What is the dirtiest work of Modern Greek literature?

By: | Post date: 2017-08-05 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Literature, Mediaeval Greek, Modern Greek

I know of three contenders; and having rebrowsed through one, I’m eliminating it from contention. I am, by the way, extending the definition back to 1000 AD.

The contender I have not read (yet) is the only contender from the past century: The Great Eastern, by Greek surrealist Andreas Embirikos. It’s an encyclopaedia of all kinds known of sexual activity, ranging from wet dreams to coprophagia, and from missionary to incest. It’s pretty much 120 Days of Sodom on a boat, except it’s supposed to be liberating and utopian instead of nasty and dystopian. And eccentrically for 20th century literature, it is in Puristic Greek, which is meant to give it a Cavafy-esque detachment. (The two tiny excerpts on Wikipedia, which are clean, make it sound more like a 19th century romance novel, but that’s not what I should be judging it from.)

The contender I’ve just re-read is the poetry of Stephanos Sachlikis, written ca 1370 in Crete. I’ve written a little on him already at Ooh! He Said ‘Fuck’! He must be a revolutionary! by Nick Nicholas on Opɯdʒɯlɯklɑr In Exile. This question was inspired by the late editor Nikos Panagiotakis’ prefatory comment, that his poetry is the dirtiest work of Greek literature up until The Great Eastern.

… I don’t think Panagiotakis, God rest him, got out much. No. It isn’t. Sure, Sachlikis says “fuck” a lot, when talking about the prostitutes of Candia. That’s the extent of it. It’s not like he enumerates positions or perversions; “friar-fucked” (φραρογαμημένη) is as colourful as he gets.

Being misogynistic about prostitutes (but then again, Sachlikis hates everybody, including himself), blaming the widow Koutayotaina for his downfall, and conjuring up a fanciful jousting match between prostitutes competing for working space in Candia—these may count as historically and psychologically informative material, and it may be a rollicking good read. (Greeks are constantly astonished at how easily they understand Sachlikis, even if there are archaic and dialectal bits there.) But dirty? Maybe in Panagiotakis’ generation; not in mine.

The prize, as far as I’m concerned, still goes to the work that Panagiotakis knew full well about, and it was special pleading for him to pretend he didn’t when he lectured on Sachlikis. It’s Spanos, the Mass of the Beardless Man.

There’s a dearth of information online about Spanos, which is a shame. Spanos is a parody of the Greek Orthodox Mass, targeting a hapless, unnamed victim who is himself spanos. Spanos means “beardless”. The late lexicographer Tassos Karanastassis argued in his PhD that Spanos is a piece of millenarian panic, written about the arrival of the Jews from Spain (Hi-spanos) in 1492 (the year 7000 by Byzantine reckoning); I didn’t find his arguments overwhelmingly convincing, but he did tap into an underexplored current of folk culture when researching it.

Spanos is relentless. Spanos is filthy. Spanos heaps obscenity upon obscenity upon its victim, whatever his origin and provenance; beatings, excrement, impalement, nothing is too brutal for him. And it does it all with note-perfect parodies of the Orthodox liturgy—including several highlights of the Good Friday Mass. As its editor Hans Eideneier notes, the spontaneous reaction of Greek cantors confronted with it is (after recovering from the shock) to start chanting along. (Karanastassis unearthed evidence that bits of Spanos were still being chanted by cantors as entertainment centuries later, in the writings of Alexandros Papadiamantis.) In fact, Spanos is so relentless, it overflows the liturgical genre, and throws in Saint’s Lives, dowry contracts and medical remedies for good measure. Kind of like a scatological Ulysses (although Ulysses is already scatological).

And it includes the very first instance of Byzantine musical notation in print.

Greece’s poet laureate Giorgos Seferis was a pretty astute critic, and he said something very perceptive about Spanos once. He liked it, because it was one of the very few instances Greek has to show of nonsense poetry. Spanos is closer in spirit to the usual exemplar of the limerick than to Edward Lear’s gentle variants of the form. But it’s just as silly, for all its viciousness, and Greek literature doesn’t really do silly all that often.

The Mass of the Beardless Man by Nick Nicholas on Hellenica

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