Upon escaping from Greece…

7 Sep

cp-cavafy2

How do you go through the work of the poet whose opus consists of the sharpest and most accurate analysis of Modern Greek identity, and find the poem that displays perhaps the most razor-sharp understanding of all of them? I’ve always known that poet was Cavafy, but I wasn’t looking for that one poem or anything, when, just leafing through his stuff a few days before I left Greece this past July, I came upon one of my favorites, the following. Please have a look first:

Going Back Home from Greece (an unbelievably clumsy translation of the Greek title)

Well, we’re nearly there, Hermippos.
Day after tomorrow, it seems—that’s what the captain said.
At least we’re sailing our seas,
the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt,
the beloved waters of our home countries.
Why so silent? Ask your heart:
didn’t you too feel happier
the farther we got from Greece?
What’s the point of fooling ourselves?
That would hardly be properly Greek. 
 
It’s time we admitted the truth:
we are Greeks also—what else are we?—
but with Asiatic affections and feelings,
affections and feelings
sometimes alien to Hellenism. 
 
It isn’t right, Hermippos, for us philosophers
to be like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up! 
 
No, that’s not at all right for us.
For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won’t do.
We must not be ashamed
of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;
we should really honor it, take pride in it.

— Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Επάνοδος από την Ελλάδα

Ώστε κοντεύουμε να φθάσουμ’, Έρμιππε.
Μεθαύριο, θαρρώ· έτσ’ είπε ο πλοίαρχος.
Τουλάχιστον στην θάλασσά μας πλέουμε·
νερά της Κύπρου, της Συρίας, και της Aιγύπτου,
αγαπημένα των πατρίδων μας νερά.
Γιατί έτσι σιωπηλός; Pώτησε την καρδιά σου,
όσο που απ’ την Ελλάδα μακρυνόμεθαν
δεν χαίροσουν και συ; Aξίζει να γελιούμαστε; —
αυτό δεν θα ’ταν βέβαια ελληνοπρεπές. Aς την παραδεχθούμε την αλήθεια πια·
είμεθα Έλληνες κ’ εμείς — τι άλλο είμεθα; —
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις της Aσίας,
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις
που κάποτε ξενίζουν τον Ελληνισμό. Δεν μας ταιριάζει, Έρμιππε, εμάς τους φιλοσόφους
να μοιάζουμε σαν κάτι μικροβασιλείς μας
(θυμάσαι πώς γελούσαμε με δαύτους
σαν επισκέπτονταν τα σπουδαστήριά μας)
που κάτω απ’ το εξωτερικό τους το επιδεικτικά
ελληνοποιημένο, και (τι λόγος!) μακεδονικό,
καμιά Aραβία ξεμυτίζει κάθε τόσο
καμιά Μηδία που δεν περιμαζεύεται,
και με τι κωμικά τεχνάσματα οι καημένοι
πασχίζουν να μη παρατηρηθεί. A όχι δεν ταιριάζουνε σ’ εμάς αυτά.
Σ’ Έλληνας σαν κ’ εμάς δεν κάνουν τέτοιες μικροπρέπειες.
Το αίμα της Συρίας και της Aιγύπτου
που ρέει μες στες φλέβες μας να μη ντραπούμε,
να το τιμήσουμε και να το καυχηθούμε.

What gives this poem such pride of place as an analysis of Greek identity? For me, it starts with the simple joy both passengers feel as they’re arriving home – not approaching Greece, but leaving it. “Upon Escaping from Greece” would be my choice for the title’s English translation, because it’s clearly an experience of suffocation that the two friends have experienced that has started to lighten up for them as they cruise east through the breezy waters of the Mediterranean.

Cavafy has become an object of a resurgent cult in Greece, partly due to last year’s 150-year celebration (he was born in 1863), that’s a kind of an “emperor’s-new-clothes” phenomenon for me; not because his new clothes aren’t real, but I feel that few Greeks actually know what it is they’re suppose to be liking so much. I much prefer people who just say up front that they don’t like him. He’s “childish” they say, in response to his prose-like, early modernist experiments. These are the people who like their poetry with a capital “P”; they want it to rhyme: “φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό…” and they want it to have epic scale heroics and ‘the thousands dead under the axles’ and ‘the living giving their blood’ in the heroic deed of ‘making the sun turn,’ along with some myrtle and oleander and jasmine thrown in for Aegean effect. (What if you’re from Epiros and you don’t know from oleander and jasmine, just tsouknida and pournari?) Others only like a very emphatically stressed “some” of his poems: these are the ones turned off by his sexuality, but who feel they can’t say so openly in 2014 – or to me. (And the degree to which that whole part of his work, a good half, was ignored by the official festivities – they wanted only “Ithaka” or “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “The City” — was amazing.*) The Messenger for example, found a publisher for his paternal grandfather’s, my great-grand-uncle on my mother’s side, fascinating memoirs, which span the whole period from the late nineteenth century and the end of Ottoman rule to WWII. Except his grandfather met a Jewish guy who screwed him over when he was a young immigrant in New York in the 20s and he included the unfortunate phrase: “Hitler was right for doing what he did to them.”**  The publisher thought maybe that line should be cut. But the Messenger stuck to his cast-iron principles and insisted it be left as is, because it would be “censorship” to remove it.  Hardly an upholder of the most liberal sentiments on issues of that kind, I have a feeling that if the comment hadn’t been about Jews, he wouldn’t have minded the censorship so much. Just a few months earlier, for example, he hadn’t thought it was “censorship” to cut a slightly too homoerotic line from a Cavafy poem he read at his father’s funeral, for fear that our landsmen, our chorianoi, would be scandalized.

These elements and others: that Cavafy preferred the tragic dénouement to the epic climax; the unconsummated to the fulfilled; that he preferred the coded to the open and disclosed, and not out of choice; but learning to love what fate had made him, he learned to love the beauty of code – its poetry — the furtive touch over some cheap handkerchiefs; that he loved the ethnically and culturally and religiously mixed margins of Greek history and the poignancy of characters who had to straddle those margins and did not write a single poem about its Attic glory days (who are all these half-breed Egyptians and Parthians and Jews and other exotic anatolites he’s always making us read about anyway? Where’s Pericles and Aristotle?); that he understood life and humanity as fundamentally amoral, and morality as a convenient weapon to be used against the unfortunate few or often just a bad joke. All this did not do much to endear him to his contemporaries, along with the fact that he famously disliked Greece and especially Athens (the latter kind of unfair in my opinion: Athens at that time must’ve been at its most beautiful and charming), and the straight, homophobic white boys of the Generation of the ‘30s in particular, despite Seferis’ famous eulogy, had no time for him. The most vehement, Theotokas (unfortunately, one of my favorite Greek writers otherwise) scathingly declared Cavafy, in his Free Spirit, a “dead end” (a common trope, whether conscious or not: the gay man begets no issue and is thus fundamentally allied with death); that his modernism was an experiment that had been taken to its logical conclusion and that the Alexandrian was now a decadent (same difference), a point of departure for what Greek letters should move on from next and not a road open for them to continue down.

That right there is the grand and egregious error. Because Greek culture and identity – in a way that makes any sense to who we are today – simply didn’t exist until the Hellenistic (and then Roman/Byzantine) periods that Cavafy chose, almost exclusively, to write about in his historical poems. The conglomeration of Indo-European tribal units who all spoke dialects of similar languages and had started coalescing into larger city-state forms of political organization by the mid-first millennium B.C. have nothing to do with us. They may have started calling themselves “Hellenes,” but let’s not forget that the Iliad does not contain one, single, blessed mention of that holy word, and was compiled only a century-and-a- half or so before the Golden Periclean Age we’re so obsessed with.

It was because he was fascinated with the true origins of Greek identity, the cauldron of cultural mixture that Alexander created that later became condensed into a more distilled Greek-speaking, Orthodox idea, that Cavafy wrote about those periods so widely and studied them so deeply. And being from such deep aristocratic Constantinopolitan roots and an Alexandrian, how could he not have felt that basic idea on a gut level.

This is another reason the mention of the words “Macedonia” and “Alexander” makes my hair stand on end. The Macedonians (by which I mean Slav Macedonians) are ridiculous in their attempt to appropriate Alexander as a phenomenon of their own culture, though many observers have written about how this conscious policy of “antikvatsiya” (“antiquization”) on the Macedonian government’s part is, partly, a response to Greek intransigence on every other grounds. But you can see from how Greeks respond to Macedonian moves that Greeks don’t get Alexander either. Alexander is not a culminating point of Hellenic history, where the great hero brought Hellenic civilization to the “borders of India.” Alexander is not even a Greek herohe very early in his career quickly became déraciné, as Mary Renault keenly observed. Alexander is where Greek history starts. It’s all really the other way around. Alexander is what brought the East, and its incomparably greater and older civilizational achievements, to us. He drove us deep into contact with that wider world, cementing what had always been our bonds to those lands and those peoples he grew to love so much, and giving us as much in return, actually more, than what we gave them. He created the great creolized cultural space that a universal, cosmopolitan Greek identity was first born in and that later – when the name for “universal, cosmopolitan identity” changed, due to political circumstances, from “Greek” to “Roman,” – changed along with it, but which left the Helladic peninsula — or “the Hellenic” generally — behind permanently as a focus of any kind. Until the twentieth century.

Alexander Renault

Hermippos and his friend, Greeks going home to Antioch in Syria or Seleucia in Mesopotamia, can’t be Greek in Greece. It suffocates them. They don’t fit into that nonsense, antiquarian straightjacket. It’s “beneath” them, as Greeks, to reject the wider world that they’ve long been an intimate and inseparable part of. Greek means cosmopolitan to them and they can’t be Greeks without that quality. It would be the most provincial thing for them to do, to act like provincials who try to hide their “easterness”:

“…like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up!”

Eastern Mediterranean(click)

The nation-state is bound up inseparably with provincialness. And narrowed tribalism. And provincials hide. Not true Greek men. Cavafy’s “petty kings” are the Neo-Greek bourgeoisie, from the statelet’s origins down to our day, with their still immovable disdain for the East, who don their ancient fineries and try to make the world call them Hellenes and have no clue how ridiculous they’re being. Provincials dissimulate – not true Greek men — and that dissimulation has been the main thread of Neo-Greek culture since the late eighteenth century, so much so that all perspective has been lost. Hermippos and his buddy aren’t provincials. They’re Greek alright – from some of the richest, most sophisticated and Greekest cities in the world; but they understand the larger cultural context they’re a part of, and they’re too supremely secure in their Greekness to put down the Egypt and Syria that ‘flow in their veins.’ Greece tries to take that away from them. I imagine the Athens they had to go study at as a kind of tired old Cambridge, MA, still resting on its now dried-up laurels. But they’re too Greek to let Greece do that to them. Sorry to get repetitive. It’s an attempt to make the paradox – a wholly healthy and natural one – sink in.

Greece still tries to do that to you. And in the crisis mode it’s in today, it tries even harder because its sad inhabitants’ perspectives have become narrower and narrower to the point where they see nothing of the rest of the world and there’s simply very little language left you can share with them. “Η φτώχεια φέρνει γκρίνια,” the Greek says – “poverty makes for kvetching” — and though many people I know have faced the current crisis with the best kind of Greek dignity and humor in the face of adversity, too many others have lapsed back into ideological craziness, or just a frustrated lashing-out bitterness, or were always there but kept it hidden and now think that it’s more okay to express things openly; it’s hard to tell which.

One friend or relative has become a Golden Dawn apologist if not supporter: “What’s a young man who loves his country supposed to do?” I dunno; but half of Dostoevsky is about what to do with the unguided idealism of strong young men and phenomena like Golden Dawn wasn’t one of his answers; he strictly warned us against them, in fact. Another wants to take a DNA test to make sure he has no Albanian genes: actually believes such a thing exists – a chromosome for Albanian-ness and a test that will detect it. And this is one of those uncomfortable situations we’ve all been in where this is coming from the spouse of a good friend, so you have to keep your silence and you can’t just say: “That’s nice _______, Hitler and the Nazis were into that kind of thing too.” If I could I would’ve also asked if he wanted to see my DNA chart too, which is probably chock full of “Albanian-ness” and if he would then feel the need to maybe keep me away from his daughters. Another is still obsessing, as we go on twenty-five years since the break-up of Yugoslavia, on the “Macedonian issue.”*** And after hours of mind-bogglingly pointless conversation – “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift — you take a step back and realize that that’s all that’s ever mattered to this guy. The hundreds of thousands dead produced by the Yugoslav disaster, the millions displaced, the destruction of the last part of the former Ottoman sphere where there was still some hope of survival for a multi-ethnic society, the greatest bloodletting in Europe since WWII, right on our doorstep…  He doesn’t give two shits, nor has he let one blessed thought or idea on that series of calamities occupy even one of his brain cells for a second. All he cares about is the “Macedonian Issue.” Twenty-five f*cking years later. And he doesn’t find such narcissism the least bit obscene.  “The world is burning, και το μ**νί της Χάιδως χτενίζεται.”  I won’t translate.

Whether or not they’re becoming more extreme or just showing their true colors more, it’s certain that I’ve become more radical – not in my ideological positions, which are what they always were – but in my inability to tolerate their stupidity and growing narrow-mindedness. I’m always ready to leave Greece when the time comes, but this time it had become truly unbearable. There were just too many people that it had become too uncomfortable to even be around. And stumbling on this half-forgotten Cavafy poem was no accident I feel.

And so I took that great big breath of relief that Hermippos and his friend took on the deck of their boat as the shores of Cyprus came into view when I myself left for Serbia back in July. I had to get out of this place – and disassociate myself from it and its inhabitants — if the fact that I’m Greek was going to continue to be to at all tolerable to me. I’ll always love arriving; with the new flight path south over the Attic midlands passing right over the town and beach — over the very apartment building — where I spent my childhood summers, I’ll always choke up a little at the sight of the brown hills of Attica. But when I’m ready to leave, I gotta go – and fast – and this year more urgently than any other.

And I can see myself spending more and more of my future time in “Greece” in Albania with my relatives – “deep” Greeks who don’t have the ball-and-chain of a nation-state tied around their ankles; in Istanbul – with smart young Greek and Turkish kids who are trying to do something intelligent and productive about our relationship; maybe in Cyprus – which Kosmas Polites called the last surviving remnant of his beloved lost Ionia and where I have friends to whom I owe long over-due visits; or just here in Queens — where every block and street corner and subway stop and church bears a piece of my Roman-ness.

Because Greece, man… Greece just cramps my Greekness.

Egypte, Alexandrie, le front de merAlexandria (click)

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

* And the thing is, if you ignore his erotic poems, I find it hard to believe that most people can even understand, much less really appreciate, the rest — the historical poems.  Who understands the religious and cultural sociology of fourth-century Alexandria enough to have the proper context to apprehend all of “Myres: Alexandria, AD 340”?  Who the hell knows where Commagene is?  Or who Alexander Jannaios was?  Or what a handsome Jewish prince is doing with the name Aristovoulos?  Or why he was murdered and “those sluts Kypros and Salome” are now gloating in private?

** It’s amazing.  And disturbing.  Anti-semitism and the extent of its popularization and the accessibility of its language.  Not only can one accusation of unethicalness — and from a Greek at that! — be used to tar a whole people, but Jews are the only people with whom that one charge leads straight to the gas chambers so easily, in people’s minds and on people’s tongues.  Not “what a sleazebag.”  Or “what a nation of sleazebags.”  But straight to “Hitler was right…”

*** Yes.  Believe it or not.  The “Macedonian” “issue.”  More on that to come.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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