Modern Greek in Australia is at crisis point. Melbourne’s only Greek department at La Trobe University is dwindling, with the future in doubt.
Director of LOGOS Australian Centre for Hellenic Language and Culture at Flinders University, Professor Michael Tsianikas is one of the academics concerned.
“Sometimes I’m angry with myself, with everybody. How is it possible to explain that the whole of Melbourne is unable to have a proper Greek program at tertiary level? What kind of Hellenism are we if we can’t claim one important program at university level? Why are we failing so badly?”
His one explanation is of course a historical one; one that considers the significant fact that the first generation of Greeks who migrated to Australia were of the working class, not middle class, or what is also known as the educated class, which is not to say they weren’t very successful, carving a life for themselves by working hard, and acquiring their own homes, raising their families.
“But because they were not from the middle class, there was no culture around that could provide them with something of the essence of what Hellenism is,” he explains.
“Then it became just folklore; it became just to go to church for Christmas or things like that.”
While a new middle class of Greek Australians has emerged from the opportunities their parents afforded them, going on to study at university, they were henceforth enveloped into the Anglo culture, a disconnect ensuing with their Hellenic roots.
“How many of them are buying or reading a book [in Greek], or asking questions beyond the emotional thing of ‘Yes, I am Greek’?” urges Professor Tsianikas.
He says there has been a missing space, a missing opportunity for people to come together and delve deeper into their roots.
To help address this, he has launched a new Modern Greek Lecture Series at Flinders University. Open to the public and free to attend, his aim for the series is to engage a dialogue about the true essence of Hellenism.
“Every year we’re trying to organise something new regarding our teaching and research, and in particular also engaging with the community, so for this year I decided to organise a new series of public talks. I’m trying to create a community around LOGOS Centre and a learning community, to be aware that there’s a program at Flinders University and to support in a variety of ways the future existence of our program, and [to] also create opportunities for members of the community to be engaging with something Greek. But beyond the surface, if you like, of the usual things we are practising in our culture and engaging in the most challenging aspects of Greek culture, that’s the idea,” he explains.
Taking place once a month, the first lecture kicked off last month on Giorgos Seferis and his collection of poetry Mithistorima.
Published in 1935, it is considered to be one of the most significant literary outcomes of the 20th century for a combination of reasons: his exploration of the ancient Greek mythological tradition, modern Greek history, and his aim to introduce European modernism to Greece.
“Mithistorima is myth and history, so in other words he wanted to talk through his poems about ancient Greek mythology but also about modern Greek history. Poetry is always illusive so you have to think a little bit beyond and understand the context. Also 1935 is 12 or 13 years after the Asia Minor disaster, the exchange of population in 1923. Seferis was born in Asia Minor, all his life belonging to the Asia Minor tradition and culture. The third dimension of course is that he wanted to create something new in modern Greek literature, in other words to bring to Greece European modernism, in particular French poetry and French music – he was educated in France – knowing very well the European tradition and context,” he explains.
Professor Tsianikas didn’t only pick the Nobel Prize winner for this reason, but for his underlying message: “You can’t really continue into the future without thinking or discussing or engaging with your past, in particular your ancestors”.
“This is what he’s trying to do; the essence of his poetry is if we want to go ahead, if we want to continue, it’s extremely important to understand our past. We need to engage with the texts, stories, myths, to have a profound understanding of the intellectual impact, then we can be ready to continue into the future. And I think that today we can say, unfortunately, we have been unable to engage in a productive dialogue with our past. This is a modern Greek tragedy if you like.”
With his research interests including Greek Australian migration, through his exposure he says there is a lack of understanding when it comes to the essence of the Hellenic tradition, and how important it is for them and their children in their own journeys forward.
His explanation? It keeps coming back to the same premise: “We don’t know exactly who we are”.
“So I thought let’s create this new opportunity. I’m not trying to make miracles. Just once a month. I’m hoping next year to do a bit more depending on if there’s a demand, if people are interested, but I hope for the best. Later on I’m thinking of doing a bit of theatre, retreats and things like that, have philosophical discussions. Bring people together.”
The next lecture is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 8 May. For more information, visit flinders.edu.au/ehl/languages-studies/departmental-sections/modern-greek/logos/logos_home.cfm or get social at facebook.com/logoscentre
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