Cavafy & the unreal city

Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet of the early Twentieth Century. Well, i say he was Greek. He was actually born in Alexandria to parents whose families came from Constantinople – as the Greeks call Istanbul. He spent his teenage years in England and then moved back to Alexandria where, barring a couple of years in Istanbul, he lived for the rest of his life.

And yet he was Greek, quite truly, which i find fascinating. He wrote in Greek, his work is full of references to Greek history and mythology and he identifies himself very clearly as a Greek. At the same time he was completely a creature of his city:

… decaying Alexandria, the city whose decline reflected in large the poet’s own

As Avi Sharon puts it in his introduction to Cavafy’s Selected Poems*.

And there again Cavafy stood apart from Alexandria, not just because he was Greek in an Egyptian city and probably not just because he was gay either, but because the city he inhabited – the world he inhabited – was in truth the city of his imagination. Sharon calls it “Cavafy’s unreal city” and compares it to Joyce’s Dublin.

“Unreal cities” fascinate me, as do “unreal countries” and “unreal worlds”. Indeed for a long time i have had my own unreal city, but for me unlike Cavafy that remains a private place. As a teenager i remember being enchanted by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, which he wrote while recovering from illness drawing on his own internal, “unreal England” of the past – which made the book a great contrast to his realistic historical Scottish novels. Likewise, the wild imaginary landscape in which Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is set. These places have an intensity, a charge, a meaningfulness which is lacking – mostly – from places in the real world. And often a poignancy too. I have often felt that there is no journey i would rather make than one into an imagined land – my own or that of others; although i suspect they would lose some of their magic if examined close up. We’re not very patient gods. We haven’t the time or concentration to make individual leaves for our trees or even individual trees for our forests.

Cavafy’s Alexandria is unreal in a more subtle way than the worlds of the novels i’ve mentioned above – or perhaps it just seems so because, Alexandria being unknown to me in either its real or unreal form, it’s not easy for me to see where one ends and the other begins. The poet weaves together images and characters from the city’s Hellenistic past with those from the modern city. The streets along which he walks, the brothels he visits and the beautiful young men he encounters: do they belong to the “real world”? Are they merely disguised by imagery from the past? Or are they “imaginary”, made real by Cavafy’s conviction?

Just as the world of his poetry is glorious in a way that the “real city “ of Alexandria was not, so too Cavafy’s life in his poetry seems more exciting than his “real” life: he was a civil servant and lived at home with his family till the age of 45. Yet despite the poetic glamour there’s a sadness and a claustrophobia that permeates the poems i’ve read so far, a feeling of being trapped in this beautiful imagined place. One particular poem seems to encapsulate this and it’s called – in English anyway – The City:

The City

You said: ‘I will go to another land; i will try another sea.
Another city will turn up, better than this one.
Here everything i do is condemned in advance
And my heart – like a dead man’s – lies buried.
How long can my mind remain in this swamp?
Wherever i turn, wherever i look, i gaze
On the ruins of my life here, where i’ve spent
And botched and wasted so many years.’

You will find no new land; you will find no other seas.
This city will follow you. You will wander the same
Streets and grow old in the same neighbourhoods;
Your hair will turn white in the same houses.
And you will always arrive in this city. Abandon any hope
Of finding another place. No shop, no road can take you there.
For just as you’ve ruined your life here
In this backwater, you’ve destroyed it everywhere on earth.

(translated by Avi Sharon)

What trapped Cavafy in this “city”? Was it that this was the only way he could resolve the paradox of being a Greek in a city that was itself no longer Greek? A creator of masterpieces that those around him couldn’t read? A member of a diaspora in a world becoming increasingly nationalistic and – in its aspirations anyway – monoethnic? Was it how he made sense of his homosexuality, the expression of which in the “real city” would have been severely circumscribed? Or was the “real city” the place in which he felt trapped – and, if so, why? Was a static, humdrum life the price he had to pay for being able to roam freely in his imagination?

* ISBN: 978-0-141-18561-3. Published by Penguin Classics. All poems translated by Avi Sharon. I don’t know Greek so i can’t comment on how faithful the translations are to the originals, but they make beautiful poems in their own right which to my mind is just as important.


“… oh, no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

There’s an interesting post about social networking over at SpaceCollective* in which a blogger called Venessa discusses the idea of network weaving. The idea is that rather than letting your social networks evolve randomly you actively manage them to make them more productive. Talking about Twitter, she says she’s

... started using the hashtag #networkweaving when I “introduce” new connections I make to connections I already have who share common interests. I’m finding it a lot more valuable to others than doing a general #followfriday.

My instinctive reaction to this was “Ugh!” And i wondered why. Maybe it’s just that i’m just not forward-thinking enough (quite possible); yet somehow that didn’t seem to be the whole explanation. I thought about what a #followfriday actually is. On the face of it it’s a suggestion (plea?) to your followers to follow somebody you yourself are following. However, it’s so ritualistic and so impersonal – always done on the same day of the week, sent to all your followers at the same time – that in truth it’s more like a statement of appreciation or loyalty. It works primarily to affirm your own link with the person you #followfriday. Those receiving the #followfriday may choose to check out suggestion; they may not. In either case it’s unlikely they will feel any actual pressure to do. Retweeting does a similar job.

The #networkingweaving idea is different. It introduces an element of personalisation. You and whoever else is included in the tweet are being specifically targeted, singled out. You are not just being made aware of one another’s presence, you are – as the blogger herself puts it – being “introduced”. An introduction places obligations on those introduced. You can’t just politely** pretend not to notice someone if i introduce you to them, which is something you could do quite easily if i just sent round a group email mentioning that they exist.

It also – and i think this is important – draws attention to the role of the person who is doing the “network weaving” and becomes more about them (their role as connector, their bank of interesting and useful contacts) and less about the people they are supposedly attempting to connect to one another. This is borne out in the title of the post which is “The Importance of Managing Your Online Reputation”. Your reputation. This is about you, not them.

At this point i remembered a passage in the book i’m currently reading, The Death and Life of Great American Cities*** by Jane Jacobs. I don’t know how many people have read this book so i’ll briefly explain: published in 1961 it is a landmark text in the field of urban planning, a blistering critique of the rationalist planning policies of its time. In one of the early chapters she discusses the very issues of the private versus the public which are so beloved of web theorists today. In the city she says “privacy is precious”. This doesn’t mean that people don’t want contact with other human beings, quite the contrary:

A good city neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.

Twitter and social networks like it may not be city neighbourhoods but they have important similarities. Like the big city which people move to both because it offers them opportunities to broaden their horizons but also autonomy, so social networks attract people who want contact with others but contact they can control.

Talking about how the balance she describes above is maintained Jacobs gives us as an example a local shopkeeper in her own neighbourhood who is respected and trusted by his clientele to the point where they leave spare keys with him for safekeeping. This shopkeeper lends an umbrella to one customer, provides information about local rents to another and listens to yet another customer’s tale of domestic woe. Yet when asked if he ever introduces his customers to one another he answers:

“No, that would just not be advisable. Sometimes, if i know two customers who are in at the same time have an interest in common, i bring up the subject in conversation and let them carry it on from there if they want to. But oh no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

Jacobs says that this attitude on the part of the shopkeeper shows just how well he understands where the line is drawn between the public and the private. I’m struck by the similarity between the shopkeeper’s tactic of bringing up of a subject in conversation so that his audience – the customers in his shop – have the chance to discover that they may share interests in common, may want to choose to approach one another and the way that retweeting and the #followfriday tradition work on Twitter. And how his rejection of the idea of making introductions parallels my unease about the #networkweaving idea.

Introductions are intrusive. They also formalise where formality is not necessarily the most productive approach. I’m not saying that they’re never appropriate, but if we think about where they work best we realise it’s contexts like parties, meetings, conferences – situations in which people have already consented implicitly to being connected to the other people present – or else spontaneously in contexts where say two people run across a third who is only known to one of them. In that situation, the introduction feels like a courtesy rather than an imposition and serves to reduce rather than create social tension because it resolves a problem – the problem being that the two strangers are already confronted with one another via the third person who is interacting with them both. They no longer have the option to choose to remain unaware of each other. In fact, in this situation an introduction is usually the only appropriate action.

There you have it: my two penn’orth on the subject of “network weaving” and introductions.

* A  website which says it’s a place “where forward-thinking terrestrials exchange ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet, the universe, living the lives of science fiction today.” i confess i’d never heard of the site till James Reilly submitted the link (to this post) to Friendfeed, but it’s very stylish.
** You can ignore them impolitely of course, but this violates social norms and thus is liable to be stressful for many (most?) people.
*** ISBN: 0-679-74195-X. Published by Vintage Books (my edition is anyway).

My brother in the snow

My brother has just moved back to Britain to take up a new job. It’s been ten years since he last lived here and he’s never lived in London, or any other big city at all. As a result he’s a bit shell-shocked. For me it’s an interesting experience. I’ve grown used to my brother being ebullient and independent – a successful man of the world; yet in a moment he seems to have been transformed back into my kid brother, the boy who was desperate for me to sew the legs of his trousers tighter, so he’d look cool at the school disco (tight jeans were the fashion at the time). I daresay it won’t take him long to find his feet, and then things will return to the way they were, but that only makes me treasure this period of vulnerability and dependence more.

Meeting with him in last week during the snow i was reminded of a time when it snowed particularly heavily when we were kids. The two of us decided to go down to the river – probably to see if it had frozen (it never did). The journey took us across fields and on our way back one of us fell into a ditch. Now the strange thing is i can’t remember which of us it was. Sometimes i’m sure it was him and other times i think it was me. One moment i can clearly recollect seeing my brother waist-deep in icy water, the next i can recall the sensation of being in the water myself. Yet of this i’m sure: only one us fell in.

I’d ask my brother, but i know he won’t be able to tell me. It’s just another of the many, many ways in which we’re complete opposites: i am full of – some might say weighted down with – childhood memories; he is virtually empty/free of them. I sometimes joke that he’s not my brother at all but an alien imposter. Not at the moment though. Right now he really does feel like my brother. My little brother.