Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tanagras and Archaeology

After giving a general biographic introduction to Angelos Tanagras, I now turn to Caraher's research on dreams and archaeology. Psychoanalysis had a fondness for archaeology from the very beginning. I'm thinking of Freud's extensive collection of antiquities including a bronze Isis and Horus, a terracotta Sphinx, a marble Eros and a bronze Athena (on display at the Freud Museum in London). There is also his essay "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis" (1936) that documents his experiences during his first visit to Athens in 1904.

There is the metaphor of digging through the layers of memory to get through the psyche, the Jungian search for mythological archetypes, or simply the primitive fascination of physically connecting to your ancestors (father, mother) by digging up their graves--defiling them and celebrating them in the same action. Michael Shanks has related the archaeological sentiment with Julia Kristeva's notion of the Abject; in so many words, the archaeologist has a fundamental cultural need to get dirty, to play with his own shit in the sandpit.

But more specifically onto Tanagras, I'm brainstorming to find any specific connection that might contribute to Caraher's thesis. I don't have a clear answer but a few thoughts.

1. The name Tanagras reveals an archaeological sensibility. I do not know when Tanagras chose this literary pseudonym and, more importantly, why. As far as I know, the family originated from Paros, so there is no regional connection to Boeotia. Tanagra became a famous site when in the 1860s, some farmers ploughed through Hellenist tombs full of terracotta figurines. The naturalistic pose and the preserved pigments on the little statues appealed to the contemporary aesthetics. The figurines became a late-19th-c. celebrity, flooding the antiquities market (including a number of fakes) and becoming standards of beauty for contemporary artists. Tanagras may have identified with the mythological figure Tanagra, the Naiad nymph that gave name to the ancient city. Naiads were the deities of wells, springs and fountains and Tanagras may have identified with the mythology of flows. At any rate, I suspect that he chose the name Tanagras, specifically, because of its reputation (thanks to the figurines) throughout Europe.

2. Going through the memory banks of what relatives have told me about Tanagras, I cannot find any referencet to archaeology. Nevertheless, I was shocked a few years ago to discover a dedication to Tanagras by Alexander Philadelpheus in his 1924 Monuments of Athens (Μνημεία Αθηνών). Philadelpheus was Greece's best known archaeologist of the early 20th c., he was director of the Archaeological Museum and quite international. He and Tanagras must have been good friends.

3. Caraher's fundamental question is the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity in archaeological practice. I have only one story to offer on this front regarding Tanagras. According to my aunts, Tanagras had an apartment on Aristotelous Street, where he held seances attended by some elite members of Athenian society. His professional research, after all, was on the communication of spirits and paranormal psychic activities. Among the regular attendants were members of the Police Department, who sought clues for solving crimes. This might seem bizarre to us today, but we must remember that through the early 20th-c. somnubalism, spiritualism and theosophy were considered mainstream intellectual positions. Madame Blatavsky comes to mind, the founder of the Theosophical Society. What distinguishes Tanagras from other spiritualists is his commitment to documentation, scientific objectivity and material proof. Tanagras seems to have filmed at least one of his subjects; he exhibited the film in 1935, at the 5th International Congress of Phychic Research in Oslo. Fotini Pallikari, professor of Physics at the University of Athens has presented fascinating new research on this controversial film, see "The 1935 Oslo International Parapsychology Congress and the Telekinesis of Cleio," International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, University of Winchester, August 2008. Bill Caraher will especially appreciate this filmic side of Tanagras, given his interest in documentaries and video (see PKAP).

This is all to say that there at least a spiritual connection between Tanagras and archaeology but perhaps more. It is hard to know since such little has been published on his life. I should collect more information from surviving relatives. Some clues might be found in Tanagras' unpublished autobiography, which he sent to the Elliot Garrett Parapsychology Foundation Library in New York. The library is in Long Island, and I would love to visit it. I also hope to communicate with Fotini Pallikari, the scholarly expert on Tanagras. My cousin Angelos (named after Tanagras) Vallianatos is the official family historian; we've just connected on Facebook and I hope to talk to him more about this legendary great uncle when I travel to Greece this summer.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States