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Ladies Portraits from a non-ladies man: Women in the Poetry of C.P. Cavafy


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The title of this essay seems as a fake dilemma or almost sacrilege, since it is well known how Cavafy did not love the "weak" sex, how he rejected the post romantic voluptuousness of his time and how he wasn’t inspired by passions and mythical separations. But how and from what poetic passage Cavafy slips, even "imperceptibly" in the ontological cosmology of Women ? How and by what virtue women gain a place in Cavafy’s ritual of historical construction, how do they fit in this highly erotic gay scenery?

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Ladies Portraits from a non-ladies man: Women in the Poetry of C.P. Cavafy

  1. 1. C.P. Cavafy 1863-1933
  2. 2. C.P. Cavafy (1924)  I am Constantinopolitan by descent, but I was born in Alexandria– in a house on Cherif Street ; I left when I was very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. I visited that country later, when I was older, but for a short while. I have also lived in France. […] I have not been in Greece for many years now. My last employment was that of a worker at a government office belonging to the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I speak English, French and a little Italian.
  3. 3. “As good as great poetry gets”
  4. 4. Cavafy in Chinese 卡瓦菲斯诗集》,【希腊】卡瓦菲斯著,黄灿然译。 重庆:重庆大学出版社, 2012年6月;2013年12月。 (C.P.Cavafy: Collected poems. Translated by Huang Chanran. Chongqing: Chongqing University, 2012/2013. Simplified Chinese.)
  5. 5. Cavafy in Chinese
  6. 6. Cavafy in Japan  Hisao Nakai, “Cavafy, C.P., C.P. Cavafy Complete Poems”, Misuzu Shobo, 1991  C. P. CAVAFY IN TOKYO  TWENTY-ONE ANIMATED MOVIES BASED ON C. P. CAVAFY’S POETRY Student Workshop of the Musashino Art University, Tokyo, Japan, 2013
  7. 7. From late romanticism to poetic maturity: Cavafy’s three categories of poems  Philosophical poems (« poems which, though not precisely philosophical, « provoke thought »)  Historical poems (Hellenistic age «particularly fitting for his characters »)  « Hedonistic » (aesthetic) poems in realistic settings
  8. 8. Desire and the strategy of (homosexual) liberation  The only instrument that a human being has at his disposal for coping with time is memory, and it is his unique, sensual historical memory that makes Cavafy so distinctive. The mechanics of love imply some sort of bridge between the sensual and the spiritual, sometimes to the point of deification; the notion of an afterlife is implicit not only in our couplings, but also in our separations. Paradoxically enough, Cavafy’s poems, in dealing with that Hellenic “special love,” and touching en passant upon conventional broodings and longings, are attempts—or rather recognized failures—to resurrect once-loved shadows.  Joseph Brodsky, « On Cavafy’s side », 1977
  9. 9. Art without Woman  A problem which has arisen in front of me at the beginning of my poetic creation was: Is art without Woman possible at all? I mean, as a “sensual” factor. The woman, you see, is everywhere in all events: in novels, in cinema, in theater, in everything. Even the most trivial things of the everyday life. Lets say, in a soap advertising or a tooth paste, or of a bottle of cognac, they will put a woman on it in order to attract attention. In those cigarettes here you see, they have a woman. Everywhere ... Yet I concluded that art can be made without a woman.  C.P.Cavafy, 1924
  10. 10. Τέχνη χωρίς γυναίκα
  11. 11. Woman and the ancients  Little more than a slight acquaintance with the writings of the authors of antiquity equally sacred and profane, is necessary to convince the student how greatly the ancients were deficient in that spirit of gallantry which is considered in our times an essential part of men’s behaviour towards the fair sex. They have heaped upon women the bitterest invectives and described marriage in colours so black and forbidding that one of the Christian Fathers has gone to the length of terming it an “incongruity”! We have only to congratulate the venerable authority upon his parents’ thinking another way else humanity would run little chance of receiving his teaching.
  12. 12.  Euripides, as one of the sex’s most severe accusers –having won during life the honourable appelative of μισογύνης or the « woman- hater »– claims with justice the place of honour at the head of the rest. « Terrible » says the tragic poet « is the violence of the wars that raiseth a tempest in the sea, terrible is the breath of fire, terrible is the vortex of the torrents, terrible is poverty, and terrible are a thousand other evils; but none is more terrible than woman.
  13. 13. Dunÿa Güzeli Since in this hateful harem I am immured who can see my beauty, in all the world? The jealous foe who casts her poisoned look at me, or vile eunuchs; and the blood freezes in my veins when my contemned husband draws near. Prophet, Master mine, forgive my heart that cries aloud in pain, If only I were Christian! Had I been born a Christian I should be free to show myself to all, both night and day; the men in wonder, women jealously would behold my beauty and agree, – Nature won’t again produce my like. When I set out in my calèche to ride the crowds would fill up Stamboul’s streets
  14. 14. Veizades and his mistress I love thee….but if thou art a humble fisher’s lass, are thine eyes bright, for that, a whit the less, is thy hand not whiter still than milk is white, is thy body with amorous graces not replete? Lineage, name, I utterly forget them all, a slave before you I, the prince’s son, do fall!
  15. 15. Horace in Athens In the bedchamber of the hetaera Leah, Where all is style and wealth, a downy bed a youth, with jasmine upon his hands, is speaking. His fingers are adorned with many gems. and he wears a snow-white silk himation picked out in scarlet, in the eastern fashion. His speech is Attic of the purest strain but a gentle stress in his pronunciation betrays a trace of Tiber and of Latium. The young man is avowing his adoration, and silently she listens, the Athenian, to her lover Horace, so mellifluent; and stupefied, she sees new worlds of Beauty within the passion of the great Italian.
  16. 16. Iacovos Rizos, « A night in Athens », 1897
  17. 17. Oedipus Top of the sphinx is low with teeth and claws stretched and with olin life the wildness. Oedipus fell in the first momentum, the tromaxen first appearance - such a form and such a group He had never imagined until then. But although he akkoumpa both legs Monster stou Oedipus chest, he held fast - and not at all now not afraid anymore, because it has lysis ready and will conquer. Yet, it does not rejoice over this victory. His gaze full of melancholy the Sphinx not I look, looks beyond the narrow road that goes Stas Thebes, and at Colonus will apoteleiosi. And clearly forebode his soul that there will tighten the talk again with more difficult and bigger riddles that have no answers. Gustave Moreau, « Oedipus and The Sphinx », 1864
  18. 18. Salomé Upon a golden charger Salome bears the head of John the Baptist to the young Greek sophist who recoils from her love, indifferent. The young man quips, “Salome, your own head is what I wanted them to bring me.” This is what he says, jokingly. And her slave came running on the morrow. holding aloft the head of the Beloved, its tresses blond, upon a golden plate. But all his eagerness of yesterday the sophist had forgotten as he studied. He sees the dripping blood and is disgusted. He orders the bloodied thing to be taken from him, and he continues his reading of the dialogues of Plato.
  19. 19.  ΣΑΛΩΜΗ /Salome, 1896 Σκηνοθεσία: ΜΑΤΣΟΥΜΟΥΡΑ Σάε / Directed by MATSUMURA Sae Διάρκεια / Running time: 30”  I focused on the sensation created in the last scene, on the contrast between the quiet and intense love of Salome and the cool indifference of the Sophist. I think Salome wanted him to feel her love. So her sacrificed head remains nobly beautiful. I hope that her absence at least makes the Sophist feel bad. Love, Salome.
  20. 20. Cavafy made in Japan
  21. 21. Anna Dalassene In the royal decree that Alexios Komninos put out especially to honor his mother— the very intelligent Lady Anna Dalassini, noteworthy in both her works and her manners— much is said in praise of her. Here let me offer one phrase only, a phrase that is beautiful, sublime: “She never uttered those cold words ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’ ”
  22. 22. Anna Dalassene  In the royal decree that Alexios Komninos  put out especially to honor his mother—  the very intelligent Lady Anna Dalassini,  noteworthy in both her works and her manners—  much is said in praise of her.  Here let me offer one phrase only,  a phrase that is beautiful, sublime:  “She never uttered those cold words ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’ ”
  23. 23. Anna Komnene In the prologue to her Alexiad, Anna Komnina laments her widowhood. Her soul is all vertigo. “And I bathe my eyes,” she tells us, “in rivers of tears.... Alas for the waves” of her life, “alas for the revolutions.” Sorrow burns her “to the bones and the marrow and the splitting” of her soul. But the truth seems to be this power-hungry woman knew only one sorrow that really mattered; even if she doesn’t admit it, this arrogant Greek woman had only one consuming pain: that with all her dexterity, she never managed to gain the throne, virtually snatched out of her hands by impudent John.
  24. 24. Unfaithfullness The First Princess, his mother, the leading Hebrew woman, weeps and laments: Alexandra weeps and laments over the tragedy. But the minute she is alone, her lamenting disappears. She howls, rails, swears, curses. How they’ve fooled her, how they’ve cheated her, how they’ve finally had their way, devastating the house of the Asmonaeans! How did he pull it off, that crook of a king, scheming, crafty, vicious, how did he do it? A plot so fiendish that even Mariamme didn’t sense a thing. Had she sensed something, had she suspected, she would have found a way of saving her brother: she is a queen after all, she could have done something. How those spiteful women, Kypros and Salome, those sluts Kypros and Salome— how they’ll crow now, gloating in secret. And to be powerless, forced to pretend she believes their lies, powerless to go to the people, to go out and shout to the Hebrews, to tell them, tell them how the murder was carried out.
  25. 25. Aristobulus At the marriage of Thetis and Peleus Apollo stood up during the sumptuous wedding feast and blessed the bridal pair for the son who would come from their union. “Sickness will never visit him,” he said, “and his life will be a long one.” This pleased Thetis immensely: the words of Apollo, expert in prophecies, seemed to guarantee the security of her child. And when Achilles grew up and his beauty was the boast of Thessaly, Thetis remembered the god’s words. But one day elders arrived with the news that Achilles had been killed at Troy. Thetis tore her purple robes, pulled off her rings, her bracelets, and flung them to the ground. And in her grief, recalling that wedding scene, she asked what the wise Apollo was up to, where was this poet who holds forth so eloquently at banquets, where was this prophet when they killed her son in his prime. And the elders answered that Apollo himself had gone down to Troy and together with the Trojans had killed her son.
  26. 26. 27th of June 1906 When the Christians brought him to be hanged, the innocent boy of seventeen, his mother, who there beside the scaffold had dragged herself and lay beaten on the ground beneath the midday sun, the savage sun, now would moan and howl like a wolf, a beast, and then the martyr, overcome, would keen “Seventeen years only you lived with me, my child”. And when the took him up the scaffold’s steps and passed the rope around him and strangled him, the innocent boy, seventeen years old, and piteously it hung inside the void, with the spasms of black agony – the youthful body, beautifully wrought– his mother, martyr, wallowed on the ground and now she keened no more about his years : « Seventeen days only, » she keened, « seventeen days only I had joy of you, my child ».
  27. 27. Prayer The sea engulfed a sailor in its depths. Unaware, his mother goes and lights a tall candle before the ikon of our Lady, praying for him to come back quickly, for the weather to be good— her ear cocked always to the wind. While she prays and supplicates, the ikon listens, solemn, sad, knowing the son she waits for never will come back.
  28. 28. Cavafy’s diary  Over the last 10 or 15 days before she died, lets say the 15th of January, after Alekos and John were gone and Paul was going to sleep, I had the habit to read with one or two candles for ½ hour or ¼ till the time goes to 10 1/2. While he was leaving, Alecos was putting out the lamp from the dining room. And my poor mother was always taking notice as I was going to bed and she would say to me from her room "are you going to sleep, Kosti, have you extinguished the candle?" …  Horrible is the remorse of my conscience. What torment had become for her going out. Paul was sulking when he would take her out and myself I was avoiding to do so. It seemed ridiculous to be together. Myself so young (a man of 34 years old) with his mother –even more having into view the various other peculiarities of the character on which its needless to expand. ... But I never desired her death. How many times I was staying awake for a long time, pondering her possible death, and I was even going to her door to make sure she was alive and I would just abstain myself from waking her up to be sure.