In your 1978 text I Am Dying Like a Country, you talk about a nation which disappears to the point where it loses its name and its history. How do you feel about the current plight of Greece?
Dimítris Dimitriádis: Obviously it’s quite a strange feeling. I wrote I am dying... 35 years years ago, when the country had emerged from the regime of the colonels. It was a period that was full of hope, promise and prosperity. It was my personal situation of absolute solitude that prompted the writing of the text which took the form of a parable about a country that dies because it refuses to accept its own transience, and is hostile to other identities — a country which has felt under siege for 1,000 years, which cannot accept what it calls the enemy, and is unable to see that the "enemy" is the prospect of its own future. Greece is characterised by a sort of stagnation, and an unchanging mentality: we stick with our old psychological and social habits, our lives are sustained by a dead tradition, which we never think of renewing.
It is a very serious problem: Greece, which is by nature the most historical of countries, has become stuck in the mechanism of history. That is the reason for the current impasse: everything that we are talking about, this great Greek heritage to which we lay claim, has been petrified in the form of clichés and stereotypes. This is nothing new: for some time now, Greece has been living in the light of a dead star. What I felt 35 years ago is even more pronounced today: the “crisis” will not be resolved without a genuine raising of historical awareness, which implies a recognition that something has died, so that a new birth can take place. As the poet T.S. Eliot put it: "In my end is my beginning" — but you have to say when the end happens.
So the cause of the crisis is historical rather than political or economic?
Yes, although I don’t deny the economic and political dimensions. But you cannot say it enough: the political system under which we live in Greece, which dates back to the Ottoman occupation (and is thus several centuries old), is completely clientelist. The big landowners of times past have been replaced by the political parties, but they have the same relationship to the people. The state belongs to the party, and the party utilises and exploits state resources to maintain its systems of patronage.
You say “the” party, but since the end of the dictatorship in 1974, power has changed hands a number of times in Greece...
Yes, of course. Constantin Caramanlis’ New Democracy emerged after the fall of the colonels, but from the late 1970s, it has really been the so-called socialist party of Andreas Papandreou, Pasok, which ruled Greece. These two major parties, one supposedly right-wing and the other supposedly left-wing, both function in the same way, but you should know that Pasok pushed the clientelist system to the absolute limit, pillaging state resources and all of the funds from the European Union. Money belonging to the state was appropriated for the party treasury, which, for example, allowed for the creation of numerous fake jobs. And the fact that all of this is still ongoing has played a major role in the economic catastrophe that we are facing: the system has run out of steam because there are no more resources. At the same time, it so profoundly rotten that there is no possibility of progress. All of this is the reason why I am saying that the country is already dead, and we should accept that so we can sweep it away and make a fresh start. That is what I mean by historical awareness.
You are calling for major moral effort. But do you think such a call can be heard at a time when people are suffering more and more, both materially and psychologically? Won’t the bid to maintain a minimum standard of living take precedence over other considerations?
It is true that day-to-day life in Greece has become almost unbearable. But from time to time, as a person who is exposed to this daily grind and one who suffers like everyone else, I tell myself that the Europeans are right to want to punish the country. I find myself thinking that they should not be lenient, because the truth is that the Greek people are also to blame: they have lived with a facility and a frivolity that has led them to accept all of these arrangements.
I often have the impression that a form of vulgarity, of coarseness, has taken over our country. You can see it in a certain way of laughing, for example, that is absolutely ghastly: it is a laugh, which as the monk in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose explains, deforms a human face and makes it ugly... I am not saying that I would like people to cry, but that particular kind of laugh indicates a kind of insouciance that is intolerable.
So if I sometimes say to myself that I would like Europe to punish Greece, it is because we are really suffocating. What you see from the inside is a people that are certainly suffering, because they have to endure the consequences of widespread corruption, but a people that cannot be cast as victims: our politicians are in every sense representative of the people. This deplorable mentality I am talking about is prevalent in the entire population, and I should say that it is not only found in Greece: you can draw a lot of parallels with other populations, notably with Italy and Poland...
So what should be done to achieve this profound change?
Right now, it seems almost utopian. Under current conditions, the idea of a new civilisation is a dream that has more to do with the world of art than it does with reality. That is the main contribution of art and literature: invention. As Cornelius Castoriadis has shown, all of the great inventions, like democracy and tragedy, have emerged from a specific historic reality. That is why we should ask ourselves if democracy, which was invented in Antiquity, can still function.
Perhaps the time has come to invent a new way of governing ourselves... I am thinking of the poem that Günter Grass recently wrote about Greece: it is called The Shame of Europe, and was published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 25 May. It begins like this: "You are far from the country that was your cradle..." For me, it is a bad poem — ultimately superficial, because it speaks of Greece as the "cradle" of our civilisation. You have to understand that the cradle has become a tomb. But the tomb can once again become a cradle... In the past, misfortune and catastrophe have always offered humanity an opportunity to renew its strength and to develop new civilisational models. There is no reason to believe that this process cannot continue.
Playwright, novelist and translator
A native and a resident of Thessaloniki, Dimítris Dimitriádis (b. 1944) is a playwright, essayist, poet and also the translator of a large number of authors including Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Marguerite Duras. He is the author of several novels and close to three dozen plays including I Am Dying like a Country, which has been widely translated and performed in several countries.