“And now, what shall become of us without the barbarians? These people were a sort of solution.” Cavafy.
I have loved C.P Cavafy from the first of his poems I ever read, one about the hanging of an Egyptian boy by the British, which was simultaneously sensuous and sensitive. My enamorment deepened during my university years when I enquired of a NUGAS delegate as to the identity of the personages that addressed them at their annual convention. The reply was: “Um…Some dude called Cavafy, I think.” Now any organisation that can, whether via séance or other dark and arcane means, raise great poets from their eternal slumber in order to have a chat with a gathering of post-hungover university students is worthy of my admiration and this is the sole reason why I joined NUGAS so many years ago.
Cavafy followed me into my first job. Seated in a claustrophobically small, Dickensian office, surrounded by a mass of unintelligible papers upon which I was supposed to perform incomprehensible procedures, I found myself visualising a cynical Cavafy, seated at his desk at the Alexandrian Sewerage Department, nonchalantly writing the following poem on his back of his timesheet:
With no pity, with no decency, with no consideration
"If you’re an Alexandrian you won’t judge me. You know the yearnings
they’ve built around me enormous, towering walls.
And I sit here now in growing desperation.
While I managed to retain the integrity of my own timesheets, to the point where I contrived never to complete one, I soon found that the rear of all of my client’s various Statements of Claim, Requests for Further and Better Particulars, Affidavits of Service, Disclosure Statements and Costs letters had become filled with my angular scrawl. In time, these poems would comprise my first poetry collection, Kipos Esokleistos. At the launch of the collection, I remembered to thank my further employer profusely, for being for me, what the Alexandrian Sewerage Department was to Cavafy, a place of such utter intellectual desolation, that it enabled me to write in an inspirational vacuum. This is also why I sought the help of the great poet himself to end the first draft of my resignation letter as follows:
of our life; what heat they hold; what pleasures most high."
As it transpired, I deemed an excision necessary, for my employer was not an Alexandrian and save for the hot air emanating from his mandibles, was decidedly chilly in demeanour when I handed the letter that severed our relationship to him.
Cavafy of course, living on the fringes of the Hellenic world and drawing his inspiration from the ersatz Hellenism of the Graecified Middle East, is an unsettling prophet of diasporan fate. In ‘Poseidonians,’ a poem I never grow tired of quoting, he describes how the Latinised colonists of Southern Italy go through the motions of performing the same festivals and customs over and over again, long after they have ceased to have any relevance to their daily lives, or their significance is understood. It is a poem I immediately thought of when considering the latest controversy to hit sections of our community, a dispute so unique to us, that it bears close examination.
For this reason, it was with much anguish that I missed the weekend Cavafy conference recently held in Melbourne, to celebrate the 150 years since his birth, which showcased a gamut of internationally renowned academic experts. The conference was by all admissions, brilliant but poorly attended. However, instead of a shrugging of one’s shoulders and grudgingly accepting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, certain members of the community have sought to publicly question why other members of the community, especially those with literary pretensions and in particular published authors and poets, or members of the Greek Writers and Cultural Associations in Melbourne, who supposedly are ‘into culture,’ were notably absent from the weekend proceedings.
In particular it has been pointed out that there were more people in attendance at a launch of a book about fishing than at the Cavafy conference, the inference being that the literary aspirations of some members of our community harbour other motivations that have to do more with their own self-perception than their ability to appreciate culture, and that in our community it is personal ties of loyalty, and not the quality of an event, that ensures its success. This in turn has predictably provoked a defensive reaction from our beleaguered community ‘literati,’ who are parrying the lexical thrusts of their accusers and making a few word slashes of their own in the Greek language pages of this publication.
One wonders what Cavafy would have made of this war of words. After all, if we were to transpose the current controversy into Australian terms, it is tantamount to castigating Melburnians for attending the launch of a fashion or fishing magazine, rather than a seminar on Banjo Patterson. In this context, such a flagellation appears ludicrous. After all ‘high culture’ is invariably not always the hoi polloi’s first preference within any nation and even where it is, one cannot suppress the doubt that many attendees would rather be somewhere else. Poor attendance of literary events is thus an ecumenical phenomenon, so why does it bother us so much here and why do our literati, who enjoy perfect freedom of choice and do not have to justify their absence to anyone, feel moved to defend themselves?
As always, Cavafy has predicted both this event and our motivation:
"Our efforts are like those of the Trojans./ We believe that with resolution and daring/ we will alter the blows of destiny,/ and we stand outside to do battle./ Nevertheless, our fall is certain. Above,/ on the walls, the mourning has already begun./The memories and the sentiments of our days weep./ Bitterly Priam and Hecuba weep for us."
Put simply, the first generation is horrified to discover that we are living in a post-Poseidonian world. Whereas the said Poseidonians faithfully adhered to their incomprehensible rituals, though their festivals “always had a melancholy ending because they remembered that they too were Greeks… and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become, living and speaking like barbarians, cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life,” the perceived ‘failure’ of the Cavafy festival suggests to them that our apathy is so great that we do no longer even feel guilty enough to go through the motions in order to maintain the façade that our community is both vibrant and resisting assimilation. As such, our non-attendance is seen by accusers and defendants alike, as a betrayal of the ethnos, in mitigation of which, adequate defences must be offered.
This ‘posteriors on seats’ conception of the success of our community events would have amused Cavafy, who during his lifetime, shunned the limelight and preferred to remain an ambiguous figure on the margins of society and the Greek literary world. One would guess that he would have been more than satisfied if was able to coax the preconceptions of those few attending into subversion, rather than massage the consciousness of the masses.
Keki Daruwalla, a Pakistani poet, nimbly exposes our restrained hysteria, in his response to Cavafy’s Poseidonians, thus:
"What does one do with a thought/ that embarks on one script and lands on another? … they discover there is more to language/ than merely words, that every act/ from making wine to making love/ filters through a different prism of sound, /and they have forgotten the land they set sail from/ and the syllables that seeded that land. /What do they do, except once a year/ At a lyre-and-lute festival, /Greek to the core, with dance and contests, / grope for memories in the blood, /like Demeter, torch in hand, /looking for her netherworld daughter? /And weep a little for the Greece they have lost/and reflect on the gulf of years which has proved/ wider than the Tyrrhenian gulf, /and the hiatus between languages, /wider than the Aegean ?"
Imagine how much more enjoyable our community events would be, if we went to them not out of a sense of obligation, or a fear of recrimination, or the belief that if we do not attend our nation will assimilate, but rather, because we genuinely looked forward to being there. This, and not mass attendance is the measure of success and as long as there are devotees of Cavafy in existence, there will always be scope for worshiping at his, or anyone else’s altar. To those who would gainsay, citing a sense of duty, the poet himself offers the final riposte: “Speak not of guilt, speak not of responsibility. When the Regiment of the Senses parades by, with music, and with banners; when the senses shiver and shudder, it is only a fool and and an irreverent person that will keep his distance, who will not embrace the good cause, marching towards the conquest of pleasures and passions.”
First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 July 2013