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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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He concludes that the Sophists deserve better, that besides everything else, “their worshiping of Art (which should endear them greatly to those of us who presently occupy ourselves with the Word), this bad luck of theirs, this silence which Fate has imposed on them​—​how unbearable it is to be in such shadows​—​obliges us to become indulgent and sympathetic.” The reader will note from this that Cavafy was quite a rhetorician himself, and that this pro domo defense of the dubious Sophists is meant to justify his own aestheticism connected with homosexuality. This becomes clear in the later poem “Young Men of Sidon (a.d. 400),” where he summons up a group of passionate young men listening to an actor brought in to entertain them: The room opened out on the garden, / and a delicate odor of flowers / mingled with the scent / of the five perfumed young Sidonians. A similar group of young men, in the poem “Herodis Attikos,” training as future orators, discuss “their exquisite love affairs” at “their choice banquets,” when the talk is not “about fine sophistry.” They ponder approvingly the fate of Herodis, the honors given him, and the uncritical following he enjoyed from Greek youths. So, in some ways, Cavafy’s prose and poetry go hand in hand.

But this prose piece is particularly interesting as disguised autobiography​—​or rather, wishful autobiography. So, for example, in the conclusion about the Sophists’ present dismissal and neglect, “how unbearable it is to be in such shadows,” clearly a plea for oneself. As a survey of Cavafy’s ideas, however, the ten-page “Twenty-Seven Notes on Poetics and Ethics” is of supreme value. It constitutes a sort of philosophical diary across the years, and is worth greater attention than the few excerpts I can quote here. We begin with bravado: “I feel an exceptional ability within me, I have the confidence that if I wished, I could have become a great doctor or a lawyer or an economist or even an engineer.” Noteworthy are the epigrammatic insights. Take this aphorism: “Do Truth and Falsehood exist? Or is it only the New and the Old that exist​—​with Falsehood merely being the old age of Truth?” Or this highly autobiographical reflection: “I do not know if perversion gives strength. Sometimes I think so. But it is certainly the source of grandeur.” Or consider this fragment of self-criticism: “I realize that I am a coward and cannot act. This is why I only speak. But I do not think that my words are redundant. Someone else will act. But my many words​—​my own, the coward’s​—​will make his actions easier. They pave the way.”

There are shrewd generalizations​—​“For me, that which makes English literature cold .  .  . is the difficulty​—​or the unwillingness​—​to stray from the established, and the fear of offending morality, the pseudo-morality, since that is what we should call a morality that feigns naïveté”​—​and he goes on to praise French books, “both good and bad,” for considering the new, or seemingly new, phase of eros. What a shame, he writes elsewhere, that “circumstances forced [him] to labor greatly to master the English language.” Had it been French, he could have expressed himself more freely! And is he not charming when he writes “how unfair for me to be such a genius and to be neither renowned nor compensated”?

John Simon, author and critic, lives in New York.

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