(originally published Tuesday, 24 April 2012)
“To sell, and make – may shame record the day! The State – Receiver of his pilfered prey.” Lord Byron
“In terms of origin, the claim is absolute: they belong to Greece” Nadine Gordimer
With the current predicament in Greece, is the idea of ‘Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’ simply off the agenda, as the more immediate and desperate concern of livelihoods takes precedent? Is ‘restitution’ an act that can only be considered in a State whose GDP is above a certain number? Why else do the Parthenon Marbles remain separated?
The need became paramount – to explore the question of whether 2012 was a good year to agitate for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens; to identify reasons that were powerful enough to overcome the sense that, in the current crisis facing Greece and Europe, the issue is to be avoided. In such a time, who needs the gesture more – the Greeks, the Europeans, all of us? Then I thought: ‘London Olympics 2012’ – an ideal year.
Quoting Christopher Hitchens in my previous blog here, the ‘aesthetic imperative’ is the dominant argument for the Marbles Reunification. Simple. Very good. It is also the argument that is bound to succeed, given the historical debacles and obfuscations. However, the unassailable strength of the aesthetic imperative, in no way diminishes the moral imperative, i.e. a return to the Greeks.
Makriyannis said: “You must not give away these things, not even for ten thousand talers; you must not let them leave the country, it was for them that we fought.”
Vestiges of nineteenth century ideology persist to cloud the issue of the marbles. After Fallmerayer(5), it became “unreasonable to think the inhabitants of Greece (however defined) as racially homogenous and linearly descended from the ancient Hellenes. It would be equally unreasonable to assert dogmatically that no Greek living today could possibly have had a direct ancestor in Greece 2,500 years ago.” This idea of ‘racial homogeneity’ is dying a slow death. Notice, not only the overt ‘who are they’ question, but also the implied question of ‘where are they’ – as if the site of the Parthenon is in some no-space, some absent-no-culture zone that the contemporary Greeks are unable to access, and that modernity resists or is unable to define. To this line of thinking it follows that, because the Parthenon Marbles cannot be given back to the ‘ancient’ Greeks, they need not be given back to anyone at all! (Talk about old colonial agenda) Talk about obfuscating the fact that the origin of the marbles is absolute and uncontested. They belong to a place, Greece – and that place belongs to the Greeks. Though strife is part of Greek history, ‘continuity’ is also a part it: “poetry in Greek represents the longest unbroken tradition in the West.” Chromosonal composition is not only inconsequential, but simply irrelevant. What is necessary is choice, and people must choose. “The only practical definition of a Greek is that he is somebody who thinks he is Greek.” In this light, there is no rupture, no confusion as to who the Greeks are, and what they (and everyone should) know to be theirs.
“When certain English critics sneer that this man or woman is inauthentic, or ‘not really’ Greek, are they setting a standard by which they would be content to be measured themselves?”
Of course ‘ethnicity’ is about choice. About initial choices made for you – by parents or State, and choices either avoided or acted on – as an adult individual. What better way is there to activate membership to a group? What better way is there than a ‘choice affirmed’? This is not a subversive idea. In fact, one should be aware of making these types choices on most days, especially in our contemporary multi-centric world. How else are we to understand the ‘Neighbour’? This is a liberating idea. I can be many people – an Australian, a Greek, a Naturalist, a member of the Melbourne Swim Club. Different choices over a lifetime, and different choices simultaneously. (Of course, oppression and subjugation remove these choices from many people.)
“In her sooty vials, London stores these marble monuments of the gods, just as some unsmiling Puritan might store in the depths of his memory some past erotic moment, blissful and ecstatic sin.”
Does one need a more moving story than the following: It well known, that in 1821, when the Greeks were besieging the Turkish held Acropolis, the Turkish soldiers were melting down the lead clamps from the Parthenon to make improvised bullets. On learning this, the Greeks sent a quantity of bullets to the Ottomans so that they would refrain from their acts of destruction.
The most pertinent question remains, “is now a good time to agitate for the Marbles Reunification?”
“Yes,” and for these reasons: a) The imperatives – moral and aesthetic, b) Their emanicpation is long overdue, c) In the current Greek/European crisis or “Bankruptocracy” as Yiannis Varoufakis coins it , the question of what is held ‘in public’ and to which public it is ’held’ is timely, and the answer is – manifest in marble. Reunification would be an emphatic symbolic gesture, raising consciousness of artistic, economic and intellectual capital , d) With the London Olympics this year, it’s a very opportune time to raise the issue. With so many visitors to that city, (and presumably, the British Museum, where the Marbles are held), a reminder of the injustice of retention, and the heritage of the Games themselves, is pertinent,……….. to say the least.
What will we find we when do revive the sculptural procession in situ in Athens? What will the Greeks then say of themselves? What will others say of the Greeks? How much better will the British feel by again contributing to the story of the Parthenon Marbles, by enabling their return to Athens? I, for one, would dearly love to find out.
1. Mount Penteli is the source of the marble “used for the construction of the Acropolis and other buildings of ancient Athens. Pentelic marble is flawlessly white with a uniform, faint yellow tint, which makes it shine with a golden hue under sunlight. The ancient quarry is protected by law, and used exclusively to obtain material for the Acropolis Restoration Project. The roadway used to transport marble blocks from the quarry to the Acropolis in antiquity is a continual downhill, and follows the natural lay of the land, with research and full documentation by the chief Acropolis restoration architect, Professor Manolis Korres, in his award-winning book “From Pentelicon to the Parthenon.” ”Retrieved 17/4/12, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penteliko_Mountain
2. Byron, Gordon G. (Lord) 1811, from the poem, ‘The Curse of Minerva’. This quote refers to Lord Elgin and his act of theft in 1801, and the subsequent purchase by the British Government.
3. Hitchens, C. 2008, The Parthenon Marbles: the Case for Reunification, Verso, London. In Preface by Nadine Gordimer. This book eloquently dismantles all the arguments posed by the retentionists, including the issue of the Sultans’s ‘firman’.
4. Hitchens, ibid. These lines are taken from Makriyannis, in a talk by George Seferis addressing the Greek troops in exile in Alexandria in 1943. It can be found in translation in Rex Warner’s edition of ‘On the Greek Style’. 1966. Makriyannis was a hero of the 1821 Greek War of Independence; a general, politician and author.
5. Jakob Fallmerayer, German ethnologist, who as Hitchens says, “thought that all depended on blood and that the Greeks did not have a classical drop.” See <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_Philipp_Fallmerayer>
6. Woodhouse, C.M. 1991, Modern Greece a Short History, Faber and Faber, London.
7. Trypanis. Constantine A. (Editor) 1971, The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, Penguin, London. The point being that the Greeks themselves trace an unbroken culture to the very beginning of writing.
8. Woodhouse, ibid.
9. Hitchens, ibid.
10. Hitchens, ibid. Quoted from Nikos Kazantzakis, “England: A Travel Journal”, 1939. Hitchens points out that there is “probably no more Anglophile book written by a foreign visitor than this travelogue.”
11. Hitchens, ibid. These lines are based on the account of the archeologist Professor A. Rizos Rangavis.
12. Varoufakis, Y. 2011, The Global Minotaur: America, The True Origins of the Financial Crisis and the Future of the World Economy, Zed Books, London.
13. I had suggested that in some financially engineered way, it might be called the ‘IMFthenon’, but that can be read here. The ‘burden of austerity’ (bailout with/sale of – public assets) that the Greek workers are forced to endure, reflects on the absence of this most public of resources.