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(ESSAY) To Lose the Smallest Indecency, George Reiner


George Reiner investigates queer resistances to homogenising 'futures' through the lens of personal experience, Sara Ahmed and the Greek poet Dinos Christianopolous.


I flirted with an Athenian during my first week in London. It was a time of chain-smoking, backgammon, fenced-off mouths and silent walks. Still saved on my phone is a photograph of a curved page, held between his nail-bitten, foreshortened fingers, with the following stanza:

μὴν καταργεῖτε τὴν ὑπογεγραμμένη ἰδίως κάτω ἀπὸ τὸ ὠμέγα εἶναι κρῖμα νὰ ἐκλείψει ἡ πιὸ μικρὴ ἀσέλγεια τοῦ ἀλφαβήτου μας
don’t abolish the subscript especially below the omega it’s a shame for it to vanish, the smallest indecency of our alphabet

It comes from ‘The body and the flesh’ (‘Το κορμί και το σαράκι’) by Dinos Christianopoulos. Born in Thessaloniki in 1931, he was the editor of the literary journal Diagonios, where this poem was first published in 1964. Christianopoulos also wrote extensively about rebetiko music — an underground urban blues influenced by Turkish melodies — modern Greek painting, and translated St. Matthew’s Gospel into Modern Greek twice. Until his death in 2020, Christianopoulos was as generous with his time and work as he was as prolific and central to Thessaloniki’s artistic and intellectual communities.


In the stanza above, Christianopoulos laments the loss of a small representation of queer sexuality within the Greek alphabet. For the letter omega ω [o] can, in Classical and Katharevousa Greek, be written with an iota subscript: ῳ [ō]. Together, they form an image of anal penetration for obvious orthographic reasons. However, this iota subscript is no longer used in Modern Greek, and so this smallest indecency will vanish. I return incessantly to this poem –– despite my mismatched introduction from the Athenian –– for its anger, loss, pessimistic humour, and constant questioning. Above all, however, his tongue-in-cheek observations, like this subscript, teach me that the smallest losses often have the biggest impact.

Θανάση γιατί ἔκοψες τὸ ἄλφα ἀπὸ μπροστά; γιὰ ἕνα γράμμα χάνεις τὴν ἀθανασία
Mortal, why’d you cut im- from the front? for one syllable you lose immortality [1]

In Feeling Backward (2007), Heather Love argues that queer culture has a ‘long history of association with failure, impossibility, and loss’, but current preoccupations with pride, It Gets Better campaigns, and political integration disavow any expressions of shame, darkness, or lewdness. A hope for a future underlies this disavowal where our queer lives will improve through the enshrinement of rights, cultural conversations and nuanced representations, provided we unequivocally direct ourselves towards that future and lose those expressions. I have never felt comfortable with this direction towards the future, because it never alleviated the feelings of shame, stigma and failure experienced after a homophobic slur. In some ways, it was made worse by the loss of public conversations about, and negotiations with, these feelings.

ὡραῖα ἑρμηνεύεις τὰ τραγούδια ἂς δοῦμε πῶς τὰ καταφέρνεις καὶ στὰ παρατράγουδα
beautifully you perform the songs let’s see how you fare with the fiascos [2]

I feel that futures are everywhere. There is an optimistic future based on technological advancement, accessible knowledge and societal progression, and, on the other, a post-apocalyptic future of climate catastrophe, volatile international relations and economic collapse. Christianopoulos is my antidote to this fixation on the future. Like Heather Love, by turning me around towards the past — what she calls ‘backward future’ — Christianopoulos demands certain forms of forgetfulness, as well as remembrance, to reclaim those expressions of ‘failure, impossibility and loss’ that help situate me in the present and glance at, rather than fixate on, the future.

γιὰ τὸ πέτσινο σακάκι σου ποὺ σὲ κάνει τόσο ὡραῖο ἔχασε τὴ ζωή του ἕνα ζῷο καὶ κοντεύω νὰ τὴ χάσω κι ἐγώ
for your leather skin jacket that makes you so beautiful a once living animal lost its life and I am about to lose mine too

The future is all encompassing in its uncertainty and the hope, fear, excitement and panic it induces. Sarah Ahmed in Queer Phenomenology (2006), shows how certain ideas, cultures, and spaces shape and are shaped around certain norms, aims and ways of thinking to which you must align yourself in order ‘to extend into spaces that, as it were, have already taken their shape’. This alignment enables some actions only so far as they restrict the possibility of other actions. Being directed towards the future, its speculative economies and creatives paid in exposure, I believe, restricts the ability to look at the immediate past and its losses. For we are carried by the fashionable currents to believe certain losses as inevitable and outside our control.

ἡ νύχτα μὲ ὁδήγησε σ᾿αὐτοὺς τοὺς δρόμους; ἢ αὐτοὶ οἱ δρόμοι μὲ ὁδήγησαν στὴ νύχτα;
did the night lead me to these streets? or did these streets lead me to the night?

The choice between queer diversity or assimilation into the mainstream through militaries, the institution of marriage, and pink currencies — possibilities both longed for in a direction towards particular futures — has long been a debate throughout queer history and activism. Ahmed helps me understand how alignment to assimilation allows aligned queers access to some areas (work, healthcare, education, and alike) by restricting the possibility of non-conformity. Love, however, provides a different alignment, one directed backwards to that ‘long association of failure, impossibility, and loss’. Last week, I argued with Pride organisers as to whether kink should be permitted at Pride, considering that children also attend. While we agreed that it’s a scheduling issue that impacts funding, I felt something was lost in queer culture’s assimilation into a certain mainstream idea of the future. It was something that could only be recognised and shared at the moment of its unrecoverable loss.

κάθε φορὰ ποὺ νομίζω πὼς σ ̓ ἔχω στὸ χέρι βλέπω πόσο ὁ ἔρωτας εἶναι ἀχειροποίητος.
every time I think that I have you in my hand see how much love is not hand- or machine made [3]

Christianopoulos captures and shares these little losses, like the iota subscript, without monumentalising them. There is no posterity in ‘The body and the flesh’ –– it slides between imminent loss and departed hopes to make them, and our present condition, more noticeable. With our current assimilation and the losses therein, I think of the AIDS crisis and the loss of an entire generation of queer elders and oral histories. I think of how over the last decade 60% of London’s queer bars have closed — a number only exacerbated by the lockdowns. I think of the lost opportunities to dislodge the normativity of muscular circuit parties in favour of a more inclusive and considerate politics. I think of how these losses are not part of our everyday conversations since the way we are directed towards the future restricts these observations. I believe a future can only be a viable option when, instead of disavowing these losses, one is orientated towards, and begins to feel their weight.

«ὅταν πεθάνω, νὰ μὲ θάψτε στὸ χωριό» — θέλουν νὰ τιμήσουν μὲ τὸ πτῶμα τους. τὴν πατρίδα ποὺ ἀρνήθηκαν μὲ τὸ σῶμα τους.
“When I die, bury me in the village”— they want to honour with their corpse the homeland that they denied with their bodies

Christianopoulos directs me towards the past and its losses but without demanding their return or retribution. His is a quiet, humorous mourning that is carefully observant with a holistic, rarely optimistic, outlook. In another poem titled ‘Little Cheese Pies’ — which I also read intensively after the flirtation with the Athenian ended — he provides a lewd experience of how to stay within, and directed towards, loss and failure.

Τοῦ ἄρεζαν πολὺ τὰ φρέσκα τυροπιτάκια ἀπὸ τὸ φοῦρνο τῆς γειτονιᾶς μας. Πήγαινα καὶ τοῦ ἔπαιρνα, ὅποτε ἦταν νὰ ἔρθει. Συνήθως ὅμως μοῦ τὴν ἔσκαγε, καὶ τότε καθόμουν καὶ τὰ ἔτρωγα μόνος μου. Αὐνανισμὸς μὲ τυροπιτάκια.
He really liked the fresh little cheese pies from our neighbourhood bakery. I would go and get them for him, whenever he’d come around. And yet, as usual, he would blow me off, and then I would sit and eat them all alone. Masturbation with little cheese pies.

Instead of anger at having been stood up, Christianopoulos embraces that loss and loneliness through the sticky image of masturbation with his ungiven gift. To lose without demanding return or retribution was a difficult lesson. I often believed possessions or experiences to be rightfully mine, and had sycophantic post-break-up revenge fantasies where the outfit was always key. Repeated alignment and its demands, for Ahmed, creates habits where we –– our bodies and thinking –– become familiar by inhabiting certain spaces, ideas and cultures. As a result, we are no longer conscious of our alignment towards the norms, aims and ways of thinking to which our actions reach. I was struggling to distance myself from the future since there was always one to be hopeful or scared for. In ‘Those who harassed us’ Christianopoulos heartbreakingly describes how loss weighs upon us to provide us with a moment of feeling that weight, rather than escaping it through return or retribution.

Ἐκεῖνοι ποὺ μᾶς παίδεψαν βαραίνουν μέσα μας πιὸ πολύ, ὅμως ἡ δική σου τρυφερότητα πόσο καιρὸ ἀκόμα θὰ βαστάξει; Ὅ,τι μᾶς γλύκανε, τὸ ξέπλυνε ὁ χρόνος κι ἡ συναλλαγή, ἐκεῖνοι ποὺ μᾶς χαμογέλασαν βουλιάξαν σὲ βαθιὰ πηγάδια καὶ μείναν μόνο κεῖνοι ποὺ μᾶς πλήγωσαν, ἐκεῖνοι ποὺ ἀρνήθηκαν νὰ τοὺς ὑποταχτοῦμε. Ἐκεῖνοι ποὺ μᾶς παίδεψαν βαραίνουν πιὸ πολύ…
Those who harassed us weigh inside us much more and yet for how much longer will your own tenderness last? Whatever made us sweet, time and business washed away those who smiled at us sank into deep wells and only those who hurt us remained, those who refused us to submit to them. Those who harassed us weigh on us much more…

Maybe we don’t sit with our losses enough, we don’t feel their weight in the question marks and ellipses; we try to transform them for future posterity or relegate them to the past immediately. It seems that a use is quickly demanded of loss, whether it’s a memory to be cherished, a lesson to be learnt, or an impetus to action. Love suggests previous queer expressions of shame, lewdness and darkness disappear as current queer assimilation redeems them for its own stories of progress. These expressions are never confronted, but used for a future they could not imagine. ‘The body and the flesh’, by contrast, refuses any useful possibility to leave us with a comic pessimism that ridicules these future desires.

τὰ πρόβατα ἀπήργησαν ζητοῦν καλύτερες συνθῆκες σφαγῆς
the sheep went on strike they asked for better conditions of slaughter

Over the past two pandemic years, four family members of varying degrees of closeness passed away. I found that one loss speaks to every other loss that we have experienced. At first, like the future itself, these losses were all-consuming as I became trapped within their net, unable to breathe or sit comfortably within. But Christianopoulos’s poetry and its repeated losses formed within me a habit of loss where, according to Ahmed, my body doesn’t get stressed by that loss, but rather sits within it. I could feel their weight and network and take it all in, since I was no longer swept by the future currents that demanded my recovery from grief to reach that future more quickly.


Although the Athenian flirtation was short-lived, I return to these poems –– not as a poorly substitutive reminder of that or other losses, but a body of work that repeats, familiarises and orientates me around loss. They keep loss always within reach to teach me how to lose, irreverently, irrevocably and, above all, observantly.


Notes


[1] Thanasis — which I have translated as ‘Mortal’ — is a male first name that is etymologically related to thanatos (θάνατος), meaning death. Christianopoulos and his small losses focus on how by removing the alpha from Athanasia (itself a feminine first name), they have lost immortality or athanasia (ἀθανασία).


[2] Christianopoulos puns on the etymology of paratragouda (παρατράγουδα) which literally means excessive-songs (παρα-τράγουδα).


[3] The adjective acheiropoietos literally means not-hand-made (ἀ-χειρο-ποίητος) but suggests something produced by divine intervention rather than human or machine. It is also the name of a famous Byzantine church in Thessaloniki called The Church of the Acheiropoietos.


Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. (Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press).


Christianopoulos, Dinos. 2016. Prose Poems. (Thessaloniki: Ianos).


Christianopoulos, Dinos. Last accessed March 2023. Dinos Christianopoulos - Poems. (University of Athens).


Love, Heather. 2007. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. (Cambridge, M.C. and London: Harvard University Press).


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