Content Providers and Cultural Industries

An Interview with Anastassis Vistonitis

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Anastassis Vistonitis was born in Komotini, Northern Greece, in 1952. He studied Political Sciences and Economics in Athens and Philosophy in Thessaloniki. From 1983 to 1988 he lived in the U.S.A. and traveled extensively in Europe, North America, Africa, Australia and Asia. From 1996 to 2001 he was a member of the board of the E.W.C. (The Federation of European Writers) and from 2003 to 2008 he was its Vice President. In addition to poems, essays, book reviews, travelogues and articles contributed to many leading quarterlies and newspapers in Greece and abroad Anastassis Vistonitis has published eleven books of poetry, four volumes of essays, four travelogues, a book of short stories and a book of translations of the Chinese poet Li Ho. He was the General Editor of the candidature file of Athens for the Olympic Games of 2004. Anastassis Vistonitis’ writings have been translated into twenty languages. He writes for the leading Greek newspaper, To Vima, and lives in Athens and Ljubljana.

Svetlana Slapšak (SS): You are a traveler – through cities, countries, literary genres. How do you cope with writing about spaces and people in a time when information is overwhelming – so much that it might overshadow our vision of the world?

Anastassis Vistonitis (AV): First and foremost, I am a poet. This is my vocation. But if one wants to be a professional writer, one can’t make a living by writing poetry only. So I would like to refer to what Robert Graves said: My prose is a means to sharpen my pencils, or, to remember Joseph Brodsky, the continuation of my poetry by other means. I don’t consider myself a traveler in the real sense of the world. I travel more or less by chance. On the other hand, I am Greek, therefore in terms of history and tradition I am a man of the world who always wanted to see the world or as much of it as possible. That wasn’t a sort of an escape. Being in another place, visiting other cities and talking to people of different social and cultural environments gives me a great chance to understand better who I really am and what’s the position of my country, my language and my tradition in the world. That goes beyond information. But in any case, it depends always on the nature and the character of everyone. For me, information is just a tool. What matters is where information takes you to, and most of all what’s the impact of experience in your sensibility.

(SS): Which Odysseus in Modern Greek Literature is your favorite? Kazantzakis?

(AV): Kazantzakis is a great writer, though he is not my cup of tea. Nevertheless, he was a first-rate novelist and an amazing travel writer, despite his belief that his great work was the long epic poem “The Odyssey” – a modern sequel. Parts of it are wonderful, but the whole thing (33,333 verses) is unreadable. Hard to read it even for a very patient reader. As for his travelogues, we have to bear in mind that he wrote almost all of them for various newspapers, always under commission. At that time, it was the only way for him to put bread and butter on the table.

Most of my prose pieces have been written for To Vima, the newspaper I work for. Essays, travelogues, book reviews etc. But when I put them in a book, I elaborate them and in some cases I rewrite them. Therefore, I wouldn’t say that I have an Odysseus as a model. I would say that what I do is a short of “new journalism,” not in the way Truman Capote or Norman Mailer did it, because they were novelists – and I am not. They are Americans, I am a European. The context is different. My texts are much closer to what the writers of the Vienna school, like Alfred Polgar or Joseph Roth did before the war. All the above “mutatis mutandis,” of course.

(SS): Do you think that spaces are marked by literature – and how?

(AV): When we talk about western civilization, we have to bear in mind that it has two pylons: the building and the text. Both are constructions of the mind and human sensibility, both are crucial for the preservation and development of our societies. We live in a world of cities, we are children of Kleio, the muse of History. The literary text is the effigy of the building or, as a prefer it, its other side. The image of a building in the text is a projection of mind, of the idea of how our environment is or should be, in order to make life less cruel, more interesting and tolerable, even fascinating, sometimes. Of course, space is marked by literature. Go to St. Petersburg for example, take a walk and behold! The story of Crime and Punishment comes straight to your mind. That has to do, I guess – at least for me – with the Apollonian notion of time, according to which time is the empty space which the poet (or writer) fills up with his images. Space is brother to time, and literature the daughter of time.

(SS): How do you see the Greek literature, books and readers in the epoch of this long social crisis?

(AV): Yes, the crisis is long – no, it is too long. And it doesn’t affect Greece only, but the entirety of Europe, too. The ideal of the European unification or European integration, as euphemistically is called in Brussels, does not attract the vast majority of the European peoples anymore. Instead of the welfare system, solidarity and mutual understanding what do we have today? A money-oriented Europe, a dramatic change of the curriculum in many universities where the humanities have been marginalized, therefore destined to die out sooner or later, and the transformation of the book into a commodity. You don’t need to go deep into the realm of ideas in order to examine the situation, in general or in particular. It is enough to take a look at the texts provided by the Commission, in which the functionaries of Brussels refer to cultural institutions as “cultural industries” instead of writers’ or artists’ associations, societies, academies and so on. Writers are not called “writers” anymore by the EU officialdom. The European bureaucracy gives them another name, surreal or absurd or both: “content providers.” Is terminology so important? Oh, yes, it is, because it defines a frame of mind and a way of thinking. I am talking about Europe, because I know the situation there quite well – and Greece is part of it. I had been, for some years, the Vice President of the “Federation of European Writers,” and I have a good idea of how the terrible European bureaucracy in Brussels deals with culture. I am not pessimistic, though. Some of the best poetry in Greece, for example, was written during the Nazi occupation. And during the recent financial crisis, a new and very promising generation of writers has emerged. The yuppies of today don’t understand a simple thing: that there is additive value in culture. They must learn that they should talk about “citizens” instead of “consumers,” when they talk about peoples and societies. They must understand how useful it is in the long run what they consider as useless. And that free-trade capitalism, the equivalent of which is Social Darwinism, is a curse for Europe. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of the European ideal of “unity through diversity,” which takes us back to Heraclitus. There is a dream of Europe and there is the European reality. Unfortunately, the latter today is exactly the opposite of the former.

(SS): How you define some main streams (or storms) in the Greek culture in the last decades?

(AV): It is hard for me or for anyone else to say. I belong to a generation which came of age during the colonel’s dictatorship, in the late 60s. Culture was essential at that time, because it was the best way for us to resist the regime, not just to protest, but to talk in a language that was exactly the opposite of the stupid idiom of the junta – in other words, the language of freedom. In such cases, poetry is not a medium only but the best resort, as well – and my generation is a generation of poets. Later, after the fall of the regime in 1974, we had an “explosion” of the essay. After the 80s, the novel took over. It happened not in Greece only, but in every Western country. The novel still dominates the book market, but I don’t know for how long. Because of the recent financial crisis in Greece we have a “return of the classics” – modern classics, of course. Many people are not willing anymore to buy books just to kill time.

(SS): Being a Greek author, every literary fellow you meet has some share of our collective memory of Greek culture …what is your reaction? Which are the main points of misunderstanding?

(AV): Oh, sometimes it is pleasant, some other times funny, but it can be irksome or irritating, as well. When you meet someone who has a certain knowledge of your country and culture, and you know more or less the same about his, you can have a fruitful discussion and a lot of things to learn and develop in your own work. Good writers make lots of jokes together, or in conjunction with interesting comments, when they meet their colleagues abroad. But if you meet a fanatic, or somebody whose ignorance is “bestial,” who lives in his prejudices and is a writer – or pretends that he is one – it is awful. In such circumstances, you need to remember the great Flaubert, who said that stupidity is unbeatable. As for myself, I respect every culture, no matter how big or important is (anyway, “big” or “important” according to whom?) By learning about it, you get a better understanding of your own tradition and yourself. I can’t stand those who try to tell you what your tradition is, without bothering to ask you. I still remember that, ten years ago, I met someone who tried to teach me Greek mythology! Well, I understand the trend of some writers abroad, who try to make comparisons between ancient and modern Greece, but it’s not fair. Yes, we had Cavafy and Seferis and Elytis and Ritsos but even these are not comparable to Homer, to the tragic poets or the great Greek philosophers. On the other hand, is there a writer in the Western World, except Shakespeare and Dante, whom you can compare with them? Is it necessary? And if yes, in what context? It makes sense to compare, for example, Euripides with Sophocles, but not with a contemporary Greek writer. Of course we can say a lot about influences. But that’s another story.

Greece is not in fashion anymore – that’s what Melina Merkouri said some years ago. Nowadays, it is fashionable among some relativists to attack the Greco-Roman civilization. To tell you the truth, I don’t bother anymore. I have a first-hand experience of the admiration of the Chinese, who have the oldest civilization behind them, for Greek culture. And that means a lot for me.

Let me conclude with something a bit provocative. Shelley has said, in his tragedy Hellas, that “we are all Greeks.” But modern Greeks should not take it for granted. They should prove that they are worthy of it – that’s the point. I met abroad many people who are better “Greeks” than some contemporary “indigenous,” so to speak, Greeks who know almost nothing about Greek culture, either modern or ancient.

(SS): Writing in Slovenia: utopian Alpine space or Balkan reality?

(AV): Hard to say. Maybe both. I am here because I like the country and admire the love of its people for literature and the arts. Through literature, which is the vehicle of language, they maintained their identity for centuries. That’s a miracle.

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
Little Red Riding Hood

In your bowels swallow my mutiny.

My sin abdicates to obey your cruelty

No one must see, hidden

through the modest redness of my hood

My desire of evil.

No one must understand

Your enchantment  upsetting my senses

Your wicked soul that will give me my womanhood

I yearn for punishment

I want to be a victim

I am your longing for evil.

I knew it all! About the woods… about the wolf…

And now I am meeting you:

You cannot disappoint me.

Be what you’re not

There is no hope for you

Seduce me slashing through my body with the frenzy of your claws

Scratch me by the sweetness of your lies

Swallow me…do not spew me!

Swallow me.

Swallow my misunderstood loneliness

Swallow my inept nonentity.

Hurt me, really hurt me badly

So badly as to be understood,

So badly as not to be hurt anymore.

So badly as to become someone

In the dark wood of hypocrisy

To be someone

At last.

For us in Greece, the war of Yugoslavia was a blow. Europe could have solved the Yugo-problem from the very beginning once and for all, in my opinion, by accepting Yugoslavia as a full member of the EU and helping her to adapt herself to the EU standards. With lots of money and technical support, of course. If Slovenia and Croatia did it so fast, why not the rest of Yugoslavia? I remember that we, “crazy Greeks,” warned our colleagues in Brussels in the early 80s that soon there will be a war in Yugoslavia. What was their reply? They laughed. Then we had the old ghost of extreme nationalism incarnated and a terrible war in which 250,000 people lost their lives, and God knows how many have been wounded. And finally we left the Americans to do the dirty job and topple Milosevic.

The Slovenes left the federation, because there was no other choice for them, in my opinion. It is very interesting that they went back to their Central European tradition, which they never abandoned, without forgetting, I hope, what was good in their Balkan past (if the word “Balkan” means anything). I have seen writers from all republics of former Yugoslavia here, in Croatia or in Serbia, how easily and joyfully they communicate with each other. I have heard about something called “Yugo-nostalgia.” I am afraid that there is a wishful thinking behind it. It won’t do. The civil war in Greece ended in 1949, but still divides the country in two.

As for me, it is fascinating to “live” in Central Europe. I see part of the Alps from my window every day. It is wonderful. And in Slovenia there is a little of Mediterranean “touch.” I don’t know the language, but I have many friends here, as well as in the rest of former Yugoslavia. It would be an exaggeration to say that I feel at home, but I do.

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.