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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. The “Critical turns”: Subverting the Romantic narratives

Free spirit

Giorgos Theotokas
Traduction de Mary Kitroeff

Texte intégral

1Title: ’Eλεύθερο Πνεῦμα (Free spirit)

2Originally Published: ’Aθήνα, Eκδότης Α I. Ράλλης, 1929

3Language: Greek

4The excerpts used are from the annotated edition by Konstantinos Th. Dimaras, (Athens: Ερμής, 1973), pp. 10, 61–64.

About the author

5Giorgos Theotokas, known also by the penname Orestis Digenis [1905, Istanbul – 1966, Athens]: novelist and critic. He completed his secondary education in a French lyceum in Istanbul. He wrote his first essays on literature during his high school years. In 1922, he moved to Athens to study law. In 1925–1926, during his years as a student, he was involved in political activities through the association Φοιτητική Συντροφιά (Students’ company). Ιt is the experience of this period that he would later describe in his most well known novel ’Αργώ published in two volumes in 1933–36. During 1927–1929, he resumed his studies in Paris and in London. His contact with European culture and especially French intellectuals played a significant role in the formation of his personality and his attitude towards Greek society. In 1929, he returned to Athens and wrote ‘Free Spirit,’ which was immediately received as the manifesto of the new generation. ‘Argo’ constituted a vivid picture of the existential impasse of contemporary bourgeois society. Together, with ‘Leonis,’ which described the writer’s childhood and youth in Istanbul (published in 1940), they are considered as being among the most typical examples of the new bourgeois novel. Theotokas rejected any fanaticism and dogmatic attitude. Faith in a kind of freedom that is not sacrificed to temporary political party exigencies but remains unbiased constitutes the basis of his intellectual work. Apart from this, his contribution to the consolidation of the art of novel writing in Greek intellectual life was significant.

6Main works: ’Eλεύθερο Πνεῦμα [Free spirit] (1929); ’Aργώ, 2 vols. [Argo] (1933, 1936); Τό δαιμόνιο [Demonic spirit] (1938); Λεωνής [Leοnis] (1940); Ἱερά Οδός [Holy road] (1950); ’Aσθενεῖς καί Ὁδοιπόροι [People in need and travelers] (1964).


7The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 marked the final stage of the protracted dispute between Greece and Turkey. However, the subsequent exchange of populations brought 1,200,000 Greek-Orthodox refugees from Turkey into a country of 5,000,000 inhabitants, while 500,000 Muslims went in the opposite direction. The refugees went through enormous suffering, and many died during the initial stages of the process. Moreover, they had to deal with the hostility of indigenous populations, who felt that Greece suffered humiliation due to the very same people, and also because they did not wish to share their already difficult lives with them. The refugees were settled in areas detached from city networks. Thus, they lived in a state of isolation for decades. It was to a large extent within these regions that during the Second World War, the Έθνικό Ἀπελευθερωτικό Μέτωπο EAM (National Liberation Front) managed to recruit many of its members. Actually, the incapacity of Greek society to incorporate the newcomers was held as one of the reasons for the civil war (1944–1949) (see George Seferis, Α Greek—Makriyannis). In fact, during the inter-war period, all the accumulated tensions and grievances brought political life to a standstill. Despite the fact that in 1924, the Republic was proclaimed and the Monarchy, blamed for all misfortunes, was ousted, democracy did not take roots. A series of military coups that frequently upset political life eventually culminated in the Ioannis Metaxas dictatorship and the restoration of the monrachy.

8When Theotokas went from Istanbul to Athens for studying, the atmosphere was one of defeat and despair. In intellectual terms, the poet Costis Palamas (1859–1943), a dominant literary figure of the previous period who had connected his poetry with nationalist aspirations, was now being seriously challenged. Palamas had expressed the modernist version of the ‘Great Idea,’ the irredentist vision of annexing to the Hellenic Kingdom all Ottoman territories inhabited by Greek Orthodox population. Along the same line, as it has been suggested, the new interest in Orthodoxy observed during this period was not a return to tradition but a search for another way to escape from it. This applies also to Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933), the poet from Alexandria, who gained the sympathies of Athenian intellectual circles as someone representing a different, strange and exotic world. In 1929, a young intellectual who did not want to turn back to Dionysios Solomos or to the demotic songs could find nothing solid to rely on. Kostas Kariotakis, famous for his pessimistic poetry, had committed suicide in 1928. On the other hand, the ideological debates on the Russian Revolution intensified. In 1928, in a theater crowded with people, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957), who was later to become the most famous Greek novelist worldwide, gave a lecture praising the Soviet reality together with his close friend Romanian writer Panait Istrati (1884–1935). In the same year, Kazantzakis published his book Τί εἶδα στ Ρουσία (What I saw in Russia).

9Fervent debates among young intellectuals took place within this atmosphere. The two major sides of the debate were those represented by the ‘idealists’ and the communists. There was, of course, a variety of choices between these two positions. However, the debate soon became extremely polarized. Reviews such as Ἰδέα (Idea), published by Giorgos Theotokas and Angelos Terzakis (1907–1979), the other important novelist of the same generation, can be described as an expression of a liberal bourgeois ideology that aimed to fight against communism.

10Among these young intellectuals, novelists and poets, the most prominent were the poets George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis (1911–1996), both of whom won the Nobel prize for literature (in 1963 and 1979 respectively). This generation managed to overcome the feeling of defeat and isolation, and elaborated on the notion of ἑλληνικότητα (Hellenicity), which was aimed to replace the pre-First World War concept of the ‘Great Idea.’ Moreover, they expressed their dismay for a society still bound to the past, relying on traditions and austere family structures, unable to liberate itself, both in its mores and intellectual tendencies, and catch up with the rest of Europe. Most of these works are dominated by a critique of traditional values. In terms of literary genres, the young generation shifted from ethnographical narration to the urban and historical novel, and from symbolism and parnassism (the French poetic school of the latter half of the 19th century, characterized chiefly by a belief in art for art’s sake) to modernist poetry. Moreover, a particular group of poets largely influenced by French surrealism and Italian futurism, figures such as Andreas Empirikos (1901–1975), Nikos Engonopoulos (1907–1985) and Nicolas Calas (1907–1988), moved to more revolutionary forms based on the premises of the contemporary avant-garde. It is within this atmosphere that the ‘Free Spirit’ appeared. The text consists of four essays with the titles ‘A walk through Europe,’ ‘National character and intellectual militarism,’ ‘Ethnography,’ and ‘Preconditions for a true avant-garde.’

11In the fourth essay, Theotokas describes the reasons which brought about the stagnation of contemporary Greek society. The most significant feature is considered to be the provincial character of Neo-Hellenic culture. There was no internal production which could justify a place for Greece in European civilization. A major reason for this was the catastrophe of 1922. Many important individuals were lost in this turmoil, and those who survived were accustomed to fighting over the ‘Language question,’ and were left in despair in a world they did not understand. After the defeat of 1922, nobody believed in the virtue of the “hellenic race” (romeiko). Yet, the author concluded, there were many young people with a strong will for change inspired by the noble “idea” for a “new Greece.”

12The intellectual circles of the time received the ‘Free spirit’ in an ambivalent way. Established authors such as Grigorios Xenopoulos (1867–1951), a major novelist of the first decades of the century and editor of the prominent review Νέα Ἐστία (New hearth), commented that “this was not only a bad and useless book, but also a mean act.” Others, however, such as the critic Spyros Melas (1882–1966), considered the book to “stand against the stagnant ways of thought and the art within which the pre-war generation was stuck.”

13The book has frequently been called a manifesto. Literary critics have recently doubted the role of the ‘Free Spirit’ as the manifesto of the generation of the 1930s. However, Theotokas, along with Seferis, has been placed at the center of the debate on Hellenocentrism, that is, the persistence on the specificity of the Hellenic nation. It is evident, though, that neither Theotokas nor Seferis could be accused of trying to dissociate Greece from European developments. Later on, as the political atmosphere in the 1930s and the 1940s became gradually more polarized, both Thetokas and Seferis sided with the conservative royalist establishment, never trying to disconnect themselves from their own bourgeois background. Thus, the manifesto of 1929 should be treated within its own context, separated from the later predilections of its author.


Free spirit

15[…] But this linking together, if it is indeed taking place, makes us melancholic. Amidst the creative ferment in present-day Europe, what place does Greece hold? What is our contribution to the great efforts being made all around us? Nothing! We feel it deeply as soon as we cross our borders: we represent nothing, no one takes us seriously, we cannot justify the place we hold in Europe and, in the eyes of foreigners, we are only money-brokers, boatmen, small-time grocers and nothing more. After we have wandered around enough amidst European civilization, we return home one day, our hearts heavy. Where, then, are the Greeks? We looked for them everywhere but they were nowhere to be found. […]

16It seems that Greece is at sea. The shock of the war was so deep in our land, deeper than anywhere else, the development of the interwar years so unexpected, incoherent and sweeping, that we crossed our arms and stand gazing at the sight without daring to talk about it.

17We were a small and narrow-minded provincial society that kept to itself. Greece’s only concern before the war was the language question. The intellectual nourishment of public opinion were the current events columns in the newspapers. Suddenly, from one day to the next, we found ourselves in this jumble of modern life, swept along by the great winds of post-war Europe. Our teachers, carefree people who had dedicated their life to the study of ancient grammar, Roman law, Byzantine history and the Greek folk song, were suddenly faced with the mad speed of our century, the rapid development of society’s mores, our radical political and economic upheavals, the struggle of the classes, jazz and all the world of passions which it expresses, the concerns of the post-war generation, modern girls with their hair cut short, with their skirts above their knees, with their suntanned skin, emancipated all at once from centuries old social conventions. These good people understand nothing and say that the world is going to wreck and ruin. It would be strange if they understood. Greek letters felt frightened and fell silent. The little amount of thought that existed quit the battle. When we observe things up close, the standstill of our intellectual life seems natural to us. Greece’s leap had been very wide and the Greek spirit, still weak, was unable to follow the development of the country.

18When we say that over the past twenty years we have lacked young creators, we must not forget the conditions of that time. The youth of the years 1910–1920, who, at the beginning of their career, displayed both thinking and talent, are a sacrificed generation. Their most precious resources were spent on the battlefields. Perhaps the finest among them, the ones who today would be our intellectual leaders, fell in Macedonia and Asia Minor before they had time to show their worth. Among the many thousands of dead, surely there were superior spirits. And those who did not go to the front were absorbed by the ten-year-long anguish of the war and the distress of the civil conflicts. There was no time for them to concentrate, to think, to compose themselves. Besides, the sudden and radical change in living conditions may have destroyed many values, for material reasons of course, but also for psychological ones. Such general changes in the pace of a society can only be suffered cool-headedly by very strong idiosyncrasies. A delicate talent, born to express calm emotions within a calm atmosphere, is easily driven to despair when such tempests break out. What is certain is that once the war was over, while the whole of Europe was revising its spiritual values, we were revising nothing, for we were lacking in strength. We left everything as it was and entered the twentieth century with our eyes closed.

19The moral effect of our defeat was and still is most powerful in our land. Everywhere else, the first post-war decade was a period of ferment and great endeavors. In Greece it was a period of despair. Our elders sank in the harbor of Smyrna not only their forces, but also their ideals and their self-confidence. In 1922 they ceased to believe in Greece. From then until now our land has lived without brave and noble feelings, without the need to surpass itself, without any exaltation. The disaster smothered any breath of idealism.

20Take at random some of Greece’s present-day publications, verses, narrations, discourses of ideas. What will you encounter almost without fail? Boredom, disillusionment, nostalgia for things gone by, fatalism, a defeatist attitude. Poetry, the most sincere form of our sensitivity, speaks only of death. I could quote here the words of the most enlightened people of Greece, words which sound like the cries of a man shipwrecked. What need is there to try, to struggle, to live, since “nothing can be done in the Romeiko [Roman land]?” That is the teaching which is inferred from the words of most of our spiritual leaders. Their most important pursuit is destroying the hopes of those younger and preserving the decline of Greece. I have no desire to accuse them. It is natural for them not to expect anything from the future, as these are the people who saw all their struggles and dreams dishonored by the disgrace of 1922. And it is also natural that these defeated [men], who have ceased to believe in themselves, do not allow others to have more self-assuredness.

21We are broken, withered, lost in the jumble of modern life. No one expects anything good from Greece. No hope dawns anywhere. This moment is, of course, a wonderful moment.

22At such moments, if the right people are found, beautiful things sometimes happen. Youthful forces, lost, drifting, wandering through the atmosphere with no purpose. None of the young people know what they will, but they all will strongly. Taking place around us, without a definite object, is an intensity of new wills. A seed falling on such ground can one day give unhopedfor fruit.

23A people who has inside itself a soul, upon reaching the absolute bottom of disillusionment, finds the strength to react against itself. It reacts suddenly, without any warning or any groundwork. The restoration of the soul is not a gradual development, but a sudden awakening of slumbering forces, a violent return from decline to life. Some people, uninvited and undesirable, sever all ties with the ailing past and move onward. They grab the drifting forces, give them self-awareness, urge them on towards new directions. They begin a new era.

24The New Greece is a land with a soul. She showed this by reacting forcefully against herself in the hours of her greatest despair. In the early nineteenth century, entombed and forgotten, she suddenly created the Revolution, and won her independence. At the end of that same century, with a similar outburst of unknown forces, she overturned the intellectual Middle Ages which were oppressing her. Perhaps, without anyone realizing it, the tide is turning again.


Mary Kitroeff (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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