Historical Poetics in Modern Greece: Reflections on Three Writers

Eleni Mahaira-Odoni
The recourse to history for creating literary products has anchored much of the most notable 19th and 20th century Greek fiction and poetry writing. Several names come readily to mind: among poets, Solomos, Kalvos, Cavafy, Sikelianos, Palamas, Elytis, Ritsos, Anagnostakis stand out. Fiction writers prove equally ready to rely on historical resources for narratives that plumb the psyche of individual characters at particular times and in specific situations. In writers like Papadiamantis, Kazantzakis, Venezis, and later, Tsirkas, Kotzias, Fragkias, Valtinos, Lymperaki, Zei, and Galanaki—to name just a few—the historical intersects with the personal in a constant search to understand the human condition.
Does the infusion of literature with history produce a felicitous or symmetrical relationship between the two genres? And, if according to Aristotle, “poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular” (Poetics 1451a37–b7), how does fiction fare? Finally, what is the task of the novelist or poet who draws from history in order to produce a cultural artifact?
The discussion here will address some of these questions by proceeding from a preliminary set of assumptions to a brief exploration of the work of two contemporary Greek fiction writers, Thanassis Valtinos and Rea Galanaki. Afterwards, a quick review of C.P. Cavafy’s well–documented use of history will conclude with a hypothesis concerning some of his best–known work.
To start with, dipping into history or venturing into well–chartered historical territory is, of course, far from an exclusively Greek technique for literary inspiration. Dozens of writers of extremely diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds have distinguished themselves in this domain. One thinks here of the South American novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges; of Milan Kundera’s or Hermann Broch’s works or of John Dos Passos’s frame–to–frame, multi–layered, yet individually focused narratives. More recently, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, riveted and thrilled both readers and movie audiences. Last but not least, two recent Nobel prizes in literature—Jean–Marie Gustave Le Clézio in 2008 and Herta Müller in 2009—have lent additional gravity to a literature that struggles to counter the weight of historical events which tends to erase people “who don’t exist because they leave no trace of their passage.” [1]
Marguerite Yourcenar and Jean–Paul Sartre probably provide the best formulations on the imperative need to illuminate history through literature and the power of language. In her endnotes on her ‘autobiographical’ masterpiece on the emperor Hadrian, Yourcenar describes her task:
Take a life that is known and completed, recorded and fixed by History (as much as lives ever can be fixed), so that its entire course may be seen at a single glance; more important still, choose the moment when the man who lived that existence weighs and examines it, and is, for the briefest span, capable of judging it. Try to manage so that he stands before his own life in much the same position as we stand when we look at it.
Yourcenar 2005:320–321
Similarly, Ernesto Sábato, another novelist and script writer of the 1974 scenario for Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” implies that, without fictional narratives, modern life is practically incomprehensible. “In a bureaucratic world, abandoned by philosophy and splintered into thousands of scientific specialties, the novel remains to us the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole” (Kundera 2007:83).
In a completely different linguistic mode, Sartre explains that the reason he undertook his monumental study of the life and work of Gustave Flaubert was the search for “l’universel singulier”—the singular universal, a particular man whose uniqueness shared a universal human situation:
The fact is that a man is never an individual; it would be better to call him a singular universal: totalized and at the same time universalized by his era, he re–totalizes it by remaking himself within it as a singularity.
Sartre 1971:7 [2]
In other words, the particularity of each consciousness feeds on the totality of the human condition; each life, even a well–documented one, resembles a narrative that could be endlessly reiterated in order to understand its contours, its twists and turns and the choices made. Another way to clarify this dialectical relationship between the particular and the universal is to think of individual words in their intrinsic reference to a language as a whole, or what Sartre means by a writer’s “style”. Every word must accord with a larger linguistic universe and each sentence must contain the whole of the chapter or the book, just as for a painter or a musician, each mark on the canvas or the page must be conversant with the work of art as a whole (Sartre 1976:138).
When language, the vehicle for literary artifacts, fails to grasp reality the text collapses, unnerved and lifeless. In one of his recent works, a scenario on the life of Dionysios Solomos, Thanassis Valtinos gives us the frustration of a translator faced with a tortuous task.
Στίχοι ... μεταφρασμένοι απ’ τα ιταλικά ... προσπάθησα να τους μεταφράσω. Η αγωνία των πραγμάτων δύσκολα περνάει από μια γλώσσα σε μία άλλη, ιδιαίτερα μέσω τρίτης. Και η προσπάθεια να χρησιμοποιήσει κανείς τις λέξεις είναι κάθε φορά μια καινούργια αποτυχία.
Verses … translated from the Italian … I tried to translate them. It is difficult to carry over the anxiety of reality from one language to another, especially through a third language. And the attempt to use words is a new failure every time.
Valtinos 2008:14, 76. [3]
Failure or not, language remains literature’s only weapon against the leveling, all–subsuming sweep of “official history” or History. Greek writers have probably felt the “weight of History” more than other Europeans. One reason may lie in the intellectual and psychological imperative to ground a national identity in the rapidly changing political and geographical landscape of the 19th century following the war of independence. The need to forge a common identity went hand in hand with fatalism about events that were meant to happen and were best left unexamined. For example, personal narratives about major national traumas like the Asia Minor campaign remain rare, in contrast to the literature generated by the Greek civil war which, it has been said, left the writing of the “official history” lagging behind. [4]
The Greek novel has taken a long time to come alive precisely because of the nationally imposed weight of “official history” which stifled the will to understand individual lives. In the broader European context, the rise of the novel presupposed the Age of Enlightenment and the cultivation of Individualism. In turn, this intellectual climate solidified the notion of a linearly evolving history propelled by consciously individualistic actors (Lukács 1971; Kampf 1967:285–286). But Ottoman occupied Greece missed out on all these socio–cultural currents. In fact, it still frequently betrays a passive acceptance of untoward events that are ritualistically attributed to the malice of outsiders. Personal responsibility, a hallmark of modernity, is still a secondary value in a culture that operates with a cyclical view of history and sees itself in the light of epic heroes fighting and falling, helpless against the tricks of Fate.
The novel, therefore, is premised on the evolution and personal growth of characters toward a future, albeit always constrained by a given socio–cultural situation. In Sartre’s words, “[modern] literature…is the movement whereby at every moment man frees himself from history; in short, it is the exercise of freedom” (Sartre 1966:69). Echoing Sartre, Susan Sontag praises Nadine Gordimer’s Nobel winning literature for being “… a treasury of human beings in situations, stories that are character driven.” Then Sontag explains, that for her, “Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is the zone of freedom. Literature was freedom” (Sontag 2007:209–210).
If the novel is “an ideal vehicle for both space and time” (Sontag 2007:213), how do Greek novelists handle it? Fictional narrative and the historical hurdles of a nation–in–the–making interweave most of the literary output of Thanassis Valtinos. With very few exceptions, like Deep Blue Almost Black, or Woodcock Feathers (Φτερά Μπεκάτσας), occasional short stories or the Solomos scenario (Άνθη της Αβύσσου), his fiction inhabits vast historical spaces stretching over painful time periods. The Balkan wars, the Asia Minor campaign and the “catastrophe”, the civil war or the Cyprus invasion, produce brutal stories of despair, often via movie–style dialogues, first–person and alternate gender ruminations, in a complex style that swings from curt, relentless reporting to sparse lyricism. The textual insertion of newspaper–clippings, interviews and “Dear Abby” columns (Αγαπητή κυρία Μίνα) in the pompous language that dominated the press of the 1950s and '60s harks back to John Dos Passos’ literary techniques in the USA cycle. Moreover, his stories, long or short, mold time and slide freely in and out of it without relaxing the tension between the topical and the universal. [5] The use of public data for satirical, yet sympathetic psychological explorations of characters during particularly harsh periods of Greek history, such as the Metaxas dictatorship or the colonels’ junta, also brings out the ironies of living in a country trying to hold on to its past glories while also scrambling to move toward a modern future.
Against this problematic of war–ravaged lives, Valtinos depicts two defining themes of the modern Greek historical profile through several works. The first theme concerns the tragic post–civil war neglect suffered by the Greek countryside and the concomitant social problems: depopulation, illiteracy, isolation, aversion for the farming life and even locally sanctioned lawlessness, as in cases of famous vendetta kidnappings and killings. Directly related to this theme is, secondly, the story of Greek emigration, particularly to Australia and America. The toil of life as “other” in unknown and unknowable lands, the daily humiliations and the anxiety for the future of concrete individuals are handled in compelling narratives that are surely the envy of any skillful social anthropologist or historian. [6] Sensual, poetic and sparse, Valtinos’s excursions into each historical period release heart–wrenching personal minutiae, instantly recognizable for their sadness and truth. For example, in a handful of short stories in Εθισμός στη νικοτίνη [Nicotine Addiction], he manages to cover a vast social and political array of characters at a loss, struggling daily under harsh conditions and against History: the Greek mobilization in defense of Cyprus; having to beg 50 drachmas for cigarettes after a desperate taxi ride from a province to an Athens hospital; the civil war; the national ‘rift’ (ο διχασμός), a countryside vendetta and an abduction.
Much like his movie scripts for Days of ’36, Journey to Kythera and Journey through the Fog, Valtinos’s fiction presupposes history and a living memory of traditions but its aim remains the creation of art, i.e., of narratives, not of rhetoric, or didacticism. By making use of both cyclical (repetitive) and linear (‘freely’ chosen) senses of history, Valtinos molds moving and disturbing characters by salvaging their lesser lives from the all–leveling effect of “official history.” In this, his philosophy agrees thoroughly with that of Rea Galanaki, the other contemporary Greek novelist whose fiction has reached deeply into Greek history.
In explaining her views on History in the context of her renowned novel, The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha (Galanaki 1989) she says:
Και θα μου άρεσε αν ο αναγνώστης, κοντά στην αδιαφιλονίκητη δική του αντίληψη για την Ιστορία, δεχόταν ότι δεν υπάρχει μία και μόνο ιστορική εκδοχή, αλλά περισσότερες απόψεις για το ίδιο γεγoνός, έστω και με μερικές αποκλίσεις. Επίσης ότι, αν για κάποιους ειδικούς λόγους μιά άποψη επιβάλλεται και κυριαρχεί για ένα χρονικό διάστημα, τούτο δεν σημαίνει πως είναι η μόνη δυνατή, η μόνη αναντίρρητη. Ενδεχομένως ότι, απ’ αυτό το σημείο και μετά, αρχίζει η λογοτεχνία.
It would please me if the reader, alongside his own indisputable perception of History, would concede that there is not just a single historical version but several views of the same event, allowing for some divergence. In addition, if for some specific reasons one view takes hold and dominates over a period of time, this does not mean that it is the only possible one or that it is irrefutable. Probably, literature begins from this point on.
Galanaki 1997:24 [7]
Even so, the past, i.e., historical time and place/space, is at all times to be rendered with meticulous detail in order for the author to produce characters of emotional impact. “I would venture a definition,” she states: “for the writer, history is the human drama within a very specific and, at the same time, symbolic relationship of place, time and language” (Galanaki 1997:68). Galanaki, a novelist of largely biographical fiction, considers emotion as her fundamental guide in choosing a subject and its relationship to “the infinite points of the past” (Galanaki 1997:64). But unlike Valtinos who chooses to make small lives count, Galanaki picks mostly exceptional figures, even sensational ones—as in the story of the abduction of Tasoula Kefaloyanni (Galanaki 2007). The biography of Ismail Ferik Pasha becomes a vehicle for plunging into the emotionally charged moments, agonizing soul–searching and deep sorrow experienced by the hero of this unusual (hi)story of double identity and dual allegiance.
Galanaki seems to confirm her commentators by saying that for her this work was a ‘return’ to Crete, her native land. The theme of nostos (νóστος ‘return’) looms central in the story of Ismail. In her latest work, Φωτιές του Ιούδα, Στάχτες του Οιδίποδα [The Fires of Judah, the Ashes of Oedipus], she is revisiting the literary history of Crete as well as its ragged geographical setting. [8] In previous works, The Century of Labyrinths (2002) and Silent, Deep Waters (2006), Crete was again the epicenter of her narratives. The concept of νόστος, therefore, permeates the narrative’s action while also being part of the author’s cognitive geography. Even in novels unrelated to Crete, i.e., in I shall sign as Loui (1993) and in Eleni or Nobody (1999), the lives she reconstructs from history span long distances, spilling over Greek national borders into culturally and geographically “other” spaces. But in these cases the yearning for return goes beyond the quest for belonging to a cultural or geographical milieu; it now acquires an interior, introspective dimension—the search for a lost or strayed identity and a purpose for living.
The exploration of loss, dépaysement, and social degradation are hardly the subject–matter of history. Literature, quickened in history, becomes an invaluable tool for grasping the complexity of the human psyche. “The novel”, Susan Sontag tells us, “is an ideal vehicle, both of space and time.” But she goes on immediately to clarify that time “is not essential for poetry because poetry is situated in the present” and even when poetry tells a story, “Poems are not-stories” (Sontag 2007:215–216). This may seem like a cryptic statement but it makes a lot of sense when we consider the (hi)stories of a poet like Constantine Cavafy.
Cavafy (1863–1933) has been quoted repeatedly as a self–described “historical poet” (Yourcenar and Dimaras 1978:16; Lechonitis 1977:19–20). The claim seems more than justified by the number of his poems that refer to the Greek mythical world, Hellenistic times, Roman historical figures, and the Byzantine era. However, the use of history in Cavafy seems to be the opposite from that of the novelists discussed above, or of any novelist for that matter. The genius of Cavafy, it seems here, lies not in re–telling us a (hi)story for strictly didactic purposes or for the content of the story itself—although, admittedly, he did write a handful of poems that Yourcenar calls “lessons”: she places “Thermopylae,” “The First Step,” “The City,” and “Ithaca” in this category (Yourcenar 1978:22). For Cavafy, the main purpose of the historical poems is to give form and to create art through the exploration of his own psyche. His scrutiny of the past and of times long gone terminates at the present moment of self–absorption and writing. The toil that goes into the composition of a poem is not channeled to contemplating the future of a developing character. Instead, in poem after poem we witness a nostos ministering to the present, in the face of loss, disasters, mourning, degradation, longing, and thwarted desire.
This self–conscious suspension of time uses the past in order to speak for the poet’s emotions, memories and desires in the present. Oftentimes, this is done in a willfully deceitful manner that Cavafy uses like an actor’s mask by employing poetic symbols. According to C. Dimaras (1983), these symbols should not be considered real (Dimaras and Haas 1983; Sareyannis and Haas 1983; Nehamas 1989). He points at three of Cavafy’s poems in order to illustrate his point. In “For the Shop”, in “Aimilianos Monai” and, especially, in “Temethos, Antiochian, A.D. 400,” the poet resorts to code language to tell us that what he says is not what he really means and warns us not to be fooled about the real object of that poem: [9]
… We the initiated—
his intimate friends—we the initiated
know about whom those lines were written.
The unsuspecting Antiochians read simply “Emonidis.” 
Similarly, in “For the Shop”, the precious items of “his taste” and “desire” are kept hidden, not for sale—like Cavafy’s more beautiful and precious poems:
He’ll leave them in the safe,
examples of his bold, his skillful work.
In “Temethos,” the symbolic adoption of an armor to hide the true nature of a man alludes to the poet’s own techniques of dissimulation through the conscious choice of language and comportment:
Out of talk, appearance, and manners
I will make an excellent suit of armor;
and in this way I will face malicious people
without feeling the slightest fear or weakness.

They will try to injure me. But of those
who come near me none will know
where to find my wounds, my vulnerable places,
under the deceptions that will cover me.

So boasted Aimilianos Monai.
One wonders if he ever made that suit of armor.
In any case, he did not wear it long
At the age of twenty–seven, he died in Sicily.
Another commentator who knew Cavafy personally, J. A. Sareyannis, stresses that Cavafy, in view of his homosexuality, was extremely calculating about releasing his poems to designated recipients and tried hard to get them out in indirect and almost devious ways that wouldn’t immediately point to him. His natural timidity was probably exacerbated by the impact of the Oscar Wilde trials for, if Cavafy’s own proclivities were to be exposed, his carefully constructed public persona and the very fabric of his life would collapse in a puritanical city like Alexandria (Sareyannis 1944; Ekdawi 1993:297).
The foregoing are only some of the reasons why Cavafy’s work took a long time to be recognized for what it really is, i.e., truly universal, [10] “super–modern and [still] for future generations.” [11] The on–going stream of literature generated by his language, his historicism, his sensuality, his aestheticism or his philosophy of art constitutes a perfect paradigm of the felicitous relationship between the particular and the universal. This is not the place to review those contributions to Cavafy’s profile. Instead, I would like to consider one of his most elegant and famous poems in the light of his dissembling strategies as illustrated in the three poems above.
The poem “In the Month of Athyr” (1917), according to Z. Lorentzatos, is Cavafy’s masterpiece. It is “unique, literally unrepeatable” and “after it, there’s nothing like it.” It is “truly one of the pieces that ‘he brought to art’ [εκόμισε εις την τέχνην]. [12] The poem goes,
Με δυσκολία διαβάζω στην πέτρα την αρχαία.
Κύ[ρι]ε Ιησού Χριστέ. Ένα Ψυ[χ]ήν διακρίνω.
Εν τω μη[νί] Aθύρ Ο Λεύκιο[ς] ε[κοιμ]ήθη.
Στη μνεία της ηλικίας Εβί[ωσ]εν ετών,
το Κάππα Ζήτα δείχνει που νέος εκοιμήθη.
Μες στα φθαρμένα βλέπω Aυτό[ν] ... Aλεξανδρέα.
Μετά έχει τρεις γραμμές πολύ ακρωτηριασμένες·
μα κάτι λέξεις βγάζω — σαν δ[ά]κρυα ημών, οδύνην,
κατόπιν πάλι δάκρυα, και [ημ]ίν τοις [φ]ίλοις πένθος.
Με φαίνεται που ο Λεύκιος μεγάλως θ’ αγαπήθη.
Εν τω μηνί Aθύρ ο Λεύκιος εκοιμήθη. 
I can just read the inscription on this ancient stone.
“Lo[r]d Jesus Christ.” I make out a “So[u]l.”
“In the mon[th] of Athyr” “Lefkio[s] went to sleep.”
Where his age is mentioned — “lived to the age of” —
the Kappa Zeta shows that he went to sleep a young man.
In the corroded part I see “Hi[m] ... Alexandrian.”
Then there are three badly mutilated lines —
though I can pick out a few words, like “our tea[r]s,” “grief,”
then “tears” again, and “sorrow to [us] his [f]riends.”
I think Lefkios must have been greatly loved.
In the month of Athyr Lefkios went to sleep. 
Savidis 1992 [13]
Lorentzatos does not develop his argument further than stating that Cavafy scholars have not stressed sufficiently the poet’s handling of Roman history (Lorentzatos 1977:25–26). In contrast, Daniel Mendelsohn (2003) goes into a meticulous textual analysis of “the erotics of the lost” and, in an equally admiring tone, pronounces this poem a perfect example of “the power of poetry” mediated by the conflation of four novel elements in the narrative. What we have here, claims Mendelsohn, is not the contemplation of a dead body but rather of a text, worn, hard-to-read and mutilated. So, instead of describing a body, Cavafy “strings words.” Instead of looking at a body, he reads words. Rather than describe desire, Cavafy offers language. Finally, and most importantly, instead of “speaking of loss, Cavafy speaks of love” (Mendelsohn 2003).
This series of concentrated substitutions, driven by a textual economy that reads horizontally as well as vertically, raises an obvious question. Who is this Lefkios? Or Leucios (Λεύκιος), to stick to the Greek term, for reasons that will become obvious below. [14] Extant research on Leucios points to an entirely imaginary character. Cavafy is, therefore, addressing a fake tombstone and a concocted inscription (Delopoulos 1980:230). The question then is, why would he do that? Surely he must have been aware of the quintessential uniqueness of this particular poem; if so, is he once again hiding and protecting his personal connection to someone from the potential prejudice and/or calumnies of the ‘un–initiated’?
I submit that the answer is most probably “yes” and shall propose three reasons why. First, to start with the name, we are dealing with the Greek version of a Latin name: Leucios is the equivalent of Lucius. The most important Lucius in Roman history was Lucius Aelius Verus Caesar (101–138 A.D.) adoptive son of the Emperor Hadrian in 136 A.D. and most probably his lover. While successor–designate, Lucius fell ill and died, a few months before Hadrian himself. But Lucius was buried in Rome, near Hadrian, by the next Caesar, Antoninus, in the mausoleum now known as Castel Sant’Angelo. Therefore, there is no reason to think that the mutilated inscription on the worn tombstone, presumably somewhere close to Alexandria, would have anything to do with Lucius.
However, Lucius became Hadrian’s favorite only after Antinous (or Antinöos), his truly beloved Bithynian youth, drowned in the Nile in 130 A.D. The story, famous for centuries, has been the subject of several studies (Yourcenar 1963; Lambert 2009:286–294) and of many statues and heads of Antinous that grace major European museums. It has also inspired at least one modern major poet, Fernando Pessoa of Portugal (1888–1935). Pessoa wrote “Antinous” in 1915 in perfect Edwardian English and published a definitive version in 1918 (Monteiro 2000; Pessoa 2009). Although Pessoa and Cavafy never met, they seem to have shared many similarities in upbringing, choice of themes, sexual orientation and intellectual interests. Moreover, they had a common friend, E.M. Forster, another writer with very similar interests and life choices, who may have acted as an intermediary, informing each man of the other’s work. Cavafy had close contacts with Forster from 1916 to 1918 and it is conceivable that Forster may have brought him Pessoa’s English manuscripts (Savidis 1985; Jeffreys 2005).
Whether Cavafy was influenced by Pessoa on the subject of Antinous or not, it seems unlikely that he, “the poet of history”, who lived just up the river Nile from Antinopolis would not be aware of the story and the legend of Antinous. However, Victorian mores probably prevented him from referring to Antinous directly and dictated the need for using the persona of Lucius to mask the real subject of the epitaph. Thus, the second reason for thinking this poem might be about Antinous is the importance of the latter’s legend and its proximity to Cavafy’s own concerns. Sarah Ekdawi quickly dismisses the possibility that the subject of “In the Month of Athyr” is the ‘deceased Alexandrian Christian, Lefkios.’ However, to record an epitaph in a Christian era does not necessarily make the deceased a Christian, especially when his identity has to be concealed, either in real or in plasmatic/poetic (hi)story. Antinous was deified upon his death and his cult straddles paganism and Christianity. Antinopolis, a city built in his memory and to his glory by Hadrian, soon became an important Coptic Christian city, Ansena, the site of a visit by the Holy Family and of several Christian martyrdoms. [15] In a way, the cult of Antinous parallels Cavafy’s cult of poetry which bridges Hellenistic hedonism with his own Alexandrian universe, past and present.
Finally, concerning this issue, why would an epitaph that seems to have been carved about a Christian in a Christian era, mention the month of death in its ancient Egyptian version? Indeed, in her conclusion Ekdawi acknowledges that Cavafy employed clever ruses to hide his intended meanings. As she states,
In his use of three Victorian strategies for writing about sex—epitaphs, codes and the classics—Cavafy, like Wilde before him, often contravenes Victorian literary propriety.
Ekdawi 1966:40, 43
History can also be ‘bent’ in order to convey the emotion that the poet wishes to communicate; so can religion, for that matter. In the last analysis, despite his apparent religiosity, Cavafy worshiped Alexandria and all things Alexandrian above all else. Everything about this city, especially its past, including his own earlier days and social status, was the topos that defined his psychic, physical and intellectual horizon and nurtured his universality. By identifying himself as ελληνικός i.e., of Greece and of Greek—be it descent, language or (Hellenistic) revival—Cavafy sidestepped the issue of his strict adherence to a religion, even though he seems to have followed much of the church’s ritual. [16] At the same time he never concealed his preoccupation with an ambivalent historical character like Julian the Apostate who straddled paganism and Christianity and probably provided the poet with a paradigm for his own lifestyle in the context of an ‘eternal city’ like Alexandria. [17] It seems highly unlikely that within that Alexandrian myth and its pagan and deeply erotic reverberations there would be no place for Antinous. All the same, Cavafy did not have to be explicit about his writing: “The poet”, says Michael Walzer, “needs fellow citizens, other poets and readers of poetry who share with him a background of history and sentiment, who will not demand that everything he writes be explained. Without people like that, his allusions will be lost and his images will echo only in his own mind” (Walzer 2003:363).
Lastly, a third reason for suggesting that “In the month of Athyr" is probably about Antinous is the fact that, “[On T]he first of the month of Athyr, the second year of the two hundred and twenty–sixth Olympiad [....],” Antinous drowned in the Nile, a probable suicide. This is how Marguerite Yourcenar opens her well–researched narrative on Antinous’ tragic death (Yourcenar 2005:195, 303). The phrase apparently originates in the Historia Augusta, and in several collections of Greek and Latin inscriptions cited in her endnotes. Cavafy’s exact and double repetition of the phrase “In the Month of Athyr” seems too much of a coincidence.
Just before going to Alexandria, Hadrian and Antinous had traveled through Syria and Jerusalem—the Roman–era Seleucia. This area had been burnt by Trajan, the previous Emperor, but was subsequently rebuilt and restored by Hadrian (Yourcenar 2005:184). Therefore, to speak of Seleucia as a lively region with a thriving marketplace is to refer obliquely to Hadrian’s works and time. The scene described in Cavafy’s “One of their Gods” (Ένας Θεός των), another 1917 poem, has often been associated with the figure of Antinous strutting through the market of Seleucia on his way to the neighborhoods of the night. A rudimentary internet search yields several sites which delve on this poem, with the consensus pointing to Antinous as the poem’s subject. Whether this is right or wrong, in terms of the actual events, this conclusion is probably correct: Hadrian and Antinous did travel through the region shortly before the youth’s death. Dipping into real Roman history, Cavafy speaks achingly of a young man’s beauty and follows him with longing and a frisson about his intentions and his lofty identity—a subject of much daydreaming (ερέμβαζαν) among passers—by, including the poet himself. Cavafy, of course, knows that this is ‘one of their gods,’ but once again he keeps that precious bit of knowledge to himself:
Όταν κανένας των περνούσεν απ’ της Σελευκείας
την αγορά, περί την ώρα που βραδυάζει,
σαν υψηλός και τέλεια ωραίος έφηβος,
με την χαρά της αφθαρσίας μες στα μάτια,
με τ’ αρωματισμένα μαύρα του μαλλιά,
οι διαβάται τον εκύτταζαν
κι ο ένας τον άλλονα ρωτούσεν αν τον γνώριζε,
κι αν ήταν Έλλην της Συρίας, ή ξένος. Aλλά μερικοί,
που με περισσοτέρα προσοχή παρατηρούσαν,
εκαταλάμβαναν και παραμέριζαν·
κ’ ενώ εχάνετο κάτω απ’ τες στοές,
μες στες σκιές και μες στα φώτα της βραδυάς,
πηαίνοντας προς την συνοικία που την νύχτα
μονάχα ζει, με όργια και κραιπάλη,
και κάθε είδους μέθη και λαγνεία,
ερέμβαζαν ποιος τάχα ήταν εξ Aυτών,
και για ποιαν ύποπτην απόλαυσί του
στης Σελευκείας τους δρόμους εκατέβηκεν
απ’ τα Προσκυνητά, Πάνσεπτα Δώματα.
When one of them moved through the marketplace of Selefkia
just as it was getting dark—
moved like a young man, tall, extremely handsome,
with the joy of being immortal in his eyes,
with his black and perfumed hair—
the people going by would gaze at him,
and one would ask the other if he knew him,
if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger.
But some who looked more carefully
would understand and step aside;
and as he disappeared under the arcades,
among the shadows and the evening lights,
going toward the quarter that lives
only at night, with orgies and debauchery,
with every kind of intoxication and desire,
they would wonder which of Them it could be,
and for what suspicious pleasure
he had come down into the streets of Selefkia
from the August Celestial Mansions. [18]
I have two minor observations about this and two other translations of this poem. I think that by translating τη χαρά της αφθαρσίας “as joy of being immortal” (Keeley and Sherrard), or “of immortality” (Mendelsohn), or “of incorruptibility” (Valassopoulo, in the Cavafy Archive Canon), an important link to “In the Month of Athyr” is lost or, at least, blunted: what we have there, μες τα φθαρμένα, “among the worn out pieces,” is the opposite of αφθαρσία. I would argue that by switching to the ‘joy of being imperishable’ in “One of Their Gods” and to ‘among the decay’ in “In the Month of Athyr” would sharpen the contrast between the two poems and would actually bring them even closer together.
Clearly, it is not the subject–matter of these poems that makes them masterful. Language mediates the distance between history and art, be that fiction or poetry, and makes the topical beautiful, moving and universal. As Rea Galanaki has observed, “In a nutshell, I would say that the past does not exist in art except as a mirror of creative self–knowledge” (1997:104). [19] Writers are probably not very different from other Greek intellectuals or artists who harbor a certain ambivalence toward history—at once huddling securely inside it while also struggling to break out of it, in search of imaginative transcendence. True art—the kind practiced by the writers above—embraces History, and the search for imaginative transcendence maps out the road to self–knowledge and universal resonance.


Bowersock, G.W. 1981. “The Julian Poems of C.P. Cavafy.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 7: 89–104.
Butcher, S.H. 1951. Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. New York.
Calotychos, V. 2000. “Writing Wrongs, (Re)Righting (Hi)story?: ‘Orthotita’ and ‘Orthographia’ in Thanassis Valtinos’s Orthokosta.” Gramma 8: 151–165.
Daskalopoulos, D. 2002. “Recycling (and Recircling) History: The case of Thanassis Valtinos.” Porfyras 103: 21–24.
Delopoulos, K. 1980. Cavafy: Historical and Other Characters. Athens.
Dimaras, C. Th., and Haas, D. 1983. “Cavafy’s Technique of Inspiration.” Grand Street 2: 143–156.
Ekdawi, S. 1966. “Cavafy’s Mythical Ephebes.” Ancient Greek Myth in Modern Greek Poetry (ed. P. Mackridge) 33–44. Portland.
Ekdawi, S. 1993. “Days of 1895, 96 and 97: The Parallel Prisons of C.P. Cavafy and Oscar Wilde.” Modern Greek Studies Yearbook 9: 297–305.
Everitt, A. 2009. Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome. New York.
Galanaki, R. 1989. The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha. Athens.
Galanaki, R. 1997. King or Soldier: Notes, Thoughts and Comments on Literature. Athens.
Galanaki, R. 2006. Silent, Deep Waters: The Abduction of Tasoula. Athens.
Haas, D. 1996. Le Problème Religieux dans L’oeuvre de Cavafy: Les Années de Formation, 1882–1905. Paris
Jeffreys, P. 2005. Eastern Questions: Hellenism and Orientalism in the Writings of E.M. Forster and C.P. Cavafy. Greensboro.
Kampf, L. 1967. On Modernism: The Prospects for Literature and Freedom. Cambridge, MA.
Keeley, E. 1976. “The Universal Perspective.” Cavafy’s Alexandria. Study of a Myth in Progress 133-152. Cambridge, MA.
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Lukács, G. 1971. The Theory of the Novel. Cambridge, MA,
Malanos, T. 1935. Περί Kαβάφη. Alexandria.
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———. 1976. Situations X. Paris.
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———. 1989. Data from the Decade of the Sixties. Athens.
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———. 2000.The Lives of Saints of Andres Kordopatis I, II. Athens.
———. 2008. Flowers of the Abyss. Athens.
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[ back ] 1. See Hawes, “The Price of Colonialism,” in The New York Times Book Review, 8/30/2009.
[ back ] 2. Translation by the author.
[ back ] 3. Translation by the author.
[ back ] 4. See Sella, “The Civil War Fought with Literature,” Kathimerini, 1/11/2009.
[ back ] 5. On Valtinos’s handling of temporality, see Daskalopoulos 2002:21–24.
[ back ] 6. Included here are Valtinos 1978; 1989; 1994; 2000. Orthokosta (Valtinos 1994), on the two–sided atrocities during the Greek civil war, created much controversy among historians and literary critics. For a critical overview, see Calotychos 2000.
[ back ] 7. Emphasis and translation by the author.
[ back ] 8. See her interview with Papagiannidou, “The Teacher and the Shepherd,” in TO ΒΗΜΑ 11/1/2009.
[ back ] 9. Excerpts from all three poems below in Savidis 1992.
[ back ] 10. Διονύσης Καψάλης, Ο Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης, Ποιητής Παγκόσμιος, Kathimerini, 06/15/2003.
[ back ] 11. Δ.Ν. Μαρωνίτης, Απολίτιστα Μονοτονικά: Καβαφικά (2), To Vima, 11/02/ 2003
[ back ] 12. Νίκος Μπακουνάκης, Ο Θάνατος του απολιτικού. Ο Ζήσιμος Λορεντζάτος και ένας προσωπικός απολογισμός. Κριτική βιβλίου. To Vima, 2/8/2004. See also Lorentzatos (1977:13–14).
[ back ] 13. I have added the column spaces as in the original Greek.
[ back ] 14. I agree entirely with Walter Kaiser (1975) that the translation of names in the Keeley–Sherrard edition (1992) respects modern Greek pronunciation by doing an injustice to the English language.
[ back ] 15. See “Ansena/Antinopolis” in Wikipedia.
[ back ] 16. According to Bowersock 1981:103n43, ‘Cavafy once said to Stratis Tsirkas, Eίμαι κι εγώ Eλληνικός. Προσοχή, όχι Έλλην, ούτε Eλληνίζων, αλλά Eλληνικός [Malanos 1935:56].’ Regarding Cavafy’s ‘non–partisan’ attitude to religion, see Sareyannis and Haas 1983) and Keeley 1976.
[ back ] 17. Much has been written on Cavafy’s ambivalence on religion. See, Haas 1996, Bowersock 1981, and Jeffreys 2005.
[ back ] 18. Translated by Keeley and Sherrard 1992. The verb ‘to wonder’ does not contain the passive–participatory meaning of daydreaming implied by ‘ερέμβαζαν.’
[ back ] 19. Translation by the author.