Surrealism in Greece

[ Literature (besides fiction) ]

Surrealism in Greece

An Anthology

Edited and translated by Nikos Stabakis

A first-of-its-kind anthology of English translations of the key texts of Greek surrealism from the 1930s through the 1960s.

The Surrealist Revolution Series Franklin Rosemont, series editor

2008

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Hardcover

6 x 9 | 373 pp. | 9 halftones, 4 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-71800-5

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33% website discount price

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 373 pp. | 9 halftones, 4 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-72623-9

In the decades between the two World Wars, Greek writers and artists adopted surrealism both as an avant-garde means of overturning the stifling traditions of their classical heritage and also as a way of responding to the extremely unstable political situation in their country. Despite producing much first-rate work throughout the rest of the twentieth century, Greek surrealists have not been widely read outside of Greece. This volume seeks to remedy that omission by offering authoritative translations of the major works of the most important Greek surrealist writers.

Nikos Stabakis groups the Greek surrealists into three generations: the founders (such as Andreas Embirikos, Nikos Engonopoulos, and Nicolas Calas), the second generation, and the Pali Group, which formed around the magazine Pali. For each generation, he provides a very helpful introduction to the themes and concerns that animate their work, as well as concise biographies of each writer. Stabakis anthologizes translations of all the key surrealist works of each generation—poetry, prose, letters, and other documents—as well as a selection of rarer texts. His introduction to the volume places Greek surrealism within the context of the international movement, showing how Greek writers and artists used surrealism to express their own cultural and political realities.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • I. The Founders
    • 1. Andreas Embirikos
    • 2. Nicolas Calas
    • 3. Nikos Engonopoulos
    • 4. Odysseus Elytis
    • 5. Nikos Gatsos
  • II. The Second Generation
    • 6. Matsi Hatzilazarou
    • 7. Miltos Sahtouris
    • 8. Hector Kaknavatos
    • 9. Nanos Valaoritis
    • 10. Dimitris Papaditsas
    • 11. E. Ch. Gonatas
  • III. The Pali Group
    • 12. Mando Aravantinou
    • 13. Yorgos V. Makris
    • 14. Alexander Skinas
    • 15. Tassos Denegris
    • 16. Panos Koutrouboussis
    • 17. Eva Mylona
    • 18. Dimitris Poulikakos
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

In the "Surrealist Map of the World" printed in the "Surrealism Special" of the journal Variétés in 1929, Greece is conspicuous by its absence. So, of course, are several other countries, but Greece and Italy in particular (insofar as having originated the "Greco-Roman" civilization) were reportedly seen by surrealism's founder, André Breton, as symbols of an insipid rationality imposed upon what has come to be called the Western world. Yet the simultaneous absence of France and presence of Paris on the map should draw attention to the function of the emphatically present Constantinople: a Greco-Turkish hybrid (Turkey being equally absent), a crossroads between East and West. From the outset, Constantinople (the fabled origin of the surrealist Nikos Engonopoulos) marks a challenge to the assumed heritage of Greek civilization.

It is thus that Greek surrealism has been blatantly conscious of the cultural practices and attitudes reporting to "tradition," as well as of the complexity pertaining to the latter concept. The relationship of its major representatives with the Greek language itself will be addressed in the course of this anthology (as concisely as possible, given that such a relationship is by definition resistant to translation). Equally noteworthy, however, is the use of "indigenous" themes, especially by Greek surrealism's foremost figures, Andreas Embirikos and Nikos Engonopoulos. In the former's paganist inclinations and in the latter's pointed rejection of French rationalism and neoclassicism in favor of an idiosyncratic treatment of Greek themes, a crucial inversion takes place: to the earlier French surrealists' repudiation of the classical heritage, Greek surrealism answers by promoting an alternative, expansive, and indeed subversive interpretation of this very heritage.

***

Certain critics, whose hostility toward surrealism is complemented by a tendency to pronounce definitive statements, often argue that the movement flourished in Greece to an extent unequaled in any other country, save perhaps France. This contention, which chooses to ignore surrealism's international dynamics, rests on the impressively wide influence surrealist imagery has exerted on mainstream Greek poetry: an actual fact, albeit one alarmingly reminiscent of the "Chinese whispers" game, whereby the original explosion is too often evoked and eventually replaced by its tiny echo. Nonetheless, the phenomenon is not without its importance, for in Greece, unlike many other cultures (notably English-speaking ones), it has been impossible, even on the level of the most conservative literary tendencies, to ignore surrealism altogether. And this, in fact, is not hard to explain.

Being a postcolonial state marked by financial provinciality and political instability and informed by countless layers of history and culture even though a mere century old, that Greece to which surrealism was introduced in the early 1930s boasted of neither a substantial, tried, and tested cultural canon nor a coherent prehistory of radical expression. This said, an anthology of Greek presurrealism such as that envisaged by Nanos Valaoritis in homage to Nicolas Calas (the first Greek writer who conceived of mapping the early mavericks, extremists, and experimenters) would perhaps place the present work in perspective.

It is also Valaoritis who has noted, on various occasions, that Embirikos, both through his work and through his physical presence (exerting as he did a quasi-polar attraction on young poets), has attained in Greece a status similar to that of Guillaume Apollinaire in France. The comparison is particularly apt because troubling, for Embirikos, Calas, and (a little later, yet more aggressively) Engonopoulos propagated surrealism in a country that ignored the very notion of an "avant-garde," with all the complications or limitations this term may entail. Greek surrealism thus knew no preparatory stages; the double result of which was, on the one hand, an overwhelmingly scandalous (if quantitatively modest) debut, in the shape of a few, albeit important, early books and interventions, and, on the other, a number of obstacles to its development.

Other critics, equally (but less openly) hostile to surrealism, make the exact opposite argument, to the effect that Greek surrealism has never actually existed; and in fact, the extreme peculiarity pertaining to these two entirely contradictory interpretations of the phenomenon would in itself suffice to render the latter remarkable. This second scenario is often based on the assumption that the appearance of the earliest surrealist-related events and texts in Greece came at too late a date (that is, around 1935!) to be either truly radical or unproblematically incorporated into a movement conveniently presumed to have died a little while before or after World War II. Of course, given that radical expression had not been properly introduced to the country before Embirikos's first book, this argument (which, as we shall see, is repeated vis-à-vis the Greek surrealist presence in the 1960s and beyond) would be meaningless, even if its claims regarding international surrealism were true.

Alternately, the aforementioned view attempts to prove the international movement's incompatibility with Greek surrealist production and activity; this could be an intriguing effort, were it not based on a fragmentary knowledge (and systematic distortion) of those early writings of Breton's that happened to be translated in Greek. It goes without saying that here, too, the movement's history and continuation are completely ignored. What is more, this attack originates with figures of the academic establishment and is contemporary to, and neatly (if not overtly) compatible with, the pseudoprogressive, "deconstructive" attitude of certain North American academics in particular toward international surrealism; the difference being that here the movement's denigration is replaced by that of a specific expression/incarnation of it, surrealism itself being misread rather than lambasted. Such a symptom could well be considered one instance in a transnational academic "enterprise" and thus may as well be put aside as a potential topic for a special study.

This, of course, is not all: the seminal works of Embirikos and Engonopoulos in particular have, over the years, been read and reread in whichever way was deemed convenient according to each given critic's ideological frame. At once impossible to ignore, in terms of their influence, to start with, and uncomfortably daring, these works have been distorted in the following ways:

  • a. By assigning to them a minor value, seeing them as the mere preconditions for more "substantial" and acceptable kinds of "literary production." In this view, the most groundbreaking Greek surrealists are thereby, by definition, "not really" poets, but rather blind slaves to an "ideology," albeit also too radical and indeed free-flowing in their approach to be taken seriously. This rather paradoxical position is by far the commonest and oldest treatment of the phenomenon, judging from another kind of curious "dialectics" Greek surrealism is subjected to: its notoriety all too often giving way to silence when it comes to critical treatment, it is accordingly suppressed on the level of translation, despite (or because of) the international potential (as opposed to national stereotype) attached to its works.
  • b. By reclaiming them for the "tradition" of Greek literature, while dissociating them from surrealism. This view utilizes in particular the Greco-centered thematics of certain surrealists (an aspect, to be addressed throughout this anthology, not unexpected in the surrealist expression of a peripheral country) in order to celebrate them as "pure" artists despite their rash alliance to the movement (a newer, rapidly developing critical tendency would have surrealism itself being identified with these presumed ethnocentric poetics, its international practice blissfully ignored); or else, to challenge them as signs to the effect that surrealism has not really operated in Greece in any substantial way and is now therefore (it being too late for an actual resurgence) unacceptable even as an influence.

We can thus see that a certain mechanism of suppression (of evasion, even) is firmly at work, certainly not in the sense of a "conspiracy," but rather of a network of academic discourses coming to terms with a particularly bothersome residue. Seldom is the issue of Greek surrealism placed in the right perspective—namely, that of its compatibility (in terms of products and of public presence) with the international movement's activity. This crucial matter is not so easy to resolve, and accordingly few have deemed it worth bothering about, save for extracting facile conclusions from familiar (as titles if not as texts) French books. The organization of Greek surrealism has always been deficient, indeed intermittent; but this factor is usually addressed neither vis-à-vis its objective causes (as this anthology will purport to do) nor within the temporal framework proper to it, owing to the prejudices peculiar to art and literary history—hence the critical suppression or underrating (as a nostalgic venture) of an actual surrealist resurgence in the 1960s, one that reported boldly to international developments and remained a long-standing influence on younger generations.

***

It is for these reasons that the present anthology focuses on activity within the spatial confines of a country (as opposed to adopting "ethnocentric" criteria); all the names included herein have been connected, in one way or another, to groups formed around Embirikos and/or Nanos Valaoritis. This explains the absence of such long-established surrealist figures as Gisèle Prassinos and Ado Kyrou, who may have maintained some loose links with Greece but actually operated in the context of French language and activity. Likewise, the French and English works of Calas and Valaoritis are also excluded (excepting a few French poems by Calas, so far printed only in Greece). In the former's case, given that his non-Greek writings constitute the bulk of his output (which, nevertheless, cannot be assessed independently of those writings which display his intellectual formation within a particular milieu), one may only hope that his mature theoretical work will become widely available in its original form. With the latter, who, even while physically absent, has always written and published extensively in Greek, the situation is more straightforward.

In concluding this introduction, I note a couple of points about the structure and choice of texts. For the reader's convenience, the anthology has been divided into three sections, preceded by brief introductions to the eras addressed. However, this is not meant to be read as a linear narrative, but rather as a presentation of successive groups of writers, whose works and activities more often than not overlap at some point or other; the reader is thus strongly advised to use this classification as nothing more than a guide. Also, this being (one hopes) the most comprehensive selection of Greek surrealist poetry, prose, and theory ever published, it should nonetheless be pointed out that if almost all poems and stories are presented in their entirety, the essays included are usually abridged, to a greater or lesser extent, as the reader will find. This, in some cases, is due to their overwhelming length; in other cases, it is merely an effort to omit details that would seem too peculiar to a specific time and place.

In the hope that such a conscious choice, which nevertheless leaves the bulk of the crucial arguments intact, will not spoil the overall picture, it is now time to proceed.

Nikos Stabakis is a film historian and translator based in Athens. He is a cofounder of the Athens Surrealist Group and a regular contributor to its publications and activities.

"Within the broad frame of academic inquiry into the international avant-garde, and particularly concerning surrealism and its aftermaths, the Greek case has been conspicuously absent. . . . Surrealism in Greece: An Anthology is a broad and comprehensive presentation of seminal Greek surrealist texts. . . . There is no other book of this kind in English, and it will be an enormous help to scholars teaching and writing in the field of modern Greek studies. . . . I cannot stress enough how important it will be for English-speaking scholars to have this wide range of texts at their disposal in order to develop a new body of critical work."

—Effie Rentzou, Program in Hellenic Studies, Department of French and Italian, Princeton University