Against the recent PhD on Nathanael Bertos

By: | Post date: 2017-09-19 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Culture, Literature, Mediaeval Greek

My post on Nathanael Bertos was occasioned by a Google search that led me to find out that there had been a recent PhD thesis, which had just been published, by Despoina Athanasiadou-Stefanoudaki.

I bought the book. Bertos was advertised as one of the earliest writers in Greek vernacular prose, and I knew nothing about him; a PhD thesis dedicated to him seemed a great opportunity.

I was disappointed. Bitterly disappointed.

And because this is my blog, not Quora’s or Crete Uni’s or whoever’s, and because I don’t particularly have to claw any man in his humour since I’m not working in academia, I’ll tell you why.

Not that Athanasiadou-Stefanoudaki is that foreboding a target.

There are illegitimate reasons for me to dislike her work, and I’ll get them out of the way first.

  • It is not a legitimate reason for me to dislike her work that this is a theology PhD. As far as I’m concerned, theology is a branch of philosophy, even if it’s one which wears its axioms and biases on its sleeve. A lot of good work can and has been done in theology.
  • It is not a legitimate reason that she proudly announces herself in her blurb as έγγαμη και υπερπολύτεκνη, “married and hyperpolyteknos (having more than five children)”. In Greek contemporary culture, that is a clear signal of fanatical adherence to Orthodoxy; but she’s doing a theology PhD, so that’s hardly a surprise.
  • It is not a legitimate reason that she’s not an academic, and is working as a secondary school teacher. I’m not working as an academic either, and I’d like to think that doesn’t make me dumb. It just makes me not well connected or suicidally persistent.
  • It is not a legitimate reason that this is her second PhD, her first having been in Byzantine literature. Second PhDs are looked on as an oddity for a reason, and that reason is tied up with the professional development of an academic: your first PhD was meant to be apprenticeship enough, and your time is supposed to be spent producing in your current field, not apprenticing in neighbouring fields. (It’s not actually switching fields that is frowned upon.) But she is not working as an academic, and if her work allows her to re-apprentice, the more power to her.
  • It is not a legitimate reason that her PhD is available online, and the book doesn’t seem to have added much value to it. That’s the risk you take with any published PhD.
  • It is not a legitimate reason that she spends 300 pages discussing Bertos’ work, without republishing Bertos so you can see for yourself what the hell she’s talking about. It’s annoying, sure, and a book might have taken the occasion to republish at least the corpus of 14 smaller sermons. But she’s not obligated to republish, let alone re-edit, work that is already available. And I got unspeakably lucky that the journal where the sermons had been published has moved its content online.
  • It is not a legitimate reason that she did not take the opportunity to publish those sermons by Bertos that have not yet been published, and which she does cite from manuscript. This is not a literature PhD but a theology PhD; and at least she doesn’t rub it in by doing a detailed analysis of those sermons. A new edition was underway by Nikolaos Panagiotakis when he died a couple of decades ago, and it may yet surface, like his edition of Sachlikis just did.

So much for that. Because there’s plenty of legitimate reasons.

  • Copy-pasting slabs of text from nationalist historians in her introduction, and defensive theologians in her analyses, as a way of advancing an argument. Presenting others’ arguments, at great length, is not advancing your own argument, and being selective about who you cite to advance your opinion is not much better.
  • Not having much original theologically to say. Hence the copy pasting.
    • Admittedly, it’s not like Bertos was in the theological originality business: the guys that were were the guys that were flirting with Catholicism (and later on Protestantism—which is why I was amused to see her mention Cyril Lucaris approvingly.) There was hardly a thought in Bertos’ sermons that Chrysostom hadn’t put there in his own sermons. And being sermons, that’s what you’d expect.
  • Spending pages of purported rhetorical analysis of the sermons spent on enumerating all questions, all imperatives, all interjections used. By the time you’re itemising “Amen” at the end of each sermon as an interjection, I’m not convinced your endeavour is worthwhile any more.
  • Indulging anachronistic notions in her introduction of church-sponsored nationalism in Venetian Crete. That’s the fault of the historians she’s copy pasting (who were writing way too recently for that to be tolerable), but it’s her fault too—the more so as she alludes to the holes in that view of Bertos. Bertos does after all end up preaching loyalty to the Signioria (the Venetian authorities), in the middle of yet another Cretan insurrection (Sifis Vlastos’). And loyalty to the secular authorities was what Orthodox Christianity always preached, whether the authorities were Ottoman or Venetian. But don’t then turn around and say that the Orthodox Church was at the forefront of keeping Greek national consciousness alive. Not the Church that ended up declaring nationalism a heresy.
  • Dismissing Michael Apostolius as a Uniate schoolteacher that noone paid any attention to. Apostolius is the last author that Classicists pay attention to (he wrote a collection of Ancient Greek proverbs), and one of the pioneers of the Renaissance; he may have been a dogmatic enemy, but he deserves a little more respect than that. (Wikipedia notes that he actually penned an anti-Catholic work, which confuses me further.)
  • Applauding Bertos’ killjoy, miserable counsels as expressions of paternal concern towards his flock, when no human of flesh and blood would endure them, and I’d be doubtful that that many theologians would take them seriously. Saying priests are more important than God. Saying that blasphemy is a greater sin than murder. Saying that “Go to the Devil” is blasphemy. Saying that subsistence farmers needing to work on Sunday to stay alive (they would run out of grain in March, and go begging) is a sinful indulgence.
    • And she insists that Bertos was not a misogynist, even if he does single out women in church for indecorous appearance and gossip; a salve to her conscience, perhaps, but not a compelling one.
  • Making the throwaway, facile comment that the moral laxity of 15th century Crete is to be blamed on the presence in towns of Venetians and—yes, she actually went there—Jews. (And when she says “multicultural” with regard to Venetian Crete, I don’t get the feeling she uses the term with approval.)
    • Of course Bertos’ said bad, if generic, things about Jews: all Orthodox clergy did. (Generic enough that he actually calls their synagogues μαγίδας, a corruption of masjid “mosque”.) And of course Bertos conscripted the Jews in his arguments in sermon 9, about observing Sunday as a day of rest (“Whoever does not rest from the 9th hour until the second hour after sunrise is no Christian, but a Jew and an enemy of God. Yet see, brethren, how the accursed race of the Jews observe the Sabbath…”) And of course the West now regards antisemitism as a cardinal sin, certainly more of a sin than blasphemy. There’s a very good reason for that.
    • I’d have to read more Cretan history than I have done (in fact, the thesis has inspired me to), but I’d be surprised if the Crete of 1100, before the Venetians arrived on the island and seemingly corrupted its morals, was Judenrein. For that matter, I don’t remember seeing an argument that Plantagenet Judenrein England was somehow a moral light unto the nations. Perhaps the presence of 1100 Jews on the island was not particularly relevant to the levels of public morality. At least when Panagiotakis spoke of the moral laxity of 1350s Crete in his lecture on Sachlikis, he gave the more plausible pretext that the Black Death had made people indifferent about hellfire.

My moment of wanting to fling the thesis at the wall did not come with her cardinal sin. There was an even more fundamental misstep, in my book, in her analysis of the same sermon, where Bertos reminisced about how much more moral people were in his youth:

ποῦ ἦν οἱ καιροὶ καὶ οἱ χρόνοι οἱ εὐλογημένοι, οὓς εἶδον ἐγὼ ὁ ταπεινός, οἱ εὐθυμίας πεπλουτισμένοι καὶ χαρᾶς καὶ ἀγαλλιάσεως; καὶ γὰρ τότε ἡ Ἱεράπετρος ὀρφανοτρόφος ἐκαλεῖτο καὶ ἐλέγετο· νῦν δὲ πῶς κατῆλθεν εἰς ὀλίγον καὶ εἰς ἀφανισμὸν καὶ ἐσχάτην πτωχείαν. καὶ τοῦτο οὐ γέγονεν εἰμὴ ὑπὸ τῆς κακίας καὶ πονηρίας ἡμῶν. ἀφ’ ὅτου δὲ ἐπέρασαν οἱ παλαιοὶ καὶ καλοὶ ἄνθρωποι οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν Θεόν, καὶ ἔσωσεν ἡ ὕστερος ἑκατοντάς· ἤλλαξαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι καὶ τὰ ἤθη καὶ αἱ φορεσίαι τῶν ἀνθρώπων καὶ ἡ γνώμη καὶ ἡ ὑπόληψις καὶ ἡ ἀνθρωπότης. καὶ ἐγένετο ἄλλος κόσμος και ἄλλη γνώμη καὶ ἄλλη κατάσταστις, καὶ ὀλίγον τὸ κατ’ ὀλίγον ἐξέκλινεν ὁ λαός, καὶ οὔτε τῆς ἐκκλησίας ἀκοῦσαι θέλουν οὔτε διδασκάλου, οὐδὲ συμβουλήν καλοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ γέροντος, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον ληροῦσι τοὺς γέροντας καὶ καταφρονοῦσιν. καὶ παίζουσιν ὡς δῆθεν αὐτοὶ φρονιμώτεροι ὑπάρχουσιν καὶ λογίζονται ὅτι ὁ κόσμος καὶ οἱ ἄνθρωποι οὕτως ἦσαν ἐξ ἀρχῆς, ὥσπερ ἦν σήμερον.

Where are the blessed times and years that I beheld, humble as I am, rich with merriment and joy and gladness? And then Ierapetra [Bertos’ home town] was known and named as the Feeder of Orphans. But now how it has descended to insignificance and devastation and utmost poverty! And this has happened only because of our evil and malice. For the old good people who feared God have passed, and the last century has been left; people have changed, and mores, and peoples’ dress, and opinion, and respect, and humanity; and a different world and opinion and situation has taken their place. And little by little the people have fallen off, and they do not wish to listen to either the church or a teacher, nor the advice of a good man or an elder: they would rather mock elders and treat them with contempt. And they laugh that they are supposedly wiser, and they fancy that the world and people have been like they are today since the beginning.

Athanasiadou-Stefanoudaki has the integrity to point out that Nilus Damilas, who was abbot in Bertos’ monastery fifty years before (and who Bertos names as an authority in an unpublished sermon), wrote a sermon during the halcyon days Bertos was reminiscing about, saying exactly what Bertos said about his own generation.

She could have gone the further step and said that maybe, just maybe, Bertos was full of it when he was saying that the Ierapetrans of 1420 were so much more moral than the Ierapetrans of 1470; that this was the reminiscence of a naive child conscripted into an ascetic’s resentment. And for that matter, maybe Damilas was just as full of it back in 1420. And maybe the Crete of 1100 was not a high tide of virtue, because humans were just as fallen—and just as virtuous—under Constantinople as they were under Venice, or Saracendom, or Rome (where Crete actually belonged ecclesiastically until the 9th century), or in St Paul’s day, when he used Epimenides’ testimony against them in his epistle to Titus. And maybe those peasants that Bertos mocks for fancying that “the world and people have been like they are today since the beginning” weren’t all that wrong after all.

She didn’t. She didn’t have to anyway, and she was unlikely to; but she didn’t. And that is an abdication.

One Comment

  • gbaloglou says:

    I think that our Greek Orthodox religion, if not the Greek Orthodox church per se, helped us preserve what we would today call our ethnic identity — national identity not quite, but ethnic identity certainly yes. (And what the time was ripe and the circumstances favorable, ethnic was not that hard to turn into national; of course there is the thesis that this turn could never take without western influence and/or the Enlightment — speaking of “ripe time” and “favorable circumstances”…)

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