"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Author Interview: Veronica della Dora

Earlier this year, as I noted, a good deal of attention focused on Mt. Athos thanks in part to a 60 Minutes documentary. This appeared alongside a new book about the mount: Veronica della Dora, Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place, from Homer to World War II (University of Virginia Press, 2011), 336pp. 

This book carries some significant endorsements from leading scholars, including:

Alice-Mary Talbot:
This is an extraordinarily original and innovative book. Although at first it might seem strange for a female scholar to write a book about a place she can never visit, Dr. della Dora turns this challenge to her advantage by focusing on the Holy Mountain as an 'object of desire,' and analyzing how various perceptions of it were transmitted over the centuries to viewers and readers, most of whom themselves never set foot on Athos. The book is not intended to be the 'inside story' of Athos, from the point of view of the monks, but Athos as seen "from the outside."

Metropolitan Kallistos WareAmong the many books written about the Holy Mountain, this is one of the most exciting and original. It uncovers an aspect of Athos hitherto little explored and makes a genuinely significant contribution to existing scholarship. Veronica della Dora is concerned not with the external history of the monastic peninsula but rather with the part that it has played over the centuries, and continues to play, in the imagination of monks, pilgrims and travelers. Beautifully written, scrupulously researched, fully illustrated, this is a visionary work, remarkable in its insight. 

I asked the author for an interview about her book, and here are her thoughts:

AD: Please tell us about your background:

VdD: I graduated from the University of Venice, Italy and continued my studies in the Geography Department of the University of California at Los Angeles. I received my PhD in 2005 and, after two years as a postdoctoral researcher by the same institution and at the Getty Research Institute, I moved back Europe to start my current appointment as Lecturer in Geographies of Knowledge at the University of Bristol.

I was baptized Orthodox Christian in the metochion (dependency) of the Athonite monastery of Docheiariou in Sochos-Lagkada (Greece) in 2001, before moving to the States.

AD: What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

The path that led me to this book is both academic and spiritual. As a cultural and historical geographer I have always been interested in processes of place making and in the ways people perceive place and landscape. There is a basic distinction between these two concepts. Place we tend to associate to meaning, to personal experience, to emotions; landscape to aesthetic contemplation. We always look at it from a distance.

I first encountered Mount Athos as a landscape. I was about to finish college and not quite sure what to do with my life. I had decided to learn Greek for a change and attend to a summer school in Thessalonica. One weekend the boys were taken to Athos. We girls were offered a boat tour of the peninsula. The night before, we were given a slide show. Images of magnificent buildings and black-robed monks ‘living like centuries ago’ captured my imagination.

Our boat left Sithonia early in the morning. Athos’ dark cone slowly started to loom on the horizon. When we passed the last monastery, Docheiariou, I suddenly remembered I had once talked to a monk from there through amateur radio. ‘Hold on, how can a monk be on a ham radio?!’ I couldn’t quite match images of austere clerics reading ancient manuscripts with HF transceivers and antennas. I became intrigued.

I decided to put my Greek to practice and wrote him a letter—out of pure curiosity, nothing else. Months passed by. ‘Maybe monks are misogynist and don’t write to women’, I thought. But one day I found an envelope stamped with the double-headed Byzantine eagle in my mailbox. ‘Dear Veronica, I am sorry it took me so long to reply, but I was working in the mainland over the summer and just found your letter’. It turned out that he and a small group of fellow-monks were building a nunnery outside of Athos, a place where women could live Athonite liturgical life.

The guy must have felt for my broken Greek and offered help. ‘I am glad you are trying to learn Greek not only because it is my mother tongue, but because it is the language of the Gospels. As a monk, however, it is not appropriate for me to keep a correspondence with a woman unless you have spiritual interests. Do you?’ ‘I am agnostic and know nothing about Orthodoxy. But I want to learn’.

We started to correspond, first through letters, later by phone. I would ask him about his daily routine and his faith. With patience and fatherly care, he would listen to me, correct my mistakes, teach me new words, and introduce me to his world.

One year later I met him at the nunnery. He was excavating the foundations of a new building with other fathers under midday’s burning sun. A bunch of sweating, dust-covered bearded men dressed in rugs—definitely not the image of monk I had in mind!
I spent few days there. I attended a long vigil. I couldn’t pick up a single word, but the chanting kept echoing in my mind for entire months after my return home. I revealed to him anxieties and personal problems. He provided me with sound advice which I treasured over the years. I found a safe shelter. I regained my faith.

I also found that dozens of other laypeople turned to the monastery, usually broken, suffering people: poor families, mothers of drug-addicted teenagers, couples who had lost their only child, the terminally sick. To each of them the monks would provide comfort, prayer, sometimes even financial help. They would not ‘preach’, but live people’s daily sufferings from within. For all these laypeople Athos continues to be a beacon of light and hope. For me it has ironically become the most stable landmark in a life of continuous changes and moves. From landscape, it has become a place.

AD: Tell us why you wrote this book:

This book was originally written as my PhD dissertation. Like, I believe, any PhD student, I wanted to work on a topic about which I was truly passionate.

I originally moved to the States in 2001 as an exchange student between my former institution in Italy and UCLA. That was two months after my baptism and exactly three days before 9/11. For a 23-year-old who had never lived by herself, let alone abroad, it was no easy task being catapulted to the other end of the globe under such dramatic circumstances. I think this is when my tie with Mount Athos started to grow stronger and stronger. In the midst of daily difficulties and uncertainties, I knew the fathers would light a candle for me and this gave me strength. I liked to think that every night, as Europe was still asleep, the monks would get up to go to church and would pray for the entire world. Everyday I saw a little miracle happen and felt closer and closer to the Holy Mountain, even though I was so distant.

The year I was preparing for my ABD exams, the European parliament had just passed a resolution of fundamental rights in the EU calling the Greek government to lift Athos’s avaton. All the articles I came across in the newspapers and on the web talked about the exclusion of women from Athos; none of them talked about the social and spiritual role of the Holy Mountain in the lives of those thousands of men and women, like myself, unable to visit it. As an insider-outsider, I felt disturbed by the caricaturization of Athos and its inhabitants in the press as a monolithic exotic other cut out from the rest of the world. As a scholar, I became interested by the genealogy of these perceptions and representations. More generally, I became interested in the processes through which a place circulates outside of its physical boundaries. 

I guess I ultimately wanted to show that physical distance does not necessarily mean exclusion from a place, and conversely, physical access does not always mean inclusion. The stories of many western travelers of the past and their orientalist constructions of Athos seem to confirm the latter point.

Finally, I wanted to show the cultural complexity of the place. I found that most scholarly monographs and tourist guides tended to focus only on certain aspects of Athos, which is its Byzantine legacy and sacredness. As I started to dive in the archives, I discovered a plethora of other stories: pre-Christian stories, stories of war refugees, botanists, sociologists, military strategists, and women. Some of these stories have appeared in specialized studies in various languages; many others just lay forgotten on dusty library shelves. I thought that taking these stories out of the archives and grouping them in a single volume would add another dimension to current scholarship on the Holy Mountain.

AD: For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

When I set to write my dissertation proposal, the audience I had in mind was predominantly academic. As I moved on and came across so many exciting stories and images, however, I felt more and more compelled to write for a general public interested in Mount Athos. I thought it would be a shame to confine these materials to a specialized scholarly audience. When I rewrote the work for publication, I set this as my main task, by expunging academic jargon, for example, and trying to make the book accessible and pleasant to read also to a non-academic audience.

AD: Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?

Yes, definitely. There were many surprises and I believe this the beauty of research: you set off with a set of research questions and expectations and end up with something totally different. For example, I had no idea Athos had been a geopolitical observatory or a refuge for WWII allied soldiers, or that late Byzantine scholars and western Renaissance mapmakers represented it as some sort of insular utopia.

Every account or image I encountered during my research was a surprise in itself. I found some stories bizarre, populated as they were by eccentric philhellenes who would normally lecture in togas, by voracious bibliomaniacs after Athos’ precious manuscripts, or by lunatic early-twentieth-century adventurers gaining a reputation for having crossed the Alps on elephant back. Other stories I found moving. For example, I could not hold back my tears while reading the autobiography of WWII Australian heroine and philanthropist Joice Nankivell Loch, who for many years inhabited the Byzantine tower of Ouranoupoli and, with her husband, helped rescue the village from famine. Like myself and many other women, Joice felt part of the Athonite community even though she could not physically cross the border.

AD: Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

There are several excellent monographs on Mount Athos, including Graham Speake’s beautifully illustrated Renewal in Paradise.

I guess two things make Imagining Mount Athos unique, or at least sui generis: the first is my female authorship (and thus my positionality); the second is my approach as a cultural geographer. I am not so much interested in the factual history of the place (this has been already written), as in ways of seeing it and in the multiple narrative channels through which Mount Athos travelled outside of its boundaries throughout the centuries.

Since pre-Christian times, Athos has been usually narrated as an island. Today many still tend to forget it is a peninsula. It continues to silently stretch far beyond its boundaries, as it always did. A woman named Maria Lagoude wrote in the eleventh century:
From old and from the beginning, and so to speak, from the time I was in my mother’s womb I was raised by the monks of Lavra. During our entire life my husband and I have been devoted to the Lavra and have much faith in it because of the virtue of the fathers who live there and their compassionate soul-loving disposition... At the Holy Lavra my husband and I found a harbour of salvation (A.M. Talbot, ‘Women and Mt Athos’, in Mount Athos and Byzantine Monasticism, p.78).
As Alice-Mary Talbot commented, this woman envisaged the abbot of the monastery as ‘her spiritual father, the Lavra as her mother, and herself as one of the brethren and children of the Lavra’—a place she never saw, even from the boat.

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