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.

Turkey & the meaning of ‘Europe’

Turkey, it seems, wants to be part of the EU but the EU isn’t equally keen to accept it. A recent article in the Guardian explored this ambivalence and its possible consequences. As interesting as the article itself were the comments from readers. These were strongly negative on the whole – much more so than i’d normally expect from a ‘progressive’ newspaper like the Guardian.

I was particularly struck by the claim that Turkey is apparently “not part of Europe either culturally or geographically”. Taking the geographic part of this first: why does this matter? There is no particular reason why Europe the political entity need be an exact match of Europe the geographical entity. States and federations of states are not naturally occurring phenomena like rivers or mountains.

This is something the commentator should have been aware of himself actually as his name indicates he’s from Poland, a country whose geographical expression has been very variable over time. Part of Turkey is in Europe geographically and – rather ironically – the coast of the Asian part of its territory was historically home to some of those Greek states which form part of the ‘common European historical narrative’ which is used to legitimise a pan-European identity.

The second part of the claim is more complicated: is Turkey part of Europe culturally? I find this hard to answer because i honestly don’t know what European culture is. Western Classical Music? For the elite maybe. Indo-European languages? What about Basque?

Many of those who object to Turkey’s candidature lay great stress on a shared Christian history. This is yet another beautifully ironic moment: apart from the fact that many of the “Pro-Christians” who argue this are atheists who are hostile to Christianity in most other circumstances, there’s also the sheer hypocrisy and/or historical ignorance of suggesting that Christianity has been some kind of unifying force in Europe. I’m not one of those people who thinks Christianity or religion in general is bad, but let’s be honest: Christianity has been a factor in some of the continent’s bloodiest wars.

As far as i can tell, all ‘a shared Christian history’ really means is ‘not Muslim’. Yet, hang on for a minute, Bosnia and Albania, both of which lie entirely within Europe geographically, have large Muslim populations – and, more importantly, have had them for centuries. In Albania’s case, Muslims probably make up a majority of the population, although it’s hard to be sure because the data is so poor.

I was going to ask how much cultural unity there is in Europe, but given how hard it is to define what our common European culture is supposed to consist of, i’m not sure there’s any point. I will ask however: how many western Europeans for example feel any deep kinship with eastern Europeans? The article’s comments are telling in this respect, with much hostility being displayed towards new eastern European member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. When i was a child this sort of hostility was rare because these countries sat behind the so-called Iron Curtain and frankly, beyond occasional moments of sympathy for the plight of people living in Communist dictatorships, i can’t remember ever being very aware they existed. Even now, i bet many Western Europeans would struggle to locate their Eastern neighbours on an unlabelled map.

The elephant in the room, which few people seem to want to acknowledge, is the idea that Europeans share a common ethnic origin, or to put it even more crudely are ‘white’. Leaving aside where this leaves the many citizens of modern European nations who are most definitely not ‘white’, how non-European are the Turks ethnically? Here i think the great irony is that the Turks’ own ‘common historical narrative’ works against them, because it tends to encourage the idea that Turks are unambiguously the descendents of the Turkic invaders whose language they now speak. Yet, it’s obvious when you look at modern Turkish people – especially if you’ve also met people from Central Asian Turkic nations – that the Turks are more European – and more Levantine – than they care to admit. The genetic evidence* i’m aware of backs this up. In fact, this is just what you’d expect in a country which was previously the hub of a multi-ethnic empire.

I honestly don’t know if it’s a good idea for Turkey to join the EU: it seems to me that being admitted so grudgingly would poison their membership from the start. I do, however, think that the debate over its candidature could be useful in challenging assumptions about identity on both sides.

* I have seen a few summaries of papers which look at this in more detail via anthropology blogs that i subscribe to, but i don’t have time to track them down right now. Hopefully, i’ll be able to post details in the near future.

A boat without the sea, a book without footnotes

How can anyone not love footnotes? A book without them is like a boat without the sea, or like the sea shore without rock pools. I love the way that the text flows on relentlessly above, while down below there are little pools of facts, translations and references. I have happy memories of books in which the footnotes took up as much space on the page as did the main narrative or argument; and even happier ones of books in which quotations in the original Greek or Latin – or even Arabic – are included for our enlightenment. And i don’t read any of those languages.

Endnotes are an acceptable alternative if they occur at the end of chapters, but not if they’re chucked to the back of the book – and definitely not if, as in many such books, they’re so poorly labelled that it takes a near superhuman effort to find the note you’re looking for. Often it’s a struggle to even identify the chapter.

Whether you opt for footnotes or endnotes let them be real notes – not just dry lists of titles, authors and dates. Avoid ibid., especially in excess: it turns a forest into a desert. Include references to obscure books, always cite foreign literature under the original title and if necessary reference your references. If you are still unsure how to proceed, i suggest “The Vampire”* by Montague Summers. Some of my favourite endnotes** from this book include:

6 The night-fiend idlu lilî is the male counterpart of the Night-wraith, ardat lilî. Idlu is the word used for a grown man of full strength

48 This belief seems mainly confined to Elis. Curtius Waschmutt, Das alte Griechenland im Neuen, p 117.

55 I have used the “Nouvelle édition revûe, corigée and*** augmentée par l’Auteur.” 2 vols., Paris, Chez Debure l’aîné, 1751.

13 About £20

68 Occasionally attributed to G. W. M. Reynolds, who, however, more than once denied the authorship.

1 Πορευεσθε άπ’έμου, κατηραμέυοι, είς τό πυρ τό αίώυιον τό ήτοιμασμέυον τψ διαβόλψ καί τοις άγγέλοις αύτου****. Discredite a me maledicti in ignem aeternum, qui paratus est diabolo, et angelis eius.

How could you not love endnotes like these? Of course it’d be even better if they were footnotes…

* The most wonderful book on vampires imaginable (ISBN 1-85958-073-4, Senate).
* *Taken from different chapters of the book; hence the jumbled numbering.
*** This ‘and’ is in the original!
****The ‘Greek’ text is probably gibberish as i had to recreate it using the Greek alphabet symbols in Microsoft Word. Some of the letters weren’t easy for a non-Greek speaker to distinguish.

— For ‘B’ —