|What was most precious¯his form ||J.A. Sareyannis
|I thought that I had been well acquainted with Cavafy, but when I actually counted the number of times we had met, I was surprised to find that these were only four or five: once in 1915, before my departure, as a student, from Alexandria for Paris; and three or four times in 1929, during a short trip to Alexandria. Later, when he came to Athens for his throat operation, I saw him a great deal, but by then he was no longer Cavafy. His thin body, his nervous gestures, his large and so very expressive eyes were still the same, but he had lost forever his god-given gift of the Word. His few, laconic phrases, his never-ending questions, which he asked so that his visitor would speak at length while he himself rested, could give no idea of what a rich and superb speaker Cavafy had once been.
When I see the friends of Mallarmé attempt to describe in their writings the matchless charm which that poet emanated as he spoke, my mind naturally turns to Cavafy, who was also a charmer. The ten or twelve hours I spent in his company during the good years always seem to me to have been among the richest in my life. How sorry I am that as I left his home each time I did not put down his words in writing! I am almost certain that, had Cavafy had the good fortune to find an Eckermann, his “Words” would have been as valuable as his poems. But since no Eckermann was found, or seems to have been found, it would be desirable if all those who knew him would now write their recollections while it is still, perhaps, not too late.1 I say “perhaps” because many years ago in Alexandria, while he was still alive, a myth was born around Cavafy, and from that myth has sprung a good deal of unauthenticated Cavafiana which has no relationship whatsoever with the man, and which somewhat confuses his personality.
Cavafy’s flat was on an upper floor of a rather lower-class, unkempt apartment house. Upon entering, one saw a wide hall laden with furniture. No walls were to be seen anywhere, as they were covered with paintings and, most of all, with shelves or Arabian étagères holding countless vases ¯small ones, large ones, even enormous ones. Various doors were strung along that hall; the last one opened onto the salon where the poet received his visitors. At one time I greatly admired that salon, but one morning in 1929, as I was passing by to pick up some collections of Cavafy’s poetry to be delivered to friends of his in Paris, I waited alone there for quite a while and was able to study it detachedly. With surprise I realized for the first time that it was crowded with the most incongruous things: faded velvet armchairs, old Bokhara and Indian stuffs at the windows and on the sofa, a black desk with gilt ornament, folding chairs like those found in colonial bungalows, shelves on the walls and tables with countless little columns and mother-of-pearl, a koré from Tanagra, tasteless turn-of-the-century vases, every kind of Oriental rug, Chinese vases, paintings, and so on and so on. I could single out nothing as exceptional and really beautiful; the way everything was amassed reminded me of a secondhand furniture store. Could that hodgepodge have been in the taste of the times? I had read similar descriptions of the homes of Anatole France and of Villiers de l’lsle Adam, who were also, both of them, lovers of beauty and gave careful attention to their writing. Whether Cavafy himself chose and collected those assorted objects or whether he inherited them, I do not know; what is certain is that Cavafy’s hand, his design, could not be felt in any of that. I imagine that he just came slowly to love them, with time, as they were gradually covered with dust and memories, as they became no longer just objects, but ambiance.
How much light, or, more precisely, what dosage of light the atmosphere of his home should have was a matter that appeared to be of great concern to Cavafy. He was constantly preoccupied with it. Like a photographer, he would frequently get up to open, close, or half-close the shutters in different corners of the room; would draw or half-draw the curtains; would turn up or turn down halfway the light of the oil lamp; would light or extinguish one or more candles; and would pay attention to the seating arrangements, politely suggesting to each visitor where to sit. And all of these movements and requirements appeared to have one object, to be part of a prearranged plan of which the poet had more an intuitive sense than a conscious awareness, because one often perceived in his movements a sense of regret and of experimentation. The light he wanted each time did not correspond to some fixed rule of lighting; the mood of the day, the direction he wanted the conversation to take, or perhaps the visitors who were present would dictate to him the tone of the lighting that his day or evening would necessarily have.
Cavafy’s bookbindery, so to speak, was in his home. It was a bare room where, when I saw it, all the shutters were open, and sunlight flooded in. It was full of simple tables, or perhaps trestles with boards on them. His poems were piled up there in various stacks, each stack representing a poem. When he decided to send off one of his latest collections, he would sit down the preceding evening and add, by hand, the titles of his new poems to the already printed table of contents. The next day, as he was gathering his poems together and putting them into chronological order, he would go back and forth into his office, erasing and writing in the variant he now preferred for each one. How sorry I am that at one time I would lightheartedly suggest to various acquaintances of mine in Paris that they write to Cavafy for his poems. I had no idea then that it was such a great procedure for Cavafy to decide whether or not to send a collection. With his tried and trusted friends, with those he was certain would welcome his new poems unreservedly and joyfully, he would decide without hesitation to send them at once. But how should he send them? They must arrive safely, must not get lost, must not fall into unknown, and perhaps profane, hands. The ideal solution would be for a traveling friend to be found who would agree to take them with him and hand-deliver them to their designated recipient. In expectation of that perfect occasion, Cavafy would continually procrastinate. But often some time went by and no such friend could be found. The poems then had to be sent by registered mail. The poet did not, however, have confidence in his own practical capabilities; he was afraid that if he sent them himself, they would perhaps not arrive. He had to find someone with experience, who would package and mail them safely. Who would that perfect person be? Cavafy would often have recourse to the services of Stephanos Pargas,2 who, as the editor of a periodical and the owner of a bookstore, surely knew about such things. Just as often, however, he thought it would be better if Alexandria did not learn that Cavafy was sending his poems to X or to Y. For that reason, he often sought out a brother, or another relative, of X or of Y ¯a relative, however, who was not an intellectual but rather a merchant, a practical man, who would send the books safely and without starting rumors or making any noise.
A much greater problem was created when some distant intellectual, unknown to Cavafy, would send him his books. He considered it his obligation as a man of letters to send him his poems in return. But which poems? His collection 1907-1915? Or should he, perhaps, include his collection 1916-1918, or perhaps even his latest poems, printed on broadsheets? Before deciding ¯and sometimes it would take him a year to decide¯ he would go out and run about left and right to gather information. He would question whomever he found in the street; he would inundate everyone, familiar to him or not, with questions, or would get others to do the questioning for him. He would procrastinate for months and months, and up to the last moment, and still he would ask questions. I remember in 1929, when he was to give me two or three collections or partial collections to distribute in Paris, that up to the hour of my departure for the ship, he was hurrying to my house for a moment and was telephoning me to get one final piece of advice, to get some more information: what sort of people were these who were to acquire his poems? When his work was in question, the poet of “Theodotos,” of “Things Ended” and of “The Ides of March” was always afraid. It was his constant desire and hope that his work should find new friends, but, like the parent of a delicate and innocent child, he sought to protect it, to make sure that it avoided awkward situations. He never solved that dilemma, nor did he grow accustomed to it; it wore him out throughout his entire life.
In the hall of his flat was Cavafy’s bookcase, a heavy, awkward piece of furniture. Only after his death did I happen, by chance, to have a look at it, and to my surprise I discovered that Cavafy was not a bibliophile. There were not very many books ¯some three hundred, I estimate¯ but even these did not in any way represent him, did not give any indication of the man Cavafy was. His library was like his home, a hodgepodge of disconnected things: some very few ancient Greek texts, practically the school texts; two volumes of Mahaffy on Greek life and thought; a volume of Chateaubriand; La Bruyère; a historical work by Gustave Le Bon, bound in gold, on the civilization of the Arabs and Indians; two or three novels by Bourget and a multitude of unmentionable novels by unknown and forgotten writers. It is an undisputed fact that, as a young man at least, Cavafy had read a great deal. He knew well all the Greek writers; Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman history; the lives of the ancients; and anything good that had been written on those subjects in his own time. “In that period,” he told me one day, “I feel free. I have made it my own by now.” He especially loved Plutarch; he knew all of him practically by heart, and in conversation he would often quote phrases from him, having the vanity once in a while to mention from which chapter they came. I greatly regret that he did not write a history of the Hellenistic period. He certainly would have given us a new and important work, because he had both original ideas on the period and a deep feeling for the ancient language, which non-Greeks usually do not have. I remember that once, when we were talking about Mahaffy’s work on the life of the Greeks in the Hellenistic period, he brought me the book and showed me a number of mistakes the English historian had made, owing to an imperfect knowledge of the language and a poor translation of the texts.
He also appears to have been somewhat versed in the Byzantine historians. “They are not appreciated as they should be,” he told me. “One day they will be discovered, and will be admired for their originality. They cultivated a genre of historiography which was never written before and has not been written since. They wrote history dramatically.” However, in spite of all his admiration for “our glorious Byzantine age,” he never felt it as his own. “For me,” he would say, “the Byzantine period is like a closet with many drawers. If I want something, I know where to find it; into which drawer to look.”
He followed contemporary literature with curiosity, but also rather vaguely, it seems to me. He wasn’t interested in details, but he did want to know what was going on around him. I suppose that when he heard a lot of talk about some writer from those around him, he would borrow a volume of his work. It was in this way, at least, that he borrowed from his friend Pericles Anastasiades the second volume of Proust’s Le Côté de Guermantes, which he greatly admired, judging from his praise of it: “The grandmother’s death! What a masterpiece! Proust is a great writer! A very great writer!” he told me. On the subject of the Introduction to Sodome et Gomorrhe, published in the same volume, only because I deliberately questioned him did he answer, “But that part is of no interest. It is prewar.” And his critical observation was absolutely correct. In spite of his expressed admiration for Proust, he lacked the curiosity to read any other of his novels. “I haven’t time to read anymore. I haven’t time,” he repeated to me many times, with comical despair. I imagine that from about 1911, when he began to publish regularly, he stopped reading systematically and confined himself mainly to skimming through various books in order to verify certain periods, as he says in “Kaisarion,” or to confirm lesser historical details which were included in his poems. I myself have been given proof of his respect for history. When, in Paris in 1929, I was writing my commentary on his poem “The Battle of Magnesia,” I thought that at last I had found a very small historical inaccuracy, and I wrote to him about it. The Battle of Magnesia took place in December. If we assume that important news during that period arrived quite quickly, thanks to the existence of different types of telegraphic systems as described by Polybius, then Philip’s day in Cavafy’s poem must have fallen sometime in late December or in January. In December or in January, however, could there have been roses in Pella of Macedonia? As an agronomist, I would certify that there could not have been; and the verse “Cover the table with roses” seemed to me historically inaccurate. Cavafy answered me: “About the question you raised concerning the flowers. The poem is about a very wealthy king, who could easily have had the protective means necessary for cultivating the flowers in question during the winter. But, independently of this, there was the winter export of those flowers from Egypt. We know that Egypt exported roses to Italy in winter. In the first century A.D., Italy, through perfected cultivation, became self-sufficient and had her own rosae hibernae.”
Cavafy, at least during his last years, liked stories with logical coherence. While he was in the Red Cross Hospital in Athens, following the operation that deprived him of his voice, I asked him if he wanted any books to read. On a piece of paper he wrote his answer to me: “Only detective stories,” and he underlined twice the word “only.” He was very enthusiastic about the books of Simenon, which were unknown to him until then.
My favorite place in Cavafy’s home was a corner in the hall, where I never saw anyone sitting. It was next to a window with a wide frame, and was filled with books thrown here and there in disarray. An oil lamp on the wall, an armchair, and a small, low table ¯like a low console, but large enough to hold an ashtray and a glass of whiskey¯ showed that the poet must have loved this corner and have sat there when he was alone. Perhaps it was there that he skimmed through books with pictures or plates of ancient coins; perhaps it was there that he read the phrases or the texts which were at the origin of his poems. The general hue of many of his reveries, a certain tone of a man without ties to earthly things heard frequently in his work, his visions, and certain of his expressions, such as “half-wrought in my own mind,” make me think that the glass with the “strong drinks” ¯whiskey, raki, and mastic¯ must often have kept him company. Cavafy, however, except for his passion for his work, was a cautious man, who exercised a great deal of self-control and was not easily carried away. And I imagine that, as an artist not only in poetry but in his life as well, he probably had found the way to regulate the quantity of drink which would lead him not to intoxication but to the threshold of a certain euphoric reverie.
Usually, though not always, he was at home as evening fell. One would find him alone or surrounded by people. All of cosmopolitan Alexandria, “Syrians, Greeks, Armenians, Medes,” who recognized him as their poet would come to visit him. In his salon Greek was most often spoken, but many times French and even English were spoken as well, as a number of Englishmen were among the visitors. One evening I counted two Greeks, one Syrian, one Jew, and one Belgian; naturally, we spoke French.
I confess that I didn’t like to find so many visitors at his home. I knew that they could not all be tried and true friends, and that my evening would not go by as I expected; that it would be somewhat wasted. In the company of people whom he did not know well, Cavafy would be nothing but reserve, exaggerated politeness, and questions. If there were some serious discussion, he would give his opinion, but never all of it. He appeared to devote all of his attention to being a more perfect host. The drinks had to be in abundance and to arrive at the right time; the glasses all had to be full; the mezedhes had to be varied so as to please everyone; and each guest had to enjoy himself and to leave well-pleased. In order to fulfill this last requirement, the most difficult of all, Cavafy, by means of various clever questions, would make each of his guests in turn speak expansively, so as to empty himself of the “talk bottled up inside him” and find satisfaction in the attention that all present would give to his words. To keep the conversation from becoming dull, the poet would see to it that each speaker did not drag on for too long by continually and tactfully changing the subject and imperceptibly giving someone else his turn to speak.
He would complete the art of the mondain with a kind of wise compliment, which he used both for friends and for mere acquaintances. He would try to find out what was each person’s innermost desire, each person’s secret boast, and he would then try to bring this to light and to flatter him for it. In 1914, when I was a youth entirely unknown to him, he praised me greatly for my father and relatives, long-established Alexandrians whom that Alexandrian knew well. In 1929, by which time I had already published commentaries on two of his historical poems, each time he quoted a few words from Plutarch or something similar in front of guests, he would add: “Why am I saying this? John here knows it better than I do. You, John, should be the one to talk about it. Am I not right, John?”
The funniest of his wise compliments, at least of those which I believe to be true, was related to me in Alexandria twenty years ago. A young Alexandrian snob, Mr. X, no longer alive today, who had then written two pages in one of the periodicals Grammata or Nea Zoë, entered Cavafy’s salon. The poet, as soon as he saw him, rushed over to him and almost embraced him. “My dear Mr. X, you have saved me, dear X, I am deeply grateful to you for coming today. A problem has been troubling me for days now. You are the only one who can solve it for me! Why didn’t I think of it sooner! I almost lost you!” And Cavafy continued for a long time on this same tone, until finally he said what favor he was asking of X. “Tomorrow evening I am invited to eat at Antonis Benakis’s home. And without you, my dear X, I would have appeared ridiculous, undoubtedly very ridiculous. I have forgotten how one is supposed to eat! At one time, I remember, when eating soup, one put the spoon in one’s mouth with the point first. Later on, it was permitted to eat only from the side of the spoon. My dear X, which is the right way these days? Only you know, only you can tell me. These things are very important. Our happiness often depends on them.”
This sort of wise compliment, which so pleased people like X, displeased others, especially common people whom Cavafy, as a long-established aristocrat, did not understand very well. I remember meeting in the street, one day in 1919, the poet Nikos Santorinios, looking very indignant. “I am disgusted with Cavafy, disgusted!” he shouted at me. “Just imagine, he had the nerve to tell me that my eyes are beautiful. I don’t put up with things like that, however, and I told him so. Mr. Cavafy, I loathe flatterers and flattery. My eyes are squinted, can’t you see?” And yet Cavafy was right, for Santorinios’s eyes, although squinted, had something indefinable, pure, alluring about them. They reminded one of his island’s sea, which he longed for so much during the few years he lived on earth, as a newspaper salesman, a tobacco salesman, an actor, and above all as a poet and a rare friend.
Cavafy appeared to me a true maestro, a really great man, each time I found him at his home alone or in a close circle of friends. At the beginning of the evening, when he would sit in his armchair as if he were tired, saying little and letting the others speak, I often thought that he was preparing himself. He would enter, or rather jump into, the conversation suddenly, seizing upon something being said. But at once he became superb. He would confound his listener with his gestures, with the richness of his thought and with its expression. Many have said that he was performing. I don’t believe so. Perhaps only then was he natural. The Word, which he adored so in life, carried him away. He gave himself over completely to it; for its sake he forgot his armor, his reserve, his fear of the consequences, the tyranny of the “indefinite,” and his mania for looking after and pleasing everyone.
Although he lived very much alone in his solitary home, he still did not think in a schematic way, with abstract notions. Like the ancients, he always made his ideas into images. He did not feel these images as statues, immobile and cold, but as living beings with passions, which moved, spoke, and came into conflict with one another. For this reason Cavafy’s discourse was never a monologue, a professorial lecture delivered from a rostrum; it was a dramatic dialogue among many characters. Each time he would change his point of view, mention someone else’s opinion, or open an endless parenthesis, he would change both his voice and his impersonation, as if suddenly someone else were speaking. Many would surely call this dramatic form of thought a performance.
Unfortunately, I did not meet Cavafy enough times to understand exactly which subjects preoccupied him the most. I myself heard him speak only of Greek history, of art, and of our language.
He loved our language with passion, and in that passion there was something sensual, which reminded one of the collector’s love for the objects he collects. In texts and in the conversation of common people he was constantly searching for phrases or words, for forms, having some acoustic or, even better, expressive beauty. George Vrisimitzakis3 used to tell me in Paris that he often met Cavafy in out-of-the-way bars of different grocers’ shops, drinking his raki standing up and besieging those around him with questions, whose sole object was to draw out certain answers. The poet was completely absorbed in what he was doing, and Vrisimitzakis admired his perseverance in repeating the same questions, or in trying to perfect them because he couldn’t get the exact answer he was after. When Cavafy found a form of speech that he admired and that entirely satisfied him, he would endlessly caress it, would admiringly point it out like a child, and would not tire of repeating it. “How beautiful our language is! How beautifull” he said to me many times. “None other can equal it.” One evening he expounded on this subject in my presence for many hours, drawing examples for comparison from French and English.
Cavafy would counter the language question, a burning issue then, with the precept: “We must enrich our language.” He once told me: “We must study our language, because we don’t know it. It has treasures within it ¯and what treasures! Our concern must be how to enrich it, how to bring to light what is hidden within.” We see these ideas in his work, where he not only shows that he has no love for reformers (“In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C.”), but also tries to use to their full value various expressions or forgotten words.
However, whatever Cavafy’s ideas on the language question may have been, one thing appears certain to me: that our poet would gladly have approved Mallarmé’s words that “poetry is written with words and not with ideas.” Indeed, I believe that had Cavafy opened a school, as the ancient writers did, he would have taught texts, scholia, and rules of Greek phraseology. How a word could be used to its full value and defined precisely, how a word takes on, from its place in its context, a new acoustical or even semantic magnificence, would, I believe, have been among the main subjects of his teaching. Perhaps it is the fate of those who are not born poets but become poets at the age of fifty to come finally to the understanding, not instinctively but after thorough examination and criticism, that it is in grammar that the secrets of their art lie hidden. Cavafy reminds me in this regard of another fifty-year-old, who lived in the seventeenth century: Malherbe, who wanted to be called a “grammarian.”
But I don’t know why I am making these conjectures, because Cavafy was anything but a teacher, at least in the modern sense of the word. He was not a teacher because he was not a born psychologist. We often find very good psychology in his work. He owes this, however, not to the power of external observation but only to self-analysis. He himself was very egocentric. Nothing in the souls of others attracted him spontaneously; he had no curiosity. Others were to him like the very ponderous and difficult books which remain unopened at the end of one’s bookcase. If Cavafy ever opened such a book, he would just skim through it, looking only for points on which to compliment the author. It is true, however, that in other ages a “teacher” was not only whoever drew near to the souls of his listeners, helped them, and tried to instill in them, as completely as possible, his own credo. He was also whoever, through his personal charm, gathered listeners around him, before whom he would speak in a monologue and would almost unconsciously create a type of man, a man of art or of science ¯an ideal¯ whom his disciples would follow later on, would develop, or would simply imitate slavishly. Cavafy would of course have liked to be, and perhaps even was, such a teacher. He himself wanted very much to exercise an influence, especially over youth.
The problem of what art is, of what he himself “gave to art,” of who the true artist is, preoccupied Cavafy. With regard to the third question, he analyzed two of his poems for me one evening: “For the Shop,” where he described the true artist; and “That’s the Man,” an illustration of the false artist, or, as he said, “fraud.” Why was he a “fraud”? Because his art was for him not a need, a love, but simply a way to arrive. His writing, instead of being for him a source of joy, a pleasure gotten from creating new, unknown sounds, was a source of fatigue, a drudgery of versifying. As a stranger in Antioch, and coming from a city such as Edessa where Semitic was spoken, he would not have spoken Greek as a child and could not have loved the language, since it weighs him down so and brings him in general so much “dejection”; since he feels it only as phrasemaking which requires strain and fatigue. How glad he is that with his “canto” he will at once be free of all these burdens! How different is the artist of “For the Shop.” The idea of toil and fatigue do not even enter his mind. When he finishes his work, he still continues to live within it and to hover about it. He holds his creations with emotion and care. He feels that they are precious, and so he hides them and thinks of how to protect them; he even takes pleasure in wrapping them up “neatly” in “expensive green silk.” Not only does the true artist refuse to submit to the fashion of the times, to the “Greek phrasemaking” of the Edessan in Antioch; he does not intend even to revere nature itself. The verses
according to his taste, his will,
his vision of their beauty¯not as he saw them in nature
or studied them
in which Cavafy’s aesthetics lie hidden, remind me of a phrase of the psychologist Delacroix, in a lecture delivered at the Sorbonne some years ago: “A great man is whoever creates a new reality and succeeds in imposing it on those around him.”
Cavafy revealed to me in conversation that “For the Shop” had originally been written in twenty-four verses, later in sixteen, still later in twelve, and finally in its present form in ten verses. This must have been the way in which he usually worked. The condensation in each successive form of a poem, which increases the ideas de derrière la tête, also increases the suggestiveness which the poet loved so much.
“For the Shop” and “That’s the Man” are the only poems that Cavafy ever analyzed in front of me. He did this one afternoon when we were alone, and when he had known one week in advance that I would visit him. For a man who weighed every last thing when his work, or his work’s fortune, was in question, it seems to me that his choice was not a simple coincidence. I had already published “Commentaries” on two of his historical poems, and perhaps the poet found the occasion to give me a lesson; to tell me “I must be judged from an aesthetic point of view. That would be the correct way to judge me.”
Although Cavafy devoted his whole life to art, and although he lived, spiritually at least, in a permanent atmosphere of art, his tastes, nevertheless, were not broad; they were limited practically to the Greek model. The great Egyptian, pre-Hellenic, art, for example, left him unmoved. “I don’t understand those great, immobile things,” he told us one evening. Indeed, if I judge from his tone that evening, and from a quotation from Plutarch he cited in this regard, the immensity of that art offended him, even to the point of aversion. Only what was “polished” and “tasteful,” what was “small” enough to be entirely conceived by the human mind, did he feel as his own.
Yet it would not be completely accurate to say that Cavafy limited himself to the Greek model. There was also a foreign element in his aesthetics: the deliberate and abrupt antithesis between the repulsively vulgar and the beautiful. This dramatic element is fundamental to Cavafy’s aesthetics; he used it in so many of his poems, from “One Night” to “Lovely White Flowers.” It must have been this element that Constantin Photiades4 had in mind when, speaking to me in Paris in 1927 about the poem “One Night,” he said, with great critical acumen: “Baudelaire would have envied Cavafy for that poem.” We must note, however, in passing, that the two poets’ aesthetics do not meet even on this point, because the two essential characters of Baudelaire’s world, horror and Christian sin, do not exist at all in Cavafy’s.
One of Cavafy’s foibles, which explains certain of his poems like the little aesthetic marvel “Greek from Ancient Times,” was his passion for genealogies. He knew the genealogies of countless Alexandrians but also of countless other Greeks scattered all over the world, and he often spoke about them. He was, indeed, particularly proud ¯more so perhaps than he was even of his poems¯ of his mother’s birth as a Photiadis. From a biographical dictionary I learn that the Photiadis family were learned “Phanariots” and magnates in Turkey. Cavafy wanted very obstinately to preserve this memory of his Phanariot descendence; otherwise it cannot be explained how he, who was born and lived for so many years in Alexandria, filled his conversation and his writings with a number of Constantinopolitan idioms, which seemed more foreign in Alexandria than did French, English or Italian.
This obstinacy with regard to many questions of tradition, or at least of a certain tradition, is, I believe, quite characteristic of the man. I still remember what an impression it made on me when, at the Red Cross Hospital after his small operation, he one day opened his shirt and I saw hanging around his neck the gold chain and small gold cross which his godfather had hung there at his baptism sixty-nine years earlier. I remember that the poet was terribly embarrassed, as if he had been undressed in front of me, and that he hurried to hide the cross. I admit that only then did I understand the enormous role that forms played in his life: they were often in his eyes as important as the essence, if not more important. As was related to me, during the poet’s last days the Patriarch of Alexandria went to administer Holy Communion to him. When he was informed of the visit, Cavafy, who had not requested it, refused to see him, grew angry, insisted; but, in the end, he gave in to those around him, or rather to the idea that it would be indecorous, not at all “proper,” not to receive a Patriarch of the great city of Alexandria. When the Hierarch entered the sick man’s room, he found Cavafy sitting up and looking contrite, serious, and ready to execute all the forms of the Orthodox Church.
This scene very much calls to mind “Manuel Comnenos,” a poem with a comical element. Was Cavafy aware, I wonder, of this “buffoneria”? Did he feel it; did he put it deliberately into this poem? I am not at all certain of it. I remember that Cavafy once became angry when George Vrisimitzakis wrote that the hero of “A Byzantine Nobleman in Exile Composing Verses” is comically a “grumbler”; for the poet felt that his hero was serious. It is quite probable that this comic element, in several poems at least (“Theodotos,” for example), is a successful irrational element, which entered Cavafy’s art without his conscious intention.
The great aesthetic value of forms was everywhere emphasized in the 1890s, which was precisely the period when Cavafy was still searching for the shape he would give to his work. But the Alexandrian poet was also psychologically ready to accept and assimilate such a theory. Forms are both a convenience for anyone who lived in solitude and grew unaccustomed to adapting easily to his environment, and an “excellent suit of armor” with which “to face malicious people without fear or weakness,” as he himself says in the poem “Aimilianos Monai, Alexandrian, A.D. 628-655.”
Cavafy himself was timid, almost pathologically timid. When it was suggested to him that he meet even an admirer, he would always postpone the meeting, would always look for a way out. He never addressed anyone who had not been introduced to him properly. I am certain that this same man who was so very active, who was constantly out in the streets, who would go back and forth to the printer’s shop as many as four or five times, would also avoid going to the post office to mail a package, so as not to find himself at the window face to face with someone unknown to him, who would perhaps say who knows what to upset him. One can get some idea of the magnitude of his timidity if one understands that it was greater even than his literary sensitiveness. Should the most insignificant fool write so much as two words against him, Cavafy would lose sleep and become upset; but never, ever did he dare to go out and find his critic, or write something to him, or use friendly periodicals and newspapers for his defense. In such circumstances, as many have described it to me, he would always go to rouse his friends, and fill them with anger, and ask or even beg of them an article or just a few words. Furthermore, had Cavafy not been so timid in real life, he never would have understood, and never would have described so vividly and with such psychological nicety, the irresolute, the timorous, and the cowardly, who abound in his work.
The more I think of the magnitude of his natural timidity the more I admire Cavafy. Every day and at each moment, how he must have had to struggle, how he must have had to overcome his own self in order to dare such a work! That he rejected the music of the demotic fifteen-syllable verse, that he completely ignored the folk song, that he banished compound words and current poetic images from his poetry already constituted, of course, a revolution. But this was an aesthetic revolution, which at most could earn him the disdain of those few who belonged to the world of letters. Much more dangerous, and more incompatible with a broader milieu, was the more general atmosphere of his work. I knew well how prudish the Alexandria of his time was. Before 1914, in his city and particularly within his class, there prevailed an imitation of Victorian morality ¯of the most narrow-minded, anti-aesthetic kind. In such an atmosphere, a scandal such as that of Oscar Wilde could easily have been repeated. Cavafy ran the risk of seeing his relatives’ homes closed to him, of being ostracized, of no longer being greeted on the street, or even ¯and I have in mind specific facts¯ being banished from the city he loved. And yet he dared. Moreover, he managed not only not to be ostracized or banished, but to die as an honored man in an Alexandria that had grown proud of him.
That achievement must have caused him many pains, endless calculations, and infinite time, which must have been valuable to a poet-craftsman like himself. To bring it off, he developed a rare diplomatic dexterity. I remember that, as a young man, I would be annoyed by the perpetual publishing and republishing of the tiresome poem “Candles” ¯and by seeing Cavafy allow this republishing to take place. Much later on, I realized what an important screen this was. Behind the curtain of the “Candles,” Cavafy hid and fortified his entire work. In his whole lifetime he never gave out one of his “dangerous” poems more than once to the general public and to periodicals. His poems were published slowly, a drop at a time, until the public had become immune to their poison and no longer had the strength to be shocked, to react, to cry scandal. “Cavafy may be forgiven for many things, since he wrote ‘Candles,’ the most beautiful poem written in our language,” is a typical remark which I heard frequently from old and well-established Alexandrians.
The ultimate success of his work must not let us lose sight of the fact that during his lifetime Cavafy was subjected to numerous and violent attacks. It is of little importance if his literary sensitiveness was so easily and so regularly disturbed. What matters is that he never was shaken; that he never thought of changing his position and of giving way. He was one of those men who knew how to guard Thermopylae. He owed his courage, which was so different from physical courage, to his faith ¯to his absolute, blind faith in art. This was his only deep-felt religion. During his last days, his last hours, while he was being torn by the pain of cancer and was debating whether to receive a Patriarch, he asked Rika Singopoulou, the wife of his heir Alexander, to go to the municipal library to verify some information for the poem he was working on at the time, “On the Outskirts of Antioch.” That poem, although it was published in his posthumous Poems, remained, in my opinion at least, unfinished. For the poet did not have time to add to it the final brush stroke, which, according to another classic ¯Ingres¯ alone can transform a work into a work of art.
1. This article, its title taken from Cavafy’s poem “Tomb of Evrion,” was first published, in a slightly longer version, in Ta Nea Grammata (Athens, March 1944).
2. Pseudonym of Nikos Zelitas, editor of the Alexandrian literary journal Grammata.
3. Alexandrian man of letters who spent much of his life in France; author of numerous studies on Cavafy, now collected in The Work of C.P. Cavafy (in Greek; Athens, 1975), edited and with a prologue by G.P. Savidis.
4. French man of letters of Greek descent.
|J.A. Sareyannis, “What was most precious¯his form” (1944), translated by Diana Haas, Grand Street, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Spring 1983). |