Leaving Europe’s forests behind them, they head towards the coasts and islands on the outskirts of the great empires on the banks of Euphrate, Tigris and Nile, found a chain of city-states, unite against the Persians under Alexander, crush Darius, subdue nearly the entire then civilised world and spread their civilisation from the Nile to the Indus: the Greeks – about whose descendants Cavafy sings (In the year 200 B.C.)*:
And out of the remarkable Pan-Hellenic campaign,
victorious, brilliant in every way,
celebrated far and wide, glorious
as no other had ever been, glorified,
the incomparable: we are born;
a vast new Greek World, a great new Greek world.
We, the Alexandrians, the Antiocheans,
the Seleucians, and the innumerable
rest of the Greeks of Egypt and of Syria,
and of Media, and Persia, and the many others,
with our extensive empire,
with the varied action of our thoughtful adaptations,
and our common Greek, our spoken Language,
we carried it into the heart of Bactria, to the Indians.
Alexander’s empire fell apart and the rulers of the rivalling dynasties became a plaything in the hands of the next superpower looming up from the periphery, still further westwards: Rome. When also this empire collapses under the sway of the barbarians, this time pushing from the north, Greek civilisation resurges in Constantinople, under Christian augurs. In its turn, this Byzantine Empire is threatened by nomads united under the banner of Islam, coming form the south, until finally Turks invade the empire from the east and rename its capital Istanbul in 1453.
Of all the cities founded by Alexander, no doubt the most glorious was Alexandria: it harboured not only the lighthouse – one of the seven wonders of the world – but also the legendary library, and: Alexander's tomb! Of all this glory, nothing remains: everything has been destroyed, burned or did just perish. Echoing the fate of Atlantis, the formerly glorious capital of Alexander’s empire has disappeared in the delta of the Nile, a city lost forever.
In one of the scattered remains of Alexander’s Empire, crumbled into a veritable Greek Diaspora, from 1873 to 1933 – the year Hitler founded the thousand-year reign that lasted for some mere twelve years - lived: the poet Cavafy. Of his life nothing more is left than of Alexander’s glory: 154 poems scribbled on leaflets, most of them sent as ‘feuilles volantes’ to a handful of friends, and some unedited poems and sins of his youth, destined to the wastebasket by the poet. In his youth he had to witness how the Egyptians raged against the Greeks: the former conquerors were driven back to the mainland. And, as an old man, he lived to see the Greeks expelled from Turkey: the proud Hellenes, the very people that bestowed onto the non-Greeks the label that never passed into disuse since: barbarians.
Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built big and high walls around me.
And now I sit here despairing.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;
for I had many things to do outside.
Ah, why didn’t I observe them when they were building the walls?
But I never heard the noise or the sound of the builders.
Imperceptible they shut me out of the world.
So sounds Cavafy’s complaint in ‘The Walls’. It seems as if he lives through the fate of the once victorious Hellenism in his own life. The four walls surrounding his person are an echo of the four gates, guarded by angels, surrounding the world in its four quarters in the youth-poem ‘Indian Image’.
Cavafy understands himself as a Hellene. What he considers to be a Hellene is revealed in his comments on the enemies that destroyed Hellenism.
The Romans in the first place. Even though, in Cavafy’s work, they are relegated to the background, it is they who hey pull the strings. Alexander’s heirs, fighting their struggle for power in the foreground, are merely their puppets. The oracle continues to speak in Delphi, but the dies are cast in Rome ('Envoys from Alexandria'). Which does not alter the fact that the power of Rome is merely a military one: the Romans are only out at mere plunder, as in ‘By an Italian Shore’, were the booty is brought on land after the conquest of Corinth. On the cultural level, Hellas continues to predominate. If Cavafy stages Romans at all, then as devotees of the ‘Greek principles’. Up to two times Nero is conjured up. In ‘Footsteps’ he is staged, not as a mighty emperor, but as a somewhat overgrown ephebus:
On an ebony bed, ornamented
with coral eagles, sound asleep, lies
Nero – unconscious, quiet and blissful,
flourishing in the vigour of the flesh
and in the splendid strength of youth’
and in ‘Nero’s Term’ this divine child imagines to have plenty of time left:
… days of pleasure
at the theatres, the gardens, the athletic fields…
evenings spent in the cities of Greece…
Ah, the voluptuous delight of nude bodies, above all…
Until death does him find.
A far more dangerous enemy was Christendom. When, under Constantine, it is declared the religion of the state, the Greek gods are relegated to the realm of the ghosts in the underworld. The victorious Christos Pantokrator lends the Grecian part of the empire a renewed radiance, the afterglow of which continues to shimmer through the solemn gestures and attire of the Byzantine rite (In Church):
When I enter a church of the Greeks,
With its fragrances of incense,
with its voices and liturgical choirs,
the stately presence of the priests
and the solemn rhythm of each of their movements -
most resplendent in the adornment of their vestments
my mind goes to the high honours of our race,
to the glory of our Byzantine tradition…
Which does not alter the fact that Cavafy never was ready to stomach the concomitant dawn of the Gods. Time and again he opens up the old sore. Not less than twelve poems, six of which belonging to the ekdota, are dedicated to the emperor Julian Apostata (361 - 363 A.D.), educated as a Christian but nevertheless trying to restore the glory of the ancient Gods.
Merely two of them are about the heathen in Julian the Apostat. In ‘In the suburbs of Antioch’, the Christians describe how Julian has the relics of Saint Babyl removed from the outskirts of the temple of Apollo. Whereupon ‘a great fire’ destroys temple and statue of Apollo alike. With more than a hint of sarcasm Cavafy lets them say ('Understood not’):
Concerning our religious belief –
the empty headed Julian said: ‘I read, I understood,
I condemned.’ As if the most ludicrous man
had annihilated us, with his ‘I condemned’.
But, preferentially, Cavafy stages him in his - really ridiculous - endeavours to save his skin by swimming with the tide:
Julian returns once more as a reader
to the church of Nicomedeia,
where in a loud voice and with deep reverence
he reads the Holy Scriptures,
and the people admire his Christian piety.
About the incurable Hellenes, bullied by Julian’s idle talk about the ‘false Gods’, he writes in ‘Julian and the people of Antioch’:
Was it ever possible that hey should renounce
their lovely way of life; the variety of their
daily amusement; their magnificent theatre
where a union of the Arts was taking place
with the amorous tendencies of the flesh!
The same theme can be heard in ‘Julian seeing indifference’, where he says of Julian’s friends:
They were Greeks after all...
To the other inhabitants of Alexander’s bygone empire - Medes and Persians, Arabs and Turks, not to mention the Egyptian civilisation and Islam - Cavafy remained completely indifferent. For him, it is all one mess, swept together into one pile as ‘Asians’. Even though he spent his whole life in Egypt, he was not able to speak Arab and did not waste a single word on the Egyptian civilisation and its treasures. One of his scarce utterances on occasion of the Arab saying ‘Silence is golden and the word is silver’ ('The Word and Silence’) speaks volumes:
What profane one pronounced such blasphemy?
What sluggish Asian blind and mute resigned to
blind mute destiny?
The Word is truth, life, immortality!
And the latter is only lent its full weight against the background of the concluding verse from ‘Distinguishing Marks’, in which Cavafy characterises different cultures:
But as its distinguishing marks Athens
has Man and the Word.
To Cavafy, those Asian barbarians are only worth mentioning when they conform to the Hellenistic ideal. In ‘Orophernes’, Cavafy says of this son of a king who was sent away to grow up in Ionia and there came to know ‘the fullness of pleasure’ ‘entirely à la grecque’ :
in his heart, always an Asiatic;
but in his manners and in his speech Greek…
Also in ‘Return form Greece’ Cavafy sneers at the Hellenised kings
who beneath their showy Hellenised exterior
and (what word!) Macedonian
a bit of Arabia nosed out every so often
a bit of Media which cannot be restrained
whereas they themselves take the view:
Let us not be ashamed of the Syrian and Egyptian
blood that flows in our veins.
In Athens man and the word. Barbarians: no more than speechless animals. And, given the equation of man with the beautiful but infertile youngster: sheer animals devoted to mere reproduction…
Cavafy is, if possible, still more reticent about the British. According to Warren en Molegraaf (p. 84) he would have compared the Pax Britannica with the Pax Romana. According to Yourcenar, his cultivation of a Cambridge accent would testify to his Anglophilia. But that certainly does not reflect his real stance. Between 1890 and 1894 he exchanged the British for the Greek nationality. We also know that he devoted himself to the cause of the restitution of the Elgin marbles: the stolen freezes of the Parthenon. We can only surmise that through the Romans, who in ‘By an Italian Shore’ are bringing the booty from Greece ashore, actually the British are hinted at. Also ’June 27, 1906, 2:00 p.m.’ is an explicit reference to the misdeeds of the British – among others the hanging of an innocent young boy. But the evildoers are called ‘Christians’….
Also the British, then: no more than plunderers and murderers. Of sculptures and beautiful boys…
Equally ambivalent as on the Christians is Cavafy’s stance on the Jews. Just like other barbarians he only can bear them when Hellenised, as in the marvellous ‘Alexander Jannaius and Alexandra’. Behind the laudatory tone of this this poem, a nearly concealed irony goes hidden. Not so much because the Jews gained their kingdom from the Hellenistic Seleucids, but above all because, with Cavafy, the Jews - who after all also set down their own enamoured couples of fighters - invariantly are staged as stubbornly scorning every infertile love. Not to be Hellenised in principle. Hence the prominence of the couple in this poem, the only one in which Cavafy brings a heterosexual couple into the limelight. The irony is all the more mordant, because both halves of this couple are named after Alexander….
How Cavafy really thought about the Hellenising of the Jews is made clear in ‘Of the Hebrews’. There he lets a young boy speak:
‘My proudest days are those
when I leave off the aesthetic quest,
when I abandon the beautiful, hard Hellenism,
with its sovereign absorption
in perfectly wrought and perishable white limbs.
And I become the one I would always
want to remain: of the Hebrews,
of the holy Hebrews, the son.
That the Jews consider themselves to be the people of the book must also have been a thorn in his flesh. We have seen how Cavafy saw Athens as the city of ‘man and the word’. If we read ‘man’ as the human par excellence – the beautiful body of the young man – then two opposite poles are united that never have been compatible in Judaism. With them, contempt for infertile love joins contempt for the image – Moses’ taboo on mimesis. We cannot conceive of something more alien to Hellenism.
And, last but not least, it must fiercely have hurt Cavafy thatthe Jews considered Jerusalem to be the centre of the world, not Alexandria or Constantinople.
We have described how Cavafy, in ‘The Walls’, embodies the fate of triumphant Hellenism. Of course, an opposite movement preceded this embodiment in his personal life.
To begin with, Cavafy’s self-conception, blown up into historical dimensions, is the enlargement of the fate of his family. Cavafy was the youngest son of a merchant on the decline who died early and left his wife and her seven children in an Alexandria where the Greeks were harassed by the ‘Asians’. In such desperate situation, Cavafy leans on the stories of the former wealth of his family, which he tries to reconstruct by speculating at the stock market. But, precisely because that wealth has gone, the fate of his family is magnified into the fate of a civilisation doomed to perish. Thus, the son of a former prosperous merchant becomes the heir of Alexander: the conqueror that once dominated the world.
But also in the historical dimension Cavafy does not revel in the faded glory. Rather is he fascinated by the inexorable decline, above all during the period after the death of Alexander, but also during the period of the Christianising of the ancient world. In de nadir of this decline, where Cavafy finds himself living, would even the most high-spirited soul not lose its thirst for action? No longer are adventurous young men looking forward to glorious deeds. Instead of participating in legendary conquests – or taking over the business of his father – Cavafy has to accept an inglorious job as a clerk in the office of irrigation. As had Kafka in Prague. Through the words of the young man in the wonderful ‘They should have cared’, Cavafy tells us how he experienced this situation:
So I consider myself fully qualified
and just the man to serve this nation,
my own beloved land of Syria.
In whatever position they place me
I will try to be useful to my land. This is my intention.
But if on the other hand they thwart me with their methods -
we know them, the diligent ones – need we talk about it now?
if they do thwart me, I am not to blame.
First I shall apply to Zabinas.
And if that dolt does not appreciate me,
I will go to his opponent, to Gypros.
And if that idiot does not engage me, I will go directly to Hyrcanos.
At any rate, one of the three will want me.
As for my conscience, it is undisturbed
by the indifference of my choice.
All three of them are equally harmful to Syria.
But, a ruined man, why is it my fault?
Unfortunate me, I am trying to pull through.
The almighty gods should have cared
about creating a fourth man who was honest,
I would gladly have gone over to him.
Zabinas was a heir to the throne, first pushed by Ptolemy VIII and then murdered with the help of Antioch VIII ‘Grypos’; and Hyrkanos I was the king and high priest of the Jewish kingdom, a barbarian re against the Hellenes. Not more then than intriguers squandering Alexander’s legacy. A fourth one – a striking personality like Alexander – should have been sent by the Gods. But these, through Zeus, bemoan his immortal horses in ‘The horses of Achilles’: ‘What are you doing down there, among woebegone humanity, the plaything of fate?’ Fate, curtailing every human endeavour, is a theme that dominates Cavafy’s poetry. It is spinned out in the magnificent ‘When the watchmen saw the light’.
But Cavafy’s commentators should have been warned when they hold that ‘the vision of the Ancients on the relation between man and fate’ is at stake here (Yourcenar). Did we not hear from Cavafy’s own mouth that only ‘sluggish Asians’ subdue to ‘blind mute destiny'? Cavafy is not at all concerned with fate as such. In ‘The Trojans’ (p. 14) the spade is called a spade:
However, our fall is certain. Above,
On the walls, the dirge has already begun.
And, on a closer look, it also becomes apparent what kind of fall is meant: the dethroning of kings and emperors through their sons or competitors - their ’brothers’. This is the case in ‘The Ides of March’, the two poems dedicated to Nero (‘Footsteps’ and ‘Nero’s Term’), where the crowned heads are trying to escape their fate. Others do not fall blindly into the trap: as in the beautiful pair of poems ‘King Demetrios’ and ‘Manuel Komnenos’. They have their answer ready: they willingly exchange the king’s mantle for the monk’s habit. Thus, via history and fate, we leave the impersonal world behind us and find ourselves back in the personal sphere: from fate, via decline and fall, to parricide. We will develop this theme below. Here, we concentrate on the answer given by those who are not ‘blind and stupid’. In ‘As much as you can’ Cavafy praises a Schopenhauerian distancing from the goings-on. In ‘Satrapy’ it is recommended that man – and especially the poet – should resign the throne. In ‘Dionysos and his Crew’ Cavafy heavily sneers at the artist that regards his success as a mere leg up to a political career. And in the masterly ‘Che fece..; il gran rifiuto’ he has it poignantly:
To certain people there comes a day
when they must say the great Yes or the great No.
He who has the Yes ready within him
reveals himself at once, and saying it he crosses over
to the path of honour and his own conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Should he be asked again,
he would say No again. And yet that No –
the right No – crushes him for the rest of his life.
The underlying formula sounds: he who does not want to be dropped, drops. Or, to phrase it with Anthony in ‘The God forsakes Anthony’:
‘Bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing
To bid farewell what leaves you behind…
No work, merely a job. Why, then, children? So, without country, in a world where it only matters to save the skin of one’s teeth: why marry and procreate? One of Cavafy’s brothers became a homosexual and three more declined marriage. Not otherwise did Cavafy fare. In the very midnight of Hellenism reduced to bare survival, he takes up the position of the last of the Alexandrians: as an ephebus amidst the Christian contempt for the flesh. It must have been a thorn in his flesh that in his dearly loved Alexandria, the last refuge of Hellenism, the very kernel of Greek civilisation was belied: the cult of the young boy. Thus, in ‘Days of 1909, 1910, 1911’ he bemoans the fate of an ephebus, squandering his life in a forge:
I ask myself if in the days of antiquity
glorious Alexandria possessed a more superb-looking youth,
a lad more perfect than he – who had been wasted:
Of course, no statue or painting was ever done of him;
cast into the filthy old ironmonger’s,
quickly, by heavy labour,
and by common debauchery, so wretched, he was destroyed.
Far more appealing than an inglorious job in an inglorious world is the share of the beautiful body: glory, such as the one enjoyed by the young man who, in ‘Favour of Alexander Balas’, boasts:
Antioch belongs to me,
I am the young man most glorified
I am Balas’s weakness, his adored one.
In ‘From the school of the renowned Philosopher’, Cavafy describes another young man, educated as a philosopher, disillusioned as a politician and averse to a career in the church, who, for a long ten years, was endowed with a ‘rarely handsome face’ and ‘delighted in the divine gift’, only to finally be obliged to devote himself to philosophy again, and even to return to politics.
Hence: no offspring, but rebirth. As an ephebus!
And also his personal rebirth expands into a world historic perspective. In ‘Hidden Things’ Cavafy hopes:
Later, in the more perfect society,
surely some other person created like me
will appear and act freely.
The heralds of such ‘more perfect society’ amidst the community of orthodox Christians are the hidden chambers in Alexandria and other metropolises of the former empire of Alexander, where the sons of all barbarian nations abandon themselves to Hellenism. Hellenism, after having survived a first time in Christendom, has, in a second phase, to be reborn as the community of ephebi, albeit provisionally in the catacombs of a hostile world: the new Alexandria rising up out of the ruins of the lost city.
Also this world historic perspective is a magnification of Cavafy’s personal development. Initially, his utopia takes a negative shape in the youth poem ‘Terror’, where the moribund Cavafy aches:
‘nameless Creatures and Things
start to walk around me
and their fleshless feet run into my room
and they circle around my bed to see me –
and they look at me as if they know me,
as if they guffaw mutely that now they frighten me’.
Once the call responded, he wants to awake others in his turn. In ‘Of the Hebrews’ it is said of the same Jewish boy that wanted to become ‘of the holy Hebrews, the son’:
But he did not stay such a man at all.
The Hedonism and the Arts of Alexandria
kept him their devoted child.
And also in ‘Orophernes’, an Asian Cappacodocian, educated in Ionia, cannot resist the temptations of Apollo:
In his heart, always an Asiatic;
but in his manners and in his speech Greek,
adorned in turquoise, in Greek dress,
his body scented wit attar of jasmine,
and of the handsome Ionian boys,
he is the handsomest, the most ideal
The community of ephebi turns out to be the sole place where Alexander’s ‘varied action of thoughtful adaptations’ (In the year 200 B.C.) is still at work. Even when the new koinè of beautiful bodies is not for tomorrow. In ‘Myres: Alexandria, A.D. 340’, Cavafy has to conclude with bitterness how the dead body of a beloved member of the community of ephebi is claimed by the Christians:
and I thought how I would see him no more
at our fine, immodest all-night revels
enjoying himself, and laughing, and reciting verses
with his perfect sense of Greek rhythm…
And suddenly a queer impression
seized me. I had the vague feeling
that Myres was leaving my side;
I felt that he was united, a Christian,
with his own people, and I was becoming
a stranger, a total stranger…
It testifies to a remarkable misapprehension of Cavafy’s work to bluntly put that he seeks refuge in the past. For Cavafy, just like for Heidegger, the past is merely an alibi. His real aim is to establish a midnight of world history: the inglorious twilight of Hellenism. The military conquest of Alexander resuscitates as the proselytism of the ephebus.
NAILED TO THE CROSS OF BEAUTY
In expectance of the advent of the ‘perfect world’, also the community of the ephebi produces its martyrs. We are not alluding to the scorning of homosexuals, but to something far more fundamental.
In fact, it is remarkable that over most of Cavafy’s erotic poems is hovering the spectre of death. In some of them, it is nearly concealed behind sheer absence: the lover is going away (‘Before time changes them’) or does not return (‘The 25th year of his life’). But in other poems the beloved body is dead: they are – following the example of Hellenistic epitaphs - real ‘tombeaus’ for the deceased lover. The titles speak for themselves: ‘The Grave of Eurion’, ‘Tomb of Iases’, ‘In the Month of Athyr’, ‘The Tomb of Lanes’ and the already quoted ‘Myres: Alexandria, A.D. 340’. Still other poems are about the dying body itself: ‘Kleitos’ Illness’ and ‘Cimon, son of Learches’. And behind this looms up the body mutilated in battle: ‘the Funeral of Sarpedon’, ‘An Artisan of Wine-mixing Bowls’. The erotic charge of which is nearly concealed in ‘In a Town of Osroene’ where the wounded Rhemon is laid on a bed: 'through the window which we left wide open/ the moon lighted his handsome body on the bed’; in ‘The bandaged Shoulder’ where the lover licks the wound of his beloved, not to mention the convulsions of the hanged ephebus in ’June 27, 1906, 2:00 p.m.’:
And when they walked him up the gallows steps
and they passed the rope over the seventeen-
year-old innocent youth and strangled him,
and the youthful, handsome formed body
was piteously suspended in space,
with the sobs of his dark anguish…
All this involuntarily made me think of the sculptor Parrhasios, who had a slave martyred in order to realistically portray his suffering in the stone.
This moment in Cavafy’s poetry is left undiscussed. At best, it is recognised as a stylistic attempt to link up with Hellenistic epigrams. It is nevertheless the key to a real understanding of Cavafy’s approach of the body beautiful. It is only because he wants the ephebi to resurrect as an image in the world of art, that Cavafy destines them to death. Sometimes, the image is merely a reminiscence: in ‘Far Off’ or ‘Before Time changes them’, where the separation after the apex of their relation spares them the pain of having to witness how time does change them. In ‘Voices’ it is voices:
Ideal and dearly beloved voices
Of those who are dead, or of those
Who are lost to us like the dead.
But in ‘The Funeral of Sarpedon’ it is the tangible body, laid out by Apollo in person:
Phoebus lifts up the corpse of the hero with respect
and in sorrow and carries it to the river.
He washes him of all the dust and blood;
binds the frightening wounds not leaving
a single trace to show; pours ambrosial
perfumes over him; dresses him
in magnificent Olympian robes.
He whitens his skin; and with a pearl-studded comb
he combs out his jet-black hair.
He straightens and lays out his beautiful limbs.
Then, the laid out corpse of Sarpedon is brought to Lycia by Hypnos and Thanatos, where sculptors contrive the tomb and the stone. The ritual of laying out is telescoped in ‘The Grave of Eurion’, where the corpse is buried in an artful monument, covered with violets and lilies, and in ‘Beautiful Flowers and white that became him well’:
On his very cheap coffin, he placed flowers,
beautiful flowers and white that became him well,
that became his beauty and his twenty-two years
Or in ‘Desire’:
Like the beautiful bodies of the dead who had not grown old
and the shut them, with tears, in a magnificent mausoleum,
with roses at the head and jasmine at the feet –
More durable than laying it out is catching the body beautiful in an image, as in ‘The Tomb of Lanes’, ‘Picture of a 23-year-old Youth’, ‘For Ammonis’, ‘An Artisan of wine-mixing Bowls’, ‘On Painting’, or on a coin in ‘Orophernes’:
He who here upon this tetradrachm
has left a charm of his exquisite youth,
a light form his poetic beauty,
an aesthetic memory of an Ionian boy,
he is Orophernes, son of Ariarathes’
But only as flesh transformed into word, as a poem – more precisely: as an epitaph – does the transient body beautiful partake in eternal life: ‘Tomb of Iases', ‘Cimon, son of Learches’, ‘Caesarion’ and ‘Passage’.
All this has to be understood against the background of the harsh fate that is fallen to mankind – a fate if possible harsher still than to be obliged to live in a declining world where every human endeavour is doomed to failure: that man is mortal and susceptible to ageing and death. Again and again, Cavafy evokes the utter distress of this fate: in ‘Melancholy of Jason’, ‘An old Man’ and above all in ‘The souls of old men’:
In their bodies wasted and aged
sit the souls of old men.
How grievous are the poor things
and how bored with the miserable life they endure.
How they tremble lest they lose it and how they dote on it
the confounded and contradictory
souls, that sit – comicotragical –
in their aged worn-out hides.
Decay and death in a world doomed to fall weigh the more heavy, since the body first bloomed in Apollonian beauty. And that sheds a new light on Cavafy’s obsession with the beauty of his young friends: only death at the apogee of life can save the body from its inexorable decay, especially when it is laid out in all its magnificence and transformed into an image.
But Cavafy would not be Cavafy, were he not to remind us of the fact that even images do not last forever. In ‘From the Drawer’ the lover has to content himself with a damaged photograph. And even the word is susceptible to decay: in ‘In the Month of Athyr’ are rendered the nearly readable words of an ancient epitaph carved in stone:
Among the worn-away pieces I see ‘Hi(m)… Alexandrian’.
Then there are three lines that are quite mutilated:
But I make out a few words – as ‘our te(a)rs’, ‘sorrow’,
then again ‘tears’ and ‘w(e) his (f)riends mourn’.
Such silent reproach on the word is inspired by the awareness that surviving as an image is deceptive. The desire to be transformed in an image at the apogee of life, is merely the afterglow of the desire to never die at all, and, consequently: to never have been born - to be immortal, like the Gods. Such desire resounds loudly in ‘The horses of Achilles’, where Zeus’ immortal horses, at the sight of Patroclos’ corpse ‘went on shedding their tears/ for the never-ending calamity of death’.
But since we mortals are begotten, death is our inescapable destiny. He who was not so lucky to die in the prime of his life, cannot but survive his own beauty in a decaying body. Many a man tries to escape such fate through begetting a child, so that out of decay new life is born. As opposed to the ‘distressed souls in their worn-out skin’: the radiating infant, in whose eyes many a mortal descries immortality. Only to mention Hölderlin in ‘Hyperions Schicksalslied’:
Schicksallos, wie der schlafende
Säugling, atmen die Himmlischen;
In bescheidener Knospe,
Ihnen der Geist,
Und die seligen Augen
Blicken in stiller
But Cavafy’s ephebi are not prepared to hand over their beauty to an infant. They are not willing to become fathers. Suffice it that they were born from a mother’s womb! No begetters in Cavafy’s world, as little as in the New Testament. Unbegotten, the ephebi are brought into the world by their mothers, who cherish the bud until it blooms as an ephebus. If he dies or falls in battle before reproducing, only his mother mourns his death – albeit that the loss of their sons saves them their loss to a strange woman. In ‘Supplication’ a mother ‘prays and implores’ the return of her son. In ‘June 27, 1906, 2:00 P.M.’ ‘the mother-martyr rolled on the ground’. In ‘Infidelity’ it is Thetis that ‘tore off her purple garments‘ and ‘kept on tearing off and casting/ upon the ground her bracelets and rings’. No fathers to be seen near the corpse of their sons. Also that reminds of the death of Christ, mourned by his mother at the foot of the cross. ‘Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’
That should not surprise us. Certainly, at first glance, the fratricidal ephebi seem to dig their own graves: when Patroclos is killed, Cavafy does not blame the Gods. But in other poems the Gods are positively hold responsible for the death of the ephebi – their sons! Zeus stands around watching Patroclos slaying his son (‘The Funeral of Sarpedon’), and so does Apollo when Achilles is killed, although he promised him a long life (‘The horses of Achilles'). In the historical dimension, Herod has his son Aristoboulus killed (‘Aristoboulus’). And the same fate fell on the ‘little caesar’ Caesarion (‘Caesarion'). Behind the struggling ephebi – and by extension behind the ‘Law’ to which Zeus appeals, ‘fate’ that tears apart and malady that slays – looms up the magnified father who has destined his sons to death. Or rather: the primeval father Kronos, who strangles his nearly born sons – Hölderlin's celestial infants – in an effort to prevent them from dethroning him. With him, the device no longer sounds: ‘Bid farewell whoever abandons you’, but, to the bottom: ‘Kill or be killed!'
Conversely, no sons killing their fathers are to be found in Cavafy’s oeuvre; only in ‘Priest at the Serapeum’ do we see a mourning son standing at his father’s grave . But it brims over with dethroned kings – to begin with the symbolic betrayal of the immortal Alexander. We already hinted at Caesar (‘The Ides of Mach’), Nero (‘Footsteps’ and ‘Nero’s Term’) King Demetrios en Manuel Komnenos who had to exchange the king’s mantle for the monk’s habit. But there are also Demaratos (‘A Byzantine Noble in Exile writing verses), and so many others.
Would they not have fared better, had they killed their sons well in advance? But smarter still than Kronos is the ephebus: the grown up son that escapes his impending dethroning by altogether resigning from becoming a father and ascending the throne! Rather than murdered or dethroned, he wants to be loved! For his sole beauty's sake!
And who else would love him more than his mirror image? In how many poems are the lovers not peers? This is often explicitly mentioned in the title: ‘Two young men 23 to 24’ and ‘Picture of a 23-year-old youth painted by his friend of the same age, an amateur’. In ‘According to ancient Formula’s of Grecosyrian magi ‘, the lover wants to discover the magic potion that ‘for a day… or even for an hour,/ can evoke me my twenty-three years;/ can evoke again for me my friend when he was twenty-two – his beauty, his love?’ In ‘Cimon, son of Learches’ the lovers not only are peers, but, better still: ‘We grew up together, as close as two brothers’. And in ‘The Mirror in the Hall’ the affinity implodes to identity:
But this time the old mirror was delighted,
and it felt proud that it had received into itself
for a few moments an image of flawless beauty.
What does so inexorably propel the ephebus to his mirror image? The veils around this secret begin to fall when it dawns on us that, precisely through resigning from becoming father and king – by evading womb and throne – the ephebus has become more vulnerable than ever. Is there anything more transient than the very beauty that was meant to protect him from his ‘fate’? Inexorably, the beauty of the ageing ephebus will be eclipsed by the coming of age of a another young man. Albeit it not his son, but just a boy, begotten by a strange father in a strange womb. And to escape even from this danger, there is only one way out: to beget yourself in the womb of your own mother - being reborn by being your own father. Even when you would then recoil in horror from your mother’s womb and your role as a father. And even when an old soul would then still remain in a worn-out skin. What would it badly like to shake off such skin and move into that newborn body!
No solace, hence, in the sublunar world!
THE REALM OF ART
But let us read again the following verses from ‘The Funeral of Sarpedon’:
His dearly loved child – whom he had left
to perish; for such was the Law –
at least he will honour him in death.
Does not such intention of the guilty Zeus seem to be the prologue to Cavafy’s triumph in ‘Very seldom’’:
He is an old man. Worn out and stooped,
maimed by the years, and by abuses,
with slow step he crosses the narrow street,
and yet as he enters his door to hide
his wretchedness and his old age, he meditates
on the share he still has of youth.
Now young people recite his verses.
In their lively eyes his fancies pass.
Their sound, voluptuous minds,
their shapely, firm flesh
are stirred by his expression of beauty.
Only the poet that saves the beautiful but deceased bodies in the image still ‘has his share of youth’. A double share even. On the one hand, the young men speak his words – his ghost lays off its worn-out skin and is reborn in a fresh body. And in this new body it conjures up the image of the beloved ephebus, saved from decay through his poetry. That very image ignites passion in the inhabited body, so that, in ‘Despair’ it seeks
on the lips of every new lover
the lips of his beloved; in the embrace
of every new lover he seeks to be deluded
that he is the same lad, that it is to him he is yielding.
Eventually, also the image resurrected from the death finds a new body. Together, the poet and his creation stay forever young in ever new young bodies.
Thus is founded and perpetuated the risen Alexandria. Without detour around the incestuous womb – which at the same time would degrade to fatherhood – the divine couple hops from young body to young body. The deceased body of the beloved one and the dying body of the poet that survived it, are merely a catalyst in the whole process. No generations here, no sons and fathers, let alone men and women: only clones with words as DNA.
The formula has proven itself ever since Plato. It suffices to read the chapter ‘An Alexandria about an Alexandrian’in Warren and Molegraaf’s book ‘I went to the secret chambers’ to realise how this is done in concreto.
JERUSALEM OR ALEXANDRIA
Even when already in Plato’s time the soul longed for its release from the prison of the body, Cavafy’s resurrection of the body in the image cannot but reminds us of Christ in the first place. Of Jesus, the beautiful young man that had to die nearly thirty three years old. Of Jesus ascending to heaven with body and soul alike, leaving his mother behind in tears. Of Jesus, that will implement the resurrection of the flesh in the end of times.
But only unwillingly did Cavafy owe something to a Christendom that despised the Hellenistic values. A pity that with Plato – or rather with Diotima – the cult of the body is merely a phase in the ascendance towards the immaterial world of the Ideas. Cavafy felt far more affinity for a return to the material word, as it is understood in God’s becoming a man and the resurrection of the flesh. That is why he concocted out of the scarce reports on the life of Apollonius of Tyana – a contemporary of Christ – a kind o Greek Messiah. Not a son of David, but of Alexander! Through many a country, Apllonius of Tyana wandered as a prophet and a miracle worker and had a large following. About his gospel not much is known. ‘Apollonius of Tyana in Rhodes’ is about a ‘vulgar statue of clay’ in a huge temple as opposed to a ‘statue made of ivory and gold’ in a modest one. In ‘But wise men perceive approaching thins’ it is said:
People know what is happening now.
The gods know things of the future,
the entire and sole possessors of all the lights.
Of the things in the future, wise men perceive
And from ‘Hidden Things’ we already know what kinds of things are forthcoming there:
Later, in the more perfect society,
surely some other person created like me
will appear and act freely.
Whereas Christ, just like Cavafy’s ephebi, died in the prime of his life and ascended to heaven, Apollonius of Tyana reached a ripe old age, just like Cavafy himself. But – and this again he has in common with Christ – it is not sure whether he really died: he might come back, and, again like Christ, he has been seen in diverse places before his ascension. In ‘If dead indeed’, Cavafy writes in that unequalled way of phrasing of his:
Some spread the rumour that he died at Ephesus.
But Damis did not record it; Damis wrote nothing on the death of Apollonius.
Others said he vanished at Lindus.
Or perhaps that other story
is true, that he was risen in Crete,
at the ancient shrine of Dictynna. –
But still we have his miraculous,
his supernatural apparition
to a young student at Tyana. –
Perhaps the time has not come for him to return
that he may be seen once more in the world;
or transfigured, perhaps, he goes about
among us incognito. – But he will reappear,
as he used to be, teaching the right; and then of course
he will restore the worship of our gods,
and our elegant Grecian ceremonies.
One of those ‘supernatural apparitions’ wherein he ‘goes about among us incognito’ is described in ‘One of their Gods’:
When one of Them passed through Seleucia’s
market place, toward the hour when night comes on,
in the guise of a tall and perfectly handsome youth,
with the joy of incorruptibility in his eyes,
with his black, heavily perfumed hair…
they would wonder which of Them he might be,
and for what questionable enjoyment,
he had descended to the streets of Seleucia
from those Adored, Most Venerable Halls.
And also therein Apollonius of Tyana resembles Cavafy. He survives his immortality in his worn-out skin, but does not die really. Here and there he comes to life again on young lips murmuring his poems, teaching them ‘the right’.
All those beautiful mother’s sons, destined to death by fathers that let them ascend to heaven only as a corpse … The truth about Cavafy’s filling in of Apollonius of Tyana is that the body of Jesus Christ has from the beginning been a magnet that lays bare the inmost secrets of the human soul. And that thereby, not unlike the Byzantine priests and ‘the solemn rhythm of their movements’, has been the vehicle of many an ancient – primeval, all-human – sensitivity. This is poignantly rendered in ‘A great Procession of Priests and Laymen’:
At the head of the impressive, great procession,
A handsome young man, dressed all in white, carries
In hands uplifted the Cross,
The power of our hope, the Holy Cross.
In the meantime, the rumour goes that Alexander Singopoulos, Cavafy’s darling and heir, would haven been his very son (Warren and Molegraaf, p. 63). True or not, this rumour conforms to the spirit that hovers over Cavafy’s poems – even when the intervention of the world of art is thus put in brackets. The suggestion of the double forbidden ‘homosexual incest’ is so strong, that even the way in which it is denied testifies to the opposite. Warren, who has his difficulties with Cavafy’s possible heterosexual bit on the side with a seamstress, thinks that the apparent similarity between Cavafy and Singopoulos means nothing, because, according to his experience ‘there are many Alexandrians whose appearance reminds of Cavafy’ (p. 68). Which then can only be due to the inbreeding of the Alexandrians in a community doomed to extinction. Inbreeding has always been a euphemism for incest...
Perhaps, Cavafy did only sense half of the impending. The desire to be a sun that never dawns and and never sets, is only one of the many manifestations of the retrograde desire, that tries to escape from dying through being reborn again and again – and keeps silent about the fact that the sun in the zenith is always another one. At night, inconspicuously, it glides under the earth. Incest, in its turn, is only one of the figures of the self-love of Hölderlins infant: of man that would so dearly want to be unbegotten and immortal.
Which does not prevent that Cavafy lends us a magnificent view on man’s doings there beneath, on the earth’s surface. Hence this text, with great devotion written for an artist who really deserves this name.
© Stefan Beyst, midsummer 2002
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the titles are cited from the Rae Dalven translation of Cavafy's poems.
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Background to this text: stefan beyst: theory on art
AUDEN, Wyston Hugh: ‘The Complete poems of Cavafy. Expanded Edition. Translation by Rae Dalven. With an introduction by W.H. Auden, New York /London, 1976.
BLANKEN: ‘K.P. Kavafis. Verzamelde gedichten. Vertaald en ingeleid door G.H.Blanken, Atheneum –Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 1994
BRODSKY, Joseph: ‘Less than one’; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 1986.
WARREN, Hans en MOLEGRAAF, Mario: ‘Ik ging naar de geheime Kamers’, Bert Bakker, Amsterdam 1987.
YOURCENAR, Marguerite: ‘Présentation Critique de Constantine Cavafy 1863-1933, suivi d’une traduction intégrale de ses poèmes par Marguerite Yourcenar et Constantine Dimaras’, Gallimard, Paris 1958.