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Wednesday 29 May 2013

Words on Wednesday: Kavafy Koncludes.

Here are some 'final words' from C.P. Cavafy, all these poems come from towards the end of his life, but I don't think this is the last we'll see from Cavafy on this blog. 

I'm very pleased to have found the work of Constantine Cavafy and expect I'll return to his poetry repeatedly. One of the great benefits of working in a library when one loves books and literature is the occasional, quite accidental, discovery of some previously unknown writer.

Early published works (and short Biography)

Productive 'middle' period

A brief word about the excellent translation in my edition of C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (London: Catto & Windus, 1998), compared to some other translations (Cavafy wrote in Greek) Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard seem to have grasped the straightforward language abundant with wit and dry humour that can be passed over, focusing too much on his dramatic flourishes or classical forms.


Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
what the Delphic Oracle had to say:
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
Plenty of time to enjoy himself.
He’s thirty. The deadline
the god has given him is quite enough
to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome—
but wonderfully tired from that journey
devoted entirely to pleasure:
theatres, garden-parties, stadiums...
evenings in the cities of Achaia...
and, above all, the sensual delight of naked bodies...

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army—
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.


I sit in a mood of reverie.
I've brought to Art desires and sensations:
things half-glimpsed,
faces or lines, certain indistinct memories
of unfulfilled love affairs. 

Let me submit to Art:
Art knows how to shape forms of Beauty,
almost imperceptibly completing life,
blending impressions, blending day with day.


For two years he studied with Ammonios Sakkas,
but he was bored by both philosophy and Sakkas.

Then he went into politics.
But he gave that up. That Prefect was an idiot,
and those around him solemn, officious nitwits:
their Greek—poor fools—barbaric.

After that he became
vaguely curious about the Church: to be baptized
and pass as a Christian. But he soon
let that one drop: it would certainly have caused a row
with his parents, ostentatious pagans,
and right away they would have stopped—

something too horrible to contemplate—
their extremely generous allowance.

But he had to do something. He began to haunt
the corrupt houses of Alexandria,
every secret den of debauchery.

Here he was fortunate:
he’d been given an extremely handsome figure.
and he enjoyed the divine gift.

His looks would last
at least another ten years. And after that?
Maybe he’ll go back to Sakkas.
Or if the old man has died meanwhile,
he’ll find another philosopher or sophist:
there’s always someone suitable around.

Or in the end he might possibly return
even to politics—commendably remembering
the traditions of his family,
duty toward the country,
and other resonant banalities of that kind.


He's lost him completely. And he now tries to find
his lips in the lips of each new lover,
he tries in the embrace of each new lover
to convince himself that it’s the same young man,
that it’s to him he gives himself.

He lost him completely, as though he never existed.
He wanted, his lover said, to save himself
from the tainted, sick form of sexual pleasure,
the tainted, shameful form of sexual pleasure.
There was still time, he said, to save himself.

He lost him completely, as though he never existed.
Through fantasy, through hallucination,
he tries to find his lips in the lips of other young men,
he longs to feel his kind of love once more.

DAYS OF 1896 (1927)

He's become completely degraded. His erotic tendencies,
condemned and strictly forbidden
(but innate for all that) were the cause of it:
society was totally narrow-minded.
He'd gradually lost what little money he had,
then his social standing, then his reputation.
Nearly thirty, he'd never worked a full year—
at least not at a legitimate job.
Sometimes he earned enough to get by
acting the go-between in deals considered shameful.
He ended up the type likely to compromise you thoroughly
if you were seen around with him often.

But this wasn't the whole story—that wouldn't be fair;
the memory of his beauty deserves better.
There is another angle; seen from that
he appears attractive, appears
a simple, genuine child of love,
without hesitation putting,

the pure sensuality of his pure flesh
above his honor and reputation.

Above his reputation? But society,
totally narrow-minded, had all its values wrong.


Said an aesthete: “What distillation from magic herbs
can I find—what distillation, following the recipe
of ancient Greco-Syrian magicians—that will bring back to me 

for one day (if its power doesn’t last longer), 
or even for a few hours,
my twenty-third year,
bring back to me my friend of twenty-two,
his beauty, his love.

What distillation, following the recipe
of ancient Greco-Syrian magicians, can be found
to bring back also—as part of this return to the past—
the little room we shared.”

ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF ANTIOCH (1932-33) Unpublished

We in Antioch were astonished when we heard
what Julian was up to now.

Apollo had made things clear to him at Daphni:
he didn’t want to give an oracle (as though we cared!),
he didn’t intend to speak prophetically 

unless his temple at Daphni was purified first.
The nearby dead, he declared, got on his nerves.

There are many tombs at Daphni.
One of those buried there
was the triumphant and holy martyr Vavylas,
wonder and glory of our church.

It was him the false god hinted at, him he feared.
As long as he felt him near he didn’t dare
pronounce his oracle: not a murmur.
(The false gods are terrified of our martyrs.)

The unholy Julian got worked up,
lost his temper and shouted: “Raise him, carry him out,
take him away immediately, this Vavylas.
You there, do you hear? He gets on Apollo’s nerves.
Grab him, raise him at once,
dig him out, 
take him wherever you want,
take him away, throw him out. I'm not fooling around.
Apollo said the temple has to be purified.”

We took it, the holy relic, and carried it elsewhere.
We took it, we carried it away in love and in honor.

And hasn’t the temple done brilliantly since!
In no time at all a colossal fire broke out, 
a terrible fire,
and both the temple and Apollo burned to the ground.

Ashes the idol: to be thrown out with the garbage.

Julian blew up, and he spread it around—
what else could he do?—that we, the Christians,
had set the fire. Let him say so.
It hasn’t been proved. Let him say so.
The essential point is: he blew up.

Sakkas (d. 243 A.D.)
The 'Socrates of Neoplatonism', who taught in Alexandria and who is said to have had Longinus, Herennius, Plotinus, and the two Origens among his disciples.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Library Tales: Observations II

The irony that the book 'Successful Dissertations and Theses' was greasy.

I've seen my first students wearing jeggings in the library. This is not a good thing.

If you're going to make the effort to come into the library for 9am, I'd suggest you don't bother spending all your time; listening to music, watching videos, texting and chatting with your friends. My advice, just stay in bed a little longer next time.

Calling your book 'A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about ... x' or 'Discovering statistics using IBM SPSS statistics : (and sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll)' doesn't make you sound fun or witty, it just makes you an arse.

On discovering the book 'Globalization and Cultural Trends in China' by Liu Kang, I wondered what books other computer games characters might write...

Liu Kang, Academic

Liu Kang, Shaolin Monk

Friday 17 May 2013

Library Tales: Interestingly titled II

The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don't trust anyone under 30)

A History of Orgies by Burgo Partridge

Amazons and Military Maids: Woman who dressed as men in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness

How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians

Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness: An Illustrated History of Drugs in the Movies

An Anglo-Norman rhymed Apocalypse: With commentary [followed by a dissertation on the seven deadly sins]

The Antichrist's Lewd Hat

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda

Against the Grain: An Autobiography by Boris Yeltsin
The Irony! I thought he was very much for 'The Grain'

Thursday 16 May 2013

Quotes worth saving (15): Pico Della Mirandola (1463 - 1494)

Nec certam sedem, nec propriam faciem, nec munus ullum peculiare tibi dedimus, o Adam, ut quam sedem, quam faciem, quae munera tute optaveris, ea, pro voto, pro tua sententia, habeas et possideas. Definita ceteris natura intra praescriptas a nobis leges coercetur. Tu, nullis angustiis coercitus, pro tuo arbitrio, in cuius manu te posui, tibi illam praefinies. Medium te mundi posui, ut circumspiceres inde commodius quicquid est in mundo. Nec te caelestem neque terrenum, neque mortalem neque immortalem fecimus, ut tui ipsius quasi arbitrarius honorariusque plastes et fictor, in quam malueris tute formam effingas…
- Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oratio de hominis dignitate

I have given you, O Adam, no fixed abode, and no visage of your own, nor any special gift, in order that whatever place or aspect or talents you yourself will have desired, you may have and possess them wholly in accord with your desire and your own decision. Other species are confined to a prescribed nature, under laws of my making. No limits have been imposed upon you, however; you determine your nature by you own free will, in the hands of which I have placed you. I have placed you at the world’s very center, that you may the better behold from this point whatever is in the world. And I have made you neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, like a free and able sculptor and painter of yourself, you may mold yourself wholly in the form of your choice.
- Oration on the Dignity of Man

[From the epigraph of 'Zeno of Bruges' aka 'L'Oeuvre au noir' by Marguerite Yourcenar]

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Words on Wednesday: Kavafy, Kontinues...

Here are some 'later' poems by Constantine Cavafy (1863 - 1933). Although they are not his 'last' work, so instead it probably counts as his 'middle period', coming from a productive time when Cavafy was in his late forties and into his fifties and publishing much more regularly. 

This is part two of three collections of some of my favourites of his poetry.

Unlike his earlier works, Cavafy is now (rather, in this period) much more open and eloquent about his sexuality. 

As before, all these poems come from 'C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems' Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (London: Catto & Windus, 1998)

THE CITY (1910)

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart - like something dead - lies buried.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. 

You'll walk the same streets, grow old 
in the same neighbourhoods, will turn grey in these same houses.
You'll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there's no ship for you, there's no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.


Even if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

“For the gods perceive future things, ordinary people things in the present, but the wise perceive things about to happen.”
Philostratos, Life of Apollonios of Tyana, viii, 7.
Ordinary mortals know what’s happening now,
the gods know what the future holds
because they alone are totally enlightened.
Of what’s to come the wise perceive
things about to happen.

Sometimes during moments of intense study
their hearing’s troubled: the hidden sound
of things approaching reaches them,
and they listen reverently, while in the street outside
the people hear nothing whatsoever. 


Try to keep them, poet,
those erotic visions of yours,
however few of them there are that can be stilled.
Put them, half-hidden, in your lines.
Try to hold them, poet,
when they come alive in your mind
at night or in the noonday brightness.

I'VE LOOKED SO MUCH . . . (1917)

I’ve looked on beauty so much
that my vision overflows with it.

The body’s lines. Red lips. Sensual limbs.
Hair as though stolen from Greek statues,
always lovely, even uncombed,
and falling slightly over pale foreheads.
Figures of love, as my poetry desired them
.... in the nights when I was young,
encountered secretly in those nights. 

BODY, REMEMBER . . . (1918)

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires that glowed openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembled for you in the voices -
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too - how they glowed,
remember, in eyes that looked at you,
remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Quotes worth saving (14): Blanchot on Friendship

Blanchot (left) with his friend, Levinas (right)

Maurice Blanchot, L'Amitié (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), 328: 
Friendship, this relationship without dependency, without scenes, yet full of life's simplicity, implies an acknowledgement of mutual strangeness that does not allow us to speak of our friends but only to them, not turn them into subjects of conversation (or articles) but the movement of understanding by which, when speaking to us, even in situation of greatest familiarity, they reserve an infinite distance, which is the fundamental separation by which that which separates becomes relation.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Words on Wednesday: C.P. Cavafy

I. Brief Biography

Constantine Cavafy was an Anglo-Greek poet born in Egypt in 1863. The family moved to England when Constantine was nine after his father died. The eldest brother George took over the family business (Constantine was the youngest of nine), but performed very poorly and after seven years in Liverpool and London, Constantine returned to Alexandria, Egypt, when the firm was liquidated in 1879.

Cavafy lived the rest of his life in Alexandria, working first as a journalist, but later worked as a civil servant for thirty years in the Ministry of Public Works.  He died of cancer of the larynx, at the age of seventy on his birthday indeed, in 1933.

Although he published 154 poems while alive, it has been after his death that his reputation has grown (certainly in the anglophone world). He wrote and published the majority of his work in later life (after 1911). His best known poem is probably Ithaca (1911) based on the Homeric epic and many of his poems also feature mythic and historical characters and places from Greek antiquity.

II. Some early poems

WALLS (1896)

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,

they've built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can't think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind -
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they've closed me off from the outside world.

CANDLES (1899)

Days to come stand in front of us 

like a row of burning candles-
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days past fall behind us,

a gloomy line of burnt-out candles;
the nearest are still smoking,
cold, melted, and bent.

I don't want to look at them: their shape saddens me,

and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my burning candles.

I don't want to turn, don't want to see, terrified,

how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly one more dead candle joins another.


 Inside  their worn, tattered bodies
sit the souls of old men.
How unhappy the poor things are
and how bored by the pathetic life they live.
How they tremble for fear of losing that life, and how much 
they love it, those befuddled and contradictory souls,
sitting - half comic and half tragic -
inside their old, threadbare skins.


In these dark rooms where I live out empty days,
I wander round and round
trying to find the windows.
It will be a great relief when a window opens.
But the windows aren't there to be found -
or at least I can't find them. And perhaps
it's better if I don't find them.
Perhaps the light will prove another tyranny.
Who knows what new things it will expose?


What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What's the point of senators making laws now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
     He's even got a scroll to give him,
     loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

     Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
     And some of our men just in from the border say
     there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people 
were a kind of solution.

Quotes worth saving (13): Livro do desassossego por Bernardo Soares

The countryside is wherever we are not.
There and only there do real shadows and real trees exist.

- Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet