I am at the crossroads of Sophocleous and Athinas: seek the truth and gain your wisdom. A bronze statue of a man in a tail coat and cravat looks like Socrates, and I converse with him about the paradox of knowledge. On Aristotelous Street, I imagine a large-scale unity of time, place and action. In the distance, the Acropolis hangs above these streets like the form of Time above a city of clocks. To land in a historic civilization of Philosophy is a lofty task at the least: my eye searches for the Form in the Reality, the Mystic in the Reason.
Yes, only in Athens could clothing stores be mistaken for gods. Here, Zara may well be the sister of Aphrodite, and Gucci, Apollo's attendant. Even the graffiti on street corners is tagged 'Chaos.' I spend my first day here wandering the Parthenon, leaving a coin at the gates of Zeus, imagining that when I arrive at my friend Haris' house (an artist and a friend from college), the walls will be covered in books by Plato and blueprints of Byzantine architecture and maps of the Christian cosmos.
Instead, I arrive at a dining table soaked in color: green beans, okra, lettuce, feta cheese, tomatoes, olives, lamb cakes, carrot stew, potato chips, multigrain breads, eggplants layered with minced goat meat, and a dessert of almost obsessively rolled baklavas covered in pistachios. Haris' whole household awaits my arrival. Her dogs bark, her parents, aunts, uncles, sisters, grandmothers talk fast, loudly, hugging and kissing each other, boasting about Greece and its ruins between unabashed conversations about jealous boyfriends and gossipy wives, pretty necklaces and embroidery and gardening and siestas.
As I fall asleep into the crisp air of the bulbous cypress trees, I imagine the Scales of Justice, weighing the lofty ideas of Greek philosophers and playwrights and everyday, modern life on another. Which one rises? The dining table, in all its pomp and fare, seemed starkly at odds with its more stoic, intellectual past.
A contemporary rendition of Hercules Menomenos at the Petra Theatre depicts this weight perfectly. The story follows a traditional Aristotelian pyramid structure, tracing the life of Hercules, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, his image of heroism and his desire to make his first born, king. The story reveals his thirst for power which leads to a madness that makes him kill his wife and children. When he realizes what he has done, he repents.
The tale is told entirely in Greek, but I am riveted, not only because of the setting, which mimics the old Dionysian and Herode theater, but also because of the postmodernist, absurd, fragmented rendition of the narration. The men are in business attire, the set is stark, the women wear secretary clothes (with an intermittent entrance by a woman wearing a naked suit). There is an accordion, a lute and a trumpet that lend the story its lyric Chorus quality. They seem irreverent to the history of theatre, and yet the looming rocks in the back provide perspective into man's size amid the grandness of nature, and the central stone on the stage becomes a point of wisdom, where only the elderly in the cast step, and where Hercules experiences his final repentance.
He can no longer look at the ruin he has caused, and the light of reality (and in this case the stage) is harsh in his face. He asks to be enveloped in a white sheet, which begins to resemble the white reconstruction sheet at the Parthenon, and when revealed from underneath, he is restored, anew.
And so is the reconciliation between now and then. The old is, in some ways, being restored here. The foundation is the same, the aesthetic base one of a deep condolence with theism. The deep bloodline of philosophy seems to be embedded in the boisterousness of modern Greece. For Aristotle, happiness was not a state of being but a way of living that expresses all we are meant to be. When we live fully, we feel joy.
Here, the modern family's nature is not opposed to the gravity of the country's intellectual past, instead the past informs the now. Even the flag's nine stripes, which is being waved so often in Greece's current economic crisis situation, represent the nine muses of art and civilization, while the colors blue and white represent the sky and the clouds, the ocean and its foamy waves. Somehow the scales between Ideas and Actuality do not tip one way or the other, and perhaps this is because of my conversation with Socrates, him in a cravat, me in jeans, who taught me that the paradox of knowledge is the awareness that knowledge is infinite, we are finite, and thus, it can never be fully consumed. For now, a plate of feta and tomatoes and a story of a jealous boyfriend will have to suffice.
~Himali Singh Soin, a writer living in India.
(Photos: Athens, by Martin Gevonden; Central Market, Athens, Greece, by madlyinlovewithlife; Theatre at sunset, by Sally Taylor. All images under Creative Commons license.)