Saturday, October 22, 2016


Whereas in the Poseidonians, the Greek poet Cavafy portrays a group of Greeks on the verge of assimilation aping old customs without knowing exactly what they signify, (an immensely strong metaphor of the apodemic condition) in his poem, “Of the Jews” (50AD), Cavafy paints the picture of a beautiful male, in the Wildean sense, not so much caught between two cultures, as in the process of feeling guilt for adopting one, new, exciting and catering to his sense of aesthetic, while discarding that belonging to his ancestors. That process is not without guilt, as can be seen below:


“Ianthes, son of Antonius, was beautiful like Endymion;

a painter and a poet, a runner and a thrower of the disc;

of a family with a leaning for the Synagogue.


“My noblest days are those

on which I forego the pursuit of aesthetic impressions,

when I abandon the beautiful, yet hard, Greek life

with its dominant attachment

to perfectly shapen and corruptible white limbs.

And I become, what I would wish

always to remain, a son of the Jews, of the holy Jews.”


Very earnest, this assertion,

“always to remain a son of the Jews, of the holy Jews”.


But he did not remain as such at all.

The Hedonism and the Art of Alexandria

had in him a devoted son”


Here we have a Jew of Alexandria, a Greek colony in Egypt with a large and important Jewish community, in an advanced state of assimilation. His name is Hellenised, while his father’s is Roman, reflecting a state of affairs that could be paralleled to the Greek-Melbournian experience of a second generation Greek-Australian named, let’s say Dean, for the sake of argument, naming his third generation son, Brian, in order to facilitate his ingress and egress within the mainstream culture.


Ianthes’ pastimes also do not conform to the Jewish stereotype. Though he is of a religious family, his interests lie in the Hellenic pursuits of athletics, poetry and the arts, much as a third generation Greek Australian, albeit a scion of a family that is heavily involved in “Greek” pursuits such as attending festivals, dances, church or concerts, much prefers to spend his time watching football and going for a run, rather actively being involved in the collective pursuits of his own community.


Yet despite his apparent devotion to the “beautiful” Greek life, Ianthes finds it a burden. His noblest days are those in which he abandons the search for the aesthetic – suggesting that though he may absorbed by it, it is something foreign and unattainable. Instead, Greek life is deemed by him to be “hard”, just as a complete and utter submission to the Australian religion of sport is also hard, requiring, if one is to navigate its multiplicity of doctrines and disciplines, the ability to process and assimilate an innumerable array of statistics, the display of blind uncritical faith towards Australian athletes and one’s team and an adamantine commitment to a training regime that punishes the body and completely dominates any and all free time.


This Anglo-Australian pursuit of the body beautiful, was, for the average Greek-Australian migrant, mystifying and to a great extent, culturally incompatible with their own social practices (unless it could be used to make money). It did however provide the key for entry and ultimately acceptance into the mainstream, which is why, when the AFL seeks to laud itself about the catholicity of its communion, it points to the existence of Greek, and other players of a multicultural background within its ministry. Ianthus also perceives sport in the same way. The Greek aesthetic, as expressed through sport, is fixated upon ‘whiteness,’ albeit of corruptible limb. The inference here is that Ianthus is not ‘white’ and that despite his delight in delving into the depths of the hunt for the elusive aesthetic, he is fully cognisant of the fact that his very race disqualifies him from more than an impressionistic dalliance with the subject of his fascination.


Ianthus’ therapy for his ontopathology, being a Jew who however hard he tries, believes he can never become a Greek, is to resolve, neither to adapt his Jewishness in order to confirm to the Greek aesthetic, or indeed, to jettison it altogether. Instead, like many Greek-Australians of Melbourne, he determines to “become what he wishes to remain, a son of the Jews.” Does this mean that his guilt and sense that he is truly not being accepted by those who he aspires to become are causing him to abandon his philhellenism and ersatz aestheticism for the stark asceticism of his own people, who are fixated upon the incorruptible?


There is much irony in that sentence. For why should Ianthus become something that he already is? If he is a Jew, why does he need to become a Jew? Further, it is significant that he does not call himself a Jew, but rather the son of the Jews, casting the authenticity of his own sense of belonging to his ancestral people into doubt. Quite possibly, Cavafy here has Ianthus qualify his being the son of the Jews, with the words “of the holy Jews,” in order to underline how an identity can become a hallowed doctrine of belief. Here, Ianthus finds his counterpart in the practices of many Greek-Australians, myself included, constantly seeking to find ways, through history, dance, folklore, sport, literature and music to augment their understanding of their parent’s identity, in order to make it their own, for it is sacred. Legion are those among us who seek to transform their understanding and search for Hellenism into an all-encompassing worldview. We too then, here in the Antipodes, in a city colonized, though not founded, as in the case of Alexandria, by Greeks, are the sons of Greeks, the sons of the holy Greeks.


Yet, if we are to take Cavafy at face value, Ianthus’ ontopathological battle appears to have been a momentary blip on the radar of his conscience. Despite his stated desire to return to his own people, the soft ways of hedonism and Alexandrian art (which hitherto appeared ‘hard’ to one schooled in the single-minded monotheistic devotion of those who once left Egypt and embraced the desert) appear to have caused Ianthus to embrace assimilation and abandon his ancestral ways.


As an exploration of how one is invariably led astray from one’s dedication to a cause of a belief by the allurements of pleasure, Cavafy’s poem still resonates today, as Helladic Greeks and diasporan Greeks point to the often depraved allurements of Western culture and their people’s uncritical adoption of these as a key reason for a perceived ‘loss of authenticity’ or erosion of their ethno-cultural identity. Yet the city in which Hellenism triumphed over Ianthus the insecure Jew is no longer Greek speaking. Neither did the Hellenise Jews triumph over those Jews who remained attached to their ancestor’s ways.


This, I believe, is the significance of Cavafy’s dating of his poem at 50AD. For by that time, the Hasmonean revolt that had seen the Hellenistic kings driven from Palestine, as a reaction to their intolerance of Jewish ways, was already a century old.  That revolt caused a reassertion of the Jewish religion, partly by forced conversion  and reduced the influence of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism. Some sixteen years after the date of the poem, another Jewish revolt would break out, one which would be brutally crushed by the Romans and would result in the expulsion of the Jews from their ancestral homeland, converting their culture to a diaspora culture. Arguably, the fall of our own great bastion of Greek civilisation, Constantinople, a millennium and a half later, placed the erstwhile triumphant Hellenes in a similar position.


Cavafy did not live to witness the establishment of the state of Israel. However, he would have been aware of the remarkable survival of Jewish culture throughout the European and Near Eastern world, including in his own city, Alexandria, where a Greek colony of migrants was also re-established and had reached its apogee during his time. He also did not live to witness the expulsion of both communities at roughly the same time.  Perhaps then the irony of Ianthus’ final lapse, is to treat anything as final, And just perhaps, Cavafy is making a more than strong  hint that in cultures co-existing and being permeated by others, guilt and pleasure are insurmountable dualities that must be embraced, not fought against, so that the guiltiest of pleasures lies not in exclusion, or puritanism but rather in tasting the comingling of the heady juices of the entire process of Apodemia, while stirring languidly, the multicultural melting pot.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 October 2016