy, with his first publication appearing twenty-one years before that of Seferis, Sikelianos stands as a bridge to neither. This is a recurring theme that echoes in responses to his work: the «ασύγχρονος» (atemporal) Sikelianos stood outside present time (cf. Petropoulou 2019, 90–92). Lia Papadaki masterfully pushes against this reading of Sikelianos's work. Her meticulous decoding of his writing identifies a rich contemporary intertext and places him in dialogue with modernism's numinous countercultural branches: the mystics, hermeticists, pantheists, and occultists who populated many of the literary and artistic movements in the early twentieth century.
The subject of Papadaki's book is Sikelianos's most comprehensive work, his Delphic effort: the project to revive ancient festivals at Delphi as a first step to making Delphi the center of an international, Greek-themed, world cultural revival. Two parallel premises guide the book. One posits that the connections between Sikelianos's writing and an array of contemporary thinkers are richer and more international than acknowledged. The interrelationships require careful tracing—in large part because Angelos, an avid reader with a rich library, made it a practice never to acknowledge his sources. The second premise is the prodigious involvement in Sikelianos's work of Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874–1952), the queer performer, weaver, director, and composer who made Greek prototypes the basis for her art of living. When she became Angelos's wife in 1907, he was just 23 and she a decade older. Drawing on extensive, long overlooked archival material, Papadaki identifies the well-read Palmer as "a source of inspiration for Sikelianos from such a young age that the Delphic project must be attributed equally to her as a collaborator" (15). The fact that Sikelianos was not forthcoming about her involvement in the Delphic Festivals is reason precisely not to ignore it. Following these guiding ideas, Papadaki lays the groundwork for a larger argument: the Delphic project, emanating from the shared countercultural approaches of Palmer and Sikelianos and their rich [End Page 263] dialogue with many contemporary thinkers, is best understood as a transnational, hermetic, and spiritually devoted, anti-modern modernist project that pushed for eternal truths beyond present day reality.
These central ideas cut across the book's three sections, which are organized chronologically, shifting focus back and forth between Sikelianos and Palmer. Part 1, «Η αισθητική παρακμή (1900–1922)» ("Aesthetic Decadence"), covers a period whose beginning precedes the Delphic project's inception by more than two decades, infusing it somewhat vaguely with decadent roots. It takes Sikelianos and Palmer from their coming of age, meeting in Greece, and marriage through the decade of war and division to the Asia Minor Disaster. In broad outlines, Angelos, from a genteelly impoverished family of Leukas, moved to Athens at the turn of the century ostensibly to study law but in effect to practice an idle artistic life. He quickly abandoned his unsuccessful debut in theater to turn his attention to poetry, publishing in the literary magazines Διόνυσος Παναθήναια and the demoticist journal Νουμάς His marriage to Eva Palmer offered him wealth and social access. In his case, "aesthetic decadence" applies loosely to his dandyish cultivation of beauty in art and appearance. The term applies more strictly to Palmer, who abandoned her upper-class family in New York City and studies at Bryn Mawr College to dedicate herself to art for art's sake in turn-of-the-century Paris. There, with her lover Natalie Clifford Barney, the writer and saloniste, and with decadent poet Renée Vivien, she was a founding member of a circle of self-described lesbians or sapphics: women who loved women and who were highly aware that Charles Baudelaire, the father of decadence, made Lesbos, Sappho's homeland, the "mère … des voluptés grecques" ("mother…of Greek delights")—that is, of female companions who looked upon each other with sexual longing (Baudelaire 1857).
Together with Sikelianos and Palmer, Raymond Duncan, brother of the dancer Isadora Duncan and partner of Penelope Sikelianos, Angelos's sister, makes an early appearance. Duncan performs two introductory roles. One is social. He and Penelope Sikelianos introduce Eva Palmer to Greece and to the Sikelianos family. The other is philosophical and aesthetic. He is the entrance point to a rich array of alternative lifestyle advocates, all Platonists pushing for an invisible truth and turning to ancient lands such as Greece and India to infuse their work with esoteric knowledge of the past. Some, like Duncan, gave emphasis to handicraft, dress, movement, and self-cultivation (François Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, Isadora Duncan), spiritual thought and practice (Helena Blavatsky Rudolf Steiner, Auguste-Maurice Barrès), and social or political ideas (Oswald Spengler, Leo Strauss); others to music (Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky), [End Page 264] visual arts (Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Joséphin Péladan, Kakazu Okakura, Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich Piet Mondrian, František Kupka), architecture (Le Corbusier), and literature (Paul Valéry, André Gide, Jean Moréas, André Breton, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, H. D., T. S. Eliot, and Nikos Kazantzakis; see Karalis 2018). They were part of multiple artistic movements: symbolism, decadence, Der Blaue Reiter, expressionism, non-objective art, Imagism, abstract expressionism, De Stijl, etc. In the words of Alex Ross (2017), "mystics … prepared the ground for the modernist revolution of the early twentieth century."
Papadaki presents a plethora of participants and movements, with clear, comprehensive footnotes giving each person's name (in Greek and Latin spellings), dates, and relevant achievements, with longer biographies for a few key players in the appendix. The list is long, the genealogies complicated. Papadaki's writing is episodic, narrating the stories of the book's twin heroes and punctuating them with brilliant literary readings that cross-reference unacknowledged sources and hidden collaborators. Thus, while the book lays out its evidence fully it only just hints at its larger, more substantial argument. More precisely, in keeping with a standard in American academic writing, it does not clearly mark patterns or dynamic turns. To read the book well is to handle a potential information overload by isolating crucial details, tracing the book's broader outlines, filling in the argument, and taking pleasure in its storytelling.
One key piece of evidence—Sikelianos's direct borrowing of the larger plan for the Delphic project from an influential French occultist writer—appears without any crescendo near the beginning of Part 2, «Η απόδοση ηθικού νοήματος στον αισθητισμό (1922–1934)» ("The Rendering of Ethical Meaning to Aestheticism"). This section follows mention of Sikelianos's political turn to the right after the National Schism and discussion of his "Open Letter to His Majesty," published during the Greek Asia Minor campaign in March 1922. Sikelianos's letter declared his unalloyed anti-Venizelist, anti-Western stance and anticipated that King Constantine I would lead Greece to a new era of dominance through strong positioning in the Middle East and reconciliation with the Turkish Nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. After the Asia Minor Disaster, Sikelianos sought out new sources of inspiration. He laid out the Delphic project in a series of speeches and writings beginning in 1923. His plan was for a «συναρχία» (synarchy, a word explicitly opposed to anarchy, 144–151) at Delphi: a world-governing body, competing with and eventually replacing the newly forged League of Nations. Unelected, elite philosopher-leaders would guide the process. Papadaki's careful reading of Sikelianos's dense, barely comprehensible prose draws convincing parallels specifically to the writing of [End Page 265] Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, the French occultist and influential author of conservative political-theological tracts, whose Mission des Juifs (1884) laid out a plan very similar to that of Sikelianos. In the 1920s and 1930s, Saint-Yves's work became a recruiting tool for leaders of the business world, military, arts, and academia to join in the political project of creating a single world-governing body aimed at destroying not just anarchy and communism but all radical democratic forces. In short, Sikelianos, through this direct appropriation of Saint-Yves's theories and occultist framework, placed himself in the company of the national socialists and fascists of his era (159).
The political valence of the Delphic project is a question that has occupied critics since the first Delphic Festival. One journalist, writing under the pseudonym "S" for the communist newspaper Ριζοσπάστης (Rizospástis) on 16 May 1927, identified the drive for reenactment of the ancient festivals as a "balm of the ruling class" (quoted in Van Steen 2013, 54). In a recent article, Gonda Van Steen more pointedly argues that the Delphic productions shared common ground with "the right-wing vision of mass theater espoused by [their friend, theater critic Gabriel] Boissy" (Van Steen 2013, 73), who advocated the use of ancient open-air theaters decades before the Delphic Festivals. Certainly, by reviving ancient drama with a large tragic chorus singing and dancing in the ancient amphitheater of Delphi, with games and dances featuring men in heavy armor in the ancient stadium, they were creating a mass spectacle, using myth to bypass the inhibitions of a critical intellect and move their audience. Yet the dramaturgy of Eva Palmer Sikelianos simultaneously resisted the use of theater to hypnotize the masses, as I have argued: "Her investment in individual and group autonomy, belief in a diversity of ways of being, and work to develop techniques of self-expression to help liberate the creative impulse against the crushing uniformity of consumerism conflicted with the more authoritarian strains latent in the Delphic Idea" (Leontis 2019, 161). Van Steen is closer to the truth when she refers to Boissy's praise for the festival's "mystagogy" (Van Steen 2013, 70). What Papadaki convincingly shows in her tour de force tracing of Sikelianos's sources is that the ground the Delphic project shared with the growing bourgeois-fascist movement was the linkage to contemporary occult writing. Running through the festivals was a kind of mythical thinking that tends to go hand-in-hand with repressive, right-wing nationalist politics.
Yet modern esoteric ideas sharing a disdain for scientific positivism and secular liberalism have also supported liberation movements such as the nonviolent independence struggle of India against British colonialism. It was Gandhi's encounter in London with Helena Blavatsky, the occultist and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, that gave him both the license to embrace Hinduism [End Page 266] and the tools to effectively lead masses in India in a movement that challenged the British colonial project. Sikelianos and Palmer had personal connections to Gandhi's movement, and Palmer borrowed at least one of its symbols in her direction of Prometheus Bound (Leontis 2019, 160–161). Occult politics are hard to pin down. In the twentieth century, countercultural ideas teeter-tottered politically between Right and Left.
Papadaki's biographical treatment of the larger Delphic project introduces many shades of gray. She takes readers through the Delphic Festivals of 1927 and 1930 (the latter supported by pro-Venizelist Antonis Benakis) and the failed production of Sikelianos's Ο διθύρμβος του ρόδου (The Dithyramb of the Rose) on Philopappos Hill in 1933, then follows their separate work after Palmer leaves Greece in 1934 to recuperate her losses. Part 3, «Η τραγική ανασυγκρότηση (1933–1952)» ("Tragic Reconstruction") covers the relatively unknown, very rich last two decades of their lives. In the 1930s, Sikelianos continued writing plays and tried but failed to organize a third festival under the auspices of the Metaxas dictatorship. He then broke ranks with the monarchists. He became an early recruit to the Greek resistance movement (the National Liberation Front, EAM) following the German invasion of Greece. Meanwhile Palmer wrote Byzantine-style music for English translations of Greek drama and English verse. With her own music and costumes, she directed Euripides' Bacchae at Smith and Bryn Mawr Colleges and Aeschylus's Persians with actors of the Federal Theater Project and Ted Shawn. Papadaki is especially attentive to Palmer's anti-fascist, anti-monarchist political activism in the 1940s, leading to her blacklisting for un-American activities and denial of a visa to return to Greece and organize a Delphic revival supported by the Marshall Plan (291). When she did finally return to Greece in 1952, she followed the advice of her friends Angeliki Hatzimihali and Koula Pratsika and kept her political views to herself (300). She died three weeks later and received the public funeral of a national hero in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens and cemetery at Delphi.
Although the Sikelianoses took their strange readings, odd poses, and shifting religio-political beliefs with them to their respective graves, Papadaki's book patiently reconstructs enough of their sources to place the Delphic project in its contemporary context. While Palmer and Sikelianos still appear purposefully anachronistic, they are also, weirdly, more attuned to present times than many other Greek modernists. I felt their phantom presence a few months ago when I followed the crowd up the spiraling ramp of the Guggenheim Museum through the exhibit "Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future" (Bashkoff 2018). The crowd was noticeably large; I later learned that this was the museum's most popular exhibit ever. Hilma af Klint, a talented painter trained [End Page 267] in the Swedish Academy, is hardly a household name. Until recently, she barely appeared in the histories of modern art. Yet she is one of the earliest painters of abstract art, preceding Wassily Kandinsky, often considered the pioneer of abstraction, by more than a decade. This unacknowledged precedence of an almost forgotten woman who painted groundbreaking work outside the salons of modernist art surely drew some of the museum's visitors. The bigger draw, however, was her spiritualism: Klint studied Theosophy and other esoteric movements. Her paintings—breathtakingly beautiful and filled with secret signs and codes connecting everything to an invisible vision—evolved from séances conducted by a group called the Five: four female friends and herself, who contacted invisible otherworldly "Spirit Leaders" (Fant 1986, 155). Her job as the artist was to draw the words the Five were channeling. Her abstract art grew from these visions. The crowds in the museum, drawn by the allusive magnetism of the work, helped me to see that the occultist obsessions of more than a century ago have hardly gone away. Counter-enlightenment seeds are spread far and wide in a world still sensing decay and scanning culture for mystical signs of transcendence.
Artemis Leontis is C.P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her research includes classical reception and Modern Greek literary and cultural studies. Her books are Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland (Cornell University Press, 1995, Greek translation 1998), Greece: A Traveler's Literary Companion (San Francisco: Whereabouts Press, 1997); "What these Ithakas mean …": Readings in Cavafy (Athens: ELIA, 2002), the companion to the exhibit "Cavafy's World" at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; Culture and Customs of Greece (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press/ABC-CLIO, 2009), and Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).
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