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The World Ignites


James Livingston

In writing about busy, bustling Psari, I've been trying to pry myself away from the notion that village life, as embalmed in the verbal amber of social science, is a place of repose, even inertia, because tradition must contain innovation or individuality - in both senses of that elastic verb, to include and to exclude.

Psari is obviously not that sleepy place, the imagined community of the sociologists and the anthropologists, where nothing much happens or changes except under the pressure of disrupted ritual. This place bristles with energy, you can hear it, see it, feel it.

What is Psari, then?

My answer is to walk up the road and have lunch with Nikos in downtown Psari. Now, Nikos does everything during the day, from selling chips, beer, bread. and cookies, to preparing the grill for tonight's orders. He interrupts his lunch to wait on customers and to shoot the breeze with "visitors," shall we call them, people, like me, who hope they'll acquire a dose of his sturdy personality just by hanging around.

We converse over the huge flat screen, which features a CNN-like news stream. I don't understand a word he says, and vice-versa, but each of us knows what the other is talking about because we have faces, arms, and hands to convey what we want to mean. I query the TV, he responds with stabbing motions to his left shoulder. We're talking rates of vaccination in Greece. The TV graph verifies that our two minds, however separated by language, can know one thing.

And yet we might as well come from different planets. The social scientific shibboleths carry us this far: life here is fundamentally different than in New York City, or in Manhattan, Kansas. At the risk of reduction, simplification, orientalism, and all the rest of the intellectual afflictions that hobble us in these times, I'd cite two markers of difference - one contingent, the other structural.

First, strangers: the Other, the foreigner, the unbidden intruder. Psari is a closed corporate community, if you will, something like the Puritan commonwealths of the 17th century. Justice in the abstract, equality before the law, these are interesting ideas that apply elsewhere, under circumstances that are imaginable but not locally actionable. The abstraction is pointless because the village need not accommodate strangers. (Visitors and tourists are another matter).

In the U.S., until very recently, strangers, immigrants, call them what you will, were the essentials of modern life and its adjuncts, the modern law and the idea of progress. Cities were made of them, interstate travel and commerce required them, international relations presupposed them. All Americans come from elsewhere. They've always been strangers in a strange land, even unto themselves. No longer, not when nobody knows what to do about immigrants except to say "Don't come."

We're catching up to Psari in this regard. It's a small town with little or no room for strangers. So was Winesburg, Ohio. And now, so, too, is its larger analogue. I repeat myself: the U.S. is at once the most advanced and the most backward of nations.

Second, structures. We all bear the weight of the past in daily, hourly interaction with the material circumstances that surround and shape us: the built environment that precedes us, molds us, determines us. Down to the sidewalks, the pavement, the countless layers of life, work, and death we walk on without thinking.

We Americans have a feckless, reckless attitude toward the past, so we have no idea of what is worth preserving. We'll tear anything down. As a result, the built environment, the sedimented, enbodied past, might as well be a blank slate. It changes constantly because everything is always already under construction. The fabled American frontier ("virgin land") is a state of mind, not a liminal space.

Not so in Psari, or, so I would guess, in most European cities and villiages. The past weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living because there is no way around its monuments, its material manifestations--these can be as small as a church the size of my apartment and yet carry centuries of significance.

The landscape itself is a psychological state, in this sense, as per that old frontier thesis, the notion, from Marx to Frederick Jackson Turner, that the US would be exempt from European-style class struggle until that margin, the exterior, the outer edge of everyday life was extinguished. Marx and Turner were wrong, of course, that struggle continued before and after the 1870s. But along with Achille Loria, Turner's Marxist source, they were right to say that this margin made a difference.

I do not say the landscape is a "projection" of a psychological state, because that would suggest an opposition between mind and world (or subject and object) that is finally, and literally, being incinerated as I write. "No ideas but in things," as William Carlos Williams put it. And vice versa, I'd add.

We don't live "with" the material circumstances that surround us, in a kind of side-by-side arrangement. We are them, they are us. Each is embedded in and saturated by the other. No exit. Stay in Psari long enough, and Psari will stay with you - its ancient bones will mingle with your newfangled vertebrae. Stay away long enough and you'll believe that the world is at your command, just another malleable substance that is subject to your will. Until it ignites. You bend or you burn.

James Livingston is a historian and the author of six nonfiction books including No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea. He is at work on a novel.

The 21st Century Frontier

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On September 9, 2020, a blaze ignited at a refugee camp in Greece. Intended to hold 3,100, the camp on the island of Lesvos held more than 13,000. Water, food, and electricity were often unavailable. Sexual violence was rife.

When the fire broke out, people fleeing the camp were stopped by police barricades. There were numerous accounts of locals attacking those who eluded the barricades, according to Global Witness.

At the end of 2020, there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people in the world, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More than a quarter are refugees. The number of people leaving their homes will continue to rise as climate change disrupts livelihoods and creates more political and social instability.

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Playlist: Get Brian to the Greek!

En Mediterranee’ ::: Georges Moustaki

Iros Aggelos ::: Angelique Ionatos

Baby Wants Kisses (live) ::: Annabouboula

The Visitors ::: Hamza El Din

Fragosyriani ::: Markos Vamvakaros

Song of the Fisherman And The Fish ::: Anastasia Fergadioti

Why I Smoke Cocaine ::: Rosa Eskenazi

Stranger Song ::: Leonard Cohen

Klarinet ::: Pericles Halkias

Beneath The Coliseum ::: Brian Cullman

Ulysses’ Gaze ::: Eleni Karaindrou

Read: Travellers by Helon Habila

(Susan's best book of 2019)

"Helon Habila’s fourth novel has it all – intelligence, tragedy, poetry, love, intimacy, compassion and a serious, soulful, arms-wide engagement with one of the most acute human concerns of our age: the refugee crisis. This is the answer to the question of what contemporary fiction can do, and the reason I laugh whenever people say (as a character declares ironically in Travellers) that the novel is dead."

Read more at The Guardian."

No More Work!