we are much less greeks than we believe…


A literary note on a real crisis

Eleni Kefala


In May 1948, in the aftermath of a devastating war, Europe’s politicians across the spectrum gathered at the Hague Congress to sow the seeds of European integration.Among the eight hundred delegates, there were philosophers, lawyers, historians, religious leaders, trade unionists, entrepreneurs, journalists and academics. In the North, a brave new world was about to rise from the ashes of Europe’s moral bankruptcy. In May 1940, six months before Greece would join the war against fascism, an Argentine writer, known only to the literary circles of Buenos Aires and to less than a handful of others in Europe, published a story in the magazine Sur about an imaginary world called Tlön. His name: Jorge Luis Borges. ‘It is conjectured’, wrote Borges, ‘that this brave new world is the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometers... directed by an obscure man of genius’.1 Borges’ story is a speculation on the nature of reality as a series of rational formulations or mental perceptions. The rationalist overtones of the society’s project are rendered conspicuous by the references to Leibniz and Spinoza, two of the most important advocates of modern rationalism. Whether subscribing via Borges to Bishop Berkeley’s empirical idealism or not, one cannot but muse on the dreary prospects of an over-rationalised society, examples of which are, sadly, always at hand.  

‘Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness’, Weber famously stated in 1919, at a time when Europe was breaking away from another catastrophic war.2 For the German sociologist and philosopher, the modern world was driven not by capitalism as such but by an increasingly hostile rationalisation. Weber was not alone in his grim account of the disenchanted world bequeathed to us by the modern promise of scientific progress and human freedom. Adorno and Horkheimer’s gusty critique of the Enlightenment owed much to Weber’s concepts of rationalisation and calculation. Enlightenment, they argued in 1944, ‘has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity’.3 

In 1929, the year that kicked off the Great Depression globally, another Argentine author was prophesying the dystopian future of Weber’s overly rationalised society. Roberto Arlt’s novel The Seven Madmen reflected on what could happen if the secret society’s rationalism went wrong.4 This time, Borges’ otherworldly Tlön was firmly fixed on native grounds. A conspiratorial secret society of madmen, anarchists, communists, proletarians, astrologers, spiritualists, occultists, inventors, prophets, pimps, prostitutes and vagabonds is headed by an obscure man of genius called the ‘Astrologer’ at Temperley, a town on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. The charismatic leader of erratic ideological colour sets out to subjugate the planet by means of military engineering and media propaganda. His revolutionary utopianism is financially buttressed by brothels, which are run by the ultimate man of reason, the mathematician Arturo Haffner. The Astrologer’s ‘new world’ would be administered by those few who control scientific knowledge, whilst the majority would live in a carceral society, blissfully ignorant of the invisible structures of power. ‘We are much less Greeks than we believe’, observed Foucault. ‘We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism’.5 Arlt’s novel could be read as a cognitive map of what Dussel has called the ‘underside’ of modernity, a decrepit modernity where unbounded rationality overlaps with rapacious irrationality.6 The Astrologer’s cynical plan is to put in motion ‘a whole world of puppets, puppets that will go forth and multiply’.7 Once again Arlt meets Dussel. For cynical reason, says the Argentine philosopher, ‘the person becomes a thing’.8 Arlt’s objectified characters are alienated individuals. His protagonist, Erdosain, feels like ‘a square centimetre of a man, a square centimetre of existence’,9 sojourning in Weber’s polar night. 

The Temperley conspiracy is not so much about an eccentric group of geographically, socially and epistemically marginalised deviants, as about a society that is itself deviant. In this sense, the Astrologer’s cynical reason and Erdosain’s existential crisis are symptomatic of the dark side of reason. ‘The anguish zone’, repeats Erdosain, is ‘the product of mankind’s suffering… That damned feeling of anguish that drags you down… You’re walking the streets under a yellow sun that’s like a plague sun… the dreadful unhappiness that’s inside us, deep down… the unhappiness of the soul which eats at our bones like syphilis’.10 The Astrologer reads Erdosain’s existential void not against madness (‘everything you say is logical’, he tells him),11 but against the backdrop of a rationalised and dehumanised society, which he emulates. Erdosain’s precarious position, that of the middle-class embezzler who owes the Limited Azucarer Company six hundred pesos and seven cents, turns him into a vagabond with no access to the wealthy areas of the city – that ‘other world… far from the brutish city he knew’, where the ‘magnificent architectural spectacle’ was ‘for ever denied to the poor and wretched’. Erdosain ‘wandered round the whole afternoon… peering at garages as splendid as silver dishes for mass, or the green plumes of cypresses protected behind crenellated walls’.12 For Foucault, the vagabond, along with beggars, madmen and the disorderly, occupied the ‘space of exclusion’, symbolically inhabited by the leper in the nineteenth century.13 His vagabond has been reconfigured by Bauman, who distinguishes between the wealthy or ‘tourists’, whose mobility is presumably unrestricted, and the disenfranchised or ‘vagabonds’, whose movement is necessarily limited. With scarce resources, the latter are ‘flawed consumers’, unwanted and scapegoated by the consumer society.14

Erdosain’s eventual suicide at the end of The Flamethrowers (the sequel to The Seven Madmen) takes place on the train, or, in De Certeau’s words, ‘in the state of reason’. The French scholar argues that in ‘the rational utopia of the train… the unchanging traveller is pigeonholed, numbered, and regulated… Every being is placed… like a piece of printer’s type on a page arranged in military order’.15 A metaphor of Foucault’s carceral society and Weber’s iron cage, the rational utopia of the train accommodates the demise of the bourgeois-turned-vagabond.Trapped in the rationalist city, Erdosain’s truncated consciousness interprets suicide as the ultimate reasonable solution. As he, ‘a hollow man, a shell’,16 takes his life in the realm of reason, the enlightened society spectacularly implodes. 

Arlt may be far more dystopian than Borges, but totalitarianism is not absent from Tlön. ‘The contact and the habit of Tlön’, Borges noted in his postscript to the story post-dated 1947, ‘have disintegrated this world… Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now… English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön’.17

It is true that, thankfully, our reality is far from Arlt’s and Borges’ deliberations. But it is also true that austerity-ravaged countries like Greece are struggling.18 With 1.5 million of the population unemployed, and pensions and salaries almost halved, with 60% of the youth unwaged, 32% of the people living below the poverty line and 18% being unable to pay for their food, with 90% of the loans from the EU, ECB and IMF used to bailout European banks,19 a debt that is 175% of GDP and an economy that has shrunk by 25% since the aid package in 2010, hundreds of thousands of Greeks have been and are being converted into vagabonds and flawed consumers day after day. Forced to the fringes of society, they are the wretched of the debt colonies. This is hardly the Europe our ancestors envisioned sixty-seven years ago. Getting our calculations right is crucial, but not mistaking people for numbers is even more crucial. We should not underestimate the humanitarian crisis that the austerity programme has caused,20 the countless truncated lives and suicides, and the extremism it has generated.21 And, above all, we should not forget where we set out to every time a calculating, cynical reason steered the wheel of humanity. Because then we didn’t just become less Greeks; we became less humans.



1. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, trans. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, Harmondsworth 1970, p. 32.

2. Max Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in Hans Gerth et al, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York 1946, p. 128.

3. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Concept of Enlightenment’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming, London 1997, p. 3.

4. Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen, trans. Nick Caistor, London 2015.

5. Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism’, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York 1977, p. 217.

6. Enrique Dussel, The Underside of Modernity: Apel, Ricœur, Rorty, Taylor, and the Philosophy of Liberation, trans. Eduardo Mendieta, New York 1996.

7. Arlt, p. 132.

8. Dussel, p. 68

9. Arlt, p. 55.

10. Arlt, pp. 6, 30, 31, 45.

11. Arlt, p. 78.

12. Arlt, p. 21.

13. Foucault, p. 199.

14. Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Cambridge 1998, p. 96.

15. Michel de Certeau, ‘Railway Navigation and Incarceration’, in Malcolm Miles et al, eds., The City Cultures Reader, London and New York 2004, pp. 266-267.

16. Arlt, p. 5.

17. Borges, p. 43.

18. See Paul Krugman, ‘Ending Greece’s Nightmare’, The New York Times, 26 January 2015.

19. ‘Giving Debt Relief to Greece Makes Economic and Moral Sense’, The Guardian, 2 February 2015.

20. Alex Politaki, ‘Greece is Facing a Humanitarian Crisis’, The Guardian, 11 February 2013.

21. Helena Smith, ‘Greece's Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Goes Global with Political Ambitions, The Guardian, 1 April 2013.


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 27 (07.2015)