“It is not, then, nostalgia that begets memory, but the insatiable thirst gnawing on our insides and our mind, a thirst that cannot be quenched, no matter how hard you try to elude it. The fountain you seek is not easy to find, you don’t even know whether it exists or not… And if it is found, no-one can safely say it will be enough to slake your thirst…”
For November, it is with great pleasure that we welcome to Radio Art an extraordinary artist and man of letters, Giorgos Stavrianos, one of the top Greek creators. Giorgos Stavrianos has studied at the School of Letters and Humanities in Nancy, France, holds degrees in Greek and French philology, and is a doctor in philosophy. Also remarkable is his work in literature and music. He has taught Art and Culture at the Universities of Macedonia and Western Macedonia. His literary work numbers five novels so far. Of these the most recent is “Forbidden Areas”, published in 2018. He has also published essays and studies in the fields of culture, history, philosophy, and art. Apart from writing and music, he has taken an interest, among other things, in radio and television, where his conversations and interventions have served to describe our restless times, posing crucial questions concerning the future of humanity. He is known for his conversations with important intellectuals like Jack Lang, France’s former Minister of Culture and Education, Spyros Evaggelatos, Giorgos Babiniotis, and many others. He made his record industry debut in the summer of 1982. In total, he has released nineteen albums, eight of which have been re-released. He has worked with Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, and with most important Greek music creators. A multifaceted personality, he has produced significant works in music, literature, philosophy and art in general. I would describe him as a philosopher, a poet of speech and music both.
I hope you enjoy my following conversation with him:
L.M: Dear Mr Stavrianos welcome to Radio Art, we are overjoyed to have you here with us.
G.S: Dear Mr Mitropoulos It is a special pleasure for me too, talking on such a remarkable radio, one with a name many would envy, I believe.
L.M: Thank you very much. With everything happening around us, what are your views on the modern era?
G.S: The modern era is a normality, in the sense that it heralds an impending storm. This kind of thing is a normality in history, you know, there are tremors announcing every major crisis. As if history itself is saying “watch out”.
L.M: I think you are right. As you know, several scientific approaches use a pattern of circles to describe this process.
G.S: Exactly so. These circles do exist, and are repeating themselves, unfortunately, maybe because nature or the universe don’t have the necessary imagination to write a different history, or maybe because this is just the way things are, the way things have to happen.
L.M: Your studies and later career show a great interest in philosophy, which is especially intriguing. Could you tell us, in a few words, how can philosophy help us today, if indeed it can? Kostas Axelos, the seminal thinker and philosopher, used to say that our age is in decline and we are witnessing the end of philosophy. Do you agree?
G.S: Absolutely. It’s not only Axelos -whom I adore and admire- who has said this, but many famous contemporary American philosophers too. What is happening in our time is that philosophy is going hand-in-hand with technique, that is high technique, let’s say high technology. This means it cannot be limited to theory alone, it has to follow scientific progress. And it is science that dictates philosophical conclusions and the theories arising from them. There are astrophysicists like Hubert Reeves, a truly gigantic figure, an astrophysicist and philosopher both, the two identities hardly distinguishable from one another. There are other cases too, like the immortal Plato and the ancient Greeks, who had already said much, using the meager means available to them, they had identified lots of phenomena with precision, measured distances, the distance between the Earth and the Moon, the Earth’s circumference, not to mention Plato’s world of ideas, which is gradually resurfacing, by the way. You know, all these are the fuel on which philosophy runs, it blossomed in the 17th-18th centuries, post-Renaissance, and is strangely reemerging today; the teachings and theories may not be exactly the same they were, but many of the Platonic models are returning.
L.M: In several of your interviews and writings you talk a lot about the digital age and our situation today. Truly, we are undergoing a phase of torrential digitalization of our lives. Do you believe that this cloud, this digital world, will trigger further tectonic changes in the world, since we are talking about a revolution that only began in the last twenty years?
G.S: The most crucial, the most important changes. We are now dealing with a metaverse, a meta-universe, with virtual reality, with the robotification of everything. We are talking about robots trying to develop consciousness and choice, an issue as significant for scientific progress as it is disastrous. Today, the digital age reigns sovereign, one cannot survive without keeping in tune with this digital evolution.
L.M: And what about the emotional parameters that constitute the human condition? Are they to weaken, is emotion destined to oblivion?
G.S: The world is slowly becoming de-emotionalized. I don’t want to use this terrible word, fascisticized, the very thought of which is horrifying, but this is sometimes an historic necessity, enforced by history itself, for reasons unknown. Perhaps for reasons we cannot practically comprehend, but are dictated by history. And this ties in with the de-emotionalization of people, the solitude around them. You see, the pandemics and everything that comes after, the fear and terror of a nuclear disaster, nothing is coincidental, these things have changed the world, altered the mentality of every single one of us, awakened dormant phobias, caused children to turn into teenagers, suddenly all grown up -a dire implication- and as a result the society is teetering, unable to resist effectively, for there is a lack of great leaders, they are completely absent, the times have changed completely, the world, despite coming to a postwar balance of terror with the two superpowers, has eventually been brought to its knees. There is no stable point of reference. And, in the background, science never stops running forward, imagine how fast it will be progressing tomorrow. The billions of our neurons will be incapable of comprehending the entirety of what will be happening in a given time, not tomorrow, but in the span of ten or twenty years.
L.M: Do you believe art could function as a counterweight to all those we will have to face?
G.S: Art is dead, Mr. Mitropoulos. It is at death’s door, in the final throes. I’m not specifically referring to Greece, for in Greece there are several people, intellectuals and artists, who keep trying, who have the acumen, the daemon, as Plato would say, yet are unable to stand their ground against the merciless flow of events. Art has always flourished in times when everything else was in decline, when there was no potential for development. Today, the cataclysmic progress means art is incapable of adapting. Let us take Xenakis, for example. His music is more philosophy than music, it mostly consists of cosmic sounds, an attempt to comprehend the world around him. All these lead, in my opinion, to an art not quite as we know it today. Naturally, we cannot know how it will be tomorrow.
L.M: Wouldn’t it be possible for art to join forces with other areas of human knowledge, to create a new face for us, in a new situation?
G.S: When you hear that there was an exhibition of paintings created by robots, what do you expect? A robotification of everything is upon us, it may sound funny today, one might say, well, it happened once, it won’t happen again. But this process is gathering speed. Humanism as we know it is over. It’s lost, we must invent a new kind of humanism, we have to stand by new values, in a reckoning of global scale. Politics is essentially non-existent. Extreme capitalism is leveling everything in its path. Even ideologies have collapsed. Some people are still looking to Marx for answers, yet Marx hasn’t told everything, unfortunately, or hasn’t told everything right, in my own humble opinion. Liberal democracy will founder. And what is democracy today, anyway? We see appalling scenes playing out every single day, scenes that make you say “My God, to think I live in a democratic country”.
L.M: The thing is, could we imagine what kind of humanism and ethics we need today? I understand it is quite hard to establish this, as you said before.
G.S: This will depend on the way humanity and technology align with one another, on what tomorrow will bring. Will it bring a bionic man, a hybrid human being? There are similar examples today, you know. There are implants that can be applied to the human organism and make it function as a hybrid. We don’t know how this thing will develop, or what the consequences will be. Will it lead to a new ice age? To ages we cannot even imagine right now? I don’t know, and no-one can foresee it.
L.M: Let me focus on this for a moment. Do you think it is possible for materialism to prevail over a new intellectuality?
G.S: No, never. Intellect is at the start of everything, first there was the word. Everything is immaterial, there is an immaterial reality, studied today by quantum mechanics, a field which has made tremendous progress towards this direction, the conciliation of this micro-universe with Einstein’s mega-universe. The micro-universe is not the same as the mega-universe. The micro-universe belongs to reality, in my opinion. I read an article on immortality the other day, it said that quanta are potentially of crucial importance there, in a way we will not discuss in detail here, because it is very specific and complicated, but this is what scientists are working on now.
L.M: Talking about quanta, your latest book, which I found extraordinary, includes a small chapter on quanta.
G.S: The book is about a quest, a metaphysical quest, I attempt to understand who I am, who we are, our inner selves. Exactly like dark matter, which forms the largest part of the universe and is invisible, yet directs the world. You see, without dark matter there would be no balance, the planets would collide, chaos would rule. Likewise, we have the unconscious part of ourselves, which is terra incognita. Freud tried, as did the neo-Freudians and Lacan, but these attempts came to a stop with the advent of contemporary technology and science. And this world directs us, we cannot know whether the decisions we take at a given moment are dictated by our consciousness or if they have been pre-decided for us, as I say early in the book, and we simply follow the path.
L.M: Hence the title, “Forbidden Areas”, I imagine.
G.S: They are exactly the areas we are forbidden to trespass, there is a law against transgression. The same goes for science. I believe that at some point, provided the world hasn’t been destroyed first, it will reach a state where it won’t be able to progress further, because there won’t be sufficient brain power to fathom whatever is happening beyond the visible world.
L.M: I would like us to move on to your artistic work. Your latest album was “Wolf, are you there?” is that right?
G.S: Yes, the wolf is always here. A nazi salute in the middle of a courtroom is evidence enough of that.
L.M: So the wolf was here all along. The question is, can we send him away, or would that be plain utopia?
G.S: I think it would be utopic, although it’s a good thing utopia exists too, and not just dystopia. However, as I said before, we are going through an extremely transitional period, where everything can happen, bringing a completely different tomorrow.
L.M: So this means utopia can be useful in some areas of our lives?
G.S: Of course it can, and the same goes for dreams. A person who doesn’t dream, not just in sleep, but in life too, who acts with no purpose, no eroticism -in the good sense of the term- even in art, in poetry, cinema, everywhere, is losing a great part of their essential self, in my opinion.
L.M: You have said a very interesting thing, that “we are all, more or less, clowns in the beautiful yet incomprehensible game of life”.
G.S: Aren’t we? We are clowns, acting out a comedy which may not even really touch us, deep down. Perhaps we are trying to make others -or ourselves- laugh, while avoiding other pitfalls. Or evading them. Yes, there is something clownish about us, but a clown is always sad, you know. There never was a happy clown.
L.M: At some point in your latest book, I remember a sentence that made a particular impression on me, saying “life itself is but another form of dreaming, only differing as to the level. Whatever we really think does not exist”. Is life but a dream, after all?
G.S: Well, if we look to Plato, it is indeed. A dream, a kind of dream. We don’t know what is reality and whether this is reality. For instance, we look at an object and see it is solid, yet it is actually composed of billions of atoms, penetrated by various wavelengths of light, invisible to us, and so we perceive all these as a solid object. It’s not this way, though.
L.M: Moving on to your academic role, as a teacher, what is your experience of young people today? Can teachers ignite their minds?
G.S: Few can ignite the minds of young people, many of whom, to be fair, demonstrate curiosity, intellectual curiosity, and have the potential to reach high summits. However, teachers, even at the university, are not equipped with the intellectual-technological material necessary to help students and make them part of a unique experience. As for me, I crossed over from the art world to that of the university fifteen years ago. Since then, I have had numerous wonderful experiences. There have been many times when I learned from the same students I was teaching.
L.M: What if we were to make a political revision of today’s Greece? What would you say to that?
G.S: Well, Greece certainly is a democratic country, in the broad sense, I wouldn’t say that fascism reigns in Greece. You know, Greece is not under a fascist threat at the moment, the percentage is too low and gradually disappearing altogether. Fascism will not be able to prevail unless unthinkable things happen. However, democracy needs to redefine itself, my view is that there are no great political leaders. There is a major shortage of them. Churchill, de Gaulle, those were the last of them, figures that left their mark on an entire era and paved the way for things as they are today. Now the world is quivering, there is a seismic tremor of several Richters. And here democracy is helpless in restricting disastrous phenomena, which are harmful to existence itself, to psychology, art, philosophy, and life. No-one can know what the future holds. In our troubled times, anything can happen, any time, completely reversing the situation. There can be no predictions, you see they are even planning missions to Mars, searching for a new home to ensure the continuation of life, beyond Earth. But all these are light years into the future. They won’t happen tomorrow. The question is what happens today, tomorrow. We are in need of rules.
L.M: Correct. No society can function without rules and respect.
G.S: And respect. And sobriety. Responsibility in art, in science. You would be mortified if you read about the scams happening every single day, or the orgy of political sympathies and antipathies. You might ask, are all these limited to Greece? No, they found elsewhere too. But on a smaller scale. Other countries have a rigid justice system, capable of even bringing ministers or prime ministers to trial. There is no such thing here.
L.M: Indeed, this has been a negative characteristic of our country for many years now.
G.S: Greece has been this way since the Renaissance, unfortunately. This was the great damage done to our country. It was under the sway of another religion, another people, with different complexes, history, and philosophy. And so it didn’t manage to experience the same miracle Western Europe did, which was essentially the ancient Greek miracle. And all those things accomplished in Europe, all of today’s grandeur, the magnificent cities we visit and admire, Kapodistrias and some others attempted to reintroduce to Greece, yet everything was destroyed. Athens used to be the world’s most beautiful city, in the opinion of some Austrian visitors in the 19th or early 20th century, if I’m not mistaken. The mansions of Athens were of unique beauty, for they had this Ionian lightness, the sunlit, elegant form. Athens has been destroyed. Only the Acropolis is left standing, surrounded by ugly city blocks. But the rest of Europe is an entirely different matter. And a child growing up in such an environment, exposed to this kind of imagery, is sure to develop similar feelings and urges later in life. This means we cannot expect new Greeks to be perfect, for they are not familiar with perfection from a young age. However, I believe things are getting better, if at a snail’s pace, and let us hope they will get better while this situation holds.
L.M: We have to stay optimistic, there are things to be optimistic about.
G.S: There are indeed. There are individuals of amazing knowledge. I cannot recall names right now, but I have watched interviews of truly impressive people, who unfortunately don’t reside in Greece. They live abroad, offer their services abroad. And we just brag about how they, too, are Greek, and we are made of the same material. Yet it is not so.
L.M: This is a minority, however.
G.S: Indeed. Konstantinos Daskalakis, for example, I remembered one of them. A man of particularly bright intellect, who doesn’t live in Greece.
L.M: He teaches at MIT.
G.S: Nanopoulos, another great scientist and visionary. There are so many. But art will not save Greece.
L.M: I wouldn’t be too pessimistic about art.
G.S: It’s always the same old people, plowing the same old fields.
L.M: What are your views on Greek art music?
G.S: There are remarkable endeavors in the genre, yet they are too often stifled. They are not allowed to flourish, as the old formations always return. Along with the oriental memories of the past. Everyone is considered great, huge… the scale has grown entirely out of proportion. I mean, if a one songwriter is to be called huge, what can one say about Mozart? And even Hadjidakis or Theodorakis, I might add. Not everyone is of the same scale, there are different grades. But the basis of it all is a holy alliance which, for reasons of personal interest or complacency or many other factors, will not allow modern Greek song to develop a new mythos, a new expression.
L.M: Unfortunately, all but a few of the traditional media are replaying the same artists over and over. Likewise, great films are rarely shown on television.
G.S: The same can be told about Greek cinema. Most films are, quite frankly, rubbish, utterly naive, and are truly beneath the level of their audience. And yet they are shown again and again, and people watch them, there are those who are waiting anxiously for them. On the other hand, let us take Nikos Koundouros. Has anyone watched the “Little Venuses”? Films of such caliber and quality have never been shown, much less replayed.
L.M: There is a similar thing in music, too. There are noteworthy works at times, but they are seldom aired on radios.
G.S: This brings to mind my own example, the radios insist on replaying the “Desolate City”, which came out in ‘82 and is fortunately always relevant. However, I have recorded eighteen new works since then, some of them better than the “Desolate City”. Some of my themes have gone into global circulation. They have become international hits, and yet they are either not played, or played so sparsely they are forgotten. You don’t have any option but to accept the situation they present to you. It’s this system, so consumerist, how may I describe it?
L.M: Controlled, maybe?
G.S: Controlled, indeed. Being a radio producer is no small affair, it requires an education. One has to be up to date and possess many different qualities, if they are to become a radio producer. There are thousands of independent radio stations today. You know, everyone wants to be someone. But everyone is someone, that’s what they don’t understand. There are no eponymous people. Everyone is eponymous. It’s simply that this ill-advised eponymity causes us to lose our way.
L.M: We occasionally receive various messages from our station’s listeners. I was particularly intrigued by a moving message we took a few days ago, written by a student from Uppsala in Sweden, on your song “My father came”.
G.S: Written by Makis Tsitas, my colleague. A very talented person, Makis Tsitas. The words are his, as is the experience behind them, and it’s his technique and writing power that allows them to be experienced by everyone. This is the true power of song. A personal emotion can be communicated to others, becoming a universal emotion. And Makis has accomplished this. It’s not just this song, there is “My old self”, with excellent, completely innovative lyrics. Or the one sung by Venetsanou, “Don’t ask”. Extremely relevant today. Makis is blessed with the temperament of an introspective person. And he constantly proves this, he does what he does, he is serious about it. He does not look serious, like many of those we hear about every day, he is serious. Being serious most of all requires modesty, frugality.
L.M: I’d also like you to tell us about your collaborations with our country’s greatest composers, Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis.
G.S: I didn’t have a particularly warm relationship with Manos Hadjidakis. I was never his friend. I met him several times. Hadjidakis had his own court, his own circle. He had the all-powerful Eleni Vlachou, Melina Merkouri, many important people, the old Karamanlis. His was a natural talent, and thanks to this he rose to prominence throughout the entirety of Greece. I recorded an album with him at Sirius, with him as an editor. I believe he liked my music, that’s why it was released by Sirius in the first place, but we had no immediate fondness for one another.
L.M: No chemistry, we could say.
G.S: Chemistry, yes. Hadjidakis always liked people who trusted him completely and were something like his pupils. I was never one of his disciples. I took inspiration from him, but never imitated him. All things considered, our relationship was characterized by a formal sort of politeness. However, there were always plenty of ill-wishers in our circles, always ready to undermine relationships. I had an amazing relationship with Mikis, we gave lectures together, and with Dimitris Christodoulou, who was a nearly constant companion of mine in Lykovrisi and Kolonaki. I have met almost every single member of Greece’s artistic scene.
L.M: Can you tell me about a particularly joyful moment you can recall?
G.S: Mayday in Crete. Making May wreaths with our hands. The sea, which was the greatest love of my life. My mother’s village, Agios Thomas, where I used to spend my summers as a child. There are many happy moments, yet happiness cannot be grasped, captured, or stored. Happiness is but a fleeting moment, it comes and then it’s gone.
L.M: What do you consider most important in life?
G.S: What I think is important in life is to never try to harm others for your own good.
L.M: And what is the conclusion of your life until today, if you had to express it in a few words?
G.S: I know that I know nothing. Religiously, I am an agnostic, we do not know what exists and what doesn’t. There may be some kind of terrifying, unfathomable entity out there which, similar to a massive computer, rules the universe and its complexities. We could say that many have claimed that it was born from chaos, but how was chaos created, how did it come to exist? There are always questions to be asked about the beginning of things. And so I consider myself an agnostic, I respect religion, every religion, though I’m not a religious person.
L.M: Besides, religion can act as a support for many people who find shelter there, or maybe atonement.
G.S: It is a personal matter, exactly like love. It depends on whether you are seeking refuge or adventure and knowledge. Many are those who turn to religion, and I absolutely respect that. I have visited Agio Oros, talked to remarkable elders, fully respected the place, there is nothing else to add. And I also believe that religion is going to evolve in the future, from a cosmogonic point of view. For instance, if life forms were to be discovered on other planets, this would immediately shatter the cosmological ideology concerning the birth of mankind. Man’s uniqueness would be no more, there would be other intelligent species. We cannot know yet what this would bring. Are there multiverses, and where do they end? Is there an end, a beginning? Without a beginning or an end, we are living in a world incomprehensible to the human mind.
L.M: Your songs, music and books leave me with the impression that you are a poet of speech and music. Especially concerning your latest book, “Forbidden Areas”, I felt like I was watching an excellent film while reading it. The writing was beautiful, there was a good connection between themes, philosophy permeated the entire book, memory was everywhere in the pages… I’d say it was captivating.
G.S: But in a non-oppressive way. When writing a novel, the author has to use everything in correct comprehensible doses. Otherwise we would be writing a thesis, an essay.
L.M: Literature and poetry should always be comprehensible, they shouldn’t just be cerebral constructs, impossible to understand.
G.S: Creating incomprehensible constructs is a cover for the insecurity of some people, so they can appear important. I believe that people read little, too little. I’m not referring to studying, but to reading. Being capable of reading and understanding a book is essential, it isn’t the same as simply leafing through it.
L.M: Is there anything else you would like to say before we conclude our conversation?
G.S: I wish people will see sense and keep up with the times, accepting reality as it is, without screams of anguish, and that they will make sure to accept the day after, without fear. And I think this is also a survival strategy. Adaptation. And that we live in a time of miracles. There are many miracles coming our way, not in the conventional sense, but miracles of science that will leave us speechless.
L.M: Closing, I’d like to return to the “Forbidden Areas” for a moment, to read a small, enchanting passage.
“You traveled, you loved and were loved, betrayed and were betrayed, bandied thoughts with sages and fools and holy men. And right when you’re about to grasp the beginning, it is as if you are already at the end. What necessity do you serve? Who will stand witness to your life? And all this wandering music, where does it come from? Where does it go? A sweet rosy light is dawning behind the mountains. Their blood is in your veins, and your mind has something of their own eternal silence”.
G.S: I like the passage you chose to read, too.
L.M: Mr Stavrianos, thank you for your presence on Radio Art.
G.S: I thank you too, Mr Mitropoulos, for this sincerely interesting conversation.