Last week we got the word άγαλμα (agalma). The modern meaning is “statue” but Dora was excited and this usually means she’ll tell us something about the roots. She said it didn’t refer to the statue-thing itself but described it as a feeling — “being very happy in a celestial, spiritual way — when god is happy from the beauty. An offer to make god happy. From αγάλλομαι (glory).” Today, it’s the Greek word for statue.
Put another way, “this term does not indicate, for the Greeks, something solid and determinate, but…the perpetual source of an event, in which the divinity takes part no less than man.” Divine offering.
A little googling reveals that it’s also a well-known Lacanian term, taken from Plato’s Symposium, which I happen to be reading right now. This is the part where I leave the classroom and start to dig. Alcibiades describes being seduced by Socrates: “I don’t know if any of you have seen the statues (αγάλματα) inside Socrates when he’s serious and is opened up. But I saw them once, and they seemed to me so divine, golden, so utterly beautiful and amazing, that — to put it briefly — I had to do whatever Socrates told me to.” Desire.
2,500 years later: “Alcibiades compares Socrates to a box enclosing a precious object, agalma. Just as Alcibiades attributes a hidden treasure to Socrates, so too the patient sees his object of desire in the analyst. Lacan articulates the objet a with agalma, the object of desire we seek in the other.”
A stands for Other. So we search for the hidden treasure. Online, in ourselves, in another land. Something inaccessible. What kind of creation is this? How do we find love?
E reminds me that it gets more interesting when you see the dark side too. The dark treasures, not just the blinding light of the ruins. One month in and I’m starting to encounter desperate people who work hard for all the wrong reasons (the smooth talkers, the child-beggars, the con-artists). Every day, real people operating in reverse — running, hiding, taking, cheating. It’s nothing new (part of every urban story) but there’s something specific happening here. A place with rich treasures and an intense cultural pride (the language, the history), undergoing a tremendous shift — people coming and going (across borders, economies, generations). Struggling to change. It takes a few weeks to feel it.
Henry Miller: “Greece is now, bare and lean as a wolf though she be, the only Paradise in Europe. What a place it will be when it is restored to its pristine verdure exceeds the imagination of man to-day. Anything may happen when this focal spot blazes forth with new life. A revivified Greece can very conceivably alter the whole destiny of Europe.” Hopeful words from an American in 1941.
In class, Dora explains the meaning of νόστος (nostos) — return to the fatherland — and that it forms the modern word νόστιμα (nostima) — delicious.
The satisfaction of the homecoming journey. The direct connection between the taste of something extraordinary and memory, something very familiar to me. And of course it’s one of the primary themes of ancient Greek texts. The epic Νόστοι (Nostoi, “Returns of the Greeks”) and the journey home of the last remaining hero, Odysseus. But there it takes a darker turn — the struggle in the never-ending search. Nostos + άλγος (algos: pain) gives us “nostalgia” — a longing for the past. Rich words.
I’m doing a lot of thinking and feeling as I wander the city. Thinking about who I am here: is this my return home, or a stop along the way? Μένω στην Αθήνα (I stay in Athens). In English the name “Athens” doesn’t carry the feminine weight, as it does in Greek. One can’t talk about being here without conjuring the feminine (Αθήνα: Athena): the -a ending, the feminine direct article η and the reference to the goddess are all in the name, all in this place. It’s part of the language. And yet we know that Athens is the voice of the father — Athena had no mother — she was “the perfect idea sprung from the head of the father” (Zeus). Interesting stuff.
And here’s the ultimate trick: the Greek islands, which appear masculine (-ος), are actually feminine (H Λέσβος).
A word triggers an investigation. It happens almost every day and the discoveries are thrilling for me. When you own the language, you own the stories. It’s the real reason I’m enjoying language class.
I admit to feeling anxious that I’m not producing visual work right now. OK, there are the photographs, but this isn’t like Rome. It’s a different kind of memory palace. The project here is an emotional one, about how I identify.
How long should it last — that’s the question on my mind right now. My return is scheduled for April 17 but if I stay until June I could complete two more levels and start speaking conversationally. I have lots of ideas about what’s next but Αθήνα has a grip on me now, and I have to consider it.
The language is the work.
We start with είμαι (I am). Then καταλαβαινω and περιμένω and πηγαίνω and μένω. Understand, wait, go, stay. Each day, the beauty of the Greek language — Dora tells us stories about each word, etymology and connections and new understanding. Even the word etymology: eti- I’m guessing from είδηση (ethisi — the word, news, intelligence, communication), although here it says it’s from the ancient έτυμον (etimon — true sense).
Most satisfying so far is the hunt for επέκεινα (epekeina), revealed during dinner by Maria, the doctor who has devoted her life to torture victims. She says this word is not easily translated (in fact, she said it was impossible). A kind of beyond. Further (within the self), or outside the limit (death). She describes a kind of Powers-of-Ten idea, that a change in scale (beyond us) may actually yield different versions of the same self.
This big rock is working on me. I live right next to it and now I see how it changes every day. It transforms as I move around it, up or downhill, as I get closer or as the day goes to night. Sometimes it seems to shimmer, unfold itself in 3D, float, shrink or even disappear completely. Walking around at its base, the massive rock looms like a giant stageset. It’s an epic time-ship docked at the heart of this place.
This feeling of living with it is exciting. To open oneself up to this too-large, looming omniscient thing and its swirling energy field, like some ancient HAL.
But trying to photograph it is another matter. It’s both easy and difficult. Easy because there are no bad photographs of the Acropolis — it’s always what it is. It just takes over. Yet as a symbol of itself, it’s got iconic status so powerful that any photograph that tries to contain it instantly flattens out into road sign kitsch. So while I don’t think there’s any way to take a bad photograph of the Acropolis, there is absolutely no good image of it. It’s immediately sunk by its own thing-ness.
I suspect that the only good image might be one that could dissolve it. The Glass House is a kind of 1949 Parthenon — even as it’s elevated in the suburban forest — and I’m thinking about how it beautifully dematerializes in James Welling’s photos. I’d love to figure out how to do something like that to the Acropolis: dissolve, dematerialize, disappear. I return again and again to this photo (perhaps it’s something about reflecting it back into the city).
It’s referred to as the Panathinaiko (stadium of the Athenians) or Καλλιμάρμαρο (kallimarmaro) — “beautifully marbled.” Indeed it is. Maximum intent, minimal means. The elegant information graphics are barely there. Each section rises vertically from the track with a single letter or numeral.
So different from Rome. It struck me today as I was walking through the National Gardens: Rome is a city of continuity. Everywhere I went in Rome I encountered evidence of the continuous evolution of culture — art, architecture, religious worship and power. The significance was overwhelming because of the connections to today’s life. Churches built 1,500 years ago are still in use. Streets, walls, bridges and buildings remain in place for centuries, with evolution occurring within or below or above. Rome continues to be the living mash-up of all that it creates, demanding a direct confrontation with the past (I wrote about my reaction to this here).
Not so in Athens. The worship of the city’s namesake — Athena — ended almost 2,000 years ago. The antiquities are isolated — modern Athens seems to work around them, not on top of or within them. On the surface, Athens feels like a city of the 19th and 20th centuries, with a black hole of extreme history at its core. The connections to that big rock in the center of town aren’t as obvious. History doesn’t feel so “heavy” here.
But then there’s the heaviness of my own history. Ephemeral triggers — smells and sounds, the sad, sleeping dogs, the language — are bringing me right back.
The uncanny sense of simultaneously belonging and not belonging.
And so it continues. Tomorrow I travel again, backward and forward into history. An ancient city to the east, even older than Rome. Or, a deeper look into an older self — a child’s view out a strange window, or from behind the adults, looking up onto the table. This is the exact place where language was both a) an obstruction and b) an expansive view inside and out.
How is it possible that a language could feel both known and unknown? What if it could be learned? What would be understood?
To get me in the mood, I’ve been reading —