The Ideal Shatters
by Christos Chrissopoulos
For those of us living at the foot of the Acropolis hill, or even further out, under the metaphoric shadow it casts all over Greece, the message of Yorgos V. Makris’s iconoclastic Proclamation No. 1 does not sound all that shiver-inducing
Yorgos V. Makris and the Idealisation of Ruins
The destruction of the Acropolis has been a rather familiar fiction for Athenians. The avant-garde poet Nicolas Calas in his 1933 poem “Acropolis” creates a very powerful image of the Acropolis lying in ruins amidst heaps of garbage, empty film canisters, lost coins etc. Much later, the prose writer Christos Vakalopoulos in his 1988 story “24 Hours for the Acropolis” describes the Acropolis “crumbling suddenly and leaving its last breath in a cloud of smoke”. One could list several other, lesser-known examples in Greek literature.1 Most recently, my 2011 book The Parthenon Bomber continues this lineage by telling the story of a present-day bomber of the Parthenon2. In my book the Parthenon is shattered and the building of a “new-Parthenon” is commissioned in its place.
The Parthenon Bomber, 2010 (Greek and French editions)
But the familiarity of a destroyed Acropolis is not only a fictional eventuality. In some sense it has become a reality of everyday life. During the last couple of years, European and local media have been correlating the Acropolis with the current financial and social crisis, making the image of a ruined Parthenon a metaphor for a dystopic future.
Focus, September 2011, The Economist, January 2011
As Yannis Hamilakis so eloquently puts it: “For people living in the southern end of the Balkan peninsula, classical antiquity was never purely an abstract entity, a concept that scholars and western travelers would evoke in their writings and travelogues. For them, it always was a material and physical presence, a visible and touchable reality, in the shape of ruined buildings, scattered objects, shattered fragments of pottery and stone.”
It is this reality of ‘living monuments’ that brings us close to the idealisation of ruins. The architectural remnants of the classical era are not valued as fragmentary remains of a past that once existed in a completed state of perfection. The present-day monument is perfect only as a ruin. In a ruinous state. It is this notion of ‘valuable ruins’ that defines the ideology of contemporary restoration efforts. This ideology is not unfamiliar to Makris, and has not escaped his criticism.
In a lesser-known untitled passage contained in the anthology of Makris’s work (Writings, 1986) he writes:
“[…] (The enviable ancient ruins that have always fascinated travelers so much
were and always are close there…
With enigmatic gleams of cold style
one feels the statues prowling the end
worrying about their eternity
while the columns tired from standing straight
desire to sleep and fall down in pieces
but then again, there are those restoration works) [..]”
In this short piece Makris makes a very poignant critique of what is commonly referred to in Greece as “the marbles”. Makris points to the fact that ruins are treasured in their ruinous condition and archaeologists strive to preserve them in that condition. The consequences are threefold: 1) ideas of rebuilding/recreating monuments in their actual historical form are rejected as sacrilegious; 2) any further destruction is painstakingly avoided; and 3) existing monuments are restored so that they become aesthetically pleasing.
This last consequence means ancient ruins are restored according to aesthetic and political principles, eliminating any elements of ‘dissonance’. In the case of the Acropolis, this means that the monuments are restored without consideration being given to traces of colour, remnants of other cultures (e.g. Islamic, Christian) and other uses (e.g. evidence of the Parthenon being used as a church, mosque, fortress etc.). In fact, the image of the original Parthenon would be considered repulsively kitsch according to contemporary tastes.
The original colours of the Parthenon
In nearly literal terms, our age is creating a ‘new Acropolis’. An Acropolis of purely classical, white marbled ruins.
One could even argue that the idealisation of ruins as reflected in contemporary restoration practices is not protecting the historical character of monuments but — on the contrary — it is erasing any sense of historicity. The restored monument is an ahistorical artefact destined to remain unaffected by the passage of time.
Makris knew this, and he states in the Proclamation: “[…] Despising the temporal and historic consolidation of the Acropolis as something unprecedented and foreign to life. Feeling the necessary need of eternity in art, solely during the time of creation […]”.
These ideas are not new though. They were exemplified at the beginning of the twentieth century by Albert Speer’s “Ruin Value Theory” (Ruinenwerttheorie). Speer’s theory assumes that a building must be designed and constructed in such a way that, when it finally collapses, it becomes an aesthetically pleasing ruin which will survive for long periods without any need for maintenance. Speer’s ideal is traced back to Greek and Roman antiquity, the architectural remains of which Hitler considered examples of high culture. The pinnacle was the Acropolis. Speer used it as an example in the four-year programme of 1937- 1941, including a photo of the Parthenon with the caption: “The stone monuments of antiquity demonstrate, in their current state, the superiority of natural building materials.” According to the ideas of Speer, Germania (as Berlin would be renamed as a capital of the Third Reich), was to be constructed of stone, with the prediction that over the centuries its buildings would create an “archaeological park” showcasing the grandeur of Nazi culture.
Great Square (Grosser Platz) in Albert Speer’s plan for Germania
Albert Speer and Hermann Goering inspecting the Germania model
Professor Frangiski Abatzopoulou has hypothesised that Makris’s Proclamation serves as a violent protest against the desecration of the “sacred hill” (as the Acropolis is called in vernacular Greek) by the Nazi swastika during the Nazi occupation of Athens. Such a claim is not that far-stretched if we consider the date of the Proclamation (November 1944, soon after the liberation of Athens) and the fact that Makris was detained in a prison camp as a POW during the Nazi occupation of Greece.
Nevertheless, Makris is constructing a more fundamental critique of modernity. He criticises the aspiration of permanence and the folly of inevitability that are common to every modern political paradigm (including National Socialism and communism). In the Proclamation he says clearly that the Parthenon will be destroyed so that “it is delivered to essential eternity”. It is as if history is thus ended. This end is only conceivable if one regards history as a linear movement in time, leading to some distant transcendental end. In this manner, Makris becomes the stronger advocate of that which he seems to be destroying: an idea of history that is close to the ancient notion of cyclical rebirth. The Parthenon should be left to rot – or we are going to put a violent end to its existence. Here lies the fundamentally optimistic, truly humanitarian vision of Makris: only if the Parthenon is left to die will something new and equally grand have a chance of appearing in its place.
Maybe we should listen to the deeper meaning of his message.
WE, THE FEW
We are the dreamers and the lunatics of this earth with our fiery heart and frantic eyes.
We are the cursed thinkers and the dramatic lovers. A million suns are circulating in our blood
and the vision of infinity is chasing us unstoppably. Form cannot tame us.
We fall in love with the essence of our beings
and of all our loves this is what we adore.
We are the grand enthusiasts and the grand deniers.
We enclose within us the whole world and we are nothing of this world. Our days are like fire and our nights are like the sea.
Human laughter is echoing around us.
We are the forerunners of chaos.