Book Review: Mediterranean Modernisms–The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis

Mediterranean Modernisms: The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis. By Marinos Pourgouris (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 230 pp. $70.99/£55.00 cloth.

Marinos Pourgouris’s Mediterranean Modernisms: The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis is an interesting book that reads more like a thematic collection of short essays than a unified work. Pourgouris states at the outset that his book’s five chapters examine the themes of modernism, nationalism, and the Mediterranean. His contribution to the life, poetry and literary legacy of Odysseus Elytis is indeed methodical. As the title suggests, Pourgouris attempts to disentangle the meaning of Greek identity and aesthetic in Elytis’s work and formulate his interpretation of Elytis’s poetic or more accurately, solar metaphysics. Pourgouris, furthermore, focuses on Elytis’s artistic and philosophic influence. He does so from the theoretical standpoint of poststructuralism, demonstrating the limitations of the cultural/linguistic/literary paradigm’s ability to account for the negative difference embedded in language itself. However, the extensive historical account included in the book becomes burdensome and difficult to navigate.

Pourgouris argues that there are definite similarities between Camus’s Mediterranean and Elytis’s Aegean. In fact, the author does not differentiate between the two, as according to him both Camus and Elytis are writing about and under the influence of the Mediterranean, constructing what he calls “a Mediterranean Aesthetic.” However, the differences in annual average temperatures and the vastly divergent terrain found in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, and on the islands of the Aegean Sea, I would argue, make for populations with different temperaments, values, traditions and needs.

Pourgouris is at his best when he links history to philosophy, theory and art. On the other hand, Elytis scholars have been well aware of his debt to movements such as Ancient Greek Philosophy, Surrealism, Orientalism and Christianity, just to name a few. What I find most interesting about Pourgouris’s work, however, is his ability to pose critical questions and examine the complexity of the intersections between theory and marginality. Largely informed by a late modernist (globalized) perspective, Pourgouris has compiled a substantial number of sources to argue his points.

In the first chapter, “Modernisms: From Paris to Athens,” Pourgouris gives a historical account of the development of art and poetry in Europe and Greece and the political influences that “necessitated” such development. In the words of Elytis, “1935-1945! An important decade in the chronicles of modern poetry permanently completes its circle. The polemical period is coming to an end” (p. 33).

In the second chapter, “Towards a New Mediterranean Culture,” Pourgouris takes up the limitations of poststructuralism by examining its tendencies toward negative difference, exoticization and othering. In short, he points out the ways in which poststructuralism and its advocates focus on difference without addressing its attendant compulsion: exclusion.

In the third chapter, “Theory of Analogies,” Pourgouris pieces together Elytis’s theory of Analogies, which he says was “constructed . . . from scattered references in the poet’s essays. Elytis himself does not explicitly connect these ideas in the form of a unified theory” (p. 65, N 3). Yet, if the poet himself was not interested in the need to construct such theory, it is not clear why Pourgouris has painstakingly created an idea that does not explicitly exist in the poet’s body of work. Such attempt then is futile, for according to the poet, “Everything can be assembled and disassembled except for the poet’s words” (p. 71).

In chapter four, “Solar Metaphysics,” Pourgouris claims, “Solar Metaphysics is linked to the form or structure of the entire poetic presentation” (p. 112). That is to say, the author seems to suggest that one ought to acknowledge the inevitability of referentiality and look at the challenges of modernity in art and architecture as points of departure in Elytis’s body of work.

The final chapter is devoted to what Pourgouris calls, “Architectural Poetics.” As the author puts it, the juxtaposition between Eros and Light and Death and Darkness is evident, as the concepts merge in The Monogram, Maria Nephele, The Axion Esti and The Little Seafarer. However, accepting the idea that the “modern condition” is in essence only “a condition of loss” (p. 162), negates the positive consequences of the modern condition, such as a more leisurely lifestyle, less time/space barriers, and easier communication across cultures, to name a few. Elytis, whose works celebrate the Mediterranean sun and sea, cannot be seen only as a gloomy, dark poet whose “central concepts” converge on the point where “Eros and Light” merge with “Death and Darkness” (p. 161).

The book’s rather abruptly concluded last chapter explores the ability of poetic architecture to “give shape and significance” to the poet’s meaning and “content” (p. 199). The crux of Pourgouris’s analysis then, lies on the philosophical point that “the crisis of modernism is . . . a crisis of nationality” based on the notion that Greece as the “marginalized other” is “understood both as a personal poetic resistance to the official or imposed historical narrative, and as an effort to illuminate what is suppressed or neglected, and make it public” (pp. 172, 200).

This blog was originally published on here: Katerina Zissouli’s Literature Website


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