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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

A Greek – Makriyannis

George Seferis
Traduction de Mary Kitroeff

Texte intégral

1Title: Ἕνας Ἕλληνας - ὁ Μακρυγιάννης (Α Greek – Makriyannis)

2Originally published: As a leaflet in Alexandria, 1943

3Language: Greek

4The excerpts used are from Γεωργίου Σεφέρη, Δοκιμές τ. Α,’ (Athens: Ἴκαρος, 1974), pp. 236–237, 240–241, 257–259, 261–262.

About the author

5George (Georgios) Seferis [1900, Smyrna (Tur. Izmir, present-day Turkey) – 1971, Athens]: poet, literary critic and diplomat. His father Stelios Seferiadis was a famous lawyer as well as a translator and poet. The family milieu was, thus, very favorable towards the literary ambitions of young Seferis who was already writing his first poems in 1914. However, that same year, the Seferiadis family left for Athens. There, he completed his secondary education in the ‘Model Classic High School.’ In 1918 his family moved to Paris. There, encouraged by his father, he studied law between 1918 and 1924. Seferis experienced the vivid intellectual life of Paris in the inter-war period. His encounter with Paul Valéry’s poetry, la poésie pure, surrealism, and his admiration for Jules Laforgue and Guillaume Apollinaire determined the poetic inclinations of his youth. In 1925, he returned to Athens, and a year later, joined the diplomatic service. His first work, Στροφή (Turning point), published in 1931, signaled a real turning point for Greek poetry. Seferis was later introduced to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, which had a huge impact on his work. His eagerness to use simple language to transform everyday life into poetry was reinforced by Eliot’s method. The outcome of this impact was the Μυθιστόρημα (Novel story) published in 1935. Between 1936 and 1938, Seferis served in Koritsa, (Alb. Korçë) in Albania. In 1938, during the Ioannis Metaxas regime, he was appointed head of the foreign press department at the press and information ministry. In 1941, in the wake of the German invasion of Greece, he followed the Greek government and fled to Cairo. There, he experienced both the bitter rivalry among Greek politicians and the outbreak of a mutiny in the Greek navy in 1944, which marked the beginning of the Greek civil war. In 1945, he returned to Greece, and between 1948 and 1962, served in the embassies of Ankara, Beirut and London. In 1963, he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. In 1969, breaking the silence imposed by the junta, which had seized power in April 1967, Seferis made a statement on BBC radio condemning the military regime. In 1971, his funeral in Athens became the occasion for a demonstration against the regime. Apart from his poetry, Seferis gave path-breaking lectures on literary figures. These lectures and essays were published in two volumes under the title Δοκιμές (Essays) in 1974. While Seferis’s generation sought to escape everyday misery by traveling, he himself developed the reverse attitude. Since he spent most of his time abroad out of necessity, instead of the misery, he experienced a longing for his native land and its people (encapsulated in the term Romiosini—the Greek- Orthodox definition of the nation, originating from the Ottoman categorization of the Greeks as part of the millet of the Romei (Tur. Rum) (see Ioannis Psicharis, My journey) which has been brilliantly described in the verse: “Wherever I might go, Greece wounds me.” Thus, Seferis became a symbol of the mixed feelings of pride and agony that Greeks experienced due to the political and social turbulences of the twentieth century. His poetry has been very popular internationally, and in many occasions adapted in popular music and films.

6Main works: Στροφή [Turning point] (1931); Μυθιστόρημα [Novel story] (1935); Τετράδιο γυμνασμάτων [Notebook of exercises] (1935); Ἡμερολόγιο καταστρώματος Α,’ [Logbook I] (1935); Ποίηματα [Poems]; (1935), Ἡμερολόγιο καταστρώματος B’ [Logbook II] (1944); Κ. Π. Καβάφης – Θ. Σ. Ἔλιοτ Παράλληλοι [C.P.Cavafy – T.S.Eliot in parallel] (1946); Κίχλη [Thrush] (1947); Τρεῖς μέρες στά μοναστήρια τῆς Καππαδοκίας [Three days in the monasteries of Cappadocia] (1953); Ἡμερολόγιο καταστρώματος Γ’ [Logbook III]; (1955); Δοκιμές [Essays] (1974).


7The German invasion of Greece and the surrender of the Greek army in April 1941 signaled the beginning of an ordeal for the Greek people. The government found refuge in Cairo, where it resumed the struggle for the liberation of the country. This was a conservative government whose personnel was recruited by the dictatorial regime of Ioannis Metaxas. On the other hand, the resistance groups which established the Ἐθνικό ’Aπελευθερωτικό Μέτωπο EAM (National liberation front) in 1943, representing a large part of the Greek population, were marked by a leftist ideology. Consequently, it was clear that the EAM would not easily consent to the return of the exile government after the end of the war. Negotiations between the two sides did not produce any results, and in April 1944, a mutiny took place, organized by the leftist officers of the Greek navy in Cairo. The mutiny was suppressed, but it constituted the first act of a painful drama which would culminate in Athens in December 1944, when the EAM’s military force, ΕΛΑΣ Ἐθνικός Λαϊκός ’Aπελευθερωτικός Στρατός (National people’s liberation army), clashed with British troops and the Greek military units which supported the official government of Georgios Papandreou. This was the first dramatic turn of the Greek civil war, which would end with the defeat of the EAM forces. This defeat would lead to the splitting of post-war Greek society into communist and anti-communist fronts, initiating the incessant harassment of members of the former up until the overthrow of the military junta in 1974.

8Seferis’s lecture on Makriyannis’s memoirs should be read within this political context. Undertaking the responsibility of intellectual leadership, the poet and diplomat felt the need to support and inspire his compatriots by offering them a symbol of struggle, resistance, and national pride derived from the Greek Revolution of 1821 against Ottoman authority. At the same time, in order to demonstrate the significance of the ‘people,’ he sought to advocate the uninterrupted existence of the ‘soul of the nation’ in the acts and writings of what he considered a typical popular figure. General Ioannis Makriyannis (1797–1864) was one of the leading revolutionary figures who wished to convey his own version of the events of the Revolution and its aftermath. His memoirs first appeared in 1904 in the newspaper ’Aκρόπολις (Akropolis), where excerpts were published in installments. In many ways, this manuscript depicted the ideological cleavages of an entire period. The general discontent prevailing in the newly-born Greek state was more evident in the accounts written by revolutionary figures who had been later ousted by the regime of the Bavarian prince Otto, possessor of the Greek throne. These sentiments were mirrored in a most dramatic way in the autobiographical notes of the revolutionaries published in those years. Many tried to present their own version of the events that led to independence, at the same time bemoaning the loss of democratic ideals, which were, at the beginning, part and parcel of their vision of national fulfillment.

9The young poets and novelists known as the generation of the 1930s sought to define ἑλληνικότητα (Hellenicity) in a way that would clearly depart from the visions of the ‘Great Idea’ prevailing in Greek national ideology before 1922 (see Giorgos Theotokas, Free spirit). They were inspired by Makriyiannis’s account, since his ‘Memoirs’ were already widely known by then. By 1941, Giorgos Theotokas had already written a relevant article, which was overshadowed by Seferis’s account two years later. However, both shared the view that the ‘Memoirs’ not only constituted a source of national self-awareness, but could also be read as a literary work mainly due to the original demotic language the author had employed.

10Seferis’s lecture of 1943 had a programmatic character. The central value Seferis pointed out in the ‘Memoirs’ was the coexistence of a personal style with a collective voice, due to the fact that the author was actually almost illiterate. What Seferis considers Makriyannis’s personal style was the latter’s difficulty in expressing himself on paper and the imaginative way he constructed his text. This guaranteed Makriyannis’s originality and, in Seferis’s mind, abided by the aesthetic demands of Anglo-Saxon modernism. At the same time, this tracing of a personal style distinguished Seferis’s account from old-fashioned folklore studies. However, through Makriyannis, Seferis sought mainly to establish a temporal continuity of the nation. According to the poet, Makriyannis’s oral form of writing carried the “heritage of the soul of the nation … the popular tradition of the race.” Makriyannis’s difficult writing, according to the poet, depicted “the voice of many people,” and consequently described “the conscience of a whole nation,” proving that the Greeks always found themselves not in an individual ‘me’ but in a collective ‘us.’ Moreover, it depicted genuine heroism, a notion so much needed in the rotten world that Seferis and his generation had experienced.

11Seferis found also the opportunity to talk about education. He considered it highly fortunate that Makriyannis did not learn more than what was necessary to express himself. He subsequently attacked the semi-educated scholars who, in his view, had systematically sought to destroy people’s culture over the hundred years of the Greek state’s existence. Seferis thus introduced the tension between education and culture. He employed the term pedia for culture derived from the Anglo-Saxon intellectual tradition where culture comprises all aspects of human activity, as opposed to the German notion of Kultur which dominated Greek intellectual life. Thus he contended that education (ekpedefsi) should respect and promote popular values instead of eliminating them. With this lecture Seferis hoped to establish a link between what he considered to be the two representatives of “original” Greek culture: Makriyannis and the generation of the 1930s. He thought that it was the task of his own generation to explore and represent the “popular awareness,” the primeval cultural heritage embedded in the life of the ordinary folk. This awareness was nurtured by the evocation of memories of an ancient past through folk songs and traditions, and could only be distorted by official education. The fundamental enemy was petit-bourgeois mass-culture which promoted ignorance and material happiness, as well as an educational system that only maintained official ideology.

12Seferis’s conceptualization of Makriyannis has been extensively addressed. For modernist critics such as Takis Kayalis and Nasos Vagenas, Seferis’s turn to popular figures such as Makriyiannis did not contradict his modernist standpoint. On the contrary, it represented its strongest expression. Examples from European modernism, such as Ulysses, in which James Joyce sought to incorporate Irish traditional elements, and the Cantos, in which Ezra Pound tried to appropriate popular culture, were employed in order to support this view. On the other hand, critics such as Vasilis Lambropoulos and Dimitris Jiovas emphasized Seferis’s dilemma between tradition and modernism. According to these authors, in his appreciation of Makriyannis or other figures originating in folk culture (such as the naive painter Theofilos), Seferis presented a “populist” or “national” face. This, they argued, was an attempt to compensate for the western cultural orientation he had adopted up to that point, and constituted an ethnocentric ‘turn,’ since it stressed the specific character of Hellenic identity.

13The debate between at least two ideological camps in Greece today takes place on these grounds. On the one hand, there are those who support the notion of ελληνικότητα of the generation of the 1930s, and carry on an ideological war both against a neo-Orthodox definition that conceives ‘Hellenicity’ through Orthodoxy as well as against post-modern criticism. On the other hand, there are those who consider the notion of ‘Hellenicity’ of the 1930s as an ethnocentric one not only in terms of claiming specificity, but also in terms of a nationalistic predilection which relies on the assumption of the superiority of the “Hellenic race.”


A Greek – Makriyannis

  • 1 Alexandros Soutsos (1803–1868): novelist, poet and playwright. A member of an elite among the Gree (...)

15Reading and writing is one of man’s noblest exercises and loftiest desires. Education is the governor of life. And because these principles are true, we must not forget that there is good education—the one that liberates and helps a person to become complete according to himself—and bad education—the one which perverts and desiccates and is an industry which produces the pseudo-educated and the nouveaux riche of learning who possess the same counterfeit nobility as the nouveaux riche of money. If Makriyannis had learnt to read and write in those days, I fear he would have had to forsake himself, because education was in the hands of, in the words of the poet, the “triumphant of empty speech,” something of which there is still no lack. I do not commend Makriyannis for not learning to read and write, but I praise our most merciful God for not giving him the means to learn, because, had he gone to a teacher, we would perhaps have the bulk of ‘The Memoirs’ many times over in a language full of bell-clanging and chord-plucking; we would perhaps have more information on the history of those times, we would perhaps have a Soutsos1 of literature, but this inexhaustible source of life, which is Makriyannis’s book, that is something we would not have. And it would be a great shame because in the way in which Makriyannis reveals himself we can clearly see that even though he was illiterate, he was by no means a mountain-dwelling, uncultivated barbarian. He was exactly the opposite: he was one of the most cultivated spirits of Hellenism. And the learning, the culture denoted by Makriyannis is not something which is separate or exclusively his own; it is the common property, the spiritual wealth of a race, handed down for centuries and millennia, from generation to generation, from sensibility to sensibility; persecuted and always alive, ignored and always present—it is the common property of the great popular tradition of the Nation. It is precisely the substance of this culture, this shaped energy, which created the human beings and the people which decided to live free or die in ’21. That is why our popular tradition is so important. […]

16He is like the unknown poets of popular songs: he “makes” the song, and it is revealing when he gives us the opportunity to see up close how the much scorned demotic sensibility has a feel for and a love of the works of ancient art.

  • 2 Seferis quotes from the first publication of the ‘Memoirs’, edited in 1907 with an introduction by (...)

17“I had two wonderful statues,” he also notes, “a woman and a young prince, intact—you could see their veins they were so perfect. When they sacked Poros, some soldiers had taken them and were to sell them in Argos to some Europeans; they were asking for one thousand talara … I took the soldiers aside and spoke to them: ‘Even if they give you ten thousand talara, don’t allow for these statues to leave our homeland. These are what we fought for.’” (II 303)2.

18You understand. This isn’t Lord Byron, or a scholar or an archaeologist talking; this is the son of Roumeli shepherds, his body covered in wounds. “These are what we fought for.” Fifteen academies trimmed in gold are not worth the words of this man. For it is only in such sentiments that the education of the Nation can take root and blossom; in true feelings and not in abstract notions of the beauty of our ancient ancestors or in dried up hearts which are cataleptic with fear of the vulgar crowd.

19“From the graves of our slain,” sang Solomos. His idea was true. The Greek revolution had come out of the marrow of the bones of the living Greeks. And that is why it succeeded, and that is why it did not cease but continued throughout the nineteenth century, and that is why its realization has yet to end. The war of our homeland today—it is not an exaggeration to say—is a continuation of the revolution of ’21. For we must not forget: each time our race turns towards the people, asks to be illuminated by the people, is re-educated by the people, it continues the tradition which triumphantly entered the nation’s conscience with the Greek revolution. That struggle was a social, polemic and political event. Of this latter aspect, the most ignored, it is important to have proof such as that left to us by Makriyannis. Historical events don’t stop at the chronological landmarks we see in the pamphlets of history. […]

  • 3 Seferis refers to the tragedy ‘Persians’ the most significant anti-war drama written by Aeschylus (...)
  • 4 Henri de Rigny (1782–1835): the commander of the French squadron at the Battle of Navarino (1827) (...)

20The cause of the Greek revolution and the devastation of the tyrants is formulated by Makriyannis in a word he puts in the mouth of an enemy, just as Aeschylus has the enemies talk about the disaster at Salamina3. “We will be lost because we have committed an injustice.” If we really wish to understand ancient Greeks, we must always explore the soul of our people. These words were spoken in 1821. Makriyannis keeps them in his memory and writes them down years later, in around 1829, after he accumulated all the experience of that terrifying struggle. I can see him thinking about them in times of hardship. They lie behind every one of his actions, every one of his maxims. They lie behind the following conversation he has with the French admiral De Rigny4, when he is preparing to fight at Myloi:

  • 5 Ibrahim Pasha (1789–1848): the son of Mehmed Ali of Egypt. Upon the invitation of Sultan Mahmud II (...)

21“As I was fixing the positions at Myloi, Dernys came to see me. He says: “What are you doing there? Those positions are weak; how will you fight Braimi5 there?”

22I say to him:

23“The positions are weak and so are we. But the God which protects us is strong, and we will prove our good fortune at these weak positions. And if we are few before Braimi’s crowd, we have one way of consoling ourselves; and that is that fortune has willed for us Greeks to always be few. That from the beginning to the end, from older times to the present, all the wild beasts have fought to devour us but they cannot. They eat some of us but the leavening remains. And the few decide to die. And when they make this decision, it is rarely that they will lose and very often that they will win. Such is the position in which we are here today. And we will see how the weak fare against the strong.”

24‘Très bien,’ said the admiral and departed.” (B’ 169-171).

25That is the faith and security Makriyannis gives us.

26The second reason I believe Makriyannis is our most important prose writer is because I consider him a great teacher of our language. With the exception of Solomos’s fragmented Γυναίκα τῆς Ζάκυνθος (Woman from Zante), I don’t know of another text in Modern Greek letters which teaches us as much as Makriyannis’s text. […]

  • 6 A figure of ancient Greek mythology. Though married to Theseus, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolyt (...)

27This is what I had to say about Makriyannis, the illiterate wayfarer of a great life, who with such effort records on paper the things seen by his conscience. The sure messenger of our long and uninterrupted popular tradition, which, precisely because he keeps it so deeply rooted inside himself, enables him to tell us in the voice of many people, and not only of one, what we ourselves are and how we are. How his anger, his pain and his tragedy are not his own individual affairs but yours and mine and all of ours; affairs in which all of us together, both dead and living, are jointly liable and responsible. He comes forth to whisper to us that our beauties and ornaments and possessions, which we thought valuable, are now gone, grown old and worn and turned into debris, and serve no other purpose but to weigh us down, just like the tragic and desperate Phaedra6.

28Makriyannis whispers this to intellectual people, at any rate.

29From the eve of the last war, the intellectual craftsmen of Europe—I am referring to indicative works—are clearly conscious of living in a spoiled world. This consciousness brought about extremely violent intellectual revolutions, which appeared as early as the first peacetime years.


1 Alexandros Soutsos (1803–1868): novelist, poet and playwright. A member of an elite among the Greek-Orthodox community of Constantinople, known as the Phanariots, later on moved to the newly founded Greek state to make careers as bureaucrats.

2 Seferis quotes from the first publication of the ‘Memoirs’, edited in 1907 with an introduction by the historian Ioannis Vlachogiannis.

3 Seferis refers to the tragedy ‘Persians’ the most significant anti-war drama written by Aeschylus and performed in 472 in Athens. The plot refers to the devastating defeat of the Persian navy in the hands of the Athenians and their allies.

4 Henri de Rigny (1782–1835): the commander of the French squadron at the Battle of Navarino (1827) which ended up with the defeat of the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet in the hands of the British, the French and the Russian naval forces and paved the way for the proclamation of Greek independence.

5 Ibrahim Pasha (1789–1848): the son of Mehmed Ali of Egypt. Upon the invitation of Sultan Mahmud II, he led the Egyptian army against the Greek rebels in 1825.

6 A figure of ancient Greek mythology. Though married to Theseus, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ son. When he rejected her love, Phaedra claimed that Hippolytus had raped her. As a result, Theseus killed his son and Phaedra committed suicide. The myth provided the plot for Hippolytus, a tragedy written by Euripides and staged in Athens in 428 BC.


Mary Kitroeff (Traducteur)

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