New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Speaking of the subject of her new book, a cultural biography titled, Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins (Princeton University Press), Artemis Leontis says, “I see Eva Palmer Sikelianos as the haunting presence behind Greece’s postwar reconstruction: the most influential philhellene after Lord Byron.”
Leontis writes that in the book she follows the course of the American performing artist’s life “as she makes herself Greek in her movements, voice, dress, sexuality, politics, and directing, and so becomes a medium of classical receptions.”
Leontis, C. P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan and a third-generation Greek American discusses her beguiling topic with the GN.
GN: First, I liked your book. I consider it an opus on Eva and her times.
AL: I’m happy you liked it! In Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins, I try to tell a good story while also laying new material which I tracked down through careful research in more than 15 collections in three different countries. Before this book, Eva Palmer and Eva Sikelianos existed as a bit player in other peoples’ stories. I worked to bring many disparate threads together into the story of an artist who moved through many circles and mastered many media over 50 years.
GN: It seems that Eva bridges two cultures, on the one hand the sort of fin de siècle Gilded Age-type Americans, who, impressed by European culture, were buying European antiques and antiquities for their mansions and imitated the English aristocracy. And on the other hand, the cultural developments of the Great Depression which hit both America and Europe.
AL: Your metaphor of the “bridge” is rich. Naturally the relatively long-lived Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874–1952) experienced several eras. Like anyone blessed with a full life, she faced changing circumstances, from affluence to adventures across the globe to poverty in her later years. Her life reads like a novel. Creative, defiant, brilliant, and gorgeous, she was born into a wealthy New York family in 1874 and studied briefly at Bryn Mawr College. Turning her back on social conventions, she moved to Paris to create a woman-centered utopia inspired by Sappho with her lover Natalie Clifford Barney in the early 1900s. When their tempestuous relationship collapsed, she pursued another Greek-inspired utopia in Greece with Raymond Duncan, brother of dancer Isadora Duncan, and his wife, Penelope Sikelianos.
Eva married Angelos Sikelianos, Penelope’s brother, in 1907. She became an expert weaver and student of Byzantine music in the 1910s. In the early 1920s, she planned a school of non-Western music. She recruited Khorshed Naoroji, a musician friend from Bombay. Then, at the invitation of Angelos, she veered in another direction to produce the festivals at Delphi in 1927 and 1930. For this work, she and Angelos were decorated by the Greek government and honored by several archaeological societies.
Now deeply in debt, she went back to the U.S. to direct theater, but the economic downturn followed by World War II limited her prospects. Blacklisted for her criticism of American
imperialism during the Cold War, she was blocked from participating in the U.S. “Return to Greece” European Recovery Plan. She finally did return to Greece a few weeks before her death and was buried at Delphi.
The metaphor of the “bridge” also represents how she lived. She did not just ride out change. Her queer sexual orientation made her open to new forms of society. She moved productively from one passionate interest to another: from Natalie Barney to Angelos Sikelianos; ancient to modern Greek; costume design to weaving; lesbian theatricals in Paris to Byzantine music in Athens; Western classicism to Eastern Orthodoxy. Her poverty deepened her appreciation for life’s harder lessons, teaching her to pay attention to the political forces that contributed to hunger and homelessness in the world.
GN: A lot of people in those days were into a kind of mixture of various philosophic and religious concepts intended to supersede the traditional religions. It seems that Angelos and Eva fit into that trend.
AL: Eva and Angelos came of age at a time when many creative people worldwide turned to alternative forms of spiritualism and Theosophy. These alternative approaches were especially popular among artists and writers who, becoming aware of the many forms of religious expression existing worldwide, sought out alternatives to established religions.
Eva’s father was a freethinker who turned away from religion to explore radical social and political viewpoints. Eva turned to Theosophy. Her deep exploration of Eastern Orthodoxy and other ancient Eastern religions aligned with this turn. Theosophy arrived in Greece in the Ionian Islands first, where Angelos Sikelianos was born. He joined the movement early on. His eclectic interest in mysticism combining myths of Orpheus, Dionysus, Prometheus, Christ, and his own version of Christianity took the movement in a poetic direction. I think that the alternative spiritualism of Angelos and Eva connected them even when they separated.
GN: On Angelos’ and Kazantzakis’ trip to Aghion Oros and their idea for a secular monastic community: Kazantzakis came to dislike Athonite monasticism after a lengthy sojourn on Athos and was subsequently greatly disliked on Mt. Athos. Do we know how Angelos was received/thought of by the Athonites?
AL: Sikelianos and Kazantzakis took their trip to Mount Athos three days after meeting in Athens. They traveled in Mt. Athos for 40 days. Much of what we know about the trip is from Kazantzakis’s viewpoint. Kazantzakis was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church. Sikelianos was not.
GN: Do we know what Sikelianos felt about Athos?
AL: He kept a journal, published posthumously in 1988. Other writings exist from the years after his travels to Mt. Athos, a period when he experienced a series of devastating losses. His spiritualism deepened, but he sought to create a different kind of spiritual center. Initially he wanted to establish a worldly monastery on Mount Penteli, after Nietzsche’s idea of founding a brotherhood of educators and D’Annunzio’s Italian Regency of Carnaro in the city of Fiume.
GN: When did plans for Delphi enter the picture?
AL: Eventually, Delphi drew his attention as the place to stage a renewal for the tired modern soul. His Delphic Idea of bringing together elite overseers in the ancient world center is the culmination of his thinking about religion.
GN: How did Eva’s and Angelos’s projects fit into the Greek political scene?
AL: Politically Eva and Angelos were not aligned. In 1912, when he enlisted to fight in the first Balkan war, Angelos declared himself a nationalist. His political thought drifted further to the right in the 1920s. The Delphic Idea expressed a right leaning, quasi-fascist agenda in the supercharged climate of interwar Europe that was yearning for a unifying myth. In the late 1930s he aligned himself with the regime of Ioannis Metaxas. When the Nazi army occupied Athens in 1941, he swerved left and joined the resistance movement EAM.
GN: I had assumed Eva’s artistic interpretations and absorption with Greece’s ancient past would mesh perfectly with the plans for Delphi. Was that the case?
AL: Eva was not an unthinking cog in the ideological machinery of the Delphic Festivals. The fusing of antiquity with the living corporate body of Greece was irresistible to the idealist in her. But her investment in individual autonomy and effort to develop techniques of self-expression to liberate the creative impulse against the crushing uniformity of consumerism conflicted with the authoritarian strains in the Delphic Idea. Her progressive commitments to social justice manifested themselves fully in the late 1940s, when she sent thousands of letters to U.S. newspapers and politicians to protest American support for the monarchy in Greece.
GN: Eva was exposed to the Greece known by Americans and Europeans and educated Greeks. For them, Classical Greece had served as a cultural model for many generations. The modern inhabitants of Greece interested the educated only to the extent that they could be proven to be living relics of the Classical past, so to speak. It seems that this was Eva’s driving force as it must have been for Isadora and Raymond and Penelope Duncan.
AL: Classical Greece offered the initial draw before Eva traveled to Greece in 1906. Greece was an abstract idea to her then. In the flesh, she encountered Greece when she met Penelope Sikelianos Duncan. Penelope and Raymond invited Eva to stay in their unfinished house near Athens. Penelope was the embodiment of living Greece for Eva. This was the Greece that Eva fell in love with: not Western classicism but living people who represented a version of the Greek past never experienced by her before. No doubt Eva was looking for living relics of the past—and she found them in Penelope’s folk singing. In the remote countryside, too, Eva saw relics of a simpler life.
GN: Did she retain that opinion?
AL: Eva came to believe that the cultures of the Middle East more closely represented Greek antiquity than Western classicism. Her idea of antiquity ranged from archaic Greece to Byzantine church music to demotic songs, dances, and crafts. We can accuse her of folklorism and of excessive attachment to the past but not of remaining tethered to Western classicism.
GN: Since she even taught Byzantine music, the question of Eva’s grasp of Byzantine music arises, being that she designed a pipe organ with which to play it. She must have known that the Orthodox Church was against instrumental music. Was she just doing her own thing? In any case, it shows that she wasn’t inclined to respect the Eastern Church’s feelings on the matter.
AL: You are referring, I think, to the Evion Panharmonium, the organ commissioned by Eva’s teacher of Byzantine music, Konstantinos Psachos, and designed by mathematician Stavros Vrahamis. Eva paid for the organ, but she was not doing her own thing literally or metaphorically.