Constantine P. Cavafy, in his poem “I Went,” dares to drink the strong beverages preferred by the “champions of pleasure.” This phrase makes me think of the first of Cavafy’s English admirers, E.M. Forster, who wrote of the “holiness of direct desire”; here I am using champion in its sense of advocate for a cause rather than trophy-winning performer, and one imagines that Forster, whose advocacy for direct desire was circumscribed by the need, in works published during his lifetime, to frame everthing in hetero terms, must have been wowed by Cavafy’s frankness.
Cavafy is probably best known for his wistful evocations of youthful fun—I like to think of him as the Greek-Egyptian Bob Seger. The following example is gender-neutral, but that is not a rule with CP:
The key here, for me, is the balance of the two parts, the grubby, raucous setting and the passion that still heats up the empty house of the remembering poet. This poem might serve as an antidote to the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels that so alarmed Prufrock (and presumably Eliot, who also seemed very worried that people would have sex after listening to phonograph records).
Often, though, Cavafy goes beyond a celebration of Eros to make special artistic claims for the pleasure of youthful male beauty:
|In An Old Book|
|Forgotten between the leaves of an old book—
almost a hundred years old—
I found an unsigned watercolor.
It must have been the work of a powerful artist.
Its title: “Representation of Love.”
“…love of extreme sensualists” would have been more to the point.
Because it became clear as you looked at the work
that common morality calls shameless.
Having been told by society that his kind of desire is not like that of “healthy” people, CP responds, “You are right, my Eros is separate, such ideal beauty is only meant for us extreme sensualists.” It is obviously true that not every guy gets as much pleasure from looking at sexy young men as CP does, but I am skeptical about the idea that he is describing a different kind of pleasure, and that his is inspired by the “ideal” nature of the young man’s beauty. What he is describing sounds like the Eros of a cople of billion guys who like to look at sexy pictures. You can search the Internet and decide whether this pleasure requires ideal beauty or great artistic talent.
I do not wish to deprive CP of his pleasure, but turning pleasure into a cult of youthful beauty has its price. His habit, here and elsewhere, of describing beauty as designed or shaped or destined for the enjoyment of the observer is, I guess, OK when he’s talking about pictures, but becomes creepy when he says that a certain young man’s exquisite appearance was wasted because nobody made a statue or painting of him. And the cult of Hyacinthus blinds him to other human possibilities, as in “Grey,” where he misses a lover of 20 years ago but consoles himself that the lover’s face would now be “ruined” anyway, so perhaps it’s just as well to have only the memory. What I see in this is the destruction wrought when people have no opportunity or social framework for stable relationships.
The fetishizing of youthful beauty also colors Cavafy’s ideas about art. In “Before Time Altered Them,” a couple must part due to economic circumstances:
It was circumstances. Or maybe Fate
appeared as an artist and parted them now,
before their feeling died out completely, before Time altered them:
the one seeming to remain for the other always what he was,
the exquisite young man of twenty-four.
Of course feeling will die out when they are no longer 24…but especially interesting is Fate as an artist. What does this mean? Given CP’s obsession elsewhere with preserving young men’s appearance in visual art, I think it means that Fate has allowed these two to keep their exquisite mental images of each other intact. But making images of beautiful things—is that what art is about? Is that what Vermeer or Caravaggio or Shakespeare were doing, finding something beautiful and preserving it? It’s not what Cavafy does either, when he’s doing something worthwhile.
And he is often doing something worthwhile. I have not touched on his historical poems, some of which are quite compelling. Perhaps I’ll write another piece about them, but the link below will let you explore for yourself.