Emperor Ras Tafari in Piraeus: Seferis’s Colonial Anxieties

by Akis Gavriilidis



Seferis’s poem “Leoforos Syngrou II” has received little critical attention.

Works outside the canon often prove a useful lens for an author’s practice.

This is also the case with this poem, which directly refers to a colonial and racial problematic. Seferis, both as an object of mainstream scholarship and as an icon of Greek pop culture during the last half of the 20th century, has been mainly seen as a champion of “Greekness” –construed as the solitary course of a unique nation through various vicissitudes. The author himself encouraged such a reading. In his work, however, we find evidence that Seferis was attentive to elements undermining this uniqueness, shifting attention to links, cleavages and hierarchizations within both Hellenism and humanity at large. This makes Greekness appear as a product of, and as an instrument for the production of, knowledge about and classification of individuals and ethnic groups, including self-knowledge and self-classification, as well as a technology for profiling and variously claiming and/ or attributing rights to those groups. Our understanding of Seferis’s Hellenism would be incomplete without its colonial and racial dimension.


The interpretation of [avenues’] dreams

Leoforos [avenue] Syngrou is one of the two main axes linking Athens to its port, Piraeus, and was named after a “national benefactor” from Istanbul who sponsored it. Its decades-long construction was completed under the Venizelos administration in 1932 and immediately made a great impression on Athenians, including artists, who considered it a significant step towards modernization (Margariti 2005).

“Leoforos Syngrou II” is a poem written by Yorgos (i.e., George) Seferis in 1935 and published posthumously in Notebook of Exercises, II. Until now it has received little, if any, critical attention. This may be due to the two IIs accompanying both the poem’s and the book’s title. In the case of the poem, the reason for the “II” is that Seferis had already written—and published, in his original, unmarked Notebook of Exercises—another, “serious” (rather than satirical) poem entitled “Syngrou Avenue, 1930.” The 1935 version, as with most of this collection’s poems, presents an element of playfulness and parody. It also presents a satirical-critical engagement with the political actuality in Greece and elsewhere—or, more precisely, in the interstices: an engagement of this relation of “Greece” to the world beyond, the tracing of a border, a delimitation of what Greece is and is not.

The verses follow a pattern which is unusual, but not unique, in Seferis’s poetry: they rhyme (1–2 and 3–4 in each stanza), and are relatively long; most of them—33 out of the 36[1]—occupy two typographic lines, but have no fixed meter or fixed number of syllables.

The 1930 version, immediately below its title, had a dedication “to Yorgos Theotokas, who discovered it” [the avenue]. This second version bears no dedication, but is addressed in its entirety in the second person singular to Theotokas, explicitly mentioned in Verse 12 under his nickname “Favrikios” (invented for him by Seferis a few years earlier, after Fabrice, the hero of Stendhal’s La chartreuse de Parme). After 11 verses in praise of the avenue (mentioned twice in its colloquial nominative form “leoforo Syngrou,” without the s—unlike in the title), Favrikios is informed that this avenue “had a dream”:


It was not Mussolini who waged war against Ras, it was we,

we the Greeks [Romioi]; and the Ethiopians defeated us and started running after us

and then put to sea and sent heralds, and said: “Hey, people,

you who keep quarreling and fooling around, who begin everything but never

accomplish a single action,

we decided—since you were crushed—to give you a king to set things straight for you.”

And we—since we were crushed—in order to be in accord, immediately cried “Long live the monarchy!”

and held a referendum as well, to show that we are a people of freedom.

So the king arrived at Tzitzifies, with feathers and a curly beard, very dark-skinned, Ras Pupunambee.

On his shoulder, a red-assed monkey was sitting, tied with a golden chain to the button of his jacket, and with his left hand he was holding a green parrot;

and he was barefoot, and we were barefoot, shouting “Glory and power to our great king!”[2] (Seferis 1976, 64; all translations are mine unless otherwise indicated),


Just a few months earlier, during the summer of 1935, Seferis had read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (Beaton 2003, 135). My hypothesis is that, in his effort to convincingly construct a dream supposedly dreamt by an inanimate object, the poet engages in a “poem work” similar to, and inspired by, Freud’s “dream work” and its mechanisms; in particular, displacement, condensation, and representation by reversal. Through this “poem/dream work,” recent military and political developments are distorted and rearranged into an unexpected composition.

The outcome presents both shared elements and some unusual features compared to the rest of Seferis’s oeuvre. On the one hand, the poem elaborates on a very common theme—if not the main theme—of this oeuvre: the disastrous consequences of an overseas campaign. On the other, this is probably the only poem by Seferis in which this theme is elaborated along clearly racial lines.

In the dream, the failure of the military campaign induces an “inversion” and contamination effect whereby the would-be metropolis becomes subject to administration by a foreign power that will help it to sort out its affairs. It is reduced to a situation of patronage, of limited sovereignty. This foreign power is now the very same country that Athens had wanted to reduce to a colony.

Ethiopians undertake to lead the Romioi into modernity and civilization, since the latter are disorganized, immature, and incapable of self-government.

At the end of “Leoforos Syngrou II’,” an exact date is noted: “29.11.1935.” This is an important date in the modern political history of Greece: it was the day when, following a referendum, King George returned to Athens and resumed his duties after 12 years of exile and 11 years of Greece being a republic. The former and now-reinstated king returned to Greece by sea, and his arrival was celebrated with a parade starting from Faliro, near the port of Piraeus, and ending in downtown Athens. Enthusiastic crowds gathered to express joy at his restoration.

In practice, the itinerary of the procession coincides with the avenue of the title.

The poem, clearly intended to deride and express disapproval of the king and his followers by distorting these actual events, depicts them as “blacks”— which is here used as a synonym for barbarians, uncivilized, naive people. The tendency to compare specific population groups within Greek society with either the colonizers or (more often) the colonized, was—and still is—common[3].

Seferis was no exception, although no systematic examination of this use in his work is available to date, to my knowledge[4]. In this carnivalesque parade, the king is depicted as having the traits of another real sovereign of the time: Haile Selassie, whose grandiose coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia, under the name Ras Tafari, had taken place exactly five years earlier, in November 1930 (Ziegler 2016, 207) and had attracted attention worldwide, as an African emperor was something very unusual.

Seferis’s presentation of the King of the Hellenes as not an ethnic Hellene himself was not so far-fetched a fantasy: George’s dynasty had been imported to Greece from Denmark, another European country. Here, the “poem work” transforms the king into a Ras, who is “very blackish” [«πολύ μελαψός»], with curly hair, and “barefoot.” That is, he is primitive, and he impresses his authority on his equally primitive people with cheap tricks such as totemic animals or birds, loud music and dances, fancy dresses, colorful metals, and stones.

The whole coronation event is itself presented in the poem as “blackish,” in a traditional racist connotation of the term: it is noisy, turbulent, and irrational. In one word: African, quite “un-European.” In connection to the dream’s (the poem’s) associations, it is also useful to add here a crucial intermediate link from the then-recent past: in 1924, while still heir to the Abyssinian throne, Ras Tafari Makkonen had himself made an official visit to Athens. According to one account,

The reception by the Greeks was triumphant: already in Faliro, when the royal steamboat arrived, the President of the Republic Pavlos Kountouriotis and Prime Minister Themistocles Sofoulis were on the waterfront. Then a religious mass took place (Ras Tafari was a Christian), and, after that, an official lunch at the governor’s premises. . . . Tafari visited museums and archaeological sites in Athens, the Acropolis, and then honored with his presence athletic events held in his honor at the Panathenaic Stadium. In the area there were honorary troops from all the armies situated in Athens, while the musical band of the Democratic Guard was performing marches throughout the ceremony. The participation of the people was remarkable (Filistor 2015).

Importantly, it is also recorded that Ras Tafari, also visited the refugee camps of Athens and donated 300 oxen from his homeland as a minor contribution to their relief.

During his reign, he showed his philhellenic feelings. Tafari was then responsible for the economic campaign that helped the refugees who left Smyrna and the coasts of today’s Turkey. The aid from the regent and later emperor was distributed in a square at the historical centre of Athens, which, to honor his assistance, was named “Avissynias Square” (Kalogeras 2017).

One might therefore be tempted to think that the point of the poem is quite simple: it is just a short, anti-monarchical farce that a diplomat fabricated in his spare time and kept unpublished for obvious reasons. Yet the linking of these two events is the most direct, but by no means the only, geopolitical reference of the poem. “Leoforos Syngrou II” is composed of a dazzling network of less direct allusions to the history and geography of Greece, and of the Eastern Mediterranean at large. To follow Freud’s terminology, there seem to be multiple over-determinations in the transformation of the “poem thoughts” into the manifest content of the poem; more than one source of inspiration from actual or potential facts.

Ethiopia does not only serve as a one-dimensional negative model; it is involved in a dual relationship, with Italy as the other party. And a parallel is drawn between Greece and this other party as well. This parallel is introduced by a negation (“not them, us”), which “corrects” the actual situation. But this substitution, as is often the case, only confirms what it explicitly rejects: “they” and “we” share some common features.

In the dream, Greece invades Ethiopia, but in historical reality it was in fact Mussolini who had invaded the country, in just the previous month—October 1935 (Ziegler 2016, 212). There is a whole set of underlying parallels between the Italian and the Greek overseas enterprises. First, Greece certainly never invaded Ethiopia, but it did invade Asia Minor about fifteen years earlier (although the declared intention of this invasion was not colonialist, as in the Italian case, but rather irredentist—to liberate the large Greek population living under Ottoman rule). This invasion was repulsed, and its outcome was followed—and also preceded—by serious political and constitutional upheaval in Greece.

Furthermore, during Greece’s “adventure” campaign into Asia, other powers were present as allies and/or rivals. Among these, notably, was Italy.

According to this hagiographic presentation of Venizelos, the architect of the Greek expansionist project, the Italian presence was a crucial factor in his launching of the project:


A factor that contributed to the invitation addressed by the all-powerful triumvirate [Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson] to Venizelos was, undoubtedly, the pressuring manifestation of the blatantly imperialist aspirations of Italy on the territory of Asian Turkey. (Svolopoulos 2008, 24)


In addition, if Mussolini’s African adventure marked a belated effort by Italy to enter into the club of colonial powers, there was an earlier precedent: the Italians had been actively present in Ottoman affairs since the 1910s, and had maintained a presence in the Aegean by retaining the Dodecanese Islands until 1947. So, in order to counter the “blatantly imperialist aspirations of Italy,” Greece under Venizelos decided to give way to its own aspirations. Of course, this “invitation” to occupy the vilayet of Smyrna was addressed to Venizelos by Great Britain, France, and the United States only after he himself had made great efforts and had lobbied hard to obtain it.

There is also a remarkable coincidence at the level of the signifiers which can function as an additional bridge for the conceptual association between Greeks and Italians: the name Erythraea (Ἐρυθραία, [ancient] Greek for “Reddish Land”), is present as a toponym both in Africa (Eritrea, the modern Italian version after the Latin name for the Red Sea) and in Asia Minor, as this was the name of the peninsula immediately to the west of the port city of Smyrna/Izmir. Vourla, the place where Seferis was born and had lived until he was 14, is situated on this peninsula. In May 1919, the Greek army landed on the Asiatic Erythraea, which thus became the first area of Ottoman land to be occupied by Greek troops following the invitation of the “triumvirate.” According to Levine (1996, 2), “Italy’s continued occupation of Eritrea gave her a convenient springboard from which to launch that invasion”—a formulation that equally applies to Greece’s occupation of Erythraea. What is more, the African Erythraea had itself been a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1880.


Colonial pyres

To cast Greece’s expansion into Asia Minor as a colonial project may sound surprising today. In the nineteenth century, the term «Μεγάλη Ιδέα» was largely preferred to describe Greece’s territorial ambitions, but the term «αποικία» was not uncommon in the discourse. In the Greek-language literature that promoted the “Great Idea,” we find an example dating from as early as 1872 which refers to ancient Greek colonization as a source of modern inspiration. Here, the author, a teacher at the “Great School of the Nation” in Istanbul, calls for the “transposition” («μετακόμισις») of the “holy fire” from the metropolis to the “Greek colonies” [«αποικίας»], in language reminiscent of Isocrates or Lysias:


What, thence, is to be done in view of the elimination of the evils [produced] by the great dispersion and separation of the Greek race? What remedy is there? When the holy fire of the ancient colonies, which ought to be kept at the Prytaneion as a visible and eternally living symbol of Hellenism, was, by chance, extinguished, the colonies again transposed a new holy fire from the metropolis.Therefore, this is what the current Greek colonies have to do[5]. (Vasiadis 1872, 64; my emphasis)


The term «πυρ» can signify not only civilization and its “illuminative” capacities, but also military destruction. The latter recalls a term familiar to Greek pupils—and, a fortiori, teachers—from the phrase «υγρόν πυρ» used in twentieth- century history textbooks to refer to some kind of Byzantine secret super-weapon.

“Leoforos Syngrou II” was written several decades after the formulation of the “pyre” project; in the meantime, efforts had been undertaken to implement it, in both the military and the cultural sense, and both had been irrevocably defeated. After the expansionist dreams were abandoned, this “fire” was internalized, re-transposed back within the boundaries of the nation-state, along with numerous other things—and persons. Seferis’s family was obliged to carry out a painful «μετακόμισις» from the colonies to the metropolis.

By 1920, the use of colonial vocabulary had been abandoned. Still current, however, was an idea that had served as a basis for the right—if not the duty— for Greece to intervene. This was the firm belief in the cultural superiority of Hellenism as regards the backward peasants it was bound to encounter in its overseas operations—but also as regards populations that already existed within the borders of the Greek State, similarly deemed uncivilized; and this belief survived much longer.

It is well known that belief in cultural superiority was a permanent component of “standard” Western-European colonialism conducted in the guise of a civilizing mission. Mussolini, for example, boasted of the “immense moral, spiritual and cultural superiority” of the Italians vis-a-vis the Ethiopians (Ziegler 2016, 209; see also McGuire 2014, 2–3 and passim). The Greek version of this term, «εκπολιτιστική αποστολή», was used by Eleftherios Venizelos himself as early as 1908, in an article he published in the newspaper Kήρυξ [Herald] of Khania, in his native Crete, then part of the Ottoman Empire. There, the future prime minister claimed that Hellenism “has never been a conquering force, but a civilizing one” (quoted in Svolopoulos 2008, 13–14), and that this “civilizing mission” could be carried out by that “part of Hellenism” living at the time in Turkey, which included Seferis’s family. The same term was also used by English language commentators (for example, Llewellyn Smith 1998, 86) when reporting on the project for a “Greece of two continents and five seas,” as they thought such language would be more familiar to their readers.

To summarize: if both Greece and Italy invaded Asia Minor (including Erythraea) in 1920, and then Italy invaded and conquered Ethiopia (as it had previously conquered Eritrea) in 1935, the poem introduces a fourth, imaginary invasion—by Greece of Africa. At the same time it presents Greeks, and their king, as Africans.

This means that, if we were to represent this relationship graphically, we would need a second dimension: the poem opens the dual relationship towards a triangulation, as it stages a situation of double identification (Greeks- Ethiopians, Greeks-Italians).

Psychoanalytically speaking, Freud recognized double identification as another very common pattern in dreams or in symptoms:


[I]n certain hysterical attacks . . . the patient simultaneously plays both parts in the underlying hysterical phantasy. In one case which I observed, for instance, the patient pressed her dress up against her body with one hand (as the woman), while she tried to tear it off with the other (as the man). (Freud 1983, 94)


But the dream does not just substitute one subject for another, or even for two others, but projects a dual relationship (Greece-Ottoman Empire) onto another dual relationship (Italy-Ethiopia). This results in the formation of a quadrangle, in which diagonal contact lines exist as well, linking members of each pair with members of the other and creating various triangles.

This is not all. In the above scheme described by Freud, the respective parts of the “man” and the “woman” are perfectly clear and stable in the external world; they only merge in the patient’s mind, or in the symptom, which may then be called “pathological.” Even within the symptom, we can still easily tell which gender part the patient is enacting at any given moment: when she is attacking, she is the man; when she is resisting, she is the woman.

In the world of the poem, this mingling is already occurring in real life, not in anybody’s (pathological) mind. In the situation described in the poem, coloniality is reversible; each partner plays, in turn, the “active” and the “passive” role. The initial aggressor first encounters successful resistance, then is pushed back and chased. The would-be teacher/civilizer/colonizer is transformed into pupil/barbarian/native/African, and vice versa.

The term “real life” may sound somewhat inappropriate here, since all of this occurs in an invented dream attributed to a street. However, as stated, this dream recombines historical invasions by Greece and Italy respectively; and both invasions had a respective precedent in the recent past of each country.

In addition, both of these precedents fully conform to an inversion of roles.

In the last years of the nineteenth century (1895 for Italy and 1896 for Greece), both countries had already attacked Ethiopia and the Ottoman Empire respectively; both military ventures ended in defeat and retreat. Levine (1996, 2) points out that “Italy experienced her defeat at Adwa as intensely humiliating, and that humiliation became a national trauma which demagogic leaders strove to avenge. It also played no little part in motivating Italy’s revanchist adventure in 1935.” Equally traumatic for Greece had been its defeat in Thessaly in 1897, after which the Ottomans started “running after” the Greek army (an expression that corresponds perfectly to «μας πήραν στο κατόπι,» used for the poem’s “Ethiopians”) and could have easily conquered Athens, had they not been stopped by the European powers.

The attempt at revenge for the narcissistic blow of the 1897 defeat and effort to restore Greek national pride were initially as successful as Mussolini’s Ethiopian campaign. The result, however, was the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, which was even more traumatic for the Greek nation—and personally for Seferis, who did not fail to elaborate on it in his poetry and prose.

A permanent theme in these elaborations is the division of the colonial subject.



The time of the Great Divide


In one autobiographical text found in the poet’s archives under the title “Sep. ’41 Manuscript” and also published posthumously, Seferis persistently testifies for a state of permanent split of the subject, both on a national and individual level. The manuscript was drafted, notably, in Pretoria, South Africa—the same continent phantasized six years earlier as the scene for the unhappy transcontinental adventure of the «Ρωμιοί», and where Seferis had ended up after the Greek government had fled Athens—“with no other purpose than to put some order in [his] conscience” (Seferis 1972, 61).

But this text, apart from revealing the contents of Seferis’s “conscience,” contains a narration of his life up to that point. This narration is framed from the outset into a powerful dualism. According to that narration, it was not only the first encounter of the poet (who was 14 at the time) with the metropolitan nation-state that was marked by national division. Such division had marked his life even before that, while he was in Asia.

The Manuscript’s duality is itself dual. It consists of two relatively autonomous parts of unequal length (although no formal subdivision of parts or chapters is marked). The first one, only four pages, speaks of his childhood in Asia Minor; the rest recounts his involvement in social and political life after his family left for “free Greece” (Seferis 1972, 9). The childhood story is itself clearly split into two parts. The house at the Skala of Vourla, the summer resort of the family, was heaven on earth. In a very charged and unequivocal formulation, Seferis states from the first paragraph that this place was for him “the only place that, even now, I can call ‘homeland’ in the most radical sense of the word” (1972, 7). The city of Smyrna, on the other hand, was hell. It was “the unbearable school, the dead, rainy Sunday evenings behind the window; a prison. An incomprehensible, foreign, and hated world” (172, 7).

In order to describe his preference for Vourla, the author uses an image of a type rarely found in his poetry, one drawn from Islamic/Arabic iconography:


The Skala was a delineated, closed area, where I entered as if in a garden of Halima, where everything was fascination. (1972, 8; emphasis added)


This childhood split is explicitly invoked by Seferis to explain the lifestyle he adopted as an adult, its division between a professional and an artistic self, one that serves the nation-state and its institutions on the one hand, and one that pursues his accomplishment as a poet on the other.

Now the link that connects this first (split) part of the Manuscript with the second one, and that prompts us to cross the gap between them, is also itself split. The young George followed his family over to a Greece that was free, only to find that it, too, was not free of divisions. On the contrary, it was at the height of division; it was a country where two separate governments existed in two different capitals, practically two countries in one. The 1910s in Greece was a period of undeclared civil war—although at the time, and even today, the term «Εθνικός Διχασμός» [National Split/Divide] is used instead[6]. I arrived at Athens at the time when the great Divide was starting. (1972, 10) But the narration, significantly, goes on to explain how this timing conditioned the feelings of the writer vis-a-vis the Greek king, or, more accurately, the lack of such feelings. The next sentence reads as follows:


I had no time to feel either love, or appreciation [«υπόληψη»] for Constantine. Then the “November events” came, which reminded me astonishingly of the workings [«καμώματα»] of the Turks. (ibid.)


This is a rather strange rejection of monarchy—if it is one at all. In it, the writer does not declare himself against the institution of monarchy as such, on the grounds of republicanism or some other political principle; he only registers his “inability” to love one specific king, invoking contingent and practical reasons. When stating these reasons (if we consider that as a statement), Seferis sounds almost apologetic and disappointed with himself.

The phrase “November events” («Noεμβριανά»—a term produced according to a system of noun-formation used to designate important events in Greek history) refers to a series of mob attacks that took place in (southern) Greece in 1916 against the Venizelists. These attacks were tolerated, if not orchestrated, by the official State—the (Athenian) one of the two.

The divide occurred when another “triumvirate” proclaimed secession from Athens and formed a provisional government in Thessaloniki. The movement of “National Defense” was led by three strongmen, Venizelos, Koundouriotis, and Daglis, collectively referred to by the term of Roman origin, «η Τριανδρία»—probably a Greek calque of the Latin triumviratus. This historical nomenclature has been since inscribed on the geo/topography of the area, as a suburb near Thessaloniki is so-named to this day.

November 1916 was a time when yet another march from Piraeus to downtown Athens was taking place—although no allusion to it is made in the Manuscript or in either of the two “Leoforos Syngrou” poems. The reasons the royalists used for their attacks against Venizelists were that the latter had instigated this other march, and that, by doing so, they had assisted in an attempt by foreign powers to occupy Athens and dethrone the king disliked by Seferis.

The culprits of this attempt were the very same powers that would assist the Greek army in Ionia three years later—namely France, Britain, and Italy.

In a very confusing and almost forgotten series of events, on November 18 (by the old calendar), troops of these nations disembarked from their battleships at the port of Piraeus and moved towards the Greek capital in order to assist Venizelos in gaining control over the whole country (and coerce it into entering World War I on the side of the Entente). However, the invading troops were successfully resisted by the royalist army, with some help from civilians and “spontaneously” organized groups of reservists («Επίστρατοι»). Following the skirmishes of that day, the French, according to one account, had 74 dead, and the British had “very few” casualties; as for the Italians, they had no casualties at all, because they were just “scared and ran away” («το έβαλαν στα πόδια»: Ventiris 1931, 270). One of the crimes attributed to the Venizelists was that they “gave directions to the Senegalese soldiers of the French army” (Papafloratos 2016, 15).

Therefore, this other parade of 1916 equally concerned the royal question in Greece, equally included defeated Italians and “blackish” participants sent by ship from Africa, and this time was serious and not a parody, as it consisted in a military invasion from without.



We/you Turks: An intra-Greek apartheid


Among the victims of this partly spontaneous, partly organized persecution, were not only Venizelists but also ethnic Greek refugees from Asia Minor (that is, «Ρωμιοί»); even before the 1922 «Καταστροφή», refugees from the Ottoman Empire were present in Athens, as was the enmity felt against them by local, “indigenous” Greeks[7].

What prevented Seferis from feeling respect for the king in the November events was not their European or their African connection: it was this Asian one. This becomes clear from the very next phrase in the “’41 Manuscript”:


For Constantine’s people, we, who were coming from the enslaved Nation, who had been brought up with only one longing, Greece, were the “seeds of Turks.” (1972, 10)


If these newcomers were seen as Asians by the “free Greeks,” the “’41 Manuscript” not only resists the use of the name «Τουρκόσποροι» against them, but counterattacks and “chases away” royalists on their own terrain, comparing them to the Turks themselves (or to their “workings”). This only proves that Turkishness is as reversible as barbarity (of which it is only a variation anyway[8]).

In this (post)colonial encounter between populations, the signifier of the Nation seems to be more divisive than unifying. According to the above formulation, the Ottoman ethnic Greeks had “only one longing,” for Greece; the citizens of the kingdom, too, declared utmost loyalty to their country and king. Nevertheless, each group denied the other’s Greekness/Europeanness in the most radical (and the most Eurocentrical-hierarchical) of ways.

The inscription on colonial hierarchies in the “’41 Manuscript” goes even deeper, and now takes on an African connection, when Seferis compares the ideas some Greek royalists had expressed in 1916 to nothing short of those that persisted in the racially-segregated South African regime. Or, more precisely, to measures practiced “at one time” (i.e. no longer in 1941) “here in South Africa for the negroes“ [για τους νέγρους] (1972, 21). This time, the side compared to “the negroes” are not the royalists, but their opponents. With this addition, the virus of double colonial identification propagates and multiplies itself in all possible ways. Here we have the intersecting of two axes, us/them and whiteness/ blackness, which produces two different combinations: royalists are negroes (i.e. uncivilized, naive); Venizelists are unduly treated as “negroes” (i.e., as secondclass citizens being discriminated against).



A non-European modernism


Postcolonial theory of the last decades has highlighted an important dimension of colonialism, namely that methods and techniques of government designed for and tested in the colonies were subsequently implemented in the metropolis (e.g. Chakrabarty 2000; Alliez & Lazzarato 2016).

The particularity of our poem is that, within it, what travels back to the metropolis is the experience and the struggles of the (would-be) colonized.

Even if only for the purpose of satire and moralizing, through this journey the colonized are now presented as culturally superior modernizers. This further increases the instability of identities, as it subverts the previously exposed cliche about Ethiopians being barbarians.

This inversion has its roots equally in (a certain) historical experience, which for Seferis was also personal: the experience of an Asian/Ottoman modernity.

From the nineteenth century onward, the Ottoman Empire had come into contact with Western modernity, and had undertaken to introduce it into its administration, management of populations, and culture at large. Ethnic Greeks, mainly in Istanbul and Smyrna, had been enthusiastic participants, if not protagonists, in such efforts (Exertzoglou 2010); one of the last in this line was Stelios Seferiadis, the father of George, who was a polyglot jurist, poet, and self-styled diplomat—exactly as his son would later become, but in and for Greece this time, not the Ottoman Empire.

In the course of this imitation of European techniques of government, Ottoman rulers had also developed a tendency to import a colonial/racial attitude towards, and practical management of, populations living—or moving—within the borders of the Empire[9]. Therefore, the perception of domestic populations as “living in a state of nomadism and savagery” was already an established tradition among Ottoman modernizing elites, whatever their ethnic origin.

Now, many of the «Τουρκόσποροι,» once in Greece, formed an unwavering impression that the local population, and their State, were less advanced than they, and not up to the task of being “real Greeks.” They retained this conviction, and the ensuing resentment, throughout their lives, and often bequeathed it to the next generation(s) (see Gavriilidis 2014, 381, and passim). Seferis is a perfect example of this. He expresses his disappointment and lack of patience with his fellow Greeks, their manners, and even the “barbaric” way in which they spoke on numerous occasions in his poetic work, including the famous “In the Manner of G.S.” written in 1936, that is, one year after “Leoforos Syngrou II”:


What do they want, all those who believe they’re in Athens or Piraeus?

Someone comes from Salamis and asks someone else whether he ‘issues forth from Omonia Square’.

‘No I issue forth from Syntagma,’ replies the other, pleased; ‘I met Yianni and he treated me to an ice cream.’

In the meantime Greece is travelling and we don’t know anything ( . . . )

Strange people! They say they’re in Attica but they’re really nowhere

(Trans. by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)


What is more, his diaries (“Days”) Seferis frequently deprecates the political and administrative personnel of the Greek state.

His depiction of “black” people traveling to Greece by boat to civilize its inhabitants can therefore also be read in two antithetical ways. Apart from being a negative caricature of royalists, these “black people” may inversely be read as a codified positive expression for the experience of the Greeks of Asia Minor, who, in Seferis’s eyes, appeared as more civilized than the local “whites.” The dream scene where Ethiopians “put to sea” can allude to two different “real” histories at the same time: (a) the Turks, in their effort to create their modern(ist) nation-state in place of an empire, defeated the Greek army and “dropped them into the sea” (a standard expression used in both Greek and Turkish)[10]. (b) The “Asians” (Ottoman Greeks) who arrived in mainland Greece proved to be more modern than the natives they found there.

What is most remarkable in this “poem work” is not only that it presents Greece as a colonizing entity, but also that the colonial condition, and hence its respective identities and classifications, are contingent and reversible; they can circulate between continents, and ethnic groups living on or moving between them. The realization of this instability can be experienced as a loss, a source of shame and mourning, but also as a source of pride and self-assertion.

Another well-known characteristic of the dream is that, within it, opposites can coexist. This is precisely what happens in the dream Seferis attributes to the modernist avenue.



We/you Romans

What is also remarkable here is the precise term that Seferis uses to denote Greeks: «εμείς οι Ρωμιοί». This occurrence is the only time when this term is used by Seferis[11]. «Ρωμιός» was used throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, and is occasionally still used today, as an alternative for “a [Modern] Greek”[12]. But there is a still narrower meaning of this term: «Ρωμιός» was used as the main collective self-identification for the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, the members of the Rum Milleti according to the classification of the late Ottoman bureaucracy. In Turkish, the term Rum was used exclusively to describe the Greek-speaking Christian Orthodox inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, while the subjects of the Kingdom of Greece were called Yunan (Ionian).

This ambiguity allows Seferis to play between the two meanings, and only adds to the complexity of the poem’s subjective geometry: the formulation that the «Ρωμιοί» invaded Asia Minor is correct only in the first, broader sense, but not in the second. It was not the Rum, but the Yunan who invaded by disembarking on the Ionian coast in 1919 with the intention, or under the pretext, of redeeming the not-yet-redeemed Romioi living there.

Both the Greek and the Turkish terms are etymologically derived from “Rome,” specifically the Eastern Roman Empire—the name of the political formation to which we refer today as the “Byzantine Empire.” The seat of the Byzantine emperor, before—or in addition to—being called Constantinople/ Konstantiniye/Istanbul and various other names throughout history, had been proclaimed as the “New Rome”; as, incidentally, had Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, under the (real) Romans—the ones from Italy.

With «Ρωμιοί» on one side, the quadrangle becomes imperial in its totality, as we have an empire in each of the four corners (Ottoman, Ethiopian, [Western] Roman and Eastern Roman). Interestingly, if Greeks can refer to fellow Greeks as “Romans,” this, despite geography, highlights their Asianness rather than their Europeanness. This word, a hapax in Seferis’s poetic oeuvre, bears connotations related to cultural hierarchy as well, and indeed the same one examined in the previous section. Still today, Modern Greeks may refer to themselves—or to each other—as «Ρωμιοί» when they want to connote that they are not (fully) European, whether this distance from the model is seen as a source of embarrassment or even, at times, of pride[13]. Most notably, in the context of satirical poetry, it is telling that, throughout the nineteenth century, O Ρωμηός was the name of a periodical written in its entirety by the most prolific satirical poet in the (Modern) Greek language: Yeoryios Souris. In Souris’s universe, «Ρωμηοί» are certainly the subjects of the Greek Kingdom, but only insofar as they are lazy, selfish, misbehaving, superficial, and insincere, sipping coffee at the «καφενείο»/kahvehane all day, talking politics—and, above all, insofar as they are not up to the task of founding a State and a society where the rule of law is respected, since each one of them wants to be a ruler—to become a king[14].

Between 1907 and 1912, Souris was proposed five times by Greek and/or “Roman” [15] opinion and policy makers for the Nobel Prize in Literature. All five candidatures were unsuccessful. Greece would have to wait a half a century for its first Nobel, awarded to another Yeoryios. As a careful reader of Greek poetry, this second Yeoryios was certainly aware that the harsh criticism of the Greek State and its inhabitants that he assigns to his fictional Ethiopians with a civilizing mission could easily, with some minor editing, be at home in a poem by Souris.



(Greek) race: The One that Splits into Two


As noted above, when Seferis speaks about “the great Divide” he reads this split as an expression of an eternal tendency of Greeks to oppose one another for inexplicable reasons. This constitutive discord is projected retrospectively onto antiquity as an inescapable fate of Hellenism.

This projection back in time is linked, in the same phrase within the text, with the classicizing orientation of Greek secondary education. Seferis credits that education with having provided his young self with the background material that made him reflect on the perennial duality of Greece fed his considerations:


Whatever the case, since then I started thinking—at the Gymnasium we were taught the Apology [of Socrates]—that, in Greece, there always exist two worlds fighting each other: the world of Socrates and the world of Anytus, Meletus and Lycon. (Seferis 1972,11).


Upon arriving at Greece, Seferis realized that two worlds existed there. But in Erythraea, too, he states that he already was living between “two worlds,” one of which was unbearable for him, as it involved going to the Greek school through which the fire was transmitted to the colonies. But, in spite of his disgust, by attending the school, he was able to arrive at the important conclusion that Greece had been divided into two since time immemorial. Therefore, this division into “two worlds” is permanent, and infinite.

If Seferis first contemplated the “Two Worlds” theory in the 1910s, it was an idea that would continue to occupy him throughout his life. In some instances he expressed it in other ways, using other terms. These frame the duality along racially delineated lines.

One such instance occurs in his Six Nights on the Acropolis [«Έξι νύχτες στην Ακρόπολη»], a (project for a) novel whose first draft dates from soon after the years of “the great Divide”—and much earlier than the “’41 Manuscript.”[16] In it we find an entry in the protagonist’s fictional diary consisting of a long, verbatim quotation from the Apology of Socrates in Modern Greek, followed by a passage very similar to the one above. Only here, instead of “worlds,” he uses the term “races” [«ράτσες»].

In Greece, two races always existed; the race of Socrates and the race of Anytus and his company.

The former makes for the greatness of the country [«του τόπου»]. The latter helps the former negatively. But now, it seems to me that only this one has remained—the former is lost and gone away. (Seferis 2010, 15–16) As far as terminology is concerned, in Modern Greek it is not uncommon, even now, to see or hear the word “race” being translated either by «φυλή,» or as its Latin root borrowed from the Italian—being used to denote a “group/ class of people [with common characteristics].”[17] The term racism, however, has passed into Modern Greek as «ρατσισμός,» based on the Italian razza. Even if we concede that, in the 1920s, the European general public showed far less sensitivity to and awareness of sinister workings of racism, we do know that Seferis reworked this particular text after World War II. Given that fact, his insistence on using this term is rather embarrassing to us today.

Also noteworthy here is the use of the term «τόπος» as a synonym for “homeland.” The metaphor of course already existed, and still exists, in Greek (as well as in Turkish, where the word memleket is used identically). However, in the case of Seferis, the distance between the metaphor and the literal sense is somehow greater than usual: if we think of it, which “place” is this? The «τόπος» that he himself has emphatically declared as “the only place that [he] can call ‘homeland’ in the most radical sense of the word” is not the same as the one whose greatness was created by the race of Socrates; Vourla was never part of Greece.



Flight, exile, collaborations, trials


For these thoughts and associations to find their way into the text, an unusual confluence of semiotic—and pragmatic—similarities and coincidences comes into play. The “other” world/race of the two identified by Seferis, the “inferior” one, is identified by the name of Anytus—in the first case, accompanied by two other names; in the second, with the generic reference to “his company.” The only permanent signifier, used in both passages, is Anytus—hardly an historical figure so salient as to personify the one of the two Greek races.

Anytus, along with the other two men named, were the accusers in Socrates’ trial, and a leading figure of the Athenian democratic party. During the «στάσις» of 404 b.c., after the Thirty Tyrants had been installed as rulers by the Lacedaemonians, Anytus, along with other democrats, fled to another municipality in Attica in order to prepare their counter-attack to restore democracy.

And the name of this municipality just happens to coincide with the Modern Greek term used to render race/razza, namely Phyle (Φυλή).

According to one interpretation (Stone 1979), the lawsuit initiated by Anytus against Socrates was based specifically on the fact that the latter had stayed in Athens while the city was under the Thirty Tyrants—resulting in his having been suspected of “collaboration with the occupier,” to use a term from the 1940s. That being said, Anytus himself had a background of failed overseas military operations and corruption.

In b.c. 409, he was sent with 30 ships to relieve Pylos, which the Lacedaemonians were besieging; but he was prevented by bad weather from doubling Malea, and was obliged to return to Athens. Here he was brought to trial on the charge of having acted treacherously, and, according to Diodorus and Plutarch, who mention this as the first instance of such corruption at Athens, escaped death only by bribing the judges. (Smith, ed. 1872[18]).

At another point in the “’41 Manuscript,” Seferis readily admits that the two Greek races can sometimes “coincide in the same person,” and provides two examples, one from ancient and one from modern Athens: Alcibiades and Ion Dragoumis. But, independent of cases of their empirical fusion, the two races are nevertheless presented as clearly disitinct in principle.

What is this delineation? Seferis here, as elsewhere, avoids much theorizing, and does not provide any conceptual definition. We can nonetheless infer that the race of Socrates is one devoted to higher spiritual and ethical achievement and to the common good, while that of Anytus and company pursue only petty personal and fractional interests. The problem is that, depending on the point of view that one adopts, Anytus can fit either description. Anytus was someone who brought others to court, but he was also accused of treason due to his mishandling of a naval expedition during civil strife (in a double sense: between Athens and Sparta, and within Athens itself).

In his text, Seferis makes it clear that what matters to him is not the history of classical Athens, but his own pressing, contemporary reality. Interestingly, the modern parallels that Anytus’s life and career invite are more than one.

In the poem, the tragedy of a failed overseas military campaign leads to the restitution of the king. In historical reality, the 1922 “Disaster,” «Καταστροφή», led, inversely, to his expulsion, and to the punishment of those deemed responsible for the military defeat. This brings Anytus close to the six royalists who were tried in Athens in 1923—with the difference that the latter did not escape execution. On the other hand, Anytus was also someone who withdrew from Athens in self-imposed exile to escape from and combat a tyrannical regime that had been installed manu militari, a situation analogous to that of Venizelos, but also to that of Seferis himself, who was writing the “’41 Manuscript” many thousands of miles away from Nazi-occupied Athens, in a «τόπος» where the political regime was organized according to phylae.

Seen in this light, Anytus, the person singled out to personify the archetypal «Ρωμιός,» the “race” which accounts for the smallness of the “place,” seems like a perfect condensation for all of Seferis’s obsessions. And, as with any condensation, he bears characteristics that favor double identification, as does Socrates, at least according to Anytus’ accusation: Socrates, contrary to Seferis and Venizelos, never left occupied Athens.

The purity of the distinction, and the rigidity of the hierarchy, between the two Greek races is further undermined if we take into account that Seferis, in this very text, expresses the deepest rejection of the source from which he drew his ancient knowledge: the institution of Greek education. As we have seen, he expresses fierce resistance and resentment not only towards the King of Greece but towards Greece itself when he proclaims Vourla, Erythraia (that is, the Ottoman Empire) as his “only homeland.” He goes on to describe as a claustrophobic nightmare his contact with the striated space (Deleuze- Guattari 1987, 474, and passim) of the educational institution, and of the city as such, as opposed to the smooth space of the countryside, which for him was a fascinating Asian garden. By contrast, the literal and metaphorical terms he uses to describe the “incomprehensible, foreign, and hated world” of Smyrna, or “Giavur [infidel] Izmir,” are drawn from State apparatuses (school, prison) (1972, 7, quoted above).

The perpetual return of the barbarians I further contend that the avenue’s dream constitutes a response and a reaction not only to recent historical events but also to literary sources, and to one major source in particular: C. P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the barbarians” [«Περιμένοντας τους βαρβάρους»].

Seferis engages in dialogue with his great diasporic predecessor, who had died two years before the date of the poem, even if he does so without explicitly saying so: it is a mute dialogue carried out through allusions. “Leoforos Syngrou II” does not contain any signifier that would directly refer the reader to this precedent; it does not even once use the term “barbarians.” But in practice it describes a “barbaric” performance. Its entire staging seems to be a continuation on the part of Seferis to the situation exposed in Cavafy’s imaginary city.

In order to demonstrate the presence of this dialogue, a simple transposition exercise will help. In his 1983 article, Dimitris Dimiroulis, obviously without having in mind “Leoforos Syngrou II,” summarizes “Waiting for the barbarians” in the following words: [It] alludes to a state of uneasiness, deviation, and confusion: the institutions of agora and law do not function properly . . . the Emperor (the supreme authority) appears in unusual surroundings at an inappropriate time and with unjustifiable ceremoniousness . . . the powerful officials . . . are dressed up with inexplicable sartorial extravagance . . . the orators are not present to perform their public duty. (98) All of these elements are to be found in Seferis’s poem as well, only they have undergone the same processes of the poetic/oneiric work: displacement, condensation, and reversal. In both cases we have an open public space (there, the Agora; here, a large avenue) where a king, his officers, and many inhabitants of the city are gathered in order to attend a ceremony. In Cavafy, the people and the king are waiting to receive the barbarians and their leader, only eventually to find out that they “no longer exist.” In Seferis, the barbarian leader simply is the king (he had been in the past, he was sent off, and now he is back to become king again). The roles of the two respective leaders are unified into one figure.

In both cases, the ceremony is a one-off performance: it does not happen regularly, it is not subject to repetition, as would be the case, for example, with a national holiday. It pertains to the domain of the exception: it is not the application of an existing rule, but it is what (people expect and/or fear that) will set the new rule and the new normalcy henceforth. Thus, this performance is of the order of constituent power (or even of a destituent one, to use a term introduced by Giorgio Agamben (2014)), not constituted power.

References to the unusual sartorial and ornamental choices of the barbarian king and his followers abound in the second poem as well, as does the barbaric preference for inarticulate noise rather than rational discourse and orators. This, of course, may well be a matter of interpretation: their talk may seem perfectly articulate to themselves, but a meaningless buzz to the “civilized” ones, “a language that sounds like noise (the ‘bar bar bar’ of the foreigner’s speech)” (Boletsi 2014: 70). The same goes for their music, which is likened to the sound produced not by humans—even barbarians—but by natural phenomena: «θα ’λεγες σιδερένια και μπρούντζινη μπόρα» [“one would say, an iron and bronze tempest”] (Verse 24, or 25, according to the numbering in the book); . . . and, further: «Δεν ήταν χορός ήταν σίφουνας, χάβρα οι φωνές κι ο ρυθμός τραμουντάνα» [This was not a dance, it was a tornado, the voices were a babble and the rhythm was the northern wind”] (33/34)[19]. Even so, Seferis’s positioning as regards this question begins to appear less clear cut if we take into account that these «Ρωμιοί» colonized by Ethiopians are the only locus of artistic activity. They are the only ones in the dream to engage in singing, dancing, sculpting, and giving speeches.

Therefore, the activity of the king’s followers in the dream, and its ambiguousness, very much resembles virtuosity, as defined by Paolo Virno (1996). This activity may not be a display of high skill or quality, but it need not be for it to qualify as virtuosity. The latter, as Virno would have it,


may be exemplified by “performing artists,” such as pianists or dancers, but also includes more generally various kinds of people whose work involves a virtuosic performance, such as orators, teachers, doctors, and priests. (190)


The performances of the multitude involve virtuosity not in the sense that they are more accomplished than others, but in the sense that they are improvised. They have no pre-established score to execute or follow; they are a reaction to unprecedented situations, so they are non-repetitive and non-repeatable.

Even more, they share yet another characteristic with the performances of Seferis’s barbarous multitude who, according to the harsh reprimand of their Ethiopian civilizers, “begin everything but never accomplish a single action”: Virtuosic performance, which never gives rise to a finished work, in this case cannot even presuppose it . . . Its only “score” is, as such, the condition of possibility of all “scores.” This virtuosity is nothing unusual, nor does it require some special talent.

One need only think of the process whereby someone who speaks draws on the inexhaustible potential of language (the opposite of a defined “work”) to create an utterance that is entirely of the moment and unrepeatable. (ibid. 194; my italics)

Ιn short, the «Ρωμιοί» of the dream do not act as “the People” but as a Multitude.


The decisive political counterposition is what opposes the Multitude to the People. The concept of “people” in Hobbes (but also in a large part of the democraticsocialist tradition) is tightly correlated to the existence of the State and is in fact a reverberation of it: “The People is somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed; none of these can properly be said of a Multitude. The People rules in all Governments,” and reciprocally, “the King is the People.” The progressivist notion of “popular sovereignty” has as its bitter counterpoint an identification of the people with the sovereign, or, if you prefer, the popularity of the king. The multitude, on the other hand, shuns political unity, is recalcitrant to obedience, never achieves the status of juridical personage, and is thus unable to make promises, to make pacts, or to acquire and transfer rights. (Virno, 194.)


The paradox of Syngrou Avenue’s dream is that, in it, the king is certainly popular, but he is not “the” People. Both in the dream and in historical reality (especially that of the 1910s and 1920s, but also of much later, too), the Monarchy not only failed to represent the People as having political unity and a single, unified will but, on the contrary, constituted one of the two sides in the people’s division.

Seferis, by depicting the one side as turbulent natives whose appearance is modelled after what he refers to as the “negro halls [«νέγκρικες αίθουσες»] of the British Museum,” both confirms and undermines this Hobbesian/democratic- socialist identification between sovereignty and people: he is undoubtedly in favor of popular sovereignty, but he denies the king the authority of being its representative and its symbol. The gap is filled by the paradoxical depiction of these anarchic royalists of the dream as the multitude, which is meant as a—literal—de-nigration. But of course, in order to read it this way, one has to share a contempt for the multitude.





Dimiroulis’s analysis of this failed encounter with the barbarians also contains a reference to language and its potentiality. But we also find a reference—indeed, three references, all in the same phrase—to the dream. Eventually the two elements are combined in a compound hyphenated term. This latter reference is unexpected, as there is no dream in Cavafy’s poem.


We are not waiting for the barbarians, we are feeding the barbarians with our language. . . . The threat does not come from outside, it belongs to the innermost drives of our society and stands as a potentiality of our language. Yet we need to distance our desire from its object, we need this ominous other to pursue, wait for, long for. Without this illusion, there is no possibility of escaping from “the ordinary of our commonplace.” This is perhaps a human dream as long as it remains a dream, although such language-dreams are frequently symptoms of a pervasive cultural schizophrenia. (99)


In “Leoforos Syngrou II,” however, there is no distancing of one’s desire (or fear) from its object; in Seferis, unlike in Cavafy, there is no irony, or at least no reluctant irony, in the sense described by Boletsi (2014). Seferis’s is rather a tendentious irony, that is, an effort to turn into an object of ridicule one of the two opposing political choices, the royalist/anarchic one. But this would be better called satire or sarcasm, or even didacticism. The invented languagedream (or even better, the non-language dream) is a fulfilment of a wish, or rather of an inverted wish, an anxiety—for the poet and his intended reader and fellow Venizelist writer, Theotokas. This dystopic nightmare leaves no space for dialogue as does the one performed by the two interlocutors in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” nor for doubt: here, we only have one reader/ listener, Favrikios, who is the only addressee of Seferis’s writing activity, which is intended as a private address, not as a public display of virtuosity—at least not during the poet’s lifetime. Both its format and its content are unidimensional: Dear Favrikie, listen: bad news. The barbarians do, in fact, exist, and they did finally come. Actually, they never did come, they were already here; only their king came, but the rest of them had always been within the borders. They were/are (some of) us. Their existence is no “sort of” solution, it is the problem itself.

What will now become of us with(in) the barbarians (or of the barbarians within us)? seems to be the question that one of the two eponymous Georges asks his namesake. What can/should we do now with this third George, and all his barefoot blackish followers who have infested “our road”? The reply, given or implied by the poem, is: nothing; the barbarians are here to stay. Unless “our road wakes up,” as the last verse proclaims, and— presumably—shakes the “barefoot blacks” off its back, putting an end to the nightmare. Therefore, this private writing leaves no space for any ambivalence or indecision; these are not part of Seferis’s poetic strategy. But this does not mean they are totally absent from his work. Doubt and irony can be expressed in several ways, not all of which are explicit or even voluntary.

Both in this poem and elsewhere in his work, it becomes clear that this multitudinous, barbarian tumult and debauchery fascinates George in the same way as the Asiatic garden of his childhood did; it is felt as a permanent temptation and a stolen enjoyment. The signs of this fascination come through unwittingly, at the margins, in spite of his conscious intention. Seferis’s official discourse—and his discourse on his discourse—is unidimensional, but his writing is not always so. This is no surprise, and no reason for us to endorse this unidimensionality and neglect the ambivalence. After all, Cavafy himself never explicitly stated that he wanted to “go beyond binaries.” He simply did so through his work.

Here, too, we can use an analogy from the article by Dimiroulis, this time a negative one. In that article, there is a symptomatic, pragmatic error in the phrase where the author summarizes—and rejects as simplistic reductionism— the interpretation given to “Waiting for the Barbarians” by Stratis Tsirkas. The latter is condemned for “deterministically applying a simplified Marxist scheme,” according to which


[t]he correspondence is obvious: the barbarians are the English forces of occupation and the waiting people are the Egyptians. (Dimiroulis 1983, 89; emphasis in the original)


But this is not what Tsirkas actually says, and it amounts to a misquotation, or at least a misrepresentation. On the precise page given as a reference, we find the following phrase: “The emperor, the citizens who wait for the barbarians with honours in order to get rid of “Civilization,” is the Khedive Abbas II, are the foreign communities [«παροικίες»], are the people of Egypt, while the ‘Civilization’ is the [British] Occupation” (Tsirkas 1971, 53).

As we see, the role given to the British forces of occupation is the exact opposite: for Tsirkas they are not the barbarians, but “Civilization” (even if this word is set in quotation marks in the original).

And even this is not the most important thing: after all, the opposite of a binary is still a binary. But if we read Tsirkas’s analysis in detail, we realize that it brings about a triangulation, if not a “quadrangulation.” The barbarians, for him, are neither the Egyptians nor the English: they are the Sudanese, who, at the time Cavafy’s poem was written, had revolted against the latter and had scored significant military successes for several years; the Egyptian people were sympathetic to the Sudanese and nurtured the hope that they would be able to defeat the English and then invade Egypt as well in order to liberate them. This expectation, as Tsirkas demonstrates through extensive references to texts but also to events known to him personally through his participation in the Egyptian Greek community life, was shared by some members of this community, including Cavafy himself. So here we do not have two opposing camps, but at least four players: British imperialists, the Sudanese people, the Egyptian people, and the Greek minority in Egypt—plus Cavafy as a minority within a minority. This inaccuracy does not seriously impair Dimiroulis’s analysis; I have, nevertheless, gone through his argument in order to show how multiplicity can be found in what at first seems to be unidimensionality, and this is as true for Tsirkas as it is for Seferis.

The latter’s poem “Leoforos Syngrou II” clearly and equally states that the avenue functions as a line of flight—given its privileged relationship to the sea (Verses 2 and 3): the sea “tested” [«δοκίμαζε»] and was tested by the two Georges, “until they found the sea, full of sorrow and affection” (Verse 3, LS II). Via Syngrou, the two friends had access to the sea when in Athens, but, equally, those coming by sea had access to Athens. This has always been so: routes, especially sea routes to and on the Mediterranean, have always been avenues for the passage of empires, their classifications and their armies, and also for the flight and the arrival of other “worlds” and/or “races,” of nomads and barbarians, some of whom created empires in Africa.


On one side, we have the rigid segmentarity of the Roman Empire, with its center of resonance and periphery, its State, its pax romana, its geometry, its camps, its limes (boundary . . .). Then, on the horizon, there is an entirely different kind of line, the line of the nomads who come in off the steppes, venture a fluid and active escape, sow deterritorialization everywhere, launch flows whose quanta heat up and are swept along by a Stateless war machine. The migrant barbarians are indeed between the two: they come and go, cross and recross frontiers, pillage and ransom, but also integrate themselves and reterritorialize. At times they will subside into the empire, assigning themselves a segment of it, becoming mercenaries or confederates, settling down, occupying land or carving out their own State (the wise Visigoths). At other times, they will go over to the nomads, allying with them, becoming indiscernible (the brilliant Ostrogoths). Perhaps because they were constantly being defeated by the Huns and Visigoths, the Vandals (“zonetwo Goths”) drew a line of flight that made them as strong as their masters; they were the only band or mass to cross the Mediterranean. But they were also the ones who produced the most startling reterritorialization: an empire in Africa. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 322–323)


George Seferis, as a diplomat, was part of the State all his adult life. But as a poet, at times, he was part of the “Stateless war machine” described above, and he clearly felt an attraction towards and sympathy for it, even if this was only in order to capture this machine, re-territorialize it, and make it work for the State. It is, in any case, not always easy to tell the one procedure from the other.

As Michaud (2017) has shown in his recent analysis, in the making of most European nations there is at some point a positive reference to some kind of “barbarians,” where one or another name of an ancient tribe is exalted as the genuine source and repository of the national psyche. Their “barbarism” is positively reclaimed as a lack of sophistication, hence as a pure, simple, and virile expression of the nation’s vital forces before their degeneration into the excessive sophistication of “culture.” This is a construct through which European nations have tried to invent a distinct origin to differentiate themselves from (the Roman) Empire.

In the same sense, Seferis’s rejection and intolerance vis-a-vis the barbarian hordes of royalists has its counterpart in his fascination for the 1821 War of Independence hero General Makriyannis, an irregular and illiterate fighter who had managed to escape the official educational system that was so unbearable to the young George in Smyrna, and to keep at a distance all other State institutions (the Army, the Administration, Literature). These institutions had kept him at a distance in return, until Seferis the essayist turned him into a personal, and then national, hero, and into a role model for life and work, and eventually persuaded nearly everyone to induct him into the canon, along with some other marginalized figures.

We/you Asians Seferis today is read as a national poet of Greece, with all the prophetic/ religious burden such a reading entails[20]. He is seen as someone who honored ancient glories, while also giving expression to, and soothing, the “chagrin [«καημός»] of «Ρωμιοσύνη»” and its adventures throughout the twentieth century[21]. Simultaneously, he is viewed as a poet whose most prominent quality was Europeanness.

Both designations, about which the poet would surely be very happy, have been subject to criticism. Some critics have highlighted the disciplinary/ homogenizing function of his interventions, especially in relation to Cyprus (Constantinou 2003, where a more complete case for reading Seferis through a colonial lens has been made). Others, without focusing exclusively on Seferis, have highlighted the tension between the European(ist) conception of Greekness and the actual reality of «Ρωμιοσύνη» (especially Calotychos 2003). Here, self-coloniality is meant to designate the relation of Greece, not to Cyprus, but to itself as seen through a European mirror.

Still others have pointed to a tension between Greekness and Western influences. In this sense, Dimitris Tziovas (2011) has presented the declared intention of the “Generation of the ’30s” as a whole for fusing opposites, or for “blending the old and the new, the objective and the subjective, the native and the foreign, reason and passion” (Kayalis 2011: 48, who also speaks about “the desire of the ‘generation’ itself to be ‘both Greek and modern’”).

I do not propose to reject these terms, but only to acknowledge the constitutive division and ambiguity that they bear. Seferis may be the poet of the nation, but the construction of the nation is anything but compact, self-evident and transparent; it is built upon a whole series of alliances, comparisons, enmities, negotiations, and anxieties around the questions of race, culture, and territorialization.

Greece has always been inextricably linked to colonization, both as an object and a subject.

Seferis’s own (aporetic) involvement with colonialism goes back to before the 1950s and goes deeper than a dualist and external relation—be it Europe/ Greece or Greece/Cyprus. Seferis’s post-Ottoman, post-colonial anxiety is not about one powerful subject imposing its will on another less powerful one with a different will. It is an internal, constitutive involvement which breaches dualism in both directions: towards the threefold, the triangular, or even towards the multiple on the one hand, and towards the less than one on the other. In Seferis, Greekness is constructed through references not only to Europeanness, but also to Asianness and Africanness.

“Blending” («συγκερασμός») is based on the premise of clear desires, aims, and projects. I think equally important factors are also the non-project, the anti-project, and a multiplicity of desires. Sometimes, the declared intention to “go beyond” or “reconcile” the two terms of a dilemma is the best way to avoid a trilemma. The project for a new definition of Greekness (a white one) seems to be a response to a double pressure: on the one hand, from a super-egotic anxiety not to become “black,” uncivilized, a nomad living outside the cities and the State (and from the shame of some of us who are still in, or occasionally relapse into, this barbarity); and, on the other, from a certain resistance to this imperative, a desire to become that very thing—and a nostalgia for an era when one (presumably) was exactly that, a stance which is difficult to publicly assume.

A term which was foreclosed—but also perpetually “foreopened,” brought time and again to the fore—by this oscillation between Greekness and Europeanness, is whiteness, and its concomitant antithesis, blackness/barbarity; or, on occasion, Asianness. I can certainly read a discernible desire and nostalgia for Asianness in Seferis, provided that we do not construe “Asia” as a geographical continent or as a set of given cultural practices, but, with Naoki Sakai, as a rhetorical device:


We should call a person Asian whenever we find some effect of social adversity or a trait of barbarism from the alleged ideal image of a Westerner in that person, regardless of his or her physiognomy, linguistic heritage, claimed ethnicity, or habitual characteristics. We should use the word Asian in such a way as to emphasize the fluidity of the very distinction between the West and Asia rather than its persistence.Even though we would face an outright rejection in the action by those who fail to qualify as, but adamantly insist upon natively being, Westerners, we should seek occasions to call those who customarily fashion themselves as Westerners you Asians. Asians must be a vocative for invitation. Asians are new barbarians. It is in order to break through the putative exclusiveness of our cultural, civilizational, and racial identity that we must address ourselves to others by saying you Asians. As long as you are barbaric in one measure or another, you are fully qualified to be an Asian. (Sakai 2000, 811–812)


In the sense outlined by Sakai, Seferis fully qualifies as Asian, and I use this appellation to call him as such, though I am not sure if he would be delighted with such an interpellation. Seferis customarily fashioned himself as a Westerner. Nevertheless, the indecisiveness deeply rooted in his poetry is an oscillation not (only) between “Greece” and “Europe,” but between his own super-egotic imperative to become (part of) a modernizing, racially-united nation-state, and his clinging to a situation of rhizomatic multiplicity: a loyalty to his garden of Halima where no school, no institutions, no (Greek colonial) teachers transmitting their “pyre” were around. At one point, he settled down and became a mercenary for the Greek State for life. Even then, he did not really “settle down,” as his job was by nature itinerant, not sedentary. At times he would “go over to the nomads, allying with them, becoming indiscernible” (in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms cited above); or, at least, he would always keep the memory of having done so.

Even in this carnivalesque poem, beneath, or alongside, the anxiety and horror of becoming African, one can detect a clear enjoyment precisely for his having become so, even an envy and admiration for the “savage,” as often happens at a real carnival.

Thus it seems that the three lines do not only coexist, but transform themselves into one another, cross over into one another. Again, we have taken a summary example in which the lines are illustrated by different groups. What we have said applies all the more to cases in which all of the lines are in a single group, a single individual. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 323) Seferis certainly is one such individual, where several lines cross over into one another. His public activity preaches the canon of Helleno-normativity—or even produces it for the first time. But his serene assertions are a response to an insecurity that was also his own. If he consciously set out to provide a unified narrative for the nation and its culture, this was in order to heal the breach he felt within himself as much as in anybody else, in order to merge the two “races” of Hellenism into one. In the same way as Freud’s symptoms of hysteria, this preaching establishes and accommodates the “second race,” the petty, self-interested «Ρωμιοί», at the same time that it scorns and normalizes it. In Seferis, we can very clearly recognize the signs of deep discomfort with, and mistrust of, Hellenism and its State as they exist, and a desire/nostalgia for their opposite: for the non-Hellenism, the non-Greek State, and/or for the Greek non-State: the non-State tout court.


Αποτέλεσμα εικόνας για συγγρού 1930




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[1] In the 2004 Ikaros edition that I consulted, the verses are numbered; this numbering results in 37 verses, as one very crucial verse, no. 13, is counted as two separate ones (13 and 14). I see no reason for such a division, since this option would only result in a rather anomalous poem with one inexplicably “free” and standalone verse in its middle, while all the other verses form groups of four. If we count these two lines as one and the same verse (and such a choice would be coherent within the general structure of the poem), this yields a composition perfectly divided into nine four-verse stanzas.

[2] Δεν ήταν ο Μουσολίνι που έκανε πόλεμο του Ρας, ήμαστε εμείς,

ήμαστε εμείς οι Ρωμιοί· και μας πήραν οι Αιθίοπες το κατόπι

και ρίξαν καράβια στο γιαλό, και στείλαν κήρυκες, κι είπαν: «Ανθρώποι,

σεις που μαλώνετε και σαλιαρίζετε, που τα πάντα αρχίζετε και δεν τελειώνετε καμιά πράξη,

αποφασίσαμε—μια που τις φάγατε—να σας δώσουμε ένα βασιλιά να σας βάλει σε τάξη».

Κι εμείς—μια που τις φάγαμε—για να είμαστε συνεπείς, κράξαμε αμέσως «Ζήτω η βασιλεία!»

κάναμε κι ένα δημοψήφισμα, για να φανεί πως είμαστε λαός μ’ ελευθερία.

Κι έφτασε ο βασιλιάς στις Τζιτζιφιές, με φτερά και με γένια σγουρά, πολύ μελαψός, ο Ρας Πουπουναμπί.

Στον ώμο του καθόταν μια κοκκινόκωλη μαϊμού, δεμένη με χρυσή καδένα στο κουμπί

του σακακιού του, και με το ζερβί του χέρι κρατούσε έναν πράσινο παπαγάλο·

κι ήταν ξυπόλυτος, κι εμείς ξυπόλυτοι φωνάζαμε «Δόξα και δύναμη στο βασιλιά μας το μεγάλο!».

[3] Today in Greece and Modern Greek, it is a well-established trope of everyday discourse to use “African,” or similar adjectives, as a synonym for “bad, backwards,” and to use the exclamation “not even in Africa [do such things happen]” in order to denounce cases of mismanagement, corruption or favoritism. Sometimes, names of specific countries are mentioned rather than the continent as a whole, with a special preference for Uganda. A Google search for the phrase “Ούτε στην Ουγκάντα” run in March 2019 yielded more than 5,000 hits: journalists, merchants, soccer trainers, and other public figures have used the expression to denounce failures of the Greek state and/ or society ranging from the poor quality of refereeing in the championship to the lack of organization of the Chamber of Commerce or high unemployment rates, and almost everything in between. This Eurocentric attitude is not limited to the right wing. On the channel ΕΡΤ (Greek State television) on May 15th, 2019, Nikos Sofianos, the KKE [Communist Party of Greece] Athens mayoral candidate, tried to explain why he believed the police should “enforce the law” in central Athens by evacuating all refugee squats, as well as why he did not see this position as racist, by arguing that “Greece is not an African country.”

[4] Pitsilídis (2000) claims to have brought to light “The dark sides of George Seféris,” one of which was his “racist and anti-Semitic side” (p. 109). However, the respective chapter of his book— which consists of only 4 pages—is little more than a superficial juxtaposition of uncommented citations from various parts of the poet’s work, which are supposed to “speak for themselves.” Apart from this effort which pertains to the domain of (sensationalist) journalism, I am not aware of any systematic attempt to theorize on the matter of race in Seféris.

[5] Τί oὖν ποιητέον πρός ἀποσόβησιν τῶν κακῶν τῶν ἐκ τῆς μεγάλης διασπορᾶς και ἀποχωρίσεως τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς φυλῆς; Ποία τις ὑπάρχει θεραπεία; Ὅτε τῶν ἀρχαίων ἀποικιῶν ἱερόν πῦρ, ὃπερ ἒδει ἄσβεστον ἐν τῷ Πρυτανείῳ φυλάσσεσθαι ὡς σύμβολον ὁρατόν καί ἀείζωον τοῦ Ἑλληνισμοῦ, τυχόν ἀπεσβέννυτο, αἱ ἀποικίαι ἐκ τῆς μητροπόλεως νέον αὖθις μετεκομίζοντο ἱερόν πῦρ. Τοῦτο ἄρα καί αἱ νῦν ὀφείλουσι πράττειν Ἑλληνικαί ἀποικίαι.

[6] On these issues see Mavrogordatos (2015). A concise reference in English is given in Gerwarth (2016, 228).

[7] In 1922, Steryiádis, the High Commissioner of the Greek intervention force at Ionia, famously “remarked days before the Turkish army captured Smyrna: ‘Better for them to stay here and be slaughtered by Kemal, than for them to go to Athens and turn everything upside down’ ” (Gerwarth 2016, 241).

[8] Using “Turk” as a synonym for “barbarian” is still today a commonplace discursive practice among political, religious and opinion leaders, in Greece and in the diaspora. Two random examples: “A message full of meaning from [Defense Minister at the time Panos] Kammenos: ‘The Turks are more barbaric than the barbarians’ ” [Μήνυμα όλο νόημα από τον Καμμένο: «Οι Τούρκοι είναι πιο βάρβαροι και από τους βάρβαρους»]. “Turks were, are and will remain barbarians” [οι Τούρκοι ήταν, είναι και θα παραμείνουν βάρβαροι], “They are Turks . . . so they will think in a Turkish manner . . . they will act in a Turkish manner!” [Τούρκοι είναι . . . τούρκικα θα σκεφτούν . . . τούρκικα θα πράξουν!], News of the Greek Diaspora 24/06/2017—emphasis in the original.

[9] Extensive argumentation concerning this can be found in Deringil (2003, 312).

[10] The original expression is “Yunanları denize dökmedik” [literally, “we poured the Greeks into the sea”].

[11] According to the “Concordance to the Poetic Oeuvre of George Seferis,” an electronic resource of the Portal for the Greek Language.

[12] Cf.: “It has often been assumed that the “Hellenes” referred to here [in the ‘Hymn to Liberty’] are Solomos’s own contemporaries, the embattled fighters against the Ottoman Turks over on the Greek mainland. But in fact it was only during the war itself that Greeks began systematically to refer to themselves by the ancient name of “Hellenes”; until then, most had defined themselves by the name that derives from the Byzantine Empire: Romioi” (Beaton 2012). See also Tsimouris 2011.

[13] This is one of the themes repeatedly brought to the fore and exhaustively analyzed by Michael Herzfeld in the many publications of his (especially 1982 and 2004) based on research that he carried out in/on Greece.

[14] Cf. Sourís’s 1883 poem “Leaders” [Ἀρχηγοί], which speaks of “at least fifty-two” kings—all of whom hate to obey.

[15] In 1911, Sourís’s candidacy for the Nobel was backed by the “Hellenic Philological Society” of Istanbul/Constantinople: see the Nobel Prize database.

[16] The first draft was produced in the years 1926–1928; the second and last one in 1954, in Beirut. The book was only published posthumously.

[17] For example, in a well-known rembetiko song, Vassilis Tsitsanis sings the following lyrics (written by Eftykhia Papayannopoulou): “Είμαστε αλάνια,/ διαλεχτά παιδιά μέσα στην πιάτσα/ και δεν την τρομάζουν/ οι φουρτούνες τη δική μας ράτσα.” “Οur own race” here denotes the «ρεμπέτες,» i.e. a group of people defined by their belonging to a musical and social subculture, not by a perceived common ancestry.

[18] Entry “Anytus”; accessible online here.

[19] Αt the point where I use the word “babble,” the term “χάβρα,” which literally means “a synagogue,” is used in the original. Especially in past decades, this term was used colloquially to connote “a mess, a situation where too many people speak simultaneously and unintelligibly.” Seferis uses this term at least once more in his oeuvre, in a more neutral mode, but equally to describe his dislike of the Greek State and his sentimental detachment from his professional obligations towards it: in his self-analytical “Sep. ’41 Manuscript,” often cited here, he states: “I was like a Christian who, due to the needs of livelihood [«από βιοποριστική ανάγκη»], had joined the service of a Synagogue [«χάβρα»]” (24).

[20] The title of Dimiroulis (1997) alone testifies to this.

[21] This expression figures—for the first and only time in Seferis’s poetry, to my knowledge— in «Νεόφυτος ο έγκλειστος μιλά—» (“Neophytos the Recluse [or “the Cloisterer,” in alternative English rendering] Speaks,” from Logbook III).


Published in: Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 37, Number 2, October 2019, pp.


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