SOME ASPECTS OF TRANSCENDENCE IN CAVAFY’S POETRY
Cavafy is not considered a religious poet; he has been characterized as a historical, political, dramatic (in accordance with Brecht’s verfremdung) and of course as an erotic poet. Nevertheless, there are several studies and publications, both in Greek and international bibliography1, regarding the religious aspect of Cavafy’s poetry- as a parameter of his work. Yet, we believe that a division of this kind of a poet’s work might be helpful to philological research only. A deeper understanding of this work requires clarification of hermeneutical axis that penetrates it- even in its most diverse themes. Besides, to quote George Steiner 2, the dimension of transcendence is one of fundamental importance, a sine qua non condition for a significant work of literature; and this is the case of Cavafy, that of a great poet whose work is penetrated by a sui generis conception of transcendence.
Cavafy has often been the subject of a criticism that insists on putting art in the position of rendering accounts to morality. But is this the appropriate way of approaching a work of art? After all, a poet always stands above (common) morality. Neither do we want to be in favour of aestheticism (the l’ art pour l’ art dogma); 3 for us, anyhow, a literal reading of his poems is just not enough; we find strong images especially in his erotic poems- almost of a mystical inspiration; thus, he rather reminds us of a mystical poet- it is not about a stylistic mysticism but a religious one.
According to orthodox theology the mystic theologian- poet and the hermit, through their ecstatic search of God and their effort for a mystical union with Him, they see with their spiritual eyes the uncreated Light of Holy Trinity, they see God’s uncreated energy (not His essence of course). Mystic theologians and poets often describe this procedure of human deification in erotic terms, as if it were an erotic relationship 4. On the other hand, the soufi mystic poet- which is much influenced by the orthodox- seeks for the face of his Beloved, while he dances and drinks the wine of His love 5. Could this be the key to a reading of some of Cavafy’s poems? Let us listen to the poet 6:
I did not tether myself. I let go entirely and went,
I went into the luminous night,
to those pleasures that were half real,
and half wheeling in my brain.
And I drank of potent wines, as only the
valiant of voluptuousness drink.
The analogies are impressive: far from any conventional commitment, the poet lives the experience of Light’s view. The “half” and “half” resonances a basic principle:there is not any auto-soteriology in orthodox theology. Salvation is the result of man’s free response (synergy) to God’s initiative and valiancy is mostly required to this path; Cavafy will tell us the same thing in Chandelier:
[...] The sensual delight of this warmth
is not made for timorous bodies.
And it is body what we are talking about and not soul alone and its ecstasy from the body as the neo-platonic ecstasy suggests. The mystic with all his senses enjoys beauty, sees nature as a mystical gospel: “So much I gazed on beauty,/ my vision is alive with it” (So much I gazed ); the hermit, following his own path, fights senses and sensuality: still, mysticism and asceticism are both legitimate expressions of the same orthodox faith and they are not distinctive to each other but rather complementary. While Cavafy admires the mystic he also “envies” the hermit. In the poem Symeon , we can see the distinction between poetics and ascetics to the greatest extent: for Cavafy, whichever hue of meaning his poetic expression may have, whether mystical or ascetic, above all he still remains a poet; a poet, however, who acknowledges the painful secret of his art: no matter how gracious a poem might be, it means nothing comparing to the ascetic achievement, the truth of the divine presence:
We quote the poem:
Ι Know his new poems, yes;
Beirut was enthousiastic about them.
I shall study them another day.
Today I can’t because I am somewhat disturbed.
He is certainly more learned in Greek by Libanious.
But better than Meleager? I don’t believe so.
Ah, Mebis, what Libanius! And what books!
And what pettinesses! Mebis, yesterday I was-it
occured by chance- under Simeon’s pillar.
I dove among the Christians
who silently prayed and adored
and worshipped; but not being Christian
I didn’t have their serenity of soul and
I trembled all over and I suffered
I was horrified, disturbed and emotional.
Ah, don’t smile; thirty-five years, think of it -winter,
summer, night, day, thirty-five years
he lives and suffers martyrdom on a pillar.
Before we were born- I am twenty nine years old,
You I think are younger than I before
we were born, imagine it,
Simeon climbed up the pillar
and ever since remains there before God.
I have no head for work today-
But you had better say this, Mebis,
that whatever else the other sophists may say,
I accept Lamon
as the first poet of Syria.
Cavafy, far from proposing a “double life” knows that “no man can serve two masters”7 and he admits the danger of such a situation (as the fact is indicated in the
title of the poem Perilous things ):
Said Myrtias (a Syrian student
in Alexandria; in the reign of
Augustus Constans and Augustus Constantius;
in part a pagan and in part a christian),
“Fortified by theory and by study,
I shall not fear my passions like a coward.
I shall yield my body to sensual delights,
to enjoyments that one dreams about,
to the most audacious amorous desires,
to the wanton impulses of my blood, without
a single fear, for whenever I wish and
I shall have the will, fortified
as I shall be by theory and by study at
moments of crisis, I shall find again
my spirit, as before, ascetic.”
All the experiences of his life are but a potential material for his poetry: “Deep in the dissolute life of my young manhood/ the designs of my poetry took shape,/ the scope of my art has being plotted.” (Understanding). He aknowledges the supremacy of the hermit but he chooses the way of the poet. He seems to propose a parallel, equivalent walking of both poetry and asceticism in man’s life (in the poem Singer , the singer is called a “mystic apostle”, while in the poem The poet and the muse , the poet is called “priest of the divine”). The pressuppositions of practising both art and religious life are common: stillness (hesychia) and penitence (metanoia, as the highest level of self-consciousness). And –last but not least- a sacred fervency; whether he falls in love or writes a poem, whether he confesses his faith or ...his sins, there is not any tepidness in any of Cavafy’s poems, only a warm sincerity (as, for instance, in the poem And I reclined and lay down in their beds .
“Every pleasure is followed by disgust and bitterness”, says saint Isaac the Syrian 8. The hermit chooses the way of deification, the poet the way of re-creation. Marcel Proust, describes the procedure of the latter as follows 9 : “If God created all things by giving them a name, then the artist, by taking that name off or by giving them a new one, re-creates things.” It’s all about the creation of the personal artist’s view about world and things; the finding of their meaning and their reference (anaphora) to God (otherwise they would lead the artist in some short of pantheism the category of those who “worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator”10). It is due to this anaphora that the distinction between the artist and the hermit is taken off. God’s got man’s salvation in His hands; and Cavafy seems to know that thing:
the narrowest bed of infinite sleep
lies under the mercy of Jesus
(In the cemetery) 
[...] for I myself am saved,
baptised in the name of Christ [...]
The sacramental life of Church is the meeting place for both the poet and the hermit, the place in which the removal of the distinction between them takes place.
But, what kind of faith is implied in poems such as In Church , or again in Manuel Comnenus , where the “external” elements of the life of the church (icons and ecclesiastical vestments) seem to have the priority as means of the expression of faith? Yet, are these elements really external? According to the orthodox tradition, icons are not simply decorative; they refer to the prototype; they are “windows on eternity” or books of illiterate people” as described by John of Damascus 11, while vestment symbolizes the spiritual armament of soul in orthodox hymnology 12 . Thus, the distinction between form and meaning, which seems to preocuppy Cavafy, an “aesthete” one here, is taken off since form alone means nothing and meaning without its form is inadequate. Hence, we read these verses anew:
All are lucky who believe
and like the King Kyr Manuel end their days
most modestly dressed in their faith.
As in the case of his first sharing between poetics and ascetics, Cavafy, here, for a second time is being shared between form and meaning (which is evident in the poem A Byzantine noble in exile writing verses ); a distinction which will lead the poet to a third one, that between paganism and Christianity, as it is introduced in the historical context of the conflict between them, a context chosen by the poet to be the dramatic frame of many of his poems (the Julian poems, for instance, or, as we already saw, the poem Perilous Things). It has been recently suggested that “Cavafy’s main theological demand... is for some sort of conjunction of paganism and Christianity, with no loss of either’s truth... however... this conjunction, in a way Cavafy does not pay attention to, has already been started in the depths of theology of the Greek Fathers”. The Fathers of the Church do make a wide use indeed, of greek philosophical notions, as a “vehicle” in order to express christian message, while at the same time they do continue to speak of beauty, though a spiritually orientated one, that is to say, a sanctified beauty 13. We would rather say- instead of conjunction- that is the poet’s care, the “aesthete” one, to preserve the supreme good of paganism, that is to say, the formal integrity on one hand, and on the other hand the faithful man’s care to preserve the supreme good of Christianity, that is to say, “the power, and the salvation of the universe, the Cross.” (A great procession of priests and laymen ). There is not any syncretism in poet’s thought. Let us hear to the incomplete poem After swimming 14:
Ah, the ancient Greeks were tasteful,
so that the beauty of youth
they presented undiminished and naked.
The poor Gemistus was no wrong at all
wanting and saying that we should become Gentiles again.
My faith, my sacred faith is certainly, always respectable but
Gemistus is somewhat understandable.
The same historical context- that of a multicultural milieu- poses also the questioning of multi-religious coexistence, and the problems arising from some sort of “double belonging” cases. Let us see that one, of a pagan priest and his Christian son:
The good old man my father
who loved me the same always.
I weep for the good old man my father
Who died the day before yesterday, just before dawn.
Jesus Christ, my daily effort
is to observe the precepts
of Thy most holy church in every act of mine,
in every word, in every single thought.
And all those who renounce Thee,
I shun them.- But now I bewail,
I lament, O Christ, for my father.
Even though he was- a horrible thing to saya
priest at the accursed Serapeum.
(Priest at the Serapeum )
It is difficult for us not to bring in mind again- mutatis mutandis- the great mystic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, who lived in Konya, in Asia Minor, the 13th century 15. During his life-time, he had encounters with all the traditions of his time, gaining a deep knowledge of them. His death was mourned by the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians as well. This case of an ecumenical significance stresses the need for mutual knowledge and respect in order for us to achieve a real interreligious encounter and also the role that a charismatic- and artistic- personality could play to this direction. But what does this conception imply for mission and its role in the world today? For the orthodox theology, mission lies within the heart of the church; it is the opening of the church into its own world, since the whole created world and history do constitute the church16. On the other hand, the catholic theology does refer to a “mission carried out in a dialogical way”17 pointing out the non-christian world and also to an “evangelization”18 of Europe pointing out the secularized western societies... Far from ignoring living traditions and contemporary tendencies, together with Cavafy, we just indicate touching moments in human history...
In the poem Myres:Alexandria, A.D. 340 , a young pagan attends the burial of his Christian friend. Myres, was a man of great beauty, was “most addicted to pleasures” and he had a “perfect sense of greek rhythm”. Furthermore, Myres was also a Christian: “... the last day of his life-/ ... the name of Christ was costantly on his
lips,/ ... he held a cross in his hands.-“ Everyone, then, claims his own rights, his own part in Myres’s remembrance. The young pagan, unaccastomed as he is to the christian rites, is in a very uncomfortable situation, which will be culminated in a dramatic finale:
And suddenly a queer impression
seized me. I had the vague feeling
that Myres was leaving my side;
I felt that he was united, a Christian,
with his own people, and I was becoming
a stranger, a total stranger; I also sensed
a doubt approaching me; perhaps I had been deluded
by my own passion, and I had always been a stranger to him.-
I flew out of their horrible house,
I left quickly before the memory of Myres should be
snatched away, should be altered by their Christianity.
This memory of Myres raises a problem of identity: what makes the young pagan a stranger to Myres is not the Christianity of the latter; it is the memory itself which becomes a raison d’ etre for the young man. And memory means time, whether a “regained” one, through the joint participation in a place of common experiences or an empty one, empty of sharing, communicating and acting in common. Regarding the person of Myres, a modern approach to the poem says: “ Myris is a modern character. He lives in Bombay, in Sarajevo, in Toronto... He tells a tale of cultural mixing, religious confusion, and conflicting identities. He speaks to us ultimately of our time.”19
Poetry, here, in Cavafy’s work, provides the field for any distinctions to be remove; the field where the unity of person, existence and opposites is being achieved; the meeting place that has room for everything and everyone. On the other hand, we think it is not all of an accident that mystical experience is being posed today, as a starting point in global fundamental theology, while doxological language, which stands in the midst between scientific and poetic language, is considered to be the proper language in interreligious encounter.
1 See, indicatively. Nikolaos Loudovikos, K. P. Kabaphes: The poetic way of history towards the nostalgia of theology, in Nea Hestia, vol. 1776, Athens, March 2005 [in Greek]. Diana Haas, Le probleme religieux dans l’ oeuvre de Cavafy, Les annees de formation (1882- 1905), Presses de l’ Universite de Paris- Sorbonne, Paris 1996.
2 George Steiner, Les Antigones, Gallimard, Paris 1986, in Efrain Kristal, Literary creation and religious civilization. Northorp Frye, Kenneth Burke, Harold Bloom, George Steiner, in Nea Hestia, vol. 1765, March 2004.
3 As far as stylistic movements are involved, Cavafy’s relation to french parnassism and symbolism has been adequately examined by criticism, see, Roderick Beaton, An introduction to modern Greek litterature, Nefeli publ. , Athens 1996, pp. 129- 137 [in Greek].
4 Nikos A. Matsoukas, Dogmatic and symbolic theology B’, Pournaras publ., Thessaloniki 1992, pp. 513- 524 [in Greek].
5 Jalal al- Din Rumi, The Beloved, translated in Greek by K. Kolymva, Armos publ., Athens 1997, p. 19.
6 All quoted poems- unless otherwise indicated- translated by Rae Dalven, The Complete Poems of Cavafy, Harvest Edition, New York, 1976.
7 Mat. 6,24. All New Testament’s quotations from the authorized (King James) version.
8 Saint Isaac the Syrian, The found ascetic works, I. Spetsieri publ. Athens 1895, p. 280 [in Greek].
9 Marcel Proust, A l’ ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, in A la recherche du temps perdu, vol. 6, translated in Greek by P. A. Zannas, Iridanos publ., Athens 1974, p. 24.
10 Rom. 1,25
11 John of Damascus, Three Apologies against those who attack the Divine Images, text-translation-introduction-comments by Nikos Matsoukas, Pournaras publ., Thessaloniki 1988. p. 255 [in Greek].
12 “I can see your bridal chamber ornamented, my Saviour, and I have no vestment in order to come on inside. Do make bright the uniform of my soul, Thee, who give the light, and save me”, from the hymnology of the Holy Week.
13 We find here Cavafy concurring with the growing interest of our time about the relationship between aesthetics and theology. See, Chrisostomos A. Stamoulis, The sacred beauty, Prolegomena in the philokalous aesthetics of Orthodoxy, Akritas publ., Athens 2004 [in Greek], for a definition of orthodox aesthetics as an aesthetics with reference to God (anaphora).
14 The translation is ours, from K. P. Kabaphes, Incomplete poems 1918-1932, philological editions and comments by Renata Lavagnini, Ikaros publ., Athens 1994.
15 See, footnote 5, ibid.
16 N. A. Matsoukas, Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology B’..., p.381.
17 Kenneth Cracknell, Towards a New Relationship, Christian and People of Other Faith, Epworth Press, 1986.
18 Anton Houtepen, Ecumenism and European Union, in Kath’ odon, vol. 6, Thessaloniki September- December 1993, p. 78
19 Gregory Jusdanis, The Poetics of Cavafy:Textuality, Eroticism, History, in Artemis Leontis, Lauren E. Talalay and Keith Taylor (eds.), “... what these Ithacas mean.” Readings in Cavafy, E.L.I.A, Athens 2002, p. 132.
23 years ago, producer Thierry Garrel's documentary unit S.E.P.T. (also known as La Sept-Arte) and the Onassis Foundation commissioned the late Chris Marker to create a television series on the ancient Greek roots of western culture. Now, you don't hire Marker — an "unclassifiable," and cinema's "one true essayist," in the words of film theorist Roy Arnes — unless you've accepted that he'll deliver something at least as formally, aesthetically, and intellectually unusual as, say, Sans Soleil. Or so one would think. "The Owl's Legacy was never broadcasted, probably not having matched the Foundation's expectations," says monoskop.org, which now hosts very nearly this entire series exploring "the lost resonances of thirteen words." Marker chooses these thirteen: symposium (or "accepted ideas"), Olympics (or "imaginary Greece"), democracy (or "the city of dreams"), nostalgia (or "the impossible return"), amnesia (or "history on the march"), mathematics (or "the empire counts back"), logomachy (or "the dialect of the tribe"), music (or "inner space"), cosmogony (or "the ways of the world"), mythology (or "lives like the truth"), misogyny (or "the snares of desire"), tragedy (or "the illusion of death"), and philosophy (or "the triumph of the owl").
The brief clip from The Owl's Legacy above describes the idea of Plato's Allegory of the Cave — or, rather, it shows the cave, but with the distinctive processing of Marker's visual imagination. The series deals with much else in Greek philosophy, as when the critic George Steiner turns up to pronounce Socrates "a royal pain in the ass." He counts as only one of the project's long lineup of notables, Greek and otherwise, including filmmakers Theo Angelopoulos and Elia Kazan, composer Iannis Xenakis, theater director Yukio Ninagawa, and actress Arielle Dombasle. See also the Pacific Film Archive's screening notes at chrismarker.org, which claim that "It is difficult to imagine a more perfect illustration of one of Castoriadis’ final remarks about what he considers one of Greek philosophy’s major contributions: 'What should I think?'" Or, as the film and video collective the Otolith Group said, "this is exactly the sort of TV programme that simply wouldn’t stand a chance of being made today."
Find the videos from The Owl's Legacyhere, and in our ever growing collection of Free Online Movies.
Watch La jetée, Le mystère Koumiko, and Other Films by Pioneering Filmmaker Chris Marker (RIP)
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.