Beauty in Chaos: a meditation

“Elegy in Joy”

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

–Muriel Rukeyser

When I started to think about this blog S said “you need a tag”; “beauty in chaos” came to mind. S was puzzled. First he didn’t understand where I was seeing, or what I meant by, beauty. I gathered he was wondering if it wasn’t more wishful than real on my part. “And chaos?” he said, “This is all more like some horribly orderly breakdown, where every step of the collapse is predictable.” The remark was chilling. And every time I read a Yanis Varoufakis post I’m more convinced than not that what has been happening to Greece since 2009 is a calculated (& failing) experiment in the politics of “how to stay the debt contagion”; the fact that the troika keeps admitting to “mistakes” after the fact (Varoufakis again) is all the more maddening, for want of a better way to express what Nat describes as “screaming in a bad dream, and no sound comes out”. She was answering to someone’s comment on a recent column of Paul Krugman’s, “What Greece Means”.  The contagion for a lot of people now is, also, about how to stay a sense of helplessness in the face of this depression, as quite officially with over 20%  and rising of the population as the documented unemployed, it is a depression. When I try to keep up with the nonstop coverage of the economic fiasco I feel, like so many that Chaos, or Χάος, will get the better of us, this so-called “orderly default” will surely spill over into mayhem. Yet, despite the country’s having “managed the feat of defaulting and increasing its debt at once,” (Varoufakis) — thanks to a combination of Greek political malaise and a troika solely invested in its banks — people are putting forward their own solutions. This “predictable collapse” has had its unpredictable, even ingenious, moments.

The municipalities, like Nea Ionia, who supported a grassroots refusal to pay the property tax, that was tied in with the electrical bills, took the issue to the Supreme Court, where, interestingly the Court ruled on the wording of “ektakta” –έκτακτα –“urgent”; that is, the Court agreed that the government couldn’t legally demand payment in excess of actual electricity spent but with the added word, έκτακτα, it could in fact make that exception. Meanwhile people were paying the sum of energy spent and ignoring the tax, so the court ruled that that whatever amount was paid would go directly to paying the tax (rather than the energy consumed), which meant the bills remained outstanding. What was gained in this battle was an agreement (so far) that people’s electricity would not be shut off for these outstanding payments. I guess these efforts are what I consider, or understand as, efforts to stay, or make viable, and visible, shapes of the measures that have been wrecking chaos in people’s lives. In Plato’s “Symposium” a group — Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates — gather at the tragedian Agathon’s house to drink, eat, and discuss views on the nature and deity of love. Phaedrus who gives the first speech, quotes Hesiod, when he begins “first Chaos came, and then broad-bosomed earth…”, believing love “a mighty God” born of, or on the heels of, Chaos. I’d looked it up again after Friday’s conversation when a group of us, friends and colleagues, found ourselves in the small basement bar where we sometimes gather after work. T mentioned the “Symposium” and the fact that it ends with Socrates and Aristophanes discussing or arguing that great tragedies and comedies can’t be separated.

I went home thinking about this. The comic and tragic interweavings in the daily that is Greece today. The appallingly unapologetic stance of the politicians, the madness of the public sector scandals – over 14,000 dead people who were still collecting their pensions – as the State turned a blind Aristophanean? eye. While in Volos, and elsewhere, there are growing grassroots initiatives of solidarity.  Rather than money, the town is returning to, or resurrecting, a barter economy in the internet age, where “Local Alternative Units” (“Tems”) are exchanged for various services and goods that include English lessons, tax statements, eggs, and homeopathic medicine. One of the people involved in the network states matter-of-factly, “You are not poor when you have no money – you are poor when you have nothing to offer,” and this seems to be where the “beauty” comes in, that principle of volition. As Montaigne, the great sage of emotional balances notes “we have power over nothing except our will; which is the basis upon which all rules concerning man’s duty must of necessity be founded.” What we do with that will in these depressed and depressing days and weeks and months feels vital. K, a Greek poet, and her husband Y, a photographer, have organized bi-monthly gatherings in their apartment. We have assignments, for our next meeting we’re reading Richard Rorty’s “Contingency, irony, and solidarity” – it’s a way to keep ourselves engaged, and talking, to make something of the rage that otherwise might have us throwing yogurts (the preferred choice) at politicians.


It was Friday evening, and it hadn’t been an easy week, we were in the bar talking about the things we could do to help our programs. There was so much uncertainty. That morning walking through the park where the addicts gathered, gardeners were planting flowers as two people, against the walls of the public library, were shooting up. I’d been thinking of Muriel Rukeyser’s poems, I wanted to find a poem I’d remembered in which she talks of waking up to another morning of chaos that had become routine. I needed the rich power of her voice: “I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/”; I did remember that I’d given my copy of her collected poems away, and was irritated that I’d done so. It was close to 8pm, and 7 of us had been in the bar talking for a couple of hours. The woman who owns the bar seems like she’s from another era; there are posters of Che on the walls, one from the movie Il Postino. We were drinking rakomelo (raki with honey) that she served warm. It was D’s birthday. And the bar owner brought out a drink she’d lit so D could blow it out like a candle. With every round of rakomelo we got more mezzedes, first it was popcorn, then carrots and olives, and later sausage in a mustard sauce. She didn’t charge us for the food. We also laughed a lot. E said, “When they start drilling for oil under the Acropolis we’ll finally know what assets the government signed off on.” Ms. Lagarde with the rest of the troika was, in Yanis Varoufakis’s words, “locking Greece” into “another unsustainable future.” The once-beautiful marble banisters of the Panepistimiou metro station were smashed, the Attikon theater burned, we didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but T left for his Tango class, A went to his choir practice at 9, and I returned to the paragraph I’d been trying to write all week.

About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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3 Responses to Beauty in Chaos: a meditation

  1. Very nice, Adrienne. You express beautifully what many of us feel. Chaos is lurking but it isn’t full blown yet and there is beauty in the attempts to keep it at bay and help each other. I love the line, “you’re only poor when you have nothing to offer.”

  2. amalia melis says:

    Eloquent, Adrianne……beauty in chaos; wounded actions mixed with words that do not heal.

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