Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Waterways, Not Walls: Cavafy, the Cosmopolitan Poet of Blurred Boundaries

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Waterways, Not Walls: Cavafy, the Cosmopolitan Poet of Blurred Boundaries

Article excerpt

    [The cosmopolitan perspective] prefers voluntary to prescribed    affiliations, appreciates multiple identities, pushes for    communities of wide scope, recognizes the constructed character of    ethno-racial groups, and accepts the formation of new groups as a    part of the normal life of a democratic society.                                --David Hollinger, Postethnic                                America  116 
    As for the inscription, let it be artful ...    Since so very many others more barbarian    than we write in this way, then so shall we.    And anyway, do not forget how at times    sophists have come to us from Syria,    and lyricists, and other pretentious poets.    So we are hardly un-Greek, I dare say.                                  --Constantine Cavafy, "Philhellene" 21-27  


These remarks were initially inspired by UNESCO's appreciation for the unique place occupied by Constantine Cavafy in the world of modern European poetry, with the declaration of 2013 as the "Year of Cavafy." Notice that I did not say modern Greek poetry; that is important. For one of the many things that makes Cavafy's poetic voice so distinctive is its cosmopolitan quality. I want to begin by reflecting on what that word might mean, both to a reading of Cavafy and to his contemporary readers, who are "hardly un-Greek, I dare say."

Cosmopolis, of course, is a Greek word and a Greek ideal. (1) Born of the remarkable expansion of the Hellenic world after Alexander of Macedon's conquests and of the political reorganization of the Mediterranean overseen by his surviving generals, the cosmopolitan ideal was intended to display how Hellenism might serve as a sort of "umbrella culture" over a multiethnic, multicultural, and polyglot society. Cavafy puts the point pithily in a poem he began in 1916 but did not publish until 1931, one devoted to this same post-Alexandrian cultural complex. The poem is entitled "In the Year 200 B. C." ([??]TA 200 [pi]. X.):

    And from the marvelous Panhellenic expedition ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE    IN ASCII]),    ...............................                         We emerged:    The newer, the greater, greek world ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN    ASCII]).    We the Alexandrians, the Antiochians,    the Seleucids, and the countless    other Greeks of Egypt and of Syria,    and those in Media, and Persia, and all the rest:    with our wide-ranging leadership,    and our flexible policies of integration,    and the Greek Language we have in common ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN      ASCII])    which we brought as far as Bactria, and to the Indians. (2) (18, 22-31)  

As a "citizen of the world," the cosmopolitan was not tied to any specific place, or tribe, or god. Quite the opposite, in fact. This Hellenic ideal was believed to be exportable, something one could carry along as one resettled elsewhere in the vibrant world defined by the Mediterranean and Black Sea diasporas: "Alexander had founded cities as others throw coins" (Fermor 35). It is telling to notice that in this poem Cavafy did not capitalize the word Greek in his reference to "the greek world," but rather did so solely in reference to "the Greek Language we have in common."

Contrast this conception of a broad and encompassing, and malleable, cultural identity--with its commitment to certain fundamentally cosmopolitan Hellenic institutions such as gymnasia, stadia, theaters, philosophical and rhetorical schools, public assemblies, and courts of law--to the forms of ethnic and/or religious nationalism which were on the ascendant in Cavafy's later years and which remain of global concern even now. Cosmopolitan Hellenism seems quite different from the "blood and soil" nationalisms that plagued the twentieth century in Europe, and whose painful echoes still linger today. In the Hellenistic period, one could become Greek; one did not need to be born to Greek parents or born in a Greek place. …

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