A Dominant Minority in extremis.
“What are we waiting for, assembled in the Forum?
The barbarians are to arrive today.
Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.
Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and why is he sitting at the greatest gate of the city,
on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive their chief.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their embroidered, their scarlet togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes,
wonderfully carved with silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t the worthy orators come out as usual
to make their speeches, and say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they are bored by eloquence and orations.
Why all of a sudden this unrest and confusion?
(How solemn the faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so quickly,
and all returning to their homes, so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.”
… Cavafy is not mentioned once in the Study, and when I was preparing this post, I could not even find a reference to him in The Greeks and Their Heritages, Toynbee’s last book, published in 1981 after his death, and completed in 1974. The lack of mention in A Study of History is understandable. Cavafy died in 1933 and had published almost nothing in his lifetime. He became more widely known in the ’50s. But the lack in Heritages began really to bother me.
But, of course, he is mentioned, though not quoted. He is Constantine Kaváphês. Byzantine and modern Greek words are transliterated into English phonetically in this book, according to conventions – except for place-names and Christian names that are current in English and have an English spelling. You might think that he would have excepted some family names, too. After a discussion of Plêthon, the Medieval Neoplatonist philosopher and scholar (c 1355–1452), Toynbee writes:
Plêthon’s code for human morals is puritanical […]. His horror of homosexuality, for which he prescribes the death-penalty, is strikingly un-Hellenic. It is, in truth, an uneradicated Christian aversion which is part of Christianity’s heritage from Judaism. Plêthon’s incongruous anti-Hellenism on this issue contrasts with Kaváphês’ practice and theory five centuries later. Kaváphês was not a linguistic or stylistic Hellenist. He was too great a poet to be capable of being a pedant. He wrote in his native living Modern Greek in an inimitable style of his own. Kaváphês was a Hellenist in the sense that he had a power of empathy – quite beyond Plêthon’s ken – which enabled him to enter into the feelings and thoughts of his Greek predecessors, Hellenic and Byzantine too. Kaváphês condoned in himself a practice about which his own feelings were ambivalent by reminding himself that he was being true to the Hellenic tradition. Plato would have been indulgent to Kaváphês; Plêthon would have given Kaváphês short shrift. In Plêthon’s eyes, Kaváphês’ sexual offence would have been aggravated by his writing of poetry – and this in the vulgar tongue, which, in Plêthon’s judgement, was a symptom of decadence, not an instrument for the expression of an abiding vitality.
Homosexuality is a weakness, a practice to be indulged Greek-style or condemned Christian-style.
Cavafy’s power of empathy is extraordinary. Even with poems that are not obviously historical, you are not always sure whether he is writing about himself or a Hellenic or Byzantine ancestor. Stefan Beyst has written about Cavafy’s relationships with the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, Alexander’s Asians, the British, the Jews, and much else. An inimitable style comes across even in translation. I suppose he is saved from the impossibility of translation by a certain plainness of language.
Waiting for the Barbarians was printed privately in 1904. I took the text above from a translation by George Barbanis, a young, modern Greek, who consulted Rae Dalven’s translations in the series of his own that he has put online. I corrected its grammar in a couple of places and imported one or two phrases from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, who are online at www.cavafy.com.
Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria to Greek parents. His father was an importer-exporter who had lived in England and had acquired British nationality. When Cavafy senior died in 1870, the family moved to England, and lived in Liverpool until 1877, when they returned to Alexandria. The disturbances of 1882 (Alexandria was bombarded by an English battleship, and the family flat was burned) caused them to move for a time to Constantinople. They returned to Alexandria, where Cavafy spent the rest of his life. He did not spend long in Greece.
He worked in Alexandria first as a journalist, then for the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for thirty years. He died on his 70th birthday, April 29, 1933. A short autobiographical note reads:
“I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria – at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my youth I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian.”
(… Egyptian ministries. See Mahfouz and others. Vast providers of employment in invented jobs. Some behemoths of the Nasserite system and earlier survive. Some are being reformed.)
Modern Greek poets, like Western poets, have, of course, drawn inpsiration from Hellenic Greek literature and history, but, also like Modern Western poets, they have confronted the Hellenes on equal terms. They have not felt, and have been eminent enough, in their own right, to have no cause to feel, the crushing sense of inferiority that overwhelmed Koraês. [Adamantios Korais was the Greek scholar and Hellenist of Goethe’s generation and the generation of Greece’s independence.] The nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Greek poets have looked at their Hellenic Greek predecessors with the bold eyes of modern men.
Kaváphês, for example, was a member of the Greek community in Alexandria who spent his life in his native city. Kaváphês was intrigued by Alexandria’s Late Hellenic Greek past, and this period of Hellenic history, the thousand years running from the fourth century B.C. to the seventh century of the Christian Era, gave him his cue for some of his most subtle – and also most ironical – poems. The Hellenic Greeks of that age aroused Kaváphês’ interest, not because he revered them as paragons, but because he recognized in them the counterparts of modern men such as the poet was himself – men who, beneath the mask of a refined civilization, were subject to the frailties that are common to human nature at all times and places.
Cavafy’s flat was in the Rue Lepsius, recently renamed Sharm el-Sheikh Street. It’s now a museum. For addicts of the Alexandria of Cavafy, Forster, Durrell, I recommend Michael Haag’s Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, London and New Haven, 2004; The American University in Cairo, Cairo, 2004).
There isn’t much of Greece in Alexandria, or in Cairo, now. The Centre Hellénique (“Greek Club”) in early twentieth-century downtown Cairo is a wonderful survival, and a good place for dinner, even if it is no longer very Greek. It is above Groppi’s café and patisserie.
By way of digression, I took a picture earlier this year from the window of this Centre Hellénique. It’s a painterly, or Rodinesque, group. Dramatic Caravaggiesque engagement at the centre; serious central foreground figure; centurion gazing off the canvas to the right; glance upward by another foreground figure, as if to the Cross; the obligatory contrasting, casual action in the swigging of the bottle of water; the artist’s self-portrait in profile, top left. I won’t describe the rather dark political context.
Enlarge or download.
The Greeks and Their Heritages, OUP, 1981, posthumous