"The Parthenon as a metaphor"

Christos Chryssopoulos, La destruction du Parthénon, Actes Sud, 2012.

In 1944, surrealist poet and secretary of the ASAS (the Society of Aesthetic Saboteurs of Antiques), Yorgos Makris wrote a manifesto entitled “Let’s blow up the Acropolis!” On Friday the17th of this month, in The destruction of the Parthenon, Ch. K., the anti-hero of the novel actually blew up the Parthenon. A part of the Acropolis was obliterated to be replaced by the immensity of an empty sky. The astonished Athenians watched and commented on the scene, asking themselves plenty of questions: Who could have done such a thing? Who could have damaged their symbol? Why? Was it real, or were they just dreaming? This doubt persists throughout the novel: it becomes hard for the reader to tell reality from fiction. Christos Chryssopoulos constructs his work, The destruction of the Parthenon, on these questions. Several voices mingle in an attempt to understand the incomprehensible. The Parthenon has been profaned, someone has to be punished. Ch. K., who will be arrested, will have to pay for “the destruction of the symbol” (p. 57).

In an article dedicated to the novel, Myrto Gondicas, speaks of “the Parthenon as a metaphor” [Myrto Gondicas, « Le Parthénon comme métaphore », La quinzaine littéraire, n°1069, p. 12]. But what metaphor could it be said to embody? Factually speaking, the Parthenon was built by Pericles, in the 5th century BCE, to honor Athena and protect the bullion of the city. During the Middle Age, the monument became a church consecrated to the Virgin Mary. Then, during the 15th and 16th centuries, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the Parthenon-Church was transformed into a Mosque. Throughout its eventful history, that of both Athens and Greece, the monument suffered a lot of damage. Since World War II, several restoration programs have been launched to restore the Parthenon to its ancient aspect.Nowadays, it is one of the most famous monuments in Greece, as it represents Greek Antiquity in itself, that is to say one of the pillars of European culture and values. The novel demonstrates the extent to which Greek identity has been founded in an ambiguous and schizophrenic way on the image of the Parthenon. It is a point of reference, a witness to the past: the Greeks consider it to be both their legacy and their protector. So what would become of this identity once the sacrosanct figure has vanished? What would happen to the country, once amputated of its past, deprived of its most prestigious symbol? And what to Europe?

 

The division of the narrative makes this novel a singular piece of literature

Christos Chryssopolous upholds the idea that reality is fragmented and has multiple facets. It is therefore contradictory and ever-changing. Similarly, our identity changes constantly, depending on the context, the person we are with, the person who is speaking about us. The nonexistence of a unique and constant reality modifies the perception we may have of any given event. In this novel, the author plays with this idea: reality becomes a puzzle which is never quite solved.

The book is divided into eleven chapters which make up so many exhibits and is therefore built like a documentary. Who has blown up the Parthenon? The reader takes part in the investigation through the testimony of the guard, the official line of the police, the “probable” monologue of the culprit, the testimony of neighbors and written documents (visual documents as well, as one of the chapters is just a picture) which are presented as exhibits. The construction of the story offers several points of view in an attempt to understand what has happened and to get through to the personality of the destroyer. Chapter 3 “Testimonies collected on the same day”, is the most significant of the puzzle-effects in the book. People who have known Ch. K. discuss him in writing, with short paragraphs written in direct style. These testimonies construe a changing and disparate form of reality. For some, “he has ideas and ideals”, for others “he doesn’t know what he wants and changes his opinion every fifteen minutes” (p. 34-35). Some know him quite well, others barely remember him, one person even suggests that “the man whom you are investigating does not in fact exist” (p.33).

The same kind of process occurs in chapter 6, concerning several testimonies about Yorgos V. Makris, creating a similarity between him and Ch. K. Throughout the novel, reasons are put forward to explain the will to destroy the Parthenon, but the construction of the story makes it impossible to decide which of them is true. Whereas the material consequences of the act are perceptible, the meaning of the event escapes us. Nevertheless, the leads need to be followed up: what does this act tell us about the city and the people who live there?

 

The Parthenon: sacred body/heart of the city

The novel questions the place held by the Parthenon in the Greek collective subconscious. Spatially, it dominates the city. It rules over the world from above. The monument has been made sacred by the Athenians and has become a personified divinity worshipped by the inhabitants. In the text, it is referred to with a capital letter: “It has a name but as for us, we have personified it. We say “look at Him”, “I saw Him” (p.41). This capital letter confers on the Parthenon a transcendental dimension that goes beyond human reality. The relation between the Parthenon and mankind reflects the opposition between the secular and the sacred spheres. The material reality of the monument, its construction are not open to question: “Who built it? It doesn't matter now. It exists, that's all” (p. 41). It has always been there and always will be. The pressure from the others, those that believe in the divinity of the Parthenon, is so strong that everyone ends up by believing it and internalizing the sacred nature of the monument. This is how faith is anchored in myth. The fascination of the destroyer for the Parthenon causes them to become two facets of the same being. This is exemplified through the testimony of the guard, in which the “He” of the Parthenon, becomes the “he” of its destroyer.

We can see an organic dependence between the city and the monument, a corporal fusion between the two. In the first chapter, the guard tells us how he felt the Parthenon had called him “I heard Him call me” (p. 14). The sacred body of the Parthenon dictates the rhythm of the city and can be seen as its dynamic. Indeed, when the Parthenon blows up, the city comes to a halt: “life was struck with paralysis”, “the immobility was total” (p. 25).

Because of this sacredness and the dependence of the city on the Parthenon, the empty space remaining after its explosion scares the inhabitants of Athens and leaves them in a void: “Where He had stood, only the sky was left. A sky which, for the first time, appeared in all its width.” (p.17). A new horizon opens, which is disturbing for Athenians, who are left like orphans, deprived of any point of reference: “what is the city without Him?”

 

A schizophrenic relation between Greek identity and the Parthenon

The relationship between Athens and the Parthenon is complex. As a matter of fact, Greek identity is torn between a glorious past, the decadence of the present and a future without any horizon (which might actually be blocked by the Parthenon itself). It therefore becomes schizophrenic when facing the greatness of the edifice, which is hard to live with: “She [our city] didn’t deserve Him, she wasn’t worthy of Him”; “it was the city which killed Him”. We can therefore assume that the Athenians themselves had been willing to destroy this symbol, which they were unable to affront. Indeed, they constantly refer to it, but have trouble living in the shadow of their glorious past. It seems that the Athenians are ashamed of what they have become: “whatever we do, we will never be able to be worthy of such a masterpiece” (p. 43).

The literary tradition which tends to depict the destruction of the Parthenon may be explained by this schizophrenia. The Parthenon is a cause for pride, an attraction for mass tourism and a painful reminder of lost greatness, a symbol lead astray by the failures of European construction. Ch. K., wanted to put an end to this internal conflict and liberate the country from a fascination which only leads to the cult of a past too significant and glorious to live with.

 

The motivations of the destroyer

In the fourth chapter, “The probable monologue of Ch. K., the perpetrator of the events”, Ch. K.tries to give us some leads to help the reader understand his act. He does not seem to be a mentally sick person and his motive is clear: “I don’t have any message to transmit. Simply: this is mine” (p. 39). According to him, only “an action perpetrated in full consciousness” (p.38) can be one’s own. It is important to analyze the way of thinking of the destroyer in order to better understand this disturbing motive.

Ch. K. tries to deconstruct the myth of the Parthenon. If the schizophrenia of Greek identity comes from living in the shadow of the Parthenon, then the monument ought be a target. The protagonist tries to destroy its sacred aura which is illustrated in the novel by the loss of the capital letter and a confession: “it is not as perfect as one might think” (p. 44). On several occasions, Ch. K. challenges the Parthenon itself. He realizes that beyond the beauty of the monument, there is a secret power that emanates from it, a halo hard to define. “I was being naive to think that it just stood up there, on top on the town, simply overestimated. No. Its force lay elsewhere. Its power was something else” (p. 46). Ch. K. examines it closely: “It looked bare this time, defenseless. Patched up everywhere. (…) We spend our time restoring it. (…) We will not let it collapse” (p. 46). Ch. K. helps us realize that its strength does not come from its beauty, but from the fascination it exerts over people. What’s fascinating is its physical anchoring, overarching and alienating. The fact that it blocks the horizon tends to reassure people, bringing everything down to past filiation and generating points of reference. That is what really makes it a symbol for the Athenians. For Ch. K. a new future and a regained liberty cannot be envisaged for as long as the Parthenon is physically present: “I tried to imagine it collapsing: impossible. Imagination was not enough” (p. 52). It is this intuition that makes him believe in the need for an acting out. He comments this new era he thinks has opened up in front of him: “And today, for the first time, we don’t have any origin, and that might be the reason why we may choose a new direction to turn towards. The path must be reinvented; history must be rewritten” (p. 56).

However, it may appear simplistic to believe that it is necessary to destroy all symbols from the past to rebuild oneself. Indeed, would it be enough to erase a material symbol in order to purge the collective unconscious? Does this provocation play the role of a catharsis to encourage the society to takeover its destiny? It appears quite clearly that this violent act would not be sufficient to free society from the taboo and to brake the chains of a country full of contradictions. Nevertheless, the act perpetrated by Ch. K. invites us to question the relation between collective identity and the sacred sphere, as illustrates the last sentence of the book: “The profanation of the sacred sphere is the political task of the generation which comes” (p. 91). According to Christos Chryssopoulos, the Parthenon also represents European civilization and values. However, these values are put in check by the current economic crisis. As a matter of fact, when we look at the front page of nowadays magazines representing European values through the collapse of the Parthenon, we can tell that both of them have been deconsecrate. Shouldn’t we take this act of desecration like an opportunity to move on? This is one the questions that are discussed in this novel. Unfortunately, the author suggests that the symbols are persistent...

 

Between reality and fiction: has the event really occurred?

Since the very beginning of the novel, the doubt is spread. The first words of the guard of the Acropolis drag us into uncertainty: “What to say? I forgot. So many years have gone by…” (p. 13). The tracks and memories tend to disappear and soon the reader is not sure whether it has really happened or not. But chapter 2 announces the real collapse of the monument: “In the spot where was standing the most representative, the most precious edifice, are now spreading the empty sky and a distressing sight of ruins and rubble” (p.23). Specialists assert that damages are “irreversible” (p. 27). Who should we trust?

Moreover, the accumulation of signs of objectivity (such as the precision of the hour of the testimonies for example) undermines the effects of reality exhibited by the text: the protagonist Yorgos Makris (a Greek writer who actually existed), quoted at the beginning of the work and through his manifesto in chapter 5. This intricacy between reality and fiction spreads the doubt. On the same tone, the “Probable monologue of Ch. K., perpetrator of the events” conveys the doubt about its existence. At the end of the novel, in the epilogue, the reader learns that Ch. K. “had hidden a text making the apology of his act in a small secret box” (p. 89). As no copy of the text was kept, the confession of Ch. K. is really a construction made up from rumors of that text. From then on, we understand the expression “probable monologue”. Another disturbing element can be noted: while the prologue speaks of a text, chapter 4 depicts an audio recording. If that is so, why are there stage directions?

Finally, the last chapter is about a soldier mentally tormented by his imagination which forces him to live twice every moment by foreshadowing every coming event. Since the military context is largely foreseeable, “the last dream of the night, just before waking up, was exactly the first moments of the following day” (p. 78). In this situation, it is hard to tell reality from fiction. At a certain point, the protagonist dreams about the troops relief, which should therefore be the next scene. However, and unpredicted event occurs: the soldiers are dragged out of their bed into a truck which drives them to an unknown destination. The protagonist is lost between reality and fiction, while participating in afiring squad: “was it really real?”. Here the reader supposes, without never really knowing, that it is Ch. K. who is being executed.

By the end of the novel, the strangeness of the story is forgotten. The Parthenon is rebuild as announces the prologue. It therefore appears indestructible as it gains back both its place and sacredness. At that point, the destructed has been denied and forgotten. Maybe all of this never really happened. Nevertheless, the thoughts that emerge from this act, whether it is real or hypothetical, when we finish the novel are alive and vivifying.