If asked to select a writer to dine with tonight, I would name C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), the Greek poet of Alexandria. I would do this for many reasons but mainly to see his reaction when I tell him that he is one of—if not—the most translated modern poets in the world. Not only are there over 15 English translations of his work alone, six in the last few years, but writers in places as far away from Greece as Ecuador have been influenced by Cavafy. For a poet to achieve such global appeal while working within a minor language is nothing short of astonishing.
Cavafy seemed the least likely person to capture the world poetically. Not only was he writing in a peripheral language, but he also lived far from the centers of literary production. Moreover, having rejected most of his youthful publications, he wrote his best poems after 40, composing the bulk of his oeuvre in middle age.
Cavafy is the inspiring example of the late bloomer. Most of all, he offers the model of what you can achieve when you look into yourself, into your family, into your nation, and into your geography and arrange these pieces into a mosaic of the future. And what type of picture does he offer?
Readers of Cavafy could tell you that he connected his family’s fallen social status to the fortunes of Hellenism, the drop in the rank of society reflected in the loss of cultural power. But he was able to go beyond that.
Gazing into antiquity, he saw an image of our own world today, having spotted what it took historians decades to discover—the cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious intermingling of the Hellenistic and Roman Empires. He thought how the cauldron of ancient empires—how they mixed East and West, North and South, Greek and Jew, European and Asian, and African – could be applied to today’s globalization. (In contrast, his texts set in the modern period stay clear of Arabs, reflecting the distance Europeans took from the Moslems in Alexandria.)
Cavafy also gave voice to the erotic, especially the suppressed longings of homoerotic desire. A shop assistant and a customer fix their eyes on each other. The one enters the store asking to look at handkerchiefs but their real purpose is the brush of hands under the pile of wares.
His greatest and still underappreciated contribution, however, is in helping us grasp the place of art in life. His devotion to poetry made him see the omnipresence of the aesthetic experience. In this he differed from the German social theorist, Georg Simmel, who first characterized modern society as continuously punctured by products of consumer culture – signs, music, advertisements and so on. In contrast to Jean Baudrillard, Cavafy didn’t maintain that society was a simulacrum, with little difference between the real and the copy. Unlike Jacques Derrida, he did not see the world as text.
On the contrary, Cavafy regarded art as ubiquitous because he wanted to maintain the distinction between invention and reality. He emphasized the tension between fiction and non-fiction, lest he mistake the real for the fake, and vice-versa. He celebrated art less to escape the misery and coarseness of life for the loveliness of beauty, than for the vantage point it offers us to marvel at life. Poetry, according to Cavafy, enables us to stare out at the world. But it also asks us to shorten the distance from it by encouraging us to imagine how others feel and act.
An astonishing third of Cavafy’s oeuvre deals with this boundary between invention and actuality, the imagination and the empirical world. Many of Cavafy’s poems bring light to the line we draw between what is and what might be, what we desire and what we confront, who we are and what we may become.
Consider the speaker in “Half an Hour” who sits in a bar, focused on the man before him. Although he could not touch him, he admits to enjoying a moment of erotic gratification. Those of the imagination, Cavafy says, are capable of pleasure that is nearly tangible. Helped by the thaumaturgy of alcohol, they can take the real and change it. In this case the proximity of the man at the bar, who himself is aware of the aesthetic seduction playing itself out, yields something nearly physical.
The issue here is not the superiority of art over life, its capacity to make up for lack, but of its continual presence in life. Poetry for Cavafy does not provide therapy, healing the wounds of life. Rather it represents the realm of possibility. The moment when we think of the boundaries between the real and the actual, Cavafy suggests, are the magic moments, when we become convinced of our own powers to create, to transcend, to change, to reach. We try to imagine how others feel and think, to enter their minds.
This is what the speaker in the dramatic monologue, “Myris. Alexandria of 340 A.D,” has not done. A pagan, he arrives at the funeral of his recently departed Christian friend, Myris. In a series of disorienting observations, he comes to realize that he never really understood his friend or his faith. The failure of friendship, Cavafy says, is a failure of the imagination. To love and to write are both acts of improvisation, of intimacy and distance, of telling and listening, of sensing the line between fiction and non-fiction, autonomy and closeness.
Cavafy saw less a contest between the imagination and the empirical world than their interdependence. This insistence on the give-and-take between art and life enabled him to adopt a disbelieving disposition that looked at an object from a distance and that sought to bridge the gap. Stephen Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare’s “root perception of existence” has to do with “his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled.” The poem “Myris” ends ambiguously. The loss of the friend is made more horrible by the imminent loss of paganism as a way of life.
Cavafy’s aesthetic outlook heartened him to disrupt the apparent consistency of life with the inconsistency of literature. Rather than serving as an escape hatch, poetry allowed him to understand the world as a tension between the fictional and the actual. And in this tension he saw the possibility both of social critique and empathic connection with others.