Furies (The Athens News)
Speaking The Mind
SINCE Socrates, the spoken word in Greek culture has been
a force to be reckoned with. Considering it superior to the
power of the written word, Plato elevated dialogue to an art,
and Socrates, his teacher, was so invested in the purity of
speech that he left no written record of his own. Perhaps
this is the genius behind the Greeks' penchant for argument,
their almost celebratory appetite for verbal sparring whether
it be in the Greek Parliament or Athenian traffic jams.
As the municipality in my neighbourhood put an end to parking
on the sidewalks along the tasteful bars that line the edges
of the streets, I watched bemused as several people stopped
and took the time in the middle of, their walking, or driving,
to variously curse or shout phrases like "where are we
going to put our cars now" It was a real question, and
one which might be left unarticulated
The Japanese writer Natsuki Ikezawa, invited by the ministry
of culture to attend a symposium called "The Greek Experience"
held in Delphi in February 2004, articulated how his experiences
in Greece had liberated him from the conditioned obedience
he had been brought up with in Japan. He called what he witnessed
"extreme individualism" and described a quarrel
in the post-office where he watched a person argue with the
teller about a rise in the price of stamps as "opera".
"I so admired that," he said with genuine good feeling.
"I admired the man's stubbornness
and refusal to accept what we in Japan would never have argued
against in public."
He continued to discuss the passion and determination by which
the Greeks had historically dealt with defeat: "They
aren't afraid to fight by themselves, " he went on.
I thought ofthe reverberations of what this continues to mean;
to be "individualist" as opposed to merely individual,
a term Janet Sarbanes coined to describe the Rebetes of Asia
Minor and the Rembetika music culture. Individualist behavior
means one makes one's presence felt, despite the odds, or
because of them.
Individualists insist on having their say, no matter the context.
After dropping off my daughter at school one morning, I made
my way to a crossroad when I became aware of a car edging
up on my right. The road narrows - before the light. It was
yellow and I was slowing down as the car on my right was speeding
up. The driver expected ine to slow down and move left' to
let her cut in front; I refused. She had to slip in behind
me if I didn't move left. She did neither.
The light turned red; we were stopped at the cross section,
her car on part of the pavement next to me. I glanced her
way and shook my head. She immediately rolled down her window.
"Three cars could fit across here," she yelled my
way. "Why not four," I answered. "Unless you
got your license at some correspondence school you would see
there's space," she continued. "I'm in my lane,"
I yelled back as the light turned green and I kept to my lane
without budging. She had to either fall
behind or run into me. She let me go, yelling, "If you
were civilized you would have made room for me!" All
the way home I kept wondering why doesn't she get it: two
lane roads are two lane roads.
It later occurred to me that from the moment she found the
space to squeeze her car in next to mine, she assumed, wrongly,
that I would respect the fact that she was there. It wasn't
about rules; it was about their insufficiency and inability
to bring equal order to unequal circumstances. It was about
the assumption that authority was fickle and fallible, that"if
you didn't take the rules
into your own individualist hands, the individual would be
literally squeezed off the road. Of course these individualist
recipes for affirming individuality could become extreme;
while dialogue didn't always create solutions, it enacted
Socrates' admonishment that the unexamined life was not worth
A policewoman stopped me for not wearing my seat belt. As
she matter-of- factly wrote out a ticket for sixty euros,
I was talking to her in a full stream beginning with the fact
that I was sorry, that I was in a rush, that we had just returned
from the island where we spent Easter, that I wasn't used
to the-traffic lights (since there were none on the island).
"These aren't reasons for not wearing your seat belt,"
she said. I went on, irrationally, "I don't see many
people wearing their seat belts. And I really can't afford
this ticket." "Do I tell you how to do your job?"
she answered, still clam.
"I'm not telling you how to do anything," I continued,
aware that I was not negotiating this well, "All my papers
are fine...I told you why I didn't have my belt on. I wasn't
thinking...I just left the supermarket..." I started
to break into English, so she answered me in English:
"In England or the United States would you be arguing