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Greek fantastic literature: a case of censorship in a European literary canon

Final Report Summary - GFL - CCELC (Greek fantastic literature: a case of censorship in a European literary canon)

From an initial interest in the canonical position of Greek fantastic literature, this project shifted to a broader exploration of the relevance of the fantastic as a cognitive structure (drawing from Todorov’s and Freud’s theories on the uncanny, among others) for the construction of the Greek nation. It thus moved from a rather local focus to a broader, transnational one, since the construction of Greekness from early modernity has mostly developed in the West, and has involved in the same gesture the configuration of a historical notion of Europe and the European self.
By concurrently examining native and foreign manifestations of the uncanny in the discourse about Greece from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, we have discovered an undercurrent inscribed at the very core of the discourse of Hellenism that destabilises the general assumptions about the location of Greekness, understood as a suprahistorical notion, at the roots of the Modern Greek nation and of European civilisation. Considering the fact that Greece as a modern nation was constructed by European discourses from the Renaissance to the late Enlightenment through a colonial logic soon assumed by Greek themselves, we found substantial (historical and structural) parallels between the emergence of the uncanny or the fantastic as a challenge and at the same time a byproduct of rationalism in the eighteenth century, and the production of a Philhellenic discourse eventually bringing about the foundation of the Modern Greek state. Split among its Ancient model idealised by Occidentals and its present reality as an ethnic and religious community in the Ottoman Empire, Greece embodies the Freudian uncanniness for modernity: it is the familiar that returns as strange, or the strange that finally turns out to be familiar. Our project has discovered that the construction of the Western civilisation as a concept is haunted by this temporal, cultural, or even ontological dissociation, since European claims about Greece being ‘the cradle of the West’ are problematized by the Oriental Otherness attributed to the Greek-speaking communities of the Sublime Porte. This unresolvable duality defies the enlightened epistemology and the unitary conception of European civilization by introducing a spectral Other at the very origin of the notion of Europeanness. Against the Encyclopaedist project, Greece becomes a signifier without a specific and definable signified, and a signified without a comprehensive signifier. Moreover, it emblematises the concealed historicity at the core of modernity by uncannily embodying and bringing to the fore the temporal gap that it presupposes: Ancient Greece is not a feasible though utopian model for the future, but a dead an unattainable period from the past whose resurrection can only be monstrous as long as it has always to include a foreign residue and an insurmountable (historical, cultural, ethnic or even geographical) fracture at its centre.

We focused on the study of a phenomenon that embodies the uncanniness inscribed at the construction of Greece, and the fissures in the socio-symbolic discourse of Hellenism: the revenant. This figure provided an allegorical structure for the (re)emergence of Greece in modern Europe. The undead or the ghost defy some of the fetishes of modern epistemology (supposedly inherited from Ancient Greece) such as self-identity or present temporality by disjointing time and undeciding binary oppositions (life/death, subjectivity or consciousness/irrationalism) and preventing their total closure. Interestingly, in Greek tradition and its European reception we can find the first undead widely known in the West. Long before the notoriety gained by vampires in the 1730s after the Austrian reports on the Serbian epidemics of vampirism were spread across the continent, the Greek vampire (vrykolakas) appears interwoven in the discourse of Philhellenism from its very inception and is identified by Westerners with Greece’s oriental difference (superstition, backwardness, religious deviance). This figure is traceable in European texts from the beginnings of the sixteenth until the beginnings of the twentieth century. It provides a useful tool for studying the usually disturbing intertwinement of the fantastic and Greekness both in the internal and transnational (often colonial) negotiations of the latter notion.

Our research has allowed gathering a vast material on these subjects. First of all, about the Greek vampire as a crucial and previously overlooked element in the construction of Hellenism, at the same time embodying the more disquieting components of the resurrection of Greece and revealing the fissures in the coterminous production of Europe and the Hellenic. On the other hand, a set of references to Antiquity in all kind of Western texts where death, spectrality, compulsive repetition and other modalities of the uncanny are at work. These comprehend many genres: travel accounts, Philhellenic fiction, Gothic fiction, theological treatises, Classical Studies, philosophy, and even film in the twentieth century.

The conclusions and results of this research help reveal a self-transgressive potential unconsciously inscribed within the discourse of Hellenism that from the mid-eighteenth has tried to buttress the civilisational, epistemological, and even ethical identity of Western Europe. This offers new insights not only in the metadisciplinary history of Classical Studies and its process of construction, thus fostering a re-reading of that and other associated fields, but also in some basic assumptions currently operating at the political, cultural, ideological and symbolic realm about the historicity of modernity and what it means to be a European. In short, our conclusions foreground the unattended rifts displacing all the elements in the basic axiom of Western modernity: the famous quote by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘We are all Greeks.’

At the same time, these conclusions urge to re-assess the process of modern Greek nation building, including the disrupting potential of the uncanny and of a concept we have coined: revenance. Revenants and vampires, as well as other fantastic elements, came to challenge the Hellenic roots of the new nation (precisely those that would give it access to full-fledged Europeanness), and had thus to be carefully purged and expelled from the official discourse. Literature, ethnography and film expressed these hesitations, that set the uncanny at the core of nation construction. In this sense, we have furthered Renée Bergland’s concept of nations as ‘haunted communities,’ using precisely Modern Greece as its crucial paradigm in modernity. Our research also provides new models for the analysis of the internal negotiation of the nation, and fosters a reconsideration of the position and relevance of many cultural artefacts.