Just back from Easter in the Peloponnese. Chaos meets miracles. Microscopic olive buds bursting from elephantine trunks. Marble soft as a pillow. Iridescent jet propelled beetles as big as mice. Horses performing circus tricks for sugar cubes. Giant lemons of many varieties hanging from one slender bough. Satellites like flying islands winking between the stars. Dynamited Judas in a watery fire festival. Christ is risen.
I visit the same seaside village every year to write and think and hook-up with a diverse bunch of people from a mixture of countries. We did lots of nothing in the hope that something might happen. Lunches, suppers, swims, walks, and conversations late into the early hours stumbled over theology, iconography, mythology, ethnicity, bribery and corruption, Panathinaikos versus Olympiacos, cats, and the impending Mayoral elections.
The joys of these interactions are the vocabularies, gestures and expressions we engineer to communicate across language and cultural barriers. Despite global homogenisation, there are still striking differences in outlooks and attitudes that invite deconstruction – from the way we crack our eggs at breakfast to fundamental ethical issues. Translating one language into another is not just about the meaning of words, but interpreting perceptions, idioms and behaviors. Learning how others live their lives, helps us make sense of our own.
Ancient Greece was a seafaring empire empowered by the Gods of Winds. Aeolus gave Odysseus the bag of breezes to speed his voyage. Tramountara sporting serpent tail feet tormented mortals with turbulence. Eurus rained down warmth and fertility to launch the spring. Notus breathed fogs of stealth into plots and conspiracies. Zephyrus was the God of Love who sired Achilles’ immortal stallions.
Modern Greece is languishing in the doldrums. Glimmers of hope are on the horizon but poverty, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, crippling debt repayments, and sluggish growth are smothering recovery. This nation has to change – but how and into what? Like many countries that have been oppressed, invaded, and carved up over centuries, Greece is clinging to sovereignty and sanity by the skin of its teeth.
Political disillusionment, economic instability, and confusion over identity are breeding grounds for extremism. Greek’s neo fascist Golden Dawn party use fear of the unknown to inflame insecurity. Ultra-nationalism, racism and xenophobia incite hate, destroy democracy, fracture communities, and then hook their claws into the wreckage. Civilisation is a fragile veneer. The unthinkable can rapidly become normal.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift used satire to ridicule and influence the Machiavellian machinations of his times. It was also a parody of the ‘traveller’s tales’ genre of writing that emerged from the Grand Tours of the 18th century. Gulliver’s encounters of surreal societies celebrated the contradictory nature of allegory. One of the many enduring qualities of this book is that the relationship between Swift (the writer) and Gulliver (the character) is so mischievously intermingled. In this excerpt, the Principle Secretary of Lilliput explains the fatuous political and religious dogma that has rendered the establishment so dysfunctional, and begs Gulliver’s help to save their souls.
“Lilliput and Blefuscu have been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. The primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy and breaking an egg according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law there have been six rebellions raised on that account wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral. This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’ And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the chief magistrate to determine. Now, the Big-endian exiles have found so much credit in the emperor of Blefuscu’s court, and so much private assistance and encouragement from their party here at home, that a bloody war has been carried on between the two empires for six-and-thirty moons with various success; during which time we have lost forty capital ships, and a much a greater number of smaller vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best seamen and soldiers; and the damage received by the enemy is reckoned to be somewhat greater than ours. However, they have now equipped a numerous fleet, and are just preparing to make a descent upon us and his imperial majesty, placing great confidence in your valour and strength, has commanded me to lay this account of his affairs before you.”