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History > General History > The oral society - insights from Gillian Bouras's Aphrodite and the Others.

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submitted by Peter Bouras on 13.01.2005

The oral society - insights from Gillian Bouras's Aphrodite and the Others.

Rural Greek societies - hence societies such as Kythera - are characterized in Bouras's work as
0ral - rather than literate
lived - rather than theorised about, and
pragmattic - rather than theoretical.

Here Bouras defines the difference between her pethera, a rural Greek woman, and herself, an urban Australian, "theoretician".
In the process she uncovers some of the socio-psychology of numerous Kytherian women; with whom, we, of the second generation have been acqainted over the years. Aphrodite is the archetypal Kytherian pethera, and yia yia, and pro-yia yia, rolled up into one.

Aphrodite and the Other,

from the Introduction.

....."Biographies are usually formal structures, edifices erected on a framework of facts, buttressed by footnotes, with stress factors checked and estimated, allowed for, taken into account. For every biography there are usually whole shelves of secondary sources, files of primary sources in crabbed handwriting, bundles of letters tied with ribbon and string, and the usual detritus of a life: certification of births, marriages, deaths; tax returns, files marked ‘Documents, Personal’.
This biography does not fit that pattern, for Yiayia has no books, no files. She has only her identity card and her health book, which entitles her to medical benefits and rebates at the chemist’s shop. She receives no letters, can have no idea of the sheer pleasure of correspondence, has no notion of Jane Austen’s definition of letters as being ‘thorough pictures of the heart’. Writing about her life has necessitated, in a sense, a jolting and often unsatisfactory return to prehistory: the environment, the dwellings, and even the artifacts have had to be hard evidence.
But there are also the voices. It is the poet’s business and also the biographer’s, surely, to write down the voices, to shape history and personality from the vibrations, to try at least to do these things. The achievement of these aims is a different matter altogether.
To people who live in an oral society it is the voice, obviously, which has primary importance, and hearing and listening have a different value from the one they have for literate people. The logic of this is obvious, for are not voices as individual as fingerprints? And it is surely no accident, not a mere coincidence, that most rural Greeks are very talented mimics. Now, in the 1990s, oral people must have noise. Television sets and radios babble away in the background, replacing, to some extent, the noise of families working in the olive groves, replicating the hum and buzz in the square and kafeneion.
It is Yiayia’ s voice in particular that I try to write down. ‘How did you get your name?’ I ask.
‘From my godmother, of course.’ She is always more than slightly impatient when I ask what seem to her to be obvious questions. For years I have reacted badly to this apparent prickliness, gritting my teeth and counting to ten against what seems to me to be a form of verbal aggression. But I have learned the rules: never let your oral guard down, never give an inch. My problem is that I am not very good at the game.
But in this business of her name she naturally does not see my point, and how can I explain that I have always thought it slightly odd that a priest’s daughter should be called Aphrodite? (And now it seems to me that the names Penelope or Ariadne would have been choices just as appropriate.) Yiayia’s brothers and sisters were all named after Orthodox saints, and the Church, at least now, prefers these: a Greek-Australian couple of my acquaintance had difficulty in finding an Orthodox priest who would baptise their child Marilyn.
Once I thought the name Aphrodite a terrible burden, and dreaded the thought that I would have to give it to a daughter. English speakers mispronounce it: in Greek it is lighter, sweeter, as befits one who arose from the foam and caused flowers and grasses to grow wherever she trod.
‘But why Aphrodite?’ I persist.
‘That was my godmother’s own name, and as a god-parent can give a child any name he or she wants, she gave me hers. She was a good woman, a beautiful woman. She was our neighbour, who left and went to America. But she came back and named me.’ And she sighs as she usually does when she thinks of America. America to her means, above all, the brother who is not even a shadowy memory, the Nikolaos who went to Chicago and never returned.
But as most people use her title, her name is virtually lost. Occasionally, however, I make a point of using it. For, like Byron, who mentioned ‘the glory and the nothing of a name’, I believe that a name has at least some power, and that of Aphrodite more than most, for this was the name of the goddess of beauty, fertility and love, a very ancient deity, a force of nature whom it could be dangerous to deny.
‘Allow me to introduce my mother-in-law, Kyria Aphrodite,’ I say to visitors, and she grins wryly, pleased at hearing her name, displeased at my wilful omission of her title: Papathia, priest’s wife. Of such actions and reactions is our relationship composed.
It has been said that, as the singer sang the epos, so the writer spins the story as part of his self. The twentieth-century citizen, according to Illich and Sanders, authors of ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, ‘sees himself through the eyes of various sciences as a layer cake of texts’. For the literate person the self is created out of con­fessions, journals, diaries, memories and autobiography.
So Aphrodite and I are divided by almost every conceiv­able factor, gap and chasm: country, culture, age, edu­cation, language, and finally by the concept of self. For an oral person the ‘I’ can exist most fully and truly in the actual act of speaking aloud. Things are not as simple, or, one is tempted to add, as genuine or pure for the literate person.
The claims made on the oral self are many: home and workplace demand constant and total devotion to the task, the state demands patriotism, the Church unquestioning piety. Oral people are not, usually, self-analytical. They cannot see themselves, obviously, as a ‘layer cake of texts’. Their sense of self most often comes through the evaluation of outsiders. They are what other people say.
In an anthology used by Greek children in the first year of high school there is a story about an illiterate shepherd and his wife who unwittingly play host to St Basil on New Year’s Eve. The connection between illiteracy on the one hand and purity and simplicity on the other is very strongly suggested. The shepherd says, 'Εγώ αγαπώ πολύ τα γράμματα της θρησκείας μας, κι ας μην τα καταλαβαίνω, γιατι είμαι ξύλο απελέκητο' - 'I love the writings of our religion, even if I don’t understand them, uncarved wood that I am.' Here is the difference between sound and sight. The question the oral person asks is Zorba’s question, 'Tι λένε τα κιτάπια' - 'What do the notebooks say?'
Yiayia does not call me by my proper name: I am the only adult who calls her Yiayia. And even in this act, our ideas of self are modified. Her self is not merely a yiayia; my ~se1f is very definitely not a Julie or a Yorgina. They are running on parallel tracks, these selves, or unravelling separate strings from lintels set far apart, and are destined never to meet.
Even now, after all this time, she and I often sit and ponder, each struggling to follow the other’s thought processes. She cannot set mine down, even if she wanted to. But I wish to preserve hers, even though I do not claim to understand them. Why do I wish this? Why have I tried to write something about a woman who cannot read, and who would not want to read what I write even if she could? She chuckles about my writing; why would anyone want to do it? But she does, I suspect, have a sneaking regard for ta grammata, the letters, does at least feel a little jealousy of those who can read.
The dilemma of the biographer seems particularly trying in this case. I have undoubtedly brought my own prejudices and perceptions to bear on the story of my mother-in-law’s life. I am too introspective, too analytical, too Western, too middle class to have written about a woman who had no choices in life, who simply had to take what it handed her, who had the pattern.of her life set even before her birth. But the fact remains that I wanted to make this attempt to meet a life which has made little attempt to meet mine.
I wanted to set down the story, to capture a taste of the flavour before it is too late; to catch, as Anais Nm said, the life which is flowing away from us every minute. I wanted to make a gesture. This has been, in a sense, a labour of love. And now I look at the word and feel timid about using it. Love is not a word I have ever used to described the relationship between Yiayia and myself. We have given each other a hard time, she and I. Neither was what the other expected; we have, on occasion, shocked and hurt each other.
I do not know what I have ever done for Yiayia, except that I have made her laugh often. That much is certain, for she is, I think, fairly convinced that I am mad: eccentric at best, insane at worst. More often she has shaken her head. But there is always the value of novelty: I can still surprise her. I do know what she has done for me, even while trying my limited amount of patience sorely. She has shown me another world and extended the boundaries of my own received life. It is an irony that her own small world has made mine larger,that her acceptance of her life’s patterns has made me question and redraw the lines and grids of my own, that her oral world has made me more aware of both the privilege and the poverty there is in being literate.
She has given me, strange though it may seem, a link to my own past. It is now easier to imagine the lives my great-great-grandmothers lived: the rural round, no matter which hemisphere they inhabited; the agony and danger of almost constant childbirth; the threat of drought, famine, poverty and death; the sense of being totally dependent on a man, and on his good nature; the general sense of powerlessness. No wonder she and they liked to exercise power the only way available, within the home.
Picture my paternal grandfather’s mother, married at seventeen, pregnant for the first time at eighteen and for the last time at forty-three. On the last occasion her doctor suggests a hot bath and liberal doses of gin, but she is too frightened to try this time-honoured solution to her pressing problem. See my grandfather, aged twenty-three, fighting for king and country in Flanders Fields, receiving news of the arrival of a baby sister. He has already lost his favourite sister to diphtheria; another, younger sister dies after eating a toadstool; a dog saves another child from drowning in the home dam. Seven of twelve children survive to adulthood, and the baby born last is one of the first to die.
Consider, as well, Yiayia’s mother Panayota, climbing olive trees during the harvest every year because her priest husband couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.
‘What? Long skirts and all?’
Mallista. Certainly, long skirts and all. Ach, i kakomira, the ill-fated one.
So now I sit and write and think not only of Aphrodite but of Panayota, Evgenia and all the other faceless, nameless Peloponnesian women, and of Eliza Jane and Harriet and the rest, whose blood, like so many little tributaries, runs in the veins of my sons. I think, too, of how the old women here in the village teach a lesson: that of how to resist the personal erosion that threatens as a result of continuous hard work; and I think of how, at their best, they provide some sort of balance to the solitary striving that is one of the main features of industrialized society. For they soak up existence; they are not programmed. Routine and the abstract have little meaning for them..................

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