thomas m wilson

Ownership and Selfhood in Greece

September 17th, 2023

Is the image of Lord Elgin’s workmen sawing off a metope from atop the Parthenon in 1801 (see the painting below) just as bad as a shaky video of an ISIS fanatic sledge hammering an Assyrian sculpture into oblivion a few years ago?  

Not quite, as the iconoclasts, be they ancient Christian or modern Muslim, just want to destroy, whereas Elgin wanted to enjoy – and he did ultimately sell them to a public museum where they could be viewed by thousands and now today millions.  And at the time, the early 1800s, the Turks were treating the site of the Acropolis pretty badly – there were shards of the Parthenon laying around on the ground and a minaret sticking out of its roof.  However it is still pretty shocking to think of – sawing through ancient marble, the metal saw rasping against the old stone, all so that you can stick the stone slab on a sailing boat and high tail it around Spain northwards, to the damp and chilly streets of London and Burlington House.   

Lord Elgin was like so many British aristocrats – he wanted to own lots of beautiful and ancient stuff. He wanted to put said stuff in a big house.  You see it again and again, from Hertford House (today’s Wallace Collection) in London, to the Earl of Bristol’s Ickworth House in Suffolk.  A Florentine pietra dura cabinet here, a Roman sarcophagus carved from marble there, a Brueghel canvas here, a full size Greek bronze figure there.  This impulse to own was part showing off, part investing their huge wealth in objects and I’m sure also, at least in some cases, part actually appreciating beauty, craftsmanship and history. 

‘Money has reckoned the soul of [the nation]… /…all Owners, Owners! Owners! with / obsession on property and vanishing Selfhood!’ (Allen Ginsberg, from Death To Van Gogh’s Ear). The urge to own stuff can end up imprisoning you, as Ginsberg intimated in this line. Focus too much on possessions and you start forgetting about the fragile living present tense, relationships and the wild earth around you.

Since I have been a nomad in 2023, just a few clothes and a phone and a wallet, and some strong walking legs, moving across Europe, I have felt quite free.  Walking around a bend in the rocky path around a spur of the coastline on Hydra yesterday I felt free.  It was just me, moving, unencumbered.  Objects didn’t own me, or drag my motion through the world.  An externally imposed routine didn’t own me either.        

It is possible to be at the mercy of one’s possessions.  Being a nomad, being a traveller, can liberate you from this tyranny of things.  Walking, free, and unencumbered by possessions.  Walking yourself happy. 

What should we think of Lord Elgin’s sawing off the sculptures of the Parthenon, and the urge to pillage and hoard beauty and tangible history that many rich English chaps have followed through on over the centuries? This question is usually answered in terms of should the sculptures be returned to Greece by the British Museum, and that is a valid topic, but I am obviously focusing on a different aspect of the subject.  I think that being obsessed with owning and hoarding nice stuff in your big English country house, or even your modern apartment, can get in the way of living.  It can be an obstacle to enjoying the fragile, living moment.  All we get in this life are a finite number of living moments, and then we disappear from the earth forever, like the Venerable Bede’s swallow flying into the warm mead-hall and out another door in an instant. Of course many of us enjoy owning nice stuff. Freud was a man who hoarded nice antiquities.  Bruce Chatwin the nomad renounced his former life selling nice stuff for Sotherby’s and extolled the virtue of moving lightly as a nomad.  

For a long time I thought that it is perhaps good to remember the way of the Bedu of Arabia – rich in space and relationships (ok they liked to have a few camels too!).  That way of thinking makes you younger I felt and gives you more possibilities in life. I am interested in history and art, but like Chatwin and others, I am wary of the way stuff can come to own you.

Sawing off and lowering down a sculptural metope from the Parthenon, directed by Lord Elgin in 1801 (watercolour by Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi). Vandal or conservator, perhaps he was also another English aristocrat at the mercy of his urge to possess.
The Acropolis Museum. In the foreground left you can see the lighter coloured statues from the pediment have had to be copied in plaster as the originals are in London.
The Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora. I was standing in front of it the other evening and a memory of standing in the countryside in the north of England a very long time ago came to me…
Belsay Hall, Northumberland. This was built from 1810 to 1817 thanks to Sir Charles Monck and his love of what he had seen of the ancient world in his travels in Greece. This is what I had been remembering that other evening. This English house was indeed inspired by the temple I saw in the agora. Monck saw it on his honeymoon in Athens and had to own what he loved (but perhaps architecturally he was also in later years enjoying the experience of what he owned…)
In the Agora you can walk up the Panathenaic Way, the path up which wound the procession in honour of the Goddess Athena that is commemorated on the frieze of the Parthenon. What you see on the frieze in stone you can imagine on this road in your head, bulls lowing and snorting on their way to be sacrificed, men on foot struggling with heavy amphoras, men on horse back with capes drapped over their shoulders. This path leads up to the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the Acropolis. Today, if you stand on a hill near the Acropolis and look over to the Propylaea at about 10am you will see a thick crowd of tourists processing up the steps. Perhaps the beast they are leading up be sacrificed today is the spirit of any charm left in the ruins.
The Pynx, where the Athenian Assembly met 10 times a year, and democracy took place 2600 years ago. Pericles gave orations from the bema, the raised stone you see in the centre. I stood on this stone and imagined being an orator all those years ago… This semi-circular area before me on Pynx hill was empty on a Saturday morning while hundreds were already queuing for the Acropolis on the hill next door. The history of democracy is, perhaps, less amenable to an Instagram post or a ‘bucket-list’ item.

I was on Hydra on Friday, a mountainous island a couple of hours south of Athens on a ferry.  The outrageous sum of $126 AU dollars for the ferry trip indicates that Hydra these days is for the rich, not for the bohemian poets and song writers it hosted in the 1960s.  There was a cruise ship in full of wealthy and overweight Americans and the crowds on the dock were thick.  All of that said, I still managed to walk away from the town along the coast and after a few kms I found a stretch of rocky coastline dropping into deep blue water and went for a swim, blessedly alone, free from the mass that has surrounded me of late.  

And in the late afternoon I bought a beer from a supermarket and sat on the dock, down a few steps by the fishing boats were tourists don’t go, and dangled my feet in the cool sea water and looked up at the scene of Hydra town.  The white cube-like houses hug the dramatically rising bay’s slopes, creating a kind of amphitheatre, topped by arid hills, stones and bushes.  A stone tower of a church rises in neoclassical elegance to the right in the front row of buildings along the quay.  Brightly painted little fishing boats float in the water in the immediate foreground.  It is a beautiful scene.  The shadows of the lengthening sun fall over me and bring relief from the thirty degree heat of mid September.  I feel a warm beneficence to the world, the water gentle on my skin, the human settlement so pleasingly nestled into the land, a sense of uplift from seeing the powerful, rocky mountains above, my walking over. I rest and feel the freedom from care and mild cheerfulness that a cold beer brings one’s perspective. A pleasing symphony of elements that a Greek island without cars can bring.  My selfhood is restored.


September 14th, 2023

I have come to Athens, my final port of call in my journey south across Europe. I sit in my room on the big green park, Pedion tou Areos, and look out of the window and see canopy, and beyond that, arid yet green hills. Of course I should add that: in all other directions I am hemmed by the concrete jumble and cacophony of traffic that is 2023 Athens, and my window is firmly closed to stop the sound of traffic from overwhelming me.

I leave Europe in a few days, and start my journey home to Australia. I have had moments of beauty and pleasure living in Europe this year, but also moments of loneliness. In Moby Dick, when the sea captain Ahab is old and grey and tired, tired of the chase, he turns to the character Starbuck and says: ‘stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky […] By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and child in thine eye’. As for Starbuck, now is the time for me to forego hazard. Ahab could see home in the human eye, and he could have been looking into mine.

Greece – that beautiful country that is sometimes sullied by the architectural and auditory manifestations of its capital.  The Agora and the Temple of the Winds area and on top and on the south side of the Acropolis are parts of what redeems Athens as a city.  Walking in these places early or late in the day without the crowds reminds one of classical greatness and the beauty of old Greece.  Sometimes I think of Greek society as I felt about ancient Rome and modern Italy. Antiquity bears little relationship or apparent continuity with the loud, cigarette puffing societies of the present. 

This morning I was sitting upstairs in the Stoa of Attalos in the Agora.  It was cool and quiet.  What a relief after what is more common at the moment in Athens – thirty degrees and loud crowds and roaring motorbike engines.  I felt cool and spacious, stone under foot and soaring heights up to the ceiling.  The feeling of spaciousness and tranquility that a stoa gives you on a sunny Mediterranean morning is a balm.  We should replicate it at with a huge building at UWA.  But of course no contemporary architect or university administrator would consider such an idea.  This building was put up in the 1950s century with money from American benefactors (for example John Rokefeller gave a million US). 

This stoa is a faithful reproduction of the stoa that was here in the time of the Stoics. When you are here you are wandering in a large open portico where those same philosophers and their school of wisdom take their very name. Zeno of Citium for example, may have walked here, the man who started this school. Stoic philosophy taught methods to reduce negative emotions such as fear and anger in life, and maximise positive emotions such as joy. I consider Stoicisim as one of the major contributions of Western civilisation to answering the question: How should we live? For proof I recommend reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Braxton Irvine (2008), or How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci (2017).

As I sat there this morning, immediately ahead of me was about ten metres of stone floor, ending in a row of Ionic columns and a few hundred metres from the balcony I could see the Temple of Hephaestus.  All was quiet.  No tourists to be seen for the minute thank god.  The Temple and the stoa and the agora slept in the sun of a September morning.  Ancient and peaceful. 

Stoa of Attolos in the Athenian agora, reconstructed by 1956.

Another place I often take shelter from the noise and air pollution of scruffy and chaotic Athens – the courtyard of the National Archeological Museum.
On the road in a bus along the coast, destination Sounion on the tip of Attica.
Are these the most beautifully situated Doric columns in the world, standing against the wind, high above the hills and the sea? The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.
The Temple of Poseidon just after the sun has slipped beneath the horizon (I have craftily edited out the crowds of onlookers in the foreground).
Back in Athens, this cat must be a world famous celebrity, laying photogenically in the slipstream of thousands of tourists on the south side of the Acropolis.
Seeing all of the classical sculpture and architecture behind neat rope fences it is easy to forget that much of this was once combined with the magic and adventure of discovery. Imagine standing in this group as one of the most important Greek bronze statues ever found was being dug up in 1896: The Charioteer of Delphi.
The original statue, as I saw it and photographed it in September 2022, at Delphi. The expression is of concentrated attention mixed with pride at the anticipation of victory.
The charioteer at Delphi, reproduced in the Arts Department of the University of Western Australia, half a world away. Perhaps the expression of concentrated attention, sustained effort and an anticipated pride at victory that this statue communicates to the viewer was intended to reflect an ideal for university students everywhere to follow.
Escaping modern Greece and its broken pavements and noisy streets, you can climb up to the high city, the Acropolis, and be lifted into the ancient beauty of Antiquity at sunset. Millions of people do it, and they are right to do so.


September 8th, 2023

IN THE LATE nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun. In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion, and wit was a form of currency. Reading about old Vienna now, you are taken back to a time that should come again: a time when education was a lifelong process. You didn’t complete your education and then start your career. Your education was your career, and it was never completed. For generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind-workers of every type, the Vienna café was a way of life. […] Most, though not all, of the café population was Jewish, which explains why the great age of the café as an informal campus abruptly terminated in March 1938, when the Anschluss wrote the finish—finis Austriae, as Freud put it—to an era (from Cultural Amnesia by Clive James, 2007).

Reading James’ words made me more sympathetic towards Vienna than I would otherwise have been. And for years I had known it was the city of Wittgenstein and Freud and Klimt and plenty of other intellectuals and artists. But that was years ago and this is now.

Having just made a brief visit to the city I found it a smallish and architecturally dignified city north of the Alps. Not a world capital.

Yet it was. Vienna was the third largest city in Europe in the nineteenth century, after London (the biggest by far) and then Paris.  Apparently Freud used to walk along the Ringstrasse to clear his head after a long evening’s writing.  I walked there too, and enjoyed the tree lined boulevard lined with late nineteenth century neoclassical Parliament, neogothic Rathaus, and Renaissance Kunst history museum.  On my first afternoon in Vienna I actually made it into the Kunst history museum with an old friend who moved here from Brazil several years ago.  We walked to the room upstairs full of paintings by Brueghel.  I stood in front of his Tower of Babel for a while.  In this painting a huge tower is being built but it is falling apart in area – symbolising that the monoglot truth of humanity is crumbling into polyglot tribes. Perhaps this is a good symbol for the present state of the West as we become more stridently polarised on a political and cultural level. And I also stood in front of Brueghel’s The Peasant Wedding painting – the one I see when I visit two friends in Fremantle where a reproduction hangs on their wall.  It is a good reminder of the humanity of people long ago in north-western Europe being individual personalities with individual stories and dramas played out in their own time, in the 1500s.  In ways that still play out today, in different clothes, and with different material and technological environments, but otherwise with many of the same impulses and qualities stemming from a deeper human nature. 

Vienna is a pretty city.  Clean, full of caryatids on nineteenth century facades, and has very civilized koffee haus culture where you can find a table, get a newspaper and order your cup of coffee and slice of strudel and while away the afternoon.  It has the ghost of the House of the Habsburgs lingering in it.  You see this ghost atop the Hofburg in the shape of a two headed eagle in carved stone.  The konig of Hungry looks one way, and the emperor of Austria looks the other, a two headed overlord. At the end of the line this overlord was a whiskered and side-burned Franz Joseph.  The self-importance of this monarchs took a beating as in 1848 Europe was erupting with a rash of republican uprisings. And as the great buildings in stone went up on the Ringstrasse in Vienna the Austro-Hungarian Empire already had its days numbered.  These buildings try to assert something that wouldn’t last.

If you want to see a good reproduction of a classical temple wander around the Austrian parliament building.
The ‘father of history’, Herodotus, even sits in front of the parliament.
One of the less tourist crammed coffee houses in the city, Café Bräunerhof, provides an oasis of calm to retreat with a coffee and a paper (very expensive coffee and cake even here).
The Strauss memorial only went up in the Stadtpark in 1921. I had to come here and pay my respects.
Surely no other city in the world has this number of caryatids holding up its facades?
The ghost of the Habsburgs lingers and looms in Vienna (outside the Hofburg, the winter palace).
Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 1567 ‘The Peasant Wedding’, a tangle of human stories, like any wedding party today.

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