- “Made just like me”: The homosexual Cavafy and the poetics of sexuality by Dimitris Papanikolaou
E.M. Forster famously described Cavafy as “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe” (1923, 91). This book unpacks the historical coordinates that [End Page 198] shaped this “angle” and proposes sexuality as a central force in Cavafy’s poetics. Sexuality, the book argues, is indispensable for understanding Cavafy’s modern sensibility, his historical consciousness, the subject’s place in history, the production of bodies, memory, and the dynamics of self and other. Foregrounding Cavafy’s erotic poems, the book explores how they relate to a modern discourse on sexuality. In Cavafy’s time, homosexual lives become a popular topic in European literature, in autobiographical accounts, and in medical-juridical discourses on sexuality (what Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality calls “sexology”; 2012, 5). Cavafy’s “angle to the universe” is formed by renegotiating these discourses, thereby yielding a collective “homo-biography” (215), to use Papanikolaou’s own term, and addressing a future community of people “made just like me.” The latter phrase, which forms the book’s title and was used by Cavafy both in a personal note and in his poem “Hidden Things,” underlines Cavafy’s poetic attempt to draw the contours of a collective experience of homosexuality. But the emphasis could equally be on “made” (καμωμένοι), since the book takes up a Foucauldian notion of the subject as historically constructed through discursive practices of power/knowledge, yet not deprived of agency.
The book’s title demonstratively projects Cavafy as homosexual. The significance of this qualification lies less in indicating the book’s thematic focus and more in marking its analytical lens—its “analytical challenge,” in the author’s words (13). Papanikolaou’s work is equally indebted to Foucault’s poststructuralist thought and to queer theory as it has taken shape since the early 1990s in the works of leading figures like Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The book elaborately presents the latter theoretical framework, which has been amply employed by literary studies in the Anglo-American context for more than two decades, but which has been rather underrepresented in literary criticism in Greece or often received with suspicion as nonserious, minor, or ideologically tainted. Papanikolaou’s application of the categories “gay” and “queer” to Cavafy may strike some as anachronistic. The term “gay” was after all not in circulation as a signifier for homosexuality in Cavafy’s time (14); nor was, of course, the term “queer”—an offensive term for homosexuals that was affirmatively reappropriated by queer theory to theorize deviant subjectivities and positionalities of resistance vis-a-vis the normative. But the book endorses this “productive anachronism” (14) as essential in unraveling both Cavafy’s relationality to an emerging discourse on homosexual subjectivity in his time and his work’s importance in the articulation of homosexual identities throughout the twentieth century. As a strategy, this anachronism is also guided and justified by the nonlinear temporality of Cavafy’s own work, in which past, present, and future constantly (re)shape each other. In line with Cavafy’s self-description as a “poet of the future generations” (Cavafy 2010, vii), his work invites its reading through “preposterous” theoretical vocabularies—a term I use here, following Mieke Bal, for an act of reversal that “puts the chronologically first (pre-) as an aftereffect behind (post-) its later recycling” (Bal 1999, 6–7).
The book converses with different interlocutors: Cavafy and his writings, Cavafy’s critics, and homosexual readers who found in his poetry ways to tell their own story. The book also scrutinizes the “angles” from which traditional criticism in Greece framed Cavafy’s homosexuality, trying to pathologize or desexualize it. Papanikolaou differentiates his approach from this tradition and places his book in a line of studies on Cavafy’s homosexuality circulating in the English-speaking world since roughly [End Page 199] the 1980s, such as those by Margaret Alexiou (1983, 1985), Vrasidas Karalis (2003), Christopher Robinson (1988, 2005), George Syrimis (2003), and James Faubion...