I am beginning to rethink through some of these scholarly issues over the Morea, as I start working on a paper dealing with the urbanism and domestic architecture of Mystras. Sharon Gerstel has invited me to give a paper in “Morea: The Land and Its People in the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade,” a conference at Dumbarton Oaks. Half of my essay will be about the city’s archaeological fabric, but the other half will be about the city’s fantastic fabric. The houses of Mystras were literaly fabricated in the absence of archaeology. Scholarship on the Frankish Morea was built on the shoulders of a medieval chronicle discovered in a Belgian library by French historian J.-A. Buchon. First published in 1825, the chronicle made an indelible mark not only on archaeological scholarship but in the western imagination at large. After reading the chronicle, J.W. Goethe changed his manuscript of his play Faust. Rather than dramatizing
Starting with Faust, Mystras has been the site of much mythopoetic activity. The Greek literary tradition begins in 1850, when Alexandros Rizos Rankaves (1809-1892) seriated a novel called Lord of the Morea (O authentes to Moreos) in the magazine Pandora. Rankaves was no stranger to Goethe, having translated Faust into Greek. The next major modern dramatization of the Morea Chronicle took place in the 1930s. Angelos Terzakis’ Princess Izampo is important because it coincides with the first scholarly analysis of the Mystras’ urban fabric and domestic architecture by Anastasios Orlandos.
That being the context, I want to return to a question introduced in the beginning. Does the nationalist narrative hold? For the first time, I’m seriously studying the life and works of Rankaves to discover how surprisingly postmodern mid-19th-century Greek intellectual life actually was, clearly defying the trite binaries that we have constructed as scholars. Some features of postmodernist literature are a self-conscious inter-textuality, a meddling of different voices and a heavy authorial positionality. Examples of these modes in Lord of the Morea have been a pleasant surprise to what I had previously written off as merely a traditional novel. I assumed that Lord of the Morea would only be a faint glimmer of Sir Walter’s Scott’s Ivanhoe
"Παραιτούμεθα να περιγράψωμεν τας λαμπράς πανοπλίας και τα ποίκιλα εμβλήματα όλων των ιπποτών όσοι εισήλθον μετά τον Γοδοφρείδον. Εις την πρόοδον της διηγήσεως ημών η οχληρά περιγραφή ολίβον συμβάλλεται, και ιστορικώς επίσης δεν ενδιαφέρει πολύ την Ελλάδα. Διότι ήρξαν μεν επ’αυτής οι ιππόται, και την εταπείνωσαν υπό την σπάθην αυτών, αλλ’ ήλθον και απήλθων χωρίς ν’ αφήσωσιν ίχνη της παρόδου αυτών, και το όνομα και η μνήμη των απώλετο μετά κρότου. ή οσάκις ο οδοιπόρος εις αποκρήμνους άκρας ορέων ανακαλύπτει τα φρούρια αυτών ως φωλεάς αετών, ή μεταξύ θάμνων απαντά επί λίθου γεγλυμμένα τα βαρονικά οικοσήμα αυτών, στρέφεται απ’ αυτών μετ’ αδιαφορίας, σπεύδων προς τα κυκλώπεια τείχη των ενδόξων αιώνων, και προς τ’ αμίμητα προϊόντα αθανάτων γλυφίδων. (O Authentes tou Moreos, 1989 reprint, Apanta Philologika (1876) vol. 8., pp. 56-57.)
Rankaves is keenly aware of his audience’s presumed interests. After all, he was himself Professor of Archaeology at the
Another shockingly postmodern passage occurs in Lord of the Morea when a unidentified knight enters the jousting competition. “At that moment the horns blew and, turning their heads towards the entrance, the audience saw an unidentified knight entering the field, on a black horse without any decoration on his armour.” To English readers, this should immediately ring some bells, reminiscent of the Black Knight in Sir Walter Scott's famous Ivanhoe (1819). Not only is this not a coincidence, but Rankaves breaks his own narrative and tells the reader straight out that the famous novelist is indeed his prototype. In fact, Greek literary scholars have been debating whether Rankaves knight is Scott's Black Knight or the Disinherited Knight In short, this seemingly boring 19th-century historical novel is much more tricky in its narrative mode, flipping between discourses, acknowledging literary quotation, identifying the literary canon, etc. etc. It is not exactly Thomas Pynchon, but neither is it straightforward.
Have we perhaps undersold 19th-century Greek literature? I certainly had, assuming that it would just be cliched nationalism. Come to think of it, Rankaves and his peers epitomized diversity and globalization. The man was born in
The construction of the medieval Morea across the 19th and 20th centuries is a fascinating procedure. In a previous article, I related this process with the rise of tourism; see my essay in The Architecture of Tourism, ed. D. M. Lasansky and B. McLaren, 2004, pp. 37-52 (PDF available upon request). Even if only for a moment, we must step outside our postcolonial theory-heavy comfort zone and freshly reread some of old katharevousa texts. In Ranaves, I’ve found evidence of postmodern narrative strategies. Being only an amature literary critic, I might be completely off the mark. Nevertheless, my own conceptions have been shattered. I know it’s a major fallacy to call Rankaves a postmodernist retroactively. I take the liberty while thinking of David Foster Wallace, who has sadly just committed suicide at the age of 46. I did not love all his book; his “maximalist” style in novels like Infinite Jest (1997) seemed an acquired taste. For the same reasons, I’ve never loved Don DeLillo. Nevertheless, Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2000) remains one of my favorite books from a brilliant young generation of writers, including Wallace’s friends Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. On Wallace's suicide, see New York Times obituary (Sept. 14, 2008)
Finally, I want to thank Elias Markolefas, my mentor in all Greek things literary, who sent me a reprint of Lord of the Morea (Athens, 1989, ed. A. Sachines) as soon as he found it at our favorite bookstore, Politeia. Rankaves edited his completed works, Apanta Philologika (Athens 1874-1885) in 14 volumes. He was a profuse writer. He wrote so much that scholars have accused him of being rather sloppy, much like the modern-day blogger. The last two volumes of his Collected Works are devoted entirely on archaeological writings. I'm looking forward to reading them after the fiction.
And a disclaimer: When I was a kid, I loved Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, which I first read in the Greek Illustrated Classics children's series (Κλασσικά Εικονογραφημένα). I remeber a new canonical masterpiece came out every weekend. Ivanhoe (or rather, Ιβανόε in Greek) completely captivated my boyish imagination. So much so, that I decided to write my own heroic comic. I took a bunch of paper, which I divided up into squares, and started to draw the openning scene, naturally a jousting competition. The first (and only box) introduced my invented hero, a knight I called Alen (I have no idea why). Then, I got stuck. I couldn't draw the second box because I had no story to tell. And that was the end of my cartoonist days ca. 30 years ago.