Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Oneiric Effect

The 'Oneiric Effect'

I'd like to qualify this before I begin that I view myself as a Greek-Australian. I'm proud of both identities and comfortable with saying so. I'm not overly patriotic but interested in both cultures – the whole dual identity issue doesn't phase me at all. I've read Seferis, Elytis, Kazantzakis, Psellus and Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Homer (etc); I enjoy Greek music: rembetika, smyrneika, Haris Alexiou, Dalaras, Bithikotsis, Melina Kana, Papazoglou, Lidakis and Malamas (once again the list would go on). I like speaking and hearing Greek.

As for the Australian side: I write in English;  I don't mind saying 'goodaye'; I'm a huge West Coast Eagles fan in the AFL; I follow cricket; and I laughed non stop during The Castle. I care about our nation and who we vote for. I love Whitlam, admire Fraser, adore Perth and wish I could save all of Australia's unique flora and fauna. Go Bob Brown!

So having qualified that I'm proud of both cultures - and not in the nationalistic sense of saying that either are superior to the myriad of other cultures out there - I'd like to post about the 'oneiric effect'.

Often migrants from non-Anglo-Saxon/Celtic backgrounds cling to traditions and values of the eras and countries they migrated from. We often hold ideals of the Motherland/Fatherland being a dreamlike place, where things are purer, people better, the culture superior. For the sake of this slap-dash post, I'm calling this the 'oneiric effect' - there's probably a more formal term out there already in use (but that would require research and this isn't that type of blog) - and as 'oneiro' means 'dream' in Greek it felt for me an apt way to describe it. The oneiric effect often places ethnic communities in a time-warp. Not a complete time-warp but one where things are moving much slower than the state the Motherland is in.

There is a poignancy and beauty in the need to cling to a past that has actually moved on. I know many people in Australia who use Greek words long extinct in the modern vernacular; I know of  traditions that even second, third and forth generation Greeks hold at weddings that have vanished from much of their Fatherland, the Patrida.

With the ease these days of electronic communication this effect will lessen over time but it will still maintain some thin presence. It's both sad and touching; there are dollops of pothos and pathos here. I'm mentioning all this because Neal Ascherson  (in his history Black Sea - the Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism - a brilliant work) mentions a story which resonated with me with its depiction of a culture under the full oneiric effect.

Dio Chrysostom (a Greek in the Roman period) was a travelling philosopher and arrived in a dying Greek town of Olbia - on the Black Sea. It was a town of now only 3000, which once had been a vibrant city of 30-50000 people. In the surrounding countryside lived the peoples of the steppe, the nomadic Scythians. Dio had come from the Motherland, so to speak, the modern world and in this largely ruined city he found a people, the Olbians, clinging to a Hellenic culture from a few hundred years ago. This to me is the extreme form of the oneiric effect: distance and isolation in a community clinging to and attempting to maintain the cultural 'superiority' of the motherland.

Dio thought the place odd. Here beards were still worn in an ancient Hellenic fashion, while in Dio's Greece, shaggy beards were no longer all the rage. A handsome young man on horseback on recognising that Dio hailed from the distant Fatherland, boasted to Dio of his Hellenism: his feats of bravery, his interest in philosophy and his many male lovers. While in the Greece of Dio's time, the poetry now concentrated on the beauty of women.

In Olbia, they still all sat down in an archaic fashion outside the Temple of Zeus to hold their debates. Olbians loudly boasted that they knew Homer by heart (can't be a bad thing) yet their Greek was antiquated and poorly accented and the city in ruins. They also wore Scythian clothing and had in turn been influenced from the 'foreign' surrounds. They were like some ethnic communities: both more traditional but also naturally influenced by their region too despite their attempts not to be.

The Olbians in alien lands clung to archaisms in an Hellas long since gone. And although the oneiric effect occurs in our own present day society, not much in our modern wired era of communication compares to Olbia - except in a few rare pockets nearing extinction.

Although, I occasionally feel nostalgic for the Hellas of my grandparents and great grandparents, I realise that times change, culture changes, and that today's world may be growing in terms of population but it is certainly growing smaller on most other accounts. Our global technologically-powered proximity means that the oneiric effect will continue to be diminished too.

The Olbian tale is, nevertheless, touching; and for history buffs, Neal Ascherson's Black Sea, The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism is well worth a read.

No comments:

Post a Comment