Chosen Cells – WdW Review

Chosen Cells  is a sequel to Solitary Subversives and our seventh article for Witte de With Review (an initiative of Rotterdam-based Witte de With Center for Contemporary Artof which we, and I, are their…  ‘Athens Desk’). Click here for the  Witte de With Review site which contains several photos missing here. Or read on… Cells; Installation view of Maria Papanikolaou, Prison, 2008. The performance and video installation depicts a living prisoner-performer and a (video) projected inmate. During the performance, the two assist each other to escape. Image courtesy of Maria Papanikolaou and


August 2014

“If the agent chooses bundle A over bundle B, where both bundles are available, it is revealed that he directly prefers A over B.” —Paul Samuelson, “A note on the pure theory of a consumer’s behavior,”Economica, 1938.

“Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another […] the one sole original, inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.” —Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals,1797.

1. Sign Here!

“I am sorry for the rough treatment. You are a good boy and did not deserve this. But you know, these are treacherous times and my men are on edge. Forgive them. Just sign here and off you go. With my apologies.”

The secret police officer seemed sincere and Yiorgos, the twenty-year-old Athens University student he was addressing, was relieved that his ordeal at the hands of the lowly security men, who had apprehended him on the steps of the Chemistry Department, was at an end. But then, as he began to read the statement the officer was asking him to sign, a cold chill ran down his spine. The typewritten page simply stated, “I hereby denounce, truly and in all sincerity, communism, those who promote it, and their various fellow travelers.”

Trembling with fear, he put the pen down, summoned all the gentleness of the French Enlightenment-sourced liberalism that his mother, Anna, had instilled in him over the years, and said: “Sir, I am no Buddhist but I would never sign a state document denouncing Buddhism. I am not a Muslim but I do not think the state has the right to ask of me to denounce Islam. Similarly, I am not a Communist but I see no reason for being asked to denounce communism.”

That conversation took place in the fall of 1945, at an Athens police station gearing up for the impending second phase of the civil war that marked Greece’s postwar history so indelibly. Thus, Yiorgos’s civil liberties argument stood no chance. In his defense, he had no way of knowing, having only recently arrived from Cairo, where he was born and raised in the bosom of a Greek community that enjoyed all the trappings of middle-class affluence denied to the Egyptian masses and, indeed, to the Greeks living in Greece.

Having given up a cushy job at a Cairo bank, so as to study chemistry in the land of his Greek father, Yiorgos arrived in Athens in January 1945, only a month after the conclusion of the first phase of the Greek Civil War, which was the Cold War’s first episode. A fragile peace deal between Left and Right prevailed upon his arrival, giving him a false sense that his decision to migrate from the bourgeois vestiges of Cairo to an Athens reeking with tension and hunger was not too foolish.

This illusion was further bolstered on the first week of the semester when he was approached by student activists of both the Left and the Right who saw in him an ideal compromise candidate for president of the students’ association, untainted as he was by either side of politics and a potential symbol of the prevailing truce. Lured by the ‘honor’ of being endorsed by both sides of student politics, he accepted. And when, shortly afterward, the university authorities doubled tuition fees at a time when students wallowed in absolute poverty, Yiorgos paid the rector a visit, arguing as best he could against the fee hike. As he walked out of that meeting, students working for the secret police manhandled him into a waiting van.

The young student leader’s reluctance to sign the denunciation document incensed the officer who summoned his underlings for a fresh round of beatings. With every blow the pain and terror pushed Yiorgos deeper into the contradiction of, on the one hand, craving to succumb while, on the other, feeling increasingly unwilling to sign. With every strike, every swearword, his signature on the denunciation document appeared to him less and less feasible. The longer the torture continued, the less at liberty he felt to do as he pleased—to sign, end the pain, and go home the same day. Thus, it was not for another five tortuous years, in a variety of cells and concentration camps, before Yiorgos would step out of his incarceration, into a grim society that neither knew of his peculiar choice nor really cared.

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  • Yanis,
    My father having been one of the ‘signature refuseniks’ (albeit of another group) in Makronisi and Ay-Stratis, I know exactly what you mean and how you feel. He chose his way in life and tried to teach his children to chose wisely themselves (not necessarily what he would like them to chose). He was glad, he used to say, that he had been able to see democracy (even the crippled kind of democracy we used to have before 2010) in Greece.
    Luckily for him he died in the year 2000. I’m sure he would have been grieved about our country’s situation, but on the other hand excited (himself having sided with the “revisionists” of KKE es./EAR/SYN) about the prospects of the Left being on the threshold of governing Greece. I share his (presumed) excitement and hope.
    I also hope, that if the Left is given the chance to govern Greece for the first time in history, they won’t make a mess out of it (worse than the Right and the “Socialists”, I mean).
    Keep up the good work, but please try to be a little less “polite” to TV show hosts and other interviewees.
    (I know that they don’t’ intimidate you, but they think that interrupting and being aggressive is well liked by the audiences. And, alas, it’s the audiences that we need to sway)
    Thank you,

  • It is good of you to share such a story. But, you’ve often struck me as something more of an advocate of existentialist rather than Kantian freedom. That may be misguided and premature as I’m neither Kant nor Sartre scholar, but it has seemed to me that you invoke freedom not only to assert human dignity, but also to destroy the pretensions of social science. And, while I wouldn’t want to turn your tale into an occasion for a sterile and pretentious debate about metaphysics, I must say the following: When your father (or anyone) remarks how the beauty of chemistry provided a source of inspiration, there is in that something more Platonic than Kantian. Because by “Platonic” I’ve not got in mind his politics or psychology where he disagreed with Socrates, but rather what philosophers speak of as ‘realism’, a conviction that what exists exists independently of human activities, and exists with a determinate nature, though one which we can only partially grasp. When scientists speak of the beauty of their objects of study I hear echoes of Plato’s talk of catching a glimpse of The Good. Not Kantian because for Kant (so far as I recall) we don’t even get a glimpse of the things in themselves.

  • Your beautiful story really made me think about the problem of choice again. Not being an economist myself, I have always believed in choice being something prefabricated, and sold to us in order to satisfy our inner emptiness together with Hollywood movies and Coca Cola.

    But you made me think about the choice from the ethical point of view. It can even be a deep expression of yourself. As you point out in your story about Yiorgos, sometimes we have a choice, even if we don’t, or at least it seems so. The problem is that the choice may not be our preference – to die in a prison can hardly be a preference. So we still have a question pending: What drives people to do that?

  • “Yiorgos arrived in Athens in January 1945, only a month after the conclusion of the first phase of the Greek Civil War”
    I’m afraid it was the second phase, not the first. The first was during Axis Occupation.

    • Not so. While there were certainly skirmishes between EDES and ELAS during the occupation, there was no Civil War. The partisans’ attacks on Nazi collaborators cannot, and should not, be thought of as a Civil War. The latter began in December 1944 and did involve generalised armed conflict between partisans and rightist/centrist forces that had opposed the Nazis.

    • Too many innocent people were murdered during Occupation just for their political beliefs or just because they didn’t want to join a particular party. This is not a detail. Without understanding Occupation period, we will never understand Civil War too.