Greek Tragedy

Posted on Thursday, November 10, 2011, under , ,

Two images normally spring to mind once we hear the name of Constantine P. Cavafy: his disarmingly sensual homoerotic vignettes, and his innovative poems concerned with some of the finer, if less-famed, points in Greek history. In the light of the recent political turmoil perhaps some Greek poets/intellectuals might be wondering what kind of poems Cavafy would end up writing about, say, the bailout plan by Merkel/Sarkozy or the inner workings of the Greek parliament. For one, as Greeks’ political self-determination once again hangs in the air, Greece does seem to be standing at a crossroads of sorts – whether it be the country’s potential exit from the Euro project, or its acceptance of the austerity measures – both of which would likely lead to the advanced stages of belt-tightening. There seems to be no end in sight for the current Greek tragedy: people’s houses are being impounded, personal debts are mounting, many have lost jobs or are about to – the unemployment rate is at a record high 16%. The young and the highly educated are setting off abroad – an estimated 10% of university graduates leave the country each year. The pressing needs of the majority are financial security, careers, prosperity. Indeed it is not easy to see how Cavafy’s view ‘at a slight angle to the universe’ would help matters.

Cavafy was a poet of peripheries: his homosexuality, his Alexandrianism, his interest in the less-prominent historical figures, his imaginative reenactments of the myth. As E.M. Forster put it, not necessary unfavourably, ‘Such a writer can never be popular. He flies both too slowly and too high. Whether subjective or objective, he is equally remote from the bustle of the moment, he will never compose either a Royalist or a Venizelist Hymn. He has the strength (and of course the limitations) of the recluse, who, though not afraid of the world, always stands at a slight angle to it […]’1

                                                  Cavafy Etching by David Hockney, 1967

As for me, I’d much rather read Cavafy’s poems than some disheartening report on the latest squabble in the Greek legislative assembly. Cavafy’s characters, real or imaginary, are rarely concerned with their financial stability and that alone makes them more interesting, more human. The poet’s sympathies usually rest with the downtrodden, the marginalized, protagonist lurking in the shadows, earning just enough to get by, ‘putting / the pure sensuality of his pure flesh / above his honour and reputation’ (‘Days of 1896’). In ‘Orophernis’ (1914), money, or rather a drachma coin, serves as a springboard for Cavafy’s musings on the Hellenic pride, toned down by his trademark irony. The poem is a curious amalgam of the mundane, historical fact and erotic idealization. Here are the closing lines:

His end must have been recorded somewhere only to be lost;
or maybe history passed over it
and rightly didn’t bother to notice
a thing so trivial.

The figure on this four drachma coin,
something of whose young charm can still be seen,
a ray of his poetic beauty—
this sensuous image of an Ionian boy,
this is Orophernis, son of Ariarathis.2

There is lots of material in Cavafy’s oeuvre, especially in his historical poems, for the contemporary reader to try and unpick, from which a few parallels between the then and the now could be drawn. Cavafy was particularly attracted by the Hellenistic and the Byzantine eras, often by a certain turning point in history when the Hellenistic world surrenders on the military and political front (at the same time struggling to keep its cultural and spiritual integrity), when the Greek identity, as well as survival, is at stake. It is the nation’s moments of crisis, and the effect that the crisis has on the citizens’ morale, that Cavafy is often drawn to. And more often then not it is corruption, hubris and decadence of those in charge that lead to a civilization’s downfall:

He’s lost his old fire, his courage.
Now his tired, almost decrepit body
will be his first concern. And the rest of his life he’ll spend
without worrying. So Philip says, anyway.
Tonight he’s playing a game with dice;
he’s in a mood to amuse himself.
Cover the table with roses.
Let the banquet begin. Slaves! The music, the lights!
from The Battle of Magnesia3

In 1928 Cavafy wrote In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C., a somewhat unusual poem in that, although no name is attached to the colony and despite the title, the issues of governing and economics addressed seem to speak directly of the 20th century political intolerance, totalitarianism, extreme radicalism. Cavafy argues against the ‘Political Reformer’ and his enforced administrative changes in a gently ironic tone, calling for equanimity and patience instead. This poem’s strong anti-bureaucrat stance fits in nicely with today’s Eurozone predicament, and can well speak to the 21st century reader, Greek or not Greek. Here is the poem in full:

In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C.E.

There is not the slightest doubt
that things in the Colony don't go as one would wish,
and though we move forward, anyway,
perhaps, as not a few think, the time has come
for us to bring in a Political Reformer.

Yet the obstacle and difficulty
is that they make a big deal
out of everything, these Reformers.
(It would be a stroke of good luck
if one never needed them.) Everything,
every little thing, they ask about and examine,
and instantly radical reforms come to mind
and they demand they be implemented without delay.

They lean toward sacrifice.
Give up that property of yours,
your owning it is risky:
such possessions are harmful to the Colonies.
Give up that income
and that coming from it,
and this third one, as a natural consequence.
They are essential, but it can't be helped;
They create an adverse liability for you.

And as they proceed in their inspection,
they find (then find again) needless things,
which they demand must go —
things that nevertheless are hard to dismiss.

And when, with good luck, they finish their work,
having ordered and pared everything down to the last detail,
they leave, taking away their rightful wages, as well.
We'll see what remains, after
so much expert surgery.

Perhaps the time had not yet come.
Let's not rush; haste is a dangerous thing.
Premature measures bring regret.
Certainly and unfortunately, there is much disorder in the Colony.
But is there anything human without imperfection?
And, anyway, look, we're moving forward.4

I wish more people read Cavafy. I wish more Greeks read Cavafy. If your ‘average Joe’ in Greece read a poem of Cavafy a day, who knows, it might make him want to look at the current political difficulties from a slight angle, even help one reinvent his day. 

Post Scriptum — I visited Greece on three of four occasions. My memories are sketchy. From the late 70s I remember our little cottage off the beaten track on the island of Thasos, the swarms of moths vying for space around the lightbulb above the entrance door; waking up to the sight of the long line of ants from one end of the ceiling to the other; the bee-stings all over my nine-year-old body (honey is the island’s major produce). I remember Greek men incessantly playing tavli in downtown taverns (not quite as pitiful as Cavafy’s ‘old man’), and cart-sellers shouting ‘karpouzia, karpouzia!’ (watermelons) each morning. From the late 90s I remember gangs of sinister-looking stray dogs roaming the streets of Thessaloniki, a rusted balustrade and a British-style, separate-taps basin in my seedy hotel room. I recall a sea promenade in the village of Neos Marmaras, Halkidiki, where I saw a shooting star one evening and at once sat down to write a love letter to a certain R.; I also recall a soft-cotton navy-blue hat I bought in the village, subsequently lost and have been looking for ever since.

1 – E.M. Forster: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy, ‘The Athenaeum’, April 1919; reprinted in Modernism, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
2 and 3 – transl. by E. Keeley / P. Sherrard
4 – transl. by Aliki Barnstone

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