Tag Archives: corrida

Flamenco: sometimes “I can’t get enough” of something because it’s just so awful (even with a goddess like Estrella Morente); the limits of fusion; Andalucía to the Caribbean, ida y vuelta, or allez-retour; Spanish casticismo and crappy Greek reality TV

20 Sep

You know, you can’t just throw together anything you feel like…like, I dunno, the Pennsylvania polka with polyphonic southern Albanian orchestration or background singers, and call it music. There’s a great Greek expression for what would result: “May God call that [whatever] …” music, in this case; то есть, only God can give this thing the existential status it’s claiming for itself.

Fusion happens organically. Egyptian pop has a çifteteli rhythm Greeks like, and slowly Greek pop develops a whole genre that is heavily Egyptian sounding. Klezmer musicians, especially Romanian and Moldavian ones, heard Greek Balkan tunes in Bucharest and Constanța and Istanbul and incorporated them into their repertoire. Serbs are attracted to Greek music, to its tone and melodies and especially to its affective nature, so lots of the new starogradska music (which literally means “old city” music, meaning popular, but urban, not folk, like Greek λαϊκά) develops a deep Greek vibe. Greeks loved Bollywood in the 50s, so a whole genre (one railed against by many, including Tsitsanes, which is why I can’t forgive him), of some really beautiful music, developed out of some plain rip-offs, and some imaginative reworking, of the Indian material that Greeks liked in their movies.

I’ll soon bring you examples of all of the above. My point is simply that these intermeldings happen organically and if they’re forced, consciously and stupidly, the product kinna sucks.

I’m sure the intentions of the Khoury Projectfour Palestinian brothers from Jordan, with a last name that probably indicates Christian (“Khoury” means priest in Levantine Arabic) — are good…oh, Lord, please don’t let them be misunderstood. But the result is atrocious. It’s a little bit classical Um Kalsoum Arab suite, a little bit Balkan brass band or tamburaša, a little bit demek jazz improv’ — and it’s all made worse by the lust for speeeeeeeeeed our civilization suffers from, to cover up for lack of art, because form is sacrificed on the altar of cheap excitement, till form becomes illegible, rhythm becomes unfollowable, and melody disappears…and it all turns into a dog whistle that we can’t even hear.

Everything is like coked-up Bregović.

And what did that poor kanun do to this dude, that he’s banging away at it like it’s a heavy metal drum set, or like he’s hoping to snap a few of its strings?

Ok, there is one cool idea they’re working with, and that’s in the title: “RUMBA”. It’s not a ton of people who know that, but the musical and other cultural influences that Spain, especially Andalucía, sent to the Caribbean, were matched by the musical influences that the Caribbean, especially, of course, that heavenly font of music, Cuba, sent back to Spain. (You can probably trace the popular music of the whole twentieth-century world to either this one island of ten million people or the Mississippi Delta…or to the West Africa that both sprouted from.) Rumba, for example, is a flamenco genre, as is tango, though they don’t much look like their Latin American namesakes in their Andalusian gypsy forms (Morente gives us a moment of Cuban/Andalusian “rumba” dance moves at 6:56). But sevillanas and bulerías also have rhythmic structures and verbal phrasing and dance moves that have earlier Cuban antecedents.

The reason most people don’t know this is because there’s no more cliché-bound human than the modern tourist. And the academic tourist, who you think would have more outré interests to pursue when he travels, is often the worst of all. So as far as Spain goes, they’ll go to Barcelona, because it’s just such a “hip,” “cosmopolitan” Mediterranean (Christ, sometimes I hate that word) city, and skip the edgier, scruffy, by far more involving urban vibe of Madrid.* And if they’re under 35 they’ll go to Ibiza; over 35 will go to Mallorca. The MESA or other academic folk won’t go to either (if they want beach action they’ll come to one of our more remote Cyclades); rather, after Barcelona, they’ll do the Glories of Al-Andalus tour of Córdoba and Granada and then hightail it back home.

And you can’t get a full picture of flamenco in any of those places. Yes, there’s clearly a gypsy community in Granada that has created its own sound (including Estrella Morente and the whole Morente clan). But “gypsiness” and flamenco are to be truly appreciated in lower Andalusia, the flat river-delta of the Guadalquivir (the al-wādī l-kabīr in Arabic, the “great river”, like the kabir in this blogs’ name.) The great (or “kabir”) flamenco palos or genres, the great flamenco singers and guitarists, are almost all from the Gypsy barrios of Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Sanlúcar, Puerto de Santa María, or the large village/towns of the region, like Osuna, Écija, Carmona, Utrera. This was not just the entry point for Spanish contact with its American colonies; it was the region that soon after the Reconquista came to be made up of large estates, latifundia, and a large rural proletariat that worked those estates and a large urban proletariat that lived in semi-employed poverty. Unfortunately, this was the pattern that Spain exported to not just its American colonies, but to southern Italy and Sicily during the centuries that it ruled those lands. What’s so fascinating about Naples and Palermo (like, of course, Seville) is that they were the first large, third-world cities of European modernity, overgrown, over-densely populated, surrounded by a countryside where land ownership was wildly unbalanced, cities of fabulous wealth and a dispossessed urban proletariat that still characterizes the modern and post-modern megalopolis — from Bombay to New York.

The Guadalquivir

Unfortunately or not, the pressure-cooker of urban poverty seems to be the petri dish of fantastic music: whether it’s Havana or Seville or Naples or New Orleans or New York and Chicago or Smyrna or Piraeus. We owe it to the creators of this music, and their suffering, to not mangle it the way the Khoury Project has done in this and in many other videos of theirs.

That’s why I’m bringing you more than just one of the original versions of the Cuban classics that Morente and the Khoury project butcher beyond recognition. Take the time to listen to both: the several original versions and the shameless interpretations the new fusion versions bring.

At 6:15, Morente sings the historic Cuban song “Songoro Cosongo”. This was a “son”, an Afro genre from eastern Cuba that, in the early twentieth century, became the more or less national dance (out of which the mambo and then salsa grew) replacing, even in polite society, the danzón. The lyrics are not original “Afro”; they’re Art-Afro, from the Black Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén — y de allí you get into all kinds of questions of authenticity that basically lead you nowhere. What’s important is that this first version was sung by the Septeto Nacional, which was the first group of Black musicians who were allowed to play in the Havana Tennis Club in the 1920s, marking the entry of Blacker music into the social mainstream of Cuban life (or maybe that was the Sexteto Habanero?). Here’s the original version. For Colombians, forget the baldosa please and watch the first part of the video and incorporate some movement into the dance; drop the screwdriver step.

And here’s Hector Lavoe’s 1970s big band sound, salsa version:

The other Cuban/PR classic that the Khoury Project and Morente make kokoretsi out of (at 7:10) is the piece known alternately as “Mandinga” or “Bilongo” or “La Negra Tomasa”.

Here’s a Cuban έντεχνο version from pianist Rubén González of the Buena Vista Social Club:

And here’s the truly breathtaking salsa version, again from the 70s, of Eddie Palmieri, with singer Ismael Quintana: “Kikidi-boom, Mandinga, Kikidi-boom Mandinga….”

Y aquí la tienen, la Negra Tomasa:

La Negra Tomasa, like Mamá Inés (“ay Mamá Inés, ay Mamá Inés, todo’ lo’ negro’ tomamo’ café.”) It’s amazing how powerfully Pan-American this archetype of the Black woman is: Mamá Inés, La Negra Tomasa, Aunt Jemima, the Black woman who, despite the misery and servitude of her existence, still feels and expresses genuine love for those she has to care for. Here’s the scene from Gone with the Wind where Hattie McDaniel gave the performance that garnered her the first Oscar to go to a Black woman:

Ok…

And back to Estrella Morente’s outta space performance. I don’t want to sound like one of the judges on #MyStyleRocksGR (though I’d like to have a drink with Stelio Koudounare — below)** but, Estrella, you’re a magnificent woman. But you’re also a modest Gypsy girl. Don’t wear a strapless dress that you’re constantly tugging up for fear it’ll fall off and reveal your ample bosom. It cramps your style, especially for a number as fast this “Rumba”.

(There’s something that’s so interesting about the semiotics of Gypsy and flamenco sexuality, a really interesting interaction between the revealing and openly erotic and the puritanical and covered up — that’s maybe a real remnant Indian cultural trait. We had a long-time Gypsy tenant, Mandy, who rented a commercial space in a building we owned in Manhattan for her Tarot-reading business; how they made the rent for a midtown Manhattan space offa Tarot readings is anyone’s guess. And whenever I dropped by at that time of the month, she was always dressed kind of like Lola Flores in this video below of commercial, movie, kitschy but beautiful copla-flamenco [look up “copla”; it’s a critical bridge between flamenco and other Spanish popular music]:

A tight top, but with straps — please — and an ankle-length skirt, tight around the hips and flaring out from the knees, like Gypsy women all over the world wear. The use of the skirt in flamenco dance, the flipping and turning around, the gathering up of its ample folds and ruffles and waving them back and forth or stuffing them between the legs, almost up into the crotch…all of those moves become especially powerful because revealing of the lower body seems so taboo. Not to mention the similarities between the prop manipulation of the long skirt in flamenco and that of the cape in the corrida, or bullfight.)

всё…

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* There’s a wonderful expression in Spanish: “De Madrid no se ve el mar.” — “From Madrid you can’t see the sea” which condenses the whole personality of the city. Madrid is really nowhere. It doesn’t occupy a strategic position, like the older cities of old Castille. It’s not on an important navigable river. The weather sucks: the famous “nine months of winter and three months of hell” (“nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno”), though I love the cold, sunny weather of a Castillian winter (“colder than a Lutheran” says one character in the film version of Alatriste), and the food is perfect for the climate. It was simply built by royal fiat as a court and imperial capital in the early 16th century because there was an old, Moorish town there in the geographic center of Iberia, on the high, arid and underpopulated central plateau, or meseta, of Spain.

And yet this isolated city — from where “you can’t see the sea” — in the middle of nowhere became the sophisticated, highly cultured and rich capital of a massive empire. The contradiction is that it couldn’t ever really evade or deny its roots. Madrid remained and remains a deeply castizo city. “Casticismo” is a complicated term that means “pure”, “[Spanishly] authentic”, “native”, “conservative” and even a solid melding of all of those together won’t give you the precise sense of the word. Casticismo is what makes Spain Spain. I’m tempted to find Greek analogies and thought that it might be Romiosyne as in versus Hellenismos. But no…

When you’re in a bar somewhere in the center of Madrid in July, and there’s a cold, sweaty caña, or half-pint, of beer and an equally sweaty few slices of ham in front of you, when there’re dirty paper napkins or toothpicks (or there used to be; this custom has sort of fallen out of style) or peanut shells on the floor (the more garbage there was piled up on the floor, the more it signalled to potential customers that, “oh, this is a fun bar that people like…let’s drop in here”) and you’re packed in with super-friendly, inquisitive Spaniards speaking at a totally unnecessary decibel level…and it’s only 11:00 am — well, that’s the right time to get a feel for casticismo, even if it’s just a sensory feel that you can’t express discursively.

And that’s kind of the essence of Madrid, a liberal, tolerant, mad creative, open place that’s still closed and stubbornly archaic and even anarchic: even cañí (tacky) or hortero (red-necky, rough, kitschy, or vulgar). As opposed to the dizque sophisticated-acting, cosmopolitan but actually staid bourgeois air of Barcelona, Madrid is more a microcosm of Spain: one of the West’s and Europe’s most progressive, advanced in every way, societies, that’s simultaneously not part of the West or Europe at all, but a wild, limit-pushing land that is something totally itself, where the grappling between the “raw” and the “cooked” is as interesting and powerful as anywhere.

The go-to book on casticismo is by my saint-hero-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno who wrote it in the early 20th century, when the question of identity — especially after the disastrous Spanish-American War of 1898 when Spain lost its last colonies to the United States — and how Spain needed to generate some kind of new dialectic between its “deep” identity and the modernity it had to face was a red hot, controversial issue. As a Basque, he had a particular insider-and-outsider take on Spain and if you read Spanish or can find an English translation — which I’m not sure there is — it should be on your reading list before your next visit there.

En torno al casticismo (“Regarding casticismo”)

Miguel de Unamuno 1929

** Yes, don’t ask, I’ve totally regressed:

Stelios Koudounares, Greek fashion designer and guest judge on #MyStyleRocksGR

I’ve never been even remotely interested in fashion. I mean, I like to know that what I’m wearing looks ok, but in terms of high-end, concept fashion that nobody really wears…nothing’s ever bored me more. So don’t ask why I’ve gotten hooked, and on a daily basis, to #MyStyleRocksGR. Yeah, I like Stelio, but it’s basically because the judges and contestants on the show are all having so much fun…and when it’s mean it’s because there’s some serious Greek shade being thrown around that, ultimately, no one takes seriously. Any way, I’m addicted.

Next: between occasional blogging and working on my translation of Polites’ Stou Hadjifrangou, I’ve also gotten addicted to reality show #BigBrotherGR. (Owning up: I was addicted to Jersey Shore too.) The other night I sat transfixed through three-and-a-half hours of the special live Friday night broadcast they do, because I was afraid that my favorite room-mate, Demetres Kehagias (Δημήτρης Κεχαγιάς) below, was going to get booted off the show.

I don’t like Kehagia just ’cause he’s good-looking. I like him ’cause he’s echt-Greek/Rhomios. He’s always grouchy and irritated about something and someone and getting into fights with everyone around him, talks a mile a minute in thick Athenian attitude and intonation… And then suddenly becomes all loving and caring and sweet in a way that makes everyone around melt. Luckily he survived.

Here he is in rare form against his nemesis room-mate, the woman with the fried peroxide hair, Anna Maria from Chania (that’s just what they were missing on this show, a Cretan woman of a certain age with fried, peroxide hair…) Check them out in this video below; the fun starts at around 2:17. Yes, the two guys in the black t-shirts are identical twin brothers (makes for all kindsa nuttiness), Zac (Ζαχαρίας) in the Marine t-shirt says and does absolutely nothing in any episode except look pretty, and the zaftig chick in the fuchsia top with the fan, splendidly named Aphrodite!!! is the loving Big Mama that me and apparently all Big Brother addicts in Greece — so say the polls — adore, and she spends lots of her time trying to de-escalate arguments like these. Enjoy. This is a perfect Greek kavga, the Turkish word we use for pointless, steam-letting, “let’s-have-some-fun” arguing. I’m not going to translate or tell you what it’s about….because it doesn’t matter!!! It’s not about anything! They’re just arguing!

I started watching ΣΚΑΪ (SKY) because it’s the of right-of-center channel that still maintains (despite these trashy shows I’m into) some sense of cultural and social standards out of all Greek TV stations. And also because a right-of-center good friend of mine got voted in as MP in Greek Parliament this year and he appears as the go-to expert on Greece’s international relations — especially at a tight time in Greek-Turkish relations like now — on ΣΚΑΪ‘s news broadcasts. But then I get back to work and leave the television on with no sound. Explains how I got hooked on these shows.

Addendum: they’ve also been broadcasting American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace these past two weeks. It’s fascinating. Because it’s not about Versace almost at all. It’s about his tragically psychotic murderer, Andrew Cunanan. And it leaves you with the very disturbing sense that he wasn’t so distantly psychotic from the rest of us, that he just wanted what we all want; things just came together in a way that pushed him over the edge. It’s on Netflix; check it out.

Darren Kriss as Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace

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For all the senders of “Islamophobe” accusations: facile, hysterical, stupid, or all of the above…and some notes on the corrida

6 Nov

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I’ve gotten a thousand emails about my Hajj comments and about the Pakistani cab-drivers post.  Not unexpected.  And actually a quite gratifying response as it may allow me to begin a serious discussion about monotheism and my discontents and not just Islam.  Just give me some time because it’ll be a long post, its being something that I’ve been thinking about most of my life.

But some quickies…  For one writer: not only, yes, would I have been as obnoxious to an American Christian Fundamentalist — or an Orthodox nationalist crazy here in Greece or in Russia — if he had given me a hard time about my “pagan” tattoo, I would’ve ripped either of them apart much more mercilessly, because they don’t have the excuse of being born Muslim, so don’t worry about my soul’s economy of justice or fairness.

For the writer who objected to me referring to Muhammad as “just” [not a word I used] one man” — I don’t get it.  Isn’t that the point?  That he was a man?  Isn’t what so many Muslims find a ridiculous idea (in my experience), and what so many Muslim and Jewish theologians through the ages objected to — not precisely to the Christian idea of the Incarnation — that God and Man are one, that God became a Man in order in order to approach a beloved humanity?

As for the PETA chick (just assumptions — both “PETA” and “chick” — because the email address betrays neither, just the tone and content do…) who thought my reprinting Saba Imtiaz’ beautiful photo essay on Eid-al-Adha in Karachi was not only a glorification of violence against animals, but a perpetuating of stereotypes about Islam as “a religion of blood,” you haven’t read any of the rest of my blog, so I will really have nothing to say to you — as I don’t to most of you — except perhaps that I’m an avid fan of the Spanish corrida, and if there’s a good goring the better, so I don’t associate normal, biological blood-shed with Islam.

But I’ll be back.

2009 in pictures corrida goring

Photo: For those who don’t know, this is a particularly dramatic goring, as the torero had already gotten the bull with a perfect through-the-traps, into the chest cavity, sword-thrust, so it would’ve been a matter of seconds probably before it had collapsed dead, but it still managed to get the guy in the guts before dying — but that’s always the most dangerous moment in a bullfight anyway.  Most bullfighters go for the over the horns into the shoulder stab, then instinctively jump ever so slightly out of the way.  The super-majete torero, however — was it Manolete who was famous for this? – gets the sword in…and stands there…in the extremely risky hope that the animal will immediately drop dead at his feet.  As you can see, it doesn’t always turn out that way.  According to a Mexican friend and corrida aficionado, the torero in the photograph is Spaniard Alejandro Talavante, though I can’t find anything on-line about him getting hurt like this.

But see what you learn on the Jadde…

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Why I can’t stand watching Rafael Nadal win

12 Jun

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I’m just going to come out and say this stuff and I’m sure not a few readers will end up considering me a quack or some quasi-Nietzschean fascist aestheticizer of things and never log on again. But, hey, that’s the price…

I’ll start with the most petty and irrelevant reasons. I have a serious repellent reflex towards Catalans. This is largely because I love Spain so much, and their anti-Spanishness really gets my goat. I find their Gallic delusions that they’re so much more European and Mediterranean and civilized than the rest of Spain to be insufferable. (And some day I’ll get around to dismantling the cult of “Mediterranean-ness” itself that’s grown since the 1980s and that I find a completely false and fabricated pop-multi-culti identity that grew out of tourist literature, the public relations campaigns of olive oil companies and a popular sprinking of Braudel, and nothing else. When even Turks start acting and feeling like they’re “Mediterraneans,” you know that a discourse is b.s. and needs to be taken apart; the extremeness of the hype surrounding Barcelona is part of this, and is why I love the gravitas and even crudeness of Madrid and Castille so much more deeply.)  I find Catalans’ noli me tangere squeamishness about how they shouldn’t have to suffer by being a part of this barbaric country of monarcho-fascists and Catholics and gypsies and bull-torturers to be racist pure and simple. They’re Iberian Croatians, in short. There are plenty out there who will get the analogy, I believe.

But none of that has any real bearing here.  And poor Rafa shouldn’t have to be the object of my scorn just because he’s Catalan; Ferrer is too and I think he’s one of the most compelling and wonderful to watch tennis players out there.

I simply hate watching Rafael Nadal win because he’s ugly.

And by ugly I don’t mean short and mousey-looking or that his thinning hair is always already a greasy mess from before the match has even started. I mean ugly with a lack of that kind of inner force that manifests itself as a visible form of athletic charisma and magic.

Since the beginning of institutional athletics in human civilization, meaning the Greeks, of course, we’ve always expected our athletes to partake of “some part of beauty.” To have something that made us feel, even if just partly, that a god were being incarnated here in this man, in our presence. “En-thusiasm” in English comes from the Greek ενθούς, ‘possessed by a god, inspired.”  Whether it’s the gorgeous dance of a great basketball or tennis player, or the weightlessness and super-human strength of a gymnast, or the painful duet of two wrestlers or martial artists of any kind, or just the sublime bulk of a rugby player or Olympic weightlifter, or the highly choreographed beauty of a good American football game (yes, it’s a beautiful, highly choreographed, strategically intricate game, much more compelling than…wait…let me swallow first…soccer), we need to experience this glow, which is not a conventional handsomeness or prettiness that I’m talking about, but the need to sense this power and this powerful yearning for glory and victory emanating out of this being, who we want to feel is slightly more just-above-human than the rest of us are.

You never feel any of that glow emanating from Rafael Nadal. It’s just the same cold, technically precise game and the same cold, pissy look on his mug: the most emotion we’re treated to is if things start going a little badly and the pissy mug just gets a little pissier. After the match, if you mute your set and if the score box isn’t showing on the bottom, you almost can’t tell if he’s won or lost. Just the same cold shaking of hands and greasy slinking off of the court.

TOPSHOTS Spain's David Ferrer returns aDavid Ferrer – Picture: AFP/Getty – (click)

Compare this to the elegant gentlemanliness of a Federer. Or the brute, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, clanking mediaeval long-swords game of a Valencian muscle-brick like Ferrer (above).  Or the young, beautifully British, sportsmanly hunger of Murray. And then there’s my dear, sweet Nole, of course, who in every endearing way is still a teenager of sorts, and may have the purest soul of any professional athlete out there. (Talk about “the tenderness of the warrior.”)  No matter what his rank or seed are, or how well his season has been going, he’s as desperately trying to keep his nervousness under control before a match as a young volunteer going into combat for his first engagement, because I think that that’s what he genuinely feels in his heart each time. And when things go badly, and he tragically can’t stop them from going even more badly, because, like an adolescent, he beats up on himself mercilessly because he feels like he’s failed to prove himself, failed to earn his “red badge,” he inspires the purest Aristotelian feelings of pity in me.* And yet, his dignity in defeat is always impeccable. And his howling glory in victory is all his own too. Lots of people don’t like that or feel it unsportsman-like. Trust me, Olympia was a scene of howling winners just like him – and probably then some.  Finally, the spectacular grace of Nole’s feel for his own body is unmatched by anyone in the sport.  Almost like a bullfighter, you sometimes feel he’s risking an easy point just for the gracia and and pure elegance of a braver, more dramatic play.

(And Michael Phelps…let’s not even go there.  See his tag box for posts on him if you want.)

novak-djokovic-volley (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

You feel no sense of any of that pathos or agon in Nadal’s game. None. So when Djoković loses to a man like Federer, or Ferrer – which I don’t think he ever has – or even Murray, I say helal olsun,** να’ν καλά ο άνθρωπος, he deserved it. And I don’t walk around with this churning feeling in my stomach for days afterwards.

But when Nole loses to a Rafael Nadal – I can feel the gods of our ancestors looking down and saying: “What the hell? This can’t be right…”

At least a big, Russian kouklara like Sharapova won the women’s…

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Maria Sharapova, Women’s Campion at Roland Garros 2014. (click)

See also July 3rd post: “Why I love watching Rafael Nadal lose.”

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* Aristotelian “Pity”In his Rhetoric, Aristotle defines “pity” thus: “Let pity, then, be a kind of pain in the case of an apparent destructive or painful harm of one not deserving to encounter it, which one might expect oneself, or one of one’s own, to suffer, and this when it seems near.”

Effing Greeks had said everything, hadn’t they?  Everything else is a footnote.

** “Helal olsun” means, roughly, “may it be blessed” in its mixed Arab-Turkish vocabulary.  This is where the Greek: “χαλάλι του” comes from, “it went to good cause, to deserving reason, good for him or her.”  The opposite is when somethings has gone “χαράμι” — haram — meaning gone to waste, not to blessed purpose, blown off into the wind, spent badly, made unusable by its having been defiled or tainted.  “Χαράμισα τα νιάτα μου” are lyrics you’ll hear in many Greek songs: “I made haram of my youth” — the implication usually being “with you.”

I was talking to a friend here about the term “Helal olsun” and she said that you could use it in Turkish the way you do in Greek, but also that at Muslim funerals the imam asks the gathered congregation if anyone has any outstanding grudges or feels he is owed something by the deceased, and the congregated reply — I don’t know if in unison or individually: “Helal olsun” — “No, may he be blessed,” (or maybe: “even if I do…helal olsun.”)  And I found that unbearably just and beautiful.  And something to remember when Christians feel we have a monopoly on mercy and forgiveness.  It’s the Quran that says that “Mercy is a greater virtue than justice.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Annunciation: “And I thank you for choosing me…”

25 Mar

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The Annunciation of the Virgin mosaic from Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore (click)

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a terrified, barely post-adolescent Jewish girl in a village in Galilee and told her that she was going to become God’s mother.  And in one of the greatest acts of moral bravery in history, this — what? fourteen-year-old? — Jewish girl said: “Yeah…ok.”

This is a “yes” which we should all pray to be given the opportunity to offer up to some one or to some greater thing, in even the tiniest of manners, at some one point in our lives.  It, oddly enough or not, always puts me in mind of the name “Reza,” which I’ve always loved on Persian men, since as far as I understand it, it means “willingness, acceptance, consent…” a saying-yes to Life or to the Divine Will.  (The other is “Peyman,” with its comparable sense of promise and commitment.)  Except in Mary’s case it’s a “saying-yes” that’s particularly female in its bravery, since she barely understands what’s being asked of her and she consents out of pure love, and most men find such consent difficult without first knowing what glory there is in it for them.  Instead Mary does the glorifying:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ, διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς, πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους, καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

That’s March 25th: the Annunciation of the Virgin.  The rest — by which we mostly mean Greek Independence Day — is bullshit.  Nothing that led to the establishment of the first independent Kingdom of Greece happened on March 25th.  There were sporadic outbreaks of rebellion, some semi-coordinated, among Ottoman Greeks throughout the Empire in the early spring of 1821, but there was no raising of any standards, or launching of any campaigns or declarations of any kind made on March 25, 1821 as far as we know.  Except for sporadic massacring nothing much occurred at all that year until the fall, when, only with foreign help, the Greek rebels were able to finally take Tripolitsa in the Peloponnese and butcher the majority of its Muslim and Jewish — meaning practically its entire — population.  And eventually all that happened is that the Greek statelet slapped its observation of Independence Day onto the Annunciation in a conscious-or-not appropriation of the holiday’s already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning (I think that, the Julian Calendar still in operation at the time, March 25th was also Easter Sunday that year so, with the theme of Resurrection added, the temptation was irresistible) and so Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus smothered one of the loveliest holidays of the Church with flags and parades and tanks and national anthem sap and all the other cheezy trappings of N/S patriotism.

But by the same token, the Annunciation itself was slapped by the Church onto the pre-existing observation of the Vernal Equinox (by a few days), the Persian Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz, the first day of spring, the first day of the month of Aries — with its already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning.  And fast forward nine months, exactly (she was nothing if not on-time our Pantanassa*) and we have Christ born on (or near) another Zoroastrian holiday, Yalda, which marks the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the lengthened days and the Sun’s return to our lives.  The Winter Solstice, in more ancient Iranian religion, was the birth date of the deity Mithra, often associated with the Sun, and who — guess what? — was often said to be born in a cave, of a virgin mother, and who saved the world through the sacrifice of a bull along with a whole other complex of shifting tales and myths that I’m not an expert on.

But though Mithra seemed to fade into a secondary deity in classical Sassanian Zoroastrianism, he was accepted with great fervor and enthusiasm into the highly eclectic polytheism of the late Roman world, where he was especially popular in the Roman army.  Many of the latter emperors were devout followers and there are historians that believe — seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me — that the West came close to being a Mithraic civilization instead of a Christian one.  But the Church slapped Christ’s December 25th birthday onto Mithra’s (I’m simplifying some) and that was the end of Mithraism.  Which is a bummer, because by the Second Century A.D., Mithraism had evolved, in Roman hands, into a super-butch, male virility bull-cult for an initiated military elite, all wrapped-up in the full panoply of Hermetic-Alexandrian-Astrological wisdom, where Roman officers and soldiers gathered in caves and commemorated the sacrificed bull and honored its blood  (we don’t really know what occurred because it was only for the initiated but a sacrifice and subsequent shared meal of some kind was probably involved) and Christianity is kinda — well — is kind of lacking in those kinds of thrills.  One of my best beloved Roman ancestors, Julian the Apostate (the subject of four Cavafy poems), a fascinating figure, who was both a devotee of Mithra and an initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries, tried to reverse his uncle Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the Roman state religion and give support to the traditional pagan cults, their rites, rituals and sacrifices, but it was already too late.  People just wanted their blood as metaphor by then, a shift in consciousness that has always been considered psychic or intellectual progress of some kind though — like the shift to monotheism itself — I could never quite understand why.  Those of us who still like reality better still have and have always had Spain though; that’s unless the European Union and PETA and the Catalans take their sanitary Handy-Wipes to the corrida too and that’ll be the real end.

Ah, but even then we’ll still have Mexico…

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

Mithra and the Bull, from the Vatican Museum (no other info) (click: it’s a huge and beautiful file)

What conclusions can we draw from all this?  One, is that humanity is not particularly imaginative and just kinda copies itself over and over ad infinitum.  Second, is the idea that often comes up when looking at our zone, thinking about “our parts,” more closely — and that’s the simple conclusion that everything is Persian.  Not just our food, our music or dance, our dress, our color palette, our poetic sensibility and ideas about love, but our common penchant for narrative cycles of martyrdom and rebirth (see: “Ashura 1435: a poem from Agha Shahid Ali”) and the deeper structures of our spiritual psyches.  It’s tempting; instead of the inane arguments about what’s Greek and what’s Arab and what’s Indian and what’s Turkish — everything is Persian, and be done with it.  Alexander seemed to have gotten it; shouldn’t be too hard for the rest of us.  But probably the truth lies and always will lie with Jung: and that is that all of the imaginary activity of the human unconscious operates on one, unified, symbolic grid of archetypes.

Chronia Polla to those whose namedays are today.  And signing off this post with R&B singer Lauryn Hill’s beautiful “To Zion” where the subtitle of this post comes from.  This was a song that came from her real-life experience of having to choose between having an unexpected baby and sticking with her career.  “One day…you gonna understand…”  Lyrics are below:

“To Zion”

Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said,
“Lauryn, baby use your head”
But instead I chose to use my heart

Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

How beautiful if nothing more
Than to wait at Zion’s door
I’ve never been in love like this before
Now let me pray to keep you from
The perils that will surely come
See life for you my prince has just begun
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of His grace
See I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Marching, marching
Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Beautiful, beautiful Zion
[repeat to end of song]

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

*”παντάνασσα,” pantanassa, is one of my favorite epithets for the Virgin, but whether it means “all-breathing, giver-of-breath, breath-granting” I can’t tell, nor can anybody else I know.

**Latest addendum note: Beloved dinosaur cousin — who is the always the one one should go to for these question, since he’s a monster of erudition in most fields, but especially Greek language, informs us that Pantanassa has nothing to do with breath or breathing, as many of us must assume, but: Η άνασσα είναι το θηλυκό του άνακτος (ονομαστική: άναξ), του βασιλέως (εξ ου και ανάκτορα).  “Anassa” is the feminine form of “Anax,” meaning king, same root as “Anaktora,” or palace.  So it simply means “Queen of Queens,” which is kind of disappointingly Catholic-sounding.  Speaks to a whole history of Greek and Latin vocabulary mixing itself up, replacing, re-replacing, disappearing and then appearing again, especially in titles of government or military due to initial composite character of Byzantine state structure.  I’m assuming, i.e., άνασσα was already an archaically Greek word at the time, for example, the Chairetismoi were written.

And a personal sensory note:  According to the guidelines of Orthodox fasting, which if observed carefully constitute the most elegantly designed spiritual economy of partaking and abstaining one can imagine (probably only Hinduism could produce a more intelligent  schema) — again, the guidelines, not the rules, meaning it doesn’t affect your G.P.A. at the end of term if you slip up, like if you’re Catholic — fish is considered meat, and is not eaten during Lent.  But there are festive days, essentially the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, which even in the sorrow of Lent, should be marked as Feasts, and then the eating of fish is practically obligatory.  Today in the streets of Greek neighborhoods, therefore, here in Athens or in Astoria, in apartment house corridors and restaurants, the smell of fried bacalao is all-pervasive.  One of my strongest sensory memories of Holy Week as a child is being taken to the matins for Holy Monday on Palm Sunday evening, the first of the so-called “Nymphios” or “Bridegroom” services (the reference being to Christ coming to Jerusalem for Passover and to meet his fate) and all the old women in church smelling like fish fritanga.

And a really interesting article from Wiki about “Tauroctony” or “Bull-slaying” if you’re interested in the phenomenon religio-anthropologically.  Again, the best book, that’s both an anthropology of Mediterranean bull cults and the best sociological history of Spanish bullfighting there is, is Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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