The Aegean in the Greek Literature of the 20th century

1. The framework

The way in which the Aegean landscape was used in Modern Greek literature of the 20th century is, to a large extent, connected to historical developments in the area and the particular importance it gained within this framework. More specifically, the quest for “Greekness” within the framework of a more generalized questioning during the Greek mid-war period, the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the influx of refugees into Greece, the nostalgia for “lost fatherlands”, the necessity for a readjustment of ideological references and collective representations, the change of circumstances brought about by the II World War, the homogenization of “natives” and “refugees” within new national boundaries and, finally the rise of tourism as a source of wealth for the country, were the most important historical factors which formed the conditions for the incorporation and use of the Aegean landscape in literature.

2. Literature of the ‘30s Generation

The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the intense experiences the uprooting caused both to the displaced populations and to the populations who experienced its affects at the areas of reception formed the starting point for the involvement of Modern Greek literature with the Aegean as an area both real and symbolic. The “Aeolian school”, the literary movement formed at the end of the 1920s and mainly at the beginning of the 1930s, was the first to concentrate on the Aegean as an area symbolic of Hellenism. Elias Venezis, Stratis Doukas and Stratis Myrivilis all had personal experiences of the Northeastern Aegean area: the two first came from Ayvalik and the third from Mytilini. The events they describe in their works evolve within the area of raw realism, without however doubting the functionality of the traditions of Greek rural life. In this way, they differentiate themselves from their western European counterparts and define the particular course of Greek modernism. Their stories deal with war and forced displacement, the difficult condition faced by people in their struggle for survival. Their shift towards a conciliation of the experiences of a contemporary social reality and their attempt to manage the traumatic experience of uprooting is in line with the equivalent tendencies of European modernism, which was gradually abandoning ethnography in favour of a more socially orientated literature. The veneration of the landscape and tradition is, within this framework, the way Greek writers (but also other types of artists), chose in order to secure the uniqueness of their approach in relation to the broader European trend. The novels Life in the Tomb (1930), and The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes (1933), by Stratis Myrivilis, The Number 31328 (1931) and Peacefulness (1939), by Elias Venezis, and the novelette A Prisoner of War’s Story (1929) by Stratis Doukas, come under this framework. Statis Doukas, in A Prisoner of War’s Story, becomes the advocate for the use of testimony as a literary method. He removed from his work the face of the author and based the entire novel on the narration of the adventures by a survivor of the Catastrophe. It is said that in order to preserve the work’s verbal qualities, he did not write it himself but dictated it to his cousin.

In these works, the Aegean is as much a real area within which the stories take place, as well as a symbolic space: it is the sea which once joined Greek communities and which now forms the boundaries of Hellenism, the sea which brought the refugees to Greece and separates them from the “lost fatherlands”.

3. Post-war poetry

The first period of involvement with the Aegean was followed by the rise of Odysseas Elytis as the “poet of the Aegean” – not in the sense of the nature-loving poet who sees the sea and the islands through the eyes of a tourist, but in the sense of a person who sees moral forces in natural elements, who reads the Aegean at a transcendental, metaphysical level. His works Orientations and mainly Axion Esti, are odes to the Aegean landscape and the way in which it has affected its inhabitants’ psyche. “Greekness” in this sense, is an object of negotiation by a number of poets of the 1930s, particularly in their post-war works. Giannis Ritsos and George Seferis concerned themselves intensely with the subject of the Aegean, in the sense of a symbolic landscape immersed and at harmony with the history and psyche of Hellenism. Ritsos’ Romiosyni, Seferis’ Strophe and Deck Diaries, are characteristic examples of this trend in poetry. It is characteristic that the language used by these poets is tainted by ecclesiastical undertones, or at least it borrows from the orthodox and byzantine tradition and folk songs, and at the same time it makes references to the ancient Greek inheritance, concentrating in this way all phases of Greek history. Thus, the Aegean, as a microcosm and as a whole is identified with Greece. From henceforth, it becomes synonymous of Greekness.

4. Poetry set to music

The consolidation of the Aegean as a symbol of Greekness moved into popular culture through music. From the beginning of the 1960s and with the emergence of Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis, the verses of Seferis, Ritsos, Elytis and Gatsios were set to music and became known to the broad public. It is no accident that even today, Axion Esti by Theodorakis – Elytis is considered by many, the epitome of Greekness.

At the same time, the “new wave” music movement, which appeared around the middle of the 1960s alongside its French equivalent, provided idealized images of the Aegean within a low-key climate of youthful sensitivity and companiable – erotic atmosphere.