Greece From a Wheel Chair
Editor of the Atlantic from 1908 to 1938, ELLERY SEDGWICK built his policy on the belief that an editor should be his own legman. From his annual trips to England and his visits to France, South America, Japan, Italy, and Spain, he returned with personal impressions and manuscripts which enlivened the Atlantic. Despite the handicap of arthritis, he is still an ardent traveler, as will be seen from the enjoyable essay which follows.
WHEN, in the eighteenth century, the “European Tour” first became fashionable, travelers were wont to bathe the wonders they had seen in what they called “reflections of the philosophic mind.” It is still pleasant to be a philosopher in one’s own thinking, and any old grad with scraps of education in his head can follow the sententious wisdom of his forefathers. So as one walks the neoclassic streets of Athens and sees, above the dreary perspectives about him, rise the legendary Pnyx and the Acropolis shimmering in russet gold, one wonders how long the pulpits will preach their idle doctrine of the comfortable spiral of human progress. “Onward and upward” seems to give place to “Down we go.” There, right before one’s eyes, is physical proof, obfuscating theory. Two thousand years ago, beauty, intellect, the noble curiosity of life, reached their zenith. There, in front of you, is the authentic picture of history. Twenty centuries have followed a descending path, now pitching into deep valleys, now rising over uplands, but ever further from the height.
It is on one of those uplands that Greece rests now, and an American can feel just pride that his country has put her shoulder to the wheel at the last difficult rise. Whatever our motive, we are building ruggedly and well. Tools to work with, American buses, trucks from Detroit, cars innumerable, with the blessed ECA emblazoned on them, are all evidence that a thorough job is in progress. Hope is born again, new building is going on everywhere— building in a bad tradition, it is true; but then it is borne in on us Americans that the functionalism of modern architecture has made beauty unnecessary-and a trifle vulgar.
In the modern world, democracy turns on words. Remember our kindly feelings for Chinese communists when American reformers described them in luminous terms as “liberals” or “agricultural reformers”; so too, when the reporters told us that the incendiary hordes of Elas and its confederates were revolutionists precisely in the sense of the Continentals of 1776, we lent our long ears to them. Fortunately this imbecility has been suppressed, if unhappily not obliterated. We know now on which side is patriotism and on which imposture. This is the beginning of our wisdom and we are following a straight path.
Nor is England far behind us. She too plays her essential part in rehabilitation. The new model farms in the north, built where lakes once were and water still remains, are her work. Ever since Athena gave them the olive, the Greeks have been an agricultural people. What tools the goddess presented them with, history does not relate, but very probably they differed not one jot from current instruments of toil. The Greek spade is an adze with its blade turned horizontal. This the peasant pulls towards him, once the blow has been struck. Of wheelbarrows I saw one, and that a mason’s, all the time I was in Greece; and the earth is shifted as though it were material for a laboratory experiment with selective samples. But Greek soil is hard as flint and any peasant will tell you it must be hacked, not spaded. Another difficulty with agriculture is the indurated goat habit. Every family keeps a goat and every goat keeps a family. No tender crop is safe. No flowers, no homely patch of vegetables softens the landscape about the cheerless little cottages. To clap Greek economy into a nutshell: the goat lives on nothing and the nation lives on the goat. In a country where the cow is not much commoner than the griffin, goat’s milk is a prime necessity of life and cheese its staple.
Poverty in Greece is stark. Perhaps a score of Athenian households are rich, clinging to fortunes, or memories of them, once made in the tobacco trade with Alexandria or some other foreign operation. Here and there are fine new houses; but with the bulk of the population, conditions are often just on the hither side of misery. How one admires the people! Their cheerfulness, their resilience, their passionate love of free Greece. Half a millennium of Turkish misrule, a century of war, invasion, rapine, and destruction, have not quenched their faith. From the besetting sin of the world today, they are gloriously free. They know not envy, ugliest of the cardinal sins — envy which is the virus of Socialism, the venom of Communism. If you have a car, and the peasant doesn’t, his first thought is, “ How lucky that one of us is so fortunate!” Hospitality is sacred to him and he offers what he has. He welcomes you to his two-room cottage, often too small to hold the stove, which is set on a convenient porch. His worldly goods are a table, a couple of chairs, a stool or two, and a halo of ikons above the bed’s head — these, the inevitable goat, and of course the donkey.
How the Greeks toil, supported by the food they have, must puzzle the dieticians. Breakfast is a literal thimbleful of coffee and a crust, dinner mostly cheese and an ample bowlful of weeds, vinegared to a salad. Everywhere women roam the fields and hills for weeds. There are, so our cheerful cook, Diamondla, told us, thirty-six edible varieties. You see huge baskets of them at the grocer’s door, the coarser and dustier at 600 drachmas the pound, the more select at 800. These the laborer washes down with a thin wine, but on festal days the drink is supplemented with what I took to be a distillation of banana skins. To celebrate our call the hospitable peasant, borrowing an extra glass from a neighbor, would offer us this horrible beverage. All the courteous guest can do is to gasp, gag, gulp — and shout with pleasure!
Another drink universal in Greece is so characteristic of the taste of the people that Philhellenes look up to its appreciation as an index of a foreigner’s affection for the country! Retzina is a sour wine impregnated with resin. Odysseus and his mates, it seems, used resin to ward off the air when the legs of the wineskins were sealed, and the following three thousand years have cultivated a taste for its turpentinish bouquet or at least fortified the Greek palate against the pungent horror of its flavor. At any rate retzina is the daily solace of those fortunate enough to be able to spend 7000 drachmas on a bottle of the better brands.
This sounds expensive but it isn’t. The visitor never learns just what the value of a drachma is, but it costs a thousand of them to shine your shoes. One day, cashing a draft of $500, I was appalled at the operation. A pile of paper some eight inches high, neatly folded in a stringless newspaper, was handed me, and I was informed that I had come into a fortune of 7,300,000-odd “drachs. To transfer this wealth to my pockets was impossible. With both hands I banked it on the back seat of my car, hoping the bundle might be mistaken for half a dozen loaves of bread. But thanks to the American loan, drachmas still have their uses. It is wonderful to see the change in expression when a boy who has made himself useful receives a thousand of them as a gift.
EVERY traveler from Herodotus to Winckelmann, and from Winckelmann to me, descants on the magical refinement of the Greek atmosphere. It seems rather a quality of the mountains themselves than the medium through which one gazes with delight at Hymettus or Parnes or Pentelicus. The outlines are sharp but there is an ethereal delicacy in their razor edges. I remembered and contrasted the subtle beauty of Japan. There, the hills are burred with the contours of the tremulous leafage of bamboo. My excitement was great then, when I realized that the tender poetry of Hiroshige’s prints is, in fact, photographic realism. But here in Greece the naked mountains seem to rise in the vision of a dream. No wonder the gods loved them.
There is no window-shopping in Greece to divert the visitor; no possible purchases to make, except perhaps a coverlet of lambskins, a jacket of raw silk, or an interesting ikon. Beauty and history alone beckon the traveler. There the talk moves naturally on archaeology and the “digs.” I took especial interest in the American excavation of the Agora, begun some twenty years since and still incomplete. Unlike their brother archaeologists, these Yankee diggers are not lured by hopes of unearthing a sixth-century Apollo or an Aphrodite of the golden age. They uncover not statues but a civilization. For the first time the geography and systematic arrangement of the center of Greek life are completely understood. Here Socrates walked among the stoas, and here buzzed the timeless chaffering over merchandise that has been merely transported to the modern streets.
Discoveries these tireless Americans do make, quite as important to the understanding as any marble or bronze to the eye. Here for example are the recovered fragments of the actual bill of sale published when all the goods of Alcibiades were auctioned off in punishment for his sacrilege and set up as a sober warning to future generations of roysterers. Every schoolboy can — or rather, could — recite the story. The young and magnificent Alcibiades, prize pupil of Aristotle, heir to the nobleness of Greece, idol of the crowd, on the eve of sharing the command of the Sicilian Expedition, went, so it was said, on a wild debauch. Desecrating the Mysteries of Eleusis, painting the holy statues, he scandalized all decency. Inevitably and properly, the hoodlum hero was recalled from his high command and driven into exile. His goods were auctioned off; and to pay the price of shame, the City Fathers had the bill of sale cut in marble and set up in the market place, so that the disgrace might never be forgotten. Nothing in the books could make history more vivid. There, cut for eternity, is every distressful item: tiles from the roof, beds, linen, chairs, the very remnants of food left in his larder. Everything went to the highest bidder, and the last footnote to Alcibiades will be written when the epigrapher translates the final word and discloses the complete inventory of every article in the house of a noble Greek.
Another near-by showcase in the makeshift museum casts white light on another facet of Greek life. All museum adepts are familiar with examples of ostrakoi, the oystershells used in balloting. As a matter of fact, these “oystershells” are usually shards of pottery, conveniently glazed to enable the voter to express his wishes in writing. In the Agora a great number of these have come to light, bearing the thrilling name, Themistocles. Into rival jars were dropped the ballots for or against his banishment. On account of the huge vote taken on that memorable day, it was to be expected that many ostrakoi would be found, but the interest of this collection is that a number of these ballots are inscribed in an identical handwriting. There is nothing mysterious about it! The Boss was on the job, then as now. He prepared these ballots and the voters cast them — no doubt for the consideration of an obol or two. The ballot box wax stuffed.
How is the glory of the American boss diminished! A vile imitation, he. His methods as old as Time!
WHAT have old men like me to justify our conception of the pace of history? We have lived through but a minikin fraction of it, yet it seems quite possible we overestimate the speed of the revolution which has overtaken us. To simplify our guess, let us segregate one example — the rapidity of the shift in taste. I recall the aesthetic principles of my boyhood. Lessing was not quite forgotten. Raphael was incomparably the greatest of painters. Apollo Belvedere defied comparison; while the color and line of El Greco were grisly and grotesque. This revolution in our standards certainly exhibits a high degree of velocity, yet reflecting on the transformation, it is amusing to note how firmly embedded in the thinking of the times are certain axioms, slowing the pace of change. The Age of Pericles still stands on the summit of human perfection, but then almost instantaneously came inevitable decline. It is now perilous to praise above our breath statues made too late to admit the possibility of supreme excellence.
But questions come. I am startled when I remember that the Winged Victory of Paris was shaped full three hundred years after perfection had passed forever and in the Museum of Athens there is a bizarre example of how every classical canon can be flouted by a Greek artificer. The statue dates from a hopeless epoch, a century or so before Christ or some such degenerate era. Beauty is not its motive, but a more admirable example of a sculptor’s purpose one cannot hope to see. This bronze figure is of a jockey, a street Arab new-climbed from the gutter, his legs stretched apart to the human limit as he straddles his mount, his features distorted by the violence of excitement, as he squeezes every ounce of speed out of his horse, which alas was drowned two thousand years ago on the journey to Rome. The little rascal riding high on the withers still grips the useless reins. You can, if you listen, hear him whisper “Get on, you bitch" as he crouches over the mare’s ears. Here is everything a Greek statue ought not to be, vehement, uncouth, living for time, not eternity — but marvelous. Only a year or two ago, fishermen caught him in their net; and ever since, fish are forgotten in hopeless casting for his lost steed.
The effect of such a statue as this on one’s conception of classical art is startling. In your confusion you turn and there before you is the Charioteer, perhaps the most glorious statue in the world. He stands divinely tall, palpitating with life within, but without, calm as a Greek should be, the fillet of victory on his brow. The race is won and he is passing the stands, his hands still guiding the reins. It takes one’s breath away to think that this magnificent youth was but a minor figure in a group. His royal master once stood at his elbow receiving the plaudits his skillful driver deserved. In front of them, steeds of glowing bronze once strained at their collars.
Everyone knows the Charioteer, but no guidebook explains the most wonderful thing about this figure. On earlier visits I had remarked the eyes, their pupils wrought of some dark gem or marble, the iris of oyster gray, giving an expression of resolution wholly foreign to that blank serenity with which the faces wrought by Phidias and Praxiteles look out on a world that concerns them not. The eye is the light of the body and the eye of the Charioteer has the glint of victory in it.
This I had understood, but what was it that gave those eyes their intensity of life? I looked intently and there, wonder of wonders, I saw that long eyelashes, even to the fringes of the lower lids, were threaded out in filaments of bronze.
Who was the great Anonymous who so transcended the sculptor’s art? We only know that havoc and twenty centuries have respected this work of his hands.
Bronze and marble are but a facet of that whole which makes our debt to Greece completest of our existence. The famous scholar, Sir Henry Maine, puts it truly and simply: “Except the blind forces of nature, nothing moves in the whole world which is not Greek in its origin.”
Often in our wanderings we stopped at cottages. As we were in charge of a devoted friend of Greece, who has played his useful part in her last liberation, our welcomes were tumultuous. Kissings on both cheeks, handclasps, and vows of brotherhood would be followed by the death squawk of a chicken destined to regale us. It chanced that one of these new friends was an ancient dweller in Chicago, who after a notable career in the prize ring had settled down to enjoy his last years under his own vine and fig tree, surrounded by his pretty daughters.
While we drank his coffee and sipped his homemade wine, the gleam of triumph came into his steely eyes, and quickly he brought the talk around to his own career. Mr. Scoufis, so our host was named, had journeyed farther than Odysseus. He had been part and parcel too of the American fighting tradition and then — tremendous climax — he, he himself, had trained Gene Tunney for his first fights. There was the telegram from Gene to prove it. But that was only a beginning. At this moment, Mr. Scoufis was molding a new Greek hero. Tsaldaris had the punch, Tsaldaris had the guts, Tsaldaris should be honorably discharged from the army. He should fight for his country in Madison Square Garden. The diamond belt should be his, and the glory that was Greece should come again!
The expression on the old warrior’s face showed that his life had not been idly lived; and when we went, the tonneau of our car was piled high with newspapers full of currants, a demijohn of his vintage, and oranges innumerable. A new friendship was sealed.
Watch the papers, O Atlantic readers, for the day when the name of Tsaldaris will flash in the headlines from New York to San Francisco.
In one poor village we searched for a night’s accommodations. Hotel there was none, and the rooming house displayed three beds to each tiny chamber and a single tin basin as the sole bathing resource of a dozen lodgers. The situation was dispiriting. My arthritis and I always travel together in a wheel chair which, when not in use, collapses into the iron basket on top of our car. In this I was being pushed rather disconsolately, when of a sudden our hearts were lifted up by shouts of joy. In the midst of Station Square, a wedding party was celebrating the “day before.” Fiddlers sweated out their liveliest tunes. Men and girls danced in their separate circles, one uproarious, one demure. The crowd sang and clapped time. A barrel of retzina, source and symbol of happiness, gave rationale to the festivity.
As my chair made its dignified approach, the master of ceremonies, cousin to the bride, danced toward us in welcome, waving a decanter in one hand and a glass in the other. There was nothing for it but a drink all round and then another, following them with judicious selections from a dish of unrecognized appetizers, each spiked on its own toothpick.
The fun grew furious and at its climax there arrived a procession which would have done honor to the Queen of Sheba. A horse, three mules, and a donkey bore the bride’s dot and her wedding gifts. Perilously piled on the horse’s back were a mattress, six pillows, and a dozen blankets. The mules carried twin bridal chests, four chairs, linen, a table, crockery, while the donkey, built to twice his size by an enormous heap of carpets and shawls, bore on the peak of his load the gift of gifts — a cradle. I thought of my hours of puzzlement over a choice of gifts for Boston weddings. Here was the answer to every bridal prayer.
The crowd was in ecstasies, and when the cradle was set down at the door of the empty two-room cottage, every old lady in the village rocked it with grins of confidence. One gift more, too precious to trust mules and donkeys with: bringing up the rear, pirouetting from side to side, a wedding guest waved aloft a pier glass, the first to brighten that distant village.
Here, coming down the centuries in long straight line of descent was the Panathenaic Procession. Here was the symbol of what Greece was meant to be: the love of life and color and glorious sunlight, the bubble and foam of happiness in spite of Turk and Russian and Bulgarian, in spite of the unremitting toil of yesterday and tomorrow hacking the unrewarding earth, in spite of endless fear of sowing where another may reap; here the spontaneous joy in the moment which all motorcars, golf courses, gadgets of America, cannot call into existence.
There was a further significance in the scene. This wedding was the culmination of a success story. The waiter was marrying the daughter of his restaurant employer. And such a restaurant as their future was built upon — half a dozen chairs, a deal table, bread, cheese, a pot of honey, and the promise of a Paschal lamb next Easter — that and the courage to secure one day of happiness to look back upon.