High life

The first-ever major exhibition on Joachim Patinir is a triumph for the Prado, writes Martin Bailey.

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It is very still as I sit down to write, the atmosphere heavy and oppressive. They say time flies, but less so if one looks backwards. One thousand years before Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Emperor Justinian was embarrassed to discover that his Greek subjects were not paying their taxes. Cheating officialdom has become a trademark of modern Greece, and is often attributed by philhellenes to the 400-year Turkish occupation, and subsequent Greek resistance. Not necessarily, says famed historian Taki. Byzantium’s government officials closely resemble Greek government agents of the present day. Two thirds of the revenues extorted from the taxpayers during Byzantium’s heyday never reached the Treasury. Deals were struck between collectors and taxpayers, and we know the rest. Justinian swore he would overcome the problem but never managed it.

Two thousand years later history repeats itself. The Greek elections will decide absolutely nothing. In Greece things are never black or white. There will be a hell of a lot of rhetoric from those who have been shooting their mouths off for far too long, but that’s about it. As the French say, plus ça change! Even at the time of Pericles, the golden period of Athens, there was much too much talk. Ironically, the peril to democracy back then was the power of the spoken word. At times it drove out reason. The temperamental versatility of the Athenians was their greatest danger, just as it remains today. Segments of the population are urged first one way then another, and any continuity is rendered impossible. The volatility of the Greek character, among many links modern Greeks have with their glorious past, is another factor. The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to the dictates of others. His unruliness makes for a bad citizen but has helped him survive centuries of oppression and to rise above adversity, economic or otherwise.

Plato himself saw this as a danger. In the Republic he warned that ‘the excess of liberty seems only to pass into excess of slavery’. The great scholar Taki could not put it better. The Greeks had no Renaissance but the thread of their classical past was woven into the oriental web of Byzantium. That’s what the great Kazantzakis meant when he spoke about the double-born soul of Greece, the eastern and western side. The modern Greek fawns over his superiors — his eastern soul — and torments his inferiors, yet he will gladly die for his personal honour, his western conscience.

Pericles understood the Greek better than anyone. He realised the Greek’s passion for equality, which was greatly strengthened by the failure of Persian tyranny and the success of Athens under democracy. (In a way this was a precursor to the American obsession that all people are equal and all deserve respect.) Greeks, however, loved discussion more than execution. They adored theory and abstract themes, and had an overweening tendency to subversion and insubordination. They called Aspasia, the saintly wife of Pericles, a whore, whereas real whores were treated with respect. Go figure, said Aristotle.

Although the social contract worked in ancient times — at the height of Athenian democracy, there were 30,000 adult male citizens with the right to participate in government, against a slave population of between 70,00 and 115,000 — it has never worked since. The modern state did not fulfil its responsibilities, and the citizens in turn went their own way, trusting only their family. The advantages of a communal spirit escape the Greek, and is almost an alien concept.

One of the most admired Greeks of antiquity is Alcibiades, a rich aristocrat, seducer and general, who convinced Athens to undertake the disastrous adventure against Sicily, fled to Sparta and joined her in the fight against his birthplace, seduced the Spartan king’s wife, fled to Persia, where he was finally cornered by a Spartan hit squad and speared through the heart. Yet such was his effect on the fairer sex that his Persian wife covered him with her cloak trying to protect him. Back in Athens men in the agora said he was dressed like a woman and died like one, cowering in fear. Yet when I was young, Alcibiades was my hero, a man who could do no wrong, until I said this to my Spartan mother, that is. She ordered Fräulein to administer a couple of hard whacks.

Which brings me to the present, alas. No matter what happens in Greece, the great economist Taki believes that the Germans will eventually throw in the towel and bail Europe out. (No Wehrmacht spirit there.) Greece will renege, Germany will fold. What the latter will not do is announce it prematurely. If it does, the Europeans will do what they always do: go back to the bad old ways. There will be some banking union of sorts and there might even be a euro bond, but we’re in for a decade of no growth, and if anyone tells you differently, ask them to read the greatest Greek writer since Homer and to shut up. Alexander the Great cut the Gordian knot with his sword; he did not untie it. These clowns are trying to solve the riddle with bandages. We need an Alexander, and we need him badly. Personally, I am busy in make-up.