South remembers: The soul of the green beast

by Yorgos Tzirtzilakis

Every return to Arcadia is neither a sensual representation nor a charming symbolism, but a way of becoming Other

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Why would one speak today of Arcadia and the Arcadian myths, i.e. about the fantasy of a bucolic paradise and a primitive nature at the antipode of contemporary urban life? One answer could be the heightened interest in the natural environment and the “goodness of nature” which Michel Serres describes with anthropological precision as “being-in-the-apartment, since it only goes out, sometimes in shorts, for holidays in Arcadia”.1

The pragmatological evidence, however, redefines the issue: the proportion of people whose work is associated with the toil of ploughing and herding (like The Arcadian Shepherds) has fallen sharply in just a few decades. The shepherds’ disappearance naturally turned the pastoral imagery and the Arcadian alterity into a place of nostalgia and desire in the Western imaginary. If there are any chances for a reversal of this trend, these will only be promoted by the spread of the current crisis. The shrinking of cities as a result of the rapid decline in urban jobs and the post-Fordist forms of production are the factors that may promote a counter- balancing exodus towards rural life.

Of course, this is not to say that people will go back to a happy life under the midday sun in the company of nymphs and fauns. And they certainly will not achieve harmony with nature by being photographed in the nude in meadows or cool brooks. Our relationship with nature was never safe and painless, and this is something we can all sense but are loath to admit. Let me remind you that in the mid-seventeenth century the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described what we idealise as the “natural condition” with the Latin phrase bellum omnium contra omnes—“ the war of all against all ”.

This may be one of the reasons why in our time the environment is subjected to the most absurd impulses and at the same time to merciless destruction. It may also be the source of the currently popular mystical expansion of the natural paradigm, the rise of non-anthropocentric approaches to contemporary civilisation, the attraction of the unfamiliar and the uncanny, the post- anarchic revival of primitivism, ‘ethnographic surrealism’ and that paroxysmal process of transition that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari described as becoming-animal2 or plant, and which we could change here into becoming-Arcadian or, if you wish, becoming- shepherd.

In view of this, I am tempted to venture a definition of these last two concepts as a set of words (and images) with which we can process our desires and fears towards nature, alterity, the erotic experience or anything that reminds us of our savage roots. To these traits I could add an anti-classical attitude and the attraction to alien forms and pre-civilisational relics. Above all, however, the becoming-Arcadian is the quintessential territory of the repressed. Hence every return to Arcadia – every “Arcadisation”, if you’ll forgive the neologism – is neither a sensual representation nor a charming symbolism but a literal deterritorialization, where all established meanings are dismantled in favour of a series of repressed flows and signs – it is a way of becoming other.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights Triptychcentral panel, detail
Courtesy of Museo del Prado Madrid

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It was literature that acquainted us with the weird ‘erotic mania’ that emerges in Arcadian nature. See how an otherwise sober novelist of the 1930s generation, Stratis Myrivilis, presents it in Life in the Tomb (1924): “Then, subtly and invincibly, they got inebriated by the erotic mania that sizzled and simmered from all sides in there… The soldiers may not have understood it, but they were already subdued by the dominant soul of the green beast. The beast now treated them like the thousands of other souls that inhabited it and made up its terrible life, caught in the gale of Priapic mania… But here all sorts of repressed instincts were at once unbridled. The troops played, rolled in the ground, lustfully rubbing their hairy faces on the untrodden grass as if to chew it. They writhed like aroused satyrs.”3

The epitome of this attitude in our country’s artistic culture was the Untitled triptych presented by Thanassis Totsikas at the exhibition Outlook in 2004, where the Larissian artist is ‘copulating’ with fruits. Not a few people were affronted by this work – and perhaps still are – preferring instead a conventional, ‘tasteful’ hedonism or the green immaturity of an erotic scene in an idyllic setting which surprises even its own protagonists (Daphnis and Chloe).

I have said elsewhere4 that the art of Totsikas seems to draw inspiration from certain repressed beliefs and impulses of rural life. It lies, in other words, in a zone of exaggeration, the zone of a grass-roots, coarse eudemonism juxtaposed with the established forms of eroticism and production of cultural goods. Let us see what this may signify. Totsikas himself says about this triptych: “When I thought about making this work it was not my intention to provoke… I wanted to interpret the setting. I wished my work to convey the same shock I got from the place, the same sensation… I did it because I loved those things and I wanted to show the joy… I do not go there [to the mountains] to isolate myself but to be active in the proper way.”5

Those who have had the chance to visit the artist’s makeshift residence-studio in the wood of Mavrovouni no longer disbelieve this. Yet the question remains: Does the becoming-Arcadian, thebecoming-shepherd in its extreme guise inevitably lead to an area of scandal? Anthropological and literary research has recorded several examples of ‘indecent’ Dionysian rites which place all our answers in a different context.

Moreover, most of us must have heard similar accounts of ‘uncivilised’ practices associated with the life and the everyday mythology of – mostly – isolated parts of the Greek territory. Totsikas, in any case, reminds us that next to what most people idealise today as the ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ Arcadian ideal there is a lower, coarse, unrecorded and repressed culture of the outcast and the marginalised, which feeds on base functions, folk carnivals, superstitions, phallic references, Dionysian and pagan relics. This is a culture of the body, of debauchery, delinquency, lascivious bliss, disregard for the established norms and abandonment in the animalistic pleasure that exorcises fear and death.

Takis Zenetos, Electronic Urbanism, 1952-1974, truss “Takis Ch. Zenetos 1926-1977”,               Architecture in Greece Press, 8, Athens 1974

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Death is also the theme in Nicolas Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds(1647), with the sober and troubled men around the grave and the famous inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO. Similarly, in the earlier (1618-1622) allegory by the Italian painter Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino) two astounded young shepherds are looking at a human skull perched on a funerary pedestal, with a mouse on one side and a fly on its brow.

So where is the carefree bliss of Arcadian meadows and thedissipation of the goat-legged Pan? Two years ago, in a superficial quest for answers to this question, I joined an autopsy around the mountain landscapes of Arcadia in the Peloponnese. During this tour I found no tombs and steles in the mist of the lush mountains and the paths along the steep slopes, but only scattered evidence of an erstwhile ideal natural condition which would be hard, if not impossible, to restore today. I confirmed much the same thing in the cultivated valley of Thermissia or on the mountaintops of the Corinthian Gulf, which soon began to turn into an allegory about man’s insignificance amidst the boundless landscape. What really matters, though, is that this landscape (where still “the snakes live side-by-side with goats”), lends itself to becoming an instantaneous psychological biography of each of us.

It does not take too thorough an observer to notice that all literary and painterly descriptions of the becoming-Arcadian are fraught with an unexpected sense of melancholy, although this does not detract from their poignancy; on the contrary, it enhances it! I’ll take as an example the Bathing Women of Constantinos Parthenis, a pre-1919 oil painting in which the apparently graceful harmony among the nude women in the natural landscape is unexpectedly subverted by their gloomy, sad faces. We observe the same thing in Cezanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses (1906), which preceded and certainly influenced Parthenis’s gaze. A sadness and a sense of transience always lurks.

Yet we must not let this Arcadian intolerance monopolise our interest: if there is one thing I appreciate greatly in this genre, it is that it stopped treating the natural goods (the sun, the wind, the rivers, the mountains, the woods, the fields, the shepherds, the little houses and the bridges) with scorn but as a unified and commendable whole as well as a new kind of vision. The cultural legitimacy of the common natural goods started here.

So where does this becoming-Arcadian ultimately lead? The Greek poet Nikos Gatsos in the bucolic elegy of Amorgos (1943) takes us directly to the heart of the matter: the idealised Arcadian world of Greek summer and rural life, that had once fascinated the poet himself just as it did the 1930s generation, no longer exists: “In the backyard of the embittered no sun rises / Only worms come out to deride the stars / Only horses are in bud on ant-hills / And bats are eating birds and pissing seed.”6

And what do we get further down in the poem? Dogs, crows, frog flesh, spider’s teeth, vampire feet but also waiting “For the dark heavens to flash, for the candlewick to blossom”, for “A kiss of the foam-embroidered sea”. Amidst this vacillation, what matters is not the difference between the poles of sadness and joy but our ability to compose images, hence language itself. This primordial contradiction in which we exist is what spawns thebecoming-Arcadian. There is no way to experience the Arcadian outside the mechanism of its symbolisation, i.e. language and images. So Evgenios Aranitsis is right in insisting that Gatsos had realised how if you intended to write Amorgos you ought to avoid visiting the island itself. Strangely enough, the same is true of Arcadia, which was never visited by Virgil, Dante or Poussin.

Above / Below: Takis Zenetos, Electronic Urbanism (Urbanisme Electronique), 1952-1974, model Courtesy of Takis Ch. Zenetos Archive

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It is my opinion that modernism’s treatment of the archaic and primitive past encouraged this kind of attitude. The tension between modern and primitive led modernism to multiply the interpretations and contradictions. How do we find the traces of this tension in architecture? I choose three paradigms of Greek modernity as starting points which later architects approached – in a pattern of attraction/ repulsion – and processed.

The first starting point is that of Dimitris Pikionis, whom we might call a “pastoral architect”7. Pikionis’s various ascetic approaches to the Arcadian theme culminated in the design of a forest village at Pertouli, Pindos (1953-1956), where he attempted to literally filter architecture into the savage twilight of the wooded mountain. This was followed by the design of the Aixoni settlement (1951-1955), whose emblem is a goat’s head. These are two of the ‘darkest’ projects of an architect who adopted an archaeological practice based on a composition of fragments in order to over- come, as he writes, the “loveless ideal” of rationalism.

The second starting point is that of Aris Konstantinidis, in whom the idea of the natural landscape is stripped of all narcissistic elements of pleasure and of the decorative contexts with which it was often identified. The Arcadian element here is the total baring of architecture, the natural bareness of a ‘monk’s cell’ (one of the two archetypes of habitation, together with the ‘philosopher’s chamber’). This is certainly a design practice that lies at the hard core of modernism, and if we wanted to find its visual equivalent we would do so in the architect’s own photos but also in certain paintings by Constantinos Maleas: in this case the Arcadian is reduced to a kind of intellectual purity of the natural and to a moral stance.

The third starting point is that of Takis Zenetos, whose experimental City of the Future and Electronic Urbanism (1962-1974)8 attempted to combine the inimitable “virgin nature” with a system of suspended infrastructures and functions for the de-territorialised city which unfolds in the “realm of the atmosphere”. This contrast marks the transition from tangible work to intangible forms of bio-political production. Here is how the architect describes this city in 1966: “Nature is liberated, finding its primordial form. A pliable spider web ‘contains’ the city […] Tele-working takes place from home. From the same place we communicate with the entire earth or the universe.”

Zenetos emerges here as an early inventor of the Electronic Arcadia and the post-Fordist city. There is nothing outside the suspended city or outside the Arcadian nature, which mutually dissolve into each other. The model for the new integrated nature in the city is represented by the makeshift ‘hanging gardens’ – i.e. the flowerpots hanging from the balconies in Athens – and by an allegorical detail in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which shows a lustful erotic scene between a nude couple inside a transparent crystal sphere whose cracks warn us that it is about to burst. The inhabitant of the Electronic Arcadia has all the traits of a nomad, the becoming-shepherd of the post-industrial era, and has access to ‘tele-acting booths’ and ‘instant sleep areas’. Not accidentally, Zenetos comments on this inhabitant’s “personality” and propensity to “standardisation” with a caricature of Costas Mitropoulos which alludes to the Easy Rider mythology.

Would we describe this kind of proposition as utopian today? Before answering this, I hasten to remind you that the greatest advantage of the Arcadian tradition is that, unlike Utopia, it is not necessarily limited to manmade civilisation. Hence we must also include in its armoury plants, organic and inorganic systems, mechanical and molecular developments but also that kind of “animalisation” that Myrivilis described as “the dominant soul of the green beast”: “all sorts of repressed instincts were at once unbridled.”

 

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1. Michel Serres, Temps des crises, Le Pommier, Paris 2009.

2. This concept was developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their books Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (1975) and Α Thousand Plateaus (1980), ch. 10. It is associated with the “minority” or the “becoming-minor” which the two authors include in the processes of de-territorialisation.

3. Stratis Myrivilis, Life in the Tomb, translated by Peter Bien, London 1987.

4. Yorgos Tzirtzilakis, “The unconscious of the forest. Towards a new relation with folk tradition”, in Apostolos Kalfopoulos (ed.), The beautiful is just the first degree of the terrible, Thessaloniki 2009, pp. 162-167.

5. “Μια συζήτηση του Θανάση Τότσικα με τον Χριστόφορο Μαρίνο”, in Τότσικας, Athens 2006, p. 8. Cf. Theophilos Tramboulis, “Thanassis Totsikas”, in Ch. Joakeimides (ed.), Outlook, Athens 2003, p. 362.

6. Nikos Gatsos, Amorgos, translated by Sally Purcell, Anvil Press Poetry, London 2000.

7. Here I paraphrase Peter Sloterdijk’s description of Martin Heidegger: see “Rules for the Human Park: A Response to Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism”, translated by Mary Varney Rorty, rekveld.home.xs4all.nl/tech/Sloterdijk_ RulesForTheHumanZoo.pdf: such an attitude “requires a proximate listening, for which man must become more passive, and tamer”.

8. Takis Ch. Zenetos, “Urbanisme électronique. Structures parallèles”, Architecture in Greece Press, Athens 1969.

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