A few weeks ago I whiled away an idle half-hour by trying to work out a single word to express the essential quality of each major European nation. (Yes, I know, normal people watch TV or flick through a magazine, but I was in Italy at the time and the scenery seemed to inspire such noble thoughts).
Anyway, for the sake of argument, here are my conclusions:
- ENGLAND – Fairness
- SPAIN – Honour
- GERMANY – Efficiency
- FRANCE – Refinement
- ITALY – Beauty
- THE NETHERLANDS – Tolerance
It occurred to me that every one of these apparently worthy qualities can become a curse in certain circumstances. For example, an over-emphasis on style can lead to under-engineering. An obsession with efficiency, though undoubtedly useful, can make you inflexible and cold. And that famous British decency, that innate feeling that things should be fair, has been exploited by a morally bankrupt government, assisted by large sections of the mass media, to set neighbour against neighbour, class against class, “strivers” against “shirkers”, and even “natives” against “immigrants” in the supposed belief that one group is privileged compared to another.
There is an interesting omission from the list above. Try as I might, and regardless of the strong emotional connection I still feel towards the first overseas country I ever visited, I could not come up with a single word that did justice to the complicated and frequently tragic reality of Greece.
Well, the events of the last few days have solved that dilemma, at least,
We could translate it. We could finesse it into a neat abstraction to go with the other ones – something like “Defiance” or “Resistance”, but that is to do the Greek people a disservice, it seems to me.
I have to confess, I didn’t see this one coming. I confidently predicted that in the end the closet conservatives would win the Scottish independence referendum, the people who preferred the status quo but dared not say so in public. I wasn’t entirely surprised when similar closet Tories carried all before them at the last UK General Election. I predicted, based on the above, that many of the Greek voters would talk big but bow to fear and expediency in the privacy of the polling booth.
But that was Britain. This is Greece. These are passionate people, dignified above all else even in the basest and most humiliating of circumstances. Perhaps particularly then.
I watched the results come in last night with conflicting emotions. I utterly dread what will surely follow. My very British head says that, in their shoes, I would have capitulated to market forces and voted for more austerity. My head often reads a left-wing column and thinks, “Yes, but where’s the money coming from?” just seconds after, “Awesome! To the barricades!”
It is very easy to cheer vicariously for incredibly risky political positions that we would never contemplate adopting if we faced similar circumstances. We see it on Twitter every hour of every day. I wonder sometimes if the International Brigade would ever have shown up to fight Franco’s army in Spain if they’d been able to vent their dismay on social media instead. Certainly I’ve yet to see a movement of defiance tourism heading out to support Greece, let alone volunteering to expose themselves to the risks of riot and even civil warfare that might yet transpire.
But having said all that, I confess that my heart leapt at the sheer brass-necked, defiant, crazy courage of people who feel that all they have left is their dignity and they will cling to that at any cost. These are crazy people who have given us great things, things that were probably considered crazy in their time. I mourn their certainties, even as I applaud their courage.
Arthur Miller’s play, A View From the Bridge, self-consicously modelled on Greek Tragedy, ends with these lines from the Chorus figure Alfieri as he reflects on the single-minded integrity that destroys Eddie Carbone:
Most of the time we settle for half and I like it better. Even as I know how wrong he was, and his death useless, I tremble, for I confess that something perversely pure calls to me from his memory—not purely good, but himself purely And yet, it is better to settle for half, it must be! And so I mourn him—I admit it—with a certain alarm.
How fitting that the Greeks, for all the beauty of the abstract nouns they have given to the world, insist on being defined by one short, defiant word – and in their own language, too.