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. 

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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.

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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
                woman
doesn’t realize that it matters little to the black demon
whether a Christian is or isn’t cured.

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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 ·

About Me

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