Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
Muted Poems appeared in 1972, one of seven volumes Ritsos published that year. Ritsos had always been a prolific poet, but that year’s output had a special cause. Since 1967, his work had been banned in Greece by the Georgios Papadopoulos dictatorship, and he was imprisoned or living in exile under house arrest on the island of Samos until 1972, when the official policy of censorship eased, allowing his poetry to be published again.
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“Fellow Diners” is one of the poems written in exile. Its meaning is political rather than religious, in spite of the biblical situation. As a Marxist committed to political comment, Ritsos was not interested in religion itself but in redefining the cultural heritage of Greece, both pagan and Christian, in a way that would be useful and significant for the common man of modern Greece. The story of the Last Supper would be a familiar drama of betrayal, to which Ritsos could draw certain political parallels in his own time. If anything, the poem criticizes the church by suggesting that it has its own brand of hypocrisy and corruption not unlike that of the Papadopoulos dictatorship.
By giving the poem a contemporary setting, Ritsos is granting the story of Christ’s betrayal, foretold at the Last Supper, a decidedly secular interpretation. Only the number of glasses invites the reader to make the parallel. The diners are unidentified, so who is supposed to be Christ and who Judas? For a religious reading of the poem, that would be a vital question. For a political reading, it hardly matters. The diners’ anonymity, indeed, is a functional ambiguity, since the political situation in Greece during the late 1960’s was so confused as to make it difficult to identify friend from foe, betrayer from betrayed.
The political reading, however, clarifies much in the poem that at first appears enigmatic. The systematic transfers of a dictatorship bogged down in “willed” bureaucracy is symptomatic of the halted advance of the society. The inconvenience with individuals, such as Ritsos’s own imprisonment, is minor in comparison with the social standstill of an entire nation. More serious is the political persecution in which the dead literally “disappear,” and those who are still visible are “absent”—if not physically then morally—in the climate of repression.
Still, there will always be those who claim that “Nothing’s wrong,” that there is always room for “one more” at the table of the ruling party, as long as one is willing to ignore the fact that fellow diners have no floor to stand on. As long as one is willing to give up freedom, he or she will be well fed, or at least “no longer hungry,” for the price of admission is to eat one’s own wings.
Ritsos was unwilling to engage in such self-destructive hypocrisy and paid for it with his physical freedom. In exile, he was not allowed to sit at the table of the ruling party because he refused to stop publishing or renounce his own writings; in other words, he refused to eat his own words, which were his wings, the essence of his freedom. “Fellow Diners” is a testament to the fact that he refused to imitate those who had willingly “eaten both of their wings.” There are more important liberties than the freedom of the body or the freedom from hunger, such as the freedom of the spirit, which must sometimes suffer exile in order to speak the truth.