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A Creative Artist's Journey into the Self: An Essay-Review A Creative Artist's Journey into the Self: An Essay-Review
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-10-31 04:04:28
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ImmiGrating arts by Thanos Kalamidas. EU-MAN Publisher, Helsinki, Finland

Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.

Where, then, are we going? Always to our home.

                                                                                                --Novalis  (Fragments)

Recently I received an unexpected gift in the form of a book. The book is titled ImmiGrating arts and it is authored by Thanos Kalamidas. He has recently traveled to Bologna for an exhibition of his latest graphic paintings. I had asked him to kindly share his experiences of Bologna. What I received was more than a narration of his trip to Bologna.

thanos01_400He also graciously included the story of his wanderings on three continents which is both an external and an internal journey into the self, into the origins of his creative artistic life; art understood in its widest aspect as  literature, the poetical, drawing, painting, graphic art, music, poetry just about everything that humanizes a human life and renders it holistic. This autobiographical narrative takes the form of a book that accompanies the exhibit.

I was very intrigued by its cover with its angel’s wings and a picture, which I believe is Thanos himself, a throw-back, so to speak, to that wondering archetypal hero in Homer’s Odyssey: Ulysses. The angel’s wings intimate that this is much more than a mere exterior physical journey, it is also a journey within the psyche.

The theme of “immigration” is also intriguing. At first it does not seem to fit with the theme of the archetypal Homeric hero. Nobody thinks of Odysseus as an emigrant from Ithaca and nobody thinks of immigrants as heroes, if anything they are undesirables in today’s Western world, but that is exactly what the book intimates: that far from being undesirables, those immigrants are the most brave and enterprising; they are the ones who can muster the courage to leave behind their country and go find one’s home and one’s self somewhere else.

After admiring the intriguing visual art work which includes various striking portraits and four mysterious angels I began to read the fascinating narrative which can perhaps best be described as an initial autobiography by its author. Surely there is much more to be narrated out of a surprisingly adventurous and wandering life. But it would be a mistake to read the narrative as a mere external physical journey through three continents or the story of an immigrant merely looking for economic opportunities abroad. It is much more. It is nothing short than a journey into the self.

I was immediately brought back to the figure of the archetypal wanderer condemned to roam the earth until released from a curse. This is a figure who appears not only in the Greek legend of Odysseus, but also in the story of the Wandering Jew (told throughout Europe from the 16th century on) replicated in Joyce’s Ulysses as represented by Bloom wandering through the streets of Dublin; also in the hero of Richard Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman, not to speak of Goethe’s Faust, or of the pilgrim Dante in the Commedia.

All these archetypal wanderers allude to the isolation experienced by most sensitive creative individuals within society, especially a society they were not born into. The wanderings of Ulysses in the Mediterranean sea, and those of Bloom through the streets of Dublin symbolize the loneliness of man who feels lost in a universe that he does not comprehend. These archetypal themes as discovered and developed by Jung are quite apparent in Kalamidas’ book, but the book goes beyond even Homer’s Odyssean theme of wander-lust and intimates the more overarching theme of man’s destiny, of the journey home as man’s final destination which is both the theme of ancient man and modern man as perhaps best represented by Goethe’s Faust. This is the issue of man’s destiny or what Kierkegaard calls “existential dread” in the face of freedom, and the surrendering of one’s soul and it is here that Kalamidas’ narrative gets very existential and interesting. 

Important to remember that in Goethe’s epic poem Faust has surrendered his soul before most of his journey takes place. On the other hand, the fate of Odysseus' soul (his relationship to Penelope and his son, and whether he will ever get home safely to them) is in question throughout his entire journey. Kalamidas claims that he has stopped running now (p. 50), which  can be interpreted hermeneutically that in some way he has arrived home and the achievement of a sense of peace and harmony. But this only begs the question: where is home exactly, is it the same as our destiny, our final destination, or is the journey itself the destination?

Actually, before the ancient Odysseus or the more modern Faust we can imaginatively go all the way back to Adam and the forbidden fruit. Kalamidas in fact mentions “the forbidden fruit” right at the beginning of his narration: “I need to try, I need to taste and the forbidden fruit is what always attracted me the most. And I know that this tasting and trying has led me into a lot of troubles and battles I hardly managed to win, but there is this tiny little thing in the end. At least I tried it and now I know.” (p. 2) The reader notices this penchant for “adventures of thinking and art” present in Kalamidas since his father gifted him with four seminal books: Socrates’ Apology, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and the Bible.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell notes that the first stage of the mytholo- gical journey, or the “call to adventure,” signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This happens in Kalamidas’ narrative. In his youth in Athnes under the Acropolis, he lives an external life open to society and an internal one which is a summon to adventure and a journey into the self and known only to himself. The forbidden fruit could be art itself. Kalamidas describes the origins of his passion for art as mingled with the sad events of his life within his family and Greek political life. How the very first drawing was a drawing of an angry Christ done with a black charcoal and mixed with blood, a custom he has continued observing in all his paintings. In fact he considers this sprinkling of blood his signal signature. Life and art could not get any closer than that.   

In remembering the Homeric archetype, it is important to keep in mind that when Odysseus is first called to the Trojan war, he does not want to go. His life is comfortable, and unlike other men who were preoccupied with heroic duty and military warfare, Odysseus was quite happy in his domestic life. Even when Agamemnon’s ambassadors arrived, Odysseus pretended to be insane. It was not until they put his son Telemachus in front of the plow he was driving that he acted to save his son and thus prove his sanity. But as once Odysseus is committed to the war effort he becomes the most loyal officer and the prime strategist and morale builder of the Greek troops.

thanos02After the Trojan war has ended, Odysseus’s new objective becomes returning home. In the Odyssey, when Odysseus encounters Achilles’ ghost in the underworld, Achilles says “I would rather be a hired hand back up on earth,/slaving away for some poor dirt farmer,/than lord it over all these withered dead.” So there is no immortality or transcendent destiny after death for Achilles or any other Homeric hero, except through being immortalized for his achievements in epic verse. Here is the importance of art for Kalamidas. It is a way to locate Being and immortalize oneself. The four mysterious angels actually lead to the question of transcendence: do they represent the transcendent to which art seems always to have pointed to. Does Being in this world (Dasein in Heideggarian terms) point with its symbols and metaphors to something that transcends the phenomenon?

There are hints in the Kalamidas’ narration that, consciously or unconsciously this may ultimately be one of the main preoccupation of the hero as artist. There is a chapter titled “Lost” wherein he mentions the pressure of his obligations as he came of age and says that “the only thing I wanted to do was to run. Anywhere, I didn’t care it didn’t matter. But I didn’t know how and where. And I ran, I ran as far as I could. My double life from my secret life became my surreal reality…I was turning into this dark shadow of myself, running without a cause.” (p. 20)

Eventually that unknown cause took the form of his artistic creative life which mitigated the pain of voluntary separation from his homeland: “My trips to Greece became more and more rare. Greece was hurting me, it was making me angry. I was missing my father; I was missing her and on the same time as I was running away from them, I was trying find them in my paintings and in my writings. And I was reading. All the time.” (p. 26). Kalamidas’ adventures and artistic life, his work, intermingle and fed on each other. A kind of sublimation via art takes place. But the question persists: where is home? We shall return to this crucial question in the last paragraph of this article.

Another important point: as he narrates it, Kalamidas does not shy from using computers for his artistic creations. He considers them mere tools. But he warns us that computers should be treated just as tools or they will “imprison you to their capabilities and that especially applies to the programs.” (p. 26). Moreover Kalamidas offers a theory of art which echoes somewhat Michelangelo’s own theory: “Every painting has started before you get the canvas and mix colors. Every story has been written in your mind long before you sit down in front of the keyboard and every sculpture is there waiting for you to bring it out long before the rock lands in front of you” (p. 26). He is clear in stating that what he learned in the art schools he attended was not how to paint, or what to paint, but techniques and methods and most importantly, discipline.

There are many harrowing and unforgettable scenes in this book with which an immigrant can sympathize and empathize with. There is the scene of the trip in the desert  on a motorcycle and experiencing the desert as alive, and crying at the top of one’s lungs to heal one’s psyche. There is also the discretely narrated youthful relationship with a mysterious woman never named; there are the four iconic angels and what they may or may not symbolize. There is the poem Hannibal in Rome and then the final scene of the imaginary killing of the art critic ending with the exclamation: “and then she kissed me.” Who does the kissing, a muse, a goddess, and is this a sign of healing or resignation? Much symbolism and food for thought here.

One of the most poignant chapters of the book is the one titled “And then it became Finland” wherein the author plumbs the depth of his journey into the self by suddenly realizing in his mature years that he had slowly slipped into a bourgeoisie life-style of subtle compromises with his creative talents and had become another consumer running after material goods and a “yuppie work” within a consumer society. As Kalamidas starkly puts it: I had left my dreams” and needed to go deeper into the self. Although not expressed, the nexus between the exterior bodily cancer and the interior spiritual tedium is easy to make. It necessitates other battles, some won some lost, in search of health of body and spirit. He dives into his artistic work in search of lost time and as a form of therapy. As he puts it: “I wanted to find the years I lost.” It is a sort of search for lost time and lost dreams. The memory of his father reappears suddenly while recuperating in a hospital, reminding him of his own failed dream of becoming a poet and then enjoining on him: “don’t make the same mistake.”  And so the old urge to run returned. The ultimate refuge seems to be a country where there is much snow and cold and the nights are long in the winter. He considers Alaska, but then settles for a country closer at home, elusive Finland; a country described by Kalamidas as “a strange country for an immigrant full of contradictions” but one which afforded the solitude that he aspired to throughout his life, “and Lapland is the perfect place to be alone with the nature.” (pp. 37-39).

At one point of his narrative Kalamidas points out a phenomenon that is quite familiar to every deracinated immigrant: “I was feeling more of foreigner in Greece than living in England.” (p. 31). This statement hit me like a thunderbolt, for it perfectly describes the sentiments of any immigrant that has to keep two or more cultures in harmony and balance. It is like walking on a high-wire with people watching if you will fall off. One does not completely feel at home in either one of the cultures but at the same time one knows that bi-culturalism or multi-culturalism provides a better perspective on either of those cultures. It is an experience similar to the man who escapes Plato’s cave and then returns to it after contemplating the sun. He runs the risk of not only not being able to persuade the comfortable complacent cave dwellers but of being run out of the cave or even killed.

There is much more in this book than merely the archetype of Odysseus as a cultural phoenix of sort that keeps reappearing time and again in cultural artifacts, or for that matter, the coming to terms with one’s past, or as Kalamidas puts it, that “standing up for your ideas is normal,” which since Socrates who died for his ideas is indeed quite normal; but it surely helps to be a Greek. What the reader will find there is an existential guide on how to journey into the self in search of lost time and one’s elusive ultimate destiny. It is the eternally recurring journey of man from cradle to tomb and pointing perhaps to some transcendent home. It is the healing of the aggressive male ego principle looking for his other better half who will kiss him and heal him, the female principle of contemplation and gentleness. And much, much more, surely not to disappoint the reader. 

And now my concluding remarks: what I believe may the most crucial philosophical issue explored in this book is the reflection that it engenders on “Being” and the places where it manifests itself: language, human artifacts, music, painting, poetry. Something that is apparent in Vico and Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger for one often speaks of the “self’s homecoming” to a place that is stable and secure and where one feels at home.

But there is another contrasting philosophy, about which I elaborated in one of the very first articles which I have submitted to Ovi magazine some five years ago. I refer to Emmanuel Levinas’ ethical philosophy with its focus on hospitality and compassion towards the Other,  encouraging responsibility for the stranger, for the widow, for the orphan, for the starving child; all enterprises which ethically supersede our attachment to place, often confused for patriotism and ushering in xenophobia as Heidegger himself in a way proved existentially by joining the Nazi party for a few month.

Which is to say, that a rapprochement is urgently needed between Heideggerian dwelling (Ulysses’ Ithaca) and Levinasian nomadism (Bloom: the wandering Jew). A new relation to home and home coming needs to be explored and imagined, a synthesis is needed. Alas such a synthesis is still lacking. I believe that Kalamidas’ narration of his “immigrant experience” properly understood hints at it. We are talking of a relation that stands in the center an does not succumb to narrow particularism, nor to rootless, global cosmopolitanism; it harmonizes the two extremes.

This book narrating the lived experiences of its author will undoubtedly inspire those readers who harbor those existential philosophical concerns in our modern global village, and it will do so not with bloodless, sterile, abstract, rational ideas, but with the poetry of colorful images and the sheer passion of an artist; what Joyce aptly dubs “the artist as hero.” Thank you Thanos Kalamidas for sharing your ongoing journey into the self.


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Emanuel Paparella2012-10-31 12:02:11
Two regretful grammatical corrections and oversights: 1) scroll down two paragraphs from the last: “fife years ago” should read “five years ago.” 2) the last paragraph and last line should read thus: “Thank you Thanos Kalamidas for sharing your ongoing journey into the self.”

Emanuel Paparella2012-10-31 16:24:11
Thank you editors for correcting the two typos I pointed to which were exclusively my mistakes.

Leah Sellers2012-11-01 04:26:41
Who does not fall in Love with the Heroic Mind, heart and Soul.
I'm looking froward to reading and viewing this book, Brother Thanos.
Thank you Brother Emanuel for Honoring Brother Thanos's Journey and Heroic Envisionings with your Insights and Gifts, Dear Sir.

Thanos2012-11-01 10:33:53
Thank you very much Emanuel and thank you very much for your friendship.

P.S. in the cover photo it is indeed me! :)

Thanos2012-11-01 10:34:33
Thank you Leah, I hope you got my mail!

James Woodbury2012-11-01 17:30:21
Dear Emanuel.
On the whole, this is a very enjoyable essay. However, Kalamidas's father certainly did his son no favor in presenting him with "Mein Kampf" as one of those four seminal books!
James W.

Francesco Tampoia2012-11-04 12:06:13
Dear Emanuel

Many thanks for your essay review of the book by Thanos. I enjoy it very much. It seems to me that it is a personal artistic and philosophical autobiography, a very important genre in literature dealt with by well known writers and philosophers such as Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau and Nietzsche. In the specific I see the examplar figure of European man, I tried to present in my essay ‘Voyage to Syracuse’. The idea of Europe as exemplarity is that one of ‘navigation’ or/and ‘heading’, of the recurrent metaphors used by intellectuals to evoke the movement of transfer, passage symbolized by the mythical-figure of Odysseus. It is also known, what is more important, the determinant role of Homer in the ancient Greek and Latin culture and in modern and contemporary European culture, that many intellectuals are inspired by, and the topos of Odysseus-¬Ulysses, the Man of Many Ways. The Odyssey is ‘an ancestral text’ for historians, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, occult magicians, novelists, science-fiction writers, biographers, auto-biographers, movie directors and composers of operas. To allude to Odyssey means to invoke an archetype, an authority of talismanic psychological power.
Again, thank you and my compliments to Thanos.
Francesco Tampoia

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