Cavafy’s Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress
Constantine Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863, and died there seventy years later of throat cancer. The uneventfulness of his life would have made the strictest of New Critics happy. Cavafy was the ninth child of a well-to-do mercantile family, whose prosperity went into rapid decline with the death of his father. At the age of nine the future poet went to England, where Cavafy and Sons had its branches, and he returned to Alexandria at sixteen. He was brought up in the Greek Orthodox religion. For a while he attended the Hermes Lyceum, a business school in Alexandria, and some sources tell us that while there he was more interested in classical and historical studies than in the art of commerce. But this may be merely a cliché in the biography of a poet.
In 1882, when Cavafy was nineteen, an anti-European outbreak took place in Alexandria which caused a great deal of bloodshed (at least according to that century’s standards), and the British retaliated with a naval bombardment of the city. Since Cavafy and his mother had left for Constantinople not long before, he missed his chance to witness perhaps the only historic event to take place in Alexandria during his lifetime. He spent three subsequent years in Constantinople—important years for his development. It was in Constantinople that the historical diary, which he had been keeping for several years, stopped—at the entry marked “Alexander.” Here also he allegedly had his first homosexual experience. At twenty-eight Cavafy got his first job, as a temporary clerk at the Department of Irrigation in the Ministry of Public Works. This provisional position turned out to be fairly permanent: he held it for the next thirty years, occasionally making some extra money as a broker on the Alexandrian Stock Exchange.
Cavafy knew ancient and modern Greek, Latin, Arabic, French; he read Dante in Italian and he wrote his first poems in English. But if there were any literary influences—and in the book under review Edmund Keeley sees some in the English Romantics—they ought to be confined to that stage of Cavafy’s poetic development which the poet himself dismissed from the “canon” of his work, as Keeley defines it. As for the later period, Cavafy’s treatment of what were known during Hellenic times as mime-jambs (or simply “mime”) and his use of the epitaph are so much his own that Keeley is correct in sparing us the haze of the Palatine Anthology.
The uneventfulness of Cavafy’s life extends to his never having published a book of his poems. He lived in Alexandria, wrote poems (occasionally printing them in feuilles volantes, as pamphlets or broadsheets in a severely limited edition), talked in cafés to local or visiting literati, played cards, bet on horses, visited homosexual brothels, and sometimes attended church.
I believe that there are at least five editions of Cavafy’s poetry in English. The most successful renderings are those by Rae Dalven1 and Messrs. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.2 The hard-cover version of the latter is bilingual. Since there is little or no cooperation in the world of translation, translators sometimes duplicate others’ efforts without knowing it. But a reader may benefit from such duplication and, in a way, the poet may benefit too. In this case, at least, he does, although there is a great deal of similarity between the two books in the goal they set themselves of straightforward rendering. Judged by this goal, Keeley and Sherrard’s versions are certainly superior. It is lucky though that less than half of Cavafy’s work is rhymed, and mostly his early poems.
Every poet loses in translation, and Cavafy is not an exception. What is exceptional is that he also gains. He gains not only because he is a fairly didactic poet, but also because, starting as early as 1900-1910, he began to strip his poems of all poetic paraphernalia—rich imagery, similes, metric flamboyance, and, as already mentioned, rhymes. This is the economy of maturity, and Cavafy resorts to deliberately “poor” means, to using words in their primary meanings as a further move toward economy. Thus he calls emeralds “green” and describes bodies as being “young and beautiful.” This technique comes out of Cavafy’s realization that language is not a tool of cognition but one of assimilation, that the human being is a natural bourgeois and uses language for the same ends as he uses housing or clothing. Poetry seems to be the only weapon able to beat language, using language’s own means.
Cavafy’s use of “poor” adjectives creates the unexpected effect of establishing a certain mental tautology, which loosens the reader’s imagination, whereas more elaborate images or similes would capture that imagination or confine it. For these reasons a translation of Cavafy is almost the next logical step in the direction the poet was moving—a step which Cavafy himself could have wished to take.
Perhaps he didn’t need to take it: his handling of metaphor alone was sufficient for him to have stopped where he did or even earlier. Cavafy did a very simple thing. There are two elements which usually constitute a metaphor: the object of description (the “tenor,” as I.A. Richards called it), and the object to which the first is imagistically, or simply grammatically, allied (the “vehicle”). The implication which the second part usually contains provides the writer with the possibility of virtually endless development. This is the way a poem works. What Cavafy did, almost from the very beginning of his career as a poet, was to jump straight to the second part: for the rest of that career he developed and elaborated upon its implicit notions without bothering to return to the first part, assumed as self-evident. The “vehicle” was Alexandria; the “tenor” was life.
Cavafy’s Alexandria is subtitled “Study of a Myth in Progress.” Although the phrase “myth in progress” was coined by George Seferis, “study of a metaphor in progress” would do just as well. Myth is essentially an attribute of the pre-Hellenic period, and the word “myth” seems an unhappy choice if we take into consideration Cavafy’s own view of all the hackneyed approaches to Greek themes—myth- and hero-making, nationalistic fervor, etc.—taken by numerous men of letters, Cavafy’s compatriots as well as foreigners.
Cavafy’s Alexandria is not exactly Yoknapatawpha County, nor is it Tilbury Town or Spoon River. It is, first of all, a squalid and desolate place in that stage of decline when the routine character of decay weakens the very sentiment of regret. In a way, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 did more to dim Alexandria’s luster than had Roman domination, the emergence of Christianity, and the Arab conquest together; most of the shipping, the main source of Alexandria’s commercial existence, was shunted to Port Said. Cavafy could view this as a distant echo of the time, eighteen centuries earlier, when the last ships of Cleopatra escaped by the same route after losing the battle of Actium.
He called himself a historical poet, and Keeley’s book, in its turn, represents some sort of archaeological undertaking. We should keep in mind, however, that the word “history” is equally applicable to the endeavors of nations and to private lives. In both cases it consists of memory, record, and interpretation. Cavafy’s Alexandria is a kind of upward-reaching archaeology because Keeley is dealing with the layers of an imagined city; he proceeds with the greatest care, knowing that such layers are apt to be intermingled. Keeley distinguishes clearly at least five of them: the literal city, the metaphoric city, the sensual city, mythical Alexandria, and the world of Hellenism. He finally draws a chart indicating into which category each poem falls. This book is as marvelous a guide to the imagined Alexandria as E.M. Forster’s is to the real one. (Forster’s book was dedicated to Cavafy, and Forster was the first to introduce Cavafy to the English reader.)
Keeley’s findings are helpful, so is his method; and if one disagrees with some of his conclusions, this is because the phenomenon is, and was, still larger than his findings can suggest. Comprehension of its size, however, rests on Keeley’s fine performance as a translator of Cavafy’s work. If Keeley doesn’t say certain things in this book, it is largely because he has done them in translation.
One of the main characteristics of historical writing—and especially of classical history—is, inevitably, stylistic ambiguity resulting either in an abundance of contradictory evidence or in firm contradictory evaluations of that evidence. Herodotus and Thucydides themselves sometimes sound like latterday paradoxicalists. In other words, ambiguity is an inevitable by-product of the struggle for objectivity in which, since the Romantics, every more or less serious poet has been involved. We know already that Cavafy was moving in this direction; we know also his affection for history.
By the turn of the century Cavafy had acquired that objective, although properly ambiguous, dispassionate tone that he was to employ for the next thirty years. His sense of history took hold of him, but first of all, stylistically: it gave him a mask. The effect of genuineness in his subsequent lyrical poetry is, in fact, a convention; in the hands of Cavafy convention and even cliché become as loaded as his “poor” adjectives.
It is always unpleasant to draw boundaries when you are dealing with a poet, but Keeley’s archaeology requires it. Keeley introduces us to Cavafy at about the time that the poet found his voice and his theme. By then Cavafy was already over forty and had made up his mind about many things, especially about the literal city of Alexandria, where he had decided to stay. Keeley is very persuasive about the difficulty of this decision for Cavafy. With the exception of six or seven unrelated poems, the “literal” city does not come to the surface in Cavafy’s 220-poem canon. What emerges first are the “metaphoric” and mythical cities. This only proves Keeley’s point, because Utopian thought, even when, as in Cavafy’s case, it turns toward the past, usually implies the unbearable character of the present. The more squalid and desolate the place, the stronger one’s desire becomes to enliven it. What prevents us from saying that there was something extremely Greek about Cavafy’s decision to remain in Alexandria (as if he had chosen to go along with Fate, which had put him there, to go along with Parkos) is Cavafy’s own distaste for mythologizing; also, perhaps, the realization on the reader’s part that every choice is essentially a flight from freedom.
Another possible explanation for Cavafy’s decision to stay is that he did not like himself enough to think that he deserved better. Whatever his reason, his imagined Alexandria exists as vividly as the literal city. Art is an alternate form of existence, though the emphasis in this statement falls on the word “existence,” the creative process being neither an escape from reality nor a sublimation of it. At any rate, Cavafy’s was not a case of sublimation, and his treatment of the entire sensual city in his work is proof of that.