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Cavafy at Random

The remains (in prose) of the great Greek poet.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By JOHN SIMON
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I cherish a passage against the popular notion of having to write from experience: “Perhaps Shakespeare had never been jealous in his life, so he ought not to have written Othello; perhaps he was never seriously melancholy, so he ought not to have written Hamlet; he never murdered, so he ought not to have written Macbeth!!!” Or this, in defense of archaism: “It is not a corpse disinterred (as with less skillful writers) but a beautiful body awaked from a long & refreshing sleep.”

Let us consider one of the better entries in detail. The piece is “A Few Pages on the Sophists” and begins, “I have great sympathy for the much despised Sophists of the ancient world.” Cavafy had read George Grote’s History of Greece, which defended the first generation of Sophists, the ones Socrates and Plato had it in for. Now he undertakes to defend a later Sophist generation, the one recorded in Philostratus’ The Lives of the Sophists. Young, impecunious Cavafy looked back at these somewhat dubious aesthetes as favorite fantasy figures: “They greatly resembled today’s artists in their love for the external beauty of the works of art.” Even if they spoke of small things, the outward rhetorical expression had to be perfect. The idealization, both Philostratus’ and Cavafy’s, is evident: “Even those Romans who did not know Greek, listened with fascination to tones of voice, expressive glances, rhythms of speech. One Sophist says of another, ‘he introduced into his speech rhythms more varied than those of the flute or lyre.’ ”

They were even drama critics, interrupting an actor onstage if he did something wrong: “They would speak on all subjects, historical, social, philological and philosophical. The great variety of their topics allowed their art to encompass components of today’s novels, poetry, criticism, and drama. They concerned themselves with the study of painting and sculpture.” On and on goes Cavafy’s rapture, some of it based on Philostratus, some of it generated by himself. He cites sundry examples of the luxuries in clothing, carriages, domestic animals, and various “earthly goods” the Sophists indulged themselves in:

They were the votaries of the Beautiful in the realm of ideas​—​but they appreciated the good things of everyday life. .  .  . Some of their homes even had theatres with excellent scenery built within. .  .  . Proclus had four homes. .  .  . But let no one think that in the acquisition of wealth they were petty and avaricious. Artists have their faults, but the two aforementioned were not among theirs.

“Perhaps in their judgments [the Sophists] were mistaken,” we read, “but their sincerity is beyond a doubt when they referred to one another as ‘kings of the spoken word’ and ‘the Greek language.’ Some readers detect irony here; I don’t.” Cavafy retells the anecdote of the Sophist Alexander of Seleucia who, arriving in Athens for “a rhetorical performance,” found most young potential auditors staying with Herodes at Marathon. So he writes Herodes asking for an audience of Greeks, and the great man, “with much wit, announced that, along with the Greeks, he would be coming as well.”

Notice that questionable “wit.” These prose pieces later inspired Cavafy’s poetry, and in the poem “Herodes Atticus” (where the anecdote is retold) the statement is described as “tactful.” Could that be ironic? Irony surfaces here when Cavafy mentions the loss of numerous works by Sophists: “But this is no reason to suppose with certainty that they were without merit or inferior to those that survived. It is not in good taste to condemn those who are deceased.” Their fateful lapse into oblivion he explains in this way: “Since they were so vocal, since they spoke so much, since they lived the high life.”

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