Saturday, October 09, 2010

C.P. Cavafy and His Histories of Desire

His mind has grown sick from lust.
The kisses have stayed on his mouth.
All his flesh suffers from the persistent desire.
The touch of that body is over him.
He longs for union with him again.

Naturally he tries not to betray himself.
But sometimes he is almost indifferent.
Besides, he knows to what he is exposing himself,
he has made up his mind. It is not unlikely that this life
of his may bring him to a disastrous scandal.

The overwhelming thing that you take away from the poetry of Constatine Cavafy, a part-time clerk and Greek poet of the early 20th century, is desire. It’s his sustenance, nurturing him in the dark alleyways of Alexandria, where he lived for most of his life.

The impulse of his needs, skin on skin, human connection, is greater than all of the expected punishments of inevitable scandals. Dishwashers, tailor’s assistants, grocery boys briefly and passionately interrupt the loneliness of Cavafy’s nocturnal landscape. They’re the air he breathes.

But in the mix of these drives of desire are historical poems that trace through the old histories of the Hellenic period. Cavafy viewed himself as a poet-historian, which meant that he viewed all human conduct, his own included, through the lens of recorded time.

The juxtaposition of such intense personal narratives alongside the probings of Greek history create a unique commentary on life, brief sexual trysts in the shadows mixing with the grand, tragic sweeps of Greek history.

Cavafy was a man who lived in the background—even preferred obscurity as a simple clerk—so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to the stories of the insignificant and uses “insignificance” as a backdrop and counterpoint to “significance,” altering the traditional notion of history.

When reading a collection of Ptolemaic inscriptions he discovers “a tiny,/insignificant reference to King Caesarion”:

Ah, see, you came with your vague
fascination. In history only a few
lines are found about you,
and so I molded you more freely in my mind.
I molded you handsome and full of sentiment.
My art gives your features
a dreamy compassionate beauty.

It’s art, the ability to mold his desires, to transform life into something dreamy and compassionate, that saves Cavafy, even though its salvation is a lonely affair. Later in “Caesarion,” he imagines that Caesarion enters his room:

You seemed to stand before me as you must have been
In vanquished Alexandria,
Wan and weary, idealistic in your sorrow,
Still hoping that they would pity you,
The wicked—who murmured “Too many Caesars.”

As his desires wend through battles and conquests and downfalls, Cavafy almost celebrates human foibles in his recognition and identification of them. His poems force questions about the very record of history and how it so frequently leaves out the nuances of human imperfections and desires as a way to understand life.

Cavafy wrote unwaveringly about his homosexuality and embraced the possibility of scandal. It’s interesting how gay literature often puts our prim moral code in question these days—begging the question of why straight literature seems unable to do the same (there are no more Henry Millers, Charles Bukowskis, only middle-class domestic dramas).

Straight people, white straight people in particular, have to live vicariously through others’ decadence—truly “othering” such impulses—pretending, it seems so often, to possess no decadence of their own.

Shame on you Bill Clinton, shame on you Eliot Spitzer. It’s easy to bash our scandalous public figures, and although Clinton and Spitzer might not deserve any accolades for their transgressions, after reading Cavafy, I can imagine our contemporary history being written by a poet-historian in the far future, and perhaps the narrative will be of simple lost souls seeking a moment of tenderness, a connection between heart and life that’s forbidden—the part of the story left out of CNN's coverage.

Cavafy’s poetry has this effect of providing the subtext of history, of life, that all too often we don’t want to acknowledge or explore because it’s easier to damn (at least as a good American).

In his poem, “In a Famous Greek Colony, 200 B.C.,” Cavafy writes,

To be sure, and unfortunately, the Colony has many shortcomings.
However, is there anything human without imperfection?
And, after all, look, we are going forward.

In a culture that so often strives for perfection and chastises others for their “blemishes,” I wonder if we are going forward. Cavafy shows that a life lived within one’s imperfections instead of one’s perfections (if that’s the right way to put it) might be the more meaningful one.

Perfections tend to have a sharp, bright glare after all. There’s a peace to find with a life in the shadows. Nuances. A realization that we’re unable to see everything clearly. Humility. Even progress perhaps.

For in the end, our imperfections create a life of surprises, explorations, a life that is worth examining. In “Their Beginning,” Cavafy writes of two lovers rising from the mattress, walking furtively and uneasily on the street afterward, knowing that their “deviate, sensual delight/is done.”

But how the life of the artist has gained.
Tomorrow, the next day, years later, the vigorous verses
Will be composed that had their beginning here.

For more, check out Daniel Mendelsohn's new translation, C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems.

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