Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy
Cavafy called himself a poietes historikos: a poet-historian, or historical poet. It was through history that he found a way of writing openly about his desire and escaping the cul-de-sac of pure aestheticism. Cavafy's daily life was urban, indoor and narrow. For more than thirty years he worked as a clerk in the Egyptian government's Third Circle of Irrigation; he had dinner each night with his mother, the imposing Harikleia, until her death in 1899. Though he was an Alexandrian to the end, the modern Egyptian city is not explicitly present in his work except, perhaps, in the poems of desire and in "Sham-el-Nessim," an early, repudiated work about a spring festival. Two poems, "Walls" and "The Windows," suggest a sense of confinement imposed from the outside: "Without pity, without shame, without consideration/they've built around me enormous, towering walls."
Yet that confinement--whether one reads it as a metaphor for the closet, exile, provincial ennui, historical belatedness or textual frustration--also helped to shape Cavafy's poetic strategy. With the breadth of contemporary life shut out, he could concentrate on the long corridor of time and its play of ironies. As Edward Said observed, even in "Ithaca," the quintessential poem of possibility, which praises the delights of the journey over the destination, the pleasures are all specified in advance:
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire the finest wares:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind
Having already made his voyage, the speaker knows what it is to arrive at the disappointing end, to understand with the cool wisdom of age "what these Ithacas mean." (Or, as Mendelsohn rather oddly has it, following the Greek word order, "these Ithacas; what they mean.") The poem's sensual pleasures are both spiced and softened by hindsight, and by the suggestion of regret in the repeated phrase "hope that the road is a long one." And that regret, in turn, deepens the note of subtle tenderness in the older man's advice.
It is this combination of honesty and sympathy that underpins and complicates Cavafy's historical ironies. As Mendelsohn explains in his introduction and exhaustive notes (which parse the most difficult poems for those of us who can't tell our Lagids from our Seleucids), Cavafy's mature poetry owes much to his engagement with two very different historians: the Enlightenment Englishman Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took a dim view of Byzantium and Christianity, and the Greek romantic nationalist Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, whose work constructs a line of Greek identity from ancient times to the modern nation-state. The poems set in doomed Hellenistic kingdoms on the outskirts of Roman power, or in the Byzantium of Julian the Apostate (an early emperor who tried to restore the Olympian gods), or in distant provinces where petty officials pride themselves on their Greek ("unhellenized we are not, I rather think")--all these press delicately against the bruise of Greek decline while seeing, with Gibbon, its inevitability. At the same time, they keep in view the crude and ephemeral nature of all temporal power, a source of both consolation and regret.
In his best historical poems Cavafy maintains a scrupulous suspension, so that each reading suggests a different balance of insight and empathy. Is he describing self-delusion or heroism? Artistry or conceit? Often the ambiguity emerges at the point where public identities blur. In "Darius," the poet Phernazes is writing an epic in Greek about the Persian ancestor of his own Hellenized king, somewhere in Asia Minor. As he tries to imagine Darius' feelings on seizing the Persian throne ("arrogance and intoxication, perhaps; but no--more/like an awareness of the vanity of grandeur"), he hears that war with the Romans has begun. In the instant of danger he becomes neither Greek nor Persian but Cappadocian, rooted in his local world: "Great gods, protectors of Asia, help us." And yet his epic rhetoric has its own gravitational pull: with the enemy at the gate, "arrogance and intoxication" suddenly seems the more appealing choice. The inconclusive flickering of personal ambition, political interest, local allegiance and anxiety is made visible here at the moment when power shifts.
Cavafy's interest in equivocal identities also, of course, reflects his own experience as a Greek in Alexandria and as a homosexual raised in the Orthodox Church, whose pagan ancestors once valued same-sex love. The pain of double loyalties stands out in some of the poems about young men's deaths, where history and desire most obviously clasp hands. In the beautifully translated "Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.," we overhear the thoughts of a young pagan who has gone to the house of his dead Christian friend and stands, as boys so often do in Cavafy, out in the corridor, watching the preparations for the funeral. By the end, Christianity has become death's threatening accomplice:
Vaguely I had the feeling that
Myres was going far away from me;
had a feeling that he, a Christian, was being united
with his own, and that I was becoming
a stranger to him, very much a stranger...
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.
Myres has many cousins: Ianthes, the Alexandrian Jew who cannot help but give himself to Hellenism ("Of the Jews"); Leucius, whose half-eroded tombstone mentions both Jesus Christ and the Egyptian month of Hathor ("In the Month of Hathor"); and Ammon the Egyptian poet, dead at 29 in the year 610, whose friend commissions a Greek epitaph for him ("For Ammon"). Mendelsohn's version of this last poem captures the speaker's half-articulate longing:
Your Greek is always beautiful and musical.
But now we want all of your craftsmanship.
Into a foreign tongue our pain and love are passing.
Pour your Egyptian feeling into a foreign tongue.
Raphael, your verses should be written
so that they have, you know, something of our lives within them,
so that the rhythm and every phrasing makes it clear
that an Alexandrian is writing of an Alexandrian.