by Elettra Stamboulis
in “Daily Iraq”, Bergamo, Libri Aparte, 2009
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor is regarded as one of the leading travel writers. For the British Army, however, he also coordinated the Cretan resistance against the Nazis in 1944. In this role, he had a rather daring – but ultimately successful – idea. He organized the capture of the Reich Commander, General Kreipe, using Greek resistance fighters dressed as Germans. The prisoner was kept hidden in a cave, where one day the Englishman watched him as, lost in reverie, he gazed at the snow-covered slopes of Mount Ida and began to murmur an ode by Horace, “Vides ut alta stet nive Candidum Soracte”. The future British baronet impulsively continued the Latin poem by memory. The astonished Nazi general replied, “Ach so, Herr Major” and then added, “We have both drunk at the same fountains”.
Fermor recounted this episode to the Italian journalist and writer Paolo Rumiz sixty years later, pondering the fact that today the inestimable Iraqi heritage has been devastated. He noted how well prepared soldiers once were, pointing out that he had been sent to Greece because he had studied Homer and Kreipe because he had been a classics scholar. It is true that the classicistic background of much of the Reich’s hierarchy did nothing to prevent the Shoah or the incalculable catastrophe of World War II. Nevertheless, it is equally true that in this new world order/disorder we can glimpse a different distinction. While there is no question that World War II unavoidably and definitively brought conflict to the level of civilians, shifting from the battlefields of soldiers, the belligerents of the more recent war – not worldwide but scattered nevertheless – have counted historical legacy among the victims. This does not apply only to the so-called western front: the fallen in this battle of the symbolic include the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were initially saved to attract tourists but were then destroyed by the bludgeon of visual fundamentalism.
In a certain way, a war that operates on the level of symbolism and identity becomes iconoclastic. If the “other side” can be recognized through the value given to the image of a history, an artistic and cultural path, the simplest way to make people forget it is to annihilate or pillage whatever bears witness to such treasure.
In Costantini’s work, the visual synthesis of this ideological maxim merges with the imperative will to maintain a constant focus on the daily aspects of the conflict. A woman raises her hands, coloured red, in the middle of Polyclitus’ “Doryphorus”, captioned in German (to remind us that the Germans were the ones who gave us the weapon of archaeology). A few words with over-stylized gestures convey the setting: Operation Free Iraq, some of the places that give even the most absent-minded the feeling of guilt swept under the home carpet, Kirkuk, Mosul, a non-cathartic but evocative ritual. The elements of each work are an alphabet of worn-out memory and its gradual fading away. They form a sort of funeral pall of our conscience in the face of injustice committed not by a group of organized terrorists, but by the states of which we are taxpaying citizens. The epiphany of the classical work leads us back to the most sublime interpretation of our democratic culture, which “has drunk at that fountain”. It is a veteran epiphany, one that bears the visible signs of contradictions and dead ends. It is a visual alphabet whose narration is perturbing and it brings us back to an image we would rather not see. In recounting distorted reality, reality itself becomes an analogy and symbol, and thus facts are transformed into recognition. The epiphanic process of these works unquestionably reveals much of the Dionysian and little of the Apollonian of classicistic ideology. And, yes, Sir Fermor is probably right: the new generals are also less cultivated than the old ones.
1 The episode is described in Rumiz’s book Annibale (Milan 2008). It was also made into a film in 1957, Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde.