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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

My journey

Ioannis Psicharis
Traduction de Mary Kitroeff

Texte intégral

1Title: Τό ταξίδι μου (My journey)

2Originally published: Αθήνα, n. p., 1888

3Language: Greek

4The excerpts used are from Ἰωάννης Ψυχάρης, Τό ταξίδι μου, ed. by Alkis Agelou (Athens: Ἐστία: Νεοελληνική Βιβλιοθήκη, 1993), pp. 37–39, 64–67, 75–76, 89.

About the author

5Ioannis (Jean) Psicharis [1854, Odessa – 1929, Paris]: writer, linguist and critic. Psicharis was born to a well-off family. After his mother’s early death his father brought him to Istanbul in 1860, where he spent his childhood. His native language was Russian and it was only in Istanbul that he studied French and Greek at the French Lycée Bonaparte. In 1869, he left for Marseille to conclude his high school education. From there, he moved to Paris to study literature at the Sorbonne, to Bonn where he studied medieval and German literature, and back to Paris, where he specialized in modern Greek literature and linguistics at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. In 1884, he was appointed lecturer of Greek literature and linguistics at the same school. He soon married Ernest Renan’s daughter Noemi, whom he divorced in 1892. He was also in close contact with writers such as Victor Hugo, Leconte de Lisle and Hyppolite Taine. In 1904, after the death of his mentor Emile Legrand (1841–1903), a major figure in modern Greek philology, he succeeded him as a professor of linguistics at the Ecole des langues orientales vivantes, where he taught medieval and modern Greek. In 1886 he visited Greece for the first time. Before visiting Athens, he traveled to Istanbul, to represent the Ecole des Hautes Etudes at the conference of the Ἑλληνικός Φιλολογικός Σύλλογος Κωνσταντινουπόλεως (Greek philological society of Constantinople). It is exactly this trip that he described in his ‘My journey.’ After this, he returned to Greece several more times. Psicharis began writing while he was a student. In his work, he sought to connect his literary activity to the creation of modern Greek literature and the reconstruction of intellectual life in Greece. The main instrument to this effect, he believed, was a simple and flexible language. He thus became the major figure of the first phase, the so-called literary phase, of the demoticist movement. His basic principle on the ‘Language Question’ was that in order to develop culturally, the Greek nation needs to have its own language. This language would be the one used by the people itself, which was not vulgar as the purists claimed. His purpose was to consolidate demotic (from the ancient word demos, meaning ‘the people’) as the language of education and science. When Psicharis shook the stagnant Athenian literary circles, many saw him as a prophet. However, his very polemical attitude regarding the ‘Language question’ caused fierce reactions. In particular, during the process of his being appointed to Legrand’s chair, Psicharis was fiercely attacked by a large part of the purist Greek press as being totally inappropriate to teach Modern Greek. Even after his appointment, there were vivid debates in the Greek Parliament and a request for a protest at the French government, which never materialized. In fact, the demotic version of Greek, which became established only with the 1976 Reform, was not the one proposed by Psicharis, but rather a compromised one. However, he is still considered to be the leading figure of Greek demoticism.

6Main works: Essai de phonétique néo-grecque (1884); Jalousie (1884); Essai de grammaire historique néo-grecque (1886); Τό ταξίδι μου [My journey] (1888); Etudes de philologie neo-grecque (1892); Τό ὅνειρο τοῦ Γιαννίρη [Gianniri’s dream] (1897); La croyante (1899); Ρόδα και Μῆλα 5 vols. [Roses and apples] (1902–1909), Ζωή καί ἀγάπη στή μοναξιά [Life and love in solitude] (1904); Τά δύο ἀδέρφια [The two brothers] (1911); Le crime de poète (1913).


7During the 1870s and 1880s, the reforms introduced by successive governments of the most important nineteenth century Greek politician, Harilaos Trikoupis, had brought new hope for the future of Greek society. Despite the alienation of the rural population, these reforms encouraged various groups in the urban centers to participate in political and intellectual life. The intellectual atmosphere of the 1880s was also marked by Nikolaos Politis’s contributions to the study of folk culture. Moreover, Athens witnessed the emergence of a new generation, the so-called ‘Athenian school of the 1880s,’ which abandoned the austere classicism of the post-revolutionary period. Instead, the group adopted the Ηerderian concept of the nation and sought to explore the authentic culture and the language of the people. As a result, this generation dropped καθαρεύουσα (katharevousa) and expressed itself in the demotic idiom. Figures such as Costis Palamas (1859–1943), Georgios Drosinis (1859–1951), Argyris Eftaliotis (1849–1923) were among its main representatives. This literary regeneration coincided with the development of critical attitudes in the local press, which brought literary issues to the attention of a broader audience.

8It has been argued that, after its emancipation from the didactic character it had inherited from the eighteenth century, modern Greek prose witnessed three important moments during the nineteenth century. The first was the publishing of Papatrechas by Adamantios Korais. The second one was the novel Πάπισσα Ἰωάννα (Popess Johanna), written in 1866, by Emmanouil Roidis (1836–1904), the radical intellectual who also commented extensively on contemporary political and intellectual life. The third one was ‘My journey’ by Psicharis. The connection among the three authors was that all of them originated from the Aegean island of Chios, a vibrant commercial center at the time. More importantly, they were Greeks of the diaspora. What was crucial, however, in their intellectual accomplishment was that their work coincided with significant moments in the transformation of Greek cultural identity. In his novel, Korais found the opportunity to comment on the educational flaws faced by the nation on the eve of its uprising. Roidis, in his conflict with the Holy Synod of the Greek Church instigated by ‘Popess Johanna,’ pursued not only literary, but also social agendas. Finally, Psicharis appeared at a moment when conditions looked favorable for a resolution of the ‘Language Question.’

9Psicharis had espoused radical views on language even before ‘My journey.’ In 1885, he published his Essai de grammaire historique néo-grecque, where he pointed out that he saw no point in discussing which would be the most appropriate writing language, since there was only one language used in everyday life. He concluded that “Solomos did not need advice in order to create the most beautiful verses that Greece could be proud of.”

10For Psicharis, the demotic language had acquired national dimensions. He argued, on the one hand, that it could liberate his compatriots from archaisms. On the other hand, it would offer them the competence to develop a national literature, which would determine the cultural boundaries of the nation. He realized though that in order to attract the broader public, he had to use easily recognizable terminology. The first one is Romiosini (the Greek- Orthodox definition of the nation), and the terms Grekos/Romios (see Rigas Velestinlis, New political constitution) in order to underline his dismay for the identification of the Greek state with the ancient Hellenic cultural entity. Moreover, he often employed the term ‘Idea,’ a word that resonated well with the ‘Great Idea,’ which, in its turn, appealed to the Greek audiences, as it connoted a fervent hatred of the Turks, a sentiment which he describes as the most enduring element of Greek identity.

11The publication of ‘My journey’ itself would not have had any significant repercussions, had not the language of the text been conceived by the author as a strong statement. The demotic language was used in an academically pretentious and meticulous manner, and readjusted according to morphological rules, which Psicharis had mastered as a linguist. His effort to impose these rules to any idiomatic case led him to exaggeration. He also chose very carefully the genre which would be more appropriate for his manifesto. He did not wish to write a novel, since he believed that this genre was not yet mature in the Greek context. He needed a genre which would permit him to express his theoretical views on the ‘idea.’ At the same time, he found it appealing to move between reality and imagination.

12‘My journey’ came as a surprise to the Greek audiences. Psicharis had published mainly in French and nobody had used this style ever before. It has been argued that even if Psicharis had not produced anything after ‘My journey,’ he would have lost nothing from his central historical role. Despite the fact that ‘My journey’ was received enthusiastically by many contemporary demoticists, such as the poet Costis Palamas and the novelist Constantinos Hatzopoulos (1868–1920), one of the pioneers of socialism in Greece, it also triggered fervent debate. The best known was the one between Psicharis and the famous German Byzantinist and professor of medieval and modern Greek language and literature in Munich Karl Krumbacher (1856–1909), on the one hand, and Georgios Hatzidakis (see Nikolaos Politis, Study on the life of modern Greeks), one of the most impassioned supporters of καθαρεύουσα, on the other. During the first years of the century, the demoticist movement began to develop more systematically. The publication of the journal Νουμᾶς, directed by Dimitris Tagopoulos (1867–1926), supported by Psicharis himself, gathered many of the demoticists, as well as socialist intellectuals such as Georgios Skliros, around it.


My journey

A few words

14Whosoever reads me will understand my purpose for writing ‘My Journey.’ Language and homeland are the same. To fight for one’s homeland or for the national language is one and the same struggle. One is always defending one’s homeland. […]

15I have no language of my own and I did not create a language, for I am no maker. I write in the common language of the people; when our demotic language hasn’t a word we need, I take the word from the ancient language and try, as much as possible, to match it to the grammar of the people. That is how it was done by all the nations of the world; that is how it shall be done by us. It seems to me that this is the first time, in this book, that the language of the people is written with a certain order and unity. I tried to write it properly, preserving its rules, paying attention to the phonology, morphology, forms and syntax of demotic grammar.

16I am not so young, I am not such a child as to think that with this book of mine I have solved the problem which torments us all. In order to solve it, much is still needed. First, each one should sit and correctly learn this language which he holds in contempt without knowing it; grammar books must be written so that our true language, and not only katharevousa, is taught in our schools and in university. In fact, we must better study the ancient language, so as to understand the historical value of the demotic; we must study it with respect and see that it is only the demotic which it is possible for us to cultivate and write. I have tried to show that one can also write prose in this language. I say openly and with all my heart, if my book is not good, it is my fault; it is not the fault of the language. […]

17None of what I say in my book ever happened in truth. Truth is only the hatred every Greek feels for the Turk and the love he feels for his homeland and for the language his mother spoke to him as a child. Never in my life have I paid much attention to individuals; only man, the idea and the mind have some worth in the world. General matters are the only important matters. For this, where I write I, it is a form of rhetoric; I am nothing; the national soul means something; I have tried to see, from time to time, what this soul holds inside itself, and speaking about myself, I think of others. My book is a fairytale, not a journey. […]

Constantinople and Constantinopolitans

18[…] Constantinopolitans have another system. Constantinopolitans live, as much as they can, fraternally with the Turks and try to govern them—or, in other words, to have a hold on them. At first, they somehow managed to do this; but now their system is more difficult for them. Nowadays Europe is also mixed up in their business and she also wants to have her say. What are our unfortunate Greeks to do? What is one to do, when one hasn’t a rifle? You might say: “He buys one!” Yes! That is my thought too. But this is Europe we’re talking about! What will our people do with Europe if they go and buy rifles? What do you think of that statement? It seems to be right. Whatever one is used to! If, at the outset, the Constantinopolitan had become angry, if now he preferred death to slavery, then who knows? Today Europe would not have the chance to say a word. But on the other hand, you must reckon that not a single Greek might be left alive.

19It seems that that is how the Constantinopolitans reasoned, and it seems that they reasoned famously, for they never stirred. Fellows, what can I tell you? I have a great weakness for you and I don’t like accusing you. You yourselves will say that I did not let out half your failings. Suddenly one day you may complain and say that I praised you excessively. What can I do? I was one of you myself. Let’s cover some of them up. That is how they wished it; that is how they went about it; that is what suited their temperament. There was plenty of squabbling, and pettiness and theological disputes; as long as they sat in their corner. And yet, without much flattery, without displaying more humility than was fitting, with their sense of honor, with their good sense, with their intellect, with their sound judgment, they succeeded in making the Turk listen to them, respect them, and sometimes even to fear them—and, lastly, and this must be said, they always sustained Hellenism. The great Uprising did not leave them unaffected; this was where the fire became red-hot; the spark lay hidden in all hearts and together they nurtured it lest it went out.

  • 1 Tur. Fener, a district on the south shore of the Golden Horn where the Greek- Orthodox Patriarchat (...)

20For now, the Constantinopolitan quietly awaits for his master to fall on his own. He knows that the Greek, and only the Greek, will stay in the land forever and will never budge from Constantinople. That is enough for him. An old boatman, who used to take me every day to Phanari1, once said to me: “Boss, the Turks have been crushed mightily.” “My son,” I replied, ”in time they will be crushed even more; one day you will see them so crushed, that they will be thrown into the sea. But what difference will it make to you? It is not you they will make king, nor me. You will have another master.” “Don’t you worry, Boss; he too will be crushed!”

21What my good boatman said was what everyone feels inside. That is what they reckon. That is why you see them slowly working towards that end. They have commerce in the palm of their hand; they have the greatest power on earth: money. They also cultivate letters; every now and then they learn a bit of Greek; they rejoice and preen because they think they know Greek. They love learning; they build loads of schools and they want them both good and luxurious. They spend masses of money to build four schools where one would be enough. Even the poorest among them will give something from his pocket.

22Thus are our good Constantinopolitans governed, thus do they live, thus do they die. Now and then they’ll say to you: “The development of letters was the major cause of the rebirth of Greece,” or “schools and education ceaselessly nurture patriotism,” and many other such things, which other people say elsewhere, and will go on saying for years. But our good Constantinopolitans are mistaken and are wrong to say so. Not only do schools not nurture patriotism, but they exterminate it; they almost wiped it out completely. Schools grabbed up all the money, not leaving a penny for the army or the navy. Instead of arms, books; instead of soldiers, teachers. That is why Constantinopolitans sit reading while the Turk stands over their heads. He who learns how to read and write never picks up a rifle again. During the Revolution, the people were illiterate, but they were an illiterate lion. When the Turk took Constantinople, it was not with his wisdom that he took it. The Byzantines were wise. Now that the Greek knows more things, his sword has grown rusty; the pen is sovereign. […]

23So long as this barbarian lives, he who dampens my spirits and won’t let me sleep at night! I don’t care who destroys him; so long as he is destroyed! At first they had their greatness; now they have been reduced to being the jesters of Europe. From the moment they set foot upon this soil, they brought their curse with them. The Turk does not progress; he slaughters and stands still; he drowns in the blood he sheds. His religion is his first enemy; it does not allow him to go forward and it trips his feet. Woe to the Greek who does not understand this!

  • 2 Gr. Κόκκινη μηλιά, Tur. Kızıl Elma: According to the Greek tradition, it describes the legendary b (...)

24The Turk must either be all-powerful or he must be nothing—either a king or a slave. Let him then return to the red apple tree2, since he can no longer rule the world. From where were they unleashed, from where did these barbarians come to Europe? Our soil does not bear them. They conquered and were conquered themselves. Even in the good they did us, they showed how dim-witted they are. In all of history we see and read that the conqueror’s single concern, once he has taken a land, is to hold it firmly; he becomes one with the conquered and, in a few years, as in France, Germany, Russia, one can no longer distinguish one from the other. The conqueror is nurtured and made strong by the native’s blood. They were never able to become a nation. They were blinded by fanaticism. Once the conqueror swept down, once he entered Constantinople, he separated the Turks from the Christians. He remained a foreigner among them all. He was companion to no one and for four centuries we lived close to each other, like a dog lives with a cat. What a shame, though, that they were the dog—and that we didn’t even prove to be a cat. […]

Cabinet de lecture

25[…] Yes! Now, for the first time, I have understood the system of our newspaper writers and their system seems to me useful and simple. “Forget your Greek, both ancient and modern; only make sure you observe ancient forms. If you have learnt that the nominative moussa [muse] has a genitive form of moussis and not moussas, that the present tense of akouo [listen] is ikousa in the imperfect and akikoa in the present perfect, you immediately buy foreign newspapers; you translate them in a jiffy. Thus you ennoble the language. It doesn’t matter if you write in Frankish, as long as you print in Greek. In this way, your words all appear Greek; inside, you are all Frankish. Don’t ever neglect grammatical form in your life. You will have ruined everything if you don’t pay attention to grammatical form!”

26And do not think that our people are naive to go about it in this way. Our newspaper writers are not stupid; in fact, they are terrific diplomats. By writing in German, French and English, they cajole Europe; when Europe sees that we know and can write its language, it cannot but love us. And so one day it may give us Constantinople. In order, supposedly, for Europe not to take it amiss that we are seen avoiding foreign words like the plague and claiming that it is demeaning for both our language and nation to say porta instead of thyra, we have at least succeeded in making the words appear Greek, while the style and the meaning are Frankish […].

Patriarchal affairs

27[…] Wherever I go, whatever I do, whatever I come across, everywhere I see, everywhere I find the Turk. I need only open my eyes, I need only turn and look: everything reminds me of slavery. I went to Hagia Sophia and I had to put on Turkish shoes, in order to enter an Orthodox church. How was I to look and see the magnificence of art? The shoes I had on burned the soles of my feet and every hour I seethed inside; I kept wanting to hurl them in the face of the doorman.

  • 3 The sultan’s procession on his way to the Friday prayer.

28I attended the selamlık3 and as I stood at a distance I saw a ravaged, ailing and ghostly-looking man hurrying by; it was the Sultan. I saw soldiers, officers, and generals in line and I said to myself: “There go the barbarians, tearing down the road.” And as I watched them, I raised my eyes, pretending to look out for fiery lightning to suddenly fall from the quiet, cheerful sky.

  • 4 The Palace of Vlacherna still lies in ruins on the western end of the Byzantine walls on the Golde (...)

29I went with our good man O. to take a stroll through Vlacherna4 and ancient Byzantium. Our wise archaeologist kept telling me every so often: “This was a church and they turned it into a mosque; this was a palace and it has become a pigsty. I know, because I read the Turkish sign, above the door of the church, which says so, and because I have thrice read the Byzantine authors.” While I listened to him, a terrible distress came over me. His words ate at me like a worm. My blood boiled and I recalled the first night I had laid myself down in Constantinople; I was bursting. I had to give vent to my anger.


1 Tur. Fener, a district on the south shore of the Golden Horn where the Greek- Orthodox Patriarchate moved at the end of the seventeenth century. The move was followed by large numbers of important families who became known as Phanariots.

2 Gr. Κόκκινη μηλιά, Tur. Kızıl Elma: According to the Greek tradition, it describes the legendary border in Eastern Asia Minor (Anatolia) that Turks crossed before flooding in the entire peninsula. According to the Turkish tradition, it refers to a prophecy of obscure origins prevalent among the Ottomans and centered around the idea of world domination. The Red Apple was identified with the successive goals of Ottoman conquest, particularly Constantinople and Rome.

3 The sultan’s procession on his way to the Friday prayer.

4 The Palace of Vlacherna still lies in ruins on the western end of the Byzantine walls on the Golden Horn, It was built by Michael VIII Palaelogus who reconquered the city from the Latins in 1261 and was used by the imperial court throughout the late Byzantine period.


Mary Kitroeff (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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