Greece Letter: Economic woe gives way to pervasive uncertainty

A subtle and unpleasant idea has taken root that nothing whatever makes sense anymore

Last month I attended a conference in Athens on music and national identity. There have been three in five years. We should have them in Ireland.

Creating a sense of citizenship in Greece was very similar to Ireland's cultural nationalism before independence: the arts could provide a vehicle for the promotion of self-awareness and self-esteem, a means of expressing difference – Greece as the other mind of Europe.

Today, the same anxiety fuels Greek composers as it did in the 1800s and 1900s: how to be both Greek and European, how to join a new club without leaving the old one.

In the days when Greece was anxious to join the then-EEC, prime minister Kostas Karamanlis announced: "We belong to the West". That has been a matter of dispute since the war of independence (1821-30), whether in music, literature, economics or politics. West, East or both?

The composer who agonised over this more than most was Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949), who exhibited the same ambivalence as Ireland's Seán Ó Riada. Indigenous folk music was the essence of Greekness, but the western musical tradition was a compelling avenue towards internationalism.

One of the features of the Athens conference was a discussion of whether Skalkottas successfully married these rival musical traditions.

East or West

Many Greeks say that in culture, politics and economics, the attempt to be western and European has been unsuccessful, especially because this has required a transfer of submission from


in the east to Brussels in the west.

Have the past 185 years been wasted? Has Greece failed to make that vital marriage between competing traditions? And, if it has failed, has it also failed to create a viable state that can be both European and essentially Greek?

The current left-wing Syriza government is raising those questions, as well as hackles in Brussels. The many terrorist groups active in Greece certainly question the authority of the state. And sceptics, both within and outside the euro camp, debate whether Greece can hold it together on terms that satisfy both the taskmasters in Brussels and the voters at home.

In January, citizens voted for change knowing that it would precipitate this kind of debate: what it means to be Greek and where the country is going. Syriza was welded together from disparate parties of the left. Their motives were a thirst for change and a thirst for the power that would enable them to effect change.

The need to remain in power is the superglue that holds together this rainbow coalition. But the need to re-establish self-esteem and self-determination is splitting the Syriza management. Hardliners will soon resign if Greece capitulates to European demands.

The desperation caused by economic woes has been bad enough, but it has also given way to something worse: a pervasive uncertainty. It isn’t simply a case of “can Greece balance the books?” or “is the country bankrupt?”. It’s a much more subtle and unpleasant idea that nothing whatever makes sense any more, that absolutely no one has any answers because no one understands – or even remembers – the questions.

Which is worse, hopelessness or uncertainty? At least if you’re hopeless, you know where you stand. There seems little possibility of the present uncertainty being resolved. Even if Greece survives the problem of zero cash liquidity, Brussels will continue to pressure it for reforms in the name of efficiency. Many Greeks, knowing the effects of austerity, will continue to resent interference and resist moved towards standardisation.

Used to austerity

Greeks are used to austerity – and I don’t mean today’s financial hardships. Over millennia, the climate and the physical environment have bred a people inured to the harshness of life.

The word austerity is actually classical Greek: austirotis, meaning "roughness", from which we get the modern austirotita, meaning "severity", "austerity", "stringency", "rigour".

Since 1821, Greece has been a tragedy waiting to happen: a predictable future that keeps on happening. In this sense, austerity long predates the current economic woes – Greece was bankrupt at least three times in the 19th and 20th centuries. The money economy merely brought a new dimension to the idea of being subject to the dangerous elements of land and sea, the unrelenting summer heat, and almost unbearable winter cold and torrential rain.

Today’s Greeks carry forward into modern life that submission to the elements. They simply call it “fate”. Their resilience is exhibited in the springtime of seed-sowing and the autumn of reaping. But the new conditions have introduced factors that they do not understand and cannot cope with. They encourage desperate measures for desperate situations. There is no destiny in destitution.

Greeks often display their feelings belligerently in the belief that they can alter things. But this time, they may realise they are defeated. I see in their faces a resilient sadness. Or should that be a sad resilience?