Monday, September 11, 2006

A Dose of Cavafy, After Overindulgence in Kant, Gay Political Correctness, and other Austerities

This morning, after several days of obnoxiously rigorous and dower intellectual activity, I went to the beach with an old friend, a well worn volume of Cavafy’s poems. It is one of the last glorious days of summer (Such splendorous crystalline perfection can’t last much longer.), and I could think of no one better to guide me along the brilliantly lit strand decorated with the languorous forms of those sun bronzed, fine muscled young men Italy seems to produce in prodigious abundance. Venice isn’t, after all, so far from Alexandria.

Cavafy is arguably our greatest homosexual poet. There are, of course, other great poets who happened to be homosexual (Auden, García Lorca, Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, just to name a few), but I can’t think of any other great poet for whom the transformation of homosexual love into poetry played nearly as important a role. But how can I extol the pleasures of Cavafy after even partially ascribing to the austerities of Kantian ethics, beating the drum for monogamy, and urging us all to be out, proud and comfortable with our sexual orientation?

Cavafy’s voice comes from a world totally outside such considerations. As Auden says in his introduction to the major English language translation of Cavafy’s collected poems, “The erotic world he depicts is one of casual pick ups and short- lived affairs….At the same time he refuses to pretend that his memories of moments of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.” So much for Kant. And for Cavafy, homosexual pleasure almost always has an undertaste of shame and the savour of forbidden fruit. So much for our liberated gay sensibilities and political correctness.

But who can resist lines such as:

The fulfillment of their deviate, sensual delight
Is done. They rose from the mattress,
And they dress hurriedly without speaking.
They leave the house separately, furtively; and as
They walk somewhat uneasily on the street, it seems
as if they suspect that something about them betrays
into what kind of bed they fell a little while back.

(From “Their Beginning,” trans. Rae Dalven)

It seems that no matter how Kantian or post- Stonewallian we are, Cavafy’s lines go straight to our innermost souls. He speaks to the part of us that exists outside (or perhaps prior to) our sense of morality or social awareness. He is direct and honest about his feelings, his longings, his shame, and he asks, demands, the same of the reader. If the reader denies he ever had such feelings, the poetry has nothing to say to him. In that sense, Cavafy is supremely Kantian. There is no manipulation, no seduction of the reader. He speaks of shame, but is not ashamed to do so. He speaks to and evokes our deepest humanity. (But somehow, I still don’t think he would be Kant’s favorite poet.)

This sense of humanity goes beyond our sexual orientation. Cavafy’s honesty and comfort with who he is speaks not just to gay men but rather to a much wider public. Despite their directness and sensuality, his homosexual poems don’t seem to evoke any embarrassment on the part of straights. Like the case of the Barbarini Faun I discussed in an earlier blog, Cavafy provides another lesson in the power of being comfortable in one’s own skin.

11 Comments:

Blogger Ur-spo said...

I don't know this Cavafy, but I do love a good poem. I will have to check him out.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

The Rae Dalven translation (recommended) of the "Complete Poems" is available (new and used) through Amazon.

11:44 PM  
Blogger farmboyz said...

The lines you quote do not contain the smallest shred of the "shame" you highlight in your commentary. Folks behave "furtively" when they don't want to be caught at something. When caught, they may or may not feel ashamed. Consider the sub-umbra-nocte culture of New York City that produces performers such as Cazwell and Amanda Lepore (who wrote and perform in this new video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zvKnNr34xk ). Wondering "Is it all over my face?" is very close to what Cavafy's post-mattress wranglers feel once they are back in public. PS: I doubt we'll agree on much, but you're a good read, so I may stop by again unless you express offense.

4:00 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Farmboyz, I would only be offended by the suggestion that I would be offended by someone who doesn't agree with me. I hope you come by, and comment if you will, very often.

As for Cavafy and shame, I'll check out the video you recommended tonight or tomorrow, and let you know my reaction.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Farmboyz, Thanks for the tip on the rather amusing video. But i really can't see the similarity to Cavafy. The video, in spite of the refrain in the lyric, is quite "in your face." Cavafy's poem, on the other hand, is frought with the tension of a clandestine, deviate (Cavafy's/ Dalven's term) encounter. They hide not only from others buy from each other and themselves (they are in a hurry to get away; they don't speak; they leave separately). Cavafy, of course, in no way condemns the men, but their discomfort, not just because of fear of discovery, is clear. Reducing their discomfort just to fear of discovery would reduce the poem to a rather prosaic narrative.

3:16 AM  
Blogger farmboyz said...

I haven't read the poem, so I should step aside of this, but the notion of Shame intrigues me. The only times I've ever looked in the mirror and thought "Come sono caduto in baso" were when I'd overindulged an appetite., even when the indulgence was becoming, and/or satisfying for others involved.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Rick Bettencourt said...

Got to you by way of "Let me tell You About it Sweetie".

I find your blog very interesting. I am just coming out of a gay divorce and find your concept of monogamy uplifting. I've often wondered does it exist? Additionally, I love Venice! Look forward to reading more.

6:14 AM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

Homoerotic love has been, and always will be, the ultimate experience, not because of the erotic play in less than erotic situations, but because one person (in my case a man) can, and did, overcome my fears of love.

Erotic play is fun, but if abused, morphs into another "excerise" for the flabby seeking any justification to cum. But being in love, and being in that love, has no counterpoint in erotic play. Once love captivates the inner person, dancing in the eyes of the Other, only desire for the Other, and only that Other, is allowed the room to grow, expand, and go where sexual mechanics alone has no correspondence. Indeed, the "mechanics" become all too boring and banal.

The greatest longing all ordinary humans have is to love, be loved, and be loved in return -- in an endless reciprocity that is like mirrors reflecting the endless possibilities. Being "gay" is no exception to human "eros," although commercial interests and an exaggerated obsession can, and does, get the better of us. Flying with another "solo" into the confines that love carves, but is without limit, exceeds all the banalities that seem to consume so many of us.

We've been liberated. We've done the parties and all the boys. Even AIDS has not taught us to be lovers, only men with a latex sheath. But being a lover is the highest call on any plane of existence. and no poet can capture those orgasms that reverberate over and over again in nearly endless perpetuity, overwhelming all sense of the ordinary, exploding where limits have no boundaries. Words cannot capture, much less contain, the boundless expression of one man's love for another. But the echoes of love never die, are never old, are always life itself. In the intensity of many orgasms, one still sees one's self reflected in the eyes of the Other. No one can capture that look in any other context. Knowing its futility is knowing its destiny.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Stephen, I tend to agree with you, mostly. But there is still a part of me, of which I am not at all ashamed, that belongs to the world of Cavafy. I choose not to act on it directly, because it would cause both ethical and practical problems, but I still very much enjoy my sensuality. I would be very unhappy if I suddenly became indifferent to the charms of the beatiful North African workmen, shirtless, painting my apartment on a warm summer day.

4:32 PM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

Cavafy doesn't speak to me. Maybe it's that "shame" (which can be a useful emotion in the right context) has never featured into my gay consciousness (separate, of course, from my ordinary conciousness). And the "forbidden" only exists in dimly lit venues where I can't see where the hell I am. What is fobidden in any other sense entirely escapes me. Now to the "guilt" of not taking the dignity and respect of another into full account, of maybe "using each other only for libido release," I do think that may operate as a psychological dissonance, colored by guilt, and that I find has some plausibility. I've never for a moment felt adverse or "negative" emotions for wanting to love another guy. To the contrary, it's brought me inestemible joy.

As to "monogamy" I'm certainly deferential, only because my beloved fills all my needs and wants, and apparently I fit his, the issue has never surfaced, and other men fall horribly short of my beloved's and my ecstasy. But we did make one commitment: To love. If things had worked out differently, we might not have been so monogamous. We may have been sexual sluts sharing trick stories at the breakfast table. Couples we know do this (if they didn't share the trick).

Finding a sexually-satisfying partner has not been difficult, but love-charged sex is on another plane altogether. The "itch" quickly dissipates, and it's all about our reflections in each other which the face primarily reveals, not the things between our legs. When sex in this context occurs, monogamy naturally follows. Any lesser experience would be flat by comparison. So yes, monogamy is wonderful, but only because it occurs naturally.

11:07 AM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

Bruce,

I have never lost my eye for a handsome man. Love is not blinding, just satisfying. And I can imagine a dalliance with any number of guys, a new body to explore and all, but that would be all. The love-fix is transformative, and pedestrian trysts would only diminish me in my eyes as perhaps a little superficial. So it happens, that superficial tryst, and I always ask, Why? I know the answer: I'm male, I like new experiences, and this is another case where love makes THE difference. The absence leaves me even more hollow. Until the next time (which, fortunately, is rare).

11:16 AM  

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