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Thus passes the glory of the world

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The newly chosen Pope, seated on his throne, leaves the sacristy of St. Peter; the procession has begun. Along the way, a master of ceremonies is forcing everyone to halt. He gets in the pontiff’s way and slows the cardinals down. ‘Holy father, thus passes the glory of the world!’ he shouts out, holding out a brass rod on whose end a flax tow is slowly and steadily scorching –a subtle yet dramatic reminder of mortality. Once, twice, three times is the procession interrupted for the same reason: so that the earthly representative of divine authority might confront –right at the assumption of his duties– the ephemeral. Of his state. Of his work. Of himself.

This tradition dates back to the fifteenth century, yet it was abandoned during the sixties. It would be a nice idea to bring it back, and use it beyond matters of ecclesiastical succession. From now on, let every top officer, holder of supreme duties, on the peak of hierarchy, elected or not, benefit from the view of a smouldering rag on the top of his sceptre. Let this particular ‘initiation rite’ be added to his daily routine, manifesting the same things each time. Some might actually apprehend the trappings of the ‘glory of the world’.

Gloria Mundi is also the title of Nico Papatakis’s third film from 1976. It gives me the opportunity to start a discussion on some of the wider, political topics which run through the current issue. Olga Karlatos stars as Galaï, a screen actress. Galaï prepares to portray an anonymous Algerian woman who decides to take arms against French colonialism. In a movie-within-the-movie, the Algerian is arrested and tortured for her acts of resistance. Galaï puts herself through all sorts of tests and tortures, so as to achieve the most ‘convincing’ portrayal of the part. Her militant director and partner is instructing her through audiotapes. She (and we as the audience) can hear his voice but never see him in person. Sometimes she talks to him, addressing the eye of the camera, that is an authority beyond and above herself.

After successive experimentations with electric shock, cigarette butts extinguished on her chest and the rehearsal of sabotage with a real time bomb, Galaï fights back. The struggle of the Algerian against the French authorities is transcribed into a struggle of the actress against a reactionary system which fiercely opposes the artist as a social entity. On the one hand, producers, fellow artists and intellectuals, and on the other hand, fighters, like-minded peers and ‘revolutionaries’, all treat her in the same, demeaning way. Regardless of ideological affiliation, everyone threatens her, rebukes her and denounces her futile effort to turn the experience of pain into an artistic reaction against oppression. They drive her to the other end and force her to set the clock of the time bomb in order to wipe them out of existence. And yet, the bomb entrusted by her director proves to be a fake. Humiliated, Galaï returns home; she marginally escapes the explosion of another, real bomb, which takes the life of her director and their child.

Papatakis’s gaze underlines all the dead ends without ever vindicating any one side. On the contrary, he deconstructs them all, in order to highlight the artists’ constant problematic: their very existence and place in society. ‘Sleep filled him with dreams of fruits and leaves; / wakefulness would not allow him to pluck a single blueberry. / Together they spread his limbs to the Bacchae.’ (George Seferis, Pentheus). Oscillating between the public and the private self, between reality and the sphere of creation, truth and lie (or else, dream), if there is a part of the artist which remains –after the ‘glory of the world’ has passed– that is their work. Therein lies the greater challenge.

Not many years ago I found myself discussing with the top officer of a very important British theatrical institution. No, I did not light up the ceremonial rag in front of his face, yet I asked the ‘forbidden’ question: How does he evaluate and pick each of the plays to be staged? He presented his task as a constant struggle between what’s ‘best’ and what’s ‘most appropriate’. Our discussion proved to me very clearly yet again that there usually comes a moment in the life of institutions where the balance tips in favour of the latter. Of course, he would not deny that the discussion is infiltrated by terms of ideology and, without a second thought, terms of market.

To maintain that the work of art is disconnected from the market would be naive, to say the least. Undoubtedly, however, the latter is not a precondition of the former. When it comes to ideology, I will divert considerably and borrow the example of music for a moment. I find it extremely hard to understand exactly which ideology is promoted by itself through a symphony, a string quartet, a jazz trio or a folk tune. Similarly, the combination of speech and music in songs establishes spiritual connections to situations we would normally run away from in ‘real’ life. Nonetheless, songs move us and reveal something, mainly when they do not originate from solid ideological positions. Because parallel to the ‘wakeful’ life there is another life. Can we face both equally, looking at the one through the eyes of the other?

Thus passes the glory of the world. And yet the dead ends presented so dramatically in Papatakis’s film do not recede. Creativity is constantly faced with internal and external obstacles, challenges and contradictions. Oppression changes its face; it comes down from its pulpit and assumes a progressive visage. During the last century artists fought for freedom. They created radical streams which set themselves against all sorts of authorities, censorships and auto-da-fés. What was painfully proven through the experience of two world wars was that art is and must be able to present all dimensions and aspects of life, even the most extreme ones. To redeem through the imitation of acts which better take place onstage instead of life. Let us remember this simple, unique ancient teaching; let us not forget that, since grammar school, we were taught to distinguish between the poet and the poetic voice. Not to say ‘the poet says’ but rather ‘the poem speaks’.

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