Past Perfect

Marble Heads

This is the question for the modern Greek poet, Giorgos Seferis, in his Mythistorema series.  One poem, entitled “Remember the baths where you were murdered,” is the source of the quotation in the graphic used for this blog’s header.  Here is that poem in full:

I woke with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbow and I don’t know where to put it down.
It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream
so our life became one and it will be very difficult for it to separate again.

I look at the eyes: neither open nor closed
I speak to the mouth which keeps trying to speak
I hold the cheeks which have broken through the skin.
That’s all I’m able to do.

My hands disappear and come towards me
mutilated.

(To read the full poem, click here.)

If we don’t take armless, noseless statues as self-evidently significant, then travelers and scholars are never able to access a “real history” or a “perfect past” that offers a true story about a culture or country.  Even those who inhabit these cultures and places are engaged in constructive activities. All we can do is look through our own lenses, project our own interests, etc., and, in doing so, try to see the many other lenses and interests that are there as well. And among the curious things is to discover how differently we can come to see that marble head’s significance (or complete lack of), all depending on which lens we adopt.

We have, like the marble head in the poet’s hands, found something called “Greece” in our academic sights and our cameras’ viewfinders.  How will we, as visitors and as scholars, approach it?  What will we do with it?  One thing is certain: whatever we think “it” is (or isn’t), we cannot call it unchanging and timeless.

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