Greek tragedy calls to mind Ireland’s patriarchal ‘lies of silence’
Greece Letter: True story of a woman buried alive has parallels with Irish horrors
A shrine at the site of the Tuam babies graveyard. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo/Reuters
I recently interviewed Dimitra Trypani, a Greek composer whose work focuses on the wounds, melancholy, confusion, fear and instability that humans inflict on one another and – perhaps more importantly – on themselves, in a society that she sees as still dominated by patriarchal values and procedures of gender identity.
Trypani, who teaches at the Ionian University in Corfu, is interested in “violence as the emotional condition of man. Physical force is the power that leads to brutality. It is much deeper in our species than religion or culture, because it emanates from an archetypal belief fuelled by the fear that creates tensions”.
Trypani’s new work, Amíliti (The Silent One) is based on a true story dating from the 1840s in the Mani peninsula, in the south of Greece’s Peloponnese, and was related to Trypani by her grandfather. A girl, Miliá, who was alleged to be “impure” on her wedding night, was returned to her family. She was condemned by her father and five brothers to be buried alive, in order to cleanse the family of their dishonour.
“I have had this project in mind for many years, since it belongs to my family background and has been a memory related by my family through the generations,” says Trypani. At the back of the story is the ubiquitous patriarchal control of community and the brutal practices that may be adopted to control gender identity. This patriarchal control was prevalent in rural areas in particular; similar types of violence may occur less often in modern society but it is still typical of the male-female dichotomy.
Lies of silence
As Trypani speaks, I am reminded of the “lies of silence” that shroud phenomena in Ireland such as the Magdalene laundries and the Tuam home babies. In every case, this silence hides a mindset in which “buried alive” becomes a metaphor for the kind of wounds that fascinate Trypani – wounds that, in effect, society inflicts on itself.
Hearing Trypani speak of the silence that enfolds the story of Miliá, the unspoken “libretto” of desperate thoughts, I recall Freud’s definition of the “uncanny”: he speaks of an element that “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light, something which is familiar and old-established in the mind”. The definition of the uncanny perfectly describes the disturbance that shakes society – whether in a Greek or an Irish tragedy – when the secret and hidden start to make their presence felt.
Freud adds that “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced”. This is Trypani’s intention in Amílti: to introduce into the “reality” of the story her own imaginative response to her family’s remembering and forgetting, and thus to re-create a new reality, a new story.
This same narrative pertains in Ireland, as decades of secrecy – which Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently called “the very dark part of our history” – are stripped away. Due to Survivors’ Stories, an oral history project at UCD, curated by Emilie Pine and Criostóir Mac Cárthaigh, those who were “buried alive” due to institutional abuse have now become articulate.
Like Trypani’s Silent One, their stories are now in the public domain, accessible to all of us who want to assess the damage that can be caused by neglect, prejudice, fear or sheer brutality. The winding-up of the Survivors’ Stories project by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone at UCD on May 16th is not a closure but, like the curtain-up on Trypani’s Amíliti, an opening of the book of memory, an exhumation.
In the words of Czeslaw Milosz, “it is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds”. Trypani’s work focuses on the darkness of those who are emotionally wounded. The tectonic plates of truth and untruth, of the said and the silent, meet in the burial in Mani, as they do in the gardens of Tuam and Letterfrack.
The father and brothers in Amíliti are wounded in their psyche as much as the buried girl, because they realise that they themselves have become emotionally dead through their terminal deed. The terrible nature of this deed is the humus of their own graves.
Trypani’s new work is significant for the same reason as Survivors’ Stories: they still have a powerful emotional resonance within our modern-day consciences. Her work articulates that which has not yet been spoken, that which has been consigned to a silence that conventional wisdom decrees is its proper place. Secrecy, forgetting and silence are woven into the fabric of politics, in Greece as in Ireland.
Amíliti will have its premiere at the Paxos Festival in September and transfers to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, Athens, in October