We should call the world “a vale of Soul-making,” John Keats writes to his brother and sister in law in one of those many dazzling letters. For what is the purpose of the world? he asks. Don’t think of it as we’ve been taught, as a vale of tears, after which you escape to a better life in heaven, but instead as a school for forming us into Souls. “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”
Keats knew about suffering, to be sure. He comes to mind while I’m in Greece—yes, you’d think it would be Byron—so I decided to borrow his brilliant term to christen my blog.
For what if Keats had visited Athens today: a place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways. The World of Pains and troubles, from the daily grind of economics, overcrowding, traffic, protests, the strikes that always seem to occur just as you need to get to a particular public office or use a specific form of public transportation (and these are merely the mundane inconveniences) either cause a person to implode and head to the islands, or to become present to the making of a soul.
Melina Mercouri said in an interview some years ago that Greeks “don’t walk well,” they don’t walk with the utter confidence of Americans. While I know she was describing a state of mind more than literal foot-trodding, one is tempted to blame the infrastructure. Sidewalks aren’t just neglected: they seem perversely designed, so ragged and slippery, most of them narrow, the wider ones halved with a block of what looks like the speed-bump mechanism on American highways—very uncomfortable to walk on, yet precisely where you would want to walk, right in the middle—that they defy your attempts to stride confidently with your mind elsewhere, as on a treadmill. As a result, it is nearly impossible to walk in a half-conscious state in Athens.
There’s an ugliness to this chaotic tumble of off-white buildings piled upon one another and creeping up the slopes of the three mountains that embrace Athens—especially when compared to, say, the city center of Paris, all neoclassical harmony and consistently gray monumental order. But you’re also constantly turning a corner and being surprised by beauty: a secret garden, a ruined cottage, a lovingly restored 1930s house tucked between apartment blocks. There’s a stunning, pulsating life deep down things that is intoxicating.
Life is hard here but people stay for the Soul. (I’m speaking, of course, of those with the luxury to choose. There are many people here in Athens who are fleeing a worse situation and would probably scoff at the idea that this is soul-making for them.) Greeks go away to make money, but so many return home as soon as they can. Visitors fall in love with Greece and find ways to stay; I’ve met countless people from the US, UK, Australia, Germany, Norway who came to Greece for two weeks or six months and stayed 7, 19, 40 years because here they feel alive.