“Speaking in a decent way makes one’s words untrustworthy”: Yannis Ritsos on Superficial Morality in Art

It isn’t strange that in times of oppression, literature flows out in abundance. It is only natural. We have seen this to be true in Russia. True it remains in countries like Greece, where if you believe NYRB, two new volumes of poetry are published every day. Strange perhaps are the ways in which they are required to be preserved. In Stalin’s Russia, Anna Akhmatova’s poems had to travel through the poet’s memory and that of her close confidants; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos, a dazzling voice the world constantly tries to forget, would put his poems in “tin cans and bury them around his compound.”

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Yannis Ritsos

The image published on the front page of the Greek newspaper Ritzospastis that moved Ritsos to write “Epitaphios”. Courtesy: patrickcomerford.com[/caption]

Ritsos was born in Monemvesia, Greece, 1909, lost his mother and elder brother to tuberculosis, his father and sister too were lost to madness; he himself spent several years at a sanatorium. Being a part of the Greek Communist movement meant he spent a number of years in prison and under house arrest. In 1936, one of his most celebrated works “Epitaphios”, a poem inspired by a newspaper photograph of a worker killed at a protest site by the state police (more about it here), became part of a spectacle when, on the orders of the then Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas, literature was publicly burned in front of the Temple of Zeus. It is notable that Ritsos has been nominated for the Nobel Prize a total of nine times, and I won’t bet anything if you can guess why he hasn’t won it.

Perhaps it was the violence of his times that over the years made his poems move more and more towards surrealism, and politics became more subversive behind dreams and images that would leave you stunned. But in all that, he never minced words. Perhaps that’s why when writing about Ritsos, Peter Levi wrote in the Times Literary Supplement:

Yannis Ritsos is the old-fashioned kind of great poet. His output has been enormous, his life heroic and eventful, his voice is an embodiment of national courage, his mind is tirelessly active.

Recently, after discovering Ritsos in a poetry class, I stumbled upon a rather interesting interview of the poet, where, heroic as always, he stresses the need for transparency in art. Visibly dejected at the increasing use of euphemism in writings which he believes is governed by “a superficial morality”, he says:

…an artist is obliged to overcome the barriers and obstacles of a fake prudishness of superficial morality, the etiquette imposed by the so called decent speech.

He invokes the great Greek playwright Aristophanes and reminds us of something we all know but would never admit:

Speaking in a decent way makes ones words untrustworthy.

As moral policing becomes stricter everyday and the world demands that to say “I took a ****” or “I give a **** about what you are telling me”, we must bring up stars and galaxies, Ritsos’ words become more and more relevant. He calls bluff on the preaching of clearly demarcated private and public spaces when he says:

Call genital organs with their name, using the words that you use when you talk to your wife, your girlfriend, your lover.

To support his idea, Ritsos brings up another deeply disturbing belief of our times — the positioning of the brain over the body and identifying it as the controller and thinker — stressing that:

“Human beings develop through senses. They don’t develop through the brain.”

That part reminds me of these lines from a poem “I am a Keeper of Sheep” by Alberto Caeiro, one of the many heteronyms of the beloved poet Fernando Pessoa:

I’m a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.
To think is to see it and smell it
And to eat a fruit is to taste it’s meaning.

The Ritsos video, that I hope you would not want to miss, can be seen here

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Image courtesy: Listal.com

You can buy Ritsos’ books from here.

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