Review: Eva Palmer Sikelianos

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Eva Palmer Sikelianos: a life in ruins

by Artemis Leontis

Princeton University Press, 2019, 322pp.

Reviewed by Richard Pine

Artemis Leontis has distinguished herself as one of the leading interpreters of modern Greece – its literature, its culture, its history. In particular, Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping a Homeland (Cornell University Press, 1995) was a notable intervention to the ways we perceive a cultural homeland, cognate with Maria Todorova’s ground-breaking Imagining the Balkans.

Leontis’s biography of Eva Palmer Sikelianos, on whom she must be regarded as the supreme authority, is a passionate and yet objective analysis of a complex figure whose triumphs were also her tragedy and whose life, so acutely mapped here, was a chronicle of vision, confusion, passion and disillusion, compellingly illuminating episodes in modern Greek cultural history.

Eva Palmer came to Greece in unconventional (for the time) circumstances. A wealthy young American, she had lived in Paris for some years among the lesbian coterie of Natalie Clifford Barney, for whom she professed adoration. Encountering the dancer Isadora Duncan, she was introduced to Duncan’s brother Raymond and his Greek wife, Penelope. Palmer had already espoused both the aesthetics of Greek dress – which she wholeheartedly adopted – and the idea of Greek culture. Coming to Greece, she met and, despite her own sexual orientation, married, the young poet Angelos Sikelianos, with whom she had one child and whose career she thereafter supported both financially and morally.

It could be said – and Leontis does not shirk from exploring this – that Palmer wanted to live back in the past and that her re-invention of archaic Greekness in theatre, music and dress style led her into avenues that were disastrous both financially and artistically. As one actor who worked with her observed “She was the only ancient Greek I ever knew. She had a strange power of entering the minds of the ancients and bringing them to life again.” She suffered, however, from the American-born slogan “the glory that was Greece” – coined, I think, by Edgar Allan Poe – which suffused the neo-romanticism of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century philhellenism, and survived even the deserved catastrophe of the 1922-23 Anatolian campaign. That campaign, and its political fallout, embraced both Eva and Angelos Sikelianos in the monarchist-Venizelist schism which it precipitated.

Leontis’s subtitle, “a life in ruins”, delineates Palmer’s determination to inhabit those ancient minds and the bankruptcy and obscurity into which her enthusiasms eventually plunged her. “Steely willed, talented, dedicated and eccentric enough to strive to realize [her] untenable idea” is Leontis’ summary of the woman she depicts in all her efforts to recapture what is inevitably lost.

Palmer was not so immersed in the imagined past as to blind her to modern life. She had friendships with important figures in modern Greek culture such as the renowned conductor and composer Dimitri Mitropoulos, littérateur George Katsimbalis, poet, diplomat and Nobel laureate George Seferis and hellenophile Henry Miller. Nor was she blind to the philanderings of her husband, from whom she parted, sexually at least, early in the marriage. As Leontis tells us, “Angelos, at twenty-one, was no guileless youth. Already he had a reputation for ruining young Greek women.” The suicide of Katsimbalis’s sister can, it seems, be laid at his door. Palmer was nevertheless “stubbornly devoted, almost grievously so”. Perhaps their sexual misalignment (despite the birth of their son, Glafkos, who lived most of his life in his mother’s country) aided, rather than impeded, this devotion. Yet Sikelianos was not merely flagrantly unfaithful, but, eventually, claimed for himself the credit for the Delphi Festival of drama which, Leontis’s research persuades us, was almost entirely Eva’s brainchild and totally financed by her to the point of personal bankruptcy.

Together, Angelos and Eva pursued the idea of “authentic purity” in folk lore and its many expressions. As a search for the unobtainable, or irrecoverable, it may have been foolhardy, but nonetheless significant as a way of putting modern Greece – at a particularly crucial stage of its emergence – in touch with an otherness which could validate its future. Not only was this manifested in Eva’s adoption of classical Greek dress – much of which she wove herself – but in music, poetry, drama and every aspect of life that could be explored. Eva even worked in southern Albania in aid of Greek Orthodox villages which had been “shattered” by the Balkan war – in an area that today still sees strife between Albanian nationalists and the remaining Greek communities.

George Papandreou, the wartime prime minister of Greece in exile and, later, the father and grandfather of future PMs, met the couple as early as 1910, and recorded that the poet “enriched my life”. In Eva, he noted “the pose of absolute patience” which was nevertheless “slightly grief-stricken”, with “the holiness of a liturgical prayer”. Leontis sums up this “pose” as “a meaningful piece of fiction” – we might call it a mythistorema – in which Palmer lived according to impossible norms and with inconceivable hopes, and into which she succeeded in drawing those who were sufficiently persuaded by her passionate beliefs to share some of her adventure into hyper-reality.

I have seen unkind references to Palmer’s interest in Byzantine music. Certainly her pursuit led her into areas characterised by absurdity, but to dismiss this interest as a pointless or petty is to ignore the very real presence of Byzantine harmony, dissonance and notation in contemporary Greek composition. With another musician, Manolis Kalomiris she joined in the discussion of how a Conservatory of National Music might be established – a debate still continuing today. A fellow-student at the Athens Conservatory, Nikos Skalkottas, would explore this issue in his “Thirty Six Greek Dances” – an issue being discussed today by musicologists like Katerina Levidou. More significantly, she wanted to establish an institute to explore the relations between Byzantine and Indian musical traditions. But this ambition was interrupted by what was to become the most significant cultural phenomenon of its time.

In place of the “Megali Idea” of irredentism which had effectively been killed off by the Anatolian Catastrophe, Angelos Sikelianos conceived a festival at Delphi which would restore “the glory that was Greece” in the cultural, if not the political, dimension. Delphi was the ancient omphalos which would be re-positioned as the centre of the modern world, aesthetically speaking. This was both Eva’s moment of triumph and her nemesis. Initially, she took charge of a production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and from this egg an entire omelette of projects proceeded, not only in Greece (where Eva’s money paid for infrastructure in the vicinity of Delphi) but in the USA, where Eva also worked from 1928 onwards. Leontis credits the establishment in the 1950s of the annual festivals in Athens and Epidauros to the Palmer-financed initiative in Delphi thirty years earlier. That Angelos would not only claim the entire credit for this, but would airbrush his wife out of the credit, must be set beside his sexual incontinence.

Leontis’s summary of Palmer’s character, and the way this affected her behaviour, is persuasively psychological: “For much of her adult life her quest to enact another way of being, pushed against the impulse to make herself the subject of discourse. As an actor-director and a queer woman who hid her sexual orientation from society, she had learned to avoid people’s probing questions by projecting another self… Self-revelation [which we see in the early photographs from Paris of a naked Eva prostrating herself before Natalie Barney] collided with her desire to embody and thus articulate an ethical way of living.” Leontis also calls Eva Palmer’s life a “suspended homecoming”, as if it was lived always in anticipation. Certainly this admirable and thoroughly researched biography does bring Palmer home to the sexual context of her times, to the moral and literary emergence of modern Greece, and to what Leontis sees as “the need for a broader conversation on Hellenism, Orientalism, colonialism and imperialism”. Read this book.

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