Self-consciousness in Greek Society

Today I experienced one of the great tragedies in a writer’s life:  I irretrievably lost a piece of work.  In the midst of a busy morning I sat down to write a blog post – this same post, in fact – and it flowed out as if dictated by the whisper of a departed poetic soul.  I read it over afterwards and it was just the way I wanted it.  I saved it, I thought, and even backed it up on another drive.  A few minutes later I wanted to add a word or two, but when I clicked on the file it came up empty.  I ran a “restore previous versions” search unsuccessfully.  Gone.  It was gone for good.  I had a sinking, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach and wondered if I would ever be able to recreate it.  I wondered why it had happened for a long time.

This is my second attempt to deal with the subject, and I must emphasize that the above story has nothing directly to do with the subject itself – but then again, you never know.  Life, and especially what life means, the reason for it all, is ephemeral at best.  Who knows why things happen?

To business, then.  I have been acutely aware as I finish up my Greek memoir and prepare it for publication that much has been left out:  much that I observed, much that I experienced.  There is no possibility of being comprehensive.  Even a lifetime spent here would not suffice.  Even a small part of a life spent anywhere has so many offshoots, side stories, influences, variegations, each of which have their own subplots and motivations and so on – there is no end to it.  But I want to touch on this one more facet of Greek culture because it is below the surface, perhaps not noticeable at all by the casual visitor, but it strikes to the core of the Greek psyche and spirit, and for a native Greek is a powerful influence on all of life’s decisions, both major and minor.

The Greeks are a very self-conscious people.  By this I mean that they are intensely aware of others watching them, and also intently watch others.  The big cities have grown exponentially in recent decades; more than half of the population of the city of Thessaloniki, for example, came from a village either in this generation or the previous one.  It’s a village attitude, really.  Everyone knows what everyone else is doing.  Everyone knows that everyone knows what everyone else is doing.  Therefore in every decision that is made you have to take this into account.  You would think that the vastness of a big city would negate or dilute this attitude, that in a big city the sheer size of the population would enable people to disappear into the crowd, to become nonentities, but it is not so.  The high-rises that have sprouted up everywhere have become microcosms of village life.  Everyone watches everyone else.  There is no getting away from it.  The attitude is all-pervasive.

This was brought home to me as I conversed with my colleagues at the language school, highly intelligent women with dreams and hopes and desires who are nevertheless shackled by fear of what others will think and say.  Many young men and women nowadays leave home and live on their own, but they are nevertheless not free.  They long to be free; they moved out of their parents’ homes to be free, but they are bound by this peeping-tom spirit, the feeling that they are accountable to their neighbors and other casual acquaintances.

The same situation applies on a national scale.  It is true that everywhere in the world celebrities and politicians and other well-known figures are subject to public scrutiny, invasive paparazzi, creative ridicule.  But here it is the village spirit again, as if all of Greece were one huge village and the celebrities the town fools.  Should a public figure say the wrong word, or go out with the wrong person, or slip on a banana peel and fall flat on his or her face, the media instantly picks up on it and it is all over the nation.  It is on morning, afternoon, and evening talk shows, as well as prime time news programs.  It is shown in slow motion, fast motion, intercut with cartoons and old movie clips and outlandish sound effects.  The person is ruthlessly pilloried, scorned, judged, upbraided, psychically tarred-and-feathered.  There is no mercy and no end to it until the next scandal catches the public and media eye and replaces the current one.

That is what people fear, albeit on a smaller scale.  They fear the censure; they fear becoming anathema.  And this has a very real inhibiting effect on young people.  It causes them to become timid and traditional instead of bold and innovative.  And if the young people are afraid to step out and effect change, the country will stagnate, nay, even decay.  That is what has been happening for so long that people are not even aware any longer that it is so, but the young languish, as does the country and culture.  There is a vital need for people, young or old but with young minds and hearts, to rise up and think free thoughts and give those thoughts expression in word and deed.  But there is so much to overcome, so much weight of centuries.  Many Greek young people I have met are brilliant, and if their brilliance were allowed to shine it would have a dynamic positive effect on the society, government, and culture.  My fervent hope is that somehow in some way this brilliance will shine forth like the blazing sun rising on a summer morning, signaling a new dawn.

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