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Cavafy pop: Popular reception, cultural productivity and the many lives of poems

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Cavafy pop: Popular reception, cultural productivity and the many lives of poems
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  183 Jnal f Geek Meia & Cle Vlme 1 Nmbe 2 © 2015 Intellect Ltd Introduction. English language. doi: 10.1386/jgmc.1.2.183_7 INtroduCtIoN Dimitris PaPanikolaou anD ElEni PaPargyriou Cv pp: Pp ecep, c pdcv d he  ve  pe In January 2015, the popular Greek TV programme  I michani tou chronou / Time  Machine  , broadcast by the Greek State TV network NERIT, dedicated a special evening to the poet C. P. Cavafy. 1  With his eyes fixed on the camera, and look-ing stern, the journalist in charge of the programme announced that ‘tonight  we will meet one of the biggest Greek poets. We will meet not only his work, but also his life, that life he tried so hard to keep hidden, away from the eyes and badmouthing of the people’. In the hour that followed, the audience was treated to a lazy review of the main narrative about Cavafy’s life (1863–1933), ‘hidden’ and ‘unhidden’: the Cavafy family’s wealth and its eventual decline at the end of the nineteenth century; the early years in England, Istanbul and Alexandria; the first homosexual experiences (pleasingly set, at least according to this popular narrative, in the hammams of Istanbul); the return to Alexandria and the life as a clerk, a reserved public life that ran along-side the ‘secret’ life of the night; the fear of being discovered; the pride in his Greek identity; the house on the Alexandrian Rue Lepsius, above a bordello and close to the Greek hospice and hospital; the early ‘passion’ for drink; the 1. Accessible online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfTDGnR1-AI. Accessed 30 August 2015.  184  2. A series of unpublished and unfinished poems, as well as earlier and disowned poems, have also attracted a considerable readership and translations. 3. A good recent example of this type of appreciation, is the article by Orhan Pamouk, published in the New York Times  on 19 December 2013, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/22/books/review/other-countries-other-shores.html?_r=0. Accessed 30 August 2015. gambling; the eventual dedication to a life of letters; the personal poems, the historical poems, the mythical poems. The quaint world, the queer man, the exquisite poetry. Cavafy is known mainly for the 154 relatively short poems that were collected under his instructions and republished in book form after his death. 2  Greeks have also learnt to appreciate him as a highly distinct poetic voice who disengaged from a spent romantic tradition and proposed a novel perspective on Hellenism, identity and eroticism that still remains central in the Greek cultural sphere. But Cavafy’s extraordinary worldwide fame and central posi-tion in World Literature relies perhaps less on his importance for the global literary movements of modernity, and more on the popular appeal of specific poems (including some with a homosexual theme), as well as a certain mythology about his own life. Cavafy might be hailed by critics as a formida-ble dissector of historical power, knowledge, desire and loss, but in the frame- work of his work’s popular reception, he is also always the protean old man of  Alexandria, ‘a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe’ (Forster 1923: 91), a (reserved) gay forefather, an icon of Greek cosmopolitanism who spent his life on the second floor of a house visited today by hundreds of tourists.The recent Time Machine  TV programme on Cavafy, therefore, is indicative of that type of popular reception of the poet which has recently gone not only global, but also viral. Numerous similar television documentaries in many languages have followed in the steps of books, newspaper and magazine arti-cles, and journal special issues of an earlier period, recycling specific ‘famous’ poems (such as ‘Ithaki’/’Ithaca’ [1910], ‘I Polis/The City’ [1910], ‘Perimenontas tous Varvarous/ Waiting for the Barbarians’ [1904], ‘Troes/ Trojans’ and ‘Ap’ tes Ennia/ Since Nine O’Clock’) alongside narrativized events from the poet’s life, and a popular mythology about Cavafian Alexandria. 3  The actual material for this popular mythology is not always available (for instance, we know almost nothing about the poet’s personal life, especially his erotic life), or is often self-evident and based on a tendency to read poems as transparent accounts of the poet’s life. It can also be based on clichés, miscon-ceptions, social doxas, phobias and oversimplifications (e.g. about cosmopoli-tan Alexandria and homosexual subcultures in the early twentieth century, about Cavafy’s upbringing, and so on). New research has questioned some of these assumptions, or critiqued the very role they have played in the framing of the Cavafian oeuvre since the beginning, even during the poet’s lifetime.  Yet the fact remains: the reception, circulation and life of Cavafy’s work are intertwined with a powerful literary myth that is both difficult to penetrate and equally difficult to avoid. Cavafy’s popularity and his work’s global popu-lar reception rest on this myth and are nourished by it. However, in a very exciting and quite recent development, Cavafy’s popular reception creates instances that do not simply perpetuate the myth of the poet, but overappro-priate and/or undermine it in new, creative and conjectural ways.It is worth exploring these two, intermingling, new tendencies, overappro-priation and undermining, a little further. First, overappropriation. In recent  years, the popular reception of Cavafy’s work has grown so pluriform, multi-layered and anarchic, that in many ways it renders the old traditional biography of the poet and the assumptions about his work (and the work’s ‘integrity’), obsolete, especially because it overappropriates them as a starting point. With ‘popular reception’ we have in mind a global workshop on Cavafy’s poetry and persona, which includes rewritings in various genres, personal reflections  185  4. The full performance is accessible online at: http://www.lifo.gr/tv/the-tube/1689. Accessed 30 August 2015. 5. Accessible online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pSUaQKbhrc. Accessed 30 August 2015. 6. These were themes also developed by most video artists in the special exhibition on ‘Cavafy and Video Art’ curated by Marilena Karra, presented in Athens at the end of 2013 by the Onassis Cultural Centre; see http://www.sgt.gr/en/programme/event/1352/ Accessed 30 August 2015. in autobiographical texts, dramatic works based on Cavafy’s life and work, musical renderings of poems, television and film projects, and visualizations of poems in diverse forms. It is a reception that extends from painting and photography to comics and video art, from the use of poems out of context or in a fragmented fashion on the Internet, street art and in public spaces, to the commercialization of Cavafy’s image and ‘hit’ verses on media headlines, in merchandizing or TV commercials. In many and unexpected ways, as most of the contributors of this special issue argue, these creative overappropriations offer a new and dynamic relationship with the Cavafian text and Cavafy’s persona, all the while pointing to directions previously unexplored.  A close reading of photographic work dedicated to Cavafy over the years, for instance, reveals how a stereotypical image of the mature reserved artist and a focus on the thematics of erotic poetry, became for photographers such as Duane Michals, Dimitris Yeros and Stathis Orphanos only the starting point for projects that eventually talked about identity and the dynamics of representation, also exploring the interrelation between text and image, desire and objectification, and modernity and the archive of the past. Coded and complex, these contemporary photographic projects do not only showcase poems as indicators of personal attachment, or fill the gaps in our knowledge about Cavafy’s life with imaginative conjectures. They can also inspire and inform an art-historical investigative project like that of Kostis Kourelis in this collection. Kourelis (not unaware of conjectural projects like Michals’s Cavafy series) sets out to reread the most famous photographic portrait Cavafy himself posed for, as an elaborate exercise in popular self-fashioning, paying special attention to the coded meanings of the props present in the photograph. In other words, in contemporary projects inspired by his literary myth, as well as in the projects of rereading his life’s work, the silent man of Alexandria comes out as much less silent than we previously thought.He also comes out as much more modern, outward-looking and commu-nicative. This is the guiding principle behind a recent musical and video performance created by composer Lena Platonos and choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou. In  K.K.  (2010), 4  a setting that first brings onto the stage the ster-eotype of ‘the old man of Alexandria’, grows to reveal a work exploring visual genealogies of modern desire, with an electronic musical setting of the poems that unexpectedly touches upon issues of connectivity, hypermodernity, irony and pastiche. This is a Cavafy updated for the Internet era, a projection of the poet as a blogger avant la lettre  , experimenting with the limits of autobiogra-phy, self-construction, the aesthetics of the self and communication. A video by Egyptian Swiss artist Yossef Limoud (2007) posted on the internet, tran-scends Cavafy’s myth in a similar fashion, producing complex contemporary insights. In the video ‘The City’, 5  the almost proverbial poem is read in Arabic against a panel comprised of two shots of the staircase of Cavafy’s house in Rue Lepsius, the same staircase that thousands of tourists (and most of them on camera) have used during their visit in Alexandria. What is replayed here is the mythology of the derelict and hidden Cavafian house; once again, the old house serves as a metonymy for the Cavafian City. Yet the video does not show much else. Two shots of the stairs unfold in parallel, two long takes caressing the staircase at different speeds while we hear the lines from ‘The City’ translated into the official language of modern Egypt. Nothing else. Rather than a visual visit to the Cavafian house, this is a visual contemplation of revisiting, returning, reclaiming and re-placing, as well as a reminding of their diverse temporalities. 6    186 On the one hand, such instances of reception show the unexpected twists and turns that Cavafy’s popular legacy gives rise to, especially if certain liber-ties are taken with it. On the other hand, they foreground important issues in the Cavafian text and its cultural circulation which have largely remained unexplored or unacknowledged in the past.Take, as a further example, the recent tendency to use phrases from Cavafy’s poetry in (multi)media texts and contexts, from commercials to promotional panels and from journalistic articles to tweets and facebook statuses (examples of this are discussed here by Anna-Maria Sichani, Lilia Diamantopoulou and Zyranna Stoikou, and Vicente González and Ioanna Nicolaidou, but also by Daniel Mendelsohn in a recent  New Yorker   piece [2015]). As a gesture, it might have attracted the ire of traditional aficionados of poetry, yet it has also had the effect of showing, in practice, how Cavafian poetry also functions at the level of the phrase, often creating sentences that work as good punchlines, that thrive on double entendres, interesting rhythmical effects or their dramatic irony. Of course, this does not mean that Cavafy was writing for advertising or that his poems are not more complex than the fragmented use of his lines allows us to think. Such popular use, though, does excavate and exploit a certain feature of Cavafian poetry that we otherwise might disavow: a tendency to create phrases that work within and against the integrity of the poem, within and against dominant ideologies, within a deep historical context and actively disengaging from it. Moreover, as a recent public debate on the use of Cavafy’s poems on Greek buses has shown (analysed in this special issue by Dimitris Plantzos), such popular uses of Cavafy’s ‘fragments’ can open up the debate on the public and political use of poetry, on the contradictions and limitations of the prevail-ing discourse regarding poetic integrity and fragmentation, on literary propri-ety and national culture, and on modernity, heritage and institutional power.If overappropriation produces interesting new avenues in Cavafy’s recep-tion, it also foregrounds a politics of reading and of articulating cultural texts that can give rise to more probing questions and reorganize our research agendas. This is the second tendency we can discern in the new popular and new-media reception of Cavafy’s texts: an impulse, not only to appropriate, but also to question and to a certain extent dismantle the more facile assump-tions of Cavafy’s myth and global circulation. Hala Halim (2013), for instance,  working to produce a new postcolonial ‘archive [of] Alexandrian cosmopoli-tanism’, has recently brought us the marvellous example of Alexandrian libret-tist Bernard De Zonghem (1924–1999). In his operetta, La Vita Alessandrina  , a pastiche work based on an imaginary reconstruction of Cavafy’s life and the setting of some of his poems to popular tunes, De Zonghem provides his own carnivalesque narrative of Alexandrian life, with Cavafy’s persona and adapted texts playing a major role. In Halim’s reading, De Zonghem’s camp extravaganza has the power to unhinge the myth of cosmopolitan  Alexandria from its colonialist and orientalist agendas, especially because it  works so much from an unfinished, uneven, popular culture viewpoint. Such a work, Halim insists, can help us rethink cosmopolitanism in a new way, and perhaps reconsider, against the popular narrative, the type of cosmopolitan-ism Cavafy projected in his poems. Coming from a different direction, the 1990 film Trojans  by Constantine Giannaris (analysed in this special issue) produces a similar effect. Even though it is based on otherwise traditional material about Cavafy’s life and work, it ends up posing new questions about archivality, ethnicity, precarity and desire, as well as queer identification both in Cavafy’s life and in the early 1990s when the film was made.  187  We decided to put this special issue together in 2013 during the world- wide celebrations for the 150 years since the birth, and 80 since the death of the poet. It was the first anniversary of the poet to be celebrated with so many and such diverse cultural projects, ranging from special ‘Cavafy weeks’ in university towns, to collective autobiographical Internet projects, and from events with world-renowned actors and authors, to advertising campaigns and high school projects where students were asked to write their own text in the spirit of Cavafy, or to compose their own graphic novel based on one of his poems. As Vassilis Lambropoulos memorably put it in a much quoted statement, ‘Cavafy is not any more a body of work; he has become a creative field’ (2014). All this activity points towards the importance of a popular reception of Cavafy’s work that moves with and against the often banalized literary myth, as it works with and  against the philological integrity of the poems. It is a multiform tendency we will call, for the purposes of this special issue, Cavafy pop : an ever-expanding area of cultural productivity and now, as we propose, a new field of study. So what does this special issue do? For one thing, it delimits a series of shifts and transformations. Stuart Hall has argued that we cannot have a fixed description of ‘the popular’, that we need instead to always place the category of the popular in its broader cultural context, explaining the cultural prac-tices it stands against, is informed by, works with and/or influences. Popular culture, according to this view, is not a stable cultural terrain, but is, instead, ‘the very ground on which transformations are worked’ (Hall 1981: 228). In these terms, Cavafy’s popular reception is discussed here not as a fixed project (different, in opposition, or outside his more ‘highbrow’ or ‘serious’ literary appreciation). Instead, it is seen as part and parcel of the contemporary read-ing of this poet, the ground where transformations are constantly happening.  All the articles collected in this volume begin from specific examples of ‘Cavafy in popular culture’, and work outwards, trying to map larger thematic terrains. As a first step, this gesture indicates a shift from the text as an exclu-sively written work, to the text as event. The written aspect of a poem is also diffused into different modes of presentation: it is sung, danced, photo-graphed, posted on the Internet with comments and graphics, acted out and driven around the streets on buses. Subsequently, the essays collected here move away from Cavafy’s singu-larity to the plurality of those who read him. Contributors to this issue are concerned much less with scholar-readers and much more with the non-academic reader: a larger, less specialized category. We are thus moving away from asserting a culture of authenticity and expertise, to observing a participa-tory culture, in which every reader becomes an agent in the dissemination of poems and the cultural events produced by their circulation. In an era, not of interpretation, but of plural readings, Cavafy, as most articles here reiterate, is no longer the privileged terrain of scholars. With platforms such as blogs and social media, a plural Cavafy, wrought by diverse communities of readers, becomes more visible and influential than ever. In this context, we could argue that the place of the committed and specialized Cavafy reader is now slowly being filled by a different person, the user   in the Cavafy field, who is, crucially, not  a disinterested agent, but one equally marked out by pensiveness, personal commitment and investment. Many of the creative agents discussed in the pages to follow (artists, transla-tors, Internet users, media publics, passers-by) are also shown to engage in a
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