The Parthenon Bomber
Christos Chrissopoulos, translated by John Cullen
Other Press, 2017
Across the United States, and especially in the American South, communities are struggling to interact with the space taken up by monuments. What is the relationship between a city and those memorials which dominate the landscape? Must all monuments last forever? Who decides when it is time to forget? Christos Chrissopoulos raises these questions in his stark novella The Parthenon Bomber. The story confronts an actual call to action by a group of surrealist artists living in Greece in the 1940s. In a manifesto published in 1944, poet Yorgo Makris declares, “our first act of destruction shall be the Parthenon, which is literally suffocating us,” in a theatrical effort to dismantle the promotion and propaganda of national tourism. Chrissopoulos envisions this plot fulfilled, structuring the novella into a dossier of evidence against the perpetrator and the crime. The novella serves as an interesting investigation into the moral landscape surrounding art-fueled direct action and collective memory.
German sociologist Max Weber writes in his classic work The City, “in many Mediterranean areas…a man living outside the urban walls as a rural worker and country resident is almost unknown. This is a product of century-long insecurity.” Published in 1921, Weber’s seminal work dissects the basic functions of the urban environment and its evolution through history. While the insecurity mentioned here is military in nature, it is enticing to meditate upon the contemporary layers of insecurity, anxiety and trauma experienced in a city which helped bring western civilization into being. In the opening chapter of The Parthenon Bomber the alleged perpetrator delivers a monologue on why he committed the act of destroying the Acropolis. In one telling moment, the perpetrator confesses, “here, history takes the form of a triple denial, an indifference that the city herself seems to repeat again and again: I don’t remember–it doesn’t concern me–I don’t know.” (8) This insecurity is particular to a metropolis confined by its history, and the narrator’s interpretation seems that the place itself, Athens, is begging to forget its crumbling past and forge a new identity. The reader might conclude that the narrator is projecting their own personal emotions onto the landscape, therefore scrambling the distinctions between identity and place. In the eyes of Chrissopoulos, and many urbanists, the city acts as a living being with physical traits and an emotionality which can be characterized by a citizen, an outsider, or an author. As the narrator interacts with the character of the city, trudging through the timeline and plot of history, the narrator transforms into that virtually unknown resident who lives outside the urban walls in self-imposed exile, simultaneously searching for a way in, and a way out.
This opening monologue contains another telling confession. The perpetrator admits, “I didn’t intend to do harm. I didn’t want to ruin anything. It wasn’t my intention to deprive people of a precious object. I only wished to free us from what was regarded as unsurpassable perfection. I saw myself as someone offering a gift, a way out, a provocation.” (16) Such words might have been uttered by Yorgos Makris himself. Writing his manifesto in 1944, Makris makes his call to action just one month following the end of the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War. As a radical poet, Makris viewed the destruction of the Parthenon as an “artistically superior act…of energetic action and pleasure,” which can almost certainly be read as a way to reclaim the destructive power of the war and to move forward with a new vision of global participation. What does it mean for a city to view a millenia-old object as “unsurpassable perfection?” What happens when citizens rely on the past to define them? Makris and Chrissopoulos seem to suggest that human progress stalls out. In the concluding moment of the opening monologue, the narrator looks on the Parthenon from a distance like a crazed sculptor dissatisfied with an object, “I opened my window and beheld It, aglow in Its electric orange veil. I was right. It had to come down, whatever the price…” (17)
It’s important to note too that the act of the novella causes no human harm. This is not an act of domestic terrorism. It is a demonstration grounded in artistic, philosophical and civic ideas. While such an act might instill fear into a population (more a fear of potential bodily harm than of cultural loss), for Makris and the perpetrator of Chrissopoulos’s novella, the destruction of the Parthenon is a performative artist statement intended to awaken a new urgency. There is no pain, no death. The emotional response from such a statement is similar to any viewer reacting to a powerful piece of art. In this case, Athens serves as a museum for the Parthenon, and the spectacle of its destruction is an exhibit of contemporary remediation.
This does not mean of course that the act remains inexcusable. As the novella progresses, the reader interprets the evidence like a juror, hearing eyewitness accounts of several people who knew the perpetrator. Chrissopoulos cleverly introduces “Evidentiary Material” such as documents and photographs by Yorgos Makris found in the possession of the perpetrator. The final chapter, grimly titled “Sentence and Punishment,” reveals another monologue, this time spoken by a soldier responsible for punishing the perpetrator. A discontented young man struggling to cope with military life, the soldier explains his strange state of mind as he performs the routines of duty, constantly entering into hallucinatory dreams, experiencing disillusionment and confusion. His state of mind reads much like the troubled monologue delivered by the perpetrator at the opening of the book. Chrissopoulos bookends his novella with these two discontented citizens; a resident in one of the oldest cities of the world, and the other a soldier entrusted to protect it. The soldier confesses, “How can you tell if you’re walking for real or if it’s your imagination running away with you again? It’s not easy to live with a mind that’s always playing tricks on you.” Words which might have been spoken by the very man this soldier was ordered to punish. Chrissopoulos creates a dialogue centered around space, time and the social construction of beeing with these two monologues. With such deft subtlety, the novella concerns itself with one of the most continual questions of existence: How do we, as people, reconcile our past within our communities of the present?
In Richmond, VA there exists a grand boulevard simply named Monument Avenue. Lined by opulent historic homes, it was, and is, a preeminent street of residential Richmond. It’s name though, derives from the monuments to Confederate generals built at each intersection and surrounded by wide traffic circles. A product of the Reconstruction South, these monuments loom large and represent a glorification of a sordid history. There have been many small acts to deface these monuments, and the conversation about their place within the contemporary community is growing. In many ways, Richmond feels burdened by its Civil War past. Communities across the American historical landscape repeat the mantra of Chrissopoulos’s Athens, “I don’t remember–It doesn’t concern me–I don’t know.” Chrissopoulos’s novella is a timely examination of how monuments dominate urban landscapes, and in some ways, subjugate citizens to a forced collective memory. The novella’s final page bears an epigraph taken from contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Profanations, “The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation.” Acting as the case file of a particular crime, The Parthenon Bomber imagines an act of destruction committed in the name of cultural and political rebellion. The sacred is transfigured into the profane, and then into dust. It’s up to the reader to judge this very relevant public question.