Death in Alexandria, 340 A.D.: Cavafy

Last Friday night at home, working off the buzz I’d inherited from the four beers I’d guzzled during my company’s happy hour (literally a one hour-long affair, spread on the credenza near the hallway), I logged into my twitter to tweet about a dream I had the night before in which I wrote a tidy tome analyzing Paul Celan’s poems using sabermetrics (the results of my book proved that - post VOPR, UZR and adjusted OPS via dream logic - Celan was more than a little overrated, which made me a pariah with both the literati and baseball statisticians). Just before logging out, however, I saw @arachnomaria's link to Cavafy's stunning poem, "Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.," translated by Daniel Mendelsohn. The poem, I guess, can ostensibly be taken as an elegy, except there’s nothing much elegiac about it on the surface. 


In the poem, a youth named Myres has died. He was a Christian in Alexandria during a period when the city, after Constantine’s rule, was undergoing a tidal religious transformation - in the beginning of the fourth century, Alexandria was predominantly pagan; there were laws and injunctions which persecuted Christians for their faith unto death. Then, during and after Constantine, Alexandria increasingly and en masse converted to Christianity, until it was the pagans who became marginalized, culminating in the destruction of the Serapeum led by Theophilus. (I have to note and strongly recommend: Daniel Mendelsohn’s annotations to his Cavafy translation, by the way, serve as excellent guide to Cavafy’s series of poems set in Alexandria of this era.)

In Cavafy’s poem, the “I” is a pagan friend or lover (?) of Myres, and the final stanza is a stunning testament of mourning which summons the personally emotional, metaphysical and religio-political sense of loss, all at once with chilling realism. By the closing lines of the poem, “I” is observing the diligent rituals of Christian funeral rites, listening to the priests talk of Myres’ soul -

And all of a sudden I was seized by a queer
impression. Vaguely, I had the feeling that
Myres was going far away from me;
had a feeling that he, a Christian, was being united
with his own, and that I was becoming
a stranger to him, very much a stranger; I sensed besides
a certain doubt coming over me: perhaps I had been fooled
by my passion, had always been a stranger to him.—
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.

This poem is bar none the best non-Christian Christian poem ever. The perspective is profoundly pagan, but that stark realization of “I,” that it may be the Christian faith which will ultimately estrange “I” from the memory of Myres… There’s a deliberate and brilliant blurring of boundaries between the pagan and the Christian - the perspective of the poem repudiates Christianity, but the ultimate confession does not deny Christianity’s darkly real hold on the “I” of the poem, over the memory of Myres, and finally ends up fundamentally coloring his entire relationship with Myres, threatening his lasting remembrance of him.


The sense of mourning, as expressed by Cavafy, is multivalent. In historical context, this voice seems all the more sad and desperate, backed up against the wall. This diary entry from Roland Barthes’ The Mourning Diary flashes across my mind for some reason now (tr. Richard Howard) -

December 9

Mourning: indisposition, a situation with no possible blackmail.

It’s just a hopeless fight to preserve the memory of the lost, which, in the end, has to do with our stupid desire to bring back those whom we’ve lost with futile rites and gestures: a syncretic and universalist foolishness, equally Christian and pagan at once. Cavafy expresses this very foolishness of our rituals and desires in another poem called “Cleitus’s Illness” set in Alexandria of the same era. In this poem, an old housemaid tries to bring Cleitus, a privileged Christian youth, back from the verge of death and to health by chanting litanies to a pagan idol she once worshiped as a girl, in a Christian home of her master, no less. Here’s how the poem ends -

She secretly takes some cakes, and wine, and honey.
She brings them before the idol. She chants as many
litanies as she recalls: the bits from either end, the middles. The foolish
doesn’t realize that it matters little to the black demon
whether a Christian is or isn’t cured.


Yet, it is because of this foolish endeavor that the maidservant has our sympathies, that she moves us. All the more moving because no matter the futility of her vigilance, there is still a sense of life in her petition. Cavafy. Just one day before the entry on mourning which I quoted above, Barthes made another entry on mourning -

(Images, top to bottom: by Alexey Titarenko, Roland Barthes’ handwriting from a “Mourning Diary” entry, a detail from Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuonni)

19 April 2012 ·

The Argo: Hisaji Hara & Balthus.

I haven’t been able to check my tumblr with any great frequency recently, but whenever I do, I make a note to visit my friend gould’s fabulous japonisme tumblr, Empire des signes. And that’s where I stumbled upon Hisaji Hara's beautiful studies of some of Balthus' signal works.

Wonderful, no? The drawn quality of the lines’ figurative contours and shadowplay, the hentai-inflected mannerism in Hara’s composed scenes which nevertheless stops shy - always - just before puncturing the formal poise of each scene. Seen through Hara’s Well-Tempered Camera, each scene seems weightless and weighted at the same time. Perfectly erotic, in other words, both uninhibited and repressed.

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes compares his work space in Paris with another in the country, and declares them identical even though they do not share any common object -

Why? Because the arrangement of the tools is the same: it is the structure of the space which constitutes its identity.

This must be the reason why, at least to me, the photographer William Gedney’s sketch of a woman in a Vuillard painting corresponds so perfectly to the original referent he saw in a museum, years prior? Wittgenstein said it plainer in Philosophical Investigations -

What makes my image of him into an image of him?

Not its looking like him.

In fact, I had this perfect moment of recognition while walking to work this morning. I was walking under a scaffolding of a building near the subway exit. The noise from the construction was deafening but strangely not unpleasant. The morning sunlight filtered in through the gaps in the scaffolding. A kid screamed for his toy in the distance. And briefly, standing at the intersection waiting for the traffic light to change, I recognized that I had been in that space once before. I was with [  ], looking at an apartment building called The Beethoven near her art school to see if we should sign the lease. We were under a scaffolding, and the light slanting in through the interstices of that makeshift space was so perfectly etiolated, that it had seemed to us then that all kinds of things in our future were destined to be blessed, haloed by that light. It was a spring day in Baltimore and there were children shouting to be heard above the din of construction. The Argo was docked nearby, awake and ashore at the Inner Harbor.

20 March 2012 ·

161 plays

Sonata for Violin and Pianoforte in A Minor, WoO 2 - II. Intermezzo.

Steven Isserlis (cello); Dénes Várjon (piano)

On the cello transcription of Schumann’s F-A-E, Roland Barthes, tree alphabets and Heine at phonofranca:

Attached file is the cello transcription of the F-A-E Intermezzo from Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 3; I’d previously posted my thoughts on the original version for the violin. Steven Isserlis, who is as spirited a defender of late Schumann as anyone out there, transcribed it himself and plays it. Dénes Várjon, who accompanied Carolin Widmann’s violin in my previous post, accompanies Isserlis here, as well. A nice touch. Now I can’t imagine those supple, inaugural triplets played by anyone else.

I still prefer the original violin version, but through Isserlis’ Stradivarius, the musical line gains a lonelier lexicon. Schumann in his deepest melancholy makes me think of Roland Barthes, and tonight is no exception. As the notes sound their mourning alphabets through Isserlis’ cello, F-A-E, my thoughts turn to Barthes’ brief reflection on palm trees, alphabets and Heine: Frei aber einsam. From Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (tr. Richard Howard) -

According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets. Of all the tree letters, the palm is the loveliest. And of writing, profuse and distinct as the burst of its fronds, it possesses the major effect: falling back.

A hemlock tree stands lonely. 

Far north on a barren height.

He drowses; ice and snowflakes 

wrap him in sheets of white

He dreams about a palm tree

That far in an eastern land

Languishes lonely and silent

Upon the parching sand.

(Image by Qiu)

(Source: phonofranca)

9 March 2012 ·

209 plays

Gesänge der Frühe - 1. Im ruhigen Tempo

Maurizio Pollini

There are people whose affinities and curiosities closely parallel my own. Terry, as I mentioned previously, is one of them. Gould is another. msodradek? Remarkably so. A few days ago, I posted something on Roland Barthes’ fondness for Schumann. It turns out that msodradek also had noted Barthes’ love for Schumann in one of her earlier posts, via a comment made by Cees Nooteboom -

I remember that soon after the death of Roland Barthes I was driving in the mountains of the Haute-Savoie while I listened to a repeat broadcast of a program in which famous people asked for their favorite music to play. Barthes chose the Études by Schumann. It was magnificent music, there in my lonely car among the dark mountains. Afterwards, the interviewer asked Barthes to explain why he liked that music. My ears perked up. Someone I admired because of his brilliant verbal formulations was about to do something I could never do myself: to explain why a piece of music is beautiful. For a while I only heard my windshield wipers. Then the voice of the dead man said that he thought it was impossible to explain, because that music corresponded to all that was inexplicable in his own inner self. I felt the joy of the coward, and then I realized that I had learned a very simple lesson: sometimes, like a guided missile, a work of art targets precisely that place in your soul where the same kind of mystery it expresses lies. You know what the mystery is about; platonically, it is possible that some day you will find the formula to express it, but you will have to keep looking, and, as long as you don’t find it, you should not try to unveil the mystery, and certainly not to offend it by devising a clumsy formula. Looking, listening, reading, that’s what always works.

I wonder which of Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques Barthes had chosen? As I mentioned, Barthes had wanted to write a biography of Schumann - this would have been so great. But Nooteboom’s realization above - that a work of art targets the place in your soul where the same kind of mystery it expresses lies - this tracks incredibly closely with what Barthes says about how he feels about the first Gesänge der Frühe, Songs of the Dawn, which he said “accords with both [his] mother’s being and [his] grief at her death” (from Camera Lucida). 

Attached is Maurizio Pollini’s rendition of that very piece Barthes talks about, the musical equivalent of his “Winter Garden Photograph.” As you’ll see, it won’t be difficult to imagine why Barthes had called the piece his Winter Garden. In my estimation, Gesänge der Frühe stands alongside Schumann’s best works written for piano. This is important to emphasize, because there are many detractors of late music by Schumann, including critics like Andrew Clements of The Guardian UK. This is absurd, in my view. I had the occasion to correspond with the cellist Steven Isserlis to talk about late Schumann a few months ago, especially regarding his transcription of the F-A-E Violin Sonata for cello, and he likewise finds this view absurd as well. 

Schumann jumped into the composition of Gesänge der Frühe immediately after completing the third violin sonata. In his notes for Gesänge der Frühe, enigmatically enough, he scribbled “Diotima.” This may well refer to Plato’s Diotima in the Symposium, but I believe it’s more likely that Schumann was thinking of Hölderlin’s Diotima. Diotima appears in Hölderlin’s Hyperion, and in other poems. Hölderlin based the character on Susette Gontard, a married woman with whom he was in love. Difficult to not think about Clara Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, who was in love with Clara all his life.

Before I get further winded, I hope you will merely listen and enjoy. The entire, 5-part (but short) Gesänge der Frühe is marvelous. This opening piece, so loved by Barthes, is so calmly plaintive. Seemingly simple, in D major, but it unfolds like an introvert’s Chorale - in strange, polyphonic hymn, emotionally complex and fragile, with dissonant middle voices tempering its luminous beauty. It’s perhaps a fragmentary shorthand of a Requiem, written by the composer, a hesitant gesture to come to terms with his life, his Love, before dying.

Hence “Diotima.” Last year, when I told msodradek about this connection between Schumann and Hölderlin’s Diotima, she found it remarkable. And told me that it called to her mind a late elegy that Hölderlin wrote to Diotima, “Menon’s Lament for Diotima,” and quoted from the third section from the poem. I do believe that these words correspond to Schumann’s music, verbatim (tr. Michael Hamburger) -

Changing and warring, so Time over us mortal men’s heads

Rushes past up above, but not in the eyes of the blessed ones,

Nor of lovers, to whom different life is vouchsafed.

For all these, all the days and years of the heavenly planets,

Diotima, round us closely, for ever, conjoined…

17 June 2011 ·

My Mom. Barthes. Late Schumann.

My mom visited last week. Each time, I notice that she is older, and somehow, more childlike. I was a terrible son to her for probably 98% of my life, and I am easily underestimating. She even thought I was dead for a while, during the period in which I’d severed all communication with my friends and family… I think it was for about three years. She later told me that the only way she learned that I was alive was via a jaywalking ticket addressed to my name which arrived in the mailbox. 

Roland Barthes started to keep a loose Mourning Diary the day after his mother died in October, 1977. It was less a diary than a series of somberly lyrical, aphoristic notes, scribbled on index card-sized sheets of paper. From it -

Immortality. I’ve never understood that strange, Pyrrhonic position; I just don’t know. 

At the JFK Airport, I learned that my mom’s red-eye back to LA had been further delayed, so I decided to wait with her. She talked about her friends from her catholic church, their children, but my mind kept wandering to Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary. By no means is my mom a singular influence on me the way Barthes’ mother was to him. Still, when Barthes writes -

How strange: her voice, which I knew so well, and which is said to be the very texture of memory (“the dear inflection…”), I no longer hear. Like a localized deafness…

- I can imagine such a deafness. Or at least I thought I could, as I saw my mom fumble her way through the security. I could see her smile, as she waved good-bye, small in the distance, finally.

On the LIRR back to the Penn Station, I caught myself whistling late Schumann in the empty car, almost as if under a compulsion. Probably isn’t too surprising, as some of you probably have read me obsess over late Schumann here & there. Still, it suited my mood perfectly. I took out my iPod and put my headphones on, clicked on Maurizio Pollini playing Gesänge der Frühe, one of the very last pieces he wrote before he died in an asylum, completely mad. Then something flashed through my head: Barthes, for some reason, had wanted to write a biography of Schumann. But there was something else. Something else… I came home and thumbed through Camera Lucida, and there it was: Barthes talks about a particular photograph taken of his mother and her brother, taken in a winter garden when she was only five. Barthes writes that he “studied the little girl and at last rediscovered [his] mother,” and refers to the picture as the Winter Garden Photograph. Then he says -

… this Winter Garden Photograph was for me like the last music Schumann wrote before collapsing, that first Gesänge der Frühe which accords with both my mother’s being and my grief at her death…

(All translations are by Richard Howard; last image by Bas jan Ader)

13 June 2011 ·

About Me

books. baseball. LPs. 45s. 78s. City. alcohol. ghosts.