Demosthenes Agrafiotis

“The importance of the multiplicity of minor events.”

1. Declaration

Axiom of departure: a series of minor events may have an impact on the life of poet/artist equivalent of a major event. In this perspective I will select a number of “non-significant” acts and situations from my youth which I consider to be strongly related to my art work and especially to my actions in the field of performance.

2. Preliminary indications

The experience of a violent event, a difficult situation, a threatening or exhilarating environment may bring about a sense of the unbearable and / or indecipherable. At a later time, a work of interpretation and understanding could possibly shed light on the complexity of the emotions, feelings and aporias that arise from that experience. So, what are the conditions necessary for the elucidation of this experience? What are the interpretative possibilities that narratives and discourses it can refer to later? Psychoanalysis is confronted with this problem both at the theoretical level and at the level of practice. For example, how can a dream experience be transformed into this mixture of speech / narrative / narration / discourse of the patient or “analysant.” An analogy with scientific research can be seen where the "omnipresence" of the discovery and the force of the imagination must be elaborated and finally modeled in a scientific article where rationality, method and coherence predominate: A sort of hyper-rationalization a posteriori.

When I look back at my personal history as a poet and performer, I ask myself what experiences of my childhood might enable me to construct a narrative about my performance origins. What importance could be attributed to this narrative in relation to initial “real” experiences? To what extent do these "traumatic" events determine my artistic journey? Is there a risk of being seen as an "exhibitionist" by delving into the memories of childhood?

3. Context

I was born on 28/12/1946 in a small town in central Greece: Karpenissi, the capital of Eurytania's nome (prefecture), which lies on the slopes of Mount Velouchi in the south of Pindus mountains, the massif which dominates the western Greece. These mountains are known as “Agrafa”, which means “unregistered” in the official books of the Byzantine Empire and later of the Ottoman Empire. There has been a civilizational continuity of ethnic groups and nomads roaming in this mountainous area between valleys and rivers. Very often, people who had ran afoul of the law in the cities, left them to seek refuge and freedom in these mountains, which had difficult access conditions for the representatives of the authorities.

In ancient times the men of this region served as mercenaries in the armies of the Hellenic cities. During the Ottoman occupation some bandits from this area were appointed guardians of the mountain passes, others sold “protection” for a price, and almost all became popular heroes.

It was the inhabitants of these villages in the Agrafa mountains who made the famous hooded capes ordered by Napoleon for the soldiers who had to cross snow-covered mountains. Those cloaks were worn over all the other clothing and ensured the survival of the shepherds.

Also, in the Orthodox Christian Churches, there is style of painting called “Painting of Agrafa,” which widely represented in the region.

During the Ottoman occupation, there were schools in this region for the training of senior officials of the Ottoman Empire, with two objectives: to train polyglot functionaries in the service of the Empire and to create resistance to the Catholic Church, which had targeted some of the Balkan countries (see “Μουσείο Ελλήνων” at the Greek School located in the village of Vragkiana).

During the Second World War and the ensuing civil war, the region and the city of Karpenissi were successively controlled by Italians, Germans and their collaborators, guerillas-partisans of Democratic Army and later by the government army. The region was perfectly suited for resistance against foreign armies and became the bloody field of civil war.

I have very few memories of the period between 1946 and 1953. One of them is related to the destruction of our house, another to the presence of the refugees who came to find shelter with us in order to escape the battles between the Partisans and the regular army (under the guidance of the Americans,) that took place in the mountains. The Greek partisans were surrounded by the army and the rural population was evacuated to the city to eliminate any logistical support they might give to them.

Finally, sometime during the difficult post-war years, my mother had to have surgery. In her convalescence, she was able to get some oranges to help with her recovery. When I was allowed to visit her at the hospital, she gave me one of them as a gift. That was the first time in my life that I tasted an orange; its sublime taste will remain forever in my memory.

My family left Karpenissi in 1954 to settle in Athens. Between 1954 and 1964 we always returned there to spend the summer holidays. I finished my education in Athens but had a hybrid socialization: both urban and semi-rural.

Story #1. Donkeys

Life after the civil war (1946-50) was extremely difficult; all families of Karpenissi had to use any resources available in order to survive. My family had a cow, 2-3 goats and 10-15 chickens, so that milk, meat and eggs were always available to us. Still, it was necessary to feed of our animals during the winters — cold and full of snow. We owned five fields of small size (4-6 hectares) in which we grew clover. In July, my family asked a group of harvesters to cut the forage and for days it was exposed to sun to dry it out. The last phase consisted of transporting the dried bits of trefoil to our warehouse.

For this phase the social solidarity in our neighborhood played a crucial role. Every family who has a donkey (or a mule) offers it for one day to the family who has to implement the transporting of the bits. That means, every day one family, according to a prepared plan, has the ability to use all the donkeys of the community in order to finish the transport quite quickly — in order not to lose a good part the dried trefoil.

I was eight years old and my mission was to lead and to coordinate the convoy of donkeys during their allez-retour. I was very proud, happy and of course, anxious about the efficacy in my difficult task.

Every summer (in early June) my mother used to buy for me a pair of new summer footpath-sandals. Needless to say that my greatest joy, after the end of the school day, was my walking without shoes — the first week was a period of torture, but after this training my foot paw was transformed into a shoe insole, resistant to any thorn and thistle.

My summer sandals, in reality, were shoes with a number of decorated openings for the facilitating the circulation of the air, fabricated by a local shoemaker (Kontopanos family), which every year measured the size of my feet in order to fabricate my red sandals, with a stiff paw and full of shoe petals for facing the roadways.(In the shop of Kontopanos Family, I used to spend part of my vacations when I was 10-11 years old; during this “professional” training, I have observed the operational chain of fabrication or reparation of shoes and my duty was to eliminate the dust from the shoes — fabricated / handmade by the family or “imported” from Athens — placed on tables or on the elementary windows or hung on the walls).

Early in the morning of the day “D,” I went to neighbors to take care of the promised donkeys. Finally, a decade of donkeys of different forms, sizes and colors. The first place of the convoy was given to a strong but nervous and “excited-irritated” donkey, in order to give speed and rhythm to the rest animals. After all preparations, I began my first trip to family’s field. In meantime, my mother and the other women had already left for our field quite early in the morning, in order to prepare the bits of trefoil before the rise of sun — the humidity of the morning facilitates this kind of work. Around at 10.00 p.m., I approached our field, quite satisfied as I felt that the first trip has completed without a major problem. Suddenly, in front of the entrance of the field, the first donkey begun moving up and down as if it wanted to get free; it begun braying and kicking in accelerating speed. My control was at its limit. Finally, it jumped with a tremendous force which I felt in my hands as the rope slipped between my fingers producing wounds and heat. The donkey run away, jumped over the fences and hence of the other farms next to ours. It was attracted by the female donkeys. No human force could control its sexual excitement! I began running behind it crying for help and crying also, to inform the peasants who worked in their fields about the danger. I thought that it was my responsibility to stop an eventual loss of the wild donkey. I jumped over the fence and I run through the cornfields. My legs and my arms were covered with wounds and blood.

Apparently, some female donkeys in the nearby fields were in heat and our leader-donkey tried to demonstrate the Darwinian approach but that moment, at my age, it was not possible to assess the events. At the end some peasants managed to stop the crazy pathway of the “lover.” They brought the donkey to my mother. Everybody was anxious about its health. No serious wounds, it was only exhausted. My mother was unhappier about the donkey of our neighbor than for me. She felt relieved because we had avoided the complications of an eventual accident with the donkey. When the confusion gave way to a calmer atmosphere, I realized that I had lost one of my summer sandals. My feet were red but the fact that the donkey was under the collective control made me to forget about my wounds. My mother cleaned my wounds and I was ready to go back with my convoy of donkeys, minus one of course. I preferred to walk without my sandal. In summer time I was trained for a walk aux “pieds nus”.

I have completed my mission. The bits have been placed in the barn. My mother and the other women returned the donkeys included the untamed one, to our neighbors. The small community prepared for the expedition of the next day.

Story #2. Ambiguities

Every July during the 50s and the early part of the 60s, the city of Karpenissi organized a county fair. It was an important event and the local people waited for it all year, so they could purchase things they needed at good prices by using their skills of bargaining. They scraped and saved all year and with their savings they could buy their personal and home necessities and also business equipment and at the same time get some entertainment such as the fair provided for children and adults. It was a simple system: on the first two days, the people from towns and villages all around would sell what animals they had for sale (goats, sheep, mules, horses, etc.) and on the last three days, using their earnings, would buy clothing, raw materials, food, tools and machines. This standard type of marketplace economy–where both buyers and sellers play the bargaining game—has been around at least since the Ottoman period (1453-1821) — and even before.

And, of course, there was entertainment: a shooting arcade, a fishing pond, a hunting game, the large wooden cylinder with the motorcycle doing “the circle of death,” etc. There was also a theater offering simple variety shows. For a cheap ticket price you could watch several brief spectacles or performances. I will mention two of them, the most memorable for me, being about 8 years old at the time. The first one was called “The Universal Talking Head.” It was a human head without a body underneath, placed on a vase-like base, which spoke and answered questions like an oracle without a precise meaning. A spectacle full of mystery and surprise! The second one was stranger still: an adolescent boy or rather a very young man, dressed in an oriental woman’s clothes, looking like a “houri” in a harem, was doing a belly dance to the sound of a drum played by a tired-looking middle-aged man dressed in normal clothes. The face of the dancer was luridly painted, bright red on cheeks and lips giving a gaudy, cheap effect, but at the same time evoking feelings of sympathy mixed with irony and pity. Confusion and astonishment! A male body in a transgendered role dancing according to female stereotypes. A difficult situation for a mountain boy to process. This sort of entertainment was too troublesome for boys unfamiliar with genderbending. Our group of friends kept talking for days about this strange sight. Everyone gave his own interpretation, according to his level of sexual awareness. An odd assortment of different versions circulated in our group for months after that July fair. We had no sex education, no access to any library and no basic medical knowledge; the gender issue was forever lost among other stereotypes and misconceptions.

Story #3. Thermal springs

For a few days every summer we would go to the village of Kamena Vourla (Burned Bulrush,) at the coast of Phthiotis by the famous thermal springs, about 150 km from our city of Karpenissi. There were many spas there, large and small, that helped thousands of visitors with their health problems. One of them had been the last king of Tunisia; during his stay in one of the most prominent establishments, there was a revolution in his country and he lost his throne. There were spas for all budgets though, as well as a good number of houses for rent, spread about amid gardens and fields. My mother would come for 2-3 weeks to take the waters and bring me along. She would spend her days in the spa and I would stay and play with the children of the family from where we rented our room. Three (minor) events are still vivid in my memory.

First. The family that owned the room we rented at Kamena Vourla, also owned the field all around it, where they grew watermelons. An endless field full of watermelons. It seemed like paradise. We had no watermelons up at my home town, being about a thousand meters above sea level. I was under the impression that the watermelons were included in the accommodations. One afternoon, I went around the field, picked one that seemed ripe to me and proudly brought it to our room. My mother was mortified. She thought our family’s reputation was irreparably damaged, and of course mine, as soon as I was found out to be a young watermelon thief. She rushed out to explain to our hosts about my “stupid error.” She offered to pay the price of the watermelon, worth only a small amount of money anyway, and to ask for their forgiveness. As for me, paradise had to wait!

Second. My mother, along with all the other ladies, was taking her afternoon coffee at a big bar-restaurant. It was there that I heard for the first time about this thing call “ice-cream.” I felt a strong desire to taste this thing. My mother ordered the best and most expensive kind at that time called “cassato.” I was eager to have a taste, but what a disappointment! I found it too cold to put in my mouth, so I gave it back to my mother. She was just very happy to finish it herself.

Third. The owners of the rental rooms were a large family of many generations and individual units. They all worked together managing the rental enterprise, and also taking care of their other farming business. All, except one man who didn’t seem to be really involved in anything. He just kept busy with his horse, riding in and out of the farm at odd times. A middle-aged man rather well dressed for a farmer and not very talkative. He was friendly enough, but at the same time he kept his distance from other people. His wife was the grand-daughter of the patriarch of the family. She was also middle-aged, not very pretty and prone to a nervously aggressive behavior. In my eyes they seemed like a strange, ill-matched couple. There were rumors about them circulating among the ladies who rented rooms there. It seems that the man had been involved in some bad accident and he’d been left with serious sexual problems. The marriage survived as a compromise between husband, wife and the family. It wasn’t very clear to me exactly what the arrangement was, but I felt perplexed and in despair about the future of the couple.

Story #4. Swimming

When my mother went for her therapy session in the spa facilities, sometimes I would go across the road to the beach. I would go there just to play, not to swim. My mother, like most mountain people at the time, had never gone swimming and it was impossible for her to wear a swimsuit and even sit by the beach. Of course, I too had to stay out of the water. I could only visit the beach to play with the pebbles. One day, though, I did feel a strong desire to go swimming. I thought swimming seemed such an easy and natural thing. I got in the water and tried to imitate the other swimmers, not very many around at that time. I soon found out it wasn’t so easy to keep by body afloat. I began gulping sea water and felt that I was losing control of my body. I thought I’d better go back to the beach. But that was hard too! I went through a moment of anxiety and panic. Finally, I reached the beach, feeling tired and defeated. Of course, I said nothing of this to my mother.

After two or three weeks of therapy at the thermal springs, my mother felt that she was ready to face the harsh mountain winter. In truth, she had no specific health problem to treat there, but she needed a vacation, a break from the every-day burden of work. Also, I think, she did this to demonstrate to the local community that our family had the financial resources for the luxury of the spa. This way she kept a solid position for our family in the local social order.

4. Impact?

The journey to my youth, as was presented in these paragraphs, can be seen as a first corroboration of my initial hypothesis, which was that many minor events, depending on the context, might play a bigger role in the span of one’s life than one major event. However, it remains an open question as to which the “minor” event is and which the “major,” as well as who decides on it. Another open question is, how might an “a posteriori” approach influence the assessment of the relative importance of certain events in one’s life or the evaluation of the deterministic potential of prior situations.

[With editorial assistance from Angelos Sakkis. Photograph of mother and son by Kostas Kalantzis at Karpenissi, 1953.
The other two photos by Demosthenes Agrafiotis, 1960s.]

Demosthenes Agrafiotis (b. 1946) is the author of dozens of books in over 5 languages including Bêtises (Fidel Anthelme X, 2011), +-graphies (Veer Books, 2011), Maribor (The Post-Apollo Press, 2009: 2011 NCBA Northern California Book Award, Poetry translation), monogatari, ii (EL, EN, JPN, 2017), The broken equilibrium. On crisiology (Bibliotheque, Athens, 2018: essays, in Greek) and Sauver Venise (L’ Harmattan, Paris, 2019: photos and text, in FR and GR).
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