|Cavafy’s World of Art ||Alexander Nehamas
|Of the few things one can affirm with certainty, one is that no one is competent to say where art begins and especially where it ends.
Cavafy, commenting on Ruskin
Apollonios of Tyana¯the first-century A.D. sage and magician of whose death even his biographer, the third-century courtier Philostratos, was never certain¯appears a number of times in Cavafy’s poetry. We last meet him in “Apollonios of Tyana in Rhodes” (1925):1
Apollonios was speaking
about proper education and culture
with a young man building a luxury home in Rhodes.
“When I enter a temple,”
said the Tyanian finally, “even if it’s a small one,
I’d much rather see
a gold and ivory statue there
than a statue of common clay in a large temple.”
“Of common clay”: how disgusting¯
yet some (who haven’t been adequately trained)
are taken in by what’s bogus. Of common clay.
G. W. Bowersock is surely correct when he writes that this is “in many ways the most enigmatic” of Cavafy’s Apollonios poems. Does the sage prefer spiritual culture over material luxury or does he believe that spiritual culture is necessary in order to be able to appreciate material luxury? And does spiritual culture permit the appreciation only of some sorts of material luxury? It is not clear how such general questions are to be answered. What is clear, however, is that within the poem’s own specific terms Apollonios prefers gold and ivory over clay and (as the ancient Greek quotation in the original strongly suggests) small over large temples.
Apollonios’s particular preference seems like an instance of another general contrast. This is the distinction between the valuable materials of true art, addressed to a select audience, and the vulgar stuff of the contemptible works that please the rest of the world. The second stanza, in fact, explicitly endorses Apollonios’s choice. And the whole poem mirrors and manifests in structure as well as in content the tastes of Apollonios: a short poem which incorporates¯which, in fact, largely consists of¯the sage’s precious words praising small temples that contain works of valuable materials. Cavafy’s text exemplifies the very values it describes.
The taste for rare and precious materials is not peculiar to Apollonios. It is, actually, rather common among the sculptors and other plastic artists who often occupy Cavafy’s verse. The sculptor Damon, for example, carves the piece after which “The Retinue of Dionysos” (1907) is named in expensive “Parian marble.” The unnamed hero of “Craftsman of Wine Bowls” (1921) fashions his work, “made for the house of Herakleidis, / where good taste is the rule,” out of “pure silver.” And the jeweler of “For the Shop” (1913), perhaps the most fastidious among Cavafy’s craftsmen, sells only those of his works to which he is not attached. He treats the valuable works he loves with a tenderness and solicitude that are almost religious:
He wrapped them carefully, neatly,
in expensive green silk.
Roses of rubies, lilies of pearl,
violets of amethyst: according to his taste, his will,
his vision of their beauty¯not as he saw them in nature
or studied them. He’ll leave them in the safe,
examples of his bold, his skillful work.
Whenever a customer comes into the shop,
he brings out other things to sell¯first class ornaments:
bracelets, chains, necklaces, rings.
Cavafy’s original consists of couplets ending in homophonous rhymes that are as extraordinary as they are meticulous (e.g., me taxi/metaxi: neatly/silk; George Seferis may have been satirizing them in his “Peddler from Sidon”). The rhymes thus reflect and reinforce the jeweler’s own meticulousness and extraordinary care in regard to the work he values. But they have another function. Ending in the same two- or three-syllable sequence, each couplet acquires a remarkable solidity and finality. What is contained, or referred to, within each stanza is therefore given a very special place: it is separate and isolated from the world at large. In Cavafy’s early “Walls” (1897), such homophonous rhymes created the sense of an isolation that led to impotent despair. In “For the Shop,” the jeweler, who is the subject of every active verb in the poem and whose point of view is the poem’s own, is, along with his artificial flowers, hermetically sealed off from the world. But his isolation, only superficially broken by his selling trinkets, is a gesture of defiance and disdain.
These poems seem to make indirectly a point which is made in a more direct manner in many of Cavafy’s first-person works. Just as Apollonios spurns statues of clay and the jeweler rejects his necklaces and rings, so the speaker of “I Went” (1913) has no use for ordinary experience: “I... drank strong wine, / the way the champions of pleasure drink.” Commonplace enjoyment is the last thing “To Sensual Pleasure” (1913) celebrates:
My life’s joy and incense: recollection of those hours
when I found and captured pleasure as I wanted it.
My life’s joy and incense: that I refused
all indulgence of routine love affairs.
Apollonios’s delicate statues are made of gold and ivory. The jeweler’s secret flowers consist of rubies, pearls, and amethysts. Cavafy’s own poetry seems to emerge out of rare and unusual relationships. Luxury and voluptuousness go hand in hand with inspiration. “Their Beginning” (1921) explicitly connects writing with uncommon love affairs:
Their illicit pleasure has been fulfilled.
They get up and dress quickly, without a word.
They come out of the house separately, furtively;
and as they move down the street a bit unsettled,
it seems they sense that something about them betrays
what kind of bed they’ve just been lying on.
But what profit for the life of the artist:
tomorrow, the day after, or years later, he’ll give voice
to the strong lines that had their beginning here.
Yet the distinction on which this poem depends is a little too easy. It seems at least disingenuous of Cavafy, not to say self-indulgent or even self-deceptive, to write that any love affair, provided only that it is not “routine,” is thereby the stuff of poetry. Contrary to what is often thought, Cavafy’s erotic poems do not merely celebrate sensuality; they are at least as often concerned with love.2 Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that a love affair merely by being homosexual can provide the precious material of poetry and art. Homosexual no less than heterosexual affairs can be sordid and cheap, “of common clay.” And the aggressive boasting of the vulgar and obnoxious hero of “The Favor of Alexander Valas” (1921) shows that this is something of which Cavafy was perfectly aware. Not everything rare is for that reason precious.
Furthermore, not every precious element is bound to constitute an artwork of real value. Damon’s Retinue of Dionysos is made, as we have seen, out of the exquisite marble of Paros, but neither Damon nor Cavafy take it seriously. Though Damon is clever and talented (“none better / in the Peloponnese”), his work is not his aim:
as he works
his thoughts turn now and then
to the fee he’s going to receive
from the king of Syracuse:
three talents, a large sum.
Adding this to what he has already,
he’ll live grandly, like a rich man,
he’ll even be able to enter politics
¯what a marvelous thought:
he, too, in the Senate, he, too, in the Agora.
The line that has up to this point seemed to distinguish so neatly between precious materials and genuine art on the one hand and base stuff and trivial accomplishments on the other here begins to lose definition. And the generalized version of this contrast, the distinction between art and reality, which is commonly believed to be absolutely central to Cavafy, is equally blurred. This distinction does emerge, at least momentarily, in the unpublished “Artificial Flowers” (1903), which rejects “the real narcissus ... lilies ... real roses,” the flowers of “trite, pedestrian gardens,” in favor of “artificial flowers¯glories of gold and metal.”3 But the bulk of Cavafy’s work does not support the very dichotomy it seems to set up. Or so at least I have come to believe.
I have been prompted to reconsider Cavafy’s attitude toward the relationship between his work and the world by the appearance of a remarkable new book, Gregory Jusdanis’s The Poetics of C. P. Cavafy: Textuality, Eroticism, History (Princeton University Press, 1987). George Savidis, Cavafy’s editor, has made what he himself describes as a “conservative” estimate to the effect that ninety-nine of Cavafy’s two hundred and fifty-six extant poems, along with numerous essays and notes, address issues of poetry and art4 Jusdanis’s book¯“theoretical” in its approach, less concerned with the interpretation of particular works than with the formulation of general principles, more interested in Cavafy’s abstract philosophy of art than in his concrete, idiosyncratic poetry, giving as much weight to his prose as to his verse, to his unpublished as to his published texts¯is bound to provoke serious misgivings. Such misgivings are not mine. Jusdanis’s approach is legitimate, valuable, and repays close study. Close study, however, has brought me to doubt one of his most central contentions.
Jusdanis does not believe that Cavafy’s poetics is consistent and unified. His own methodological principles do not require him to try to reconcile conflicting ideas as these emerge in texts Cavafy wrote at different times and in different genres. Indeed, one of the main strengths of this book is the thoroughness with which Jusdanis draws out the various strands that are Cavafy’s views¯on the poet, the audience, poetry itself, on language and writing, on tradition and on the world.
Matters become less plain, however, when we come to Cavafy’s views on the relationship between poetry and the world. Cavafy, Jusdanis points out, sometimes denies the autonomous status of poetry, art, and literature; he refuses to believe that they are independent of the rest of the world, governed by their own irreducible aesthetic principles. Occasionally, at least, Cavafy sees poetry as a complex institutional practice with a long history, intimately interconnected with similar practices and their histories. According to this view, which puts Cavafy well ahead of his time, conceptions of beauty and aesthetic value change along with changes in those various institutions and with time.
This may sound like, but is not, the kind of naïve relativism which stops at the assertion that different groups and times have their own conceptions of beauty. The view Jusdanis attributes to Cavafy goes further and it offers an explanation of this variety. Beauty, according to this approach, is the product of the interaction, through means that are neither purely rational nor purely aesthetic, between the various institutions of which poetry is one. Beauty is not an independent category. What counts as beautiful on a specific occasion is the product of particular struggles and accommodations among different groups and interests, each of which aims to establish its own conception as paradigmatic. Beauty, in this approach, is therefore the product of what in recent years it has become popular to call “power.” It represents the standards that have allowed one particular group to establish its sovereignty over others. In other words, this is a picture of Cavafy as a “post-modernist” avant la lettre.
We can find this post-modernist Cavafy in his unpublished “The Enemies” (1900, translated by Jusdanis). A sophist is discounting the importance of his contemporary rivals: these are people over whom he has already and definitively won; they are not a real threat. The source of his real anxiety is the future and the mechanism by which new standards of truth and beauty are established:
Our present day enemies will never do us any harm.
Later will our enemies, the new sophists, come.
When we in our old age will lie wretchedly
and some of us will have gone to Hades. Our present
words and works will appear strange (and
ridiculous perhaps) since the enemies will change
sophistics, style, and tendencies. Like me and them
who so much transformed the past things.
What we portrayed as beautiful and proper
the enemies will reveal to be foolish and useless,
repeating the same things differently (without much effort).
Just as we spoke the old words in another manner.
The similarity between this poem and a passage in The Genealogy of Morals is uncanny. Nietzsche has just been describing the various changes our concept of punishment has undergone during its history. He now goes on to generalize his view:
Whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involve a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured and even obliterated.
The contrast between the Nietzschean “Enemies” and “For the Shop,” with its hermetically isolated artist, seems very stark indeed. In the latter poem, Jusdanis writes, “Art is conceived as the private expression of the artist, who exclusively confers upon the objects he creates the status of the artistic.” In “The Enemies,” by contrast, creation is “understood as a matter of social negotiations dependent on certain cultural conventions that emerge under specific historical conditions.”
One might well object here that sophistry is one thing and poetry another. But we know how intensely many of Cavafy’s poems are preoccupied with other texts, many of which are not at all poetic. Through their titles, their epigraphs, and even within their own texts, Cavafy’s poems constantly refer to earlier writing.
Jusdanis argues convincingly that such references create a bond between Cavafy’s poetry and other written works. The impetus for the composition of a large part of his poetry was therefore provided by such works and not by an original poetic experience. Cavafy takes over such texts and, not unlike the sophists of “The Enemies,” uses them for his own purposes, giving them an interpretation and a meaning to suit his own ends. Whatever Apollonios may have originally meant, his statement, which Philostratos had already placed within his own context, now appears in Cavafy’s text as part of a new whole. The issue of its original meaning becomes at least difficult, if not impossible, to settle; the very relevance of that issue is therefore also put into question. Instead of being independent from the world at large, poetry occupies a particular “position in the network of writing.” Instead of being the recreation and communication of private, personal experience, it is the appropriation of earlier writing, whatever its own intentions, as material for producing further writing, with new standards and values.
But poems like “For the Shop” or “The First Step” (1899), Jusdanis writes, tell a very different story. These poems attribute to poetry and art their own, radically independent domain to which the rest of the world (writing included) is totally irrelevant. This is the point, as Jusdanis reads it, of one of Cavafy’s greatest poems, the deceptively simple “In the Same Space” (1929, translation modified):
The setting of houses, cafés, the neighborhoods
that I see and walk through; years on end.
I created you in joy and in sorrows
with so many incidents, so many details.
And you were transformed wholly into feeling, for me.
The poem, Jusdanis writes, “unequivocally affirms the poet’s intrinsic capacity to fabricate the world around him. The poetic imagination actively generates meaning, forging out of a core of phenomena an independent and exclusive reality.” I do not accept this reading, but for the moment I want only to point out Jusdanis’s conclusion: that, in the final analysis and despite poems like “The Enemies,” the creation of “an independent and exclusive reality” constitutes the central aim of Cavafy’s poetic and theoretical writings. Art and the world remain severed from one another. Poetry creates self-sufficient objects, separate from the world of everyday and vulgar concerns. Cavafy, according to Jusdanis, kept faith with “two of aestheticism’s principal precepts, the autonomy of art and its uselessness.”
Cavafy’s final position therefore appears as a form of an aesthetic isolationism: “Art claims to withdraw from the world into its own independent realm created by the imagination. It dissociates itself from life in the pursuit of pure form.” Cavafy cannot escape the absolute opposition between art and life “since the isolation (and worship) of art constitutes one of the central tenets of his aesthetics.” Jusdanis, in view of his reading of “The Enemies” and other texts, rightly insists that “this does not represent the whole picture.” Nevertheless, the rest of that picture, and by far its largest part, is that of a Cavafy deeply committed to the autonomy of art: “As a faithful practitioner of European high modernism, he criticizes his inherited aesthetic conventions and introduces new modes of writing, but he cannot bring himself to question art’s alleged independence. Of Cavafy’s major concerns art alone escapes his relentless scrutiny.”
I would like to suggest that Cavafy’s scrutiny is more relentless and his view of the relationship between art and the world more oblique. Nevertheless, a poem like “Young Men of Sidon (A.D. 400)” (1920) seems at first sight to support Jusdanis’s view. In an elegant, sensual setting, five young men are listening to a poetic recital. When they hear the epigram Aeschylus is said to have composed as his own epitaph, commemorating his service in the Athenian army, one youth, “mad about literature,” is infuriated (translation slightly modified):
“I don’t like that quatrain at all.
Sentiments of this sort seem like a sort of cowardice.
Give, I say, all your strength to your work,
all your concern. And don’t forget your work
even in times of stress or when you begin to decline.
This is what I expect, what I demand of you¯
and not that you completely dismiss from your mind
the magnificent art of your tragedies¯
your Agamemnon, your marvelous Prometheus,
your representations of Orestes and Cassandra,
your Seven Against Thebes¯ merely to set down
for your memorial
that as an ordinary soldier, one of the herd,
you too fought against Datis and Artaphernis.”
The poem, according to Jusdanis, celebrates art and attacks “the conventional priority conferred upon action. ...For the young man, art must remain paramount; it should be commemorated and must exist as an object of total concern. Art is more significant than action.” Yet art’s significance, Jusdanis continues, remains in doubt as long as the contrast between art and action is unquestioned. It is precisely this contrast which Jusdanis claims, escapes Cavafy’s scrutiny.
Yet, as always with Cavafy, a second look reveals some subtle complications in this superficially clear picture. A close reading of the speech shows that instead of asserting the absolute priority of art over action the young man is questioning the total primacy of action over art¯a rather different point. He wants Aeschylus “not to forget his work,” not to dismiss his art completely (ïëüôåëá) from his mind. He does not ask him to overlook completely his military career. His complaint is that Aeschylus’s memorial contains only (ìüíï, which is emphasized by spacing¯the Greek equivalent of italics¯in the original) a reference to his battles. The young man, that is, is not requiring a purely artistic epitaph of Aeschylus. On the contrary, he places art and action side by side; even more important, he interrelates them. This interrelation is accomplished by the reference to Aeschylus’s valor against the Persian army of Datis and Artaphernis, which cannot fail to recall Aeschylus’s own Persians (the only tragedy, apart from The Suppliants, omitted from the young man’s speech). The Persians, though concerned with the battle of Salamis and not of Marathon, was itself partly the product of Aeschylus’s participation in the first and second Persian Wars. Aeschylus’s art could not have been what it was without his actions. The two go indissolubly together.
“Dareios” (1920) complicates matters even further. In this work, Phernazis, a Cappadocian poet, is composing an epic celebrating the founding of the Persian Empire by Dareios, to whom Mithridatis, Phernazis’s own sovereign, traces his ancestry (translation slightly modified):
But this calls for serious thought; Phernazis has to analyze
the feelings Dareios must have had:
perhaps arrogance and intoxication. No¯more likely
a certain insight into the vanities of greatness.
The poet thinks deeply about the question.
But the question the poet thinks deeply about does not concern Dareios’s feelings: that question has already been answered by the crisp and concise “arrogance and intoxication” and by its contrast with the tentative “more likely / a certain insight into the vanities of greatness.” The question, rather, is whether Phernazis dare present Mithridatis with the unflattering truth which, since it applies to his ancestor, will certainly reflect on him as well. The question is that of a courtier, not of a poet; this is confirmed precisely by Cavafy’s ironic use of “the poet” in the last line quoted above.
Deep in thought, Phernazis is shocked to learn that Mithridatis is engaged in war against the Romans:
The poet is dumbfounded. What a disaster!
How can our glorious king,
Mithridatis, Dionysos and Evpator,
bother about Greek poems now?
In the middle of a war¯just think, Greek poems!
Phernazis, “the poet” who always remains the courtier (his mode of referring to his king assures us of his character) and who had hoped to consolidate his position in court, is now disconsolate: “What a bad break! / ... What a setback, terrible setback to his plans.” But notice what his plans reveal: he too was motivated in his own affairs by “arrogance and intoxication,” by the desire for power and success, and not by that “certain insight into the vanities of greatness” which is traditionally attributed to artists. The king and the poet are here placed next to each other.
Phernazis actually suspects that Mithridatis is bound to lose the war to the Romans: “Great gods, protectors of Asia, help us.” Jusdanis takes it that “poetry is once again juxtaposed with action which, in this case, eclipses it.” Phernazis, to be sure, does not give up his composition, since
through all his nervousness, all the turmoil,
the poetic idea comes and goes insistently:
arrogance and intoxication¯that’s the most likely,
arrogance and intoxication are what Dareios must have felt.
Nevertheless, Jusdanis writes, Phernazis simply refuses to face up to his own earlier question about the significance of “Greek poems” in times of war. He refuses to conclude that war makes mockery of art: “The absolute act continues to haunt poetry.”
And yet these verses, with which the poem ends, undermine this interpretation. So far, the poem’s point of view has been consistently Phernazis’s own: shrewd, calculating, self-serving, and timid. But in these lines, suddenly, Phernazis disappears. The subject of the stanza, conceptually as well as grammatically, is now “the poetic idea,” which is given a status in its own right along with the ability to “come and go” as it wants. The prospective victory of the Romans frees Phernazis from the necessity of composing verses designed to flatter and please Mithridatis. The idea that arrogance and intoxication are necessary for power, which we have known all along but which Phernazis has been reluctant to face, now takes over his mind. War, if anything, gives poetry a far more active role than it had in peace and at court. By yielding to the idea, Phernazis is now more of a poet than ever before.
He still, of course, remains the courtier. The Romans, it is reasonable to suppose, will actually like Greek poems in which Dareios and his descendant, their vanquished enemy, are put down by one of their own. Phernazis still can profit from his work. But the motives the poem attributes to Dareios, whether the Romans will know it or not, are also, of course, their own. And they are also the motives that, once again, underlie, whether he knows it or not, Phernazis’s own verse. Everyone in this poem¯agent and artist, victor and victim¯is moved by the Forces that brought Dareios to his throne¯a point, incidentally, which accounts for the poem’s title: since the work is mostly concerned with Phernazis, naming it after Dareios has always seemed a problem.
Poetry in “Dareios” does not simply represent, it mirrors action. Poetry is, in fact, one of action’s forms. Their springs and ends are the same. Action can be a form of poetry too. This is most evident in “In the Same Space.” The speaker of that poem has not constructed a purely imaginary world. The setting within which he walks is both created by him and absolutely real. It is, in fact, very like the city we know Cavafy to have lived in: it is “Alexandria still.” The poet has not created a separate reality; he has come to see that imagination and reality, fact and feeling, have to be combined both for life and for poetry to be possible. By writing about his city, the poet has become able to live within it. Far from leaving “the conflict inherent in the art/action and theory/practice dichotomies ... unresolved,” “Dareios” and “In the Same Space” make it impossible to draw the line that separates their terms from one another.
The very same indeterminacy permeates “Morning Sea” (1915), which, on its face, appears to make a very simple point (translation modified):
Let me stop here. And let me, too, look at nature awhile.
The brilliant violet-blues of the morning sea,
of the cloudless sky,
the yellow shore; all
beautiful and brightly lit.
Let me stop here. And let me fool myself into thinking
I see them
(I actually did see them for a moment when I first stopped)
and not my usual fantasies here too,
my recollections, the images of sensual pleasure.
At first sight, the poem appears to set up a radical break between nature and art, reality and fantasy. This is Jusdanis’s view. The first stanza, he writes, contains “a conventional description of the sight, related in reserved and unspectacular vocabulary, an account befitting the most familiar and automatized everyday view. The language is as stereotypical as the view is commonplace.” This is a plausible reading, and it reflects the very common view that the description of nature was never among Cavafy’s concerns.
This may well be true. But let us look closely at what it is that Cavafy describes. The simplicity of his image is matched by its subtlety. The direct objects of Cavafy’s perception are neither the morning sea nor the cloudless sky, but rather their colors. The poet actively abstracts from what is presented to him. The colors he sees are “lit.” The passive participle (öùôéóìÝíá) strongly suggests that the scene is perceived as an arrangement, a stage set or perhaps a painting. What is seen, however commonplace, is not “pure nature” but an artfully constructed combination of brightly lit brilliant violet-blues and yellows¯an arrangement which really exists, of course, but which precisely for that reason undermines the easy distinction between unadulterated nature and pure art. Where does art begin in this poem? And what is the connection between this artful nature and the semi-independent images (note the absence of a personal pronoun in the last half-line) that come to occupy the poet’s vision?
These fantasies are not the total creatures of art. They are, rather, the ambiguous products of the interaction between art and the world. In “I’ve Brought to Art” (1921), as we shall soon see, such images are the materials the poet brings to art so that he can compose his poetry. The common view that, in Cavafy, poetry is produced by the straightforward transformation of the “raw material” of nature through the inspiration of the artist’s imagination is not correct. Rather, poetry is the product of the ability to discern in what others see as a merely natural object something that has already acquired the status of art. For the poet, the art is already in nature. Just as many of Cavafy’s poems are inspired by other texts, so others are inspired by works of art which are inherent in the world.
This is exactly the point made in “At the Café Door” (1915). A chance remark, randomly overheard, causes the poet to turn to the door of the café:
and I saw that lovely body which seemed
as though Eros in his mastery had fashioned it,
joyfully shaping its well-formed limbs,
molding its tall build.
The human body is seen and is described as a work of sculpture (ãëõðôü). It is an object which is as natural as it is artificial, and it is as such, and only as such, that it is incorporated in the poem.
“In a Town of Osroini” (1917) concerns a squalid quarrel in a backwater town of a backwater Middle Eastern kingdom which results in the wounding of a youth called Remon. Neither the place, nor Remon’s crowd, nor Remon himself is very sophisticated: “We’re a mixture here: Syrians, migrated Greeks, Armenians, Medes. / Remon is one of these too.” Yet the lowly, depraved Remon is now the subject of poetry, because he is already transfigured, seen in the guise of one of the handsomest (and allegedly one of the most temperate) characters of classical literature. He lies wounded, perhaps unconscious:
But last night,
when the moon shone on his sensual face
our thoughts went back to Plato’s Charmidis.
Art begins before the beginning of art.
And where, in turn, does art end? In the unpublished “Half an Hour” (1917), the poet sits in a bar next to a handsome young man whom, he is convinced, he will never possess. And yet
we who serve Art
sometimes with the mind’s intensity
can create pleasure that is almost physical¯
but of course only for a short time.
In this case, the power of Art is supplemented by the “mercy” of alcohol. The poet derives a pleasure that is more than “almost physical”: “I had half an hour that was perfectly (ôÝëåéá) erotic.” But even the combination of drinking and art is not quite enough for that perfection. Something else was necessary and, fortunately, available.
And I think you understood this
and stayed slightly longer on purpose.
That too was very necessary.
Because with all the imagination,
all the magic alcohol,
I needed to see your lips as well,
needed your body near me.
Art mixes thoroughly with life to produce what neither can bring about alone: half an hour that is perfectly erotic and the poem that records and celebrates it.
In “Pictured” (1915), the poet, who, he tells us, generally loves and is devoted to his work, is seriously discouraged. His writing is not going well, the day is depressing, the weather awful. “More in the mood for looking than for speaking,” he turns to a painting:
a handsome boy
is lying down next to a spring,
maybe exhausted from running.
What a handsome boy; what a heavenly noon
has caught him up in sleep.
I sit and gaze like this for a long time,
recovering through art from the effort of creating it.
The nature of the pleasure the painting gives the poet is totally unclear. Is it aesthetic or sensual, interested or disinterested? The question is a bad one. Cavafy’s description of the painting, resigned and intense at the same time, undercuts the presupposition that the pleasure must belong either to one or to the other kind. Just as in the earlier poems poetry took as its material parts of the world that were already art, so in this case art produces a part of the world. The poet’s pleasure is as indeterminate as the object that has brought it about.
The same indissoluble relationship between art and life is found in “I’ve Brought to Art”:
I sit in a mood of reverie.
I’ve brought to Art desires and sensations,
faces or lines, certain indistinct memories
of unfulfilled love affairs.
Let me submit to Art:
Art knows how to shape forms of Beauty,
almost imperceptibly completing life
blending impressions, blending day with day.
It is not at all unreasonable to suppose that the material of life is “a disorganized mass,” as Jusdanis writes, transformed by art into a unity that does “not resemble exactly anything existing in nature, since art does not imitate nature, but works according to its own criteria.” But though the imitation of nature is indeed totally irrelevant to Cavafy’s poetry, Cavafy’s poetic aim still is not the creation of purely independent non-natural forms. The relationship between art and nature is much more equivocal and complex.
The poem does not imply that art is “otherworldly, self-contained, and perfect, existing in its own right within Cavafy’s republic of ideas.” The poem’s central contention is that art “completes life.” It makes a whole out of it, a whole that certainly would not exist without art, but still a whole that is not for that reason other than life. Life itself is completed by poetry. Nature and art together, in indissoluble mixture, make a life out of the combination of their elements. But these elements, as we have seen already, are themselves already equivocal. The materials of nature are as artistic in form as the forms of art are themselves natural objects. By finding art in nature and by preserving nature in art, Cavafy composes poems which, in their turn, are both aesthetic and sensual, both works of art and things of nature.
This is just the kind of poem composed by the old man of “Very Seldom” (1913), who, in all his decrepitude, can still enjoy
the share in youth that still belongs to him.
His verse is now quoted by young men.
His visions come before their lovely eyes.
Their healthy sensual minds,
their shapely taut bodies
stir to his perception of the beautiful.
The old man’s works of art, as such, produce a sensual pleasure in their young readers. Their pleasure, in its turn, moves the old man to write another poem (assuming the poem’s point of view is also the old man’s), a further work of art recording his own sensual pleasure at the pleasure his poems create. It is difficult to imagine a more complete intermixing of art and life, of the aesthetic and the sensual, a more radical refusal to separate the effects of poetry from those of the world.
Apollonios, we recall, demanded statues of ivory and gold, and the craftsman of “For the Shop” wanted to work with rubies, pearls, and amethysts. All of these things in their “natural state” are useless for art; they become artistic materials only after art has already transformed them. But they are still natural elements. Neither Apollonios nor the nameless craftsman prefers the artificial to the real. But they both express the view Cavafy’s poetry embodies: form cannot be created unless form is already there; the world in which form is to be found cannot be finally told apart from the art that brings form into being.
1. Translations, unless otherwise stated, are from C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis, Princeton, 1975.
2. I have argued this point in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 2 (1983).
3. Translation from Rae Dalven, The Complete Poems of Cavafy, New York, 1976.
4. Proceedings of the Third Symposium on Poetry, Dedicated to C. P. Cavafy (in Greek), Athens, 1984.
|Alexander Nehamas, “Cavafy’s World of Art”, Grand Street, Vol. 8, No 2 (Winter 1989) |