General Theme: "Byron and the Olympic Spirit"
The Third International Byron Conference, based at the Messolonghi Byron Society's Byron Research Center, was held May 16-24, 2004. In keeping with the pervasive climate in Greece as the 2004 Olympics approach, the general theme was “Byron and the Olympic Spirit.” As in previous years, the conference blended scholarship with sightseeing, sessions devoted to academic papers with excursions to places of interest to lovers of Greece in general and devotees of Byron in particular. And as in years past, the conference drew Byron students of all levels: presenters ranging from undergraduates to graduates, dissertating doctoral candidates, and junior and senior faculty, plus interested auditors from the local, national, and international community.
The conference started in Athens, a city in overdrive to prepare for August's upcoming games. The first official event was tea at the British Embassy, graciously hosted by Sir David and Lady Madden. After tea and talk came a pedestrian excursion to Plaka, guided by that knowledgeable Athenian Byron Raizis, who pointed out many picturesque, historic, and interesting sites. Monday brought a visit to the National and Historical Museum of Athens, where the Byron Collection is on display at the Philhellenic Department, a short archaeologist-guided visit to the Acropolis, and then a 1:00 departure for Messolonghi by coach and ferry, with a chance to view the Corinth Canal and, some hours later, the new suspension bridge spanning the Gulf of Patras, a structure to be inaugurated with the passage of a runner carrying the Olympic torch. A dinner reception offered by the Messolonghi Byron Society welcomed the participants to the Theoxenia Hotel at the harbor of Messolonghi.
Tuesday May 18 saw the academic side of the conference begin. After registration at the Messolonghi Byron Society's handsome new headquarters, the Byron Research Center in Messolonghi's replica Byron House on the lagoonside, the participants were welcomed by the society's President Mrs. Rosa Florou, the Deputy Prefect of Aitoloakarnania Mr. Nikos Mourkousis, and the chair of the Municipal Committee of Culture Mr. Nasos Gouvas. The first session of papers, chaired by Peter Graham, struck notes and quoted passages that recurred throughout the week. Naji Oueijan of Lebanon's Notre Dame University led off with "Byron and the Land of Olympia.” He offered an eloquent presentation of Byron's interest in reviving the Olympic spirit in his personal life and in the Hellenic homeland of Olympia. Chris Murray of Bristol University spoke next on "Byron, Sport, and the Classics." This witty and trenchant analysis of Byron's sporting interests in relation to his reading, writing, and personal life emphasized the crossing of the Hellespont and the “Stanzas Written after Swimming from Sestos to Abydos" and showed that Byron's sporting activities have relevance to Byronists as more than mere anecdotes. Peter Graham of Virginia Tech ended the session with “Jocks and Jocularity: Byron and Athletic Banter,” a loosely sociolinguistic appraisal of how Byron, in life and art, appropriated the rhetorical conventions that have come to govern the announcement of one's own athletic prowess: humor, disarming self-deprecation, and ostensible nonchalance, the art that hides both art and sweat.
After a break for coffee, water, juice, and home-baked traditional sweets, M. Byron Raizis, Professor Emeritus at the University of Athens and Joint International President of the Byron Society, presided over a session of beautifully paired papers. First Marsha Manns, chair of the Byron Society of America, offered “'To have, when the original is dust': A Founder's History of the Delaware Byron Collection.” She told the story of the young Byron Society Collection founded in 1995 in partnership with the University of Delaware, explained the diverse nature of the collection's holdings--rare books and autograph material integrated with busts, statues, mezzotints, early lithographs, advertising material, and other objects--and related something of the collecting histories of the more-than-forty donors who have given all or parts of their collections to form the living and growing Byron Society Collection. In “Why a Byron Center in Messolonghi?” Byron Raizis movingly related a similar story. He explained how in three and a half years the Messolonghi Byron Research Center has, thanks to the generous efforts of Greek public officials local, regional, and national alike, philanthropists, scholars, a worldwide circle of Byronists and Philhellenes, and above all Rosa Florou, evolved from one woman's dream for Messolonghi to its present reality: a comfortable conference center with a growing library, a small but fascinating collection of artifacts, and an ever-increasing mission of education and outreach.
Lunch at the Theoxenia Hotel preceded Tuesday's third academic session chaired by Naji Oueijan. First up was Mary Hurst of the University of Liverpool. Her paper, “Byron and the Noonday Demons,” portrayed Byron's Olympic spirit in rebounding from dark episodes and convincingly suggested that Byron's periods of melancholia resembled the spiritual malaise of acedia, a “distress of the heart” with which the ancient desert fathers struggled. Moving from dark emotions to transgressive actions, Patricia Cowley of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill next presented “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know': The Effect of Extremism in the Life of Lord Byron.” Patricia's fellow Tarheel Jeffrey Hortman followed with “Modern Athletics, Byron, and the Body's Obstacles." He argued that Byron's deformed foot proved to be a significant physical and psychological impediment to his legacy and work and showed that Byron's heroic battle with bodily limitation offers an early example of modern athletic struggle. Anthony Howell of Bristol University completed the afternoon quartet with “Byron and the Challenge of the Ocean,” a bold mental voyage exploring several maritime topics: Childe Harold as sailor-hero, the sea as a non-place in a touristic poem, the oceanic sublime in Heaven and Earth , the oceanic nature of Don Juan , and the ocean's crucial role in shaping Byron's psyche. Participants were on their own for dinner. Then those not exhausted by a day of nine papers proceeded to the campus of Messolonghi's Technological Educational Institution (TEI) for an outdoor rock concert featuring Blues Wire.
Wednesday morning brought an early departure by coach to Olympia. Shepherded by a vigorously learned guide, the group toured the excavated ruins and admired the temple of Zeus, the pedestals where Olympic victors' statues once stood, and the beautiful ancient stadium, slated to be the shotput venue for the upcoming Athens Olympics, where an undergraduate was inspired to sprint barefooted if not classically nude. Olympia's museum offered the chance to view many treasures, perhaps the most famous being Praxiteles' statue of Hermes with the infant Dionysos on his arm. After a short rest back in Messolonghi, the group proceeded to the central square for a cultural festival featuring ethnic dances performed by student groups from eight Greek universities and hosted by the TEI. A handful of Greece-inspired lyrics written by Evan Gurney of the University of North Carolina, recited by the poet and translated for the Greek audience by Byron Raizis, offered a meditative interlude to the lively event.
Thursday May 20 held time for both academics and excursions. The fourth session of papers, chaired by Peter Myrian, soon to retire as President of the University of Indianapolis at Athens, ran from 9 until 10:30 a.m. Again, the presentations fit together especially well, with the common thread being comparative Philhellenism. Jeffrey Koelemay of Virginia Tech gave a penetrating and passionate account of "The work of glory': Don Juan, Philoctetes, Heracles, and Heroic Ideals." Comparing Byron's unflinchingly honest and humane view of the “brain-spattering, windpipe slitting art” of modern warfare with the heroic ideal as presented in Sophocles and Euripides, Jeff wrestled with the differences between performing a heroic act and acting heroically, stressed Byron's dislike for power games and nation-building politics, and left his audience thinking hard about what constitutes "glory." Patrick Waters, also from Virginia Tech, spoke on “Brothers in Arms: Aeschylus, the Housmans, and Byron.” A psychological interpretation centering on literary translation and its hidden agenda, his paper showed how A.E. Housman and Byron both used translation of Aeschylus as a way to express their own emotions—fraternal rivalry with his brother Laurence in Housman's extract from Seven against Thebes , and adolescent feelings towards the world in Byron's translated passage from Prometheus Bound . These papers were perfectly complemented by Peter Myrian's extempore account of “The Rise of Romantic Hellenism.” The off-the-cuff erudition of his informal presentation offered eloquent evidence of how sorely missed he'll by students on his retirement.
The remainder of Thursday was devoted to ceremonious and athletic excursions. After a call at the office of the governor of Aitoloakarnania, Mr. Dimitris Stamatis, the group visited the gulf beach of Tourlida, the chapel of the Virgin of the Palms on an islet in the lagoon (destination of Byron's sunset rides), and Homeric-era Plevron, where a guide from Messolonghi's Archaeological Office pointed out highlights of the mountainside excavations five kilometers northwest of Messolonghi. After lunch at the Theoxenia, the coach departed for Halkeia borough's picturesque seaside village of Krioneri (“cold water”) blessed by a clear and icy spring surrounded by rushes where the frogs utter Aristophanic Greek. Embarking on a fishing boat, the group sailed to a sheltered cove and labored up a stony zigzag path to the ancient cave chapel of Agios Nikolaos halfway to the summit of Mount Varassova. The exercise and salty breezes on the boat trip back gave everyone hearty appetites for the exceptionally bountiful fish feast offered by the Mayor of Halkeia, Mr. Nikos Stamboulopoulos, who warmly welcomed the group on behalf of his town.
Friday began with visits to some special sites in and near the Sacred Town of Messolonghi: the cathedral of Agios Spyridon visited by Byron, the House-Museum of the Greek national poet Kostis Palamis, the House-Museum of father-son Prime Ministers of Greece Spiros and Charilaos Trikoupis, the monument commemorating the site of the house where Byron breathed his last, Roman baths being excavated in Messolonghi's suburbs, and the monastery honoring St. Simeon that looks down on Messolonghi from the slopes of Mount Arakinthos. A lunch featuring specialties of the region was affably hosted at the TEI by its President Mr. Leonidas Panagiotopoulos and Vice President, Mr. Evangelos Politis Stergiou.
After lunch, on to the academic sessions. The fifth, chaired by Bernard Beatty of the University of Liverpool, began with Gavin Hopps of the University of Aachen, who offered “'Neither in Jest nor in Seriousness': Byron, Holderlin, and the Haunted Landscape of Greece”—an exquisitely nuanced discussion of the two poets' respective representations of a ghostly mode that plays between being and non-being. Then Valerie Aoun from Notre Dame University of Lebanon spoke on "Byron and the Greek Feminine Splendor." She asserted that Byron's ideal of feminine beauty is mainly Grecian and that all beautiful Eastern and Western feminine characters in his works are modeled after this ideal. Finally, Timothy Webb of Bristol University addressed “Competing in the Fisty Ring: Byron and Boxing Culture” in a fresh and dazzling presenation supplemented with contemporary pictures that helped show why the ever-competitive Byron was attracted to the world of pugilism. Particular attention was paid to “Gentleman” John Jackson, Byron's boxing coach and sparring partner, who had acted as a male model for some of the paintings of Thomas Lawrence—and to the explicit connection between the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles and prize fighters that shows how a British ruling-class penchant was often dignified and justified by reference to ancient Greek practices.
After the coffee break, Professor Webb returned for another round—this time as chair. First to speak was Harvey Oueijan of Notre Dame University, Lebanon, His paper "Byron's Perceptions of Democracy” related Byron's democratic values and ideas to the ancient Greek founders of democracy and discussed Byron's endeavors to reestablish democracy in 19th century Greece. Next Evan Gurney of the University of North Carolina presented “Byron and the Athlete's Ethos,” an ingenious extended analogy connecting Byron's poetic practices with the athletic skills cultivated by various Olympic sports. Aptly chosen, wide-ranging Byronic references grounded this bravura performance in solid fact and deep truth. The session went from strength to strength as Edward Burns of the University of Liverpool followed with an elegantly simple yet profound reading of Byron's “Prometheus.” This paper patiently and incisively explicated the differences between Olympian and Olympic, authoritarian tyranny and titanic (or mortal) heroism. Peter Allender of Bristol University concluded the academic session—and the series of papers—on an intellectual high note with “Keepers of the Flame? Some Recent Representations of Byron.” His powerful argument claimed that recent biographies do not capture the true spirit of Byron, either as a man or a poet—that amid their certainties and surfeit of detail, these studies end up giving a diminished and even infantilized view of their subject because the biographers are unable to sympathize with Byron's “creative doubt,” his divided, self-contradicting essence. A reception offered by the board of the T.E.D. K. of Aitoloakarnania and its president, Mr. Thymios Sokos, concluded the marathon day.
Saturday May 22 was almost as packed with incident. A wreath-laying ceremony in Messolonghi's Garden of Heroes preceded a footrace through the streets of Messolonghi featuring conference-goers and Messolonghiots alike. Next came a visit to the Municipal Museum of History and Art, where the Mayor of Messolonghi, Mr. Giorgos Prevezanos, welcomed the group. The governor of Aitoloakarnania, Mr. Dimitris Stamatis, offered a lunch at the Radio Station Restaurant, where conference ranks were enhanced by the arrival of more than a dozen students and faculty from the University of Athens and by Mrs. Katerina P. Panagopoulos, Greek National Ambassador to the European Council for Sport, Tolerance, and Fair Play, and her party.
The conference's official closing ceremony, attended by hundreds of people from the local and regional communities, began at 7 pm at the Trikoupi Municipal Cultural Center. The keynote lecture, introduced by Byron Raizis, featured Professor Bernard Beatty, who spoke on “Byron and the Olympic Spirit.” This lecture, which had been translated into Greek for the convenience of non-English speakers in the audience, lucidly tracked the provenance of the modern usage of “spirit” by way of the Greek translation of Hebrew which elevated spirit above soul, invoked Nietszche and how the odd the original games' blend of athletic competition and religious reverence seems to a modern consciousness, outlined the role of eris or strife in ancient Greek culture, then threw ludus ior play into the equation. Ranging widely through Byron's poetry and life, Professor Beatty pointed out many fairly straightforward versions of eris (athletic, literary, critical, political), and then tossed in ludus, which complicates the picture, sometimes bitterly and sometimes more benignly. His hopeful conclusion centered on how the modern Olympic games try to change international eris into world peace by means of ludus . Sharing the evening's spotlight was Mrs. Katerina P. Panagopoulos, Greece's distinguished Ambassador to the European Council for Sport, Tolerance, and Fair Play. Her speech on “Fair Play: An Alternative Culture for the Borderless World of Today” echoed (in Greek) a number of the sentiments articulated at the end of Bernard Beatty's keynote address and, further, called for an international prize for Fair Play that would be awarded at Messolonghi. A concert of Greek Constantinople's music and songs performed by students from the Department of Folk and Traditional Music of the Advanced Educational Technological Institution of Epirus concluded the event, which was followed by a dinner at the Plaza Restaurant offered by the Mayor of Messolonghi.
Sunday saw the conference participants back on their coach and back on the road for a spectacular tour of western Aitoloakarnania's valleys, mountains, villages, and Ionian coast. Lunch was kindly offered at the seaside town of Palairos by the Mayor of Kekropia borough, Mr. Spyros Aheimastos. The route back to Messolonghi followed the coast and afforded views of the islands of Lefkada and Kephalonia, then proceeded to Astakos and Katochi, site of the ancient theatre and Homeric-age port of Oiniades. A visit to the workshop of skilled maker of authentic Greek ethnic costumes Mr. Nikos Plakidas, a walk by the mythic Acheloos River, and a dinner offered by Mr. Gerassimos Nestoratos, the Mayor of Oinades, with Mr. Spyros Holevas's “Plucked String Orchestra” providing musical entertainment, concluded the conference's official events.
Next year's student conference at Messolonghi will center on “Byron the Homeric Traveller.”
(written by Peter Graham)