Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ouranis' Frangissa: Greek Occidentalism

The scholarly history of Frankish Greece has been tainted by colonialism and nationalism. After the Fourth Crusade, the Latins controlled parts of the Peloponnese for almost two centuries (1206-1430). European historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries explored this period as precedent for French, German and British colonialism in Greece. In retaliation, their Greek peers explored the Byzantine counter-offensive as precedent for Greece's continuous resistance to colonialism from the West. Imperialism, on the one hand, and nationalism, on the other, have produced a polarized picture of the relationship between the Latin (Catholic) and Greek (Orthodox) populations of Frankish Greece. Today's scholar has inherited an exaggerated ideological mindset, hoping to dissolve the national/imperial agendas under a new paradigm of post-national multiculturalism. There are many reasons to endorse this strategy, most notably in order to highlight the Mediterranean as a medieval ecology where cultural interaction flourished. Reading through the Greek scholarship and literature of the polarizing 1930s, however, I have come to realize that we might have exaggerated the ideological certainty of our predecessors.

Without a doubt, the Frankish period served Greek national agendas, but only on the levels of official history (taught in the classroom, etc.). At the cultural arena, the texts and monuments of the "Frangokratia" served quite a different role. They liberated the Greek imagination from the national chains of history. The Frankish Middle Ages introduced a breath of fantasy, romance and love into a historical consciousness dominated by the weight of the Classical tradition. By the late 19th century, Greeks replaced their subservience to the classics with a new ambivalence (to use Paschalis Kitromilides' terminology, see, "From Subservience to Ambivalence: The Modern Greek Attitudes towards the Classics," in
The Impact of Classical Greece on European and National Mentalities [Amsterdam, 2003], pp. 47-54). I would argue that the Frankish discovery reinforced this very ambivalence and encouraged a new romantic relationship with the past. Romanticism gave liberties that Neoclassicism was unable to offer.

Among other considerations, we must give the Greeks of the 1930s some international leeway, since many of them were, in fact, a lot more multicultural than our enlightened postmodern scholar. After all, Constantine Cavafy is the paradigm of multiculturalism. Unlike Cavafy, the poet Kostas Ouranis (1890-1953) is less known (and untranslated) in English-speaking circles. Ouranis lived much of his life in transit and his work reflects the early modernist theme of homelessness. Ouranis lived during the political upheavals of the Balkan Wars, the "Great Idea" and the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Like many of his contemporaries, he turned his attention away from the national crises and explored a deeper inner life. Like his contemporary Kostas Karyotakis, he was inspired by French Symbolism and the introspective side of Kostis Palamas. For a short overview of such interwar tendencies, see R. Beaton, Introduction to Modern Greek Literature (Oxford, 1999), p. 124.

In 1920, Ouranis published "Frangissa" (the Latin Lady) in his collection of poems
Nostalgies. It reveals some of the poetic and cultural ramifications of the Crusader period in the modern Greek psyche. Instead of nationalism, we find compassion. The female overlord becomes identified with the itinerant poet. The Latin Lady discovers loneliness in Athens, the same way that the poet discovers loneliness in Paris. At the end of the poem, Ouranis takes us to the material culture of the Franks, the lady's tombstone (with its feudal crest) standing out of place in the Greek landscape. The literary character of the western woman becomes prevalent in Greek literature. Her various manifestations illustrate the interpretive complexities at the moment that gender, desire, emotion and sexuality enter in the relationship between Greek and non-Greek. I quote the whole poem from Ouranis' collection, Poiemata (Athens, 1953), p. 70. My translation follows.

Η Φράγκισσα (1920)

Ξενητεμένη στην ξερή τη γη της Αττικής,
σ' 'ενα του θέρου καυτερό κ' ήσυχο μεσημέρι,
η Φράγκισσα η Αυθέντισσα κοιτάει απ' τον εξώστη
του πύργου της τα ξενικά για την ψυχή της μέρη.
Όλα στο φως ακίνητάν: ελιές, βουνά, μνημεία,
σαν μες' σ' αιωνιότητα να είταν βυθισμένα
- κι ούτ' ένας ίσκιος να σταθεί ν' αναπαυτεί η ψυχή της,
μήτε και ταξιδιάρικο περνάει σύγνεφο ένα...
Και η ξανθή πριγκίπισσα, μονάχη στον εξώστη,
της εξορίας της μακρυνής νιώθει όλη την πικρία
κ' έτσι λευκή κι αμόλυντη και δίχως ιστορία,
μαραίνεται εγκατερτικά σαν κρίνος μεσ' στο κάμα.
Και μιάν ημέρα ο τάφος της ο οικοσημασμένος
μέσα στη γη της Αττικής θά 'ναι κι εκείνος ξένος.

The Latin Woman

Uprooted in the dry land of Attica
in the hot and quiet noon of summer
the Latin woman, an overlord, looks out from her tower's
balcony and sees a place completely foreign to her heart.
Not even a traveling cloud passes above ...
The blond princess, alone on the balcony,
feels the bitterness of distant exile.
Standing all white, pure and without history,
she withers like a lily in the burning heat.
And one day, her tomb decorated with her baronial crest
will also be foreign in the land of Attica.

Ouranis is not the only Greek writer to focus on the Latin female. The first piece of Greek literature to dramatize a love affair during the Frankish period is Alexandros Rakaves' The Lord of the Morea (1851) about which I've written earlier, see Postmodern Morea. And we must not forget that Mystras offers a backdrop for an even more celebrated romance, the marriage of Faust and Helena in Goethe's Faust. Angelos Terzakis' novel Princess Izampo (1935-1947) is another example, contemporary with Ouranis. The events dramatized in Terzakis take place ca. 1210-1297 and focus on the love between a Byzantine orphan Sgouros and a Latin princess Izampo. The Frankish Peloponnese had no shortage of interesting women. Especially at the end of the Latin reign, much of the Morea's rulership had fallen onto the hands of women. In typical antifeminine fashion, historians like William Miller blamed the rule of women for the ultimate collapse of the Latin state in Greece, see, The Latins in the Levant (1908). Thus the national question (Greek vs. Latin) is complicated by gender. Unlike the Western Middle Ages, Byzantium had been ruled by women. Historian Angeliki Laiou has also shown that Byzantine law favored women over men in the management of property, the passing of dowries, etc. In reclaiming a multicultural history for the Morea, it is easy to ignore the issue of gender and intermarriage.

In the fictive expression of Frankish Greece, love is central. This should not surprise us from the perspective of European literature. What would Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), or Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) be without romance? Greek poets and novelists were fully aware of this tradition. Latin subjects could easily establish the same motifs on Greek soil.

The image at the beginning is the famous tombstone of princess Agnes from Andravida.

1 comment:

Bill Caraher said...


Great post! I've been reading a little edited volume on Cyprus called From Aphrodite to Melusine: Reflections on the Archaeology and History of Cyprus (Geneva 2007) (http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/192081350) for a review in Speculum. The collection of essays (approaching true "reflections") feature two by Beatrice Demetriades Power (the head of the Cypriot Consulate in Geneva) on Anne and Charlotte of Cyprus. Two more Latin ladies that continue to feature in the popular imagination both in Cyprus and the West.


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