"To be sure, every human being is a bit of a subject, in a sense." S. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
Frankfurt airport, Monday morning.
My ego goes gooey at big airports, places which in themselves are no place, built only to get you elsewhere as quickly as commercially feasible. Lost in the polyglot crowds, one is "in transit" here, in a sadder, shabbier sense than (as the old metaphor had it) being in transit on this earth. Standing in the hall before the fast-rotating, computer-driven departures board, I felt the urge to scream, "Achtung, bitte! Ich! Ich! Ich bin Ich!," as if that ridiculous act could prop my self up and preserve it from the danger of meaninglessness and crumbling. Not the Romantic crumbling of the ego into solid, expressible fragments, but total dissolution, melting. Is this normal? Do other people's egos get gooey here too? How many? How gooey? If I could clearly describe the condition, maybe 10 or 20 percent of them might say, "Yes, that’s precisely how I feel." Then we could ask a scientist – a psychologist or a neurophysiologist, for example – about causes, theories, explanations, statistics. Words and numbers, alas, are not meant to express a gooey ego: they are solid containers, vessels meant to hold it. Dissolution, melting: how else to describe it? No will, no consciousness, no desire, and no defense. Not, however, a melting into babyhood, a stage of life when the world and I were happily and innocently one. This dissolution has nothing of the oceanic feeling in it, nothing of the pleasantness of dreaming with great waters; it is neither happy nor innocent, but on the contrary, hopelessly viscid and resentful. Old-fashioned moral dissoluteness, I feel tempted to call it. To shake myself up I buy a bar of German chocolate and the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung. I choose a seat at random. The graying man across the hall has been sitting next to me during the flight from New York, a high-school principal from Chicago who tried to engage me in conversation and declared himself for Ross Perot: “Rather than two known evils, why not vote for the unknown guy?” I deflected him then, and now decide to ignore him. My chocolate bar turned out to be a poor choice; the F.A.Z. reports Chancellor Kohl in trouble; the American public, after total victory in the Cold War, seems more discontent than ever with their political system; Cambridge University held a controversial vote over the conferral of an honorary degree to the French writer Jacques Derrida. The high-school principal from Chicago takes a pen, writes some, puts aside the pen, punches on his calculator, rummages in a briefcase, scoops out a magazine, consults an agenda, punches on the calculator some more, makes further notes. On the plane too, he wouldn’t stop for a moment. Is he normal? I have never seen anybody so maddeningly fidgety; either he is afraid of being quiet and having to think, or else he has some nervous condition, of the kind Oliver Sacks describes so well; he'd make an excellent candidate for U.S. President, or, at the very least, for President of some great American university. A group of bombastic Grosz-style types passes by, overblown by Wurst and beer and Gemütlichkeit, and I wonder what it would feel like, living in Germany. Having children and grandchildren who spoke the tongue of Luther, Kant and Hitler, would I, this gooey I, have been more solid? Had I moved here instead of to the land of opportunity, utter solitude and junk food, would I have crystallized into the multifaceted drops of a brilliant chandelier? Aborted possibilities, may-have-beens and roads-not-taken, in certain concentrations, are powerful, acid ego-solvents. On gate 5, a Lufthansa flight to Kiev is announced, and I verify that most of the people who are going in are blond, solid, high-cheek-boned, Khruschovian: somehow, magically, in spite of the blurring of boundaries and the dimming of identity, the basic logic of things still seems to chug along.
Athens, Monday evening.
Walking near Syntagma (Constitution) Square, a man asks for the time, then where I’m from. I tell him that I’ve never been to Athens before. He too lives in New York, in Queens; he spends half a year in Greece and half in the U.S.; his name is Jimmy. About fifty, like me, but shorter and fatter. Sure, the United States is great, he concedes, but Greece is even better; he will show me; I must go with him to his cousin’s bar and have a beer, on him of course, to celebrate our encounter. Grabbing my arm he insists, "Let’s go, it’s right around the corner." We turn into Nike Street and go down some filthy marble steps into a darkish room. No sooner am I seated at the counter next to my new friend that a burly, thick-browed barman puts a glass under my nose and pours a beer, and a thin, almost emaciated woman accosts me from the other side and whispers a hot-breathed "hello" in my ear. "My name is Maria," she adds, "What’s yours?" A cup with a bright-opal liquid is placed before her. At this point I realize I’m being suckered, and I cast a reproachful look at Jimmy, but he averts his eyes, gets off his stool and slithers away.
"Sorry," I tell the burly barman, "this is not what I had in mind. I don’t need a woman right now."
"So," he says in a booming voice, knitting his brow, "what is it that you need, a sheep, or a dog?"
He looks perfectly capable of bedding nightly with an elephant. I look around. In the gloom, sitting at a far-away table, I make out "Jimmy", the specter which has hooked me on the street en plein jour, and two more women, sad, spectral and thin: they look at me intently, all five of them: I am the only customer, I am their only hope. Who knows, unless I fall for her, for Maria, the poor devils won’t be able to buy a decent meal tonight. And Maria is doing her best, talking to me in Spanish, softly, into my ear. She asks me where I was born; I tell her; her Spanish is amazingly perfect: you could swear she too was born by the River Plate.
"I’ve lived everywhere," she sighs, and that sweet, moist undertone, together with those lean, sharp, tragic features remind me of a woman I loved once, who died long ago and whose name I am unwilling to recall. Maria, I think with a shudder, is her shade. Is it possible that five filthy marble steps in Nike Street have led me into Hades?
I end up paying 3,000 drachmas (about $16) for two beers and Maria's colored-water cup, and off I am, back in the street, wondering how I could be so naive as to believe in Jimmy’s instant friendship? Just add the money and stir. But it is hard to be alone in a strange city: one thirsts for human company. You always end up paying for your thirsts, a law as universal as any law of physics.
Morosely, moestus et errabundus, I wend my way back to my hotel, across the street from one of Athens’ major landmarks, the Hilton. Modern Athenian buildings, from what I’ve been able to judge, are utterly unattractive cubes of cement and glass, interrupted here and there by public gardens with flowers and grass and statues, often equestrian, always pompous, of Fathers of the Nation. The traffic is heavy and the motorbikes horribly noisy. I pause to take a picture of a bust of Chateaubriand, the Romantic writer who, as a diplomat back in the 1820’s, gave France’s support to the great cause of the Greek insurrection against the Turks.
Back at the hotel, instead of going up to my room, I try the restaurant next door. The place is empty, except for an elderly couple sitting at a table, watching TV, and, to my left, at another table, a mature woman and a young couple. Americans; Jews from Florida or from New York, I decide after brief eavesdropping and inspection. They are reading the menu and expressing their enthusiasm. "Fried fish!" says the quite large young man. The older lady, it seems, is paying for the young couple’s trip to Greece, but whether she’s the mother of the large young man or of the large young woman I cannot tell: to judge by mother's heavy jewelry, they may be staying at the Hilton. I conjecture that the large young couple find more pleasure in food than in each other. When the waiter comes, the young large woman asks for a Coke, settles for a Pepsi, orders fried fish, plus tartar sauce on the side. The waiter’s English doesn’t quite measure up.
"Tartar sauce!" the large, young woman raises her voice, and with an impatient gesture of placing a bowl or vessel on the table, roughly northwest from her bosom, she adds, "on the side!"
"Ah," says the waiter, "mayonnaise." "Whatever," says the large young woman.
I opt for the moussaka, a beer and — how do you say "bread" in Greek? I consult my pocket dictionary: psomí. In Classical Greek, I remember, "bread" was ártos, or sîtos. To show off my linguistic skills, I order in broken Greek, but the waiter impassively replies in English, "Bread comes with it."
In the course of dinner I make a few discoveries: (1) the elderly couple watching TV speak Greek and seem to be the owners of the restaurant, for the lady gets up and does something at the cash register; and (2) the jewelry-laden American woman is the mother of the large woman who loves fried fish, the young man is her husband. But the word psomí, bread, keeps bothering me. Until, in a flash from way back, I remember it does appear in the Odyssey. In the famous episode at the cave where Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is Nobody, after the anthropophagous monster has eaten some of Odysseus's companions and, drunken with wine, falls asleep, belching out streams of liquor and bits of men. Psomoí t’ andrómeoi: bits, morsels, fragments of men. I am so excited by this, my third discovery, that I cannot wait to communicate it. And so, when the waiter comes with the coffee, I tell him in English, "That word, psomí, you know, I just remembered, it already appears in Homer." And I explain, with the aid of gestures, about the bits and pieces of human flesh mixed with wine coming out of the Cyclops’ mouth.
The waiter doesn’t smile, nor does he reply, but goes away and whispers something to the elderly couple who are watching TV. They, in turn, eye me suspiciously, confer a bit, eye me some more. I have the impression they feel insulted. I pay my bill and leave. On the way up to my room I wonder if the drunkenness and belching of Polyphemus, the many-voiced man-eater, shouldn’t provide a good image for Society, the System, the Market, the Media, turning our egos into crumbles and puddles: his only eye a giant communications satellite.
Last night I hardly slept: a stench coming from the bathroom made sleep utterly impossible. Angry at having to pay more then $50 a night for a stretch of sewer, I made inquiries at the Hilton : the cheapest room goes for $280. The rest of the morning I spent looking for a hotel. At a seedy pension, the owner got mad at me because I wanted to check if the showerhead could be attached overhead; from the street I heard him shouting, indignant at the outrage. Finally I found a decent room for $25 a night at the Phoibos Hotel, in tourist-haunted Plaka, on the northern slope of the Acropolis, the only 19th century oasis left in the ugly 20th-century mass of pollution and cement. In this relatively decent room I am now writing, but the roar of cars and motorbikes is deafening, and it is too hot to close the window, so I put on my earplugs, which helps.
After checking in, I went out for lunch. At a street corner, an American couple asked a Greek man about good, inexpensive restaurants. Disregarding the logical inconsistency, they wanted "a place where the locals go, not for tourists." They were after the competitive advantage afforded by being at once locals and tourists, both inside and outside, whereby they resemble Hegel, and anthropologists, and the politicos who pretend not to do politics. I sat at a sidewalk table at one of the many restaurants and watched the flow of tourists. A small, thin man, an incredible bundle of energy, was calling from the neighboring restaurant, "Come, sit down, we’re open for lunch!" He can generally tell where people are from, and accosts them in their mother tongue. "Ragazzi, non girar più, venite cui!" "Madame, Monsieur, nous avons la meilleure cuisine!" In Greek, English, German and Spanish he hollered, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he knew some Russian too, and Japanese. I was marveling at this denizen of Babel, when I overheard a conversation at a nearby table. Two fellows, definitely not Greek, dressed in jackets and ties, apparently from nowhere, utterly untouristy, were saying something about Boolean algebras. Not being able to resist my curiosity, I asked them if they were mathematicians.
Not quite, they told me after I had, at their invitation, moved to their table with my Heineken: they were philosophers, in Athens for an international conference on the Philosophy of Science. We agreed without difficulty that Greece in May is the best place for such ventures. One of the professors was from Montréal, the other was a Pole from Katowice who offered to let me have the rather lengthy program of the conference. He insisted I should take it: he didn’t need it, he added with characteristic braggadocio: he would just read it once and memorize it; but I politely refused. Did I know any of the participants, they asked, and I pretended to know a few of them by name or fame. An organ grinder passed by, then a hawker of lottery tickets. A little Gypsy girl was trying to sell roses, an American madman, who came down the street carrying a placard and shouting that the end was near, left a flier on our table, but the two philosophers paid no more attention to all of that than to the mosquitoes or the motorbikes. The Canadian said he wasn’t going to attend X’s lecture since X had not attended his, which I thought was fair. The Pole remarked that the lecture by Y, an acknowledged leader in the field, had left much to be desired, a fact both charitably attributed to jetlag. This afternoon Z was to speak: had I heard of him? Z has spent the last 25 years proving that Psychoanalysis is not a science. I hadn’t heard of him. I asked some questions about their work, but after the first generalities they began to eye me with obvious and reticent suspicion, as a profane idler trying to pry into their esoteric mysteries. The two professors shook my hand and left, saying they had to attend a welcome ceremony organized by the Rector of the University of Athens.
Those two, I thought with envy, are perfectly unaffected by the proliferation of languages, places and destinies around us. They do not travel in the world, but rather with their own miniature version of the world, carrying it, protected by it like snails by their shells, or like hermit crabs. Question: isn’t that what we all should do, reduce this impossibly enormous world to cash-and-carry size?
Reading the sign on the hotel elevator, I found out that in modern Greek "person," "individual," is átomo, atom. The elevator's capacity is three persons, three atoms.
Talked with the hotel owner: he’s up in arms, like everybody here, about the new republic, seceded from Yugoslavia, calling itself Macedonia. That name, they believe, has a Greek copyright. Past glories, the cradle of Alexander, that sort of thing. In vain I remind him that ancient Athenians used to hate Macedonians; he’s never heard of Demosthenes.
In the pits of depression. Haven’t got up from bed, except twice to go to the phone and call Isabel in the U.S. She wasn’t home. Fell asleep on and off, reading, by intervals, Scientific American and the flier handed me yesterday by the madman.
"The terrifying event took place when a team of Russian Geologists were drilling a hole in Western Siberia at a depth of 15 kilometers. According to Dr. Dmitri Azzakov the drill suddenly began rotating uncontrollably, due to having penetrated a large hole or cavern. He explains what happened then. Temperature sensors indicated a dramatic increase in heat up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit (1100 degrees Celsius) almost 10 times more than they expected. It seems that there is a burning inferno in the center of the earth. We lowered a microphone specifically designed for recording the sound of moving earth layers, down into the hole. Instead of the sound of the earth layers we heard a human voice moaning in agony. At first we thought that the sound was coming from our own equipment. After we made adjustments to our equipment our greatest fear became reality. The moaning and terrifying shouts were not those of one person but of millions of people. Fortunately we recorded the sounds by tape recorder. Afterwards we stop (sic) the project and covered the hole with a lid. It seemed clearly that we discovered and heard things that were not meant to be seen or heard. This discovery was so convincing that Dr. Azzakov himself said: As a communist I do not believe in the heaven of the Bible, but as a scientist I believe in Hell. I am totally convinced that we have drilled through the gates of Hell."
Overleaf, pictures of the damned: heads shaved, bar-coded. I drop the flyer and open Scientific American. An ad for Hughes Communications, a division of General Motors Company: "The agenda is clear: to survive, we must communicate. we now have the technology in place to begin a true dialogue with each other on all levels. Heads of states, heads of offices, heads of tribes. We can turn history on in our homes as it happens. We are riveted by world events. All at the same moment. All over the world. We are free for the very first time in history. We are transfixed by a fire that burns bright in a tube. We are literally enlightened. We have remembered something we had forgotten. We are all linked to each other. And it is in that very understanding that we will at last understand who we are and what we might be, given the freedom." The pits.
Nothing but cars, motorbikes, cretinous stupefaction.
I get up from bed with renewed energy. Vaguely I remember having dreamt of wandering into an ancient temple of Aphrodite. On the frieze was inscribed: “Drill into my hole.” Today I’ll visit Cape Sounion and tomorrow the Acropolis, thus saving ten dollars: on Sundays the entry is free. Breakfast at the Phoibos consists of Nescafé, orange juice, toast with butter and jelly, and an egg anywhere between gooey-soft and hard-boiled, depending on the day. My own ego is like this egg, unpredictable. For the last two days I felt – no, it felt – fluid, diarrheic, and today I – yes, I; I repeat: I – seem to vibrate with clear, pure sound, like a crystal cup: how is that possible? My own ego-egg sometimes is and sometimes isn’t, and my own ego-egg never knows for sure when it is and when it isn’t, except when, for no reason at all, joy springs forth. If the same happens to most people, or even to a well-placed few, I’m afraid the whole edifice started by Descartes, and all our proud modernity, rests on shaky, unreal grounds: on the vain dream of the assured ego-egg. How inconceivably different our history would have been had our 17th century followed the alternate, Protean route of Don Quixote, who claimed to know who he was – to wit the Twelve Pairs of France, as well as Amadís of Gaul and Tirant lo Blanc and the Twelve Worthies, or whoever else might catch his pregnant fancy! Don Quixote shriveled and died as soon as his simple original ego, the clear and distinct Alonso Quijano el Bueno, retook charge. And almost immediately, Descartes conceived his Method. It was a guide against Quixotism (literally: “les extravagances des paladins de nos romans”) rather than against Scholasticism as scholars would have us believe, and a warranty that no matter what else may be in doubt, one thing was certain: Mon cher Monsieur, I am. I, this floating atom, am. Sum. Sum-sum. One ends up being obsessed by this mosquito. Yet nothing is less certain for much of the time, and, at least in my own experience, for most of the time. It is mere grammatical sophistry to say that I doubt entails I am; doubt is impersonal, like fog, or hail, or hell: it doubts. It, deeper than any Siberian hole, higher than any satellite.
I get up from the table marveling at the deep, secret connection between Descartes and eggs: Beckett, I think, pointed at it in his Whoroscope. I am so pleased that I leave 200 drachmas for the maid, instead of the usual 100. The host tells me to make sure I take the bus going to Sounion along the coast rather than the one that goes inland, because the trip is much prettier. I follow his advice, but truly I don’t find anything pretty along the vast expanse of unimaginative apartment blocks. The Ilissos, on whose banks Socrates conversed with Phaedrus about the nature of the beautiful, has been turned into a giant sewer.
After the Airport, at the Glyfada beach resort (ugly modern style, as one can see along much of the Mediterranean), two young women get into the bus and sit behind me; I hear them talking in Spanish. "You’re Latin-Americans?" I ask them.
Teresa is from Mexico (Cuernavaca); the other one, Elsa, is from Guatemala. I tell them I am from Argentina without mentioning that I’ve lived half my life in the U.S.: in my experience, Latin Americans like their own kind far better than Yankees. Having arrived at Sounion, we buy three bottles of water and start walking under the blazing sun.
Not much is left of the Doric temple of Poseidon, just a dozen columns, but the view of the surrounding sea from this high promontory is grand. On one of those columns, according to my guidebook, Lord Byron inscribed his name; I look around but am unable to find it. The poet liked to sign old landmarks: in 1845 young Flaubert wrote to his friend Alfred Le Poittevin that he had found Byron's name engraved on a pillar at the dungeon of the castle of Chillon, and had sunk into a long contemplation of those magic five letters; he added that meanwhile not the slightest idea concerning tyranny and slavery crossed his mind. L'Art pour l'Art. Let suckers suffer, while true aristocrats write poems. I want to know if I can have the same experience, and I explain to the two girls that Byron was a famous English poet and a hero of Greece, that if he was an atom, as they say in Greek, it was radioactive plutonium at the very least, and, to provide them with some romantic interest, I add he fell in love with one Teresa who lived in Athens (remarkable coincidence!), and dedicated to her some lovely verses. "Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh give me back my heart!" But the girls yawn and look around in boredom. What sign am I, they want to know. Teresa is a Leo, and her brother is Cancer; when a scorpion bites him, nothing happens to him, but the animal drops dead right away. "It is true," she assures me, "it happened once, I saw it."
We sit on a rock, the cliff to my right, Teresa facing me and Elsa on my left. Teresa is thin, rather ugly, rough-tempered, with bad teeth, but Elsa is squat, soft and brown and I find her body and her humor rather pleasant. There’s a big scar above her right ankle; she explains that once a dog bit her, when she was ten. Bit by bit, I extract from them some information: they have been in Greece for three years; they reluctantly admit that they are housemaids – maids of Athens, in fact! – working for two different families, two Latin-American Señoras from their own countries who married wealthy Greek men and have small children and summer houses in Glyfada. Have they been to the Plaka, in Athens, I ask: it is quite interesting. No, they haven’t been anywhere; they go out rarely, only on Saturdays. I ask Elsa whether she speaks Mayan: she looks as if she ought to, but she doesn't. We take photos of each other; it gives me great artistic pleasure to shoot the fierce Aztec and the gentle Mayan against the background of a Classical Greek temple.
Teresa has a cassette player and asks what do I prefer, Greek music or salsa. Salsa would be just great, I say. A large woman who seems to be guiding a group of tourists comes hollering at us. "Not here! Turn that off!" That's what I’m able to make out. Teresa looks at her and simply says, "Okhi" (No). The woman, in a rage, shakes her fists and spits Greek fire. Teresa just says, "Okhi" (later I found out that her Greek did not go much farther than that). Afraid we may end up getting in trouble with the police, I suggest to Teresa to turn the sound down, which she does, just a little bit. Her eyes, though, glisten with hatred; if she had a knife she would, I'm sure, carve that woman's heart clean out, as old Aztecs did on top of their pyramids. The Greek woman leaves, screaming and cursing us, the barbarian invaders of her sacred land. I reflect with some amusement that she counts me among the racket-loving Vandals; I, who abhor noise; I, who love the harpsichord and never went to a rock concert! But Elsa and Teresa agree that music should either be listened to full-blast or not at all, and I, out of loyalty, support their view.
"This is no free country, no democracy," says Teresa. "Mexico is a real democracy, where you can play your music as loud as you want wherever you want, at any time of day and night, and nobody says anything. The Greeks are slaves."
I comment that there must be a terrific noise, down in Mexico City. "Oh yes," Teresa says; "it's wonderful."
We decide to walk a little more and then have lunch at the restaurant below. That worries me, because I anticipate having to pay, and food in Greece is not cheap. So we admire the deep-resounding, wine-colored sea some more, and I tell them of everyday Spanish words which are perfectly okay in Mexico or Guatemala but are impolite in Argentina. Suddenly, Teresa lashes out: "Why aren't you here with your wife?"
I am caught off guard. Suddenly I understand her oblique glances at the wedding ring on my left hand, but instead of telling the truth, that my wife has a demanding job and not enough vacation time – who knows why, perhaps a fugitive vision of Elsa's body as a terracotta jar whose interior is dark, cool, foreign, juicy, tempting – or simply because solitude has exacerbated my need for female desire and recognition – I blurt out a lie, "My wife has left me."
Both girls tell me they're sorry, which doesn't stop them from eating heartily – souvlaki, moussaka, french-fries, Greek salad, dessert. I am not hungry. Suddenly tired, I remain silent while they chat non-stop about the families they work for, the two Señoras, the kids, their own nostalgia for home. I just want to get it over with: settle the restaurant bill, say good-bye, take the bus back to my hotel in Athens. But when the time finally comes, Teresa grabs the check and she and Elsa end up paying for my lunch. I protest forcefully but in vain; "You have eaten so little," they mollify me.
On the bus, alone again (I have taken the bus going inland, the mesógeion, not wanting to wait with the girls for the coastal bus to Glyfada), I mull the whole thing over. For shame, for crying shame: how could I be so mean, worrying about a measly lunch – forty dollars – when two poor housemaids happily paid for mine! Miserly old man! And then, wave upon wave, shame upon shame: why have I lied? To what purpose? Hypocrite, as well as miserly: Tartuffe and Harpagon rolled into one. Then, to top it all, the crest of foamy guilt: I have denied my wife, who’s working while I am vacationing in Greece. I feel like Peter after he had denied his Master thrice: I feel like weeping bitterly.
The bus driver and the conductor get off at a little plaza; they chat, sip drinks and smoke a couple of cigarettes, then, after ten or fifteen minutes, we are again on our way. The landscape – sleepy towns, rolling hills, cypresses, terraces with vines and olive trees – is, pace my host, much more beautiful than the view along the coast; a classical landscape, background for my humiliated ego, as in a Renaissance image of a penitent Saint Jerome. I was wrong this morning, thinking that joy was the only possible affirmation of the ego. Pain, pangs of shame, shame crested with guilt, are keen reminders of its presence and bring it into focus: in that respect, the ego is no different from any body organ. The ego is not the boss but rather a Humpty-Dumpty fool, dressed in motley, crying in pain when falling from its imaginary wall.
We stop again for ten minutes at a small town, Paiania, the birthplace of Demosthenes. And finally I am deposited in Athens, by the Archeological Museum. On my way to the hotel, I consider buying the Herald Tribune but decide against it. Instead, I buy a Walt Disney's magazine in Greek: Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck grace the cover; it is entitled "Klassiká," the Classics.
If it is true that six million tourists come yearly to Greece, mostly from May through September, and if we assume that roughly half of them come to Athens and the Acropolis, this amounts to about 20,000 people wandering about these ruins, day after day. The constant stream makes the place look like an anthill. I walk along with the crowd, so that I too will be able to say, "Yes, of course I saw the Parthenon." It has long been under restoration and bristles with metal scaffolding and cranes; the European Community pays partly for the works, pious gesture of an old culture towards its birthplace. I sit on a rock, facing the main temple. Here and there, people cluster around the guides holding forth in English, Italian, German or French. A group of American college students, nice, "clean" kids, truck jauntily ahead, toting their cameras. One of them asks, pointing towards the Erechtheion, "What’s that deal to the left?"
The deal in front of me, the honey-hued Parthenon, is not like anything I expected. After two thousand years of depredations by early Christians, Venetians, Turks, Lord Elgin, British paratroopers and, most recently and direly, the internal combustion engine, these stones, these marble columns make me shudder and alternate between exhilaration and sadness – pure beauty is something of this world: here’s proof; but it is past, and it is not for us. Perhaps to avoid being overwhelmed and to keep their cool against the strength of such dangerous thoughts, people look away, consult their guidebooks or fiddle about with their gadgets: they pick this or that lens, such and such a filter, adjust for focus and sundry variables, tell their spouses to move a bit to the left, with the fact-oozing voice of TV anchormen they announce into the microphone of their video recorders, "This is the Parthenon," then pan down and around to views of modern Athens.
The guides (more than 80% are women; it must be a poorly paying job) go on and on about these buildings being a celebration of the Greek victories over the Persians: Marathon, Salamis, Platea. It is so, no doubt, but that by itself cannot be what makes the Parthenon unique; hundreds of monuments survive which commemorate important victories, from the bas-reliefs of Persepolis to modern Arcs de Triomphe, and none (as far as I know) produces this feeling of – how absurdly rash of me, trying to pin down on my journal the esthetic effect of the Parthenon!
On second thought, why not? Perhaps the truest transcription of esthetic experience into words must have the form of a diary. To describe how our perception of the object changes, at different hours, day after day, under different lights and different moods. But where to start? This building shows a sort of pride that goes far beyond the warrior’s or the athlete’s glory; the people who built it had such confidence in their powers that I, the tourist, am dangerously tempted to emulate them. Yet I’m afraid to rush on, ecstatically, like one who in dreams is given the solution to a famous problem, only to discover that it is meaningless on awakening.
But meaninglessness in one language, in one system, may, in another, be the most valuable insight. With such good hope I venture forth. Buildings, unlike caves, always express an assurance, an aspháleia: this much seems safe to say. What was the nature of the assurance expressed in the Parthenon? These were the people who endeavored to capture the universe in words – not in the words of poetry, or magic, or private or priestly thaumaturgy, as had been done before – but in prose. What I am contemplating here, I conclude, is nothing less than the pride and assurance of the first writers of prose. My own joy is the convergence of so many joyful readings, from Plato and Euclid, to Borges, Nabokov, Poincaré. Our earth is suspended at the center of the cosmos, Anaximander of Miletus wrote in the first prose text, the earliest philosophic-scientific book in history; contrary to what the poets taught, the earth does not need support because, equidistant from all points of the fiery cosmic periphery, there is no reason why it should move in any direction rather than another, and therefore it stays put. The Principle of Sufficient Reason, which, together with the principle of equipoise, is the source of the lucidity of classic prose, makes here its first appearance, and it will return much later, in the era of Leibniz, Euler, Calculus, Rational Mechanics and Neoclassicism.
Anaximander carried this much further, and applied the same reasoning to the totality of Being. Everything there is has precipitated out of Indefinite Chaos, the ápeiron. But in a perfectly indefinite chaos there cannot be (by definition) a sufficient reason for any form to appear or any thing to separate or precipitate, therefore all being is illegal, an injustice, adikía: all being must, in time, pay with dissolution the guilt thus incurred, and it is this fine or finis, this falling back into the undefined, perturbing it, that permits the birth of new forms, other injustices, adikíai. Here we have nothing less than a Universal Law of Conservation of Guilt. Is it strange that a nation bearing such thoughts should be proud and assured of their own ego, and come up with the Parthenon?
I cannot stick to classical prose for long, though; like Byron, like Flaubert, I want to affix my signature to a Doric column, my idiocy to the universal law: that little treason against my wife, Saturday at Sounion, my little yet pugnacious guilt, gives me – strange, even ridiculous to say – a mini-tragic identity, a kind of Archimedean fulcrum, not to move the world, of course, but to confront it. It would seem that this atom, this ego, finds its identity and its equipoise only through joy or through guilt. And yet, it seems, the Greeks who built the Parthenon found another way, a third way through something else, through knowing.
Only criminal societies manage to survive, modern anthropologists remind us. Without the collective crime of sacrifice, the ever-reenacted killing of the scapegoat, and the consequent guilt as unifying social glue, we would have annihilated one another to the last one in struggles for recognition or through competitive imitation. Guilt and its attendants (regrets, repentance, hope for regeneration and salvation), are, we are told, what unites the two "ecstasies" of past and future into one and present I, preserving our budding and fragile egos. The Greeks, without solving our predicament, made it into a universal law, a thing of contemplation, a theme for theoretical reason, and in the wonder thereat, in what they called thaumázein, found a new feeling, another way of centering the ego and assuring identity. At the same time they found another type of beauty, since beauty is but the expression of an habitual way of seeking happiness. Such is the beauty we feel before the Parthenon.
The wind blows a canvas hat towards me; I pick it up and hand it over to the owner, an old lady, an American, who says, "Thank you; it’s not expensive, but it’s got sentimental value." She informs me that with her husband they have covered half the world, so far. "China, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan... but Calcutta was the worst: you know, the homeless people, the misery."
"You haven’t been to New York City lately," I say.
"No, we’re from Michigan. Anyway, after Greece, it’s all of Europe, in two months. But I’ve been here already. Twenty years ago, the tour bus used to come up all the way to this spot; now one has to climb; it isn’t easy, believe me, for a sixty-eight-year-old lady, under this sun."
The old woman leaves with her hat, and a fat German Mädchen sits next to me, on the same rock. She smells of something at equal distances between onions and Giorgio, and her T-shirt reminds us that planet Earth is in danger, that we must recycle, save energy. I put my cards and my pen back in my pocket, get up, stretch, try to refocus.
Refocusing, however, is difficult; besides, I’ve never been able to think for long stretches at a time; I walk to the edge and gaze at ugly modern Athens down below. One is tempted to say, From this to that, from then to now, Ach, welch ein Verfall!, what decadence, quelle dégringolade!, what precipitous fall! I remember a photograph of Heidegger and René Char at Char's place in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, in Provence. One cannot imagine two more different-looking men than the German philosopher, faithful member of the Nazi Party, and the French poet, hero of the Résistance. Heidegger was tiny; hard to believe such a frail man could be a skillful skier; Char was a giant, like a prophet carved by Donatello; next to each other they produced a comic effect. Yet both agreed on this: it’s been downhill. They only differed on the since: for Heidegger, decadence set in after the Pre-Socratics; for Char, the downturn started in the Neolithic.
Even though there are, besides this view of modern Athens, yet other signs that such view of history might be justified, a prose writer, especially one who writes a journal, must resist such temptations. For indeed, if we are now baser than ever, then either I, as a writer, am part of the general decadence, in which case why should you read me instead of older and better stuff; or I am an exception, one of the very few who can bear witness, a lofty stance which doesn’t fit at all the quotidian, unbuttoned quality of a diary. That, at least, is my opinion. And I suspect that’s why Witold Gombrowicz, an excellent practitioner of the genre, maintained the contrary and prima facie vulgar position: that we are better off today than ever before.
In the afternoon, at the offices of American Express, where I had gone to cash some traveler’s checks and find out about bus tours, I met a very interesting fellow, a distinguished molecular biologist. But it’s already too late; let’s save that for tomorrow.
3 AM. Impossible to sleep. I turn on the light and, with the help of my tiny Greek dictionary, read some Donald Duck. A critic of my acquaintance once made the point that animal stories or fables are the simplest and must have been the first narratives, because no character description or development is necessary: the fox is ever sly, the lamb meek, the lion kingly. Donald Duck hates work, has a short fuse, is completely lacking in memory and foresight. In general, animals are seen as having a monolithic personality, no fragile egos they.
7 AM. An avalanche of dreams. Amazing I never realized that my dreams constitute a perfectly unified whole. From early childhood to yesterday’s events, there is a consistency, a coherence and a fitting of parts that make a night’s dreams into a work of art – sometimes one of Analytic Cubism. Descartes concluded in his Sixth Meditation that dreams are incoherent – but no perversity should surprise us in a guy who maintained that his ego was indubitable. I am ready to defend the opposite: it is only during waking life that we have identity problems; while asleep we’re naturally and effortlessly one. It is not merely like the difference between reading the pages of the same book seriatim (while awake) as opposed to reading them at random (in our dreams) as Schopenhauer thought, in which he followed Descartes; Nietzsche was closer to the truth when he wrote that nothing belongs to us more truly than our dreams.
Some of mine had to do with Isabel, whom I miss more than I can say, some with ancient Greece and with "Eleusian secrets which I had failed to bring to light." Today I will go back to the Acropolis and continue my unfinished meditation.
2 PM. A wasted morning. Paid 1,500 drachmas to sit in front of the Parthenon, on the same rock as yesterday, and – nothing. No ecstatic feeling, no inspiration. In vain I tossed around in my mind horror, knowledge and joy: no sense of wonder, no thaumázein; in vain I resorted to the written word, in vain I reread my Sunday entry, which should lose nothing of its truth on Monday, I told myself, following Hegel’s much quoted, ridiculous principle; no new ideas sprang, and no solutions; contrary to what happened to Flaubert at the castle of Chillon, tyranny and bondage kept interrupting my esthetic thoughts, and I had visions of the ancient Athenians as slave drivers – for the crowds of tourists carrying cameras I substituted rows of whipped prisoners carrying stones. My overall impression was that I was being too passive, that in my observations on the ego there was too much feeling and no doing, too much theory and no praxis. Suddenly, I felt absurd, standing on a plateau, or, to be geologically precise, a klippe of pure massive limestone, looking at ruins in the company of 20,000 people, the scorching sun on top and noisy ugliness below. I decided to go back to the Phoibos for a little siesta.
And so here I am. Just 20 minutes ago, walking down Dionysiou Aeropagitou Avenue, back from the Acropolis, I was remembering the wonderful terrace of my last trip to Spain. I had rented a car in Barcelona and driven north, but as I parked by the hotel in Girona, the city looked so dismal my heart sank and my ego started to dissolve. I walked aimlessly until, having crossed the river Onyar, suddenly everything changed; ugliness vanished, and everything began to sing, the walls, the cobblestones: I had entered the medieval town. Why is it that only the so-called Dark Ages built places where I find I could live? Turning a corner, I chanced into a door and a sign: "Isaac li Cec," Isaac the Blind. I went in. Inside, there were people sitting at a small bar; the owner treated me to wine and olives. He was Jewish, about my age; he claimed his family had managed to stay in Spain throughout the centuries, and told me this was the house of the old School of Kabbalah of Girona, which he was working to refurbish. Wandering off by myself, I went up a flight of stairs, on to a terrace. In the patio below, a lemon tree, roses and jasmine. I couldn’t help touching the red roof tiles. Lifting my eyes, the spire of the Gothic cathedral. While I was taking in the place with all my senses, a bell rang, from high up. How can I describe it? Modern sounds afford no comparison; this one was naked and dark, purified of all dross of brilliancy, yet it was utterly clear, though not in the way mathematics is clear; it sanctified the time, the place, and all my sensual activity, creating a bell-like I, where it resounded. For a moment, I was perfectly happy.
Again, like often before, I ask myself why happiness then, and in that particular place. One of my ancestors, back in the 13th century, might have been a Jewish cabalist, perhaps a student of Isaac the Blind, perhaps even one of the anonymous authors of the Book of Splendor. Sometimes I feel tempted to believe in reincarnation. And I often ask myself why I was in such a hurry to leave Girona and continue north, to France. Why such a fear of happiness.
11 PM. Talked to Isabel on the phone. She’s feeling well, working hard, thinking about me (so she claims). Everybody’s fine. I told her about Kurt, the 62-year-old molecular biologist I met at the American Express: he and I bought tickets for a two-day bus tour that will take us to Delphi. Told Theodoros at the front desk to wake me up at seven in the morning, for the bus leaves at nine and I wouldn’t want to miss my breakfast egg. After talking to Isabel I felt lonely, in need of some more talking, so I went for a walk. On Filellinou Street a guy asked me the time, then where I am from, etc. But I immediately recognized the pimp – the incredible abundance of the species in Athens may be explained by the historical fact that the city was once governed, as Byron noted, by the Master of the Sultan's Harem – and I asked him, "Listen, let’s save time; tell me where are you proposing to take me. To which bar or night-club or place of sin?" And the guy blurted out, "Who, me? Me? I work... I just work... for that bar over there..." We hurriedly shook hands and parted good friends. It's nice, every once in a while, to be on top of things.
The energetic denizen of Babel, the guy who calls customers in seven languages (my host tells me his name is Angelos and that he owns the joint) is fascinating to watch. Three Englishmen who happened to pass by were lured into a fish dinner, and right there in the middle of the street, at the center of a small crowd, they discussed the particulars with Angelos, who held a serving dish with one hand and with the other picked fish from a sidewalk icebox. "Calamari!" he announced, as if introducing the trumpet player in a jazz session. "Yes!" the three Englishmen responded in unison. "Perch!" – Plop, two fish joined the squid – "Yes!" – "Octopus!" – "Yes!" – "Three langostinos!" – "Yes!" The dish was overflowing with the silvery bounty, and the Englishmen wanted to know how much the whole thing would cost. 18,000 drachmas, said the host. The three (I think they were sailors) pooled their heads, translated into sterling, and finally declared it was outrageous.
"Outrageous?" said Angelos, "a fish dinner for three? Outrageous? Including the wine?"
"Nah! We'll give you half as much!" said the three sailors.
Without a word, Angelos turned his back and started tossing, one by one, the salty corpses back onto the ice.
Why does the scene keep coming back to my mind – the tiny, swarthy, angry man tossing his fish back onto the ice? I had the image of one who offers his sea-deep, tentacled entrails on a platter, only to be belittled or rejected, and I, the writer, could easily sympathize with Angelo’s anger. Later, sipping on a glass of ouzo at a café while Greek was being spoken at the tables nearby, I noticed that listening to a conversation in a language I hardly understand lets me sustain a much higher opinion of the people involved. A remarkable fact.
Arrived in Delphi shortly after one o'clock, under a brilliant sun. Along the way, our guide – her name is Athena but, to judge from her wit and comeliness, she must have come out of the rear end of an ass rather than from Zeus’ head – regaled us with historical and mythological tidbits. We drove through Eleusis, home of the ancient mysteries, where initiates used to meditate on the delights of paradise. It has developed into an industrial site, no more hocus-pocus, no more nonsense: honest shipyards and real-world oil refineries. We saw the battlefield of Platea, the modern city of Thíva, built on top of ancient Thebes of tragic fame. Farther west, near the town of Livadiá, the stream Hercyna, and the two springs of Lethe and Mnemosyne, Forgetfulness and Remembrance. We saw the crossing of three roads – the trivium – where Oedipus is supposed to have killed his father in a fit of anger. Near the spot, our bus driver stopped to fill the tank, and I observed through the window that he was smoking while pumping, which threatened to blow us all up – a not-so-trivial accident from my point of view, and one referring back to Phaëton rather than Oedipus. But Kurt said that gasoil is not easily ignited, which put me at ease, since he’s a scientist and should know. During the trip, on the merciful occasions when Athena fell silent, Kurt told me bits of his life. He’s a Swiss from Zurich, and studied at the same university as Einstein. As a matter of fact, the more I looked at him, the more he looked like Einstein – the same noble face, creased more by thought than by desire, the same theoretical eyes, same mane of silver hair. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Distinguished Professor at a famous U.S. University – with all that, Kurt is an easy-going and delightful fellow, attentive to his surroundings (unlike the two philosophers, the other day, at the Plaka), and he doesn’t mind at all my not remembering the difference between DNA and RNA, as I don’t mind at all his not remembering the titles of the seven Sophoclean tragedies. One must be indulgent, for nobody drinks from pure waters anymore; nowadays Lethe is invariably mixed with Mnemosyne.
Kurt left Switzerland as a young man, he said, because it is a boring, linear-thinking country; he moved to the U.S. and is now in Greece for a conference on AIDS starting Saturday on the island of Rhodes. Another characteristic of our age: only good-for-nothing Taugenichts's like me travel merely for pleasure; important people always mix pleasure with business. I hasten to add: "pleasure" is a mindless euphemism; the pure traveler is a martyr of weirdness and the Unheimlich; Flaubert was right when he wrote that traveling must be serious business, that otherwise, unless one is constantly drunk (or unless, we should add nowadays, one is traveling "for business"), it is an empty, bitter experience. Anyway, Kurt told me a little about his work, warning me that in molecular biology, the fastest-changing science, two-years-old means ancient. Simple and double strands, transcription and reverse transcription, viruses, proviruses, retroviruses and viroids: a marvelous micro menagerie.
We took a brief detour to visit the Byzantine monastery of Ossios Loúkas, one of the most famous in Greece, built at the turn of the previous millennium under the patronage of the Empress Theophano, a woman "of base origin, masculine spirit, and flagitious manners," as Gibbon describes her. The Enlightenment historian’s judgment, imbued with classism, sexism and intolerance for alternative lifestyles, would be surely censured and likely censored today; still, a woman who poisoned a father-in-law and a husband, then had a second husband killed, doesn’t sound like a person you’d be pleased to befriend. Having admired the architecture and beautiful mosaics, back in the bus I remarked that nowhere but in Byzantium does one find such a combination of crime and piety and high art; Kurt replied that, in his view, organized religion is the worst scourge of humanity; a close next, he added, is the medical profession.
During lunch we drank a bottle of wine and Kurt expanded on the subject of religion. Having been brought up in the Zwinglian confession, as a brilliant adolescent with a penchant for the sciences he felt he was losing his faith, which worried him, and so he turned to his pastor, who assured him that his faith would return. "Well, it never did," Kurt smiled with a slight touch of contempt for the old minister. "It never did, and I never felt the slightest need for it." I observed that most people are not so tough, but he dismissed my point: "Look at the Japanese, they manage very well without a religion. You can’t call Shinto a religion. People must learn to live with uncertainty, that’s the main point. In science, we learn that there is only one safe bet: what’s true today will be proved false tomorrow. We know it, we accept it, and that is how we thrive."
I said I didn’t know enough about Japan, and it was possible that certain nations could survive on shame, snobbism, tribalism and yet other passions, but individualist Westerners need guilt, and religions are proven ways to organize it. They are not systems of cruelty, as Nietzsche thought, but systems of guilt. The Church was not built on Peter’s administrative skills, but on the rock of his guilt.
"Guilt? I need guilt even less than I need faith," said Kurt.
"I don’t mean you, of course," I said, glad to have an opportunity to test my lucubrations at the Parthenon against a vivid intelligence. "The uncertainty that’s hard to live with is not the one about the truth of the object, or about the future, as it happens in science; it is rather the uncertainty as to the I, the subject, and the present moment. The liquid ego is the problem, and that’s where guilt is needed, for gelling or congealing it."
"I can only speak for myself: I don’t find my ego is liquid. Is yours?" said Kurt with an impish smile.
What could I do? I saw the trap: with what authority can someone speak whose ego is liquid? How can you trust that he’s stating a solid fact, even about his own ego, that it's liquid? So I simply said, "Sometimes. Not now."
We chewed silently on our souvlakis, which were tough. I had the impression that Kurt was a little disappointed to hear that sometimes I’m liquid. At length he said, "I am trying to understand your metaphors. Why guilt? Why should something so unproductive be needful?"
"There’s joy," I said; "it gives you oneness, but it is evanescent. There is fear, which has worked on and off, and which has kept the world pretty stable for the last 45 years; but it too goes away: look at what’s happening in Eastern Europe, or look at the United States. I just think guilt is more lasting, more resilient and efficient."
"That may be," said Kurt, with a touch of sadness. "Or actually, that may have been the case for primitive societies. Unfortunately, our genetic endowment has not kept pace with the tremendous cultural change, in spite of which I believe reason and knowledge are more lasting, resilient and efficient than guilt, or than anything else for that matter."
Now, alone in my room, I try to understand why I didn’t grant Kurt’s point; after all, wasn’t I thinking like him only last Sunday before the Parthenon – that knowledge and wonder at knowing were, for the people who built it, a way to achieve assurance of the self? Kurt’s room is next to mine; I hear him turn on a faucet, flush the toilet; he must be preparing for the four o’clock excursion to ancient Delphi, and so must I.
8:30 AM. Went up to my room after breakfast and sat on the toilet without any success; facing a whole day of sightseeing and traveling, that worries and irritates me. I hear Kurt in the bathroom next door: I’m sure he is having no problems – regular as a Swiss clock. Assurance of the ego! Who cares? Life’s most important business is eating, and the laying of the daily brown egg. But enough of that. Yesterday we went through the lower level of the Delphic temples – Athena Pronaia, and a tholos, a circular edifice, considered one of the most beautiful in antiquity but whose purpose is unknown. I wasn’t too impressed by those ruins. Athena (not the goddess but our guide) broke all records of stupidity; her English is awful; the sun was stifling, the place packed with tourists. At the small museum, before the Sphinx of the Naxians, I pointed to Kurt the large eyes of the Sphinx and the contour of the upper lids, now almost erased by time and weather; Yves Bonnefoy thinks the ancient sculptor planned it that way: from the original wide-open gaze, the look of wonder in the morning of objective knowledge, to this modern, eroded state where the eyes seem closed, the gaze directed inwards; the whole trajectory from Anaximander to Kierkegaard. Kurt was skeptical; he said that the French poet’s theory lacked any objective support, attributing to the artist the powers of a god: not even a scientist could have such foresight.
"And anyhow," he resumed back in the bus, "I don’t see what’s modern about a gaze directed inwards. If anything, shouldn’t it be the other way around?"
"Another poet, Ezra Pound," I replied, "wrote that his age did not demand the obscure reveries of the inward gaze, but an image of its accelerated grimace..."
"Well, we got it, didn’t we?" Kurt said impishly. "We got TV."
After a solitary dinner, I could hardly sleep; I kept turning over in my mind my conversation with Kurt at lunch, about religion and guilt, and the recollection of his tranquil, noble features made me feel like a debaucher of children, or like one who has shouted, "Heil Hitler!" to the face of Albert Einstein. I dreamt of a Swiss Sphinx, and I was telling Kurt that we had to kill, with our arrows, a flock of birds which somehow simultaneously were me, and which were shitting on the Sphinx's head. I may be coming down with another bout of depression.
11 PM. Back at the Phoibos, in Athens: new room, third floor, less noisy, with a back view of the Acropolis. An hour ago I said good-bye to Kurt, and he made me promise I would call him in New York. I'll try to recall today's events without leaving out anything important.
(1) While we were waiting for the bus, at about 9 AM, I overheard Athena speaking in Greek to another guide: she was saying that she felt melancholic. I approached and asked her why, and she told me she's been away for two weeks and misses home. "Then you feel nostalgic," said I, "not melancholic." My accuracy worked wonders: right then she proceeded to tell me of the deep impression I had made on her since the very first moment. "Thank you for being here," she concluded, and offered me a piece of candy. Odysseus, the goddess Athena’s favorite, must have felt like I did.
(2) We walked up the Sacred Way toward the temple of Apollo, and I imagined being a pilgrim, a theoprópos, in search of an answer from the Pythian oracle, telling myself not to expect anything firm, that just a sign would be okay. Athena pointed to us the ruins of the treasure houses of many cities. She has a pretty good memory, and her English has improved remarkably. What question should I ask of the oracle? The question as to the question, philosophers would perhaps call it, and would no doubt pose further the question about the question as to the question, which may be the truly interesting one, but my mind, unfortunately, doesn’t have a long grasp. I just wanted to find a good question, the one, mine. As we went up, Kurt and I, the question gradually took shape: can acquisition or pursuit of knowledge help me achieve salvation? As it appears to me now, the question was more Socratic than mine. Anyway.
(3) A slight variation: whether the pursuit of Kurt’s kind of knowledge, that is, scientific knowledge about facts such as RNA and DNA, can help anyone achieve salvation, appeared to be easily answerable: YES – Kurt himself being the demonstration, for he seems as safe and as serene as any man can possibly be. Another variant: whether enough people can be saved by such method, looks like a horribly difficult one. We are reminded of the Delphic gnome, "Know thyself," which used to be engraved right here, in Apollo’s temple. What does it mean? Physically, in terms of RNA and DNA? Mechanically, as regards behavior, being able to predict your own reactions? Historically, being able to recall your childhood piece by piece, or, as Plato would have it, farther back into your previous lives? Psychologically, sociologically, metaphysically? Far from clear, and perhaps what the injunction meant is merely, "Know thyself as a self," or in other words, be aware that you are a self, an autós, not a viscid goo, a gloiódes egó, and that’s it. The notion that there is one knowledge, public or secret, which may save us all, may be a later fabrication of Orphic mountebanks and the philosophers.
(4) From up on high, a view of Parnassos. The knowledge that allowed the Greeks to build this sacred place on a mountain gorge, where in spite of the buzz of tourists there is a great, oracular silence, was a kind of saving knowledge. So was, no doubt, the knowledge that allowed them to build the Parthenon. When life’s in danger, one hopes the medical knowledge accumulated at a hospital will save one from death; thus one may hope that the temple architect’s knowhow will help us achieve a temporary assurance of the self and a safe place in this world. Here, at this silent height, I remembered again the church bell heard on my terrace in Girona. I’m not a Christian by any means, any more than I’m a pagan: why does then the sound of a church bell resound in me more deeply than the majestic Delphic silence? Is it because Christianity is chronologically closer to me than the Greek gods? Or because a bell sound is a presence, whereas silence is an absence? The church bell from up high says, "You are a special creature, God’s fallen image, a sinner." But this silence, this great silence left by the departed gods, lets you invent and decide, and perhaps I don’t want to do that, perhaps I am not strong enough, perhaps I want to be told who I am: perhaps nella Sua voluntade è la mia pace. Perhaps. But do I know? How could I possibly know? Socrates apparently knew how strong, how admirably strong he was, but did Job?
(5) On the way down I took a photo of a construction worker carrying a pail of water from the Castalian fountain. I asked Kurt why he doesn’t carry a camera, and he said he’s got too many photographs he never looks at. On the bus back to Athens, Kurt commented as we passed by a cemetery that it was a waste of good real estate, and later, as I mentioned my frustration at not being able to speak more than simple phrases in Greek, he asked what was the use of spending time learning different languages that are merely different ways of saying what Science says in one universal way. This saddened me, and I asked if having smelled a flower he would say he has smelled them all; he reflected a while, said I was right, and remembered that the original German title of a famous biology book, "Das Minneleben der Pilze," loses much of its charm in English: "The love-life of the fungi." I already miss Kurt.
Got up very early, possessed by a great and pointless energy, showered, &c., decided to skip my daily Phoibos egg, and was sitting at a Plaka café by 7. The streets were deserted, the host bleary-eyed, and it was the omelet I ordered that kindled the kitchen stove. Someone opened a window; at the café next door a man was sweeping the sidewalk and dumping the dust into a flowerpot; by 7:30 the first motor scooter inaugurated the daily racket, then the delivery trucks started to show up. I push the plate aside to write, but my mind seems purged and I have really nothing to write about, except for little events -- that, for example, a ten-year-old boy, perhaps the son of the host, is going around setting metal clamps to hold down the table cloths; I imagine he does this first thing, every day, windy or serene. Should I note, too, that a small, lobed, oblong, pulvinate leaf has just landed on my notebook and settled on the fold? The kind of thing Nabokov used to call landmarks. One type of person, he said, wants to use landmarks, another loves vast ideas. I would like to use both, perhaps on alternate days, like Schumann used in his music the opposite moods of Ernst und Scherz, Florestan and Eusebius. The first flock of tourists, blond, big-boned, bearing knapsacks and shod like mountaineers: they seem to have descended from the Far North, through high Alps or wild Carpathians, into Griechenland, though they may well be from the Far East (or is it the Far West?), from Australia.
In the evening I go to the same café and wait until I can sit at the same table. Childish? Maybe. But it is not (of this I’m convinced) because of some trick I want to play on Time, bending it into a circle or twisting it into a Peter Pan knot so as to make myself immune to ageing; it is rather that repetition allows me to identify with an I that was, that is relatively secure and stable since it’s past. The old German word war (was) means protection, says Heidegger. Thus repetition is the Wehrmacht of the self, the simplest way (if perhaps the poorest one) of congealing the liquid ego. That’s why repeated rituals of guilt – e.g. the Catholic Mass, the periodic enactment of primordial murder or incest, the masochist's voluptuous spankings – are doubly effective: as guilt and repetition, repetition and guilt.
It is evening and I’m sitting at the same table as at dawn, sipping from a cup of Greek coffee (called Turkish in the rest of the world), and behind me two women are talking in what sounds at first like German, but on closer attention I conclude it is not. I turn around and ask them: they are from Holland, from Delft; mother and daughter, both rush-blonde, both porcelain-white complexions with just enough tiny freckles to show they are for real, not dolls. Having spoken to nobody the whole day, I am grateful for the mother’s invitation to move to their table. I have never been to Holland; Delft is associated in my mind mostly with porcelain tiles, with Vermeer, and with De Hooch’s luminous, contented courtyards; the two women inform me that nowadays there are also some Turks, Portuguese and Moroccans: these last, especially, can be frightening.
When I tell them I’m a writer, Mother is enthusiastic; Daughter studies French literature at the university, and once she gets a degree, she wants to teach high-school. There’s a younger son, too, but Father died long ago. Can they find the books I’ve written at the Delft public library, Mother asks. I say I doubt it, and clarify that although I’m a writer, I’m not a famous one. "But perhaps you will be," Mother says, and when at her request I write down my name and address on a 3x5 card, she adds, smiling, "I will check at the library, and next year again, and the year after next."
"That should give me enough time," I mutter and blush. How could I tell her that I’m really a good-for-nothing, a butterfly hovering along the hedgerows, and, shame of shames, actually proud of it? Mother and Daughter share an innocent joy: in Athens, just by chance, they ran into a famous writer.
"Are you married?" Mother asks me.
"Mother!" chides Daughter.
"She’s always upbraiding me for my directness," says Mother with a good-natured laugh, and after I reply that indeed I am happily married, we comment on the curious fact that all over the Western World, the younger generation seems more formal and more serious than ours.
As I am writing this on my café table, right after my Dutchwomen left (they are bound for the Greek Isles), I try to sift two different feelings – or rather, a feeling and an image-rich reverie: (1) I’m glad I didn’t dissemble about my marital status, like the other day on Cape Sounion; at least I don’t feel guilty, I feel serene; and (2) I picture a beam of quiet, chaos-absolving light penetrating into a room, shining on the immaculate tiles, while a lady in shawl and bonnet plays the virginal and her daughter, dressed in blue with yellow ribbons, murmurs Baudelaire, or Bonnefoy. Can (1) and (2), cohabiting in the same mind, be unrelated? Perhaps. If I were a lazy writer, I’d call the combined effect "bittersweet." Having arrived at a provisional faith in my I, the image of another country gets a sudden hold of me, depriving me of all happiness. When I was young, I dreamt of Paris, but moved instead to New York: would I have been more solid, more Cartesian, happier, had I lived in Delphi, or in Delft?
Or in Girona, in Spain. For I’m still haunted by nostalgia for my Girona terrace. Nostalgia for a crystallization of this gooey ego of mine as a 13th century student of Kabbalah, standing on that terrace, and nostalgic himself, but for Jerusalem. Is it possible to speak of it without irony? Both the German Romantics and the Jews of the diaspora were double masters of nostalgia and of irony, which can hardly be a coincidence. Yes, Schlegel was right: "Ironie ist Pflicht," irony is a duty. And somewhere in his Journals, Kierkegaard spoke of the "curtains of irony," which must be drawn to hide our enthusiasm if we want to remain enthusiastic. How much truer that is if one lacks K.'s religious faith. Irony as the wink, the sign that’s interchanged between two levels, though, becomes meaningless in a world of difference, indifference and infinite regress. In the latter one travels only on business, one follows a curriculum and belongs to a specific Department. And one behaves professionally: when one runs into an ironic, amphibian good-for-nothing, a Taugenichts like me, one snickers, "Romantic bullshitter... Nostalgic for totality..."
Resume after a couple of hours; went out to buy some presents to take home. All shops in the Plaka carry phallic figurines, Priapuses with ridiculously large tools: I thought of buying one or two – crazy cazzi, impossible psôlai, pijas to frighten maidens with – but thought better of it; instead, I bought some jewelry, and T-shirts with the first few verses of the Odyssey printed on them. At a sculptor’s window I saw some wooden pillboxes that I liked, painted with Greek wavy motifs and Minoan priestesses. 3,000 drachmas each. In my broken Greek, not for thriftiness but for the fun of it, I engaged the guy in some desultory bargaining.
"Anyway those are not finished," he said in effortless English. "I haven’t applied the glossy varnish."
I said I preferred them as they were, unvarnished, and sat down to watch him work on a statue. A little girl came into the shop with her bicycle, and the sculptor told her to go back to the street and stay there. "My daughter," he explained to me.
I asked, "You speak to her in English?"
"My wife is British, so the girl is bilingual. Where are you from?"
"I’m from the U.S.A."
"Really? You don’t seem American."
"Well, the U.S.A. is a big country, you know... Different ethnic groups..."
He shrugged and went on carving the eyes of a plaster Charioteer, whose bronze original is in Delphi. "How many of those do you sell?" I asked.
"Not many. Two or three per year."
I wanted to know which were the best-selling statues, and he pointed to a sitting Zeus, vaguely Olympian, and to a copy of the Zeus at the Athens National Museum, one arm extended, ready, with the other, to hurl his thunderbolt. "I guess people like to deal directly with the C.E.O. That other one in the corner, Zeus snatching Ganymede, is popular with gays. This year, for the first time, Gorgons are selling rather well."
On a showcase there were rows of glossy, gilded Apollos, Aphrodites, Poseidons. "American tourists buy them," said the artisan, shrugging, and when I asked if he modeled all those gods and goddesses from scratch, he replied, "Oh no, they come from a big factory out in Piraeus; I give them just the finishing touches."
Suddenly he snapped his fingers and pointed one at me. "I know where you are from. You are from Argentina."
"How could you tell?" I asked.
He shrugged again. The guy was quite a shrugger. "How can I tell! How can I tell a Cycladic head from the bust of a Roman emperor?"
I got my unvarnished wooden pillboxes for 4,000 drachmas both, a great buy. I have them, clumsily wrapped in cardboard, on the table, before me. So that is what I am. An Argentine. If my sculptor had been a bit more specialized, he could have told on which year I was born in Buenos Aires, from what type of family, and in which neighborhoods I have lived, perhaps even down to street and number. And in the unlikely case American tourists cared to buy them, hundreds of copies could be made of me, at some big factory out there in the Piraeus. So much for gooey egos. I am beginning to believe that Descartes was right after all, that my ego is not only indubitable but extremely easy to pin down, and that it is my dream to imagine myself a new Proteus.
Perhaps what melts or gooeyfies my ego is only the resistance to see myself as nothing but a representative member of a class (well, with some finishing touches). Do I make myself liquid on purpose, so as to be interesting – in the etymological meaning of the word, an inter-essent – that is, so as to flow or drip in between the solid beings around, ooze between the statues? Possible, possible, but I find that a terribly hard pill to swallow.
This I will not bother denying: tomorrow, Sunday, is my last day in Greece, and I'm already nostalgic. On Monday, back in the U.S., all of this – Angelos, Theodoros, my host and hostess, this room, my to-hell-with-cholesterol daily egg – will have become mere remembrances, and this journal, shaped by chance, memory and internal secretion, will be finished and shed like a dried salamander skin. A sudden thought: should I take it to market? After all, doesn’t Fray Diego Durán report that certain vassals paid tribute to Moctezoma in centipedes, scorpions, spiders, curious fish bones and sea shells? No, this diary shall remain private. No way I’d hawk my heart, my dripping subjectivity. I’d rather deal with bloodthirsty Aztecs than with magazine editors or commercial publishers.
Athens airport, Monday before dawn.
My flight is scheduled to depart, incredibly, at 5 AM; I got up at 2, and Theodoros had a cab come for me at 2:30. I didn’t know that Athenian cabs charge double for night trips, so on arrival I had to scrape all my pockets down to the last drachma; when I had done so, having lost count, I asked the cabby in Greek, "Entáxei?" meaning, "Is it O.K.?" and he answered, "Entáxei." Funny, because in Spanish the same sounds mean "By taxicab?," a stupid question under the circumstances, and a stupid answer. While I wait for my flight I reread the last journal entry (I wish I could say, like many authors, that I don’t reread nor change an iota in what I write, for it lends the page an aura of sincerity; I wish I were able to say it, but it wouldn’t be true), and lo and behold, at 3:20 ante meridianum something really funny happened to me, or rather, something really stupid. I am embarrassed to put it on paper. I am afraid the only straight way of saying it is: I felt nostalgic for Saturday’s nostalgia. In other words, I found myself saying like Virgil, "Ille ego, qui quondam...," like Rubén Darío, "Yo soy aquél que ayer nomás decía...," or like Bonnefoy (with dazzling inversion of the tenses), "J'étais celui qui marche par souci..." I longed to return to that hypostasized I who was writing, two days ago, about nostalgia; words which have become for me, now, in English, on paper, much like a finished old work, an institution, a fetish. But is it possible that one can feel such a feeling, nostalgia squared, as it were? And if that is the case, when I read this tomorrow, for example, who is to stop me from becoming cubed-nostalgic, nostalgic-to-the-fourth, and so forth? Did Odysseus ever feel nostalgic for that stone on the rocky shore of Ogygia, divine Kalypso's island, on which, day after day, he sat scanning the sea, weeping for home and for his mortal wife? This reaching for a previous I, for a secure anchorage in the deep, chaotic sea; this attempt at salvation by grasping back in fear, holding oneself to one’s past by guilt or repetition, where does it lead? To a mise-en-abîme, a schlechte Unendlichkeit, an infinite regress, a repulsive neurosis, the labyrinth of nostalgia. Right here, at 3:25 AM, at Athens airport, I was caught in a vertigo. I got up and did the only thing I could do: I phoned my wife.
We said just a few unremarkable phrases. "Where are you?," "How are you?," "I miss you," "Me too." It is evening in Albany, it’s been a quiet, sunny Sunday, she’s mowed the lawn, watered the bushes and is getting ready to go to bed: tomorrow may be a tough day at the office. I did not say, "I love you," unwilling to abuse the word that has been, of all words in the language, most abused – but somehow, on reflection, in spite of undecidability and différance, it describes the way I feel fairly well. What a fantastically lunatic decision, to invest with infinite interest not eternal essences but someone else, someone else’s ageing, crumbling body frame! Marital, mortal love: would it be too outrageous a hyperbole to call it coprophilia? And how is it possible that two human beings, before they know themselves, before they, properly speaking, are themselves, can love each other’s misery and, through their love, save each other from the Minotaur at the end of the arid labyrinth? It doesn’t make much sense, but it seems to me my ego flows toward her.