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Modernity and Knossos

Knossos & the prophets of modernismOn the recommendation of Phyllis Graham (archaeological librarian/archaeologist extraordinary), I picked up Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism.  It was officially the last book of my summer reading season, and it left me with much food for thought.

In particular, the book brought into focus the influence of modernism on archaeological practice outside of the context of the archaeology of nationalism where the most pronounced tendencies of modernist paradigms tend to appear.  This was useful to me in three ways.  First, it helped me understand what I meant when I quipped that the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis might be one of the most modern archaeological sites in the Mediterranean.  In saying this, I didn’t simply mean that the temple set atop the “sacred rock” lacked obvious ties to the past (they had been stripped away gradually over the course of numerous intellectual, archaeological, and architectural reconstructions), but that it forms the center point of a whole range of irrational feelings ranging from expressions of passionate nationalism to transferred affections of poets and thinkers ranging from Henry Miller to Freud.  Gere makes a compelling case for the place of Arthur Evans’ Knossos in the modernist imagination by going well beyond the excavator’s fantastic reconstructions to the sometimes dizzying thought-world that the palace and its Minoan inhabitants evoked across Europe. 

Second, the book pushed me again to return to my rather unformed work on Dream Archaeology.  In particular, Gere’s arguments has encouraged me to return to some of my  episodes of Dream Archaeology in the 20th century and consider their relationship to the modernist moment in archaeology (for more on Dream Archaeology see here and here).  This will likely go back to Freud and also to the modernist movement in Greece, since some of my Dream Archaeologists are Greek.  (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Gere’s book deals very little with modernism in a Greek context — outside the almost requisite reference to Kazantzakis — and it would have been interesting to see how Greek intellectuals engaged Evans’ work on Knossos.)  I will certainly have to press Kostis Kourelis to read Gere’s book and chat with him at the Modern Greek Studies Association meeting this fall about how Angellos Tanagras fits into a broader modernist movement which sought to bridge the gap between the rational and irrational and, in the process, validate the experience of a distinctly Greek past in the language of an pan-European intellectual movement.  Tanagras work to understand the power of seemingly “supernatural” Greek folk practices, like the evil eye or malevolent dreams, within a psychoanalytical perspective represents a kind of Greek counterpoint to Evans’ mystical engagement with the site of Knossos.

Finally, Gere’s work is going to take me back to Kourelis’ “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde: Excavations at Corinth 1920s-1930s” to explore again how the broader modernist movement made room for the emergence of Byzantine and Early Christian archaeology within Greece.  Modernisms rejection of the overly-rationalistic Christianity of Western Protestantism must have led some to seek spiritual satisfaction in the familiar, yet challenging experiences of mystical Byzantine and Early Christian thought just as Evans took refuge in the world of the ancient Minoans.

In the context of Gere’s work, A. Orlandos, perhaps the most important archaeologist of the Athenian Acropolis and a scholar who reported without comment on an episode of Dream archaeology, makes a little more sense.

  1. August 27, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    The introduction to Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism by Cathy Gere is available on the University of Chicago Press website.

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