On his blog (http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2015/01/26/yesterday-greek-democracy-raged-against-the-dying-of-the-light-europe-and-the-world-should-join-us/), Yanis Varoufakis wrote:
“The people of Greece today sent a message of solidarity to the North, to the South, to the East and to the West of our continent. The simple message is that the time for crisis-denial, retribution and finger-pointing is over. That the time for the reinvigoration of the ideals of freedom, rationality, democratic process and justice has come in the continent that invented them.
Greek democracy today chose to stop going gently into the night.
Greek democracy resolved to rage against the dying of the light.”
But why did he choose this quote? And what does he mean? One might reasonably expect Syriza to reach back to Greece’s own literature to awaken the patriotic pride of the Greek people; after all, Greece still enjoys the status as the birthplace of modern Western society and its myths have long been used by Western countries as metaphors for current affairs. Indeed, two of Varoufakis’ own books on modern economy have the Minotaur in the title (The Global Minotaur, 2011; and Europe after the Minotaur, 2015), representing the economic crash as one of the most famous Greek symbols of aggressive monstrous power. However, referencing Greek myth can work against one as well as in one’s favour, as demonstrated by Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras’ victory speech after the elections (see: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/26/alexis-tsiprass-victory-speech-cassandra-myth-greek-elections). Announcing that “the new Greek government will prove all the Cassandras of the world wrong. [There will be] no mutually destructive clash…”, the social media response labelled it a Myth 101 error, as of course, in Greek myth, Cassandra, though never believed about the disastrous end of the war for the Trojans, turned out to be right all along. Not a good start for a subversive new government.
So perhaps Varoufakis wanted to move the Greeks away from their own heritage, to safer territory: it is always easier to see one’s current situation in the light of another period in history, or another people far away. Indeed, that explains to some extent why ancient Greece still appeals so much to the modern Western world, and why its mythology endures: because it allows us all to look at the human predicament from a safe distance.
Varoufakis might also simply have liked Dylan Thomas, and that he quoted him has made him appear as an intellectual, starkly contrasted with our own politicians. Perhaps he read about Thomas’ recent centenary, or (not unlikely) he got to know his poetry while growing up in Ireland and then studying and working in England. Varoufakis himself is quite a modern Odysseus: having traveled the world and gotten to know many people and their minds, he has returned to his fatherland to take up his responsibility and lead his people. Not only Odysseus, but through his incitement of menis (ancient Greek for 'wrath' or 'anger'), he is also Achilles, raging against his own mortality in the Iliad. By quoting Dylan Thomas, Varoufakis exemplifies the unity of literature and history in the Western world - yet is it coincidence that he demonstrably aligns himself with the literature of a political underdog in British history rather than the historical oppressor? Can we see in his choice of the Welsh narrative rather than the dominant narrative of England a metaphor for the alternative vision of Greece opposing the oppressing austerity narrative of the EU? Following his blog post, the Western Mail announced that Varoufakis had won many supporters in Wales (http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/leader-greeces-triumphant-syriza-party-8515272), and the struggle for a new alternative political narrative to be acknowledged as an alternative for the traditional vision is clearly a theme of the reference.
But why quote those actual lines? I have always found them depressing beyond measure: Dylan Thomas wrote the poem ‘Don’t go gentle into that good night’ when his father was dying, and I have long thought it represents the futile human refusal to accept its condition humaine of mortality. Surely, faced with the certainty of death, we should go gentle rather than insist on fighting against the inevitable? On the surface, the ‘good night’ Varoufakis refers to seems to be Western austerity against which he incites Greece to ‘rage’ if they are wise men, good men, wild men, grave men. If we interpret the poem as a bleak vision of the inevitability of death, Varoufakis' reference could be read as being as ironic for the success rate of the Greek economy as the Cassandra blooper by Tsipras! But on closer reading, there is actually a glimmer of hope in the poem. For if the process of dying is represented by the ‘dying of the light’ at the ‘close of day’, while death is the ‘good night’, then night will necessarily turn back into day. Read in that light, the adjective 'good' makes sense: the death of night is a good thing as it is a necessary precondition for the arrival of a new morning.
So, while I think Varoufakis’ reference to Dylan Thomas was primarily meant to incite rebellion of those who are suffering from the EU austerity measures, it is also the ultimate metaphor for a current predicament which is likely to get worse – but with the understanding that it will get better. Going into the ‘good night’ fighting means the morning might look more promising than if one gives up hope to the dying of the light.
I want to return to Tsipras’ reference to Cassandra. Yes, it’s correct that, in Greek myth, Cassandra turned out to be right. But anyone familiar with Greek myth knows it is as fluid as the sea, and transforms itself to fit new social, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Perhaps it is time for us to let go of the narratives of the past and allow Greek myth to transform once again: for Sisyphus to push that boulder to the top of the mountain, for Medea to take her children with her to Athens, … and for Cassandra to be proved wrong.
Whether you like Syriza or not, Varoufakis’ inciting reference to Dylan Thomas is a starkly realistic yet poetically hopeful assessment of the current economic situation not merely in Greece but in the entire EU. As myth and poetry from two ends of Europe collide, the message is clear: there is no us vs them, and there is no going back. We have already entered the inevitable ‘dying of the light’ together. How we emerge into the morning light is up to all of us.
For the full text of ‘do not go gentle’, see http://allpoetry.com/Do-Not-Go-Gentle-Into-That-Good-Night.
Written by Evelien Bracke