Daniel Mendelsohn's new translations, after decades of reading the others, prompted these 10+ propositions the summer of 2009.
1. Cavafy’s world consists of men. Women and children exist only peripherally. Cavafy rarely mentioned families.
It is a lack of interest which Cavafy felt no need to disguise or excuse. One either feels sympathy or one doesn’t, but it’s a choice that’s hard to square with literary ambition. It’s eccentric: what other writer ignores women so thoroughly? Conrad, Melville, Plato, and gay male pornography. Cavafy’s poetry does evoke homoerotic reverie, but it doesn’t stay there, it doesn’t remain merely private. Cavafy writes about frustrated Alexandrian homos during the British Protectorate not because they are different, but because they are absolutely typical. Their frustrations are everybody’s. No one is any different, any better off.
Nature, likewise, is never mentioned by Cavafy; not even the landscape. It’s hard to think of a poet with less interest in nature. Nothing matters outside of men, and their dreams and fears. You see it also in his paucity of visual details. Cavafy doesn’t provide compelling images; his method is to tell how things felt. A man struck him as beautiful, and that’s all we need to know. The specifications of that specific embodiment of beauty are irrelevant, and would probably only baffle the reader.
These are the first of his refusals that you notice. There are many others.
2. There are moments of sympathy. In Cavafy’s world it is possible to experience moments of fellow-feeling with another person. This is what happiness is. This is the only happiness. This love or affection can come from desire, which is prompted by beauty.
Or it can come from a more detached discovery that someone else feels like me. This is an illumination that can come about between people directly, or through art, especially through art. For Cavafy, the artifacts in museums and libraries were telephones waiting to connect us with distant friends and colleagues.
I, Iases, lie here. The young man
renowned for beauty, of this great city.
The very wise admired me; and also the shallow
common people. I was pleased alike by both.
But by dint of the world’s having me be a Narcissus and Hermes,
dissipation ravaged me, killed me. Traveler,
if you are an Alexandrian, you will not condemn. You know
the rushing torrent of our life; what ardor it has; what supreme pleasure.
(”Tomb of Iases” Rae Dalven’s translation)
Cavafy was thinking here of not only of the young man, but also his predecessor poets of the Greek Anthology. Agathias Scholasticus, for example, who, 14 centuries earlier wrote:
Agathonicus had diligently studied jurisprudence, but Fate has not learnt to fear the laws, and laying hands on him tore him from his learning in it, before he was of lawful age to practice. His fellow-students bitterly lamented over his tomb, mourning for the ornament of their company, and his mother tearing her hair in her mourning beat herself, remembering, alas, the labour of her womb. Yet blest was he in fading young and escaping early the iniquity of life. (R.W. Paton)
While intellectual or aesthetic illumination can be powerful, only desire can transport us. Desire really is a great power for good.
Hence Cavafy’s ridicule of taboos against homosexuality aren’t early 20th century agitation for gay rights. He didn’t object to society’s repression of homosexuality on the grounds that it is a violation of justice, but on the grounds that the repression is not practicable. The body, nature or desire—it will not be constrained by prudery. To fight against this only results in unnecessary frustration and unhappiness.
Similarly, Cavafy didn’t refrain from faulting people who go against nature by excess—both people who have denied themselves and people who have indulged themselves. If the self-indulgent usually end badly, the self-deniers inevitably do:
He remembers the impulses he bridled; and how
much joy he sacrificed. His foolish caution, now,
is mocked by each lost opportunity.
(“An Old Man” Daniel Mendelsohn)
2.1. But these moments of sympathy are short-lived. In Cavafy’s world, because of nature, because of society, because of how we are made, happiness is unsustainable.
Anyway those things would not have lasted long. The experience
of the years shows it to me. But Destiny arrived
in some haste and stopped them.
The beautiful life was brief.
(”In the Evening” Rae Dalven)
Happiness as an illusion. Life is bad; only dreams, romance and art make it bearable. Only the stupid or insensible can be content. ”September of 1903” begins
At least let me be deceived by delusions, now,
so that I might not feel my empty life.
Realized dreams pall, though that isn’t in itself isn't disheartening:
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.
… Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey;
without her you wouldn’t have set upon the road.
But now she has nothing left to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca didn’t deceive you.
As wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
you will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.
(“Ithaca” Daniel Mendelsohn)
In Cavafy’s world, dissatisfaction and boredom are the inevitable end of all episodes of contentment. Separation is inevitable, whether it comes mildly—through drifting apart, or violently—or a combination of both:
Certainly their love wasn’t the same as before;
the attraction had been gradually diminished,
its attraction had been very much diminished.
But still, that they should part-- that they didn’t want.
It was just the way things were.-- Or perhaps it was that Fate
was something of an artist, separating them now
before their feeling died away, before Time could alter them:
Each one, for the other, will be as if he’d stayed
twenty-four years old, the exquisite lad.
(“Before Time Could Alter Them” Daniel Mendelsohn)
The only lovers that Cavafy writes about are separated lovers. The only united lovers he mentions are viewed from the outside, usually by one of the persons involved after the affair has ended.
3. Hence men are alone. The men who inhabit Cavafy’s world variously fear, desire, bore, remember each other but they rarely communicate, rarely connect. Accident, miscommunication, time and distance keep men apart.
Cavafy wrote solitary reflections about moments of solitary reflection.
4. Not only happiness, but the world as a whole is transitory. My self and everything associated with me is ephemeral, as a whole and in detail.
Like Proust, Cavafy was moved by the divergence between of then and now—the metamorphoses of Mr. So-and-So over time.
And he was also alert to the divergence between the meaning of Mr. So-and-So’s sculpture in its own time, and the meaning of that sculpture now. History—or, rather, successive futures—will assign meanings to our actions, which will probably have nothing to do with our intentions.
5. Thinking is always thinking about the past. Cavafy agreed with Valéry that “Possession means ceasing to think; but loss means possessing indefinitely in the mind.”
Things exist in Cavafy, but they matter only to the extent that they are infused with memories. The meaning of a place is the memories it evokes.
The surroundings of the house, centers, neighborhoods
which I see and where I walk; for years and years.
I have created you in joy and in sorrows:
Out of so many circumstances, out of so many things.
You have become all feeling for me.
(”In the Same Space” Rae Dalven)
This the opposite of—among many things—of Futurism, enjoying the height of its vogue as Cavafy began writing his mature work.
5.1. Happiness—like everything else—exists only in the past tense. It’s significant that even though Cavafy began writing poetry at 19, and began publishing at 23, it was only when he was in his late 40s that he found a voice, a tone, and subject matter that was uniquely his own. In the years just before World War I, when he found himself living alone for the first time, everything came together, and he became unique, irreplaceable.
The sense of looking back at people caught up in a drama, sympathizing with their passion, but, at the same time, certain of the futility of it all. There is something of this tone in the 7th century BCE Shield of Heracles, which describes the world depicted by artists on a shield, including farms, ships at sea, a wedding celebration and ...
… men fighting in warlike harness, some defending their own town and parents from destruction, and others eager to sack it; many lay dead, but the greater number still strove and fought. The women on well-built towers of bronze were crying shrilly and tearing their cheeks like living beings—the work of famous Hephaestus. And the men who were elders and on whom age had laid hold were all together outside the gates, and were holding up their hands to the blessed gods, fearing for their own sons. But these again were engaged in battle: and behind them the dusky Fates, gnashing their white fangs, lowering, grim, bloody, and unapproachable, struggled for those who were falling, for they all were longing to drink dark blood. (Hugh G. Evelyn-White)
6. The natural state existing between men is misunderstanding In Cavafy’s world every attempt at communication initiates a drama that usually ends either in comedy or tragedy or both. It makes no difference whether the attempt is directly between two people or through a message, they both usually end in misunderstanding.
Cavafy writes about poets often, not because they are exceptional but because they are so ordinary. We all struggle to make ourselves understood.
But even more often Cavafy writes about men who are actors, who are playing a part, rather than expressing their own feelings.
In particular, Cavafy is drawn to the situation of foreigners and provincials, who struggle to speak someone else’s language, usually Greek.
Part of the effect of these poems is that Cavafy himself was writing in Greek, “the messenger of fame,” accepting it as the accident of his birth, and embracing it as a legacy connecting him with millennia of Hellenic culture. It was a choice, after all: he wrote some early verses in English; he renounced his dual British citizenship when he was 22.
And Cavafy wrote in Greek during a time of popular debate about Greek language: controversy between the demotic and the classicizing traditions.
Cavafy is always aware of speaking Greek outside of Greece. The situations comes up again and again in his poems. There is a comic pathos, as in “Potentate from Western Libya”:
… and in his heart he dreaded that by some chance
he’d lose the goodish impression that he’d made
by speaking a terribly barbaric Greek
and that the Alexandrians would poke fun at him,
as is their wont, horrid people.
For this reason he confined himself to a few words,
frightfully attentive to his declensions and his accent;
and grew bored to death, with all those
conversations piled up inside him.
Cavafy also registers the situation of identifying with a time and place that are not ones own. There is so much pretending: pretending to be indifferent, pretending to care, pretending to be someone else ….
And unsurprisingly, Cavafy often writes about being unable to speak. This not being able to say, not being able to express, not being able to speak frankly is paraleipsis, a figure of classical rhetoric used to generate curiosity, and dramatic suspense.
Even though I may not speak about my love—
I may not talk about your hair, or your lips, or your eyes; …
(“December 1903” Daniel Mendelsohn)
But in Cavafy it’s not just a figure. Cavafy is resigned to silence; he prefers it.
But he also likes telling. Perhaps the most conventionally gay thing about Cavafy’s poetry is how much of it takes the form of gossip. So many of Cavafy’s poems seem to be prefaced by “Him? What do you want to know? As a matter of fact it might surprise you ….”
This ambivalence between silence and gossip appears in Cavafy’s idiosyncratic method of disseminating his poetry. During his life he published in magazines and newspapers, but refused to collect his poems in a book. Instead he distributed periodically updated handmade chapbooks to friends. A conventional book appeared only after he died, as with Mallarmé and Kafka.
Another aspect of this is how much he enjoyed savoring second thoughts, the transition from impulse to artifact. A book would have frozen the process.
Besides, I can imagine Cavafy liking the effect his poems made when they appeared in periodicals. Being juxtaposed with journalism and miscellaneous topical junk by other hands would have emphasized the poems’ idiosyncratic aloofness and absence of hope.
6.1. Despite all, men struggle to communicate and to understand. In Cavafy’s world, reading, hearing, and understanding is a struggle, spurred by the possibility of sympathy. To apprehend, for the recipient of the message—the listener or reader—is to struggle against incoherence:
With difficulty I read upon this ancient stone …
Amidst the erosion I see ‘Hi[m] … Alexandrian.’
Then there are three lines radically cut short;
but some words I can make out-- like ‘our t[e]ars,’ ‘the pain,’
‘tears’ again further down, and ‘grief for [u]s his [f]riends.’
In love, it seems to me, Leucius was greatly blessed.
In the month of Hathor Leucius went to his rest.
(”In the Month of Hathor” Daniel Mendelsohn)
The figure of the Reader appears constantly in Cavafy. Cavafy’s world, for all its simplicity, nevertheless puzzles the men who inhabit it. There is the struggle to understand a stranger.
The struggle to understand a friend.
The struggle to understand a foreigner.
The struggle to understand a writer.
The struggle to understand an artist.
The struggle to understand the writings of Philostratus, Julian, Plutarch, Gibbon, ….
Cavafy often wrote of the struggle of the 20th century man to decipher some artifact of the distant past. This is probably how he saw himself, and how he saw everybody.
Cavafy was especially drawn to the the divergence between an art work’s imaginative content and the art work’s physical manifestation. The art and the artifact are often at war: the statue smashed, the papyrus bearing the poem has come down to us in shreds … yet something remains alive. In Cavafy’s meditations on photographs, like “From the Drawer,” something of beauty is preserved. But the artifact itself is dead, and already in tatters:
I had in mind to place it on a wall of my room.
But the dampness of the drawer damaged it.
I won’t put this photograph in a frame.
I ought to have looked after it more carefully.
Those lips, that face—
ah if only for a day, only for an
hour their past would return.
I won’t put this photograph in a frame.
I’ll endure looking at it, damaged as it is.
Besides, even if it weren’t damaged,
it would be annoying to be on guard lest some
word, some tone of voice betrayed—
if they ever questioned me about it.
(”From the Drawer” Daniel Mendelsohn)
And then, often in Cavafy there is a divergence between an art work’s intended message and the message received.
One instance of this kind of miscommunication that particularly fascinated Cavafy was the divergence between public meaning and private meaning. It could happen with a work of art or with a person. The sense of a person derived from a superficial glimpse in the street is transformed on learning an intimate detail. A scene, a place, a portrait, a text, an artwork, a gesture means little until a bit of essential information is revealed.
In the Greek Anthology, we find Bianor of Bithynia marveling in the 1st century CE, “This man, a cypher, mean, yes a slave, this man look ye, is lord of some other’s soul.” (R.W. Paton)
These themes are combined neatly when there is a divergence between a portrait and the person portrayed:
For a while he emerged from his lechery and drink,
and ineptly, in a kind of daze,
cast around for something he might plot,
something he might do, something to plan,
and failed miserably and came to nothing.
His death must have been recorded somewhere and then lost.
Or maybe history passed it by,
and very rightly didn’t deign
to notice such a trivial thing.
He, who on the four-drachma piece
left the charm of his lovely youth,
a glimmer of his poetic beauty,
a sensitive memento of an Ionian boy,
he is Orophernes, son of Ariarathes.
(”Orophernes” Daniel Mendelsohn)
Cavafy has no illusions about Orophernes; he doesn’t make any claims for him other than that he prompted an arresting image on a coin. But that is not nothing, and Cavafy is scrupulous about giving him his due.
7. If understanding proves impossible, one can always savor the comedy and tragedy of the struggle to communicate and the struggle to understand.
7.1. The main activity of men is listening and speaking. The dramatic situation of most of Cavafy’s poems revolves around a man who is listening to (or scrutinizing, or pondering) another man. Or a man who is reading (or attempting to follow, or decode) another man’s message. Sometimes the man is the narrator of the poem.
One of Cavafy’s favorite characters is The Listener who can’t follow the person speaking to him: isn’t able to follow him or isn’t willing to make the effort to follow him. ”And Above All Cynegirus” begins:
And today he’s listening, without
paying any attention at all, to the renowned sophist
who’s speaking on Athens; who gesticulates,
and gets carried away, and tells the tale
of Miltiades, and the glorious battle of Marathon.
He’s thinking about the drinking party he’ll attend tonight
… He’s thinking about how well he’s doing here.
But his money’s running out. And in a few months
he’ll be going back to Rome. …
7.2. It is not the event itself, but its echo that matters. Not the love or the grief, or the battle or the coronation or the slide into insignificance in itself, but its reverberations in a very distant place, at a much later time.
7.3. Everything is triangular. Everything that resonates is triangular.
There is the man who communicates, there is the man who listens, and then there is the man who observes them both. It is by observing others communicating and listening, that we can occasionally come to experience the illumination of sympathy ourselves.
In ”After the Swim” the triangle expands into a tangle of allusions. At first it seems to be Cavafy describing something he saw:
Naked, both of them, as they emerged from the sea at the Samian
shore; from the pleasure of the swim
(a blazing summer’s day).
They were slow getting dressed, they were sorry to cover
the beauty of their supple nudity
which harmonized so well with the comeliness of their faces.
Ah the ancient Greeks were men of taste,
to represent the loveliness of youth
But it continues:
He wasn’t completely wrong, poor old Gemistus
(let Lord Andronicus and the patriarch suspect him if they like),
in wanting us, telling us to become pagan once again.
My faith, the holy one, is always firmly pious—
but you can see what Gemistus was saying, to a point.
On young people at that time the teaching of
Georgius Gemistus had great influence,
who was most wise and exceedingly eloquent;
and an advocate of Hellenic education.
So instead of being Cavafy in the 20th century, the narrator turns out to be some ninny of the 15th or 16th century, anxiously distancing himself from his admiration, attributing it to someone else. Who he then half-excuses and half-dismisses, with a tone of complete indifference. It is intricate work. And there might even be a touch of Walt Whitman, who in “Song of Myself” spies a woman spying on
The beards of the young men glistened with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams passed all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also passed over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies swell to the sun … they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
Cavafy also achieves this triangulation by presenting a poem, then commenting on it in a way that alters its effect. Already in the 1890s he did this with a poem that included a translation from Baudelaire.
One of Cavafy’s favorite dramatic situations is looking back in time at a poet who is, himself, looking back in time: a 20th century Common Era poet (himself) describing a 2nd century BCE poet who is describing events from the 4th century BCE ”Epitaph of a Samian” begins
Stranger, by the Ganges here I lie, a man
who lived a life of lamentation, toil, and pain;
a Samian, I ended in this thrice-barbaric land.
This grave close by the riverbank contains
many woes. Undiluted lust for gold
drove me into this accursed trade.
Shipwrecked on the Indian coast, I was sold
as a slave. Well into old age
I wore myself out, worked until I breathed no more—
deprived of Greek voices, and far from the shore
of Samos. What I suffer now is not, therefore,
fearful; and I voyage down to Hades without grief.
There among compatriots shall I be.
And forever after I shall speak in Greek.
And after a break, continues:
The lines above are taken from the poems,
referring to a time before the Persian Wars,
that Cleonymus the son of Timandrus wrote
In Seleucia, a poet who was patronized
by King Antiochus Epiphanes.
He took a clever pleasure in the jarring phrase:
‘Without ever hearing or speaking Greek.’
The initial sonnet was composed by 1893—a self-contained pastische. But Cavafy revisited it near the end of his life, incorporating it into a poem-within-a-poem. Cleonymus is fictitious but Antiochus IV Epiphanes, 215-163 BCE., is not.
It is not just a spoof of anachronism, but frames the 20th century poet and poem as elements of a series of reflected reflections, a mise en abyme.
But still there is an element of earnestness to it. Compare with “1887” of Housman—another contemporary of Cavafy:
It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.
Registering something of the same mood as these reflective/reflecting poems are the paintings of painters painting by Picasso, or of painters’ studios by Braque, in which the 20th century modernists claim kinship with their predecessors.
8. Men can sympathize with each other because people are not complex. In Cavafy’s world all men are the same, living the same life, with the same joys and sorrows. People have secrets, but they are always found out.
8.1. Similarly, the world is not complex. There is no progress, and there will be no judgment, no salvation, and no redemption.
8.2. Hence it is possible to sympathize with men who live far away, or with men who lived in the distant past. Sensational acts and world-historical gestures are irrelevant. The banal is eternal and ubiquitous, and suffices.
Cavafy prefers writing about mediocrities rather than geniuses or heroes. Unlike the also history-minded Pound, Cavafy doesn’t engage raids into the flashier parts of world history.
When Cavafy does write about celebrities, it is never about their celebrated actions, but a moment of reflection, when the historical figure is alone with his thoughts.
Like one who’s long prepared, like someone brave,
as befits a man who’s been blessed with a city like this,
go without faltering toward the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the entreaties and the whining of a coward,
to the sounds—a final entertainment—
to the exquisite instruments of that initiate crew,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.
(“The God Abandons Antony” Daniel Mendelsohn)
And as he banished women, children, God, and nature from his poetry, he also banished everything except Hellenic culture. There is no Islam in Cavafy; no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution. The years from the Fall of Constantinople to the establishment of the British Protectorate don’t exist in his world.
But there are telling gaps in his philhellenism. He is concerned only with the Hellenic world from Alexander to 15th century, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine world. Cavafy mentions little or nothing before or after. He neglects Plato and Homer. He doesn’t interrogate the Pre-Socratics. No archaic torsos command him to change his life.
For Cavafy Greek meant something different from his symbolist, neo-classical or surrealist contemporaries. He felt it as a long-lived tradition, which included Orthodox Christianity. It was a provincial tradition, important because it was his tradition, especially as it related to Alexandria.
Cavafy’s Alexandrianism was an effect, not a cause. What mattered was not this or that attribute of the place, but the fact that it was a living link to the past, and that he lived in it. Hence the paucity of descriptions of his home. Like Borges, Cavafy loved his hometown so much he forgot to describe it.
And even some of the poems that seem to be most sentimental about Alexandria are not free of a hint of parody. “For Ammonis, who died at 29 in 610” ends
Raphael, your verses should be written so
that they will have, you know, something in them of our life,
so that the rhythm of each phrase will show
that an Alexandrian is writing of an Alexandrian.
Cavafy is recalling, in a different tone, his predecessor Dioscorides, writing in Alexandria in the 3rd centry BCE:
Gone is the honour of the Alexandrians and Moschus, Ptolemaeus’ son, has won glory among the young men in the torch-race, Moschus, Ptolemaeus’ son! Woe for my city! And where are his mother’s deeds of shame and her public prostitution? … (R.W. Paton)
In “Julian and the People of Antioch,” Cavafy presents civic pride as a form of snobbery:
Was it ever possible for them to give up
their beautiful way of life; the rich array
of their daily entertainments; their glorious
theater where was born a union of Art
and the erotic predilections of the flesh!
Immoral to a point—quite likely to a real extent—
that they were. But they had the satisfaction that their way of life
was the much discussed life of Antioch,
pleasure-bent, absolutely elegant.
To give up all of that, and turn to what, precisely?
His airy prattle concerning the false gods,
his wearisome braggadocio;
his childish fear of the theatre;
his graceless prudishness; his ridiculous beard. …
(“Julian and the Antiochenes” Daniel Mendelsohn)
8.3. One kind of change that happens and that is significant are changes in attitude. Things have to be believed in, or else it evaporates. If belief turns to doubt or indifference, the city is dies. Or the empire, or the religion, or the tradition.
Mirroring his pessimism about personal matters, this was Cavafy’s pessimism about public matters. He felt the fragility of cultures. However inevitable, stable and permanent they may appear, they can vanish.
And unfortunately there is no faking belief, or pretending it exists when it doesn’t. Which is why Cavafy delights in Julian the Apostate.
Julian is Cavafy’s great comic creation. Much of Cavafy’s poetry contains a comic charge, but in his poems about Julian, Cavafy really lets himself go. Why? Wouldn’t it be more logical for Julian, and his attempt to resuscitate paganism, to be a hero for Cavafy?
For Cavafy, Julian’s crime was that he was an enthusiast, a believer in a simple, common-sense cure. To daydream about Arcadia is a pleasant pastime, but to direct the full force of the machinery of the state to rebuild Arcadia is just ridiculous.
Considering then that there is much indifference
on our part toward the gods’—he speaks with grave mien.
Indifference. Well, but then what did he expect?
He could organize religion to his heart’s content,
he could write to the High Priest of Galatia to his heart’s content,
or to others such as these, exhorting and guiding.
His friends were not Christians;
that was positive. But they were not able as he was
(nurtured in Christianity) to give a performance
in a system of a new church,
as ridiculous in conception as in application.
They were Greeks after all. Nothing in excess, Augustus.
(“Julian Seeing Indifference” Rae Dalven)
Furthermore, Julian was guilty of the additional crime of believing in his own virtue, while treating those around him with cruelty and ingratitude. Moreover—the best part of the joke—he saw himself as a tragic figure. Cavafy found in Julian a figure who lives, to some extent, in all of us.
Ultimately, Julian’s crime was irresponsibility, and for Cavafy, we have no excuse not to take responsibility for our lives. That is the tragedy, presented as the tragedy. And our attempts to evade this responsibility creates the comic.
There is not the slightest doubt
that things in the Colony are not going as desired,
though in some way or other we are going forward;
perhaps, as many people think, the time has come
to call in a Political Reformer.
… And when, at long last, they finish their work,
and after having defined and minutely trimmed everything,
they go, also carrying off their rightful salary,
now let us see what still remains, after
such surgical ingenuity.—
Perhaps the time has not arrived as yet.
We must not rush ourselves; hast is a perilous thing.
Premature measures bring repentance.
To be sure and unfortunately, the Colony has many shortcomings.
However, is there anything human without imperfections?
And, after all, look, we are going forward.
(“In a Famous Greek Colony, 200 B.C.” Rae Dalven)
That’s the sting of the ending of Cavafy’s most famous poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians”: when the citizens discover that there aren’t any barbarians threatening them after all, they suddenly have no excuse not to take responsibility for their lives.
While on the subject of belief it’s important to note that nowhere does Cavafy credit paganism—or any other belief—with any kind of truth. The supernatural, like nature, didn’t matter for him. Nothing from either the Old or the New Testaments appears in Cavafy. Unlike his contemporaries (Freud, Joyce, Graves, Cocteau), the stories of Greek mythology had no meaning for Cavafy, other than as decorative motifs or learned allusions. Cavafy, the poet of desire, doesn’t have any least interest in the figure of Eros; it never crossed his mind to wonder what Eros means.
For Cavafy, the myths of Christianity and paganism exist, but they exist as purely human activities. They provide words and gestures by which people can express themselves. They’re a language and a tradition, and it’s ridiculous to feel there’s anything more to them:
They hadn’t seen, in Delphi, such beautiful gifts in centuries
as those that were sent by the two, the Ptolemies,
the rival brother kings. Ever since the priests accepted them,
they’ve been worried about the oracle. To frame it
with finesse they’ll need all of their expertise:
… But look, the envoys have come back. They take their leave.
Returning to Alexandria, they say. They no longer have
need of oracles. The priests are overjoyed to hear this
(it’s understood they’ll keep the fabulous gifts)
but they’re also bewildered in the extreme,
clueless as to what this sudden lack of interest means.
For yesterday the envoys had grim news of which priests are unaware:
At Rome the oracle was handed down; destinies were meted there.
(”Envoys from Alexandria” Daniel Mendelsohn)
9. What matters is beauty and desire. Beauty and desire enable a leap of connection.
For Cavafy, beauty is a man in his 20s, earnest, naïve, and recently arrived from the provinces.
Plato was wrong: there is no ascent from physical beauty to moral beauty.
Beauty prompts desire, and desire prompts the connection.
9.1. But beauty doesn’t last, and the circumstances that make it accessible don’t last.
However, beauty is so significant that even its ruins deserve respect. Yes, he is a wreck, but even so, he was beautiful once. Or he experienced beauty.
He was the son of much put-upon, impoverished
sailor (from an island in the Aegean Sea).
He worked at a blacksmith’s. He wore threadbare clothes;
his workshoes split apart, the wretched things.
His hands were completely grimed with rust and oil.
Evenings, when he was closing up the shop,
if there was anything he was really longing for,
some time that coast a little bit of money,
some tie that was just right for a Sunday,
or if in a shop window he’d seen and yearned for
some beautiful shirt in mauve:
one or two shillings is what he’d sell his body for.
I ask myself whether in antique times
glorious Alexandria possessed a youth more beauteous,
a kid more perfect than he—for all that he was lost:
for of course there never was a statue or portrait of him;
thrown into a blacksmith’s poor old shop,
he was quickly spoiled by the arduous work,
the common debauchery, so ruinous.
(“Days of 1909, 1910, 1911” Daniel Mendelsohn)
10. Illumination is not the same as happiness, but it is possible to savor what chance has given: your time, your place, your language, your heritage: it’s who you are.
Most of his poems fall into the arch-classical genres of epitaph and epigram.
Epitaphs and obituaries are, in the end, all we can offer each other, though their emptiness is obvious. Yet there is something honest—if bitter—about the brutal simplification the epitaph imposes upon a life.
He was a student of Aristocleitus in philosophy,
of Paros in rhetoric. In Thebes he studied
sacred letters. He wrote a history
of the province of Arsinoe. That at least will remain.
But we have lost the most precious—his form,
that was an Apollonian vision.
(“The Grave or Eurion” Rae Dalven)
Cavafy’s use of the epigram is more nuanced. He makes use of wit and paradox, but Cavafy’s tone is different from the Greek Anthology. Without a single antique allusion, his “Mirror in the Hall” is entirely in the style of an antique epigram:
In the entrance hallway of that sumptuous home
there was an enormous mirror, very old;
acquired at least eighty years ago.
A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor’s assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package. He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt. The tailor’s assistant
remained alone, and waited.
he drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and left.
But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces—
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.
A poet in the Greek Anthology would have made this erotic epigram light and teasing, but Cavafy presents it with an earnest wonderment. Also, unlike an antique epigram, he does not address it to anyone, certainly not to the handsome tailor’s assistant. Cavafy never inscribed or addressed any of his poems to anyone.
10.1. Cavafy’s world is presented not to teach a moral, but to encourage sympathy with what is.