“[Postmodernity] is a universal dismantling of power-supported structures… a site-clearing operation.” Zygmunt Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity

Aspasia stands regally under a mandarin tree on the walkway between Panepistimiou and Academias Streets. Her marble bust is well-placed between these two main thoroughfares: University and Academy Streets, in English; it is where all the student gatherings and various demonstrations have taken place in the past four, maybe it’s been five, years — hard to keep track when one lives in the midst of a city in radical flux. Athens. A modern, European city that went from hosting a glamorous 2004 Olympic Games, to being one resonant of the anarchic streets of a city more like Cairo.

Aspasia though is nonplussed; her nose is chipped and the base of her marble stand marked with the words: “Love Me If You Dare.” These scarrings, to her body in particular, are not surprising to her. Her expression is almost indifferent, or like the Mona Lisa, refuses to reveal her emotions. After all, she is witness to a torn world, one she views from her aloofness, a lofty if hurt stance next to the drug trade on the walkway, the users who publicly expose their needle-riddled flesh, others bartering and exchanging heroin. There are the days and evenings of tear gas, trash set to fire to waylay the toxic fumes that only add the stench of burning wood and plastic to the burdened atmosphere. There are the megaphone voices of the student gatherings, the magnified songs of past activists and poets such as Mikis Thedorakis and Yannis Ritsos that blare through the streets as demonstrations take place. There are the riot police. Some of whom exchange cigarettes and coffee on the various street corners, more involved it would seem with their conversations than a potential riot. After all, the jeering crowds, the sudden violence – a thrown rock, a tossed chunk of marble – have become something of a routine.

These are the consequences of austerity, the sudden, relentless changes since 2009, to the city and those living its, and their, transformations. It is a visible and palpable transformation. The surfaces of walls and statues have grown crowded with slogans and art that, like the marred edifices, the broken marble bases, chipped noses, hands, and limbs of the famous and infamous, remain like Aspasia, symbolic of the tragedy. Yet the slogans and artwork that has become familiar over the city’s walls, over both ancient and modern surfaces, irrespective of history and its legacies, constitutes a radical and restless voicing of disenfranchisement. More striking still, while the beginnings of these scarrings, the banisters stripped of their marble, the spray-painted shop windows, were initially put right, the paint washed off, the marble replaced, they have in the past year remained unfixed, much of the paint still visible. Aspasia continues to stand despite her broken nose, with her unphased expression. Who was she anyway a passerby might ask, since she has no last name, no historical dates, no plaque to explain her place in history, let alone on that Athens walkway between two main streets.

Some time ago I had come across another bust – a ship’s figurehead – with her name, in a small museum on the island of Spetses. There, in the Spetses museum, she was clearly out of her element, Aspasia having been, in her own time, a woman of controversy and influence in her paradoxically disenfranchised position. A foreigner in that she was not born in Athens, she was educated and a “hetaera”, a courtesan whose gifts (analogous to those of the Japanese Geisha) were both admired and reviled. Pericles fell in love with her. Socrates had lengthy discussions with her. Aristophanes made fun of her, criticizing her for  influencing Pericles, and contributing, he believed, to the Peloponnesian War. “Another Helen” she was called. One thing that is consistent in the evidence that survives is her talent as a conversationalist, and the fact of her intelligence.

She was not an easy person to define, or reckon with, considered immoral for her relationship with Pericles, she was a woman who had confidence in her intellect as much as her beauty, she knew too that the conventions as they existed in ancient Greece were structures in place that upheld specific relations and assumptions. I think she would have been pleased to know she was standing in the midst of so much change between Panepistimiou and Academias. Among the various slogans painted and scrawled around the city is the refrain “Wake-Up”. Zygmunt Bauman has written that the postmodern is particularly unnerving in its multiplicities, its chaos of expressions, and resistance to overriding truths: “postmodernity does not seek to substitute one truth for another, one standard of beauty for another, one life ideal for another, instead it splits the truth, the standards and the ideal into already deconstructed and about to be deconstructed.” I don’t think Aspasia would have even minded that she stands in this beginning 21st century Athens with a broken nose. Whoever sprayed “Love Me if You Dare?” at the base of her head knew she was used to breaking waves, to battles and love’s tragedies.

Adrianne Kalfopoulou is the author of two collections of poetry, Wild Greens (2002), and Passion Maps (2009). Her essays and poems have appeared in various online and print journals including Hotel Amerika, Plath Profiles, Essays&Fictions, and World Literature Today. A nonfiction collection, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. She is on the faculty of Hellenic American University, and is part of the Adjunct Faculty in the creative writing program at New York University.


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