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Bee Queensland Spear Lily CropAustralia is a strange place. It’s the least populated country in the world and yet it’s where human in vitro fertilization, or IVF for short, was developed. These two facts are related even if they appear contradictory. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a scientific breakthrough of this nature to take place in China, or India. In these countries there’s no need to artificially conceive human beings, since there are more than enough produced by natural means to meet the demand. In fact, in China couples are restricted to one child, and the practice of infanticide of healthy female babies is widespread in the provinces where girls are deemed a burden on the family. But in Australia it’s another story. It’s as if the very sparseness of the population inspired a scientific discovery that has the potential to supply the deficiency. Thus, couples who would otherwise have gone childless can now contribute to solving the nation’s ‘population or perish’ quandary by producing their very own biological heirs.
An interesting and somewhat paradoxical side fact about IVF is that the technology was actually developed in sheep of which Australia has the highest population of any country in the world, not just per capita. I recall this from my days as a graduate student at Monash University, and one day in particular. That day, my department was abuzz with talk of the upcoming seminar by the scientist credited with a key discovery that made IVF possible, an alumnus of both the university and the department. Therefore you were apt to be looked upon as a heretic if you weren’t suitably seized with anticipation, and not to attend his presentation would be tantamount to treason. Therefore, since I was already on the margins of that artificial community reeking of forced collegiality for failing to be properly overjoyed at Australia’s win in the Americas Cup, and I had at least two more years to spend in their midst before I graduated with my doctorate, I thought it in my best interests to comply with their expectations and go along.
On that momentous occasion the entire Department of Physiology went almost ape-shit, prompted by the declaration of the then Prime Minister on morning television, a Labor man and ‘friend of the workers’, appropriately sloshed and joking with reporters egging him on like a mischievous scallywag that any boss who sacked a worker for failing to turn up to work on time that day “was a bum!” The celebrations began at the front entrance draped in yellow and green crêpe streamers, and inside the two story rectangular building with its wrap-around black mirrored windows there were Australian flags everywhere, in the main office and in the corridors, with people walking around tipsy holding a glass of champagne in one hand and waving a little flag in the other. To say the least, I felt a little uneasy confronted by this spontaneous show of unashamed nationalism first thing in the morning. But not wishing to spoil the mood, I put on a wide grin and happily accepted a glass of champagne from one of the secretaries and joined the raucous din in the common room on the ground floor where they were replaying the finish of the race on television. But my feigned glee couldn’t hide my inner revulsion, not least because I could see no direct connection between the science discipline of physiology and the bourgeois leisure sport of yachting, vulgarized somewhat in this case by the fact that the Australian challenge was bankrolled by a deluded Scottish immigrant from Western Australia, a ship welder by trade turned multi-millionaire property developer and a thorough fraudster with a misplaced Gatsby complex.
But unbeknownst to me the skipper of the victorious Australian yacht was a Monash alumnus and had a past connection with the department as a student. And this apparently was reason enough for everyone to put off work for the morning and, as per the Prime Minister’s decree, celebrate with the departmental chairman’s blessing and his marking the occasion with an impromptu speech about underdogs punching above their weight and winning against expectations on foreign shores, or something like that. Had I known this, it still wouldn’t have altered my attitude, because there was something repugnant about people’s collective exultation that morning. It was like blind volk pride, but one devoid of any mythistorical foundations, except for a crass and confused maudlin nationalism that was perfectly encapsulated by the “Men at Work” song they kept playing and singing over and over in the common room on the ground floor, with its ambiguously boastful refrain, “I come from the land down under, where beer does flow and men chunder.” It captured the larrikinism and irreverence at the heart of the mythical Australian character, while acknowledging its unenlightened inspiration in the form of alcoholic excess and the mindless and the arrogant bravado it engendered, symbolized by the emblem of a boxing kangaroo on the specially commissioned flag on the victorious Australian yacht flying below the national standard. But they took it all to heart, singing along with unbridled gusto, daring anyone to criticize them for beating ‘the Yanks’ in their own back yard, thereby vindicating in their own minds their loyal albeit insolent subservience to the British crown, while mollifying their inner pusillanimity for lacking the gumption of their enviable recalcitrant cousins to rise up and break free from their colonial fetters.
The IVF seminar was held in the main medical building, and when lunch-time came round off I went to hear this now world-famous reproductive biologist who had put Monash on the map, and in the process get one over on its stodgy establishment rival in the city center. I assumed it would be well attended by the medical faculty, but when I got there to my surprise the auditorium was literally packed to the rafters, with people crowding the front entrances in the foyer trying to get a look inside where there was only standing room along the walls. Instead I went round the back and managed to get in via the late entrance up the stairs and found a spot to stand at the very top row from where I had a good view of the podium and could just make out the back and the side of Prof. Alex Tounton. He was sitting alone in the first row and seemed relaxed, unperturbed that he was the center of attention of this large audience who had come from all over the campus and beyond to hear of his groundbreaking discovery first hand.
Although seated he looked on the short side, a bit stocky and swarthy with thickish lips and with an extra chin, and his face seemed a little flushed in the hot and stifling atmosphere of the over-crowded auditorium. He was of definite European extraction, but didn’t strike one as ‘ethnic’. Perhaps it was his Gallic-sounding surname, but there was enough of a rustic aspect about him that he could well have passed for a peasant in a Zola novel I read in my teens when I had aspirations of quitting high school and running off to join the railways. But in his silver-framed glasses and in the enlightened surrounds of academia, it appeared in his present incarnation he had transcended the lowly origins of his forbears. He was somewhere in his late thirties or early forties, young for a professor, and gave one the impression he wanted people to think he had little interest in his personal appearance. Thus, he wore a plain crumpled open-necked shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, as if dragged away from his laboratory where he was up to his arms in work, to give this impromtu presentation, and his mop of curly, grizzled hair which covered his ears was in bad need of a trim, with the odd stray lock falling down over his forehead to meet his silver frame glasses. His maverick mien was completed by a definite shadow around his jaw and sides.
Seeing the time had arrived, the dean sitting a few empty seats away signaled to him and then got up to the podium to introduce the esteemed speaker. As he did so, the noisy din turned to a polite hush and then an attentive silence. As Prof. Tounton listened with studied indifference, the dean began by going through the speaker’s biographical details, explaining that his breakthrough contribution to the IVF revolution was to develop the methodology for a critical step in the process that enabled the safe freezing and thawing of human eggs. He said Prof. Tounton had developed this particular trick in sheep with others in the Department of Physiology in the medical faculty at Monash, and then in collaboration with endocrinologists in Cambridge and in Edinburgh, they were able to tweak it and apply it to human ova which enabled their safe storage after extraction from donors. Adopting a more sober tone, the dean, a medical doctor by training, then went on to say that this invaluable discovery made it possible for infertile couples to experience the joy of parenting their very own children, something undreamt of until now.
As he sat listening with head bowed at this long-winded introduction, Prof. Tounton could not have failed to pick up on the note of condescension in the dean’s praise. As such, he not only resented this pompous ass trying to pass himself off as some kind of latter-day, antipodean Medici; he was also thinking of some unflattering cryptic remark with which to return the compliment and convey his disdain for his host and what he represented, something his fellow scientists in the audience could pick up on and be reassured he hadn’t compromised on his principles and ‘sold out’ to these mockers of their oath.
Perhaps I was reading too much in the self-assured equanimity he projected to channel my own unflattering views of the people in dark suits seated in the front row alongside him. Invariably they were all educated in expensive and proud imitations of English public schools that turned out these staunch defenders of British values and culture to fill the higher levels of administration in educational institutions and government bureaucracies alike, in this colonial outpost. In any case, I sensed a definite antipathy, but being the consummate, dispassionate scientist that he was, as the dean made way for him, Prof. Tounton rose from his seat, flashed a perfunctory smile at his host and distinguished guests and to rising applause he assumed the podium with the affected nonchalance of one who was the master of his domain, albeit a slightly roguish one.
As I stood there listening to the history and development of IVF in Prof. Tounton’s measured and rather monotone delivery that conveyed neither excitement nor apathy, but a fatalistic honesty, I was struck by a sense of futility. It got me thinking about what could have possibly attracted him to study human reproduction and failings thereof. What was there a history of infertility among close friends and relatives that inspired him to want to discover a cure growing up, and once at university this led him to take an interest in IVF research, fascinated by the possibility of making babies in test-tube, once the stuff of science fiction? Or was it a case where, such was the depth of his sexual awakening at university, that he underwent an epiphany of sorts, and being something more tractable than trying to understand the mystery of sexuality itself, he turned his intellectual curiosity to demystifying the fertilization process instead, which led him to the nascent field of IVF? Or did he simply stumble into it while looking for a project for his Honours year, and realizing he had a knack for this type of hands-on research, and being himself among like-minded people, he decided to pursue it as far as it took him, with an eye to forging a career for himself in science?
From my own perspective, however, although I was mildly engaged by the science, deep down I had no real interest in knowing how eggs taken from a woman’s ovary could be frozen for later use, thawed and fertilized in a dish with donor sperm under a microscope, and then inserted back into her own womb, or that of another woman for implantation, gestation and ultimately the birth of the fetus; or in the psychosexual subtext of his talk, that the climactic paroxysms of ecstasy that informed human sexual relations which had evolved over tens of thousands of years so human beings could procreate by following their instinct for periodic sexual gratification, this was now redundant, superfluous to the need.
Nor could I empathize with childless couples now given the opportunity to become biological parents. Their children would still had no say in their creation, and there was no logical reason to expect they would grow up to be any happier than those conceived naturally; unless their ever grateful parents lavished them with so much more love and affection for the ‘miraculous’ nature of their coming into existence, that they developed more advanced emotional and intellectual faculties to enable them to adjust more readily to the vicissitudes of life. and grow up to become model law-abiding citizens; unlike ‘crack’ babies, for example, who are born unwanted to drug addled whores and start life already disadvantaged with severe brain damage, unable to adjust to the world and end up criminals themselves and a burden to society. No, the main reason I was there was because I’d been caught up in the hysteria of wanting to witness this historic event and say that I was there in person when Prof. Tounton gave the Dean’s Lecture on his world-famous co-discovery at his alma mater, and be inspired to build on the Monash legend.
In retrospect, my cynical view of Prof. Tounton’s discovery and the wild excitement it generated in the department reflected not just a disinterest in the nature of his work, since I could see no direct relation with my own field of research, which pertained to the connection between electrical signaling and mechanical activity in gastrointestinal muscle, which probably reflected an inner psychic conflict of my own, which is another story; but a general cynicism and skepticism I had developed about science in general. This set in after the initial excitement of finding myself at university wore off, and the freedom to explore other interests and meet new people didn’t quite pan out as I expected. I mean, from a young age I was always of a questioning mindset, starting at elementary school, through high school especially, where my avid interest to learn about how things worked, whether it was in physics, biology or chemistry, to the annoyance of some of my teachers who had to come up with other ways to explain things to help me and others grasp concepts so that all the connected elements fitted together and everything as a whole made sense. But this all changed when I entered university. Here I realized it wasn’t enough to be wide-eyed and curious, and I had to adopt a more serious approach and regard science with awe rather than fascination, and treat it with somber respect as opposed to homely familiarity. Moreover, unlike my teachers in high school whom I could talk to openly and ask them silly questions, and who had simple titles like Mr or Mrs, Miss, or Ms for the female teachers who preferred not to reference their marital status, my lecturers at university had PhDs or Masters degrees, went by with titles like Doctor or Associate Professor, or Professor, whom you couldn’t address by their first name. It was like they were above ordinary people and exuded an intimidating presence, as if they were sole custodians of truth and knowledge and to them you were nothing more than an annoying ignoramus.
Moreover, their arrogance and unapproachable aspect made them come across as uncaring and uninterested in whether you understood anything. It was like they came to give their daily sermon in the lecture theater, and it was then up to you to figure out what they were trying to say by consulting the prescribed texts. Their aim was not so much to impart knowledge, but to make you feel inferior and dumb, thereby maintaining their intellectual distance and sense of superiority, while propounding the prevailing scientific dogma and giving scant consideration to competing ideas and theories. Thus, their standoffish attitude instilled in me not only a deep antipathy towards self-centered and arrogant academics, but also a stubborn cynicism and a skepticism about science in general, which in my mind became inextricably linked with these nasty, obnoxious people I couldn’t relate to. As a result, my desire to learn suffered, and even the word ‘science’ took on an unpleasant and forbidding tone. Instead of being an invitation to enter the doors of knowledge and explore nature, this innocuous word now engendered hostility and exclusion.
Given that academia is often likened to a church, and academic and scientists to a monastic order, in all its corrupted exaltedness, I wonder whether my antipathy towards them didn’t have something to do with the fact that I was brought up in a largely anti-religious household. Something tells me that had I been instructed in the teachings and morality of Christianity with more rigor, and had greater faith in its supernatural aspects, for my childhood wasn’t entirely bereft of religious influence, seeing my semi-literate grandmother would take me along to church with her when my communist aunt wasn’t around to stop her, I expect my mind would have been conditioned to receive concepts from above with less questioning, and I would’ve had an easier time accepting as received truths the dogmatic principles underlying scientific theories as promulgated by my self-centered university lecturers. But the fallow field that was my adolescent brain, crossing over into the tumult of early adulthood was so overrun by weeds and wild flowers that any cultivated species of thought had to overcome this dense undergrowth of skepticism before it could find a suitable niche and take root.
In retrospect, I could have spent my years at university more profitably had I studied languages or literature. Even though I enjoyed learning about natural phenomena and how living organisms worked, largely through my own efforts, some of the most petty and superfluous excuses for human beings could be found among academics in science departments at Australian universities. With the exception of one or two who had an internationalist outlook and were themselves immigrants, and made no assumptions about the ‘background’ of their students, most lacked the basic capacity to enthuse let alone inspire. And rather than enlighten they were content to mystify even further and thereby maintain their exalted, distancing aura, which in reality was nothing more than a façade for their intellectual insipidness.
As I stood listening at the back of the auditorium on the top row, I didn’t know what was more annoying: the smug arrogance of Prof. Tounton, who despite his anti-establishment airs, was no doubt conscious his discovery could one day secure him a Nobel Prize if he played his cards right and ingratiated himself with the right people; or the university administrators and the clinicians who stood to gain financially in one way or another from the IVF technology and its commercialization. Then there were the scientists in the audience, keen to line up for collaborations with Prof. Tounton and his laboratory, like the cheap little whores they all were, and have some of his glory and success rub off on them. In the end, none gave a fuck about infertile couples. It was all about self-interest they tried to conceal behind a crass nationalism derived from the fact that this was a proud ‘Australian’ discovery. But they also knew that to cringe at such puerile provincialism would mark them as ‘un-Australian’, and so they milked it for all it was worth, and the others followed suit. So much for IVF and Prof. Tounton. The seminar ended and I quietly went back to my desk in the PhD room to pore over some data.
As I mentioned, disabused of my innocent wide-eyed curiosity by my standoffish lecturers whose self-professed authority that didn’t extend beyond the lecture theater and their own heads, my contrariness towards science set in early as an undergraduate. From here, it gradually gained a firmer foothold the higher I progressed through university, culminating in an obsessive cynicism and a deep skepticism about the validity of science in the wider realm by the time I was enrolled in a PhD degree in the Department of Physiology. In fact, such was the depth of my discontent that to counter the pompous arrogance of my supervisors and other academics in the department I developed the habit of instinctively taking up the cause of the underdog, or anyone whose theories or ideas they dismissed as irrelevant or wrong. Invariably, these ‘crackpots’ they derived pleasure from putting down were people from outside their own kind, so to speak, from other cultures and countries where English wasn’t spoken, and whose technical sophistication wasn’t up to par with that of Australia’s and other ‘First World’ countries. But as far as I was concerned, their criticisms smacked of ingrained prejudices based on national stereotypes they’d been fed all their lives, and on broad generalizations pertaining to the veracity of the scientific findings of their targets, with thinly veiled accusations of scientific fraud. Strangely enough, even Americans, fellow members of the world Anglo-Saxon alliance and ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance network, and ‘brothers in arms’ in World Wars and lesser conflicts, were not above suspicion. But Canadians, fellow colonialists, however, were given the benefit of the doubt, I guess because Canada belonged to the British Commonwealth of Nations which automatically lent its educational, scientific and political institutions instant credibility . But America had broken away from this sacred covenant and therefore could no longer be implicitly trusted.
At times, my vigilance against signs of blatant discrimination would become so all-consuming that I would overlook key arguments disproving the validity of the work I was trying to valiantly defend for the sake of distancing myself from my chauvinistic colleagues, who I could sense from their sneering looks regarded me as a stubborn defender of lost causes and a fool. I, however, I drew satisfaction from the fact that my stance riled them, because in my view they all lacked the basic requirement for intellectual enquiry, and this was an open mind. They didn’t seem to understand that before arriving at a final understanding, one needed to explore all alternative possibilities, however ridiculous they may seem at first, by a process of elimination, that is, reductio ad absurdum, which in the end could only go to strengthen one’s theory. Moreover, the role of scientists was to question everything, including their own observations and interpretations; and by failing to do so they were all guilty of tunnel vision and the most heinous form of narrow-mindedness.
Although my contrariness manifested itself as largely an emotive albeit quasi-reasoned antagonism towards academics and my peers, what really lay beneath was something much deeper than mere disagreement over scientific process and objections against national and racial steretotyping. And this was a deep and abiding resentment I felt towards a society and a culture that I felt had transformed me into an object stripped of identity on a deeply personal level, and of all sense of belonging. And as loyal subjects and complict agents of that insidiously soul-destroying society, I saw my senior laboratory colleagues and anyone else I suspected who vaguely shared their values and views as fair targets of my scorn and disdain. That subterranean anger and rage threatened to break through one day in an incident I remember quite vividly, sparked by something which to an outsider would seem not only trivial, but just plain silly. The issue centered round the definition of a simple word which to a normal person held little or no significance outside its express meaning, but which to me was like a red rag to a bull, especially when spoken. That word was ‘migration’, and variants thereof, especially when applied to people.
The occasion where my irrational fixation with this this seemingly innocuous term threatened to explode into full blown outrage was an informal seminar given to our research group by an invited speaker (I had then just started on my doctoral studies and was attached to a laboratory in the department). The subject of his talk was the process by which nerve cells in the intestine of newborn mice spread distally from the vagal crest region after birth, until they covered the entire gut wall, and he was presenting findings from studies in his own laboratory to show how this process progressed. As I sat listening mildly enthused, my attention, however, would be momentarily disrupted whenever he mentioned the word migration to describe this process, or variants thereof, and with each successive utterance I could feel the tension gradually building up inside me. Eventually it got to the point where I could no longer concentrate on what he was saying and I kept shifting in my seat and swallowing to hide my growing discontent. What’s more, I had now taken a personal dislike to the speaker for thinking that, just because he was a general surgeon and a scientist to boot, this gave him the license to bandy about words like this one so flippantly, without regard to their derogatory connotation that people in the audience might take offense to.
Having ceased listening altogether, I began to formulate a rational objection to his use of that particular term that I could put to him at the end of his talk and set him straight. After running through several versions in my head, I came up with what I thought was a watertight argument as to why the term migration was inappropriate and misleading in the context. This was because what he was describing didn’t actually entail ‘migration’ per se, because once the nerve cells made their way from their source in the vagal crest to more distal regions of the gut, they did not return. Their movement was essentially in one direction, and once they got to their destination, so to speak, there they remained for the rest of their existence. By definition, however, migration implied that the subject was not fixed to one location and is free to go back to where they came from, and exercises this ability in a periodic or seasonal manner, as in the case of birds whereby in winter they migrate to warmer climes, and then with the arrival of spring return to their habitats to nest. By way of conciliation, so as not to come across as an over-sensitive lunatic from too much introspection and lack of human contact outside my immediate surroundings, I was even prepared to offer a few suggestions as alternative descriptors of the process he was describing, like ‘translocation,’ or ‘colonization’, or even ‘invasion,’ despite the unpalatable militaristic tone.
But in the end, I was so stricken by nerves when he finished his talk to our research group, with my heart pounding so loudly inside my chest I could hear every beat reverberating over my entire body, preparing me for fight or flight, and the blood vessels in my head threatening to burst, and my fingers trembling and body shaking, thatI kept my hand well down as I listened to him fielding questions from others in the room, none of which touched upon his misuse of the term migration. In fact, I was still shaking in my legs when the meeting finished and I made my way back to the PhD room, realizing just how close I had come to making a complete fool of myself over such a trivial issue. As I sat quietly at my desk with my back to the others, lamenting my stubborn tendency to always ‘see the red line’, as one of my supervisors accused me of one day, fed up with my petty contrariness, I was on the verge of tears, or some kind of internal meltdown, wondering why I just couldn’t rid myself of my foolish obsession and not read hostile intentions into everything people said. But at the same time, I well knew why. It was because my reaction was a manifestation of a deep-seated emotional conflict which this simple word had stirred up with particular efficacy.
This was because it was pregnant with deprecation and hostility towards people very close to me, as close as they come. They were people who had sacrificed their dignity and identity in order to transplant themselves to a far off country to work as wage-slaves in factories. They were people who believed the shortest route to happiness was to amass lots of money by debasing themselves this way, and when they had made enough, they could return to their own country and like vulgar boors, parade their hard-earned wealth to the envy of their still poor fellow provincials. But most never got the chance, or bothered to, because in the process they turned into imbecilic dullards from the constant grind in their cloistered existence, and left to die alone in a foreign land, surrounded by their petty possessions and no-one ???. Among them were my very own parents, and as such, I couldn’t bear the shame of being a child of people who had forsaken their home and their dignity for the triteness of ‘a better life.’ In short, I hated being reminded that I too was a common migrant, without a true home and unable to feel any loyalty to anyone or anything.
As for the surgeon, he came to work in our laboratory on a short sabbatical and I actually got to like him. In fact, I relented and began using the word migration freely in our conversations in the hope that by repeated use I could inure myself to its negative connotation. I guess the fact that he was a Jew and married to a Korean, herself a doctor, took the edge off its harshness. As one with knowledge of the ‘migrant experience,’ perhaps not first hand, for he seemed to have had a comfortable upbringing and had been educated in expensive schools, he probably understood what it was like to grow up in Australia as an outsider. Therefore I couldn’t imagine him intentionally using the term to spite me; after all, his very own wife was a migrant. Having said that, this didn’t entirely absolve him, because for someone of his standing I assumed he would be more perspicacious and show some sensitivity, and I had in mind to one day explain to him my ‘problem.’ But thankfully I never got round to it, because in retrospect, I’m sure it would have made me look like a paranoid idiot in need of treatment. Nevertheless, by the time he left I think he picked up on the fact that I didn’t like the term from the way I couldn’t help but flinch whenever it struck my ears, and in deference he tried to avoid it.
In some way, my reaction to the word migrant was akin to the reaction of African-Americans to word nigger from someone wishing to humiliate them for their obvious blackness. But migrant is a more nuanced and complex pejorative because it hides behind its literal meaning which gives it acceptable currency and imbues it with a mitigating ambiguity, an acceptable façade, if you like, with a heavy note of derision on the inside. Thus anyone using it with the intention to offend can invoke its literal meaning so as not to come across as an overt racist or chauvinist.
Actually, the word nigger is more akin to the word wog in Australian usage, in the sense that it refers ostensibly to the appearance and outward behavior of a person, whereas migrant has a deeper meaning, alluding to socio-political aspects of one’s identity. But just like nigger which is fairly benign when used among African-Americans to refer to themselves in a jocular manner, and which automatically takes on a seriously racist tone when uttered by a ‘white’ mouth; it is similarly highly insulting for a Greek to be referred to as a wog by an Anglo-Australian, but much less so coming from a fellow Greek, although personally I find the word equally grating under all circumstances. Thus, if a fellow Greek calls me a wog, I feel insulted not because I’m belittled for personifying the negative qualities Anglo-Australians attribute to wogs; but because I’m accused of trying to deny myself those very qualities, which as a wog I should not be ashamed of, because to wogs, a wog who denies his wogness is a sign of a wog of the worst kind. The word ‘migrant’ has similar socio-linguistic implications, but is more universally applicable across wider sections of the population. Its purpose is to label anyone suspect of divided national loyalties as an ‘outsider’ who doesn’t belong to the social formation in question, in this case, Australia. And because they feel no compunction about leaving and going back to their own country when they feel like it, to their accusers they deserve all the wrath and disdain the word is pregnant with.
Another mentally draining aspect of my obsessive cynicism and my reflexive contrarianism around this period in my life was the difficulty I had in accepting the received notion among my peers that science was a noble pursuit which was above politics and religion and at appealed to people’s highest intellectual faculties. But to me, this view smacked too much of anti-religious zealotry, which was a form of religion itself, with the spiritual realm replaced by a staunch rationalism, and God substituted with ‘nature’ and ‘science’ in the abstract. Thus, whenever I heard them refer to anyone as a scientist a little explosion would go off in my head. The title sounded so pompous and pretentious, as if scientists were special people who stood so far above mere mortals and their mundane concerns, that nothing interested them other than the quest for pure truth and knowledge, without any expectation of pecuniary rewards, this when the very notion of truth and knowledge was relative. And from my own observations, scientists were vain and venal hypocrites, eager to sell themselves to the highest bidder, just like Prof. Tounton; and while they affected an outward selflessness and pretended to be uncorrupted by wealth and power, the entire scientific establishment that supported them, from academia to large research institutes, was dependent on the systematic economic exploitation of the mass of people in society who slaved for a living and were regarded with contempt and kept in the dark.
I was now well into my first year of my doctorate and already my obsession with the ‘personal’ aspects of science was beginning to interfere with my ability to focus on my studies. I began to question whether my involvement was as futile as it seemed, and whether it was at all worth my while to continue. But at the same time, I felt I had to stay the course in the hope that the discontent and disconsolateness I felt weighing down on me was a product of my specific circumstances; and that once I had graduated, I would be able to leave Australia and see life from a completely new perspective, free from all the negativity of being a wog and a migrant constantly reverberating in my head. In addition, I couldn’t ignore the fact that, for all my disparaging views and my cynicism over its phony intellectual sanctity, I could see that science could provide me a means of earning a comfortable living in the immediate future, and may well turn out to be a feasible career option in the long term. With this in mind, I resolved to stay the course and finish my degree.
Now that I was committed to seeing it through, to try and put my cynicism and my muddled skepticism into some sort of rational perspective, I was increasingly drawn towards the socio-political aspects of science and the nature of science itself. After all, the degree I was aiming towards stipulated that I was to be a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, a ‘lover of knowledge’, which implied that I should have a broader appreciation of ‘knowledge’ in the wider and pure sense, not just in my own narrow field of study. But outside some basic tenets regarding positing and testing scientific hypotheses, and conducting the appropriate experiments to eliminate those not tenable with the experimental data, I understood very little about the ‘philosophical’ aspects of science, not that it stopped me from engaging in informal discussions on the subject with my fellow doctoral candidates and some of the academics in the department, including my direct supervisors. But since I was unversed on the subject and nowhere near as articulate as I needed to be, I ended up becoming more confused and frustrated at my inability to express my thoughts. And since there was no actual course offered on this subject, since my degree was focused largely on experimental research, I took it upon myself to educate myself on ‘the philosophy of science.’ To this end I read various books by Kuhn, Popper and Feyerabend that I came across in the bookshop, or in the main library; and whilst they made some sense in regard to the process of scientific discovery and ‘paradigm shifts’ there in, and the role of politics and personality in the promotion of certain theories over others, having no-one close with whom to discuss the more abstract aspects of science, it was difficult to assimilate them in a structured manner and understand them. ??
In the course of my extra-curricular readings, I also came across various references to the philosophy of Hegel and Marx in regard to the underlying causes of revolutionary change in nature as well as in people’s thinking as it pertained to society and scientific discovery, and the conflict between competing forces and the contradictions therein, all of which immediately piqued my interest. This was because for many years now, in fact, since my later years in high school, I had been dallying with the ideas of Marx to try and come to grips with the meaning of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ from an economic as well as a political perspective, and thereby give my half-assed leftist views, a legacy from my communist aunt in Greece, a firmer theoretical foundation. To that end I had read various works including “The Communist Manifesto” and other historical texts by Marx, Engels, Trotsky and others. But to be honest, although I understood the basic premise that ‘communism’ was a system of organizing society on the basis of equality and fairness, where workers owned the means of production and ran society cooperatively, according to human need not greed, my understanding of the theoretical foundations was largely confined to the immorality of wealth imbalances inherent in capitalist society. But now that I discovered there was a philosophical convergence between science, politics and economics in the writings of Marx, Lenin and other leftist intellectuals, I was keen to explore this area with renewed enthusiasm, and try and get to the bottom of socialism and communism and how it pertained not only to society, but to the role of science therein.
After my first year in my assigned laboratory, working alongside people I once regarded as distant and unapproachable, but with whom I was now on more equal terms, my opinion of them softened somewhat. In fact, I felt I knew them well enough to express my views openly on various topics without fear of being ridiculed or dismissed. Invariably the topics of conversation in our lunch room touched upon items in the news, and more often than not I found myself taking the opposing view to the conservative line of my laboratory colleagues, that is, when they actually expressed an opinion at all, because on the whole they remained very guarded. This was most evident whenever the subject broached politics, that is, beyond the mundane talk of political parties and elections, which didn’t really interest me, since I wasn’t naturalized Australian citizen, and didn’t hide it, something I could tell which riled them.
As I discovered the more I got to know them, they were extremely reluctant to explore politics from the philosophical angle, as it related to the nature of political conflict between opposing interests, especially in the sphere of economics and social issues. It was as if these topics were off-limits or taboo. But their niggling obduracy only increased my determination to bring them up for discussion, especially after I decided to join a socialist organization on campus with the aim of gaining a more structured understanding of Marxist philosophy. I didn’t hide this from my colleagues, but after they saw me selling the organization’s newspaper in front of the Union building one lunchtime, their stance hardened somewhat, having already labeled me a ‘communist’ for sticking up for the U.S.S.R. and Cuba. I think the trigger for this was the shooting down around this time of a Korean airliner by the Russian air force after it flew into Russian air-space over Sakhalin Island. And while they decried the barbarity of Russians and the ‘communist system’ for killing so many innocent people in cold blood, I raised the possibility that the plane was deliberately flown into Russian airspace on the order of the Americans to test Russia’s air defenses, knowing it could provoke an attack that could be used for propaganda purposes by the Americans toportray the U.S.S.R. as an evil state, and precipitate its downfall. Not that my explanation convinced anyone, because I was accused of being a conspiracy theorist and an apologist for murderers, which immediately put me in their black book.
Although I grew used to their conservative mindset, the vigor of their reaction to my joining this organization and selling the newspaper on campus, and talking to other interested students, and their silent treatment surprised me somewhat, since ‘Marxism’ was a legitimate subject taught in the Politics department in the Arts faculty, and therefore had the full approval of the university administration. Moreover, as academics, or pre-academics in my case, I assumed that the much lauded privilege of ‘academic freedom’ accorded to us the freedom to express of our views without fear of retribution or disfavor. But I could see that in practice that’s not quite how it worked.
As for the socialist group, it wasn’t exactly with boundless enthusiasm that I joined. I had bought some of their literature in the past, and copies of their newspaper from their stall inside the main entrance of the Union building, but from impromptu discussions with some of them, I discovered to my surprise they were strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and its allies in every respect. Moreover, the slogans on their banners and posters had a sophomoric if not moronic ring to them. Nevertheless, putting aside their position on the U.S.S.R. which seemed odd for an avowedly ‘socialist’ organization, I decided to take up and offer from Judy, a women somewhere in her mid-thirties who seemed to enjoy talking to me, and go along to one of their evening meetings in the city and learn more. These were held in a large room on the fourth floor of Curtin House, a mock-Victorian building on Swanston Street, and in case the landlord got cold feet about renting it out to socialists, they told all newcomers to tell anyone who asked that they were a ‘history club.’
At that first evening I got to talk to quite a number of people and discovered that, with the exception of their anomalous position on the U.S.S.R., their views were generally aligned with mine. They seemed friendly and welcoming enough for me to go back the following week, and soon I was a regular weekly attendee, borrowing my father’s Ford Fairmont to drive to the city every Tuesday evening to listen to the various speakers and engage in political discussions with established members and other newcomers like me. After a while, with my increasing involvement and interaction, I discovered that not only was my ability to articulate my views more coherently greatly enhanced, but this enabled me to comprehend more clearly theoretical texts whose meaning had thus far largely eluded me. Moreover, it seemed the more I understood about the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, the more I realized just how relevant it was to explaining my own circumstances, both as regards my life as a child of ‘migrants’, as well as a student of science, and giving my cynicism and skepticism a legitimacy. I realized that my ambivalent and somewhat problematic relationship with science wasn’t simply a product of a demented contrarian mindset; there was a rational basis to my seemingly backward opposition which could be explained by the fact that ‘bourgeois science’ was largely subordinated to the exigencies of capitalist exploitation and the market. Thus, armed with this new way of looking at the world, I felt there was no argument from my laboratory colleagues or fellow doctoral students I couldn’t shoot down dialectically, and in the process subvert their conservative views and at times blatant hypocrisy.
Although the majority of members on campus were students, the meetings in the city were attended by people from other walks of life. A fair few had office jobs, some in government departments. But there were also professionals among them including medical residents, teachers, a metallurgist, and at least one accountant who would turn up in his suit and loosened tie, in contrast to the more casual attire of others. He was always accompanied by his wife who seemed to act as his minder and rarely said a word, standing beside him with a blank expression. He didn’t appear ill with any anything serious, but his breath always reeked of alcohol, and despite being slightly unsteady on his feet, I was struck by his effortless articulateness in his cockney accent, and by his clear insight into various national and international events and conflicts from a Marxist perspective. Thus I was a little surprised to learn that he wasn’t among the higher echelon of the organization, and didn’t even serve on the executive committee. Perhaps his alcoholism had precluded his taking a more active role, because he seemed to have a much wider and deeper knowledge of politics and economics than most of the senior members, many of whom were journalists who had studied at the School of Journalism at the Australian National University in Canberra, oddly enough, and wrote articles for the organization’s newspaper and magazine, were supported financially in part by the monthly dues of regular members.
I continued attending meetings in the city on regular basis in my second year of my doctorate, increasing my knowledge of history and politics as I went along, and learning to interpret the world from a Marxist-Leninist perspective as regards to the role of the workers’ party in the revolutionary movement, and of science and its subordination to capitalism, which nevertheless paved the way for socialism. But although I enjoyed listening to the talks and taking part in discussions, I was hesitant to formally join up. It wasn’t just the fact that I would have to hand over ten percent of my monthly stipend; something still niggled about the organization’s uncompromisingly critical stance towards the U.S.S.R. and its allies which I just couldn’t fully go along with. In addition, I couldn’t countenance having to endorse their imbecilic and somewhat delusional mission, as it were, ‘to change the world.’ In fact, this formed the basis of the first question they put to potential recruits who weren’t sure whether or not to join, as in, “Do you want to change the world?” to which they invariably answered, “Yes,” with a baffled smile and an uncertain shrug of the shoulders, after which they were invited to come along to a meeting in the city and find out more.
But with the pressure mounting to either join or leave, in the end, after months of vacillating and dodging the question, I decided to take the plunge and become a member, but only a provisional one, and handing over ten percent of my monthly stipend. I never enquired why I wasn’t immediately accepted as a full member. But as I discovered, everyone had to serve a probationary period initially to determine whether they complied with the rules of the organization and espoused their brand of socialism, and they weren’t impostors sent to sabotage the workings of the organization. Nevertheless, even though I was contributing financially, this condition of membership introduced an early note of distrust as regards my relationship with the organization, and I felt myself in the spotlight.
I received a very enthusiastic round of applause when my name was read out among the new crop of provisional members, but not everyone was happy about my being there. One such person who seemed to take an instant dislike to me from the very first day was a girl about my own age (I was then in my mid-twenties). She spoke with an annoying halting and quavering nasal voice while affecting the look of a junkie, dressed like a Led Zeppelin groupie in skin-tight jeans and slim-fitting jacket over her thin frame, with hair like Janis Joplin, curly and messy, parted down the middle and falling over her face, and which she constantly brushed aside a little too affectedly for my liking, because there was nothing attractive about her at all. She also had the annoying habit of sneering down her nose at people she was talking to, even if they were taller, and always contradicted whatever I said, however minor and of no importance. She said she worked part-time cleaning mansions in Toorak where she helped herself to the liquor cabinets. But she said this with too much of a boastful air, as if to get across her unqualified disdain of the upper classes, and that I sensed something fishy. I determined she was probably a rebellious spoilt brat from a rich household herself, a Jewess for sure, with some kind of hate-complex, given her toxic aspect and abrasive manner, and her glued-on sour countenance, despising who she was and others who suspected it. And thus I avoided her.
Then there was the former student activist now approaching middle-age who boasted of dropping acid before exams at Monash University in the ‘70s, to protest the fact that testing and examinations were merely a way of selecting faithful servants of capitalism; and how a number of his friends had leapt to their deaths from the top of the ten storey Menzies Building, simply because ‘they thought life was shit.’ There was something fundamentally phony about him as well, and his casual nihilism. I suspect he could tell I didn’t appreciate his forwardness, but he would always come up to me at meetings to ask what I thought about the talk and the organization and its politics. Not that I liked being looked at in the eyes, he also had the annoying habit of avoiding eye contact when he spoke. And when he did look me in the eyes, he did so fixedly, as if trying to stare me down, or work out whether or not I was genuine. I don’t know what his actual preferences were, but he seemed to affect a kind of gender fluidity, coming across as effeminate on some occasions, while projecting a domineering machismo on others, to see which I responded to. It was amusing and irritating at the same time. Then there were others who for no apparent reason would surround me at meetings and start patting me on the back smiling, as if to try and cheer me up when I was feeling just fine, and show how friendly they really were and that I had nothing to fear. It was all a little creepy, to be honest, since as far as I was concerned I was there to learn about Marxism and not necessarily to be loved.
Nevertheless, with each passing week, and my becoming more familiar with the group, these niggling issues became less of a concern and I settled into being a provisional member of the International Socialists. I figured that once I served my probationary period, however long that was, since it was at the discretion of the executive committee, I would be invited to become a full member and feel more comfortable. In the meantime, for my part, seeing I was among fellow socialists and largely agreed with their politics, I felt I had nothing to hide and openly talked about my family’s history and how we got to Australia, and my early political influences and views. Deep down, however, I still thought their slogans were hyperbolic and somewhat absurd which only an imbecile would actually believe in. But there I was uttering the same trite phrases when called upon to approach the unenlightened punters at rallies in the Bourke Street mall on Friday evenings, or convince confused and naive undergraduates at the bookstall in the Union building at university to come along to a meeting in the city. Empowered by my newly gained ability to articulate the tenets of Marxism with confidence, it felt like I was stepping into a different character, another me who fully believed in all the prophecies about the imminent fall of capitalism and the need to prepare for the revolutionary moment by building a worker’s party right NOW!, before the world descended into barbarism.
I even indulged myself in the delusion of progressing up through the ranks of the organization and becoming a fully-fledged revolutionary socialist serving on the executive committee; one who could front a large crowd of workers outside the factory gates, or a general strike, and expound at length with persuasive oratory on the inherent contradictions of capitalism, and exhort the masses to prepare to rise up and seize power by building a true workers’ party independent of the trade unions. But when I got back home, in the solitude of my own thoughts, my suspicions about the group would resurface, reminding me that there was still a lot I didn’t know about them and needed to be cautious. For one thing, who in their right mind could be stupid enough to believe that this small organization made up of students and former student activists and sundry sympathizers, and some pensioners and unemployed people, actually had the ability ‘to change the world’? It sounded more like a cathartic dare, akin to the evangelical entreaties of street preachers for sinners to give themselves over to Jesus and thus be saved from eternal damnation in the afterlife. Moreover from the passionate exhortations and bombast of some of the more dramatically trained members, calling on others to ‘smash the State’ and ‘eat the rich’, like bad case of over-acting, the firmness of their convictions couldn’t hide a palpable underlying disingenuousness. One evening the ridiculousness of the seriousness with which they took themselves was made plain by an unlikely source, and I couldn’t help but stand back and be amused.
That particular evening, a shop steward from South Africa who was involved in the leftist movement back home was attending the meeting as a guest of a senior member who was also a shop steward. With the main talk over, the topic of which I can’t recall, during the break the invited guest was having a discussion with some of the senior cadres, sharing his views on the state of the labor movement in South Africa and the involvement of the Left, and comparing it to the situation in Australia, and I happened to be standing nearby with a bunch of new members and listening with keen interest. The guest seemed in a jovial mood, sipping on his beer, but to the chagrin of the senior members, he had the habit of referring to our organization as a ‘tendency’ with a polite and slightly condescending chuckle. As I continued listening in, I couldn’t help but crack a knowing smile myself, because his views more or less echoed my own private thoughts. And if this visitor who sounded much more knowledgeable than anyone in the group about Marxism and grass roots leftist movements, thought it was nothing more than a ‘tendency’, then that’s all it was. Moreover, he wasn’t someone who spent his time around shitty students plastering posters on campus buildings or city laneways to publicize lectures on the Kornilov coup in pre-Revolutionary Russia, or the role of the Leninist party during an economic downturn. He was a ‘real’ practicing socialist who dealt with actual workers and knew what it was like to face the full force of the state’s repressive apparatus and be jailed for laying his political beliefs on the line. But after a while, seeing that some of us new members were listening in with a little too much interest, he was politely led away to the other side of the room, lest our faith in the organization be further undermined.
That was another aspect about the group I had trouble accepting; and that was the rigid hierarchy and the separation of the executive committee from the regular members who were subdivided into ranks known only to the senior cadres. I had always equated socialism with egalitarianism and transparency, but from what I could see there was very little direct communication between the established members and newcomers. They must have been aware of this because periodically they would justify the apparent secrecy of the executive committee by saying this was needed to maintain focus and clarity of purpose, and would then remind everyone that a degree of separation was unavoidable given the uneven level of political consciousness in the organization in this building period. It didn’t fully placate my concerns, but since I wasn’t yet fully acquainted with the concept of ‘democratic centralism’ in the context of a Leninist party, and all which that entailed at the organizational level, I grudgingly deferred to their authority. But still, I had to contend with an inner moral dilemma because on the one hand, although I felt indebted to them for allowing me into their midst to learn about Marxism in a much more structured manner than I would ever have achieved on my own, I couldn’t overlook this proto-totalitarian aspect at the core of the organization. Moreover, deep down, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that my involvement smacked of ‘bad faith’, theirs as well as mine.
My suspicions about the nature of the organization were also fed by the fact that those higher up invariably came from wealthy middle-class families, largely of Anglo stock, and liked to boast of their privileged bourgeois upbringing, and that their parents were managers or company directors, and how they were disowned by them when they found out they joined a socialist organization. One such person was Martin, a few years my junior. He was studying history or sociology at university and had been a member for several years, having joined fresh out of high school. I guess because he was of Dutch heritage and his parents had immigrated to Australia in the ‘60s, he didn’t quite conform to the strict Anglo middle-class pedigree of his rebellious comrades, even though he was born in Australia, and betrayed a noticeable hint of humility in their presence, if not deference. Nevertheless he too was keen to hold up his capitalist landlord father as his own personal reason for becoming a socialist, telling people how he owned two dozen rental properties all over Melbourne and kept a mistress in every second one. Such was the depth of capitalist depravity in his family, he would have you believe, that he had no choice than to cut his ties and become a revolutionary socialist. At times it seemed these conscientious spurners of privilege were competing to see who had lost the most, as proof of their unequivocal commitment to the organization and its mission of radical social change. There was even a daughter of a Governor-General who was a member, although she seemed rather shy and kept in the background.
After almost a year with the group, regularly attending meetings and participating in various activities, but still a provisional member, it got to the point where I could barely tolerate their imbecilic rhetoric and amateurish urban activism, and I was looking for an excuse to get out. As far as Marxism was concerned, I felt I had nothing more to learn from them, since they eschewed any discussion of Marxist economic theory to which I was increasingly drawn, and generally steered interested newcomers away from such airy distractions. From here on in, to prove my commitment, I knew that my involvement would require me to undertake more propagandist duties, to which I wasn’t all that agreeable. Then there was their crypto-Australian nationalism I just couldn’t put up with either. As much as I tried to ignore it, it seemed to creep into all political discussion, and being already sensitized to the more chauvinistic aspects of Australian popular culture and sport, I found it particularly grating. Secretly, I had grown to dislike almost everyone in the group and rued the day I ever got involved, recalling how I stupidly consented to want to ‘change the world’, like a lame-brained idiot loner, eager to join and belong. At times it felt like I was trapped among a bunch of angry adolescents playing a game of grown-up in which I was obliged to play my assigned role for fear of being ostracized and beaten up, just like at school.
Other times I felt embarrassed at myself for failing to heed my father’s admonitions when I came home from that first meeting, all charged up, glowingly explaining to him and my mother how as workers they were at the forefront of the class struggle and the only true agents of change. In fact, I recalled being shocked at my own zealousness and how easily the rhetoric flowed from my mouth as I told them of the need to build workers’ committees in their respective factories, independent of the trade unions which were in collusion with their bosses and did not have their true interests at heart. That way they could develop the necessary class consciousness to seize control of the means of production and overthrow capitalism when the time came.
So fired up was I that I couldn’t see the seething anger under my father’s taciturn, thin-lipped countenance as I explained to him that as workers, he and my mother were the source of all profits, because their employers failed to pay them the equivalent of what they produced, and they profited on the difference. When I declared how grateful I was to the socialist organization for opening my eyes to the exploitative workings of capitalism and the need to overthrow it and build socialism as a prerequisite for a truly communist society, that was the cue for him to rise up from his armchair and burst out accusing me of being a complete fool for getting sucked in by the empty words of those pampered idiots who were using me for their own ends. He said they would one day betray me and think nothing of spitting me out, and I would be left alone with no-one to turn to. I retorted with my own angry outburst, accusing him of never talking to me about anything and now trying to sabotage my political education because he was envious I’d found like-minded people with whom I could exchange informed views on the world based on a Marxist analysis, which he didn’t really understand, because if he did, he’d know I was right, and he didn’t want to acknowledge it. As I stormed out of the house, his comments reverberating in my head, little did I know they would come back to haunt me.
It would be many years later that I would learn of the reason for my father’s stern rebuke that evening. The explanation of sorts came from my mother. She said my ‘communist’ rant had rekindled bitter memories of his own involvement with the Communists in the Civil War in Greece, specifically the actions of the intellectual cadres who recruited under-educated, discontented provincials like him into the guerrilla movement. And as I discovered from my own reading, in the end, the political wing betrayed the movement by capitulating to the Americans and the British and laying down their arms, just as the Communists were on the brink of seizing power in the north. Subsequently, many of the guerrillas were executed or imprisoned, or they fled to the Eastern bloc to work in factories until they could return to Greece after the fall of the junta when a general amnesty was declared. My mother said my father had seen the writing on the wall and quit the guerrillas before they sold him out, and in disgust he joined the National Army of Greece and went off to fight the ‘Communists’ in Korea as part of the U.N. Expeditionary Forces. Coming from my mother, this account of my father’s brush with the Left and disillusionment sounded a little confusing. My father new what really happened, but he took it with him to his grave, not that there was any guarantee he would have told me anyway, having avoided the subject the few times I broached it with him, before I gave up altogether.
But just like he warned me that evening, I could now see that my so-called comrades weren’t the altruistic idealists I initially took them for. In fact, they had ulterior motives in opening their doors to someone like me. I was to be their ‘poster member’, as it were, who could gain the organization badly needed credibility within the wider ‘multicultural’ society of Australia. It was all too obvious, when I thought about it; and since I wasn’t prepared to be their ethnic puppet, I had to get the fuck out of there, and fast. Whatever gratitude I felt towards them for enlightening me on the teachings of Marx and Lenin and other revolutionary luminaries, this had now all but vanished, and I had nothing to thank them for; it was the guilt trip they’d laid on me that made me believe I did. All of which got me seriously thinking about just who they actually were as an organization, and where they got the money to pay for all their running costs. At most they sold only a few dozen copies of the newspaper each week, and most members, being students or unemployed, weren’t in a financial position to pay dues, with my own paltry contribution coming out of my meager scholarship.
With each passing week, the rhetoric at meetings and rallies began to sound more and more absurd and desperate, and I became increasingly self-conscious that my querulous attitude had aroused suspicion, especially after I declined to go away with them on a group-bonding camp, citing a prior family commitment I purely invented. It was about this time that a faction within the group suddenly began to make clamors. It was led by a handful of disaffected senior members who were threatening to split off over differences in strategy and political orientation, and form their own organization, one that was independent of the ‘mother party’ in Britain, to which they would no longer be required to ‘automatically genuflect’, as one of the more articulate splitters put it. But I sensed there was something else behind their actions. The splitters had an air of superiority about them, and it was then that I realized they were mostly of Anglo-Protestant stock, with David, their nominal leader, sounding like a radical Methodist minister agitating for revolt against the King’s rule in Cromwellian England, whereas the majority of members were brought up Catholic and seemed content to receive instructions and precepts from the executive. It all culminated one evening in a heated debate, very orchestrated and highly theatrical, and evocative, or perhaps imitative, of a pre-revolutionary meeting of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks about how to seize power. The stakes here, however, were nowhere near as high, but you could have been mistaken they were, with speakers channeling Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, and lesser known revolutionaries whose personalities they had assumed from too close a reading of their biographies.
As I sat there taking it in, somewhat amused and unsure which side to support, if either, I wondered whether others in the audience shared my misgivings; or were they so stupid as to lap up the rousing rhetoric of the ‘splitters’ and their fanciful vision of a new ‘independent’ revolutionary socialist organization that could better represent the interests of Australian workers and act of its own accord? Or were they forcing themselves to swallow the salving assurances of the majority ‘lumpers’ and keep the faith in order to maintain needed unity, fearing losing the tenuous connection they had forged and the sense of belonging they drew from it, lest they find themselves adrift with nothing to hold on to. There was something tragic-comic about the proceedings and the delusional airs of the speakers who truly believed power was within their grasp, but for the correct strategy and tactics. The splitters eventually did branch off and formed their own organization, but in the meantime a truce was declared and an uneasy coexistence ensued.
At times it felt like I was part of a religious sect that exercised a binding group psychology over its proselytes to instill guilt and mutual suspicion so as to keep everyone in line and stop them questioning the dictates of the leadership. The denouement as far as my own involvement was concerned came when I was asked to give a 15-minute talk on socialism in the Eastern bloc countries, this being the late-1980s when the Soviet bloc was in the process of disintegrating under the weight of its own contradictions. They must have thought I’d been a provisional member long enough to have absorbed the core concepts of their particular brand of socialism, with its emphasis on the state-capitalist nature of the bureaucracies in the Eastern bloc economies, and the unfeasibility of ‘socialism in one country’; and through my presentation they could review my progress and see whether I was ready for admission to full membership of the International Socialists. Moreover, I suspected the subject I was asked to present on was chosen to assess my residual ‘Stalinism’, since I hadn’t openly condemned the Soviet Union to their satisfaction at meetings, and I got the impression they still considered me a ‘doubter.’
Nevertheless, I took up the challenge and went and researched the history of East Germany and how it was established as a “People’s Democracy” after the Second World War along collectivist economic principles. The organization had their own sources they expected members to use as reference material. But I found these texts blatantly propagandist and too simplistic for my liking. Instead I went to the main university library and picked out a book on the subject written by an American academic which laid out the circumstances and the events that led to the establishment of the German Democratic Republic and the economic and political influence of the Soviet Union, and I took it home and promptly read it from first page to the last.
Immediately I could see it was something the executive committee would not approve of. It presented the topic from a realpolitik perspective and too ‘academic’ for their liking, juxtaposing the geopolitical and economic interests of the West versus those of the U.S.S.R. and its allies, but without taking sides. Nevertheless, I dutifully summarized the relevant points and events, citing the protagonists involved and their motivations in a chronological order and logical manner, and then practiced my talk at home so that it didn’t run over fifteen minutes. Generally, I was pleased with my effort, concluding that both the Americans and West Germany on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany on the other, were responsible for the political stalemate that came to be known as the Cold War, and how the respective ‘ruling classes,’ the capitalists in the West and the bureaucratic elites in the East, benefited from the situation economically and politically.
A few days before my presentation, a member about my own age and had been in the group for a number of years called me to ask if he could look over my talk. Since I had no objections I gave him a copy the next day I saw him on campus and the following day he returned it and said it was fine. But he didn’t sound very enthusiastic and suggested some changes to improve it. I agreed to incorporate some of his suggestions, to reinforce the notion that the Soviet bloc countries were not truly ‘socialist,’ but I said that was as far as I was prepared to go because the other changes were too pedantic and would alter the tone of my presentation too much and it wouldn’t reflect my own thoughts. He agreed, although he looked somewhat disappointed.
On the evening of my presentation, or my audition more like it, I was a quite nervous to say the least, having drunk several cups of coffee beforehand at home and one there to rouse my confidence, so that when my turn came after the main talk, I spoke so fast that I finished well under fifteen minutes. During my talk, as I scanned the audience, I couldn’t help but notice that while most people seemed engaged, some of the senior members appeared disinterested, looking up at the ceiling or down at their notes, and I sensed hostility on their faces. I knew I wasn’t the most exciting orator, but fifteen minutes wasn’t long enough for anyone to start spacing out. Nevertheless, I was pleased and relieved when at the end I received mild applause. Richard, who reviewed my talk, and Michael, the ‘leader’ of the executive committee, came up to congratulate me. But I knew from the tone of what little they had to say they didn’t like it at all. They said it could have been more ‘polemical’ to emphasize the ‘state capitalist’ nature of the Soviet bloc economies because as it was, my presentation was too ‘dry.’ I humbly nodded in acknowledgement of their critique, but inside I was fuming that I should be so stupid as to do what they were suggesting.
When I got home that night, I was still angry that my talk wasn’t good enough for them, because it wasn’t sufficiently scathing of the Soviet Union. That’s why the applause was muted; no one wanted to be seen endorsing my dissenting view, which was more in line with that of the Spartacists, their arch enemies, who held that the Soviet Union was a degenerated worker’s state that could be salvaged politically into a revolutionary force and be a beacon of for revolutionary movements around the world; whereas to the International Socialists there was nothing redeeming about the Soviet Union which offered nothing other than false hope to workers around the world, being a thoroughly corrupted model of socialism, and its imminent collapse couldn’t come soon enough. As I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, it finally dawned on me that I was never going to fit into this organization; I simply wasn’t prepared to be told how I should think. I drew some comfort from the fact that it was only a ‘tendency’ anyway, not even a proper party, with little or no credibility among the proletariat whom it purported to represent. Thus, I resolved I simply had to leave this ‘cartoon show.’ But something told me it wasn’t going to be as easy as walking away.
In the meanwhile I continued attending meetings and rallies, still as a provisional member, plastering posters on the sides of buildings and selling newspapers to the one’s and two’s on campus and in the Bourke Street mall in the city, while carefully being steered away from new recruits at meeting, in case I infected them with my doubts and suspicions, and less than whole-hearted support of the organization. These increasingly turned towards the main personalities to try and figure out just who they were and what the organization actually represented; like Michael, the leader and chairman of the executive committee. He was a man in his late thirties or early forties, unmarried as far as I could tell, on the short side and quite thin, perhaps anorexic, which probably explained his lethargic aspect and blithe aloofness, although he was very knowledgeable about history and Marxist politics and economics, and quite sharp of mind. He seemed to have most people’s respect, except perhaps among the ‘splitters.’ But there was something deceptive about the way he too avoided eye contact, as if afraid of revealing too much about himself. Then there was Marcus, the acid-dropping drop-out from Monash whose impassioned visions of world revolution and the end of capitalism were as uninspiring as they were plainly imbecilic. He said he worked as a supervisor in a government unemployment office by day, which first struck me as a little odd. But as I learned, there were several other senior members who were public servants and held managerial positions within the government bureaucracy. They always came to meetings prepared and made well-rehearsed contributions after the main talk, each running into several minutes, about the need to build a workers’ party with a clear political position and vision. They effused the nonchalance of people who enjoyed secure employment and had no real faith in their convictions, which nevertheless had to be stated because proper party procedure demanded it.
It got me thinking just how serious a threat they were in their desire to ‘smash the state’ and ‘overthrow capitalism’, with violence if necessary, that the government which served the interests of capitalism would tolerate them in their midst, as managers, no less. Perhaps it knew their ideas were so ‘loony’ and far-fetched that they presented no real threat. Or perhaps their purpose was more sinister, to gain the confidence of die-hard committed leftists and weed them out by betraying them, before they could sabotage the system from within, But as far as Marcus was concerned, judging from the unbridled manner by which he exhorted members to run amok at demonstrations with his megaphone from atop the wrought iron gate of the Melbourne Club in the city, as if he enjoyed immunity from prosecution and had nothing to fear, there was a strong reek of the agent provocateur about him. Then there were the overly passionate and literary types inspired by “Ten Days that Shook the World” to follow in the footsteps of John Reed and write their own bestselling account of a worker’s socialist uprising from behind the barricades. In the meantime they had to be content with building a worker’s party led by superannuated students and their followers in far-off Melbourne, in the Commonwealth of Australia. Like a bad case of hives, they were all equally irritating.
But there were also those who actually ‘believed’ in socialism. To them the group was their ‘church,’ affording a much needed sense of belonging. They had long ago accepted that they may never get to participate in the actual revolution, or witness the coming of socialism in their own lifetime, and were content to put their faith in the organization to lead the coming generations to victory. In the meantime, just like the Christians in ancient times in their fight against Roman rule, ‘the struggle’ for socialism at present gave their own lives meaning. And like those persecuted Enthusiasts before them, their struggle too was ordained from up high, not by God, but by their steadfast belief that eternal virtue and justice will one day come through the advent of socialism, and then communism, the pinnacle of human existence on earth, all of which required an organization to receive and spread ‘the word’ among the masses in preparation. Thus, it was no coincidence that many of these members had been raised Catholic, including Michael, and one couldn’t help but think that the guilt and unquestioning belief in a central authority that had been instilled into them by their religious upbringing had stood them in good stead in their new godless eschatology. In many respects, these self-pitying victims were just as obnoxious as their dissembling and conniving comrades.
One evening my shit detector began to ring especially loud. Michael, the ‘leader’, was giving a talk on the role of the workers’ party in instilling the necessary class consciousness in the working masses.In the middle of it, he broke off to remind everyone that during a period of economic downturn, as was then the case, when morale and self-belief among workers is low, and membership of the organization declines, it was necessary for the sake of survival to throw open its doors. His words naturally tripped my paranoia, and I couldn’t help but think that he was referring to people like me who might otherwise not have measured up, but because of the downturn were admitted to help prop up the organization. He then lamented that unavoidably, among those allowed in there were bound to be spies and informers whose aim was to bring down the organization by sowing discord and doubt. He said the best way to combat these destructive elements was simply to ignore them, because when they saw they couldn’t make any headway, they quickly became discouraged and left of their own accord. Instead, he said, members should focus on the task at hand which was to develop a clear, uncompromising strategy and build up the party so it would be ready to lead when the economic upturn arrived and workers went on the offensive and naturally flocked to it wanting to learn more about socialism.
But as I sat listening, I couldn’t quite understand the logic behind his argument. If spies and police informers had indeed infiltrated the organization, posing as willing converts and sympathizers, and they eventually dropped out on their own, why raise the issue at all? Or was he attempting to divert suspicion away from himself and the organization, and its exact role and purpose, by pointing the finger at certain unnamed individuals present who weren’t whole-heartedly behind its strategy and politics? He was inviting members to take action against such ‘traitors’ in their midst, by ignoring them so that they’d leave and not spread their misgiving to others. It was all starting to get very weird, fueling my burgeoning paranoia no end, and I needed to seriously find an exit and get out.
As strange as it sounds, in deciding to quit I had to overcome my own deep feelings of disappointment and inadequacy for lacking the necessary self-delusion to believe that a just and egalitarian society was actually possible and worth fighting for, led by this ‘loony left’ organization. This was countered, however, by an anger I felt towards the group as whole for their deceit and subterfuge, and at certain members in particular, for having strung me along for their own purposes. In the end, I took solace in the fact that my shit-detector had come to my rescue once again and I got out before they drove me completely insane with their imbecilic politics and immature rhetoric and guilt trips. Had I stayed I’m sure I would have been rewarded with further favors from the likes of Lucy and Judith. It was their way of showing commitment to the group. Judith, for one, had no idea what she was really doing there, judging from her nonsensical answers when I asked her in the midst of feeling her up in the front seat of my father’s Fairmont one evening; or else she did a good job of concealing it in her tumescent wetness.
As for Leslie, I don’t really know what it was about her. It was something akin to the distant attraction you felt for that girl in high school you passed in the corridor so many times, and whom you one day suddenly see in a brand new light and become deeply infatuated with. She was older than me and had been a student at Monash in the mid 1970s. But it was hard to tell her exact age because she had a deep, mellifluous voice, yet she was quite youthful in appearance with a short Pixie-style cut and keen, dark, round eyes. What attracted me to her initially was her ability to articulate her views at meetings so clearly and succinctly, free of the usual ridiculous hyperbole others resorted to. But the more I saw of her, the more I could also detect an endearing vulnerability beneath her self-confident exterior. It was as if she was conscious of the falseness of the façade she projected and was trying to suppress her own uncertainty about what she was really doing there, even though she was one of the founding members.
That self-doubt was evident one Christmas. We were gathered at the club room in the city one Saturday afternoon after a rally in the mall and discussing our plans for the holidays, to see who would be in town to help out with the house-keeping chores. Since I was going to spend Christmas at home with my parents, I volunteered to come in. This prompted Leslie to add that she too was going to spend Christmas at her parents’ place. But since they lived interstate, she wouldn’t be able to lend a hand. She seemed a little embarrassed by her admission and quickly explained that it was the only time of the year they ever got together as a family, adding by way of clarification that it had nothing to do with observing Christmas as a religious event, because they were all atheists.
Some of the others then began talking about their own families whom they were also obliged to visit over Christmas out of tradition, and then all concurred that after the revolution, the first thing to be decreed will be to revoke Christmas and replace it with a holiday that celebrated the ‘smashing of the state.’ A more general discussion ensued which verged on the boringly nostalgic as they recalled their childhoods and the places they used to go for their Christmas holidays, to which I listened with feigned interest. Anyhow, Leslie, who was half-Dutch, half-Indonesian, being the only senior member present, then shared with us how she became interested in Marxist politics at university, in the manner of a wise elder dispensing inspiring parables with her acolytes, as we all listened with interest.
She said it wall started in the 1970s during the student protest movement against government funding cuts to education, and the push to abolish exams which are nothing more than a way of selecting students most suited to the requirements of capitalism, and a bunch of them including Michael and Marcus got together and formed the nucleus of the group, which later joined forces with others in Sydney and Brisbane and they affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, becoming the International Socialists. She said her parents didn’t get in the way; they thought she was merely going through a rebellious phase, and once she graduated and got a job, she’d get married and have a family and leave politics behind. But how wrong they were, she said with a slight air of reverse paternalism and sympathy for her parents’ understandable misexpectation, because twelve years out of university she was as committed to Marxism as ever, “which just proves that it’s not a fad, because the Marxist way of looking at the world is the only way to realistically analyze it.” Despite her candor, her confession sounded rehearsed and slightly contrived. It was as if she was trying to shore up our morale during the inactive holiday season, in case we began to waver in our commitment; while at the same time exorcising her own niggling doubts over her continued involvement. I got the impression she was too self-conscious to make as effective a cheer-leader as Marcus, the acid-dropping drop-out, and that despite her unwavering devotion to Marxism, this was nothing more than an intellectual accoutrement to her persona, and the organization itself was merely a poor substitute for family.
My suspicions about her cosmetic commitment to Marxism were confirmed one Friday evening after a rally in the Burke Street mall when I spotted her in the cosmetics section of Myer’s department store through which I was taking a short cut to the central train station on my way home. From the angle she was seated high up on a swivel chair at one of the glass counters, I don’t think she saw me thoroughly transfixed by the alluring sight of an unattached female indulging her feminine vanity under the bright lights, admiring herself in the mirrors while applying different shades of lipstick to her mouth, pouting her lips and smacking them together, as the white-cloaked assistant looked on approvingly. In and of itself, it didn’t contradict the received precepts of Marxism; but there was something fetishistic and decadent in what she was doing, and I couldn’t help but feel a deep though strangely illicit desire to know her on an intimate level.
It was then that I realized how much she physically resembled my communist aunt in Thessaloniki, being about the same height with a similar physique, although I suspected Leslie’s temperament wasn’t quite as volatile, or her addiction to cigarettes nowhere near as strong. And just like her, Leslie also taught high school during the day. I remembered my aunt also used to wear her hair short, Pixie-style, as was the vouge in the mid ‘60s. She was the first woman I ever saw naked when I peeked through the half-open door one day as she was trying on a dress, slipping it over her naked body and admiring herself in the full-length mirror while my grandmother pinned up the hem and adjusted the sides, before taking it off again. I must have been about five or six at the time and so thoroughly transfixed by the sight of the unclothed body of a fully grown woman that I couldn’t take my eyes off her, mesmerized by the captivating patch of hair down between her thighs, until my grandmother told me to scram and slammed the door shut.
As I discreetly stole more glances of Leslie from afar slowly making my way across the floor, past the displays of sunglasses while breathing in the heady aromas of perfumes and lotions seeping into my brain, I felt the same guilty pleasure. In fact, all the way home on the train all I could think of was caressing her waif-like figure and gazing into her dark brown-black eyes and glossy red lips, and what it would be like to taste and feel her naked body next to mine. I imagined escaping with her to a remote island to live out the rest of our lives together, away from all the shit and the assholes. But alas, she was in too deep and I wasn’t prepared to stay, no matter how many times she called to convince me, raising questions in my supervisor’s mind just who this mysterious woman was with a sultry voice that kept ringing and asking for me.
I was now approaching the end of my degree and my scholarship had only months to run. I was in the process of putting the finishing touches to my thesis before submitting it for examination, but I had already accepted an offer to go work in the U.S. which I was keen to take up as soon as possible. My imminent move overseas dovetailed nicely with my decision to formally quit the International Socialists which I no longer saw as a political organization of relevance, but more as a weird cult that wielded mysterious power over its members in the form of a guilt-infusing Marxist-inspired morality, and benefited financially from them in the form of monthly dues. I expected they would simply accept my written resignation and the reasons for my leaving, stating that I had accepted a job offer overseas to further pursue my career. And seeing I still harbored Stalinist sympathies, I thought they would be only too glad to see the back of me. But in the weeks leading up to my departure in March of 1987, after I had nervously stood up at a meeting and formally announced my resignation in front of everyone, they began calling me up at home and at my supervisor’s office at university, one after the other, including Leslie, to discuss the reasons for my resigning, apparently unconvinced I was heading overseas.
They were desperately trying to persuade me to change my mind and stay in Australia. They said the place I was going to, in Reno, Nevada, had no leftist organizations, and the only labor union of note was the one representing casino workers and others like them in the hospitality trade, who were too removed from the production process to lead. They warned me that in this vacuum I would drift to the right and eventually lose all interest in Marxism and socialism, and turn into a right-wing reactionary. I knew what they were doing. They were playing their last cards, laying the ultimate guilt trip on me, hoping to make me crack under the emotional strain and confess the real reasons for my quitting. But all they achieved in doing was to incense me even further and increase my determination to remove these duplicitous, manipulative bastards from my consciousness, except for Leslie, who I was convinced I could turn and get to come away with me, if only she would drop her guard.
The final straw came when Richard called me up one evening at home, the guy who reviewed my talk on the Germany Democratic Republic. I guess they thought he had my confidence and gave him the task to try and dissuade me from quitting. He began by consoling me, saying it was normal for new members to feel disillusioned after their first year, and that he thought I had acted too rashly in resigning. He wanted to know whether my leaving had anything to do with the politics of the organization, and whether I had any fundamental disagreements with their strategy for winning over ‘the one’s and two’s’. As he was telling me this, I realized it was the first time I’d actually been asked my thoughts on the issue and felt something click inside my head. I thought, “What a strange question to be asking me at this stage, when I have already left the group?” I realized immediately what he was actually getting at. He was trying to get me to tell him what made me see through their act. I paused for a moment before answering that there was absolutely nothing wrong with their politics, and that I was fully behind their strategy and tactics in this period of economic downturn.
He didn’t immediately respond, waiting for me to keep talking in the hope I would say something revealing. Then in my most contrite tone, I confessed that, “I just don’t have what it takes to be a reliable member of a Leninist party,” and that “if it wasn’t already obvious, you asshole,” I thought to myself, “I’m a fucking Stalinist. And if it was up to me I’d have all of you two-faced bastards, with the exception of Leslie, lined up against the wall and shot, and your bodies cut into pieces and fed to geese.” What I actually said, however, was that I had no truck with anyone in the group or their politics, and I would do my best to remain a loyal sympathizer while I was away, and that when I returned to Melbourne in a few years’ time I would like to rejoin. Before I hung up, in my meekest voice I apologized that I couldn’t be of any real use to them after all they had done for me, and further humbled myself by saying how little I understood about Marxism before I joined, and that if it weren’t for them I would still be walking around in the dark confused and ignorant about Marxism and the role of the workers’ party in the fight for socialism. I felt relieved to be rid of them at long last after I hung up, and I could now put the whole thing behind me. Or so I thought.
In the weeks leading up to my departure for the States, I occasionally bumped into them on campus. But they seemed to have forgotten about me already and more or less ignored me, which suited me just fine. But I could tell they were pissed off for having failed in their attempts to recruit a literate, university educated son of migrants they could use to attract people from this neglected demographic into their ranks, and gain some badly needed credibility outside their narrow middle-class Anglo audience. And for these same reasons I despised them. But just like dog shit that sticks to one’s sole, it was difficult to get rid of their lingering stink and I had to contend with recurring nightmares of meeting these horrible people under strange and frightening circumstances, accusing me of treachery and crimes against socialism in show trials with members looking on accusingly, and my father staring down at me angrily from above with tight lips and his admonishing words ringing in my head.
Thankfully it all stopped when I finally left and settled down in Reno. It seemed I had come full circle, having gone from being a skeptical idiotic contrarian, to a semi-subscribed Fourth Internationalist revolutionary socialist, and then back to an angry, somewhat disillusioned realist contrarian who still idolized Stalin for the way he put his own spin on Marxism and made the U.S.S.R. into a superpower by implementing the most ambitious program for the primitive accumulation of capital in modern history in an industrially backward country, sacrificing the lives of millions of people in the process.
In Reno I maintained an interest in the various intellectual currents within Marxism, having discovered a wide cross-section of Marxist literature in the university library. I even managed to contact a branch of the American counterpart of the International Socialists in San Francisco. But when I saw that their politics were just as sophomoric as those of the organization in Australia, and they both received their instructions from the ‘mother party’ in Britain, I decided it wasn’t worth my while driving all that way every few weeks to hear those familiar refrains so as to stop me drifting to the right, and get to know Laura better, the young and vivacious leader of the cell, who I was certain I had met in an earlier life. Nevertheless, I still considered myself a Marxist, because, just like Leslie said, the Marxist analysis of history and capitalist society cannot be faulted, because it’s based on a scientific understanding of the nature of money and value, and doesn’t invoke such inanities as Adam Smith’s ‘hand of God.’ The only problem with Marxism as I see it, is that, while it may lay bare the workings of capitalism, the power relations inherent in money and the brutality and injustices that lie beneath ‘the market,’ that’s about as far as one can take it. Its value lies more in the diagnostic realm than in the prescriptive or curative. In the end, when faced with life and death decisions for survival, human beings will resort to their base instincts regardless of how much they understand about Marxism.
“But,” I hear them countering, “real socialism can only be achieved when the means of production are sufficiently developed in all the countries of the world to ensure there is plenty for all, so that there are no material disparities between peoples, and so there’s no need for conflict over resources. We are very close to achieving that level of development. That’s why we must start to organize or else society will descend into barbarism when capitalism finally collapses under the weight of its own contradictions!”
“Whatever you say! Yes, yes, I know all about the premise that the creation of a new society free from hunger and war is predicated on there being sufficient material wealth, and will be organized on socialist principles at first, whereby the state serves purely a transitional organizational role before communism establishes itself, and money and property become things of the past, and everything will be planned and nothing go to waste.” Who said that? “But the question is: what exactly are people’s needs? Can you tell me?” “Well, that we cannot know until socialism is established and people’s fetishism for commodities comes to an end, when cooperation replaces competition. No-one can predict what ‘real’ socialism will look like, because it’s never existed on the basis of material plenty. The so-called socialism of the former Eastern bloc was based on material scarcity, and that’s why it collapsed.” “No, I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Socialism is what you make of it.”
When I returned to Melbourne in the early 1990s my bitter hatred for the International Socialists would immediately resurface whenever I came across a flyer advertising a meeting or a rally in the city, aiming to draw in the ‘one’s and two’s’. Such was the strange hold they still wielded over me that I would feel this tightening in my gut and the nightmares would return and continue for several nights thereafter. I could recognize a few, now somewhat older, but Leslie was nowhere to be seen among them. It made me wonder whatever happened to those who had joined the organization with me. I suspected some got disillusioned and left of their own accord; others turned to liquor and drugs when they couldn’t face the fact they’d been duped and hung out to dry, and lost all trust in people, especially those without a family safety net to cushion their fall. The more connected ones with a propensity for deceit and treachery rose up through the ranks, internalized the rhetoric so it became second nature, and learned to regurgitate it without so much as a hint of self-doubt to new recruits, hypnotizing them into doing their bidding. Others took their ‘people skills’ elsewhere and now enjoyed comfortable positions in upper-management in advertising companies or employment agencies, or in government departments; or they got cushy tenured posts in academia, having transcended the ‘Marxism for masses’ of their student days, which offered too simplistic an analysis of capitalism and its countervailing tendencies. The question, however, still remained. Just who were they, this ostensibly Marxist ‘tendency’ which predominantly targeted students and was given such free rein over university campuses to spread their message, when other ‘radical’ leftist groups were more or less banned?
Officially they belonged to the Fourth International which distinguished itself from other leftist movements by their steadfast denial of the possibility of any form of ‘socialism in one country’, and that so-called socialism in the U.S.S.R. and China was merely a form of state-capitalism where the profit motive still ruled, but where profits were reaped by the bureaucratic elite, as opposed to the bourgeoisie in openly capitalist Western countries. While their clarity of vision and action was admirable for avoiding the slippery slope of compromise and corruption which had tainted so much of the Left in the past, their petty obsession with strategic correctness smacked of ‘academic analism’, and in the end their political Puritanism served only to alienate them from those whose interests they purported to represent, and further divide the workers’ movement, assuming they could manage to establish a meaningful foothold. Perhaps that was their raison d’etre all along: to sow confusion and disunity, and that’s why they were tolerated by the state and its institutions. And I blew my chance at becoming a respected member of the bureaucracy. I’ll leave it at that.

(Sunday in spring, on the eve of my thirty-sixth birthday, in Boston, 1997)


courtesy of Wake In Fright (dir. T. Kotcheff)

Having left the field a while ago, for reasons that I won’t go into, suffice it to say I no longer have access to the relevant literature, I’ve been drawn quite by accident to consider the recent proposal that the inhibitory junction potential (IJP) recorded in the gastrointestinal smooth muscle has its origin in cells that are not smooth muscle in nature. This challenges the accepted wisdom that IJPs, or more specifically, “fast” IJPs, result from an increase in potassium conductance in smooth muscle cells bearing receptors for ATP released at en passant synapses with enteric inhibitory motor nerves coursing through the muscle layer, and that the attendant hyperpolarization of the membrane potential of the affected smooth muscle cells spreads electrotonically to other coupled smooth muscle cells in the bundle, opposing any concomitant depolarizing inputs and force generation. The new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. posits that non-smooth cells (PDGFα positive) in fact are the transducers of the ATP induced hyperpolarization which is transmitted electrotonically to coupled smooth muscle cells via gap junctions.

The attractiveness of this proposal is that it compartmentalizes the response and obviates the apparent paradox that an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces muscle relaxation by stimulating the release of stored calcium inside smooth muscle cells to activate a potassium conductance, does so without simultaneously activating contractile proteins. Although this mechanism can be accommodated within the existing framework involving only smooth muscle cells and enteric inhibitory neurons by invoking localized calcium domains affecting membrane channels and not contractile proteins, and different calcium release mechanisms and coupling to calcium entry, the compartmentalization of the electrical component of the inhibitory response effectively insulates the smooth muscle cells from any possible contrary effects of calcium spill over onto the contractile apparatus.

One caveat that comes to mind, however, that may argue against an intermediary cell relay between the inhibitory nerves and smooth muscle cells is the fact that in many types of cells, notably cardiac cells that are also coupled electrically via gap junctions, the increase in intracellular calcium that precedes contraction has the effect of drastically reducing the conductance of gap junction channels (connexins). Therefore, if in the new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. the transducing element for the IJP is the PDGFa positive cell which is electrically coupled to smooth muscle cells, then any increase in intracellular calcium in the former upon activation of P2 purinoreceptors by nerve-released ATP or related molecules, to induce a robust hyperpolarization by activating SK channels; this raises the question of what fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells is transmitted to the smooth muscle if the conductance of gap junction channels is blocked or substantially diminished by the rise in intracellular calcium?

In the defence of this new proposal, however, the gap junctional conductance between the PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle may not be entirely blocked during the rise in intracellular calcium, and although the intercellular resistance may be increased, it may still be sufficiently low for a significant fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells to spread to the smooth muscle and hyperpolarize it. In this regard, it has been shown by me that in electrically coupled supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium that when neighboring cells are stimulated with ATP to activate BK channels via intracellular release of calcium, a transjunctional current can be still be recorded from the patch-clamped supporting cell, although the latter needs to be dialyzed internally with an unnaturally high concentration of calcium buffer to prevent a rise in calcium, and has multiple inputs as far as electrotonically conducted events are concerned from the many surrounding supporting cells to which it’s coupled. Thus it remains to be seen whether in the case of PDGFα positive cells coupled to smooth muscle cells, to what extent a rise in intracellular calcium in the former decreases trans-junctional resistance at a time when current flow needs to be uncompromised for the hyperpolarization to spread with minimal decrement to the smooth muscle cells.

So much for electrical coupling between PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle cells and the role of the former as the effector cell for the IJP response recorded in the smooth muscle. But another issue raised by this new proposal is the role of purinoceptors and SK channels in smooth muscle cells themselves, and the extent of their contribution to the generation of the IJP. Both P2 purinoceptors and apamin-sensitive SK channels are found in smooth muscle cells of the circular muscle layer in a smooth muscle tissue known to generate IJPs, that is, the mouse ileum. But the question is, are they expressed in sufficient abundance, if not to generate the IJP, then to contribute to it? If they were expressed at a sufficient density in smooth muscle cells to generate the IJP then it would seem that the hyperpolarization generated by PDGFα positive cells may not be necessary and could simply be an epiphenomenon that occurs at the same time and has a similar timecourse to the IJP following nerve stimulation, and subserves and entirely different function. This could be to mediate in the release of other substances, given that SK channels are expressed at high densities in many types of secretory cell. Could it be that the large sustained hyperpolarization induced by ATP in PDGFα positive cells underlies capacitative calcium entry to support slow vesicular release of whatever substance(s) these cells secrete?

In circular smooth muscle cells isolated from the mouse ileum, if one extrapolates the magnitude of the ATP-evoked apamin-sensitive current recorded from cell-attached patches to its size over the entire cell membrane, based on rough estimates of patch area and cell surface area from cell capacitance, then there are grounds to believe that a current of sufficient magnitude can indeed be generated to hyperpolarize smooth muscle cells without invoking the mediation of other cells types. But the question is, is the concentration of ATP used experimentally to induce this current a fair mimic of that released from nerves in the IJP response, and is the timecourse of activation of the SK potassium conductance on the timescale of the IJP? Without knowing the answer to these questions, it would be reasonable to conclude that smooth muscle cells, or at least a fraction of circular smooth muscle cells of the mouse ileum that survive enzymatic treatment during the cell isolation, are capable of hyperpolarizing in response to ATP through the opening of SK channels. If these cells do not contribute directly or significantly to the generation of the IJP itself, then they may participate in the overall inhibitory response in a “volume transmission” manner as a result of spill-over of ATP released from enteric inhibitory nerves diffusing to circular smooth muscle cells in the vicinity. This scenario invokes the concept of junctional and extrajunctional receptors as in vascular smooth muscle and elsewhere. In this regard, it was noted in my experiments that a prominent effect of stimulation of the circular smooth muscle cells by exogenous ATP was to enhance the transient outward current component that was activated by calcium current-dependent calcium entry/release and which was sensitive to apamin. Enhancement of this current by extrajunctional ATP alone would suppress the excitability of the circular smooth muscle cells by increasing the interval between bursts of action potentials and contractions in situ. Moreover, the sustained rise in intracellular calcium occasioned by release of stored calcium by extrajunctional ATP would be expected to inactivate voltage-gated calcium channels in smooth muscle cells, thereby adding to a refractoriness of the muscle to further excitation and contraction.

In any case, here’s something to remind us of the physiological relevance of the IJP and its role in gastrointestinal motility broadly speaking.

Fivos Vogalis PhD

Slide 1






Tsootsoo lay dozing by the orange glow of the electric fan heater, the one my mother says brings sleep (φέρνει ύπνο), soaking up its warming rays through her big fat pink belly. From the angle of the sun piercing through the curtains onto my eyes, I figured it had to be well after four. My wristwatch said quarter to five, which meant I had slept for close to two solid hours. It was a deep, incapacitating kind of sleep, free of dreams, what my mother calls φυσικό φάρμακο, and now I felt thoroughly rejuvenated. 
    It was also that time in the afternoon when Tsootsoo usually had her dinner, and in case I forgot, she had twisted her head up off the floor and was looking directly at me with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. In anticipation of my getting up, or perhaps to prompt me into action, she propped herself up onto her backside, but sensing I was in no hurry to get up off the couch, she forlornly slumped back down onto the carpet with an audible thump, letting out a deep sigh, before rolling back on her side, while I continued to bask under the blanket in the sweet languorous after-glow of nature’s best medicine.

    With my sister out of the house and not likely to be back for another hour, I knew at some point I would have to get up and make her dinner, because to deny her at her accustomed hour would be sheer cruelty. Why couldn’t she open the refrigerator, I wondered, dice up a portion of dog loaf into her bowl, mix in some dry pellets, and feed herself? Then again, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t eat the entire loaf at once and make herself thoroughly sick. Dogs are like that; they will eat whatever is placed in front of them, to maximize their chances of survival in case of sudden scarcity. And Tsootsoo is no different. She has such a voracious appetite, she eats everything she’s given, to the point of regurgitating what her stomach cannot accommodate.

    She wasn’t always like that, but after she was neutered following the birth of her first and only litter of seven pups, sired by a beady-eyed red heeler-cross from the gas station across the highway in Five Ways where my parents used to have a small farm growing flowers, her gluttonous tendency gradually took hold, and in the ensuing years she gained so much weight that she now has to be lifted onto the couch and the back seat of the car whenever she goes for a ride. But she didn’t attain that portly state all on her own, and some of the blame must lie with my father. With her big, brown, beckoning eyes, she had little trouble seducing him into surrendering to her every nuanced demand, and with a simple bat of her eyes at dinner, he would shove half his plate into her bowl and slip it to her under the table, to the chagrin of my mother who had to watch her fine cooking on which she’d slaved hours in the kitchen preparing, being fed to a dog. But now that he’s gone, she’s turned her beguiling ways to the next available sucker who happens to be me.

    In fact, it was he who came up with the name Tsootsoo. I think it came from a female character in one of those black-and-white film comedies set in Athens in the 1960s, a “κορίτσι του εξήντα,” as they say. That was before the military junta seized power and brought the frivolity and exuberance of the times to an abrupt end. And within a year, my father and mother had immigrated to a strange new country on the other side of the world, and dragged me and my sister off with them. But that’s another story.

    It must be said my father had a particular knack for assigning apt nick-names not only to pets and people, but also to cars and various other inanimate objects. These included our utility bills for electricity and gas, which he named “Βασίλη”, as in “μικρός Βασίλης” and “μεγάλος Βασίλης” depending which was larger, a cross-lingual play on words for the name Bill in Greek, and the English word for the payment owing. But I always thought his choice of name for Tsootsoo was particularly fitting, because it had that coquettish ring to it which perfectly captured her flirtatious disposition, from her dreamy, Greta Garbo eyes, down to her overgrown toenails, and the way she liked to toy with his emotions.

    With her hunger mounting, Tsootso lifted her head up off the floor again, and stared directly into my eyes, this time with added purpose. In that primal mode of communication mutually comprehensible to higher mammals, she was telling me her hunger was becoming insufferable, and she would not stop staring into my eyes until I was so stricken with guilt, I would have no choice than to get up and make her dinner, or else risk falling ill. Now there’s a thought: can guilt actually make one physically sick? What about the pernicious curse of “the evil eye”? There must some truth in it, seeing it’s so deeply embedded in the folklore of so many cultures.

    I guess it’s possible, by suppressing the immune system through the hypophyseal-adrenal axis which mediates the body’s responses to stress, both physical as well as psychological. In fact, there’s quite a large body of literature on the subject, which comes under the general head of “psychosomatic illness”, although serious-minded scientists are still loath to acknowledge its legitimacy. Apparently, a particularly debilitating form of psychological stress whose effects have been well documented in mammals is “subjugation stress.” This results in the suppression of the subservient animal’s immunity, causing it to fall victim to various opportunistic infections, as well as driving it to self-harm. And in terms of psychological impact, it would fair to assume that stress occasioned by guilt and shame would not be all that dissimilar in it’s sequelae, depending, of course, on the degree to which the subject actually “feels” guilt or shame, or any other deeply conscience-troubling emotion. Therefore, in response to Tsootsoo’s imploring, guilt-inducing stare, my own immunological defenses could well be knocked out, and I too fall victim to some opportunistic disease. That’s on top of the neurophysiological effects on my brain to make me more pliant and submissive to her demands in the future, and avoid sickening guilt.

    I guess from an evolutionary perspective, guilt-induced stress may have arisen among social animals to ensure the group’s survival as a self-perpetuating unit. It may do this by acting as a disciplinary mechanism to enforce docility and cooperation among compliant members so they don’t stray from their assigned rôles in the division of labor, thus helping maintain the group’s functional cohesiveness. The present case, however, involved not an extended kin group, but two individuals from different species, albeit sharing a common ancestor in their distant past; that is, a neutered female canine using her wiles to induce an unattached and somewhat weak-willed human male in her eyes, into acting in her favor. This relationship was more akin to parasitism, or perhaps some kind of symbiotic codependence, than anything directed towards hierarchy enforcement, and alludes to advanced cognitive functions in dogs. Or does it?

    Maybe their brains are just wired to respond to sensory cues from humans with behaviors that appear perceptive, but which are nothing more than an elaboration of their in-born instincts for self-preservation within their social group. And conversely, our own brains are wired to recognize behavioral cues in them, as surrogates for human companions in our lives, and to respond accordingly, without any high level cognitive exchange. Nevertheless, perhaps my getting up to feed Tsootsoo had some hidden benefit(s) for me as well, apart from warding off any potential guilt-induced suppression of my immune system, although in her present physical condition, with her refractory obesity and signs of senility setting in, her ability to keep watch on the house and alert me of unwelcome visitors, is not what it once was.

    As I lay there pondering over the behavioral strategies of dogs vis á vis humans, suddenly, something a fellow student once said in my zoology class, came to mind, back when I was an undergraduate at Monash. We were having an informal discussion on the ethics of using animals in scientific research, when girl, I think her name was Cath, declaimed with the unshakeable confidence of a confirmed scientist-in-the-making, that the only reason people felt any empathy towards animals, especially mammals, was simply because they were “anthropomorphic.” She followed this by saying that no-one ever cried over a snake or toad left for dead on the road, and that was because they weren’t soft and cuddly like cats and dogs or guinea-pigs, and then smugly sat back for the rest of us to digest her succinct summary of the central delusion at the core of the animal liberation movement, which was starting to make waves on campus.

    Like the others present, I thought her argument made perfectly logical sense, not least because I couldn’t stand animal liberationists either, with their holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness, and their persecuted herd mentality. Moreover, we were rational scientists, or on the way to becoming ones, and we couldn’t allow such puerile sentimentality to get in the way of our search for knowledge and enlightenment. It was our duty to study nature objectively and dispassionately for what it was, a vast interplay of forces, actions and reactions, governed by immanent laws and relationships which it was our task to identify in the biological context. Purely subjective factors like emotions and feelings for animals had no place in our noble quest, because in the end, as human beings, we were distinguished from them by being uniquely conscious of our own consciousness, whereas they were incapable of reflection, let alone higher concepts like morality and ethics.

    I can’t remember whether I mentioned this to the class, as my contribution to the discussion, but I recall the issue had brought to mind my uncle in Greece, whom I had just visited the previous year, and how he put down tens of cows each day at the abattoirs with a single shot of his stun gun between their eyes, and yet he was the most even-tempered person in the world who would never intentionally harm another human being, or animal for that matter. But there he was slaughtering tens of cows each day, because to him they were just another source food that had to be harvested and processed to supply the people’s needs. Therefore, it was ludicrous to think that scientists who sacrificed animals in the course of their experiments were inherently evil, because it was all done for the greater good of humanity.

    On reflection, however, as I lay there in my cozy post-nap inertia, savoring the attendant clarity of mind, I now wasn’t so sure about this girl’s reasoned defense of animal experimentation. It wasn’t because I had since forsaken meat, with the exception of some fish and poultry, not for any ethical reasons, but simply because I developed a distaste for meat in general. I remembered there was something about her comment that had piqued my sensibilities that day, but because I was so taken by her apparent maturity and her succinct eloquence, like everyone else, I put my reservations aside and voiced my agreement. But some ten years later, I now recognized why I felt that twinge of resentment. It was because her argument was too glib. It was something a naive undergraduate would say, having heard it from others, without fully understanding its philosophical subtleties. It betrayed a firmness of mind in one who had yet to experience the vicissitudes of life’s fortunes, and in the absence of any vitiating self-doubt, she was fully convinced of its surface logic, and content to espouse it for her own self-aggrandizement.

    As for the logic of her argument, that purely emotive factors were at play in people’s objection to animal experimentation, and one could dismiss them as peevish, and their reasoning as false; well, I now questioned that as well, because the term anthropomorphism merely described the condition by which animals and humans shared recognizable physical similarities, and it was wrong and presumptuous to conclude that those similarities were to blame for the distorted views of animal liberationists and their like, simply because they could read in those anthropomorphic features signals that had the power to move. Her dogmatic belief in the truth of her own convictions had prevented her from contemplating the possibility that those signals may be a harbinger or warning of imminent calamity for society on its present course, even if the nature of the threat was not immediately clear. In other words, she had no appreciation of the absurd.

    As to why I might have recalled her comments that afternoon, while musing over my relationship with Tsootsoo, and the extent to which I was her slave, and she mine; I suspect it had to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier, I was looking for the telephone number of someone in the Department of Zoology at Melbourne University to discuss something they’d published, and I came across her name on the list of faculty, not knowing she worked there. And when I saw it, the first thing that came into my head were her comments in our zoology class, which were still floating around in my head just below the surface, on the off-chance they might inform some relevant thought.

    In any case, it appeared she’d found a comfortable niche for herself among fellow mockers of the psychic connectedness between humans and anthropomorphic animals. I say this in all facetiousness, because I’ve always regarded zoologists as these strong-willed, staunchly atheistic dogmatists who eschew mystical contemplation like it was the plague. And like the over-zealous, godless crusaders for nature they like to play, never having outgrown their penchant for cutting up dead animals and pulling the wings off flies and the legs off insects, they seem perpetually obsessed with classifying them down to their minutest details, to discover where they came from, and why they are what they are, and why they live where they live. And something told me she was not different and her views hadn’t changed in the intervening years, not that I knew her that well.

     What I did know, because she had told everyone, as is the wont of proud products of middle-classes everywhere, who draw self-affirming inspiration from their parents’ achievements, and those of their parents’ parents, including heroic exploits in World Wars, was that her father was a retired commercial airline pilot and her mother a teacher of some sort, and that she grew up on a large rural property, surrounded by farm animals and those native to the surrounding bush. Given that background, I assumed she had had a good, thorough education which had instilled in her at an early age a deep fascination for the natural sciences, so that the mere mention of the words “science” and “nature” conjured up a warm and welcoming place, in contrast to the cold “other worldliness” these same words evoked in my own mind.

    And true to her academic calling, and the implicit desideratum in its disciples for ideological constancy and resolute defense of one’s convictions, personal and professional, in all likelihood she still firmly believed that humans and animals could never have true intellectual intercourse. Ergo, like any other natural resource, they were at man’s disposal to be studied and exploited for the greater good of society, regardless of what some bleeding heart animal liberationists believed.

     With my memory jogged, something else she said on another occasion now came to mind, reinforcing my suspicion that her views had fundamentally not changed, given that people’s views in general rarely change, especially if there’s no reason.

    Anyhow, a few years later, we were reunited as graduate students in the Department of Physiology. And one morning she burst into the common room we all shared looking very excited and full of energy, and began to relate with manic glee how on the way back from a field trip with her colleagues to the koala sanctuary on Phillip Island the night before, they struck and killed a particularly plumb rabbit in their Landrover. She said they stopped and picked up the dead animal, still in one piece, put it in a box, and when they got home, they skinned and cleaned it, and cooked it for dinner, and it was the best free meal they’d ever had. Her story, however, left me annoyed, because I sensed she was using it to assert her superiority by implying that her research was much more important than ours and had wider significance, because it entailed going on extended field trips and studying animals in their natural habitat, whereas the rest of us were largely confined to our laboratories, slaving away on esoteric topics that no-one care about. Moreover I found her vain machismo somewhat repellent in someone who was ostensibly female. It was as if she was still out to prove her imperviousness to puerile anthropomorphic sentimentality, and debunk the perceived mental softness and emotional lability in her gender.

    By now, the animal liberation movement had become more vocal on campus, holding rallies and demonstrations, demanding an end to the use of animals in scientific experiments, especially primates. And as was her wont, Kath didn’t hide her visceral dislike of them, deriding their tactics and threats to sabotage laboratories with plans of her own to derail their efforts; whereas for me, I had grown indifferent to the whole issue. In fact, secretly I wished they would succeed in shutting down all the animal facilities, because I had begun to lose faith in science, and was struggling to maintain an interest in my own research project which entailed recording electrical signals from tissue samples dissected from the intestines of rodents, humanely sacrificed, of course, in accordance with the guidelines set out by the University Animal Ethics Committee. Moreover, with my increasing politicization in regard to the rôle of science in society, and exactly where I fitted in as a product of the immigrant working class, seeking to transcend my station, I figured there were bigger issues on the intellectual horizon to concern myself with, and the ethics of using animals in scientific research didn’t figure prominently.

    In retrospect, perhaps she was just trying to express in the only way she knew, the fact that the anthropomorphic lagomorph they had accidently struck and killed on the highway that night belonged to an introduced species that had done enormous damage to the environment, and had displaced many native animals in the process. Therefore, she or anyone else for that matter need not feel guilty about killing such an animal, when it would likely have been killed by foxes anyway. But as I thought over her story again, I remembered that what had annoyed me more than her dogmatic stance against the animal liberationists and her machismic bravado was what I perceived as her hypocrisy in regard to her views on anthropomorphism and the sentimentality it inspired.

    This had to do with the fact that her research project was concerned with finding a cure for a chlamydia-like infection that was rendering female koalas infertile. As such, it threatened to wipe out the colony on Phillip Island which was a popular tourist attraction, especially among big-spending Japanese tourists who flocked there to see these lovable, furry creatures unique to Australia. Thus, while she could belittle others and arrogantly accuse them of being irrational in their opposition to the exploitation of animals in scientific research, and in whatever other legitimate use sanctioned by society, duped by their anthropomorphic features, she herself, through her research project, had a vested interest in their continued anthropomorphic appeal to gullible tourists.

    I suppose in her mind curing koalas of a devastating disease was fully consistent with her views, because in doing so she wasn’t motivated by any particular anthropomorphic sentimentality inspired by these furry creatures, although she wouldn’t have objected if it came across that way. Her actions were fully in line with her beliefs that animals existed for man to exploit for his own benefit, humanly of course, even in the wild, and in the end, her work was intended for greater economic good of Australia, by ensuring the commercial viability of a key tourist attraction, which benefited everyone, including herself, through the research funds her laboratory received from the government through the taxes it collected from tourists and associated business activity they stimulated.

    Although, seen from this angle there was no contradiction between her beliefs and her actions, I wondered whether in working to save those koalas from dying off didn’t unwittingly betray her own anthropomorphic feelings towards them, given that the diseased animals were females, and as a woman and a future mother, one thinks, her faculty for empathy had driven her to reify that psychic connection between humans and animals, as loath as she would be to admit. Still it bugged me that I never once heard her express any skepticism or doubt about what she was doing, nor did she evince any interest in topics outside the realm of science, like politics, except in a strictly polemic sense, as it pertained to her own field, as per her views on anthropomorphic sentimentality and animal liberationists.

    It was if she was incapable of or didn’t allow herself any degree of deep thought outside her narrow field, lest it might undermine her beliefs and shatter her view of the world, and where she fitted into it. Moreover, since to me she represented the dominant class that underpinned the power structure in Australian society, her seeming arrogance had succeeded in provoking my burgeoning antipathy towards the wider social formation in which I found myself, concerning its historical foundations and the sociopolitical forces that had shaped it. Thus, it followed that I should project onto her my increasing rejection of that society.

    In her I could see glimpses of the conquerious mindset of those who had come before her to take possession of this ungoverned land inhabited by backward savages, and proceed to “improve” it unhindered, and install on it a society created in their own exalted image, based on strict property relations and the pursuit of profit. In her, that plundering spirit of her forebears had been transformed and refined into a desire to take possession of its heart and soul by extracting from it as much knowledge as she and others like her could, about all the resident life-forms, its flora and fauna, its geographical features, and everything else on which the sun shone within its shores, in the name of scientific progress, and thereby make the conquest complete. As such, she and her kind were anathema, and I saw in her proud exaltation of nature and science a sign of the inherited psychopathology and intellectual shallowness of a people too afraid to contemplate their own insignificance.

    If I had to say, in the end, I didn’t much like Cath. Not because she was completely bereft of any endearing qualities, because there was a certain tom-boyish charm about her, and at times she displayed a raw honesty, free of pretension, that was refreshing. But she seemed devoid of any engaging metaphysical bent, which I guess had served her well in her chosen academic field, helping her conform to the accepted archetype of a zoologist. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical, because Rosa Luxenburg was also a materialist and a devoted student of nature, and it didn’t affect her commitment to the revolutionary struggle. But she was a naturalist, as opposed to a zoologist. Her view of nature was informed by the material interconnectedness of everything in the physical realm, humans, animals, plants, and everything else, where countries and national boundaries had no place; whereas zoologists, to my mind, are hyper-vigilant narrow-minded philistines who, fearing loss of their fragile identity, under the threat of shame and ostracism by their peers, dare not question or transgress the defining principles of their discipline, whatever they are. Moreover, as academics, they are beholden to the whims and dictates of the state educational apparatus, and their views are necessarily informed by crass nationalism that stifles intellectual exploration and revolutionary thinking.

    On a more personal level, perhaps my dislike of Cath betrays my envy of her success, having secured for herself a tenured academic position, whereas I’m a mere research scientist on a soft-money, back at Monash, I’m embarrassed to admit. Moreover, if I were to be honest, I would also have to admit that at the root of my dislike was my jealousy of her outgoing, self-confident, and apparent freedom from self-doubt, while I was, and still am, constantly tormented by deep skepticism, and crippled by the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing, trapped among people I couldn’t relate to.

    It was different, however, when I first entered university. I was so relieved to be finally rid of the hellish trauma of high school, and took to my classes with enthusiasm to learn as much as I could. Despite not knowing anyone, except for one or two students from high school with whom I was never really friends, I felt I was now part of a privileged group of like-minded young adults who would one day assume the reins of power in society and guide it according to our own collective vision. In retrospect, my optimism was driven by a mixture of naive, post-adolescent pride in my modest scholastic achievements, and oddly enough, in Australia itself, the nation and the society, to which I felt a sense of belonging like never before.

    But after a few months, even though I had made a couple of new friends, I was beset by debilitating alienation and I began to question what I was doing here, not just at university, but in Australia itself. I sensed there was something fundamentally false about my eagerness to assume for myself an identity to which I believed I had a just claim, when the undeniable fact was that I really didn’t belong among these people, and had only fooled myself into believing I did. And once that idea firmly established itself in my mind I became increasingly preoccupied with finding a way of extricating myself from that horribly stifling environment.

    I ended up deferring the year and went to work in a refrigerator factory. I did that for about six months during which time I earned enough money to buy a 35mm SLR camera with wide-angle and zoom lenses, and pay for a trip back to Greece with the aim of discovering my true identity to fill the gaping void. There I stayed for about two months, hosted by my relatives, before returning to Australia, thoroughly dejected and disillusioned by the experience, and the following year I re-enrolled at university to continue my studies. To overcome the conflicting emotions and confused cultural loyalties, I threw myself into my work, determined to finish my degree, and not think about such intractable questions like where I belonged, until I had graduated.

    It paid off because I quickly settled into the routine of university life and started doing fairly well academically. And so long as I continued to mimic my fellow students and conformed to what was expected of me, it was easy to believe that I was expanding my intellectual horizons by participating in such discussions as the ethics of using anthropomorphic animals in scientific experiments, and that everything would turn out well, and I would do my parents proud. But that niggling feeling of being an outsider was always there, lurking below the surface.

    It was starting to get a little nippy and Tsootsoo needed to be fed. A hot cup of coffee would wake me up and warm my insides quite nicely. Pulling the cover aside, I put on my slippers and made my way to the kitchen, with Tsootsoo following, tapping out a pitter patter rhythm on the kitchen floor with her overgrown toenails. As she watched me preparing to grind some coffee, she slumped against the sliding door. Temporarily distracted by a flea on her hind leg, she began grunting and gnawing at it with her front teeth, but stopped and moved when I prodded her so she wouldn’t break the glass panel with the jerky movements of her fat rump. Turning to her, I reassured her in my dog pidgin, a mixture of Greek and English, spoken in a childish tone, in deference to her less advanced intellect, that as soon as I had set up the coffee maker, I would start on her dinner. She seemed to understand and lay down to wait patiently.

    While the coffee brewed, I diced up some dog loaf into her bowl, as Tsootsoo gave out a few plaintive yelps for me to hurry up. To remind her just who was boss, I teased her by lowering the bowl just above her nose and then pretended to take it away, at which she became agitated and let out a low disapproving growl. Then, as if scared into submission, I immediately put down the bowl and she leapt at it, covering it with her head and shoulders, in case I changed my mind. I filled her water bowl and then poured myself a hot cup of black coffee.

    It had to be regular dark roasted “Columbo Supreme.” I liked it straight black, drunk from my white porcelain mug, stained brown, because I rarely washed it, except to rinse out the grounds, since soap residue, even trace amounts, affected the flavor, not to mention my brain. I emphasize regular because of a rather nasty experience I had one time in Reno, where I went to work after I got my doctorate in 1987.

     Unbeknownst to me, I had bought a bag of hazelnut flavored coffee beans. The packaging on the regular and the hazelnut flavored varieties was almost identical, except for the flavor printed at the bottom, which I never bothered to read, having assumed from the label on the shelf that all the bags in that particular row were of the regular, unflavored variety. But when I got home and unpacked the groceries, I could smell a weird but vaguely familiar aroma coming from the coffee beans which I recognized as hazelnut. I assumed the bag must have been stored next to hazelnut flavored coffee somewhere along the way, and the packaging had absorbed some of that aroma.

    As I prepared to make coffee, I noticed the smell of hazelnut got stronger when I snipped open the bag. Ignoring it, I scooped some beans into the grinder and ground them up. But after taking off the lid, realizing the source of that abominable smell was the coffee itself and not the packaging, my heart sank in my chest. And picking up the bag, sure enough, right there at the bottom, the label confirmed its contents: two pounds of hazelnut flavored dark-roasted coffee beans.

    It appeared that someone at the supermarket had deliberately placed it among bags of the regular, unflavored coffee beans so that unsuspecting customers would buy it, since the stock wasn’t moving and they had to sell it somehow; it was the only explanation. I tried to calm down by telling myself that hazelnut flavored coffee wasn’t all that different from regular coffee, and my senses would soon become desensitized to it, and after a few days I won’t be able to tell the difference. So I went ahead and brewed some coffee and reluctantly drank it down.

    Next morning I ground up some more beans and brewed up a fresh pot, and sat down to have breakfast. However, with each sip, that nauseous aroma of sweaty socks was becoming increasingly intolerable. It was nothing like the invigorating coprous stink of regular dark-roasted Colombian coffee beans I was accustomed to. But I persisted, in the expectation that my senses would soon get used to it in the coming days, and in the meantime I just had to endure this minor irritation. But after I had drunk about half the cup, I promptly got up, went straight to the kitchen and poured the remainder down the sink and then emptied the entire pot after it, before thoroughly rinsing out both under hot running water to get rid of that ghastly aroma. In fact, I could only relax after I had taken the bag from the pantry cupboard, sealed it up, and disposed of it in the dumpster outside, so that no hint of that dastardly smell would remain in my apartment, forfeiting the $10 refund had I returned it to the supermarket. I took some solace in the fact that at least it wasn’t vanilla flavored, an even worse abomination I once drank out of curiosity at an airport and spat out all over myself.

    I’m sure there are others like me who abhor flavored coffee. Perhaps with the increasing penetration of chemical additives and flavorings in our food to trick us into eating more than necessary, and help the big food manufacturers increase their profits, we will eventually become extinct, there being nothing for us to eat. Or perhaps, under the mysterious guidance of an evolutionarily stable strategy encoded in our genes, we will organize ourselves into small sequestered communities up in the hills, growing our own food, eschewing all unnatural and chemically modified food products, and breeding among ourselves to preserve our recessive taste and smell alleles, so that when everyone else is dead from all the nice tasting artificial poisons accumulated in their bodies, which they happily consumed thinking they were harmless, we can re-populate the earth with a new breed of human beings, living in harmony with nature, and thus, the meek will finally reap their just rewards.

    I took a few aniseed biscuits from the cupboard and went back to the living room with my coffee. Tsootsoo, having cleaned her bowl had come and planted herself between me and the heater, oblivious of her fat backside sizzling away, as she stared at me imploringly with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. To tease her again would be too patronizing and lead her to question my fidelity and reassess her loyalty. So I promptly broke off half a biscuit finger, dipped it into the coffee, checked it wasn’t scalding and presented it to her supplicating eyes. Delicately, she picked it out of my outstretched fingertips with her front teeth, and in one quick gulp made it disappear.

    After I finished my coffee, it would be time for her constitutional, pausing at her leisure at every tree and telegraph pole on the way to the park to sniff for scent left by others. Somewhere along the way, she would drop her load which I would be obliged to collect into a black plastic bag, in case anyone was watching and reported me to the municipal authorities if I failed to do so. There would be no forgetting it, because she would sit by the door and stare at me until I was so racked with guilt, I had no choice than to get up, fetch her collar and allow her majesty to lead the way.

    Drawing the curtain aside, I could see the shadows getting longer in the low sun. In less than an hour it would be dark. I thought how easy it would be to leave if it weren’t for Tsootsoo. To take her with me at her age would be much too cruel.         

(Melbourne, 1992.  I had just returned from my father’s funeral in Thessaloniki. I was staying at my sister’s house in Chadstone, while my mother remained in Greece. Tsootsoo was now nine years old. But within a few months she’d be dead, from complications of surgery to remove a tumorous growth in her pancreas)

I want to express in words what I feel. But I am only me, there is no other. Meaningless non sequiturs and illogical metaphors follow statements like senescent leaves falling off trees in autumn. It’s now late July 2010, a measure of time, of the months in the year, and a count of the years passed since year zero, the birth of Jesus Christ our savior who died on the cross as a sacrifice to God for all our sins.

Since I last put pen to paper my mind has been subjected to incalculable sensory inputs, discrete to my perception, but in reality continuous and intertwined. It has organized those it can make sense of into recallable memories which obey the rules of cause and effect, or “objective chorality” as my housemate in Reno was wont to pronounce with paternalistic superciliousness, because his father was a physicist, whereas mine was a lowly cheese-maker-cum-factory worker-cum-flower farmer. He was paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, his compatriot, because being bereft of any original thought he wanted to pass himself off as intellectually superior by associating himself with the ideas of famous others, even though I’d never heard of Marshall McCluhan. As for how well my brain has retained my life’s memories, all I can say is: do memories exist if they can never be recalled?

Last year one Saturday, almost a year to the day my mother died (she died, in fact, on August 23rd 2008), when the antipodean winter reluctantly makes way for spring’s indecisive entrance, I drove to Richmond to see the house we lived in after arriving down in Melbourne from the Bonegilla migrant camp outside Albury, in late February 1969. Like many of the other houses on Wellington Street it has been fixed up. In fact the entire area south ofSwan Street has undergone a rejuvenation of sorts, a makeover if you like, or gentrification. It is now inhabited mainly by young urban professionals with or without small children, content to be part of a medium-to-high-density, sustainable residential community with ready access to public transport and all the amenities and services the nearby central business district has to offer. While not quite bona fide members of the urban elite establishment, they live close enough to be demographically lumped in with them while still retaining a vicarious and ennobling connection with working classdom, albeit in acquired retrospection.

All this may sound like I don’t particularly like yuppies; that’s because I can’t stand them. The main reason they live in places like Richmond is because they’re so lacking in substance, they’re desperate to attach themselves to a historic and somewhat mythic demographic they believe embodies the character they wish to project of themselves, best described as conformist non-conformists, in the hope this will unequivocally establish their socio-political credentials in the wider social formation. This is despite the fact that every opinion they express reflects their fundamental vacuousness, which of course they vigorously and vociferously deny through self-fulfilling argumentation in the various channels of mass communication, electronic and print, and shake their fist with rage at anyone who dares hint that their sanctimonious self-righteousness is merely a bluff for their inner insecurities. Thus, I avoid them.

In any case, the semi-detached two-bedroom house we once lived in is situated towards the far end of Wellington Street, away from Swan Street, on the corner of Blanche Street where there’s a kind of dog-leg to the right, a disjunction if you like, after which Wellington Street continues south for a bit before ending in a cul-de-sac with two narrow blue-stone alleyway running of it in opposite directions. The side of our former house facing south actually borders Blanche Street, which is really a one-way lane, barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time. But since it’s paved and has a narrow sidewalk with houses that front onto it, I guess it still qualifies as an actual street.

On the side opposite along Blanche Street, running from the corner of Wellington Street to Cremorne Street is a twelve-foot high red brick wall topped with rusted barbed wire, somewhat reminiscent of a Berlin Wall from Victorian times, but on a smaller scale; or else it could be an outer wall of some sort of correctional facility on the other side. Originally it formed the perimeter of a factory the nature of which I’m not sure. But judging from the main building which the wall joins onto, and which sits diagonally across from our former house on the dog-leg corner, my guess is that it was a packing or storage facility of some sort that required goods to be hoisted up from street level, or lowered down to be carted away, by an over-hanging beam and pulley system on the upper level. The rusted beam was still in place when we lived here, sticking out of the boarded up door, but it has since been removed and the door opening has been bricked off.

Whatever the business of the factory, it had ceased to operate by the time we moved into the area, and the high wall along Blanche Street enclosed the yard of a trucking company that went by the name of “Arthur’s Transport”, while the three-story red brick building on the corner lay disused. This my friends and I confirmed one Sunday after we crawled under the front gate on Cremorne Street to go and collect caterpillars from a native willow tree that grew inside the wall next to it, and then went exploring inside to discover that it was largely empty except for some old rusted machinery covered with layers of dust, with cobwebs entangling the beams and rafters, and all the windows broken and the doors falling off their hinges.

Back then, the street was filled with immigrant families from various countries around the world including Greece, Italy, Turkey and Mauritius, with a few Anglo-Australian families thrown in. I can’t imagine any of them still living here. I assume they or their children moved out to the suburbs long ago, like we did, or returned to their respective countries of origin; or the parents have simply passed away and the children sold off the properties. Having said that I have a strange suspicion the Greek family from whom we rented the house are still living next door at 61 Wellington Street in some capacity, either one or both parents, George and Georgia, on their own, or with one or more of their children and perhaps their own family. I say that because, even back then, as an impressionable eight year-old, they struck me as the type of people who had little desire to venture beyond their immediate surroundings, and despite having arrived in Australia some ten years before us, George didn’t even drive a car.

Perhaps after saving up enough money to buy their own house, and then the one next door which they duly converted into two rental units, they stopped looking beyond the horizon, and except for the occasional trip to Elwood Beach on the train in the summer, they never ventured further afield. It helped that they had close relatives living nearby, up on Richmond Hill north of Swan Street. They also had relatives in Sydney whom they visited once every couple of years. But according to George Melbourne was much better than Sydney by miles because, among other things, the trains here had louder claxons compared to the puny sounding ones on Sydney’s trains. Even though I’d never been to Sydney to compare for myself, it was something that stuck in my head, I guess because I could hear the trains from our house most nights sounding their horn as they pulled away from Richmond station next to Swan Street, and would assure myself they were louder than the ones in Sydney.

George’s vain pride in Melbourne and in Australia, however, left me confused, because like us they were Greek and compared to our own uncertain roots, he always liked to boast of his family’s Spartan heritage. But otherwise he rarely spoke of Greece, and when he did it was mostly in disparaging terms. Whereas for us, Greece was a constant preoccupation, with my mother always reminding us that we would be heading back the following year to be reunited with my aunt and uncle. Nevertheless, thanks to George’s avowed reverence for his adopted city, soon I too was infected with the same parochial pride in my new city, and in geography class I never wasted an opportunity to tell my classmates that Melbourne was much better than Sydney, proof of which was that trains in Melbourne had much louder sounding claxons.

When I look back on those years, sometimes I wonder how determinant my ready acceptance of such illumining disclosures were, however trivial or second hand, in shaping my character. Or was it merely a reflection of it, an expression of something already there, akin to the belief of ancient Greeks that all learning is recollection and knowledge is inhered in the soul? In this regard, was my unqualified adoption of the bombastic views of George and my regurgitation of them without reservation an indication of my nascent elitism and my innate desire to impress my peers with my privileged knowledge? Or was it just a reflection of a natural desire by any newcomer to want to assimilate into their new environment and be accepted by those around them, by ingratiating themselves with them through flattery and imitation? Or was it an early sign that I was starting to identify with my oppressors, something akin to a Stockholm syndrome, of which George had an advanced case, and irredeemably so?

Anyhow, on this particular Saturday I drove to Richmond from my house in Chadstone in the south-eastern suburbs, some ten miles away, and turning left into Wellington Street from Swan Street, I stopped and parked my car just around the corner from the red brick building which was in the process of being converted into loft-style apartments. Through my driver’s side window I had a good view of 63A Wellington Street without having to get out, and took a few photographs using the zoom function on my digital camera.

I could see that the front façade and the wall on the side abutting Blanche Street had been repainted the same color as forty years ago, a washed out lemony green. In addition it had a new corrugated iron roof put on in exactly the same style as the old one. The front picket fence, however, was a new feature, a faded grey of weathered hardwood. It had replaced the rusty waist-high Cyclone fence and the creaky gate of old which I could almost picture myself pushing open, walking the few steps up the narrow concrete path on the side of the patch of grass that was the front lawn, up onto the small veranda and front door.

The street itself was eerily quiet. Not a soul could be seen or heard either outside or in the front yards or verandas of the few residences that didn’t have a six-foot high wall along the front for privacy. This was in stark contrast to how I remembered the neighborhood from forty years earlier when you could see into the front yards of houses and front windows and my friends and I would chase one another up and down the street after school and on weekends, kicking around a plastic football or playing street cricket with the ball often landing on people’s roofs or front doors and windows, sometimes breaking them, while we yelled ununderstood obscenities at cars and their drivers who dared disrupt our games.

As I sat in my car, snippets of all kinds of memories came flooding back in a random stream seamlessly superseding one another. But they evoked little emotion. Perhaps this was because I was overly anxious that some paranoid house owner peering from behind the curtains would come out at any minute and confront this stranger taking photographs of their houses form inside his car. Somehow I didn’t think my explanation that I was only taking pictures of the house I used to live in for my photo album would satisfy them. Nevertheless I remained gazing across at our old house, curious to see just what type of people now lived there.

I doubted they were newly arrived immigrants; for a start, the rent would be prohibitively expensive. From its well-restored condition and the neat and tidy front yard, my guess was that it was owned and occupied by a young professional couple who took pride in their humble Depression-era, semi-detached dwelling. Whoever they happened to be, I felt a strange affinity with them all of a sudden, as if having lived in the same house and in the same neighborhood had imbued us with a like outlook on the world. But our respective circumstances were completely different, I thought, because, whereas we had lived there out of necessity, the present occupants more than likely owned the house and had chosen to live here over other less expensive areas in Melbourne, figuring it was a good long-term investment, given that Richmond was steeped in history and character, and such intangibles accrue with time, adding value to the property. But this was purely conjecture on my part. Maybe they too were compelled to live here, so as not to have far to travel to their workplaces, or because they preferred to walk and use public transport rather than drive everywhere. But I would only be able to confirm that if I actually met them in person, which wasn’t on my agenda that particular afternoon.

The adjoining unit was done up in the same style and was equally well maintained, and as I continued gazing at them and the cars parked on the street at the front, the more I could appreciate the appeal of wanting to live here. For one there was the physical proximity to one’s neighbors that encouraged social interaction and engendered a close sense of community that was so lacking in the alienating sparseness of outer suburbia. However, this was counterbalanced by the fact that the Monash tollway which carried tens of thousands of vehicles each day and well into the night when all the heavy trucks come out like nocturnal beasts was only a block to the south. In fact, by my reckoning, the main outbound tunnel ran more or less right under Wellington Street, if not our old house itself, and the exhaust towers had to be somewhere in the general vicinity. Moreover the area itself was surrounded by roads that carried heavy traffic throughout the day, filling the air with toxic exhaust fumes and fine, sub-microscopic particulates, which couldn’t possibly do one’s health much good.

As I sat in my car, I was also keeping a close eye on 61 Wellington Street. Compared to the well-looked after, semi-detached units next door, the house in which George and Georgia and their three children used to live had fallen into a noticeable state of disrepair. The trees along the side fence and the bushes inside the doubled-fronted Cyclone wire fence now thoroughly rusted were overgrown, as were the grass and the weeds in the front yard. It added to my suspicion that George probably still lived here with his wife, refusing to sell and having nowhere else to go, with no desire of returning to Greece to live out his remaining years. But he was now too frail to cut the grass with his push rotary mower, and she had grown too old to take care of the garden.

I could almost picture him in his dressing gown, with messy grey hair down past his shoulders and a long monastic beard, sitting in his arm chair under the lemon tree in the common concrete-paved back yard we shared with him and the other tenant occupying the adjoining unit, leisurely smoking a cigarette and loftily arguing religion and politics in his terse, laconic manner with my father who courteously obliged. Having arrived in Australia well before us, he probably thought he had something to learn from George about this new country. But if truth be told, he had little time for people like him, and when he had finished his cigarette, he would promptly excuse himself, leaving George to ponder confusedly over some cryptically sarcastic parting remark of his own.

For someone not much older than my father, with three children about the same age as me and my sister, George struck me as a peculiar figure when I first saw him. But there was something about his eccentricity that struck a vague chord. His thin and gaunt appearance, and his detached and unsociable manner must have subconsciously recalled my reclusive uncle back in Greece, that is, my father’s younger brother, from the few times I saw him before we left for Australia. Perhaps this resemblance explained my father’s veiled derision of George, because like his brother, he also shunned people and eschewed the modern world. But George’s unconventional appearance and his unpredictable cantankerous outbursts would strike fear in me, but at other times he seemed quite timid and withdrawn, and I felt more pity than fear when I saw him sitting on his own.

According to my parents, whom I overheard talking about him one Sunday with some visitors to the house, George wasn’t always like that. Apparently he had quit his factory job years earlier, having gone mad, “τρελλάθηκε,” they said. This happened after the family returned from Greece bitterly disappointed at having failed to settle back in their part of Peloponessus, at the height of the junta years. They said he had spent time at “Kew”, which was a reference to the psychiatric hospital situated in that sedate suburb in the leafy outer east of Melbourne, and which I believe is still operating in some capacity. For some reason, that particular institution was well known among Greek immigrants, and the refrain “θα πάς στο Κιού” had passed into the Greek migrant vernacular as a kind of admonition to those who dared stray too far from the approved path laid out for migrant workers in this faraway land, because if they did so, they were apt to go mad and be locked up in “Kew” and given pills to make them forget their woes and stop worrying.

After hearing all this about George, I realized he was in fact what a real-life “mental case” looked like. It was a term I often heard used at school among my new friends, but I had no idea as to who or what it actually referred to. But now I did. It was someone like George, with long hair and a beard, who didn’t work and stayed home all day dressed in his robe, shunning people and mocking whatever they had to say; while his wife looked after the house and went off in the evenings to clean offices in the city to earn enough to make ends meet. Although not all “mental cases” fitted his description, the allusion was clear enough for me to draw a general conclusion, which was that they didn’t look and act like “normal” people. And the fact that they didn’t meant one had to be wary of them. Thus, from then on, I avoided George when I could help it, and made sure he wasn’t sitting outside before I dared go use the shared toilet at the back of their house.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I went to Wellington Street that Saturday. On the surface, I set out on a whim to drive to the city by way of Richmond to relieve my boredom. But on the way there, a more purposeful objective suggested itself. And this was that, by going to see my old neighborhood and house again, this might inspire enough of a sense of belonging to conciliate me with the idea of finally committing myself to this place for the long-term and settling down, as much as I abhorred the notion of having to formally pledge allegiance to a country, any country really, especially a monarchy, after I saw the effect it had .on my father.

He had put it off as long as he could. But when he turned sixty-four, he finally relented and decided to become a naturalized Australian citizen, believing this was a necessary step for him to qualify for his old-age pension when he turned sixty-five the following year. In fact, this wasn’t a strict requirement, but disconnected Greeks of his generation all believed it was, guided by blissful ignorance of government policy, in a country from which they felt largely disenfranchised, feeding a collective indifference to its laws, but at the same time a fear that if they didn’t take out citizenship before they turned sixty-five they would lose all their entitlements, or have to wait another ten years before becoming eligible. But when my father did take out citizenship, along with my mother, I suspect something of him died in the process.

He didn’t become morose or overly depressed, but he assumed a resigned humility which I sensed hid an even bigger inner resignation to whatever fate had in store for him. It was as if, by taking the oath of allegiance to a country which he was never able to adopt as his won, or adapt to, he had betrayed some core character-defining principle, and turned into that person he vowed never to become. And within a year he was dead. It’s not that I truly believe there was a causative link between the two. But in my mind I can’t help but look upon the negation of character and change of identity his conversion signified as death foretold.

On a more emotional plane, something else that brought me to Wellington Street that day was a non-descript nostalgic yearning that had been building up in me over the past year in the wake of my mother’s death. It was a yearning for a period of my life which despite its relatively short span, less than two years, still dominates my past. But sitting there in my car, across from our former house, as hard as I tried to reconcile my memories of growing up here with my present situation, I could feel no abiding affinity with either the house or the neighborhood. It felt like my brain was simply parsing memories and trying to string together coherent storylines that vaguely resonated with truth and meaning in the hope of discovering something deep and insightful about who I was and what I had become. Memories like the time I convinced my mother .to buy a can of a particular brand of air freshener because I wanted to prove to her that it had magical powers.

I was so excited when we came home from the shops with a can of “Air-o-Zone” in our shopping cart, that I grabbed the can, pulled off the cover and ran straight into the living room, spraying it on the mantle piece where an empty vase stood, with the full expectation that flowers would instantly spring up, as they did in the television commercial. But after waiting twenty seconds or so, ample time, the vase on the mantelpiece remained empty. After trying again and again, and the vase still flowerless, I was thoroughly perplexed. I just couldn’t understand why it failed to make flowers appear, when on television they sprang up out of nowhere almost instantly with just a short spray. Desperate to show my mother that it really worked, I went into the kitchen and sprayed some on the table. But again my efforts were in vain. It was as if logic itself had broken down. There was something missing, but I couldn’t figure out what it could be.

Watching me all this while from his arm-chair in the living room with a derisive grin on his face was my father. Breaking his silence, he said in a dismissive tone that the advertisement was a lie and that I was stupid to think that a spray could make flowers appear out of nowhere. As much as I resented his statement, I couldn’t hide my humiliation and I felt a wave of embarrassment sweep over me, because it suddenly dawned on me that, as shattering as it was, his explanation made full sense. Flowers only grew in the ground, or in pots filled with soil. Somehow on television, they had made it look like “Air-o-Zone” made flowers grow out of thin air, when in fact they just couldn’t. The pretty woman in the advertisement was lying; it was as simple as that. But why would someone with such a friendly face deliberately lie? In the end, I don’t know which hurt more; my father’s blunt disillusioning truth, or the fact that I had been fully taken in by the pretty woman on television.

As crushing as this realization was, I think this particular incident marked a turning point in wider education, in as much as it served as a cautionary introduction to the world of deceit and dissimulation on the one hand and my own willingness to go along with it on the other. I suspect the willful duplicity I now recognized in advertizing puffery, still too naive to appreciate its underlying commercial purpose, coupled with my embarrassing gullibility, subconsciously carried over into real life. And from then on, I was wary of believing anything I saw that appeared to be the result of magic, or defied rational explanation. And as for people who smiled a lot and acted friendly, well, they too were apt to be lying and couldn’t be trusted. Thus, when Christmas came round, I took it upon myself to convince my sister that Santa Claus didn’t exist, and that Jesus couldn’t possibly turn water into wine, or come back from the dead, as she’d been led to believe at Catholic Sunday school she used to attend with some of her friends.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited my old neighborhood. I had been back several times over the years, even stopping off at my old primary school around the corner on Cremorne Street to walk around the asphalt playground and relive the cricket matches we used to play at lunchtime, with the wickets painted on the wall of the toilet block still visible; and the tunnel-ball contests in training for the interschool sports games. This time, however, I sensed a finality about my visit. I came to the conclusion that no matter how many times I came back here, I would never feel a genuine affinity with the place, one that was free from that soppy, puerile sentimentality for the apparent simplicity of the past, whenever the confusion of the present and uncertainty of the future weigh on my mind.

Thus, I resolved to give up trying to contrive a sense of attachment for a place to which there exists a flimsy romantic connection only in my mind. And as far as the people who live here were concerned, safely sequestered in the privacy of their single-fronted, semi-detached former workers’ lodgings faithfully restored to their original condition, I had little or nothing in common with them. With that sobering, disillusioning thought, I drove away neither happy nor sad, but sure in the knowledge there was nothing special about the house we once lived in, or the street and neighborhood.

Now that I think about it, having rejected the possibility of discovering any character-defining attachment to my old house and neighborhood, I suspect my repeated attempts to do so over the years were motivated subconsciously by a desire for the exact opposite, that is, to arrive via the occult logic of my subconscious at a plausible reason to distance myself from it, in as much as it represented my doubtful baptism into Australian society, so open and receptive on one level, yet unable to absorb newcomers whole-heartedly and accommodate otherness. As such, it’s a society towards which I feel an irreconcilable mistrust, and still cringe at the sound of my own name in this strange sounding tongue. Perhaps the indifference I now feel was, in fact, what I was looking for all along, because deep down I really have no wish to belong here, simply because I never can.

As I mentioned, it’s now almost two years since my mother died. I must confess, they have been the shortest two years of my life. It’s like time has stood still even though in those two years I feel like I’ve aged five or ten, as the wrinkles and lines on my face attest, and the profusion of grey hair on my head and elsewhere.

In the aftermath of her ceasing to exist, I walked away from my job as a research scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra. I could no longer see the point of sacrificing the lives of small laboratory animals just to figure out how cells in their eyes converted electromagnetic energy into electrical impulses. Up until then I hadn’t given a second thought to the deontological implications of my work as a biomedical research scientist, both in Australia and all my years in various laboratories in the States. By following the ethical guidelines for humanely killing these creatures, as oxymoronic as that sounds, my conscience could be assuaged and I could proceed to perform the necessary experiments on tissue samples extracted from them guilt-free, record and analyze the data with my instruments, and then write up articles for publication in scientific journals, and feel that I was achieving something and contributing to human knowledge.

Now, however, all that’s changed. The idea of consciously terminating the life of an animal whose natural instinct by definition is to want to live and avoid death, all for the sake of scientific research with the aim of discovering something new that will bring me and my colleagues accolades and recognition, as well as promotion, and add to the existing body of scientific knowledge, well, all that just seemed absurd.

After quitting my job in Canberra and selling my apartment there in a panic, spooked by talk of house prices about to collapse with the global financial system on the verge of a major crisis rivaling that of the Great Depression, if you believed the hype, I moved into my mother’s house in Melbourne and devoted myself to looking after the welfare of her pet dog and cat, Max and Timothy, or in her language, “Μέξ καί Τσίμαθι”, while I looked for a new job. I suspect it was also a way of trying to keep alive her memory, in as much as these creatures lived through her and she through them, and in my mind the three of them were inseparable and I felt an obligation to honor her unspoken wish that they be looked after. 

On another level, however, one that straddles humaneness and religiosity, I also saw my commitment as a way of paying penance for having sacrificed the lives of so many animals in the course of my research career. Thus, driven by a vague but overbearing sense of Franciscan piety, I decided to devote myself to the needs of these two mutually cognizant fellow creatures and expiate my guilt for my past sins.

I suspect my reasoning, albeit buried in the murkiness of my subconscious, came out of a rather maudlin assessment of my situation at that particular point in my life, and I figured that by affecting outward piety I could justify my retreat from the concerns and demands of my hitherto specious existence where I felt increasingly drawn further and further away from an inner ideal. By adopting such an attitude, I figured I could draw on people’s sympathy, if not pity, and be excused for abandoning my career mid-stream and instead devoting myself to such a seemingly unavailing commitment, because my irrational behavior was understandable for one recently bereaved of the closest of kin, when concerns for the routine of life tends to give way to reflections on the immaterial and other-worldly. 

In any case, these two creatures have now become my closest companions, not just in a material sense but in a cosmic sense as well, and I can’t imagine ever walking away or abandoning them. Our relationship transcends human friendship and in their presence I feel as if I exist in a wholly different dimension. Sometimes I wonder whether my altered perception of time isn’t due to these creatures having drawn me into their own notion of reality.

As fellow co-inhabitants of this realm I am in awe of the way they resolutely and dispassionately go about their lives, dependent on my generosity and welfare on the one hand, while driven by their animal instincts to survive by exploiting my sense of duty towards them for supplying me with needed distraction and acknowledgement of my existence. As silly as it sounds, they embody the meaning of life, the basis of which is the will to maintain the functional integrity of the organism each of us constitutes by all the means at our disposal. Having said that, I get the impression they also possess the ability to willingly succumb to the inevitable when further resistance is futile.

Sometimes when I take Max to the park and let him wander off the leash I can also see my mother’s image in the distance. One instant I see Max sniffing the grass and the next, right there beside him, or in his place, I see my mother throwing me looks in case I take off without him or her. Perhaps I conflate the two because it was rare to see her without Max by her side, whether it was at the beach or at the park, or in the car when they went off shopping together. So now, when I see him on his own, my mind automatically supplies the missing image of my mother and overlays it onto the in-coming visual sense-image of Max, and in this hybrid, interchanging mental percept she appears as real and present as ever.

And it’s not just her image, because sometimes I can hear her voice calling him to quiet down and stop barking at the deliverer of junk mail stuffing leaflets and advertizing brochures into the letter box at the front, as Max watches him intently from his armchair, through the living room curtain, lest he or anyone else make a wrong move and step over the line. As for Timothy she’s naturally more aloof and projecting my mother’s personality onto this detached feline doesn’t seem to work. After all, cats are their own people, so to speak.

But one thing I’m certain of is that something of my mother lives in me, which is not so strange a notion when you think about it, given that more than half of my DNA is derived from her, if one includes mitochondrial DNA. And being a firm believer that, as much as one’s environment, one’s physical attributes define one’s character and personality in equal measure to the extent that they circumscribe one’s ability to interact with human beings around them and be acknowledged by them, or more fundamentally, the ability of others to relate to you, the fact that she and I shared a physical resemblance and had similar temperaments, it would only be expected that she would continue to exist through me in some way. But as far as Max and Timothy are concerned, I feel compelled to subjugate my life to theirs, because in that act of humble servitude I can free myself from my humanoid existence, so tied up as it is with that oppressive existential triumvirate of the past, present and future.

Speaking of time, I recently experienced a revelation of sorts which offered some insight into the nature of the universe, albeit from my own idiotic perspective. By idiotic I mean that it came from my own “private” view of the universe, which is what “idiotic” means in Greek, that is, something derived from my one’s intellectual processes, free from outside scrutiny. 

Specifically, this revelation concerned the nature of light at the conceptual level, that is, unsupported by mathematical reasoning in which I’m not sufficiently grounded to even attempt to provide any proof, although I did study mathematics as well as physics in first year at university and did reasonably well in both. However, I’ve always had an aversion to numbers and symbols with their bold lines standing out from the background, encoding a kind of secrecy and offending an inner esthetic of beauty. In any case, I suspect I suffer from occasional numerical dyslexia, or is it prosopagnosia, whereby at times, numbers and symbols with which I’m familiar seem to defy meaning.

Actually, I’ve come to the conclusion that an inordinate affinity with numbers is akin to a psychosis, or a “numerosis” if you like. What I mean by this is that numbers and their inter-relationships can delude the mind into believing it has the ability to unlock the laws of the universe and crack open the mystery of life. (I don’t know what I mean by this; it just came out) In those possessed of this obsession, or by it, mathematical logic becomes the means by which it spreads and takes hold, a bit like a psychic cancer that grows and spreads uncontrollably until it has subsumed its host’s consciousness, molding and shaping their brain to accommodate the mathematical processing their expanding madness demands, and co-opting the mind to direct the body to serve its expanding needs, at the expense of the myriads of other associations the mind could synthesize from sensory inputs to inform one’s consciousness of the world and harmonize it with one’s desires and fantasies. It’s also a bit like a religion, but instead of a strict belief that everything in the universe is the self-fulfilling work of a supreme deity, the demiurge, in mathematics, the ultimate delusion lies in the self-referential certainty of numbers.

When I say that one plus one equals two, I’m saying that one thing which is identical to another thing, when considered together, are now called two things. That is, when the word “two” or the number “2”, as a phonetic or a visual symbol impinges on my senses and conjures up in my cognitive brain the thought image of the word “two” or the number “2”, I know that it represents abstractly the existence of one thing grasped together with the other thing, both of which now form a new combined entity known as “two” or “2”. Thus when an object which stands out from the background is considered with another object, which doesn’t necessarily have to be identical with the first, but which is similar in the sense that it can be perceived as a separate and unique entity, both of them together now become “one” thing which is represented by the word “two” or symbol “2”.

As idiotically apocalyptic as it sounds, I’m driven to the inescapable conclusion that mathematics and all the scientific knowledge it underpins is nothing but a means to the final end, that is, the annihilation of humanity. That’s because human beings, actuated by a universal cosmic force, channeled through the myriads of cascading chemical actions and reactions within their cells, are driven by the inexorable need to transform their physical environment ad nihilum by whatever means at their disposal. And this includes the use of mathematics, which is but a hallucinatory attempt by the intellect to apprehend in symbolic form the infinite interrelationships between all the elements and forces of nature so as to feed our need for pleasure and sustenance, in the quest to reproduce more of ourselves until we no longer can. I think I’m digressing into the realm of incoherence, so I’ll go back to what I started on.

Well, this minor revelation I experienced happened one evening while I was sitting back in the warmth of my living room having a coffee after dinner, and as I said, it concerned the nature of light. This question had been a source of confusion, a veritable thorn in my intellectual side ever since I came across the idea that under some conditions light was a “wave”, but under others, it was composed of a stream of almost mass-less particles called photons that traveled through space at something like 186,000 miles per second, abbreviated as “c”, which is arguably the most important constant in physics. In high school, to reconcile these two aspects of light, I would try to picture these small particles zipping through space while oscillating about a central axis.

This baffling duality continued to niggle at my intellectual powers of reasoning through university. But driven by an inner need to come up with a unifying concept to account for both the particulate and wave-like nature of light, I couldn’t get past the idea that something with mass can also be a “wave”, and the image of photons oscillating as they traveled through space kept intruding. As a result, I stopped trying to visualize light and simply went along with the received wisdom that under certain conditions it behaved like a stream of particles that reflected off objects at the same angle of incidence, while under others it behaved like a “wave” as in the ocean, whose amplitude and frequency could vary, and so its energy. This enabled me to calculate equations and correctly answer exam questions, and convince my physics tutors that I had a firm grasp of the subject. But I suspect many of my fellow students found themselves at the same cognitive impasse.

I don’t know why a resolution to this niggling incongruity offered itself up on that particular evening. Given that it occurred close to the anniversary of my mother’s death, it’s possible that in my wandering contemplation of her passing and the moment she ceased to exist, which may have had something to do with the fact that I was sitting in the same exact spot on the couch she used to sit in on such cold evenings, and of the related question of whether the instantaneous vanishing of her life force, or anyone else’s for that matter, violated the physical laws pertaining to the conservation of energy and the transformation of energy into matter and vice versa; this stirred up various mysteries to other related physical phenomena, among which was the baffling duality of the nature of light. 

Or perhaps the thought of the instantaneous vanishing of her life-force evoked in my subconscious the extinguishing of a flame as a metaphor for death. And seeing the former event was beyond the reach of my intellect to explain in terms of physical laws, I turned the focus of my late-night inquiry on the more tractable problem of the duality of the nature of light. But before I could address this problem, I realized I needed to arrive at a clearer understanding of the concept of “space,” that is, the medium through which light travelled, either as particles or waves. 

I didn’t have to think very long to realize the word “space” as I had understood it was actually a misnomer. You see, I had always understood the word “space” to signify a three-dimensional emptiness devoid of all substance. This made intuitive sense because I, as an entity possessing mass, exist in three-dimensions, and those same three dimensions would continue to exist in my absence. Therefore “space” would still exist in the absence of all entities of mass and substance. But waves required a physical medium through which to travel, as in the case of waves in the ocean. So how could “space” possibly be empty, that is, a complete void?

As I thought over my hitherto misconception, I could see there was a basic contradiction in my logic. And this was, if “space” was “nothingness” how can it possibly exist? It was a patently absurd proposition, because for anything of a physical character to exist it must possess form and substance, whereas “nothingness” cannot possibly exist. In fact, it’s not even possible to contemplate “nothingness”; one can only account for it by assigning a word to it, like “nothing”, or a numerical symbol like “0”. But “space” existed, because without it light could not exist. Therefore “space” cannot possibly connote “nothingness”; it must constitute a “somethingness”, that is, a physicality that exists in three dimensions.

This then raised the question of what space is made up of, because if it is real and physical it must be composed of something. The inescapable conclusion I came to was that three-dimensional space was composed of indivisible units infinitesimally smaller than atoms which I called “spaceons”. These were its building blocks, as it were, of indeterminate shape, which give space mass-less form and substance. And suspended within this three-dimensionality of spaceons is mass-ful matter composed of coalesced elemental atoms and molecules.

Having demystified the nature of space at the conceptual level, I went back to the issue at hand, which was the dual nature of light itself. Within the framework of my idiotic understanding of space as a substantive medium composed of indivisible mass-less fundamental units called spaceons, I wanted to see if I could reconcile the particulate and wave-like natures of light. In the course of my audible soliloquy and expository gesticulation, with Max asleep in his arm chair, head half-dangling over the edge, his paws and mouth twitching and eyeballs flitting away under closed eyelids; and flea-ridden Timothy curled up like a furry coffee scroll wheezing away; in her padded basket in front of the gas heater, I realized why my hitherto misapprehension of space as a complete void had been so firmly rooted in my mind.

It was tied up with the fact that air was composed of atoms of various gases suspended in space and separated by relatively large distances. Thus, in this rarefied state, it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the probability of photons striking any atoms of gas in air and being reflected back to the eye of an observer was infinitely small, and that majority of photons passed through unimpeded, thus rendering air invisible. Therefore, it made intuitive sense to think of the space between the atoms of gas, and of space in general, as being a complete void, since it could not impede the passage of light particles, that is, photons. As for the transparency of solid objects like glass and crystals, this was explained by internal reflection of light particles entering at one surface and being reflected from one atom or molecule to the next internally, until they emerged from another surface into the more transmissive medium like air.

But having now postulated that space was not an emptiness, but a “somethingness” composed of spaceons inter-connected with one another in a three-dimensional lattice, either dynamically or statically, I was led to ponder how light rays composed of streams of photons could possibly be transmitted through this substantive omnipresent medium. The conclusion I came to was that light particles would not get very far at all, or they would burrow their way through for a short distance, rapidly lose all their energy, and come to a complete stop. Thus, it made more sense to think of light purely as a “wave”, that is a pulsatile transfer of force/energy from one spaceon to a neighboring spaceon, and so on, until that force was transferred to a solid, mass-ful object composed of coalesced atoms and molecules which it could be either reflected from, absorbed by, or through which it could pass and be re-transmitted to spaceons on its exit, attenuated in energy.

As I reflected on my new understanding of the nature of light, I was satisfied I had proved to my “idiot savant” self, as my housemate in Reno was wont to refer to me whenever I came up with a novel but simple explanation to a baffling conundrum, because I lacked his scientific pedigree and was therefore unqualified to speculate on matters pertaining to the “hard sciences”; I was satisfied, I say, I had proven to myself that light was composed of pulses of energy that imparted force to objects, and there was no longer any need to invoke the particulate nature of light; waves could explain everything. Light only appeared to be particulate because it required a particulate, albeit mass-less three-dimensionality of spaceons through which to travel, and therefore people had confused the medium with the message.

Emboldened by my revelatory insight into the singular wave-like nature of light, my inquiry now turned to the concept of gravity and how it is that objects composed of atomic matter tend to fall to the ground, and more generally, how planets are attracted towards the sun, and the moons to planets, and such like heavenly phenomena.

To address this question, I first considered the hypothetical case where there was only one atom in existence suspended in the three-dimensionality of spaceons. I postulated that this substance-less space was permeated by an omni-directional, universal cosmic force transmitted through spaceons. In the case where there was only one atom in existence, the cosmic force acting on that atom would be the same from all directions, so that the atom would undergo no displacement and stay put. But if there were two atoms in existence suspended in space, I hypothesized they would undergo net movement and eventually “find” one another and coalesce due to an apparent mutual gravitational attraction.

This would come about because the force acting on each atom would now be unequal over its surface, because each atom would shield the other from a portion of the cosmic force coming from the direction of its neighbor. Thus, the sides of the atoms facing each other would experience a weaker cosmic force, and as a result of this imbalance, the two atoms would undergo displacement and appear to gravitate towards each other. But this attraction is but an illusion because in reality the two atoms are being impelled towards each other by external cosmic forces acting on them non-uniformly. Moreover, the closer they approached each other, the greater this asymmetry would become, thus producing apparent accelerative gravitational attraction.

My line of reasoning raised further questions about the nature of the cosmic force transmitted through spaceons, like: was it simply light energy of an infinitely high pulsatile frequency so as to be continuous; or was it of a very slow frequency, with a period of eons, such that the entire universe was presently subjected to the force exerted by a single multi–dimensional wave which was either peaking or decaying back to nothing, at which point all matter will disintegrate, before the next pulse came along and the material universe can re-constitute itself anew? But where does this cosmic force come from, and how is it produced?

As I pondered over the implications of this co-revelation about the nature of gravity, I realized my ruminations were completely lacking in the scientific rigor necessary for them to ever be taken seriously. For a start, I couldn’t even recall the relationship between potential and kinetic energy, or many other equations I knew by heart at university. I would need to delve into my undergraduate physics text books, which were only introductory anyway, intended for biologists. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t interested in detail, because details were the slaves of concepts, and I would leave that to those with a mathematical obsession for quantifying reality and proving the existence of things with numbers.

As I took another sip of my coffee, still gloating over my powers of explication, I realized my spaceon filled three-dimensionality was nothing new; it was the “ether” of old which Einstein apparently refuted with his discoveries on the photovoltaic effect, although he himself never categorically dismissed the concept. But how can it be wrong when it seemed so right in my head? I thought a little further about my revelation of the singular, wave-like nature of light to see if it could explain various other properties of light such as diffraction, refraction, the change in the speed of light through translucent matter of different density, and the collimate nature of laser beams. On the surface it could, although it would be too tedious to go into here.

In light of my idiotic discoveries about the nature of light and space and gravity, I now turned to a more fundamental question, that being the nature of reality. Was reality simply space and vice versa, because without space, there truly can be nothing, as oxymoronic as that sounds. And where did time fit in, if it did at all? Scientific time was simply a reference to a numerical standard of rhythmic movement of matter in space, like the vibrations of an atom in a crystal, or the movement of the arms of a clock, or the swings of a pendulum. So what is time? Is it simply a human abstraction created out of memories that logically follow one another? Is it like beauty in the sense that you can point to an object embodying beauty and can touch it, but you cannot grasp beauty itself. That’s because it doesn’t exist; it’s the result of a purely mental process. And just like the standard measure of beauty can change depending on prevailing tastes, so can the perception of time.

I concluded there is no such actual thing as time; there is only space and movement of matter therein. Time is an illusion, purely a human mental construct. Take dogs, for example, which bury their bones. You would think on first consideration they too possessed a concept of time because they appear to be planning ahead for future scarcity. But in reality their actions merely reflect a behavioral trait honed by evolution over tens of thousands of years, that is, revolutions of the Earth around the Sun. This drives them to bury bones in places that become fixed in their memories, formed from visual inputs of the shapes and sizes and colors of various other objects in the vicinity of the burial spot, like trees and rocks, as well as from other associated sensory inputs, like smells and sounds.

Thus, when they’re desperate for food, their hunger causes them to recall those places from memory, triggered by some sensory cue, and see if they match incoming sense-images, and if they do, they go and recover the buried bones. They possess this faculty because somewhere in their evolutionary past it was likely that dogs or their precursors that possessed this trait for forming memories survived and passed it on to succeeding generations, while those lacking it starved to death before they could reproduce in numbers, and their kind eventually died out.

All manner of other side questions began to pop up in my head seeking clarification. Questions like, if time didn’t truly exist, then how can one explain time dilation? And how does space and matter fit into it? For example, if a human being were composed of a single indivisible atom, and they were travelling at or close to the speed of a light wave through spaceons, then what would happen? I predicted that light waves from behind would never reach me, and therefore I wouldn’t be able to “see” anything behind me; it will be total darkness. In addition, I wouldn’t experience any cosmic force behind me either. The cosmic force in front of me, however, would be doubled, as would the frequency of light impinging on my eyes as I stared in ahead. But if cosmic forces impart mass to atoms, which are loci where energy is transformed into matter, then in the absence of any cosmic force on my rear, and with my front compressed into a super-solid mass-ful state, wouldn’t I disintegrate or collapse into myself? And what would become of the disintegrated me-atom?

The questions kept coming; some familiar seeking clarification; others less tractable demanding explanation by my newly arrived at conceptual theories. Questions like, are the cosmic forces acting on the sun so immense that atoms are continuously fusing and coalescing into super-solid matter and releasing light/energy back into space as pulses of an infinite number of frequencies through the sea of spaceons? And how is matter converted into energy? And what happens to the sun’s emitted energy? Is it conserved as it must be? Does energy really crystallize into matter and how? And what happens to the entropy of the universe? Is the universe really descending towards disorder, as imbecilic as that sounds?

I sensed my already meager grasp of these concepts weakening. I was way out of my depth and the temptation to refer all unknowns to the omniscience of a supreme power was strong. Or should I take the more laborious approach and systematically study the voluminous extant scientific literature, as overwhelming as it would be for an ageing intellect like mine? I was sinking into a deep bog of confusion and I had no choice than to abandon my quest to understand the nature of the universe and reality if I was to avoid being consumed by its incomprehensibility.

Nevertheless, I felt pleased I had at least come to a clearer understanding, however idiotic, of the singular wave-like nature of light, and that space is not in fact an emptiness, and that I myself am a collection of atoms, apparently mutually attracted towards one another to form a corporeal entity surrounded by spaceons, indeed infiltrated by them, enabling my mind/body to be subjected to the three-dimensionality of cosmic forces which are distilled by the cells in my body to drive the myriads of chemical reactions therein. However, I am not a rock but a living creature, driven by a self-sustaining will that emerged from this agglomeration of atomic matter, just like in all the other life forms around me, including Max dozing away, with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out between his little front teeth. But what is this thing, “the will”? Is it the cosmic force internalized through the mind/body conduit down to its constituent elements, and finding expression in the “life force” which continuously drives the organism to seek sustenance by depriving other living matter of their own “life force”? And what are feelings and sensations? 

Only I can see and smell and taste what I see, smell and taste. Are sensations possible without the disposition to act on them? In other words, would I be able to see anything if I didn’t have a motor cortex in my brain connected to and driven by my visual processing centers? Do I “see” an object for what it is because that object evokes a neurophysiological response organized within my brain which in turn “thinks” of ways to implement an appropriate motor action? Thus, when I perceive the color red, is it “red” because my brain, having recalled all manner of images of objects colored red stored in my memory, albeit below the level of consciousness, is preparing my body via the motor centers in my cortex to lift an imaginary red candy apple in my hand up to my mouth, this being the dominant “red” object-image drawn from my memory at that particular instant, informed by the particular combination of incoming sensory inputs, from which I will take a bite with my teeth and chew it with my jaws, anticipating its taste and texture? 

Is “red” the sum total of these preparatory actions involving the act of eating a red candy apple, as well as the anticipated gustatory sensations thereof, in endlessly spiraling subliminal loops of potential action and anticipatory sensation? Is this what we understand by consciousness, a massively interconnected, sensory-premotor ying-yang formed of silent memories competing for dominance, triggered and gated by a waking flood of sensory inputs most of which completely bypass perception? And what is the soul? A living creature is ephemeral and can cease to be a living creature, whereas the universe is perpetual and eternal, a collection of bits each composed of smaller bits, and so on and so on.

My now late-night intellectual meanderings had all but exhausted my reserves of mental stamina. I was rambling and asking questions that were silly and profound, frivolous and profound. I decided to call it quits for the night and prepared to go to bed, but not before letting Max out for a pee. Timothy could come and go as it liked through the cat-flap in the kitchen door, although generally in winter she slept inside in her basket through the night and was first up at daybreak, sitting next to my pillow with Sphinx like patience, paws tucked under her, waiting for me to get up and feed her.

As I mentioned, it’s now two years since my mother died. But it could well have been yesterday. On the night I bid her farewell she lay narcotized in her hospital bed breathing in short gasps through her dry open mouth as PVC tubes hooked up to her nose delivered pure oxygen into her nostrils. She was oblivious of the beads of perspiration continuously forming on her forehead and my efforts to wipe them away and stop them flooding her flickering eyes. 

Irreversible ascites had set in due to an infection in her abdomen, probably contracted from the botched emergency surgery she underwent to try and restore her rapidly failing biliary and pancreatic functions. These had been severely compromised by aberrant cells that had abandoned their normal behavior and abode and turned into uncontrollable self-replicating freaks that knew no bounds. And now her abdomen was so swollen she could barely contract her diaphragmatic muscles to draw air into her lungs. And with the attendant decrease in blood volume, her heart was required to beat faster and stronger, causing the sheets above her chest to visibly quiver with each pulse.

In a weak voice she mumbled for a sip of apple juice. Obligingly I picked up the carton on the bedside table, bent the straw and placed the tip next to her mouth. Lifting her head up to the side she managed to suck up some juice, licking her lips ever so feebly to savor the sugary taste. But realizing it only dried her mouth even more she mustered a half-hearted frown and waved it away with her hand down by her side on the bed. She tried taking a deep breath, as deep as her distended abdomen would allow, perhaps it was a sigh of self-pity, before mentally collapsing back onto herself, opening her glazed eyes just a little to glance at the bare walls and ceiling, and then at me with a look that conveyed confused oblivion. I noticed her irises were a peculiar purple bluish-green; very different from their usual agate greenish-brown with blue edges. I assumed they reflected the altered chemistry of her blood and body fluids, from all the intravenous drips and antibiotics and narcotics she had been on for the past two weeks since the surgery.

As she lay there falling into and out of attempted sleep, closing her eyes and then wearily reopening them to focus on some object in the room while trying to moisten her parched lips with her tongue, I asked if she preferred some plain water. She motioned with a mock-angry nod of her head that she didn’t want any, and then tried to adjust herself on the bed so as to sit up a little more vertically. When she couldn’t manage she mumbled for me to help, and lifting her head and shoulders forward, I slipped another pillow behind her upper back and shoulders and lowered her onto it, as she tried again to take in a few deep half-breaths to express relief from the soreness.

For the past two hours I had been keeping her company in her private room on the second floor at Dandenong Hospital, just like yesterday and the day before. She had been transferred here from her bed in the public ward down the hallway, where she was brought to recover immediately after her emergency surgery at Monash Medical Centre. Apparently there was a shortage of beds there, and while still in excruciating pain, with drainage tubes coming out of her abdomen, she was loaded onto an ambulance and brought to Dandenong Hospital some fifteen kilometers away during the afternoon rush hour. I sat next to her all the way in the back, trying to reassure her that we would soon be there, as her moans got louder with each bump and turn in the road, until we finally arrived.

To pass the time, I flicked through the channels on the television up on the wall with the sound turned off; but it was all shit. But she insisted it be left on, even though she wasn’t watching. It was approaching nine-thirty and from the window I could see the hospital staff walking back to their cars in the lit-up parking lot having finished their shifts. The visitors in the public ward down the hallway had left hours ago in accordance with hospital regulations, but there was a tacit understanding between me and the nursing staff that I could stay for as long as I wished, although I had a feeling they didn’t like me hanging around too late.

My mother continued to fall into and out of short spells of light sleep, shifting her head while sighing and mumbling through half-hearted moans. I looked up at the message board above her bed, but I noticed something different about it. It had her surname on it as before, and the medication she was receiving, which was morphine. But in the very top slot, next to her name, there was a curious black square.

I recalled in the public ward, while she was still undergoing tests, that symbol had been a red diamond. I also noticed the intravenous line connected to the needle on the back of her left hand had been switched off; there was no fluid dripping in the chamber. I didn’t have to think hard to know what it all meant. I wondered if she had figured out what was going on; or were her perceptive faculties so clouded by the morphine infusing into her bloodstream, sapping her of any will to think or fight, that she no longer cared that people had given up trying to save her?

I decided to wait around till the nurse arrived to check on her condition before I left for the night; she usually came round just after ten. As I sat quietly watching the images on the television screen to the sound of her rapid half-breathing, I tried to imagine how it would feel to be without a mother. But her mumbled entreaties nudged me out of my thoughts and I turned to listen to what she was trying to say.

As she held out her arm and motioned to give her my hand, she was demanding my full attention. I obliged, and as she clasped it tight into her clammy palms I could feel how cold her fingers were, even though the room was quite warm and she was perspiring. It was an indication that her body was on the verge of irreversible shock. Despite the efforts of her heart beating furiously inside her chest, blood was being diverted from the periphery in a futile attempt to maintain her blood pressure, while at the same time sweat glands on her face and head were being activated to cool down her elevated core body temperature from the growing mass inside her, and the last ditch effort of her immune system to fight off the infection that had set in, in her peritoneal cavity. She squeezed my hand as strongly as she could and then attempted to lift it to her face, but lacked the necessary strength. I moved closer, and raising my hand in hers, she guided it to her face and held it there, squeezing it as tight as she could, and then pressed it onto her mouth to kiss with her dry lips.

I can’t remember exactly what thoughts were running through my head at that particular moment. Her actions brought up memories of her kissing and hugging me at the airport as I was about to fly out. She was sad to see me go on the one hand, but happy that I was returning to my job in the States, because as she always liked to remind me, “there is no shame in work,” as if there was no higher human virtue, even if it meant leaving one’s friends and family behind. But presently she was bidding me goodbye from her sickbed without the usual excitement, and there was no job for me to head back to overseas. I struggled to comprehend the poignancy of the moment. Why was she doing this now, when she hadn’t done so on previous nights? Did she already know, I wondered?

Abruptly she pushed away my hand and trying to affect that admonishing look she usually assumed whenever she wanted to exercise her maternal authority, she mumbled that I should go home at once and feed Max and Timothy, because they would be waiting in the dark, all hungry and cold. In her own mind, she still held sway over me, and with renewed though pained fervor, she demanded I do as she said. For a brief moment she seemed back to her normal self and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps her condition wasn’t as serious as it appeared, and she would soon be back home to resume her daily chores.

I said I would wait another ten minutes until the nurse arrived. But she was adamant I should leave at once and wait no longer. She said the nurse was going to come much later, probably close to midnight, and I should leave because she wanted to get some sleep. Obeying her order, I packed into my bag a book and some paperwork I’d brought but never resorted to, and before leaving, I made sure she was comfortable, adjusting the pillows and covers. As I did so, she held my hand up to her face once more, and then began nodding her head up and down while staring down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen, conveying her bitter disappointment at how things had turned out. She knew what the score was and she could do nothing but submit to her fate. Not even Αγία Βαρβάρα could now save her. Her miracle-working icon remained safe in the drawer next to her bed at home, awaiting her anticipated return, because the cold heathen surrounds of the departure room of Dandenong Hospital was no place for saints or martyrs.

As I looked down at her weary face, eyes flickering, I realized she had given me the signal. She no longer needed to sustain the pretence that she would soon be well enough to resume her domestic duties, like cooking, gardening, feeding Max and Timothy, going shopping, or sneaking off to join her so-called friends, worthless hags if truth be told, at the hotel-casino down by Holmesglen to try and win the jackpot on the slot machines, only to lose all her money and self-respect in the process. It was no longer necessary because the simple truth was all around. It filled every corner of that bare cold antechamber. She was to undergo an abrupt and irreversible change, and our mutual awareness was about to come to an end. I was going to leave her and she was going to leave me, forever.

My eyes began to moisten and well up as I felt a sudden release from my present concerns. Tears rolled down the side of my face and dripped off my chin. Perhaps she saw them, I don’t know, but she ordered me to leave at once. “Go now, quickly!” she said. “Go and get some sleep, and feed Max and Timothy. I’ll be all right. I want to get some sleep. Go!” She seemed pleased when I got to the door, having asserted her maternal authority over me, her disconsolate, contrarian, misanthropic son. Before I walked out of the room, I turned around to look at her lying up in bed for the last time as she mumbled for me to leave.

On my way out of the ward I passed the nurses’ bay and bade them good night. When I got downstairs, I wasn’t quite ready to get in my car and drive home, and I stopped at the chapel just inside the main entrance. Posted on framed plaques on the walls were quotations pertaining to death as well as to life, for this was also a maternity hospital. They were drawn from the scriptures of various religions, reflecting the multi-ethnic diversity of patients at Dandenong Hospital and the outer suburbs in general which it served. They were so trite, I thought, that they could have written by a ten year-old. They left me none the wiser about the meaning of death, nor did I find anything comforting in their words. I made my way around the rest of the displays intended to console the grieved, and stopped at a small fountain in the middle of the chapel trickling water into a bowl. According to the inscription on the plaque, it said it depicted death as absence among other abstractions.

I was wasting my time, I thought, because the only emotion I could feel was the lack of one. I decided it was time to head back home to be with Max and Timothy. They were sure to be patiently waiting for me in the living room in the dark, looking out for headlights coming up the driveway, united by their shared expectation that someone, I or my mother, would arrive at any minute to reward their patience and feed them. But all the way home on the freeway, all I could think about was that soon I would be left without a mother.

Early next morning, just after eight o’clock, the phone rang next to my bed. It was a nurse from Dandenong Hospital, one I hadn’t talked to before. She wanted to let me know that my mother had fallen into a coma overnight and was not responding to external stimuli. She said they didn’t know how long she would remain in that state; it could be hours or longer. I said I would try and get there in the next hour and after hanging up I phoned my sister to pass on the news.

When I got there, I found her and her husband, as well as my older cousin sitting around my mother’s bed. She was in a coma all right, eyes shut, oblivious of anyone and anything, breathing very rapidly in short shallow gasps, interrupted every half a minute or so by an attempt to inspire more deeply, as if she were drowning and trying to take in a big gulp of air before sinking back under.

I don’t know what came over me, perhaps the non-descript anger I felt which had been building up inside me since I received the call in the morning had relieved me of my usual inhibitions and decorum, and I got up and, standing by her bed, reached down to feel her ashen face and hands. They were as cold as the metal bed frame. Then without any hesitation, I pried open her eyelids with my fingers to see that her pupils were fully dilated and she failed to blink at all when I lightly touched their purplish blue corneas with the tip of my finger. As I looked into her deathened eyes which once supplied her with a view of the world and which for whoever knew her served as a window into her soul, there was something alluring about the detached serenity they conveyed.

To all intents and purposes, save for her short, shallow irregular breathing, she was already dead. As I took a seat next to the others, I felt my anger growing. I was angry at myself for being in this situation, and angry at the fact that my mother was going to die a cold death in a foreign land, of an illness that seemed to come out of nowhere. I tried to conceal my rage, although I suspect the obviously manic state I was in had already alarmed the others into a fearful silence, not daring to say anything lest I be provoked into loud outbursts, or worse.

A nurse walked in to check the syringe in the infusion pump under the sheets, and in response to a question from my older cousin, which I thought, perhaps somewhat hypocritically on my part, betrayed a lack of respect for the solemnity of the circumstances, she said she had no idea when my mother would stop breathing altogether. “It could be minutes or it could be hours,” she said. With that, we all decided to go down to the cafeteria for a coffee, after which I drove back home, while my sister along with her husband and my cousin Rania went back up to the room to keep vigil.

Just as I arrived at the house, I heard the phone ringing inside. I rushed in to answer it and it was my sister. She told me that when they returned to my mother’s room she had already stopped breathing and the doctor had pronounced her dead.

By the time I got back to the hospital again, my mother’s face was as dry as chalk and had begun to take on a pale sallow hue. The morphine line had been removed from her arm and as I looked down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen and at her swollen arms by her side I needed no explanation for what had happened. I kept my thoughts to myself, but my anger now returned. It was directed at the doctors and nurses, two of whom, both Philippinos, who, judging by their ready show of compassion with their sober countenances and demeanor, seemed accustomed to dealing with the relatives of the just deceased, had come in as if on cue to offer their condolences, saying how much they would like to attend the funeral. 

They were accompanied by one of the doctors, a junior resident, balding with glasses, who stood at the door affecting blank sympathy, looking down at the floor and saying nothing. He had been looking after my mother for the past few days in the absence of the senior doctor who was not much older than him and had mysteriously vanished after my mother was transferred out of the public ward to this room. And the tall fat senior nurse who’d checked the morphine pump in the morning, and who rarely spoke and showed no emotion, she wasn’t anywhere to be seen either. “How could she show her face,” I thought, “after what she’d done, when no one was here to see.” And given the mood I was in, it was just as well.

There was nothing more for us to do except pack up my mother’s personal belongings and bedclothes from the cupboard and leave. The body that was once my mother, her mortal corporeal shell, lay there cold and still on the bed, eyes closed. The nurses assured us they would take care of it and contact us the next day or Monday about picking it up for funeral arrangements. We all then stood up and left, going our separate ways, I back home to Max and Timothy, trying to put on a brave face, which was nothing more than a cover for the altogether novel sensation I was feeling of being without a father and now without a mother, a middle-aged orphan with no-one to scold me and tell me what to do.

The following day one of the doctors called. It was the young female doctor with an annoyingly grating Australian accent whom I caught flirting with her bald-headed fellow resident at the end of my mother’s bed one day in the public ward, while their senior colleague was looking over the charts and trying to explain in layman’s terms somewhat condescendingly the course of action available to us. I gave them both a stern look to convey my disgust, after which they stopped like a pair of clueless horny imbeciles.

In an arrogant, imperious tone, she said she called to ask me if I could go to the city morgue in South Melbourne where my mother’s body had been transferred, and identify her. Well that did it, and I exploded in anger down the phone. I let fly such a barrage of expletives at her and her colleagues for their incompetence in handling the necessary paperwork, threatening to sue them and the hospital, when they had assured us they required nothing more from us, that she had to cut short the call, her voice trembling with fear, while I took satisfaction from having made her seriously consider changing careers and opening up a hair salon.

I once had a mother, and before that I also had a father. But now those from whom I came are no more, and there is only me.

(Melbourne, 2010)

Before I completely lose my ability to reflect logically and coherently, I should say a word or two about the Vlachs, who they are and what distinguishes them from other populations in the Balkans. I should state at the outset that I closely identify with them, having parents who speak, or in the case of my father, once spoke the Vlach language, or Vlach for short, and therefore are, or were, in essence Vlachs. My grandparents also spoke Vlach, and I dare say their parents did as well, etc., etc., although beyond them my ancestry is rather obscure. Despite my undeniable Vlach heritage, I constantly ask myself whether or not I too am Vlach given that I have only a vague aural appreciation of the language which, as I elaborate below, is the main distinguishing characteristic of Vlachness, as it were.

At this point I should also say something about the word “Vlach” itself. Apparently it is said to be derived from an early Roman word, onomatopoeic for the bleating of sheep (the first letter was originally an “f” and the last syllable drawn out to more closely mimic the sheep’s cry). It was used by townspeople to refer condescendingly to shepherds and other rural folk in the Italian provinces, and was then adopted as a general term for the inhabitants of the regions colonized by the Romans, undergoing regional modification on the way, including “wallach” and “volokh” in eastern Europe, “fellah” in Egypt and the Middle-East, and “walsh” and “wolch” in Britain and Germany. The term “Vlachs” as applied to rural tribes in the Balkans only appears in history roundabout the 11th century and was`used to distinguish speakers of Latin dialects from Greeks, that is, speakers of the Greek language, or dialects thereof. One would assume Latin-speaking tribes existed throughout the Balkans well before then, mainly in inland regions, since Greeks living on the coast largely resisted Latinization. But since Roman historians were mainly concerned with chronicling the lives of prominent citizens and officials, including Emperors, and the exploits of the Roman military, there was no reason to report on these common folk.

The collapse of the Empire which entered its terminal phase around the 6th or 7th seventh century ensured the Vlachs’ historical obscurity, as anarchy gradually descended over the Balkans. As a result many retreated up into the mountains where they settled into a transhumant existence as shepherds and small-scale producers of animal-derived goods such as cheese and various handicrafts, and were largely self-sufficient. It was only after the Byzantines assumed sovereignty over the Balkan region roundabout the 11th century that Vlachs finally came to historical notice. No doubt this had to do with the fact that the Byzantines could not ignore the preponderance of Latin speakers in Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia, who had since come down from the mountains, and begun to settle in the plains and towns, such that the region Thessaly came to be known as “Greater Wallachia”, that is, “the land of Vlachs.” But in allusion to their Roman heritage, the Vlachs actually referred by a different moniker, that being “Aromanians” (a combination of the prefix “a-“, meaning “from” or “out of” or “after” in Latin; and “romani” which means Roman; that is, “of Romans”), perhaps to distance themselves from a term the Romans had used on them pejoratively.

With the retreat of the Byzantines from the Balkans in the 14th century, and the coming of the Ottomans, the word “Vlach” gradually shed its arguably negative connotation, probably because Vlachs now enjoyed equal status with other subject groups like the Greeks. In fact, as Ottoman rule was consolidated, their standing to some extent surpassed that of Greeks, since the Latin dialect they spoke was intelligible with the Romance languages of the trading partners of the Ottomans in the West, and educated Vlachs were looked upon as valuable intermediaries. Following the downfall and withdrawal of the Ottomans in the mid to late 1800s, Vlachs fell out of favor in the “modern” Greek state and were subject to widespread persecution by vengeful Greeks resentful of their perceived favoritism under the Ottomans, despite the fact that the vast majority were fellow Orthodox Christians, and Greek citizens. The word “Vlach” once again acquired its old connotation and was used as a tern of abuse against these Latin speakers, who, since the schism within Christianity, were still identified with the despised Latins, inviting suspicion and distrust. Suffice it to say, discrimination continued well into the late 20th century, such that the word “Vlach” or βλάχος in Greek, still retains a bitter stigmatic quality.

Below, in this far-from-complete exposition, I wish to expand on the above brief outline of the history of Vlachs, including the process by which their Latinization might have occurred, and their relationship with the Roman colonists that facilitated it, as well as their relationship with Greeks, and along the way address questions regarding their differentness, or otherwise. My treatment of this topic is based on my own conjectural theories and some not so wild speculations which draw on various published anthropological and historical studies, as well as evidence which may well turn up in the future, what I like to refer to as “speculative evidence.” As such, even though I have aimed to approach the subject objectively, it is unavoidably colored by my own views and prejudices, of which I admit I may not be fully aware, as they pertain to my own upbringing and life against a changing landscape of language and culture.

In relation to my own Vlach heritage, I could if I was so inclined attempt to trace my origins further back than my grandfather’s father. But I find ancestral lineages of no real consequence. So what if my great-great-grandfather was a rich merchant and kept residences in Vienna and Moschopolis, dividing his time between Austria and the Balkans, travelling in comfort and staying in opulent luxury, dining in the finest restaurants and rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful. How much of a difference would that make to my life at present from, say, if I discovered instead that he was a landless peasant who died dirt poor and destitute, and was buried in a common grave? Or if the person credited as being my great-great-grandfather was not in fact my biological great-great-grandfather because the latter was a terrae filius, and any attempt to trace my ancestry through him would come to a dead end.

In the first scenario, I might be buoyed by the aristocratic connection and wallow in the knowledge that I was destined to gravitate towards power and privilege. This might explain my apparent snobbishness, although I believe there’s a perfectly rational explanation for my shunning of crowds. And that is, it’s largely a defense mechanism to protect me against contagion by infectious agents, seeing I have a congenitally low white blood-cell count. As to possible connections with the rich and famous among my forebears, I’ve managed to dig up some information from the not too distant past in the form of a letter which alludes to such a possibility.

The letter was written by one Giorgio Vongolis, dated 1856, and is addressed to Giosue Carducci in Florence, who happened to be the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature in 1906. Well, it wasn’t the actual letter I came across, but a record of it on an internet web page that listed all the items of correspondence between this Italian man of letters and his many acquaintances, one of whom happened to be Giorgio Vongolis, whose surname is one of the forms in which my own surname has been transliterated into English over the years. Thus one has to assume he was a distant relative, either a manifold great grandfather or uncle, probably the latter. Unfortunately, my discovery came too late for my father to shed any light on the matter.

I’ve tried to contact the curators of the website in Italy to get a copy of the letter, but my requests have gone unanswered. I would have liked to read it not only for its content, to find out the nature of their relationship, and whether or not Giorgio Vongolis lived in Florence, or just where he lived; but also to analyze his style of writing and organization of thoughts on the page to gain some insight into his character and personality, and see if there’s anything I recognize. I assume the letter is written in Italian, in which case I would have to consider getting it translated into English. I thought about writing to the museum on Harvard letterhead and posting it in an envelope stamped with the Harvard logo; that way I’m sure to get a response. As much as I don’t like to admit it, my discovery of this letter did fill me with mild pride that perhaps my artistic and intellectual bent, albeit stifled and under-developed, may not be without precedent. It also stimulated my interest in my ancestry, and by extension, the roots of Vlachs and their Italian, or rather, Roman connection. But in my defense, this interest is driven purely by curiosity rather than any desire to assuage my vanity. In any case, since this present exposition on the origin of Vlachs is written from a personal perspective, perhaps I should say a little bit about myself.

I was born in Greece on the 21st April 1961, in the city of Larisa, the capital of the province of Thessaly. Unlike my peers among my cousins, my birth took place in a hospital. According to my maternal grandmother, being the first child, the doctors suspected complications with my delivery, and my mother was taken to the hospital when my birth appeared imminent. I don’t know whether or not complications did in fact arise, but when I was about five years old my grandmother told me that I was born with a large head, which perplexed me, not knowing whether this was good or bad. However, because she said it with a look of disappointment and sadness in her voice, I gathered it wasn’t such a desirable attribute, which leads me to suspect it could well have contributed to a difficult delivery for my mother.

The issue came up when I was trying on a yellow pullover my grandmother had just finished knitting in time for winter. I was having trouble getting my head through the neck opening, and despite my protestations it was too small, she was determined to get my head through it, and forcibly tugged down on the shoulders while I tried to keep my neck straight, which nearly snapped in the process, being violently jerked every which way. When I finally managed to poke my head through the hole, it was so tight I thought I was going to choke and began to cry loudly. Immediately she scolded me to stop bawling and threatened to smack me, saying she’d spent months knitting it, and with a touch of anger in her voice, sternly added that it was all my fault, because I had a big head, before reassuring me the neck would stretch out with wear. Since none of my friends brought it up, I soon forgot about my supposedly large head, and wore my new pullover with pride, despite the tight neck.

Although my grandmother was generally very giving of herself, and in fact, more or less raised me up until we left Greece at the end of 1968, bound for Australia, she’s always had this vindictive streak in her, whereby she derives perverse pleasure from cutting down anyone she feels the slightest enmity towards, for reasons best known only to herself, regardless of their age or innocence, and afterwards pretends she meant nothing by it. Her accusations usually center on the person’s physical appearance and attributes, but also on their mental makeup as she sees it, either or both of which reflect some immutable intrinsic flaws they’re stuck with. I think it’s her way of putting out of her own mind thoughts about her own shortcomings; or it could well be an indication of an underlying obsessive psychosis in her.

Although over the years I’ve learned to brush off her extemporaneous verbal jabs, some from my childhood remain deeply embedded in my memory, reinforced by events later on that strongly alluded to the veracity of her initial observations, like her remark about my large head.

In this particular case, the issue resurfaced unexpectedly some ten years later when I was in my teens. I was now living ten thousand miles away in Australia, in a suburb of Melbourne, and one day, although I can’t remember the exact circumstances, a girl in my high school class sitting behind me commented out loud so everyone could hear, that I had a disproportionately large head, at which my face promptly turned bright red as I was informed by everyone staring at me, inviting further ridicule. Immediately I recalled my grandmother’s remark and realized she was not lying. In fact, when I got home and looked over some old black and white photographs in our family photo album, taken when I was an infant, the evidence was right there. In one particular picture in which my sister and I are lying prostrate on a blanket laid out on the grass on a sunny day, stark naked (I must have been four years old at the time, and she two), my head does look considerably larger than hers, which is of normal size in relation to the rest of her body, while mine looks like a melon attached to a fat surly grub. As a result of this girl’s unwelcome reminder, all through high school I couldn’t fully shake off my self-consciousness over the size of my head.

The matter died down for a while after I finished high school, until I came across an article in the library at university. I had just started on my Honours year of an undergraduate bioscience degree and was researching the literature to find out what was known about the anatomy and physiology of the choledocho-duodenal junction, a muscular sphincteric structure that controls the flow of bile into the upper small intestine of mammals, on which I planned to write my thesis and conduct further experiments in guinea-pigs. I was chasing up a reference published in a medical journal from the early 1900s which was shelved up in the stacks, and an article unrelated to my field caught my attention. In those days, medical journals were not as specialized as they are nowadays, and published articles of a wider general medical interest across scientific disciplines, including the social sciences and anthropology.

I can’t recall the title of this particular article, but it concerned the relationship between intelligence and the sizes and shapes of the heads of various groups of people inhabiting the Balkans, which was the reason it caught my attention, because I’m sure if the subjects were people living in the jungles of New Guinea or Borneo, for example, I probably would have ignored it. Initially I was somewhat surprised to find a study of this nature in a medical journal, next to articles on the hormonal control of gallbladder contraction in dogs, and surgical procedures for alleviated biliary colic. But then I remembered that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, phrenology was an accepted science attached to the fledgling discipline of genetics, and the evolutionary theories of Darwin, whose purpose was to establish phenomenological correlations between various mental faculties, including intelligence, and physical features of the skull, in people from different races, ethnicities and even social classes. Although there was no mention of eugenics in the article, since science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s very likely studies of this nature would have been inspired to some extent by racialist beliefs and theories current throughout society at the time, especially among the middle and upper classes in the industrialized countries of the West and northern Europe, and were looking for empirical evidence for these latter peoples’ technological and organizational superiority.

At the time, the Balkans were considered a wild frontier, inhabited by uncivilized, backward people, whom even the Ottomans feared, and who were seen as ideal subjects for anthropologists to find supporting evidence for their racialist theories. I can’t recall which country the authors of this particular study were from; it was either England or America, or both. But their results showed that there was not only a difference between the size of the heads of people in the Balkans compared to those of northern Europeans, but there was also geographic variation within the Balkans itself, whereby brachycephaly, or the condition of having a larger than normal sized cranium, was more prevalent among people living in the mountainous interior, in the region of Montenegro, between Croatia and Albania, than people living along the Dalmatian coast. Thus, their results seemed to confirm the notion that, because brachycephaly featured prominently among backward, illiterate mountain-dwellers, it was an anatomical indication of a less evolved human archetype.

Although my grandmother could not possibly have come across terms like eugenics, or phrenology, or physiognomy for that matter, I’m sure she and many of her generation subscribed to their own folk versions. And could she read English, she would probably have concurred with the findings of this particular study. But her reading and writing never developed beyond a rudimentary knowledge of the Greek alphabet which she used to scribble down phonetically her desultory thoughts at the bottom of my aunt’s letters to us in Australia, in a mixture of Vlach and Greek, dispensing with all punctuation. Although not quite as pithy or calligraphic, her messages resembled those terse inscriptions one comes across at the base of ancient Greek monuments, where one word runs into the next and sentences are unbroken, a window, perhaps, on the stalled literacy of Vlachs of her generation from the war and interwar period, and even earlier.

Nevertheless, she and women of her generation must have known from their own orally transmitted compendium of accumulated old wives’ tales which, as history’s shown, are not all myths, about the link between brachycephaly and intelligence. That was why she was so determined to rectify my apparent deformity, ordering me to keep still and quiet while she massaged and pressed on my skull like some dough with her fingers and palms, almost on a daily basis. She did so, not only for my own sake, but for a very selfish reason, and this was to save herself and my mother from the odium of having a child in the family with a large head, which would cast aspersions not only on my own intelligence, but on her family’s supposed flawless bloodline, and cause people to think they were descended from dumb fat-headed yokels.

As far as the aforementioned study is concerned, although there was no break-down in the sub-ethnicities of subjects, it wouldn’t surprise me if Vlachs figured among them, because Latin-speakers were known to inhabit the region between Croatia and Albania, one to two hundred years ago. If so, this raises the question of whether brachycephaly has a higher incidence among Vlachs compared to other groups in the Balkans. From my own passing observations, I very much doubt this, because Vlachs are quite a diverse lot in terms of their physical characteristics, and as I elaborate on below, they may not necessarily derive from a single Latinized population, that is, from a circumscribed region, and may constitute more of a sociologically and linguistically defined grouping, than a distinct racial entity. However, this doesn’t exclude the possibility they may share certain physical traits that distinguish them from non-Vlachs, so to speak. But brachycephaly would not appear to be one of them.

As far as their physical diversity is concerned, there’s no better example of this than among my own living relatives. Out to my second and third cousins, one would be hard-pressed to conclude we are at all related, when at one end of the spectrum, there are tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed individuals; while at the other, there are dark-skinned, brown-eyed representatives with curly, coarse black hair; and everything in between, with heads of various shapes and sizes, none particularly large. If indeed I do have a larger than normal head, then the only person in whom I can see any resemblance in this respect is my maternal uncle, which leads me to suspect this might have been the reason my grandmother was so obsessed with the issue, seeing her own son was born with it, and was determined to prevent its manifestation in me.

While still in my teens, to allay my self-consciousness over my large head, I indulged in my own eugenicist fantasies, although I had yet to come across that particular term. Instead of seeing my supposedly large head as a regressive trait, I now looked upon it as a sign of advanced intelligence, which I based on the notion that a larger cranium implied a larger brain, and since brain size relative to body mass was an index of intelligence in animals, this meant my intelligence was higher than average. But when I observed that some people in my class with smaller heads, including the girl who pointed out my own large one, scored higher in tests and essays, the validity of my argument suffered a blow. However, as I later appreciated, after finishing high school and entering university, one needs to train one’s brain in how to be intelligent, and thus, no matter how large, it will simply develop to meet the intellectual needs of the individual concerned, in their specific environment, and once the mould is set, so to speak, further training is of no use.

Such is its plasticity that in the case of a person with a larger than normal brain who is raised in isolation and has no need for spoken language, a large part of it will end up being utilized for purposes other than language. If this person happens to be a jungle dweller, this includes using the brain to store visual information to memorize the intricate paths through the jungle, or to work out the significance of sounds and smells through extensive association in order to find sources of food, or to know from the position of the sun and stars what the coming weather will be like days in advance. This knowledge will be encoded in the unique language of his brain, since he has no need to verbalize and share it with anyone.

I dare say a modern, civilized, educated human being with a smaller brain than our jungle savage, but with much greater language skills, would turn out to be much more “intelligent” by comparison, as measured by standardized tests. This is because he would have learned a lot more “useful” information from his parents and instructors through the medium of language at an early age, since language enables knowledge to be distilled into symbols, that is, words, combinations of which can be stored compactly in memory, or recorded in writing, without having to store vast amounts of minute details. Thus, words and sentences are a bit like mathematical symbols and formulas which encode knowledge and relationships, without the need to know how to derive them. In my own case, had my brain been properly nurtured in a structured manner from a young age, with language and culture, I could well have been a genius and fulfilled my parents’ wildly optimistic ambitions. But I digress.

As for my larger-than-normal head at birth, there may also be a pathological explanation which may or may not have left a lasting legacy. It could well have been the result of an illness I contracted in the womb which caused the ventricles in my developing brain to expand, a condition known as hydrocephalus. This is caused by blockage of the outflow of cerebrospinal fluid produced by cells lining the ventricles. This fluid normally flows out through canals at the base of the brain, to circulate up and down the spinal cord. But when these canals become constricted due to inflammation through infection, injury, or tumors, it leads to an increase in pressure within the ventricles, which then begin to expand. This in turn leads to compression of the brain tissue against the skull, which in the developing fetus, increases in size to accommodate the enlarged ventricular volume. While all this is happening, blood vessels in and surrounding the brain are compressed, compromising the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the developing brain. The end result is that many neurons in this critical developmental period die off, and the newborn comes into the world with a drastic diminution in cognitive capacity. In fact, according to the literature, enlarged ventricles in adults, but not necessarily enlarged heads, is positively correlated with schizophrenia. But whether or not this applies in my case, I’m not sure, because I’ve never had the volume of my ventricles measured in a magnetic resonance scanner. But if they did turn out to be larger than normal, it might explain the fact that I often feel frustrated with who I am, and have only above-average intelligence, when I feel I should have been much smarter.

In any case, I was born with a slightly larger than normal head, as my grandmother and photographs can attest to, to a Vlach-speaking mother and father, in a hospital in Larisa, the capital of Thessaly. My parents actually lived in Tirnavos, a town situated some fifteen kilometers north-west, with a population of about 10,000, and this was where I spent my “formative years” as Marie would say (Marie is someone obsessed with social status). My mother and father, however, were born and raised in different villages about five kilometers apart, and ten kilometers north-east of Tirnavos, on the foothills of Mt. Olympus. I know next to nothing of the circumstances of their betrothal, and I’m afraid if I dig too deep into it I might uncover things best left buried. Suffice it to say, their marriage was predicated on the transfer of assets, the bulk of which came from my father’ side, which has always been a source of mute resentment from them, because traditionally the wife brings more with her than the husband in the form of a substantial dowry. But since my mother’s family had few possessions, her father having died when she was a child, her contribution was minimal, and my father’s family believes he was duped into marrying her for his wealth, relatively speaking.

I dare say their marriage was also predicated on a degree of love and affection, which I feel would be a violation of my father’s eternal privacy if not dignity to explore, seeing he is no longer alive. Suffice it to say, my maternal aunt Katina told me he was quite smitten by my mother the day he first laid eyes on her, she being in her early twenties and he in his mid-thirties. I know little about my father’s life before he married, and what I’ve learned has come from anecdotes told by my mother and grandmother, and various other relatives in Greece, on my irregular visits. One such story concerns an incident that took place in the mid-1950s, and it stuck in my head because it offered some rare insight not only into my father’s character, but also into my maternal grandmother’s apparent antipathy towards him.

He was then in his late twenties, a veteran of the Greek contingent to the Korean War. But he’d been discharged from the army under a cloud, and had trouble finding regular work in Tirnavos and Larisa. And with his father having passed away during the war, he returned to live in the village and take care of the family’s sheep and olive groves. One day, as he was out herding the sheep up in the mountains, he was attacked by a fox. According to his older brother who was with him, the fox bit my father on the arm which left a deep gash. The wound however failed to heal and subsequently became infected, and got so bad that he had to be taken to the hospital in Larisa for treatment. But the infection failed to respond to antibiotics and with gangrene starting to set in, it seemed the only option left to the doctors was to amputate his entire limb at the shoulder. My uncle said that when my father heard this he declared he would rather die than be left without an arm, and got up, walked out of the hospital in agony, and went back home in the village to await his fate.

As a last resort, he was taken to a local practitioner of folk medicine, nowadays he’d be called a naturopath. This healer dressed his wound with extracts from various plants gathered from the mountains and surrounding forests, bandaged it up, and after several such treatments, the wound on his arm miraculously began to heal. Thus my father’s arm was saved. However, although retaining full function of his hand and fingers, he lost a lot of muscle tissue in his upper arm and forearm and was left with a long unsightly scar from above his elbow down to his wrist. Afterwards, among those who didn’t know the story, this fuelled various rumors, the nastiest of which was that it was an abnormality he was born with, something akin to club foot of the arm.

A firm believer in this rumor, if not its instigator, was none other than my maternal grandmother, as I learned when she came to stay with us in Australia in the mid-1970s. In one of her capricious and self-indulgent spiteful turns, she described to me one day when my father wasn’t around, how shocked she and her family were to discover that her cherished daughter had married a cripple, when they saw for the first time my father’s emaciated and scarred left forearm when he rolled up his sleeves to lead the dancing at the reception after the wedding. Although I found her account of her discovery and reaction rather repugnant, seeing it concerned my own father, I had no reason to doubt her, since he himself had never talked about how his arm got that way. Thus, I too came to believe that it was due to a physical deformity of some sort.

Not that I thought about my father’s mangled forearm all that often, except when I saw him trying to grip objects and his thumb couldn’t quite bend enough. But I never had reason to question my grandmother’s explanation. That was until my paternal uncle, the one who had been out herding with him, told me the story about the fox, a few years later on my first visit back to Greece in 1979. I can’t recall what prompted him to relate the story. I suspect it may have had something to do with fact that he and the rest of my father’s brothers had written him out of his inheritance after marrying my dowry-less mother, and my uncle was now trying to expiate his guilt by portraying my father as a brave and courageous fighter who had suffered more than his fair share of troubles which life had thrown at him. But I suspect he also fancied himself as a bit of a raconteur – this being before television in the village, and people spent their evenings telling each other stories.

In any case, he proceeded to describe what had happened that day and its aftermath in such detail and with such apparent frankness, that immediately I realized this was in fact the truth behind my father’s scarred and emaciated left forearm, and that my grandmother’s explanation was nothing more than a sheer lie, whether of her own invention or others’. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why she would want to malign my father by spreading such a vicious lie, and I had to seriously contemplate the likelihood she was indeed severely demented, just as I had suspected when one day, having become depressed with life in Melbourne when she was staying with us, she took off from our house without telling anyone, believing that if she kept walking, she would eventually find her way back to Greece. But luckily we found her wandering around aimlessly not far from the house, lost.

I should state that although my relationship with my father lacked an overt intimacy, he wasn’t tyrannical or over-bearing in any sense. It was just that he maintained this steadfast emotional aloofness to which I became accustomed. Then one day he died and I realized I knew very little about him. There were so many things I wanted to ask him, in particular, what he knew about his forebears, and what he made of his Vlach identity, or whether he even thought about it. He left behind no writings as such, except for a sparsely annotated army diary from his time in Korea, in 1952-53, in that small, tight script of his, now largely faded and illegible, although at some point it appears he tried to go over it with a ball-point pen before his notes disappeared altogether. And the few letters he wrote to me in Greek when I moved to the States in my late twenties, which were probably the closest he ever came to communicating with me on a personal level, I discarded after reading, because invariably they contained the same old platitudes and advice, as if he had long ago exhausted his reserves of fatherliness, and for my part, I wanted as little a reminder as possible of his cold distance. I suppose if I’d kept them, I could have gone back to them to analyze his style of writing and the nuances of the words he used, including those he crossed out so I wouldn’t read what he’d changed his mind about, and the order he laid out his meager thoughts on the page, and I could have gained some further insight into his character. But like him, those letters are no more.

I’m also reluctant to approach my aunts and uncles in Greece for more information. I get the impression that, for whatever reason, they too don’t want to discuss the past. I’ve had some success, however, with my cousin Vassiliki who is four years older than me, and with whom I feel a close affinity. I suspect this dates back to my childhood in Greece when we used to visit her family in the village and sometimes stay overnight. By then, my aunt Katina had conditionally accepted my mother as her sister-in-law, and it was something which transpired on one particular visit when I was about six that left a lasting impression and which I feel contributed to forging an extra-corporeal, dare I say, a strange mystical bond between me and Vassiliki, more so than with any of my other cousins.

It was a warm late summer evening and we were all gathered inside her house, the grown-ups talking away, in Vlach, while my sister and I were eating our sweets served to us, as Vassiliki kept us entertained with her drawings and stories. It was starting to get dark, when suddenly, Vassiliki, looking visibly excited, grabbed me and my sister by our hands and took us outside, as if to show us something. In the semi-darkness, she led us along a dirt road that ran at the back of their house, and after a short walk, we arrived at the village football pitch where we climbed down the embankment to be met by a small crowd of children at the bottom. She had brought us to watch a Punchinello-type show her younger brother and his friends were putting on, and the dozen or so children from the neighborhood were all gathered in front of a makeshift screen consisting of a white sheet hung from a curtain rod and some candles as sources of back-lighting. Then, when it was sufficiently dark, the show began in earnest, and we all eagerly sat and watched the silhouettes of caricatures drawn from Greek and Turkish folktales, the main one being the elderly Karagioz, prancing across the screen, shouting and arguing in a strange voice with the other figures. The show finally came to a climax with all the characters beating one another over the head to the accompaniment of raucous laughter from the captive audience.

I remember thinking how silly and primitive the whole thing was, from the poor quality of the puppets, to the untidy way the sheet was hung, and the fact that we had to sit out on the damp ground and get our clothes dirty. It was a far cry from the open-air cinema in Tirnavos my parents would take me to on Saturday nights, all dressed up, to watch the black-and-white feature films, Greek as well Italian and French and American, on the towering screen. There, one could sit down on proper chairs and drink a cold fizzy soda through a straw, or have an ice-cream at the intermission, something my cousins in the village had yet to experience, I was sure. Despite my reservations, however, I couldn’t resist being swept into my cousins’ and their friends’ enthusiastic laughter and enjoyment of the show. Subconsciously, I think there and then I recognized there was something genuine and honest about the quaint simplicity of their crude home-made entertainment into which they wanted to draw me and my sister and share with us, so that we too may experience their joy and happiness. In the end, I think it was this unashamed and uncomplicated openness which endeared me so much to Vassiliki.

Another reason I feel a connectedness with her is the fact that, just as she recognizes something of my father in me, and by implication, perhaps something of herself, there’s something about her own physical appearance, and perhaps her emotional make-up as well, that strikes a deep and mysterious chord in me as well. It sounds strange, but it’s as if I’m looking at my father, but as a younger woman, but also at my own self. In fact, I see in her more of myself than I do in my sister. That could be because my sister’s a non-descript amalgam of my mother and father, resembling neither to any clearly discernible degree, whereas I’ve often been told how much I look and take after my father, but surprisingly, how I also resemble my mother in certain respects. Perhaps because she doesn’t possess any readily recognizable features of either, my sister has never attracted the same level of interest and affection from my relatives on both sides. And, by the same token, seeing little of herself in them, she’s subconsciously pushed them out of her own mind, which may explain why she feels less of an attachment to her kin all round.

In any case, I’ve learned from Vassiliki that her village of Argyropoulion in Thessaly, or Caragioli as it’s known in Vlach, spelt Καρατζιόλι in Greek, which is also my father’s, was settled by the descendants of the present-day Vlach inhabitants back in the 1880s. At the time, Thessaly had just become incorporated into the newly formed independent kingdom of Greece to the south, but the neighboring mountainous regions of Epirus to the north-west and Macedonia to the north, as well as Albania, were still under Ottoman control. According to her father, who died of bone cancer about fifteen years ago, the first Vlachs to settle in Argyropoulion, in this “modern” wave, consisted of three main families or clans, those being my father’s grandfather’s family, her father’s grandfather’s family, and another family to whom I am probably also distantly related. These three founder families arrived from a place somewhere in northern Epirus which doesn’t show up on any map, but it was near the present Greece-Albania border. This was after they were granted land next to the village where they settled into a semi-nomadic existence, the men folk turning to sheep-herding and animal husbandry as their main occupations, while others worked as carriers, and the women stayed at home and made cheeses and weaved woolen handicrafts like blankets and rugs and clothes, for themselves and to sell at markets around Tirnavos and Larisa.

She didn’t say why they left their home up north, and with all their worldly belongings packed on the backs of mules, moved 200-odd kilometers south to Thessaly. I would think they were already acquainted with the area through their regular visits to the markets. So when they learned the village and surrounding region were to be ceded to Greece and the resident Turkish population repatriated, they decided to go and stake their claim. Apart from having their own plot of land, another motivation to go settle there would have been to escape the constant threat of social and political upheaval in Epirus which was still rife with revolt and plagued by banditry and lawlessness. In addition, by settling on the Greek side of the new border, it meant they could avoid paying tariffs when transporting their goods to market towns in Thessaly, now part of Greece.

Although my father’s village is now officially known as Argyropoulion, to Vlachs it’s still referred to by its Ottoman name of Caragioli. This name is said to be derived from the Turkish “Qara-chul” which translates to “black burnt desert”, a reference which is not immediately clear, although some claim the name refers to the dry barrenness of the surrounding land. The Turkish connection has its roots in the 11th century when mercenaries from the region of Konya in what is now southern Turkey were sent to Thessaly by the Byzantine ruler Alexius Comnenus as part of a military force to repel the invading Normans. With the Normans repulsed, many of these mercenaries ended up staying, and later, when the area came under Ottoman rule in the 14th century, they were joined by a new stream of settlers, also from the region of Konya. These new immigrants were granted land in the rich agricultural plain around Larisa, displacing the existing Greek as well as Vlach inhabitants, who were suddenly reduced to landless peasants, or rayas, having to work for the Turks, and not allowed to own any property.

Under the protection and with the blessing of the Ottomans, these new Turkish settlers established villages on or near existing Greek ones, Caragioli being one of them, which rose up near the site of the ancient Greek town of Elote, which appears in the writings of Homer. Thus, because of the Turkish settler connection, villages like Caragioli came to be known as “Koniaric” villages down the years, and are still referred to as such.

As for Konya itself, ir was a major city at the height of the Roman Empire in the 2nd 3rd centuries A.D., being situated on the main overland route between Europe and the Middle-East. Among the emperors who ruled in this period was Caracalla, famous for his edict that granted Roman citizenship to all free residents living within the reaches of the Empire, to counter the rising influence of Christianity. Given the tradition of honoring emperors and consuls by naming cities and towns after them, I wonder whether Caragioli, or a variation thereof, may not be a corruption of the Caracalla, the emperor, and originally may have been the name of a town near Konya from where a large portion of the Turkish settlers sent to Thessaly by the Ottomans originated, and who conferred this same name on their new settlement as a reminder of home, as is often the case with colonists sent to remote foreign lands.

Another possible origin of the name Caragioli could be from the word “Karachul“, which is the name of a Turkic tribe that overran what is now eastern Turkey back in the 12th century. Since their invasion took place well after the Roman Empire had collapsed and broken up, and Turkic tribes like the Karachul, one would think originated from too far north in central-East Asia to have come into contact with the Romans in their history, it would be logical to assume the word “Karachul” is of Turkic origin, although one cannot rule out Roman cultural and linguistic influences upon Turkic tribes that had settled in regions previously colonized by the Romans in the near East. But in relation to the mercenaries sent to Thessaly by the Ottomans from Konya, it’s possible they were actually of Karachul origin who had previously settled around Konya, perhaps in a village that bore their tribal name. And once in Thessaly, they conferred their tribal name, or the name of their village in their homeland, on their new settlement, which with the passage of time became known as Caragioli, or Καρατζιόλι, since under the Ottomans, Greek remained the lingua franca in Thessaly.

Following the withdrawal of the Ottomans in the 1880s, and the repatriation of the majority of Turks, Caragioli was renamed Argyropoulion (Αργυροπούλιον), perhaps to underscore the fact that it now belonged to the new independent Christian kingdom of Greece. As for the meaning of this particular name, my own translation of it is “silver town”, given that “argyro” means silver or white in Greek, and “poulion” means market or town, which accords with the fact that Caragioli was once in fact a center of commerce in the area. The “silver” may well refer to the surrounding granite mountains, or silver ore that was mined in the area in ancient times. Or else, it may refer to the whiteness of the broad snow-covered summit of Mt. Olympus which stands as a year-round backdrop to the village. But the fact that Vlachs still refer to it as Καρατζιόλι, i.e. Caragioli, provides interesting insight into the socio-political status of Vlachs in modern Greek society, as well as to their labile sense of identity, on which I have a very personal perspective.

As a child growing up in Tirnavos I well remember how perplexed I was by the constant switching by my parents and relatives between Vlach and Greek. I noticed that when they were among themselves, they always spoke Vlach and referred to my father’s village and others by their Vlach names. But in public, out on the street in Tirnavos, or in the company of Greeks, they always spoke Greek, as if they feared offending them. From this schizoid-like behavior of my parents and relatives I concluded that for some reason, it was taboo to speak Vlach outside the house, and their deference to Greeks suggested that in some way, they were inferior to them.

Since I couldn’t speak Vlach, although by some strange process, I learned to understand it from overhearing my parents and relatives, I felt increasingly torn between my allegiance to my parents on the one hand, and of that to my friends and teachers on the other, who like me only spoke Greek. And because of this, I began to experience an inner conflict over identity and what were probably the first stirrings of a nascent political consciousness. This tug of war was exacerbated whenever my maternal aunt, who was a school teacher in Thessaloniki, came to Tirnavos on weekends and holidays, and in her educated, modern Greek, would berate anyone in the house she caught speaking Vlach, including my parents who, for some reason, dared not defy her. It all reinforced my growing suspicion there was something inherently loathsome about the Vlach language and all it stood for. But at the same time, I could see no reason to dislike my parents and my grandmother and my other relatives in the village, even though they all spoke Vlach.

It wasn’t until much, much later, when I was in my twenties and living on the opposite side of the globe, that I finally discovered the reason behind my parents’ and relatives’ guardedness about speaking Vlach in public in Greece. It wasn’t just because they felt embarrassed about speaking a minor language which had no literary tradition, although I was to discover this wasn’t entirely the case; it was because of their own experiences, and the legacy of tales handed down to them by their parents and grandparents, of the way Vlachs were treated by Greeks, dating back to when the Ottomans quit Thessaly, all of which informed their unspoken collective memory and fear. As I discovered from my reading, this included violent vindictive pogroms conducted in reprisal for perceived privileges Vlachs enjoyed under the Ottomans, and various other acts of violence to fulfill various vendettas, all of which were largely condoned by the authorities of the new Greek state. Thus, under the wave of nationalist fervor, it was in the interest of Vlachs not to draw attention to their identity, and indeed, many abandoned their Vlachness, as it were, and became fully ‘Greekified”, as opposed to Hellenized, many of whom already were, since they were to a large degree bilingual. And this was why my parents and relatives, like their predecessors, remained circumspect about speaking Vlach in public, while doing their utmost to present themselves as Orthodox Christians and fellow Greek citizens.

No doubt another factor that aroused the resentment and hostility of Greeks was the fact that many Vlach families in northern Greece sent their children to Rumanian schools rather than to those run by the new Greek state. These Rumanian schools dated back to the late 1860s when the then newly created state of Rumania, although still under Ottoman control, was allowed to set them up throughout Epirus and Macedonia, then still ruled by the Ottomans. The excuse of the Rumanians was that Vlachs were displaced Rumanians and wished to be taught in their own language and learn their own culture, which the Ottomans were only too happy to allow, since it divided Greeks and Vlachs and suppressed any potential unified revolt, at a time when the Ottomans were on the retreat. But since there were few if any Greek-run schools in these regions, Vlachs took advantage of the Rumanian’s offer to gain an education and improve themselves, while their Greek neighbors remained comparatively illiterate.

The Rumanian assertion of a common ancestry was based mainly on the close similarity of Rumanian to Vlach, the latter of which by that time had been subject to scholarly treatment and much of its vocabulary had been transcribed using both the Latin and Greek alphabets. The Rumanian schools continued to operate after Epirus and Macedonia were incorporated into the new Greece, being sanctioned by the Greek government, which under a reciprocal agreement was allowed to set up and fund Greek-speaking schools in Rumania to cater for the Greek-speaking minority there which dated back to 18th century Greek merchants. Still, in Greece many Greeks resented Vlachs for taking advantage of the Rumanian schools to gain an education, which did little to sway Greeks from their belief that Vlachs were agents and conspirators in the territorial ambitions of Rumania. In fact, my own father attended one such Rumanian boarding school in Epirus up until he was about fourteen. That was when the Second World War broke out, and these schools were shut down after Rumania sided with the Axis powers. Although he valued the education he received and had ambitions of studying abroad in Italy or France, as far as I know he never considered himself a displaced Rumanian, nor was he in any way sympathetic with Rumanian nationalism, which I guess is testament to the failed propagandist mission of these schools, if indeed this was their aim.

During the war itself, the suspicions of Greeks were further aroused when the occupying Italian forces in northern Greece briefly set up a Vlach-run breakaway pseudo-state and recruited Vlachs to fight for them. The Italians had also appealed to them on the basis of common ancestry, claiming Vlachs were descendants of Roman colonists from thousands of years earlier, as evidenced by the similarity of the Vlach language to Italian, and also by the physical resemblance between Vlachs and Italians. But the fact is that the vast majority of Vlachs were opposed to the Italian occupation and many actually joined the Greek resistance movement to fight against them and the Germans, as did my father. The few who did join the Italians were motivated less by fascist ideology and more by material gain, as were many Greek-speaking German collaborators in the cities and towns.

There are many unanswered questions concerning the origin and history of Vlachs, but one that has always puzzled me from a socio-political standpoint, which goes to the heart of the nature of the Vlach identity and character, is why Vlachs have failed over the centuries to form themselves into a politically distinct entity, that is, into a Vlach “nation”, not necessarily a “state”, given the depth of conviction of other self-recognized ethnic groups in the Balkans. I think the answer partly lies in the fact that Vlachs are a heterogeneous lot, both in terms of physical features, as well as culturally, and the language they speak, although based on the common Latin spoken by the Roman colonists throughout the Empire, varies somewhat between regions, as do customs and elements of culture, which when analyzed as a whole, are not all that unique to Vlachs per se.

There is, however, one often cited aspect of Vlach culture that distinguishes them from Greeks, and that is the status of women. As many outside observers have commented, compared to Greek women, Vlach women are accorded higher respect in Vlach society and are more liberated in their views and behavior. This has be taken as evidence of strong Roman influence, since in Rome, women had a more active role in society than in ancient Greece, and within the aristocracy they managed the financial affairs of their husbands, and were widely consulted for their views.

In any case, despite the efforts of proponents of Vlach nationalism over the years to unify Vlachs under a common language and set of customs and beliefs, this has largely failed to inculcate a pan-Vlach consciousness, as it were, enough to unify them under one head, and one wonders whether this is at all possible. It’s as if history itself has instilled in Vlachs an aversion to the very concept of self-determination and nationalism.

Another question that arises from the above is why the Vlach language has survived as long as it has, given the marginalization of Vlachs in recent times. My own theory is that, with its limited, largely utilitarian vocabulary adapted to the pastoral nomadic life, Vlach continued to survive so long as it supplied the basic linguistic needs for communication among Vlachs living in geographically isolated communities, enabling to be preserved through oral transmission. Thus it’s no coincidence that, as Vlachs have moved into towns and cities in greater numbers over the past fifty years, and begun to associate more extensively with the exclusively Greek-speaking population, the Vlach language has lost ground to the more sophisticated Greek which serves their needs for communication and expression as urban dwellers infinitely better, just as vulgar Latin did, in comparison to the crude ancient Greek dialect these dispersed tribes would probably have spoken before the Romans.

Although this process of assimilation and acculturation has been going on for centuries, it’s fair to say many urbanized Vlachs have retained a connection, if not with the actual language, then with the Vlach culture because of the identity it confers on them, even though they also strongly identify with Greece, but not necessarily with the ideology of the Greek nation-state. It’s a bit like having your own little secret which endows you with a sense of mystery and exclusivity that both baffles and invites awe and respect from your neighbors, whether they be Greeks or others. But it’s a fine balancing act because the differentness Vlachs project can also incite hatred and hostility, as Vlachs well know, and I wonder whether their lingering connection to their nomadic pastoral past hasn’t been ingrained in their psyche somehow over the generations, and they have clung onto it as a kind of insurance against potential social upheaval occasioned by the collapse of civilizations and economies. Nevertheless, one suspects that as long as Vlach urbanites feel that connection to their roots, however token or flimsy, communities like Caragioli will continue to exist as spiritual places of home.

The supplanting of Vlach by Greek was all too evident among my own relatives, as in the case of my maternal aunt, the school teacher. I suspect her desire to “cleanse” herself of any Vlach identity was no different from that of many other educated Vlach women, before and after her, because another cousin of mine on my fathers side, who also happens to be a school teacher, confessed to me on a recent visit that she felt no attachment to the Vlach language, and will shed not one tear the day when it finally dies out. In one sense, their active abandonment and renunciation of their cultural and linguistic heritage is nothing more than a manifestation of the tendency of women in general to seek out more advantageous positions in life for themselves, and marry up, given that Vlach confers no material advantage in modern Greece, and in fact, in popular wisdom, is associated with low social status.

Men on the other hand tend to hold onto their ancestral identity more strongly, probably because of a biological need to project strength of character and resoluteness, as well as constancy, as a positive trait to which potential mates are attracted. Oddly enough, Vassiliki, who’s also a school teacher, albeit pre-school, unlike my aunt and other cousin, hasn’t married and doesn’t seem to share their “self-hate”, as it were (I wouldn’t go as far as calling it shame), and has never looked down upon or denied her Vlach heritage. I think this is another reason I feel a connection with her, because I sense in her disregard for bourgeois conformity a subversive form of intellectualism, or perhaps anarchic surrealism, which transcends politics, as befits a free spirit, to the extent that some say she’s a sorceress. But I digress.

I suspect, however, that my socially upwardly mobile anti-Vlach aunt and cousin have justified their abandonment of Vlach because in their eyes it encodes and inculcates a backwardness that has always prevented Vlachs from advancing themselves. Although I’ve never discussed the matter with her, being an avowed socialist, my aunt might even see it in dialectical terms whereby Vlach, being the cornerstone of a backward and oppressed mindset, ensures a defeatist consciousness and continued backwardness. Thus, the only way forward is to reject it completely, that is, to stage a personal revolution against it, and in the process, gain the necessary self-awareness of one’s potential to transcend one’s backwardness, individually and then collectively, by adopting the superior language and culture of one’s masters, so to speak, in this case, the Greeks, thereby negating the negation, and achieving enlightenment and freedom, without the need for a national liberation struggle which would entail Vlachs attaining a “national consciousness”, which in all likelihood they’re incapable of. Who knows? Perhaps by forbidding us from learning the language of my parents, she did have our best interests at heart, after all. Still, I can’t help but feel that her and my cousin’s overriding motivation for rejecting their Vlach heritage was emotional, rather than coming from any intellectual rationalization of the limited usefulness of the Vlach language, driven by a sense of shame should anyone find out they speak the language of nomadic shepherds.

This conflict over language and identity assumed a new though not unfamiliar form after we arrived in Australia in the summer of 1968-69. In less than a year after enrolling in primary school, I had learned to speak English quite well, and despite my parents’ sending me and my sister to “Greek school” in the evenings, my hold on Greek began to slip away. This wasn’t helped by the fact that, with my scolding aunt ten thousand miles away back in Greece, they had reverted to conversing in Vlach at home. Compounding this linguistic disjunction was the fact that my sister and I began to speak to each other exclusively in English. This led to a strange politico-linguistic dynamic in our house whereby my sister and I saw ourselves as superior to our parents because they spoke little or no English and had to rely on us, me especially, to translate the most trivial of things for them into Greek, which I had more or less forgotten. But at the same time we were completely dependent on them for food and shelter, for our very existence, no less. Gradually the linguistic trichotomy in our family, whereby my parents communicated to each other in Vlach, my sister and I spoke to them in Greek, while we ourselves conversed with each other in English, led to our “cultural” estrangement, as my sister and I began to assimilate more and more into Australian society. And as a result, my parents were forced further and further into the background of our consciousness.

To a large extent, not yet being ten years old, I was unaware this was happening. But I was also unaware that it had precedent in Greece where, inspired by my aunt’s vigilance against infiltration and corruption of our hearts and young minds by backward Vlach, I had begun to regard my Vlach-speaking parents and relatives as inferior beings and as people unrelated to me. Although in Australia that vigilance was not there, I think subconsciously, hearing my parents speaking Vlach at home revived those dormant memories and feelings from Greece, and I suspect in our new environment, it was transformed into a sense of distrust and suspicion of my parents, which consciously or otherwise influenced my sister and me to adopt English as our own “private” medium of communication. But in all this process, the casualty was not Vlach but Greek, on which my tenuous grip had weakened to the point where I had largely lost my ability to speak and write in Greek to my aunt. Thus, just like Vlach had lost out to Greek in my early childhood, Greek, to all intents and purposes, my mother tongue, or should that my step-mother tongue, had now lost out to more dominant and infinitely more useful English. Thus, I was twice denied the chance of an identity.

To be honest, I too don’t feel any sense of loss at the decline of the Vlach; perhaps some sadness at the prospect that the language of my parents in which they communicated their deepest feelings and desires will soon be extinct, lost forever. At the same time I feel a little guilty, perhaps because deep down I still harbor a sense of shame about my residual Vlach identity, instilled in me by my aunt, and by Greek society in general. I wish that wasn’t the case, because I would much prefer my identity be defined by an acknowledgment of a connection with Vlach language and culture, than by a hidden shame of it. Still, despite the fact that, as a human entity immersed in a consumer culture which defines me as an atomized individual possessed of a supposedly free will, forever beset by constrained choices, where ethnicity, as expressed in a marginalized language and culture, has no place in the reproduction of my mental and physical labor, so that I can continue to participate in this consumerist hell, I can’t help but feel, albeit in an abstract sense, a strange attraction to the nomadic pastoral life of my descendants. But is this any different from any other human being looking for meaning in life by a return to nature? In the meantime I have to content myself with periodic visits to my geographic homeland and allow the landscape to seep into my subconscious and soothe my yearning to belong.

While it existed as a mode of communication among the mountain-dwelling nomads in the Balkans, one would think the Vlach language had some influence in shaping the development of a Vlach “race”, by drawing together people from scattered tribes through the medium of a shared language and customs, who would then have inter-married. However, because of the turmoil and political instability in the Balkans over the centuries, the Vlach language alone could not fulfill its organizing role on a wider social engineering level, if indeed any language can. All of which brings me back the origin of Vlachs themselves, which is still an open question. Are they derived from a pre-Roman group who lived in a specific region which adopted the language and culture of their conquerors, possibly interbred with them, and subsequently underwent dispersal and racial diversification? Or are they derived from scattered remnants of Latinized indigenous rural populations across the Balkans?

In answer to the first possibility, one theory I’ve come across proposes that Vlachs are descended from Dacian and Thracian tribes who were Latinized under Roman occupation, beginning in the 2nd century A.D. during the reign of Trajan. Afterwards, with the withdrawal of the Romans and collapse of the Empire in the East, and the invasion of the Balkans by various groups beginning with the Slavs in the 7th century, these Latinized Dacian and Thracian tribes were forced to flee southward where they sought refuge in the Pindus mountain range. There they remained in isolated pockets for centuries, practicing their nomadic pastoral lifestyle, preserving the vulgar Latin tongue and customs they had picked up or assimilated from the Romans.

In post-Roman Greece, through trade and commerce, these Latinized Thracian and Dacian tribes in the mountains would have come into contact with Greek-speaking populations along the coastal regions and plains, so that with time, they would have picked up some Greek as well, combining it with their vulgar Latin, or else they became bi-lingual. But in the absence of formal education, Vlach, that is, the mixture of vulgar Latin and crude ancient Greek, remained their dominant tongue. It was only after Byzantine rule was firmly established, which brought a measure of law and order to the Balkans, that Vlachs appeared in recorded history, as noted in Anna Comnena’s “Alexiad” written in the 12th century, having emerged from their isolated mountain communities in the meantime, to settle in the villages and towns of the valleys and plains, and in the process, adopting Orthodox Christianity as their religion. As mentioned above, because Vlach speakers made up a large proportion of the population in Epirus and Thessaly, the region came to be known as Greater Wallachia, the land of the Vlachs. It should also be noted, however, that once the Ottomans came to power in the 14th century, a fair number of Vlachs converted to Islam while retaining Vlach, since the Ottomans didn’t enforce a common language.

The other theory as to the origins of Vlachs holds that Latinized tribes were to be found throughout the Balkans before the 7th century, and were not necessarily derived from refugees or immigrants from a single population from the north. These scattered tribes spoke the local dialect, which was most likely based on ancient Greek, and became Latinized under the Romans, either as slaves or contract laborers, or providers of various services, adopting their language, seeing it was the language of government and commerce. Moreover, they may well have intermixed with Roman soldiers and support personnel during their long occupation, who, after being discharged, would have been given plots of land to settle in and cultivate, as was the custom in the Roman military, around which small communities developed.

The children from such mixed marriages, that is, between Roman men and women from the local tribes (women marry up, remember), would have carried Roman traits which were passed on to succeeding generations and preserved if not refined by marrying within their own “mixed-race” communities. One assumes the wives would have adopted the language of their husbands, and since children generally learn to speak the language of their mother, vulgar Latin would have been passed on to them. But it’s hard to say to what degree this form of transmission contributed to the diffusion of the language, as opposed to its adoption by the general population; probably it occurred via a combination of both vertical and lateral transmission, resulting in the unequal “melding” of the two languages, with vulgar Latin predominating. With the rise of Byzantium and its empire in which Greek was the lingua franca, these Latinized tribes would have resisted re-Hellenization, especially those living in isolated geographic regions, where Byzantine authority had limited penetration.

Of the two theories, to me the latter makes more sense, because the Roman invasion occurred firstly in the territories of present day north-western Greece and Albania, and then spread northward and east. Ongoing military campaigns would have brought over tens of thousands of Romans, not just soldiers to occupy the land and enforce Roman rule, and guard strategic passes through the mountains, but others as well, to build roads like the Via Egnatia, and other infrastructure for the administration. In the process, these colonists would have established their own towns and villages, or significantly transformed existing ones, and brought with them their customs and the common Latin spoken throughout the Empire. As the mass of Roman colonists did not speak Greek, which was confined to the Roman aristocracy and the Greek elite, it was to the advantage of the locals to learn the language of the colonists. Thus, their own crude ancient Greek dialect would have been largely supplanted by the more extensive and utilitarian vulgar Latin.

Although it’s not known to what extent intermarriage between Roman male settlers and local women took place, and whether it was an accepted means of upward social mobility, the strong likelihood that it occurred, as with the troops of Alexander the Great who left their genetic imprint on the populations of the regions they over-ran in Asia and the Middle-East, suggests that the “Greek” characteristics of the resultant inter-racial proto-Vlachs were passed down the maternal line, while the “Roman” characteristics were transmitted down the male line. If so, one would expect a higher degree of concordance in the nuclear DNA profiles of present day Vlachs and Romans (or Italians), whereas there would be a higher degree of similarity between Vlachs and Greeks in the profiles of their mitochondrial DNA which is transmitted down the maternal line. Of course, all this assumes that the native Balkan tribes and the Romans constituted homogeneous populations, which is probably very unlikely, especially for Romans, given the continuous influx into Rome of people from all over the Empire, including Africa, the Middle East and Northern Europe.

A similar process of Latinization of indigenous tribes would have occurred over all the Roman-occupied regions in the Balkans, hence the similarity not only between the Rumanian and Vlach languages, but in the physical characteristics of present-day Vlachs, Wallachian Rumanians, and Italians, and most likely people from other Roman-occupied regions in France, Spain, Britain, North Africa and the Middle East. Thus, a motley and geographically dispersed Vlach “race” may well begun to form, connected through their shared infusion with Roman blood, as well as a language and culture. Which leads one to wonder whether the variegated and partial Roman influence across the Balkans might not be a factor, if not a reason, as to why Vlachs have failed to coalesce into a unified “people.” What I mean by this is that such people would be torn between their connection to their respective “ancestral” homeland on the one hand, and on the other, to an abstract “political” attachment to something that was seen as foreign and not well understood, in the form of their Roman heritage, which is itself diverse and derived from many influences, linguistic, cultural and racial.

Much later, with the arrival of the Ottomans and the relative peace they brought, this would have given the more prosperous and entrepreneurial Vlachs, regardless of how they came to be, the confidence to settle in towns, and here they adopted the language and customs of the more sophisticated Greeks, Greek remaining the lingua franca in the Greek territories under the Ottomans. However, these urbanized Vlachs most likely retained their Vlach language in some form, not only because it afforded them a sense of identity, as mentioned above, but also because it fostered a sense of cohesion and unity with their fellow Vlach merchants, an “insiderness”, if you like, with whom they could share valuable information to the exclusion of Greek-speaking or Turkish competitors. In addition, because the European Romance languages were intelligible to Vlachs, it gave them an advantage over their Turkish and Greek counterparts in their commercial transactions with Western Europe, with which the Ottomans were also keen to trade, hence their favoring of Vlachs as envoys.

In support of the Vlachs’ orientation towards the West, compared to that of other Greeks, I can cite examples among my own relatives in Greece who have attended university in Italy, Bologna to be precise, and because they had a knowledge of Vlach, albeit spoken, they had little trouble picking up Italian and adjusting to the culture. And then there is Giorgio Vongolis himself, from as far back as the 1850s. For their facility to engage with Europeans on behalf of the Ottomans, in 1905 Vlachs were even granted them their own millet, to the chagrin of Greeks. This is somewhat similar to the position of Cypriot Greeks in modern Greece, who by virtue of their more extensive knowledge of English and of British customs and institutions, having being subject to British rule for generations, enjoy an advantage over Greek citizens in international business and trade.

The most plausible evidence for a transformation of a layer of Vlachs from pastoral nomads to burghers, and even intellectuals, was the city of Moschopolis. It was situated in what is now southern Albania and was said to have had a population of 70,000 in the mid-18th century, although this is most likely an exaggeration, as is the wont of Vlachs who as shepherds would boast of having more sheep than they actually owned. This city was home to many middle-class Vlachs who had amassed wealth from their business dealings with Europe and the Otttomans, and through their largesse, Moschopolis became a major center of culture and learning, albeit based on Greek language and traditions, a case perhaps of the Vlachs’ innate inferiority complex reasserting itself, as they sought validation in a superior culture. Whatever the reason, Moschopolis served as a conduit for many of the discoveries and teachings of the Enlightenment into the Balkans, and the city boasted many libraries containing thousands of books printed in Greek, Latin and various European languages, as well as the first printing press in the Balkans outside Constantinople.

Although the majority of inhabitants were Vlach, or of Vlach-speaking descent, the relative security of the town attracted other groups, including Greeks and Albanians with links to Western Europe, as attested by the publication in the city of a dictionary in the four major languages, including Vlach, which was transcribed in Greek and taught in schools. One assumes that while the Vlachs of Moschopolis still identified with their rural and nomadic origins, the Vlach language took second place to Greek. (Is this process of assimilation not going on today in Greece, where Greeks speak English almost as fluently as they speak Greek?) That connection with their unflattering past, however, must have played on their vanity because it is said that before it achieved prosperity and opulence, Moschopolis went by the name of Voskopolis, in reference to the fact that it was originally settled by shepherds (i.e. “βόσκος” in Greek). And the name was changed to Moschopolis to conceal its embarrassing past. As for Moschopolis, the name is said to refer to “cattle” in Greek, but the word “moscho” in Latin means “musk”, as in the fragrant aroma, perhaps in reference to the local flora, and not at all to cattle.

Unfortunately, the success and prosperity of Moschopolis all came to an end when it was razed by troops under the command of the renegade Turkish military leader Ali Pasha in 1788, after being subject to regular raids by Muslim Albanians since 1769. As a result many of its inhabitants, including Vlachs, fled abroad or south into Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia, and perhaps reverted to nomadism to survive. Thus the efforts of wealthy urbanized Vlachs to formally elaborate a Vlach literary culture, which included the formal transcription of the Vlach language using the Greek alphabet, came to an abrupt and sad end. I can only surmise that among those wealthy burghers that fled south included one or more of my own forebears. But who really knows?

If Moschopolis represented the “coming of age” of Balkan Vlachs in a European historical setting, there was something symbolic about its tragic rise and fall which mirrors the changing fortunes of Vlachs before and since. It’s as if they’re destined never to rise to any significant heights of fame and glory under their own name. Instead, they are content to establish niches for themselves wherever they end up, straddling cultures, harboring no strong nationalist or secessionist ambitions, but at the same time resisting assimilation, without being totally averse to it. Their readiness and willingness to coexist with others perhaps is why an historian in the 12th century, Benjamin Tudela, who travelled through the Balkans, believed Vlachs were a lost tribe of Jews. But personally, I think they have too much of a detached view of themselves to be Jews, who create strong, distinct enclaves wherever they go to preserve their very sophisticated culture, so enshrined in elaborate myths and folklore, and recorded in texts like the Old Testament. Vlachs on the other hand, lack any true recorded historical tradition, or a desire for one. They’re the hippies of the Balkans who like to go with the flow, seeking peace and harmony, always wary of the dubious allure of national pride.

Although I can fantasize about my forebears being prosperous merchants from Moschopolis, I also accept they could well have been mountain-dwelling, landless nomads all along. Perhaps I am both of peasant and neo-burgher stock, because there’s every possibility after the collapse of Moschopolis my forbears headed back into the mountains and took up the pastoral life. There they lay low for generations until it was safe to settle in the villages and towns. I can well imagine this might describe the fate of my father’s descendants because my paternal relations have always struck me as possessing that reserve and composure one associates with people who at some point in their past had occupied honorable positions in society and garnered respect among their people; whereas my mother’s family strikes me as being descendant from cut-throats and renegades, possessing a deep ambition for material wealth, by whatever means.

Apparently my maternal grandfather, who died well before I was born, was a butcher by trade, supplying Tirnavos and surrounding towns and villages. He was Vlach, but because he was a merchant and readily interacted with Greeks, he considered himself above traditional pastoral Vlachs like my father’s family, as my mother likes to impress on me. She says her village of Rodia was wealthier than my father’s, because most of its residents were merchants like her father, whereas the Vlachs of Caragioli were all shepherds and carriers. For some reason, she also likes to boast that her grandfather fled south to Thessaly from a region near the Albanian border after he shot and killed a man over an argument, over what, she doesn’t know. In Thessaly, he changed his surname to Mentis – from what, she doesn’t know either, and married and had a family. His son, my grandfather, followed him into the butcher’s trade in Tirnavos and took over the business when he died.

Around this time, being just before the outbreak of the Second World War, my grandfather married, and he and my grandmother had three children, the middle one of which was my mother, who was born on the eve of the Second World War, in April 10th 1940. Being past the age of enlistment, he avoided the draft and the family came through the war relatively unscathed, although my mother remembers an incident where the German army came through her village looking for Resistance fighters who had ambushed and killed some Germans soldiers. To set an example, they rounded up all the men, took them away and executed them. But luckily her father along with some others had already fled when the Germans arrived. However, he was killed a few years later in 1949 at the height of the Civil War that ravaged Greece after the end of the Second World War, under circumstances that are not entirely clear, one account being more romantic than the other.

According to my mother, he died as a result of a landmine explosion on the road between Argyropoulion and Tirnavos while making a delivery run. He and his colleague were badly injured and taken to the hospital in Larisa. But while his co-worker survived, my grandfather died a day later. Apparently that stretch of road was known to be mined by the Communist guerrillas, and the locals usually travelled in convoys, behind heavy lorries. But my mother says her father and his colleague were travelling on their own that particular day. A more heroic version of how my grandfather met his death also involved a landmine, but the circumstances under which it exploded are entirely different. In this latter version, he and his colleague were in the process of actually planting one when it blew up in their faces.

This particular story was drummed into me as a child by my grandmother, I guess because it portrayed her husband as a revolutionary hero who had sacrificed his life for the Communist cause, fighting the hated right-wing post-war fascist regime in Greece. She said that, at the time he was working secretly for the guerrillas and was involved in various acts of insurgency and sabotage, including transporting arms and weapons, as well as planting landmines. I was so taken by this story that I fully believed it well into my late twenties and drew inspiration from it for my own involvement in radical left-wing politics at university.

Suffice it say I was left somewhat deflated when one day my mother decided to tell me the “truth” of how my grandfather died, that is, that he was killed when his cart ran over a landmine laid by the Communist guerrillas. It didn’t necessarily rule out his involvement with them, but I concluded my grandmother, the narcissist that she is, had lied again, this time to make her husband look larger than he really was. Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced of my mother’s version of events either, and couldn’t understand why she would want to contradict her own mother. That was until I discovered that her family had a vested interest in having his death declared an accident. This being the late 1980s, the post-dictatorship government in Greece had repealed a law that denied the pension to anyone who had had any affiliation with the Communist guerrillas. Thus, my grandmother now stood to receive her long-awaited widow’s pension. However this would have been jeopardized if my grandfather’s death was deemed to be the result of a terrorist act, and therefore it was in her family’s interest to have his death recorded as an accident.

However, as far as I’m concerned, this “official” account of my grandfather’s death paradoxically renders my grandmother’s more credible, because she just isn’t capable of inventing such a fabulous story on her own. Perhaps my grandfather’s association with the guerrillas was tied up with his butcher’s trade, running arms for them and planting mines, while they brought him customers and eliminated competitors, who knows? After all, such rackets are not unknown in time of war. If this cozy deal proved lucrative and brought the family material benefits, then my grandmother would have had every reason to like the Communists, and had convinced herself that behind her husband’s racketeering, lay a commitment to a noble cause. But all this is conjecture.

Perhaps he did, in fact, die while planting a landmine, but my mother was instructed by her sister back in Greece to accept the “accident” version, just in case the Greek embassy in Australia contacted her to verify it, and she contradicted them with the “romantic” version of his death. Thus, she felt compelled to pass on to me the one endorsed by her family in Greece, perhaps to reconcile herself with having to accept something she suspected was a lie, by sharing it. Maybe she doesn’t know herself what to believe, not having witnessed it. In any case, her family fell into dire poverty after her father died, and my uncle, then barely in his teens, went to work in the abattoirs to help feed the family.

Now, returning again to the origin of the Vlachs, I’ve often asked myself, if I really am descended from Roman colonists, then which part of Italy would my forebears have come from? Not for any delusional reason that accords a Roman ancestry more importance than say, a Greek, Turkish, Albanian or a Slav one, all of which I may possess to some degree. But simply to account for my physical characteristics which I feel set me slightly apart from other Greeks, although it must be said Greeks are a mongrel lot. This notion surfaced recently one weekend when I went for a stroll downtown to relieve my boredom. It was mid-afternoon and feeling somewhat hungry, I decided to stop and have lunch at an Italian restaurant I happened to be walking past in the North End which had a little map of the Abruzzo region of Italy on its front window. It must have just opened its doors because I couldn’t see any customers inside. Nevertheless I decided to go in, and sat down at a table near the front window, since the sign said I could sit anywhere.

The staff were gathered around the bar at the back and sure enough, they all looked Italian. But I was mesmerized by one of the women who even from a distance bore a striking resemblance to my cousin Vassiliki. Then as she approached my table, I could see she was the same height and had the same complexion and skin tone, the same almond-shaped, chestnut colored eyes, the same high eyebrows and prominent cheekbones, the same firm mouth and lips, and overall similar facial features and hair. The resemblance was so uncanny that for a moment I thought I was looking at Vassiliki’s double, while trying to avoid staring at her like some creep.

Given she was undoubtedly of Italian descent, the racial connection between Vlachs and Italians from the Abruzzo region immediately suggested itself. I was now convinced of the veracity of the claim that Vlachs are descendants, in part, of Roman colonists in the Balkans, perhaps soldiers who patrolled the passes in the Pindus mountains, or workers who built the fortresses and highways, who intermarried with the natives, and then settled in these regions as shepherds and farmers, spawning mini-communities. I wanted to ask her if indeed she or her descendants were from the Abruzzo region, but I was afraid she would tell me to mind my own business and fuck off with a telling look. From her physical appearance, however, it was very likely they came from somewhere in central Italy because she was neither sufficiently fair nor tall to be from the north, nor did she have the dark, lanky features of Sicilian women. In any case, after finishing off my spaghetti marinara with a glass of red wine, I left with the notion that I could well be descended from Romans after all.

To be frank, I can’t draw any inspiration from any of these theories, and I don’t feel any more or less pride in being of Roman descent, as opposed to being of Greek or Rumanian or Slav, or of Turkish extraction, all of which are entirely possible if I look hard enough, given that the Balkan peninsula has been such a crossroads of cultures and civilizations since ancient times. I am probably some weird admixture of all these, and therefore don’t belong to any one particular race or ethnicity. It’s like with anything: the more you examine it, in greater and greater detail, the less sense it seems to make. Still, why do I have this recurring desire to want to know who I am? Why can’t I simply accept that I am a living human being and do the things that someone with my physical attributes and intellectual capacity can perform, and not worry about such irrelevancies?