- Waterways, Not WallsCavafy, the Cosmopolitan Poet of Blurred Boundaries
[The cosmopolitan perspective] prefers voluntary to prescribed affiliations, appreciates multiple identities, pushes for communities of wide scope, recognizes the constructed character of ethno-racial groups, and accepts the formation of new groups as a part of the normal life of a democratic society.—David Hollinger, Postethnic America 116
Τὴν χάραξι φρόντισε τεχνικὰ νὰ γίνει …
Τόσοι καὶ τόσοι ϐαρϐαρότεροί μας ἄλλοιἀφοῦ τὸ γράφουν, θὰ τὸ γράψουμε κ’ ἐμεȋς.Καὶ τέλος μὴ ξεχν ς ποὺ ἐνίοτεμᾶς ἔρχοντ’ ἀπὸ τὴν Συρία σοφισταί,καὶ στιχοπλόκοι, κι ἄλλοι ματαιόσπουδοι.῞Ωστε ἀνελλήνιστοι δὲν είμεθα, θαρρä.
As for the inscription, let it be artful …
Since so very many others more barbarianthan we write in this way, then so shall we.And anyway, do not forget how at timessophists have come to us from Syria,and lyricists, and other pretentious poets.So we are hardly un-Greek, I dare say.—Constantine Cavafy, “Philhellene” 21–27
Cavafy the Cosmopolitan
These remarks were initially inspired by UNESCO’s appreciation for the unique place occupied by Constantine Cavafy in the world of modern European poetry, with the declaration of 2013 as the “Year of Cavafy.” Notice that I did not say modern Greek poetry; that is important. For one [End Page 47] of the many things that makes Cavafy’s poetic voice so distinctive is its cosmopolitan quality. I want to begin by reflecting on what that word might mean, both to a reading of Cavafy and to his contemporary readers, who are “hardly un-Greek, I dare say.”
Cosmopolis, of course, is a Greek word and a Greek ideal.1 Born of the remarkable expansion of the Hellenic world after Alexander of Macedon’s conquests and of the political reorganization of the Mediterranean over-seen by his surviving generals, the cosmopolitan ideal was intended to display how Hellenism might serve as a sort of “umbrella culture” over a multiethnic, multicultural, and polyglot society. Cavafy puts the point pithily in a poem he began in 1916 but did not publish until 1931, one devoted to this same post-Alexandrian cultural complex. The poem is entitled “In the Year 200 B. C.” (ΣΤΑ 200 π. Χ.):
And from the marvelous Panhellenic expedition (θαυμάσια πανελλήνιαν ἐκστρατεία),……………………………………… We emerged:The newer, the greater, greek world (ἑλληνικὸς καινούριος κόσμος, μέγας).
We the Alexandrians, the Antiochians,the Seleucids, and the countlessother Greeks of Egypt and of Syria,and those in Media, and Persia, and all the rest:with our wide-ranging leadership,and our flexible policies of integration,and the Greek Language we have in common (Κοινὴν ΄Ελληνικὴ Λαλιὰ)which we brought as far as Bactria, and to the Indians.2(18, 22–31)
As a “citizen of the world,” the cosmopolitan was not tied to any specific place, or tribe, or god. Quite the opposite, in fact. This Hellenic ideal was believed to be exportable, something one could carry along as one resettled elsewhere in the vibrant world defined by the Mediterranean and Black Sea diasporas: “Alexander had founded cities as others throw coins” (Fermor 35). It is telling to notice that in this poem Cavafy did not capitalize the word Greek in his reference to “the greek world,” but rather did so solely in reference to “the Greek Language we have in common.” [End Page 48]
Contrast this conception of a broad and encompassing, and malleable, cultural identity—with its commitment to certain fundamentally cosmopolitan Hellenic institutions such as gymnasia, stadia, theaters, philosophical and rhetorical schools, public assemblies, and courts of law—to the forms of ethnic and/or religious nationalism which were on the ascendant in Cavafy’s later years and which remain of global concern even now. Cosmopolitan Hellenism seems quite different from the “blood and soil” nationalisms that plagued the twentieth century in Europe, and whose painful echoes still linger today. In the Hellenistic period, one could become Greek; one did not need to be born to Greek parents or born in a Greek place. Moreover, one could be Greek quite literally anywhere in the world; you could take your Hellenism with you, in language and myth and story—a Hellenism of the road, as it were.
Consider this delicate and poignant rumination on mortality from Cavafy’s 1918 war-end poem, “In the Little Port”3 (ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΕΠΙΝΕΙΟΝ):
Just a few hours before he died, he whisperedsomething about “home” (οἰκίαν) and “aged parents” (πολὺ γέροντας γονεȋς).But as for who they were, no one knew,nor where his homeland...