Prisoners in the museum

The classical Greek conception of the afterlife was not a particularly attractive one.

In Homer’s universe, the vast majority of the dead — those not singled out by the gods for special treatment — did not wake up in some bright city of jasper and chalcedony. There were no beautiful houris, no songs, no drinking with old comrades, no dancing in fields of asphodel. Death meant a transition from the daylight world to a gray twilight, a cavern of ashes and dust, populated by muttering shadows. The Homeric dead retained their identities only through the living, sustained in the memories of those left behind. As those memories faded, or the people who had known them in life themselves died off, the dead reflected that loss, becoming more and more vague, insubstantial, losing all individual selfhood. The one thing that could provide a moment’s respite in this slide into oblivion was blood. The blood of the living, freely given, would restore a shade’s identity and memory, at least for a short time.

Pretty grim, right? We are talking about death, after all, the big D, the final darkness, the end of life, so to expect sunshine and roses and platoons of beautiful virgins does seem a bit naive.

If you’re one of those folks who believes that you will, upon the death of your body, rise up to enjoy dancing and singing and partying for all eternity with your ancestors back to Adam and Eve, I’m not here to rain on your parade. We all look for consolation where we can. What I really want you to think about, looking out at those gray multitudes in the Greek afterlife vibrating to the last fading echoes of selfhood, is the concept of identity.

* * *

What got me started on this track was the singing of the cicadas in my yard. (Bear with me: This’ll make sense in a bit.)

It’s August here in northwest Arkansas, and the cicadas are in full frenzy up in the trees, advertising their brief passions with a chorus of shrilling, chittering, and buzzing. The different groups punctuate their declarations of love and territory with occasional silences. These lacunae are usually easy to overlook, since one instrument dropping out doesn’t always have that much impact on the overall symphony.

Every now and then, however, everybody goes silent at the same moment. It’s a surreal feeling, that sudden jerking away of the curtain of sound, as if the pounding and hissing of the surf stopped without warning, or the ticking of the grandfather’s clock in the hall ceased in the middle of lunch. There’s a sensation of vertigo, of missing a step on the way down the stairs. A silence you can almost touch.

* * *

In 1946, Greek poet and diplomat George Seferis wrote a poem he titled “Thrush”, about a Greek sailing vessel sunk by the Germans during WWII in Athens’ harbor. Seferis, awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963, is widely considered to have defined Hellenic culture in the post-World-War era. For me, his contribution is less specific. I find that Seferis’ writings speak to me, about as non-Greek as a man can get, about identity; about who and what we are in the time and place we occupy.

I don’t have to be Greek to share Seferis’ questions about what defines us. I’m a Southerner, born into a military family in Montgomery, Alabama, during the opening years of the Civil Rights movement, raised in a small, white, conservative farm town in the Appalachian foothills. I’m also a gay man, politically and socially liberal, a xenophile, bilingual, somewhat of an intellectual. How do I reconcile those two sides of my life? Who I am and how I got here seem mutually exclusive. How can I bring the past and the present together without destroying them both?

This, I feel, is the true central theme of Seferis’ poetry. The poet, a Greek, was heir to a culture that reached back to Homer and Herodotus, Pericles and Plato, and yet he lived in a time when his fellow Greeks were roiled in a bloody civil war between two opposing ideological views of what the country should look like in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation, a conflict which petered out in the early 1960s, and then ended once and for all when Greece fell under the control of a brutal military dictatorship. Seferis, a career diplomat, lived every day immersed in the petty squabbling, the violence, the slavish adherence to irrational beliefs, yet, for all that, he was an educated man, a man who knew that his people had once been so much more.

Past and present? Past or present? Where was the middle ground between the Parthenon and Odysseus and the funeral oration of Pericles on the one hand, and the tortures, disappearances, petty internal power struggles and political dirty tricks of Seferis’ own lifetime? This was the poet’s dilemma, and one that informed and energized much of his writing.

One aspect of my personality that I neglected to mention a couple of paragraphs back is that I’m a coward. Faced with the contradictions of my existence early on, I fled my home town at the age of nineteen, and have returned during the last four and half decades only when absolutely necessary. To preserve my present, I repudiate my past. A stronger, braver man would have found a way to reconcile the two without sacrificing personal integrity. Unfortunately, I’m not that stronger, braver man. I did what I had to do with the character and resources I had at my disposal, meager though they might have been.

As Americans, we face this issue more than most. George Seferis belonged to a cultural tradition that could be traced back over millennia. As an American, the descendant of immigrants, born in a country less than two centuries old, I don’t have that foundation to build upon. Quite often, we deal with this by creating fictional “heritage”, based less on historical fact than on wishful thinking, sanitizing our history and our ancestors to justify an exaggerated view of our own stature. (This is, of course, not unique to us. After all, the Greece of the Iliad and the Odyssey was hardly an accurate reflection of reality.)

Reinventing ourselves as what Seferis once referred to as “men without ancestors” is one solution, allowing us to start fresh, to set the past aside and focus on the future. A nice idea, but as I know from my own experience, it’s never that easy: the ghosts are always with us, muttering and begging, pleading for a few drops of blood now and then, demanding to be remembered. The opposite approach, living in the glorified past, is also a non-starter. An identity built on moonshine and fairy dust won’t hold up for long against the very real vicissitudes of day-to-day life in a world created from the dirt and blood and bones of a very real history.

What to do?

For one thing, don’t look to me for answers. All I have is questions. And yet … Seferis offers us a glimpse of something: he doesn’t propose a return to a glorious past that never existed, nor does he suggest leaving the ancestors to wither and fade, forgotten in the dark. He promises anxiety, and fear, and the possibility of hope and change, and maybe a moment of silence in which to draw the line between past and future.

I leave you with the last few lines of Seferis’ “Thrush”:

“… I’m not speaking to you about things past, I’m speaking about love;
adorn your hair with the sun’s thorns,
dark girl;
the heart of the Scorpion has set,
the tyrant in man has fled,
and all the daughters of the sea, Nereids, Graeae,
hurry toward the shimmering of the rising goddess:
whoever has never loved will love,
in the light;

in a large house with many windows open
running from room to room, not knowing from where to look out first,
because the pine trees will vanish, and the mirrored mountains, and the chirping of birds
the sea will empty, shattered glass, from north and south
your eyes will empty of the light of day
the way the cicadas all together suddenly fall silent.”

George Seferis, “Thrush” from Collected Poems (George Seferis). Translated, edited, and introduced by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Copyright © 1995 by George Seferis. The entire poem can be found at the Poetry Foundation website:

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