Notes on Looking Back



Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.

Retelling this myth, I’m amazed that in Greek, the word death, thánatos, has not changed in almost three millennia. Homer used the same word in the eighth century BCE to describe the warriors who fell like leaves in The Iliad. He called the sea thálassa and man ándra, just as Greeks do today. I have traveled extensively through Greece to visit mythological sites, but Greek mythology exists within the language, too. Modern Greek evolved from ancient Greek, so it retains a connection to the Olympian gods that then passed into English. For example, the word panic (panikós in Greek), has its roots in the name of the god Pan and means “sudden and unexplained fear or awe,” the same feeling that the protector of shepherds and hunters inspires in those who enter his realm. The words music (mousikí in Greek) and museum (mouseío) come from the nine Muses, goddesses of the arts and sciences, the source of inspiration for poets, dancers, and musicians.

Greek, one of the oldest recorded living languages, has an innate poetry. Every word sings its meaning, a story that encodes Greek beliefs and culture. For example, the word barbarian (várvaros in Greek), which today means “uncivilized, vulgar,” was an onomatopoetic word in ancient Greece that meant “he who does not speak Greek,” deriving its meaning from the incomprehensible “var-var” sound of foreign languages as interpreted by the Greeks. For me, certain Greek words have a deep sonic beauty. On my first visit to Greece, I was enamored with the word παρακαλώ (parakaló). I still remember how the handsome attendant at the cloakroom of the Acropolis Museum answered when I thanked him, the low, musical rhythm of the syllables flowing from the three flat alphas (α) to the final, rounded omega (ω). It seemed like a spell to me, the most beautiful word, more beautiful still because its literal meaning, “to beg, to plead,” shades its everyday usage, “please” and “you’re welcome.” I love the sound that the letters epsilon (ε) and upsilon (υ) create together in nouns like έρευνα (érevna) and ρεύμα (révma), where the rho (ρ) revs up the breath and the two vowels propel it through the word to the final alpha. And words like ποσότητα (posótita) and πιθανότητα (pithanótita), where the stressed omicron (ο) seems to bounce over the final two taus (τ), knocking into the eta (η) and the alpha. And now I’m interested in passive verbs that single-handedly describe complex interactions with the natural world, like σουρουπώνομαι (souroupónomai), “to be overtaken by night.”

A few months ago, I bought a Greek dictionary. It’s a hardcover book, blue and thick, and when I hold it for too long, my hand grows numb. It doesn’t fit in my pocket, but its physical presence reassures me, and I carry it with reverence. I like to flip through it in one of Athens’s many cafés. It’s like going for coffee with a friend who knows Greek better than I do but doesn’t show off his knowledge. And to tell you the truth, I prefer that type of relationship more than any other. Growing up in the digital age, I haven’t flipped through a dictionary since elementary school, when I traded my red Merriam-Webster for an electronic dictionary with a small gray keyboard and an LCD display. Maybe it’s just a matter of aesthetics, a hipster longing for the past. But learning Greek seems more tangible when I hold the dictionary in my hands, when I flip to psi (ψ) or omega and think, I could learn all these words today! Like a book of magic spells, the dictionary is full of surprises. While I wrote this paragraph, still flipping past the words I sought, I discovered the words tzambatzís (“a freeloader, one who evades paying a fee”), epidixiomanía (“exhibitionism, pompous showiness”), and ripsokindinévo (“to risk, to jeopardize”). The dictionary’s power lies in its ability to describe the world, to call everything by its right name.

Socrates warns against exactly this faith in the written word in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus. Compared to “living, breathing words” (276a) that flow between two people engaged in dialogue, written words remain static, etched in marble. They may at first give the impression of living speech, but unlike a person whose answers change every time you ask him, a written text can only give you the same answer, over and over (275d–e).1 Written words behave, that is, like the great offenders in Hades, doomed to repeat the same actions for eternity. Tantalus bends to drink again and again from the retreating pool, and Sisyphus presses his shoulder to the boulder each time it rolls downhill, both of them trapped in the dance of death.

Do I agree with Socrates? I think the writer’s job is to give shape to the imagination, to embody thoughts and feelings in text, even if the words feel stiff and corpselike by comparison. Like Orpheus, a writer must believe in his unique way of seeing and describing the world. If memory and experience are the raw elements of artistic vision, what role does language play? Is it simply the expression of these elements, so that writing in another language is like a sculptor moving from bronze to marble, adapting his skills to the specific characteristics of a new material? Or does language transform artistic vision as fundamentally as the tiny pomegranate seed which, once eaten, condemned Persephone to the underworld?

I am writing this paragraph in the reading room of the Acropolis Museum, overlooking five of the six Caryatids, maiden-shaped statues that held up part of the Erechtheion temple. Fragments of Greek and English phrases filter up to me from the floor below. “No flash, please!” says the museum guard. Visitors take photos in front of the Caryatids and wave to their friends through the glass floor. “No touching!” says the guard. And from a Greek tourist group, I hear details about the Caryatids: how each maiden was sculpted with unique folds in her himation and chiton, and with a different hairstyle. My own mind has been sculpted from English for thirty years. And while I can’t claim mastery of English, I decided that I would try to learn Greek, because without knowledge of the language, I would feel unmoored, alienated from the country and from myself. So I swing back and forth between languages, aware that my knowledge of Greek is what separates me from the tourists I see on the floor below: how well I learn this language will ultimately determine whether or not I can stay.

Before I came to Greece for the first time, a Greek friend told me that, since ancient times, the ability to speak Greek was what distinguished a Greek from a non-Greek—not blood, nor place of birth. Indeed, my attempts to learn and speak the language have earned me the admiration and protection of Greeks across the country. With my Chinese-Filipino roots and American-accented Greek, I must seem like a strange bird, and when Greek people discover my true love for their country, their initial shock often transforms into affection. Last year, a police officer who was notarizing a document for me invited me to his summer home in Corfu. And this year, on Clean Monday, the day which marks the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent for the Greek Orthodox Church, I walked into an ouzerí in Tyrnavos, where a local family adopted me and treated me to dinner. We ate seafood and told bawdy jokes for hours, and toward the end of the meal, they invited me to their home for Easter. I’ve made friends in gas stations and monasteries, and I’ve played Scrabble in Greek with rock climbers I met on a beach in Kalymnos. People here overwhelm me with their generosity, showering me with attention and homemade food.

In Greece, I feel more open, more curious and social. The American Steven avoided entanglements: his primary goal was to be independent and self-sufficient so that he could write in peace, not indebted to anyone. Like Sisyphus clinging obsessively to his boulder, he worked unceasingly, often alone, and valued ambition and efficiency above all. Too late, he realized his mistake, that entanglement is another word for connection. His habits stifled him; ruled by accumulated inhibitions, he felt chained to the safe and known.

I couldn’t be that person in Greece. I had to translate my personality into Greek, to internalize the grammar of Greek relations, where it’s still easier to ask for directions from men sitting outside a kafeneío than to search on the Internet. Greek people have a supernatural ability to remember names and faces, and they expect entanglements, expect to spill into each other’s lives. I’m convinced that Greek laughter, outsized and exuberant, is one of the most joyful sounds in the world. I gave myself a new name to mark this internal shift. The Greek Stefanos tries to say yes to every opportunity. Yes, I will eat vegetables and jump fences and swim naked. Yes, I will trust strangers and ask for directions. I’ve climbed Mount Olympus and hiked to remote and crumbling Byzantine churches. I’ve allowed others to take care of me and allowed myself to feel truly indebted. I’ve learned generosity from my friends, who give and continue to give. I’ve embraced the magic and the chaos of Greek life.

I’m not saying, of course, that one country is better than another, but the distance between them has become, for me, a space of new possibility. My realization that the American way of life is not the only, nor necessarily the best, in every aspect has freed me to experiment with other ways of being. Sometimes I worry that I will never be Greek enough. That I will never overcome my American impatience or live fully in the present. And maybe I’m too much of a straight arrow because I don’t drink or smoke, and I can only maintain the image of Stefanos for a short period of time before I need to retreat and recharge. At other times, I have more confidence in my strange mix of cultures. My transformation continues, and if I succeed, I imagine that a part of me will pass beyond the realm of English, and that’s where I want to stay.

When I write in Greek, I experience a deeper concentration and enter more easily into a state of heightened attention to language. The conjugations of nouns, adjectives, and verbs, which I take for granted in my own language, require great care and precision to form in Greek. Paradoxically, when I hear or read the language, the penumbra created by my partial fluency allows many meanings to coexist at once: not only the correct meanings, but also confused and mistaken meanings, actions that occur once or continually, conditionally, or in the past or future. A perfectionist like me, who delights in details and the possibilities of words, could spend a lifetime building sentences in this slow and thoughtful manner. Over the past four years, I have grown accustomed to entering this zone of intense focus, which now seems more difficult to enter in English. Greek feels like a refuge, a secluded orange tent in my mind, where I can ignore the outside world and enjoy the company of words. As I write, I feel each sentence ballooning in my head, miraculous and vulnerable as a newborn, growing bigger with each breath.

I’ve been writing this essay for a year now, leading it out of my subconscious and into light. The hours I’ve spent in that orange tent have been hours in ecstasy. I wrote the first draft of the essay in a stream of consciousness, where my mind ran free, fueled by my enthusiasm for the language. The words flowed easily, and at first, it seemed to me a gift from the gods, because in English, I revise my work endlessly, reworking the words as soon as they hit the page. In English, I can read a sentence and understand it immediately, while in Greek, I experience a sentence in fragments, word by word, and each word changes the meaning of the whole. I read in fits and starts, swiveling my head from book to dictionary until, over the shapeless shadows of words, meaning dimly dawns. As a result, I must consciously decide to reread the words I’ve written, and in this way, they are protected from my inner critic, who, like Orpheus, doubts himself and looks over his shoulder with that devastating glance.

For a long time, then, I resisted the urge to revise this essay. I wrote and wrote, but I couldn’t finish it, because I didn’t understand its structure, couldn’t see it in its entirety. When I finally dared to look, I discovered that I couldn’t read it. The words I’d found in the dictionary had become foreign again, monolithic, thundering in their silence. Being cut off from my work reminded me of the limits of my knowledge: how quickly my comprehension deteriorates when I’m tired, how I still translate word for word, ignorant of the way Greeks really speak, and how far I still am from unlocking the full power of the language, its full music, metaphor, and beauty.

Why do I toil like this? Why expand to languages other than English? My professor laughed at me when I told him I had begun to write in Greek. “Friend,” he said, “you’re a man after my own heart. You don’t need anyone to marginalize you. You marginalize yourself!” He was right: I’m drawn to the odd and unexpected. But I feel that writing in Greek doesn’t pull me away from English; instead, it leads me a bit closer to the source of language. I am writing this essay as a love letter to Greece, hoping to end my wanderings and set down roots here. It’s also a challenge, after four years of speaking Greek daily, to start a new, more literary relationship with the language. It allows me to communicate with other Greek writers in their mother tongue and to explore issues of translation that have daunted me until now. These experiments in Greek, pleasurable and strenuous, have dominated my recent writing life. So I had no other choice but to dive back into the language to reclaim this essay, to discover its ending.

When in his return did Orpheus realize that his greatest challenge still lay before him? I imagine him marching through the silent halls of Hades, which boomed with his sure steps, Eurydice trailing behind him. She’s mine, he must have thought. I won her back. An impertinent thought, surely, while he lingered in the kingdom of death, whose impenetrable gates open only to admit new subjects. Maybe then he heard his own footsteps, echoing like the footsteps of one in pursuit. Eurydice? Why couldn’t he hear her behind him? And what if the footsteps he heard were not his own but someone else’s? He held his breath. He shouldn’t look back. Don’t look back, he told himself. Don’t look back.

This was Orpheus’s ultimate challenge: to leave behind the ghost of Eurydice, the cherished vision he had followed into the underworld, and embrace the imperfect, mildewed woman he brought back to the surface. We will never learn if he would have been happy with this Eurydice, had he succeeded in bringing her back from Hades. Would death have changed her into something horribly, irreversibly other, or simply something other than he remembered? Because we fear returning to things we have left behind, I, too, delayed returning to this essay. I knew I had to break its spine in order to restructure it, but ever superstitious, I hesitated to tamper with a text that had had such a difficult birth. A writer must edit not with the eyes of the creator, blinded by love, but with the cold, calculating eyes of the critic. And as I revised the essay, I also revised myself. I broke my old habits to embrace a new life in Greece. I risked descending into Greek and returned with Stefanos, a new translation of myself.

—Thessaloniki, 2019

Translated by the author from the original Greek
First published in Nea Hestia, volume 184, issue 1881, June 2019


Steven Tagle is the recipient of fellowships from the Institute of Current World Affairs, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Lambda Literary, and Fulbright Greece, as well as a Soros Fellowship for New Americans. A graduate of the UMass Amherst MFA, he has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, them, and Nea Hestia.He lives in Greece.

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1. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. I. N. Theodorakopoulou (Athens: Hestia Publishers & Booksellers, 2013).

Notes on Looking Back

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