CONSTANTINE CAVAFY: a discussion
Constantine P. Cavafy, along with a few other twentieth century Greek poets such as George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, Yiannis Ritsos, Kostis Palamas and Andreas Kalvos, established the revival of Greek poetry both in Greece and abroad. They emerged as the new era of contemporary Greek poets at a time when the use of the Greek language was swept by the conflict between the old, “καθαρεύουσα—katharevoussa” traditional form of language and the more common “δημοτική—demotiki”, plebian or demotic as it was called.
Cavafy used both the traditional and the demotic modes although mostly the latter; he spent most of his life in Alexandria under the influence of the almighty Greek Orthodox Church and the day before his death he took communion as if to declare that he was ready; as if he was prepared for his transformation, from the modern poet, Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis of Greece to the Cavafy of the World. It is said that in the last minutes of his life he took pencil and paper and drew a big circle with a single dot in the middle.
It had only been twenty years since his death when one of the most famous bookstores in London advertised that: “We carry the best ever books: from Chaucer to Cavafy.” In 1919 Cavafy was introduced to the English reading public by E.M. Forster who helped establish his reputation in the Western World.
His poems combine the precision of a master craftsman with the sensitivity of Sappho as they are concise, yet intimate when their subject is erotic love, mostly between men. Real characters as well as imaginary, historical events as well as fictional are his inspiration; the questionable future, the sensual pleasures, the wandering morality of the many, the psychology of the individual and that of the masses, homosexuality, certain atavistic beliefs and an existential nostalgia are some of his themes. Cavafy’s conscience projected his crystal clear belief in the immortal written word, which he bequeathed unto the four corners of the world.
On the 100th anniversary of his birthday and thirty years after his death, his complete works were published by “Ikaros” in 1963. This edition was prepared up to a point, we could say, by the poet himself who had kept all his poems in a concise and exact order; each poem on a page (which was pinned in exact chronological order on top of the proceeding page); his older poems were turned into booklet form which traditionally consisted of 16 pages although in this case the length is questionable. The sequence of the poems in these booklets was not chronological but thematic and depended on how he chose to emphasize their coherence. These booklets were mailed to anyone who asked for them. In the last years of his life he published two such booklets, one containing his poems written between the years 1905-1915 and the other with his poems of 1916-1918; every poem published during those fourteen years were included in these two booklets.
Cavafy was concise and accurate; so much so that he would work on each of his verses again and again making sure that it was in its final and perfect form before he would mail it to anyone; most of this of course is lost in the translation, as such an element in writing is impossible to replicate in another language. He drew most of his inspiration for the historical poems from the first and second centuries B.C. and the Hellinistic Era of Alexandria around and after the days of Alexander the Great. His love poems were entirely devoted to adult love between men; there is not a single mention of a woman as the subject of erotic love in his poems. The image of the kore, an erotic subject of other poets, is absent from his stanzas. Reference to women in Cavafy’s work is only about older, mature and gracious figures playing out their roles in the Hellinistic era or Byzantium’s golden age.
Cavafy wrote mostly in free verse although there were times when he used rhyme to emphasize irony; the number of syllables per verse varied from ten to seventeen.
Cavafy’s inspiration derives from many different subjects; in one of the well- known poems, Ithaka, he explores, like Odysseus on his return to his home island after the Trojan War, the pleasure and importance of the way to a goal rather than the goal itself, and shows that the process of achieving something is important because of all the experience it makes possible.
In the poem Waiting for the Barbarians we see the importance of the influence that people and events outside of the country may have in the lives of the inhabitants of a certain place and it can quite easily be related to today’s doctrine of “war on terror” after the attack of September, 2001 and the role that fear of the foreigner, or the enemy, plays in the decision making process of a nation. A parallel can be drawn between today’s “war on terror” and the final verses of the poem…
“And what are we to become without the barbarians?
These people were some kind of a solution.”
In the poem Thermopylae Cavafy explores the subject of duty, responsibility, and most importantly, the idea of paying the “debt”; he seems to believe in the philosophical principle of the Universal Balance which exists everywhere, and when that balance is disturbed by the actions of one man another person needs to reestablish it: in this case the poem refers to the treason by Ephialtes which disturbs that preexisting balance and which the leader of the 300 Lacedaimonians, Leonidas, tries to counter—balance by his act of self sacrifice. The crucifixion of Christ has the same philosophical base. Odusseus Elytis refers to the same subject in the Genesis of his Axion Esti (it is worthy) where he says that the Old Wise Creator prepared the four Great Voids on earth and in the body of man:
“…the void of Death for the Upcoming Child
the void of Killing for the Right Judgment
the void of Sacrifice for the Equal Retribution
the void of the Soul for the Responsibility of the Other…”
Isolation and the sense of enclosure unfolds in Cavafy’s poem “Walls” which is relevant to today as some countries tend to resort to it as a means of defense against foreign influences coming from the outside and changing the thinking of the people, but also as a reason for becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant.
There are a lot of satirical connotations and humor in some poems and one such poem stands out: Nero’s Deadline where the poet laughs at the way a person perceives their time on earth. The same subject is referred to by the better known Greek saying: “You like to make God laugh, go and tell Him your plans…”
The extent to which a politician or a system may stretch truth in order to achieve a goal and the axiom “history repeats itself” are adamantly present in Cavafy’s poetry as we see the travesty of events when presented to the public from an official position:
“…the gigantic lie of the palace—Antony triumphed in Greece.”
The lies a government may throw at people in order to deceive. Today’s “…war on terror…” is such a travesty and it resembles an umbrella harboring under it various means and purposes of deluding the populace; at other times this is a means of camouflaging the inability of the governing party to conduct themselves in a fair and balanced way.
Cavafy’s work was at times caustic and irony was used frequently to emphasize a point. Vagenas writes: “Cavafy is the only poet who uses irony as the main mechanism of poetic creativity. His precise dramatic as well as tragic irony is the element that makes his use of the language produce a deep poetic emotion, rendering the verbal sensualism unnecessary.”
Cavafy expresses views of his era looked at through the eyes of the Greek immigrant, or the Greek of the Diaspora. The survival of and adherence to Greek values is what Cavafy cares to preserve and his poetry reflects this by doing justice to his great wish that the Greek language might spread to the far ends of the Bactrian Lands. The heroic stubbornness that proudly said ‘No’ to convention and settling down, the pursuit of true life which carries on ceaselessly, dragging along mud and diamonds, mixing the old with the new, joining the yes with the no, opening new horizons at any moment, birthing new hopes and views at any second is the life Cavafy wanted to spread all over the known world.
Most reviewers and analysts of Cavafy’s work have pronounced him a homosexual although that may be taken with a grain of salt. The western commentaries clearly and as a matter of fact have concluded that he was
homosexual whereas some of the Greek commentators are reluctant to openly agree with that notion; In our view the author can only be classified this or that based on documented data such as pictures, or direct associations of the commentator with the author, and in this case there are no such data available. Yet when a poet writes so many erotic poems having as his subject young men of twenty to twenty nine years old and with not a single woman ever being referred to as a subject of erotic love, it is easy and understandable to assume that the person under discussion is a homosexual; yet there is another angle one may take: the angle of the alter ego that a writer creates in his work to compliment or better yet to refine his image in his own eyes before the eyes of the reading public, as in the case of Cavafy; In some of his personal writings we read:
“I have to put an end to this myself, by the first of April otherwise I won’t be able to travel. I’ll get sick and how am I to enjoy my voyage when I’m sick?”
“March 16th: Midnight. I succumbed again. Despair, despair, despair. There is no hope. Unless I end this by the 15th of April. God help me.”
In another note:
“I am tormented. I got up and I am writing now. What am I to do and
what is going to happen. What am I to do? Help. I am lost.”
In these personal notes of a despairing man who seeks help we see the distress of a person not because they react to their just concluded homosexual encounter but rather their despair in their self-consumed sexual satisfaction through masturbation and the guilt associated with it…Let us not forget that Cavafy grew up in an era of the Diaspora when the Greek Orthodox Church dominated the lives of the populace in such a strict way that any movement outside the dogmatic rules of Christian doctrine was considered a serious and unforgivable sin; I personally remember as a young lad reading the famous booklet “Holy Epistle” with its frightening images of brimstone and fire coming down from the heavens to sear the sinners who would commit any kind of sexual or other sin. It was quite purposefully given to me to read in my early teen years and it took decades before I came to the realization that I didn’t need this nonsense in my life. This was the world Cavafy grew up in and when he had his first chance of being on his own he made his best effort of rebellion against such suppressing doctrine in order to liberate himself from the pangs of church inflicted fear; when one looks at his life from this point of view one can simply see the reaction of a man expressed in a unique way directly opposed to the expected and well formatted way of the church.
Atanasio Cortato, Cavafy’s personal friend and confidant, writes:
“Cavafy’s homosexuality is questionable. One needs to apply a deep
and objective study on his life and perhaps conclude that Cavafy was not homosexual. None ever came along with concrete evidence for this and no scandal of any kind is attributed to him.”
This declaration is of double importance because it is the declaration of Cavafy’s personal friend who knew the poet well and who would have known of any scandal should there have been one in which the poet was involved. Yet there was no such scandal documented or told.
Another view expressed by Stratis Tsirkas and J.M. Hatzifotis was that
Cavafy’s passion was not his homosexuality but rather his alcoholism and his tendency to masturbation. The poet was a very shy person by nature, and although when his mood struck him was a very stimulating and entertaining host, it was impossible for him to proceed into a homosexual relationship. Under this lens his erotic poetry is nothing but his fantasizing of the unrealized…
George Seferis referring to Cavafy as the deceptive old man of the Alexandrian Sea, Proteus, who always changes appearance, says: “For this reason we have to be careful, and exercise caution, not to be seduced by our own tendencies or by taking as given his words and dialectic inventions based on their superficial sense.”
A different aspect of his erotic poems can be found when one sees the time and place in which the poet lived as an adult and on his own. We make this last comment because it is known that Cavafy lived with his mother until her death in 1899 and after that he moved in with his brother John until 1906 when John left for Cairo. At that time Cavafy moved in with his brother Paul until he also moved away to Paris. Then the poet started living on his own. Having to work for a living in such a polyethnic city as Alexandria where the influences of three continents mingled and at times collided and always being under the watchful eye of the all- powerful Greek Orthodox Church with its dogmatism and stubbornness, Cavafy, like any other man of letters, questioned a lot of what was going on around him.
One can easily theorize that all the eroticism and rebelliousness expressed by the young lovers of his poems are nothing but the reactions of a person who lived almost all his adult life with family members and who, in his new found freedom, rebelled against established values and questioned well positioned dogmatism. One can easily theorize that Cavafy fantasized about things he wished for rather than recording things he had experienced. From that point of view the eroticism of his poems can be seen as an expression of suppressed feelings he had for years, yet feelings he never got the courage to act upon.
Cavafy lived in the polyethnic city of Alexandria; he moved and
breathed around the Greek Community and a moral and law abiding way of life is clearly Greek in its essence. The law that applied to Greeks in Alexandria is that of France which is not much different than the Greek law yet different than the law applied to the locals. Therefore the homosexuality and lawlessness of some of his poetry has to do with the moral, communal and law abiding way of life of the Greek Community of Alexandrian society. Cavafy had a good knowledge of that and that knowledge guided him in such a way that his bolder and more daring poems which would have created an uproar in the established code of conduct of Alexandrian Greek Society were only released in 1920 when the poet had become very well-known and had carved a space in the creative society of his era. He was at that time established as a very successful poet and none dared dispute this or accuse him of anything.
~Manolis Aligizakis, Libros Libertad, Vancouver, BC, 2011