You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
-- CONSTANTINE CAVAFY,
from "The City,"
translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven
His verses have been translated into nearly 75 languages. W.H. Auden, among others, claimed him as an influence on his own work. Few modern poets have made such a claim on the 20th century as Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). His writings insistently confront the collisions of time, history and the fallibility of memory. Perhaps that is why our era has canonized him: As we face the perishing of our own worlds, we better appreciate his anguish and acceptance, his utter lack of self-deceiving sentimentality or conventional emotion as he observes the evanescence of life, pleasure, love.
Cavafy's admirers are many. Though his city, like the one in the lines above, best exists in the mind, the real, ramshackle Alexandria is the city where Cavafy spent most of his life, a Greek survivor in a British-occupied Arab nation. In a neutral Greek stripped of simile, metrical extravagances, easy effects and eventually rhyme, the city itself became Cavafy's richest metaphor, expanded and made eternal in its ephemeral history as a Greek capital, as a Roman backwater and as the contemporary setting for his own fleeting homosexual affairs. His poems of forgotten emperors, diasporic Greeks, Ptolemaic pharaohs and casual pick-ups in the local brothels are tinged with irony, sensuality, Hellenic values and the silence of effacing time.
I had occasion recently to visit Cavafy's Alexandria, to wander the western side of the city, past street side hawkers, vegetable and fruit carts drawn by donkeys, heaps of garbage that filled gutters and potholes and strings of the faded laundry hanging over the chipped and peeling 19th century facades. Ducking into an unpromising doorway in a dirty side street, I came to 4 Sharm el Sheikh, formerly Rue Lepsius, Cavafy's home for the last 25 years of his life, now a museum.
Cavafy nicknamed this street "Rue Clapsius": In his time, a brothel occupied the lowest floor of this four-story building. Step outside on his tiny balcony, into the sudden sunlight from the dark interior of his apartment, and you will see the same sight that greeted Cavafy daily: the rooftop of white St. Sabia, surmounted by a cross, perhaps a block or two away to the right; and, apparently equidistant to the left, the grim rectangular lines of the Greek hospital. Cavafy was hospitalized in the latter during his final months; his funeral was held in the former. Cavafy called them "Temple of the Body" and "Temple of the Soul" and called the nearby bordellos of the Attarin district, the third apex of his Trinity, "Temple of the Flesh."
"Where could I live better?" he asked. It was a small world, a claustrophobic life.
Even this small world has been rendered more precarious by the unpleasant tug-of-war that has enveloped the museum's history of the Greek community, whose roots go back to the city's founding by Alexander the Great. About 132,000 Greeks lived here in Cavafy's time; that number has dwindled to a tenacious 500. Thanks to Nasser's program of land reform and the nationalization of banks and industries, the majority "returned" to Greece, abandoning this once-European city.
The non-Greek landlords--not, apparently, fans of the poet--resisted selling or leasing the spacious six-room apartment for a museum but finally conceded after Greek citizens privately raised 10 million drachmas. The museum, which opened in 1992, recently signed another 10-year lease, but the price has climbed. The owners are now offering to sell the whole building for $1.3 million. It's about 10 times the market value of the property in this squalid part of Alexandria. Can Greece cough up the cash for a museum so far from its borders? Questionable.
Step into the rooms. The apartment is furbished mostly with period re-creations. A few pieces of Cavafy's own furnishings were retrieved from a general dispersal by heirs and are prominently displayed. The large, rusty alarm clock is original, as are the icons over his re-created bed: St. George, a Crucifixion and a few unidentifiable saints in the rosy, Victorian style. A dark Arabic ornamental wooden screen re-creates the images seen in the photos on the wall from Cavafy's time. The apartment, with its heavy curtains of vaguely Oriental and modern design, is dark; Cavafy debated about whether to put in electricity to the end of his days. That pre-electric mood, at least, has been sustained: There is still no phone line to the museum, nor are there postcards or books for sale.
Several rooms are devoted to scholarship--the various language editions of his works, the innumerable scholarly dissections. El Ahran, Egypt's leading newspaper, calls the museum "a cross between a center for Cavafy studies and a re-creation of his home. There is sufficient material here to keep a PhD busy."
The non-academically inclined may content themselves instead by holding his small obaab, the bathroom slippers of dark wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A glass-topped console (an original piece) displays the death mask with what El Ahran calls his "characteristic gnomic expression." Cavafy is stripped of the Proustian dandyism that marks the most familiar of his photos--in plain white plaster, the nose is aggressive and hooked, the expression stern and forbidding, startlingly Dantesque.
Yes, but does this help us understand his poetry?
In a sense, it does. It anchors him. It makes him real--even as his poetry roams the millenniums, even as Alexandria becomes an unambiguously Arab city. Cavafy's poetry takes us to the timeless and universal, but this museum situates him firmly in time and place. However much he wrote about fleeting love and the fall of empires, he returned alone to these modest, petroleum-lamp-lit rooms, to this notoriously uneventful life. Certainly, there is a talismanic charm in holding the small obaab or gazing at the Orthodox icons, an undeniable, mysterious link between a man and the objects that formed his daily routine.
Above all, however, this is a Temple of Work. His "Collected Poems" forms a relatively slim volume, yet he is said to have written 70 poems a year, keeping only four or five and destroying the rest. Inspiration comes and goes, but there are no lucky charms: These rooms remind us that there is no genius but labor. And there is also no choice but labor: " To set your foot upon this step / you must rightfully be a citizen / of the city of ideas," Cavafy's character reminds a frustrated young poet in "First Step," "Coming as far as this is not little; / what you have achieved is great glory."
And if such a temple perishes, in a country where life expectancy is brief and poverty is rife, will anyone care? In a world where market pressures are smashing much grander temples, will it matter? Not terribly. Sadly, it will hardly matter at all. On that scale, it will hardly signify if Cavafy's poetry vanishes, either--or Hardy's or Shelley's or Montale's. Hence, the precariousness of all temples of world culture, everywhere. Hence, the untenable and unenviable position of our cultural gatekeepers.
It's a commonplace of our time to say only text matters, that the poetry is the biography. It is easy for this to become a euphemism to disguise the erosion of literature's role in a culture that has bottomless pockets for technological museums and sports halls of fame. When a nation honors a legacy--however minimally through museums, plaques, statues--it is creating a space for poetry in the culture's "thinking."
The Greek community is making just such a space for us, and for them it matters; it matters passionately. In this city, they still gather on the anniversary of Cavafy's death to read his poems and hear lectures, and they have fought for this museum for decades, a small candle they hold in a larger culture that has extinguished his language and whose homophobia snuffs out even his name from public remembrance. In a sense, it is dispiriting that these particular gatekeepers should have to fight for such a modest place, the only one of its kind in the world and one of the few deliberately preserved chapters of the 20th century here that does not commemorate a palace, a parasite, a revolution or a monster.
Cavafy is one of the best poets to come out of Greece in centuries, and the Greeks here are a salutary reminder that Shakespeares will continue to be born--if not here then elsewhere--an unbroken chain of candles extending through time, around the world.
Who assumes responsibility for this legacy and who will pay for it? Not Alexandria, consumed as it is by a more distant past. Not the Egyptian nation, which is separated from Cavafy by language and a religion. But should the burden then fall entirely on the small Greek Embassy to operate a museum on foreign soil for a world-stature poet? Obviously, there is no answer, but perhaps it's time we start looking. Cavafy was ahead of his time in a number of respects, but especially this one: The last century has seen an avalanche of expatriate poets and expelled writers. What happens when the legacy of a writer must be protected or supported by a foreign government--one whose language (or politics) may make it indifferent to the language of the writer? We face a welter of conflicting international legacies, in a Babel of languages, and the cacophony is likely to rise.
Cavafy received communion in his dying hours, as he succumbed in silence to throat cancer at the age of 70. His final act was to draw a circle on a blank piece of paper, and then put a period in the center. An inner eye. A life circled and rounded to a close. Eternity.
It is also the astronomical symbol for the sun. Is it too fanciful, perhaps, to recall another Greek Egyptian, the last pharaoh in a deteriorating Roman province, whose final act was to die by the asp, a creature sacred to Ra? In so doing, Cleopatra sent a message that would have been recognizable to any Egyptian in the streets: She was going directly to the Sun God. Cavafy, that unique Egyptian-Greek hybrid, would undoubtedly have known the story.
A half-hour walk away in the Chatby district, across a very noisy boulevard, past the cafes where the young men smoke cigarettes and the older ones, in turbans, suck their shishas with almost comic concentration, one finds another crowded municipality: the Greek cemetery, whose white marble monuments, encircled by a high white wall, appear to be the outlines of a miniature city within a city. We have arrived at Cavafy's final residence. Not the sun, after all, but a rectangular white slab, with the simple words, beneath a cross, in Greek letters:
But perhaps, in the end, his final resting place is not beneath this cold rectangular slab either. The Greek word "poet" on the white marble reminds us that his current home is identical with his lifetime residence and that particular address was neither 4 Sharm el Sheikh nor Alexandria itself but rather the mysterious and abiding Greek language. That home, at least, is not subject to rent hikes, dispersion by heirs, legal restrictions or the budget priorities of a nation.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other--
There is no shop for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.