- 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 Ren...