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Constantine Cavafy, Influencer

Standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the TL

This paper was delivered at the International Cavafy Summer School organized by the Cavafy Archive at the Onassis Foundation in Athens, Greece, from July 11-16, 2022. The conference was originally scheduled for summer 2020 but was delayed for two years due to the pandemic.

On June 4, as I was sitting down to write this paper, a process that would not begin in earnest until well past the date at which the paper was due, I received a notification on my phone. It read: “C.P. Cavafy is now following you on Twitter!” For once, the enthusiasm of Twitter’s house notification style—which always delivers news of a new follower, no matter their identity, with an exclamation point—seemed warranted. The great Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy following me on Twitter, almost ninety years after his death: What could be more miraculous? My new follower was not, of course, Cavafy reincarnate but the Twitter account that bears his name. @CCavafy is a self-described “poet-historian” from Alexandria who joined Twitter in November 2014. The account—which I’ll call Twitter Cavafy—has over twelve thousand followers, enough to make it the most popular account devoted to Cavafy online.

Twitter Cavafy followed me after I tweeted a screenshot from Robert Liddell’s 1974 biography of Cavafy. The passage in the screenshot described the Cavafy family’s 1877 return to Alexandria from Liverpool following the death of Cavafy’s father, when the future poet was fourteen years old. “It was about this time, or a little earlier,” Liddell wrote in the passage I posted, “that he [meaning Cavafy] set to work on a historical dictionary; he got as far as the name Alexander.” To this screenshot I appended the words: “Cavafy, patron saint of half-assing it.” The tweet was a relatively weak entry in the annals of what I like to call Academic Screenshot Twitter, a Twitter subculture that involves academics or academic-adjacent writers like me posting screenshots from scholarly books they are reading, usually for the purposes of entertainment; the screenshots often contain some funny or interesting quote or anecdote. The idea of Cavafy embarking on a grandiose project to write a historical dictionary, then running out of steam before the entries beginning with the letter “A” had been exhausted, seemed, to me at least, a moderately entertaining nugget of historical trivia—and one that might even strike some as “relatable” in this infinitely distractible age, in which ideas are constantly hatched, explored, taken up, then abandoned with equal speed.

I had already been following Twitter Cavafy for many years before I posted this screenshot, without any recognition in response. A few minutes after I tweeted the passage from the Liddell biography, Twitter Cavafy liked the tweet—which I have since deleted on account of its embarrassingly low likes total—and followed me back. I immediately messaged “them.” (I have no way of knowing whether the account is run by one person or several, nor do I know the gender or genders of the person or people behind the account; so it feels appropriate to refer to Twitter Cavafy, in the plural, as a they/them.) I explained that I was working on a paper about Cavafy’s presence online and the aesthetic kinship between the culture of the Very Online and Cavafy’s stylistics of entrapment, a paper that I had not, in fact, begun working on, and is the paper I am delivering now. “Please don’t feel any pressure to answer this question or spoil the mystery of the account if you prefer to remain anonymous,” I wrote, “but I’ve been wondering: Who runs this account?” Twenty-four hours passed without word from Twitter Cavafy. Eventually they replied: “Hi Aaron. Thanks for your message. Just to let you know the Cavafy account started out as a bit of fun. I thought his poetry might work in the tweet format because of its brevity and style. I’m not an academic or linked to the Cavafy Archive. The account just kind of grew as did my knowledge of Cavafy and I broadened it to include biographical and historical issues. Hope that helps. Good luck with the paper.” Twitter Cavafy did not divulge their true identity. I thanked Twitter Cavafy for their reply, and did not press them further on the issue. The exchange concluded. My paper remained unwritten.

Almost a century on from his death, Cavafy is a well known figure in the English-speaking world—or as well known as a long-dead writer of poems in a foreign language can ever be in the English-speaking world. The reception and continued vitality of Cavafy’s poetry in English are assured by a rich body of academic study, the celebrity of Cavafy’s contemporary champions such as E.M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell, the work of the Cavafy Archive in Athens, and Liddell’s entertainingly catty (if stylistically dated and at times difficult to follow) biography; a forthcoming life of Cavafy by professors Peter Jeffreys and Gregory Jusdanis is due to be published in late 2023 under the title Alexandrian Sphinx by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. This is not to forget, of course, the many English-language translations of Cavafy’s poetry and the countless recyclings, rewritings, and restagings of Cavafy’s work by artists and English-language writers of more recent vintage like James Merrill and J.M. Coetzee. The field of Cavafy studies is now so well established that it has its own protocols, its own epistemic signatures and cliches: Is a paper about Cavafy really worthy of the title unless it references Forster’s description of the poet as “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”? The rudiments of Cavafy’s biography form a kind of permanent background music to the reception of his work: his family’s waxing and mostly waning material fortunes; the relocations from Alexandria to England to Constantinople and back to Alexandria; the poet’s decades of dreary clerical work in colonial Egypt’s exquisitely named Third Circle of Irrigation; his closeness to his mother, whom he affectionately named “Fat One”; his equivalent fluency across Greek, English, and French; his covert homosexuality; and the circumscription of his adult social circle to a small acreage of apartments, receiving rooms, cafés, billiards bars, and brothels in central Alexandria. All of this material has been thoroughly explored and absorbed into the existing body of Cavafy scholarship.

The version of Cavafy that’s memorialized on Twitter seems drained of life yet curiously alive—curiously alive and curiously relatable in the age of the Very Online.

But who is Cavafy online? To encounter Cavafy today is not only to read his poetry in its naked state or pore over the voluminous academic research devoted to it; it is to confront Cavafy as he is mediated on the internet, and on Twitter—the most culturally influential of the social media platforms—in particular. No doubt the poet who once counseled that “if you can’t shape your life the way you want, at least try as much as you can not to degrade it by too much contact with the world, by too much activity and talk” would have been entertained (or perhaps appalled) to see his own work, a century after his death, extensively mined and promoted online for likes and retweets. Social media has given Cavafy a new life, bringing his work to the attention of countless readers online.

Cavafy is not the only deceased writer to enjoy a productive digital afterlife. Sylvia Plath, Thomas Bernhard, Susan Sontag, and Jean Baudrillard are among the many long-departed writers I follow on Twitter. But many of these accounts are automated feeds that do nothing more than post periodic quotations from the works of their chosen subjects; an account of this nature exists on Twitter for Cavafy, with the handle @cavafybot. Twitter Cavafy is a different beast: @CCavafy is run anonymously by a human or group of humans who post original content and retweet Cavafy-adjacent posts according to their own whim and appreciation of Cavafy’s life and work. This gives Twitter Cavafy their own personality—a personality that’s arguably more textured and more distinct than that of other dead writers online. Like Real Cavafy, Twitter Cavafy is a slightly enigmatic and remote figure, the account owner’s real identity shrouded—quite deliberately—in mystery. But there are important dissimilarities between the original and the simulacrum. By way of an endless scroll of photos and text, Twitter Cavafy becomes an organic being who’s simultaneously dessicated and alive, performing a paradoxical double function of memorialization and resurrection that comes into conversation—and conflict—with the work of Cavafy himself.

Twitter Cavafy’s output sticks, quite understandably, to places, people, and themes that make sense in the context of Real Cavafy’s life and work: Alexandria; Constantinople; celebrated contemporaries and critics of Cavafy like Durrell, Forster, Giorgos Seferis, and Marguerite Yourcenar; and Hellenistic and Byzantine history and architecture. There are many extracts from Cavafy’s poems and correspondence; “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “Ithaka” are two particular favorites in the rotation. A random sampling of Twitter Cavafy’s feed on June 9, some four days after this paper was due to be submitted, included the following mix of original posts and retweets:

  • a photograph of Alexandria’s corniche, the water of the Mediterranean opalescent under heavy clouds;
  • a quote from Marguerite Yourcenar extolling Cavafy’s wisdom as “a residue of extinguished passions”;
  • an unpublished note from Cavafy dated April 28 1907 in which he writes: “By now I’ve gotten used to Alexandria, and it’s very likely that even if I were rich I’d stay here. But in spite of this, how the place disturbs me. What trouble, what a burden small cities are—what lack of freedom.”;
  • a commemoration of the marriage on June 7, 421 AD, between Eastern Roman/Byzantine emperor Theodosius II and Aelia Eudocia (“Also known as Saint Eudocia, she is important for her literary work which entwines her pagan upbringing with her conversion to Christianity”);
  • the full text of Cavafy’s poem “King Dimitrios,” in a translation by Evan Jones;
  • a photograph of a placid tree-lined street in downtown Alexandria;
  • what appears to be an advertisement in the Tokyo metro for a Japanese manga comic based on the life of Anna Komnene, the celebrated Byzantine princess and author of The Alexiad;
  • a promotion for a podcast on the history of Greco-Bactria from Alexander’s invasion to the reign of Eucratides the Great;
  • a photograph of the Alexandria waterfront at sunset;
  • an extract from Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet in which Durrell writes that “in these summer twilights the city lies in its jumble of pastel tones, faintly veined like an exhausted petal” (the post also includes a photo of Lawrence Durrell’s Tower at Alexandria’s Villa Ambron, which was demolished in September 2017);
  • a photograph of the main door at Hagia Sophia;
  • a primer on the different ways that Central Greek and Istanbul Greek express the idea of singledom;
  • a quick history of the sunk island of Vordonisi, once part of the Princes’ Islands (now Adalar) in the Sea of Marmara, and reputed to be the ninth-century burial place of Patriarch Fotios I;
  • an extract from Forster’s appreciation of Cavafy in Pharos and Pharillon: “How different is his history from an Englishman’s. Athens and Sparta, so drubbed into us at school, are to him two quarrelsome little slave states, ephemeral beside the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed, as these are ephemeral beside Constantinople.”;
  • and finally, another Instagram-worthy photo of the Alexandria seafront at dusk.

This is just a sample, but based on my deep reading of the feed I think it’s fairly representative of Twitter Cavafy’s output. There is a limit, of course, to how seriously we should take a playful Twitter rendering of Cavafy’s life as a vessel for the propagation and discussion of his work today; after all, as the account’s author or authors wrote in their message to me, Twitter Cavafy “started out as a bit of fun.” On the other hand, it’s striking to me that even though there are many points of contact between Cavafy’s actual biography and poetry and the version of him that exists online, Twitter Cavafy presents us with a very particular interpretation of the poet’s life and work.

Cavafy’s poetry is suffused with desire, sexual desire above all. With the exception of a few sparse, chaste references to Cavafy’s sex life, this ravishment of the flesh is mostly absent from Cavafy’s presence online. Instead we are shown a different type of longing— the post-imperial longing for empire, a yearning for the lost territories of the Hellenic and Byzantine civilizations (a longing that is, I would argue, at odds with the ambivalence with respect to imperial authority and political coercion that pervades Cavafy’s work). Many of Cavafy’s poems have a historical context but even in those that deal directly with the forgotten emperors and satraps of the Hellenic era, history is only ever a stage, part of the poetic decor: these poems are historical but not historiographic. Twitter Cavafy is Cavafy decaffeinated and desexualized, his homosexuality erased and his desire transmogrified into a vague cultural irredentism and generic postcard love of the Alexandrian sunset. Twitter Cavafy nostalgizes the old Alexandria, Cavafy’s Alexandria, even as Cavafy’s poems themselves invite us to consider nostalgia as a dead end, as something both infinite and useless. Unlike Real Cavafy, Twitter Cavafy dreams not of the bodies of his fellow men but of islands lost to foreign invaders, buildings long demolished, empires long ceded, languages disappeared, churches made into mosques, and tombs that have sunk into the sea.

And yet this fossilization of Cavafy online—whatever the merit of the curatorial choices made by its account’s author—achieves a kind of sense. The version of Cavafy that’s memorialized on Twitter seems drained of life yet curiously alive—curiously alive and curiously relatable in the age of the Very Online. Twitter Cavafy gives us Cavafy as influencer, inviting us to think of the poet as a poster of dewy selfies from the Corniche, as an over-exuberant hashtag appender, or as a workday dreamer of weekend escape to the frontiers of ancient Bactria. If Cavafy’s ideal reader was, as the biographer Liddell once wrote, “tired of living and scared of dying,” Twitter Cavafy seems tired of posting but scared of stopping. This is a condition that is shared by many today who’ve made the internet a central pillar of their identity. Cavafy expressed his sexuality in the shadows; he was never able to “live his truth” in the open, and kept his homosexuality a secret from even his closest friends and relatives. Twitter Cavafy, unable to experience things—the inaccessible places and lost civilizational splendors that populate their own feed—in real life, is condemned to a life of posting. Just as Real Cavafy sublimated his desire into art, Twitter Cavafy turns the yearning of Cavafy’s reader into tweets. Twitter Cavafy conveys a sense of inhibition, a sense of entrapment, that seems both wholly faithful to Cavafy’s poetry and wholly reflective of online culture today. Like Antony listening to the musicians below his window in “The God Abandons Antony,” Twitter Cavafy’s world is seen but not felt.

Like most full-time writers I know, I tend to think that most deadlines—especially long deadlines, deadlines further than a month into the future—are fictional, or at least negotiable; like most full-time writers, I live in a state of constant dread at deadlines approaching, deadlines renegotiated, deadlines missed, and deadlines so long blown that they have become figments of antiquity. The cancellation of the 2020 Cavafy conference, then the re-cancellation of the rescheduled 2021 conference, provided momentary relief from the pressure of writing this paper. But once the 2020 conference was confirmed, finally, for summer 2022, the pressure resurfaced. An email from the Cavafy Archive in December of last year detailing, in all caps, IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENTS AND DATES for the conference saw that old familiar dread return. A further email on March 4 of this year announcing, again in all caps, the DEADLINE FOR FINAL TEXT SUBMISSION caused it to intensify, along with all that dread’s associated behavioral pathologies: the procrastination, the ever-present anxiety and guilt, the baseless promises (“The 5 June deadline and submission guidelines are noted,” I wrote in reply), the half-hearted self-justifications and full-throated self-loathing. None of these feelings has left me in the months since, though it should be noted that at no stage did I ever seriously contemplate researching and completing this paper on time, whatever my theoretical desire to meet the prescribed deadline. Instead I sat with the dread and self-hate, stewing in their sediment. This claustrophobia was both inescapable and indispensable to my sense of myself as a writer. Already as I’m delivering this paper I am thinking ahead to the December deadline for a book I am under contract to write. This is a deadline I will almost certainly miss, but without the catalyzing guilt that accompanies this professional and personal failure it will be impossible to get anything written at all. The failure to write is what enables me to write: trapped, I am free.

The Very Online live in a hell from which exit is neither possible nor ever truly desirable; their lives gain meaning through shared suffering online.

Self-constitution through claustrophobia is, I’d like to suggest, a deeply Cavafian condition. Cavafy is a great chronicler of claustrophobia, and several of his most celebrated poems describe the peculiar comfort that comes from immobility, from unfreedom, from capture, be it external (as in “Waiting for the Barbarians”) or self-imposed (“The City”). In the same way that a writer might not be able to write unless he has already failed to write, the Cavafian subject is constituted in the space between the desire and the impossibility of escape. Cavafy’s prosodic signatures—the features of versification and meter that make a poem unmistakably the work of Cavafy—perform this stylistics of entrapment: think in particular of Cavafy’s liberal use of enjambment—all those lines that collide into one another—and his love of the homophone. The play on Θαμένη (buried) and Θα μένει (will stay) in “The City,” which both sound the same in Greek (“thameni”) but carry unrelated meanings, is a classic Cavafian homophone; the poem “Walls” is replete with similar examples. Cavafy’s homophones—or “rimes calembours,” as the Greek poet Seferis called them—seem especially important to understanding him as a poet of claustrophobia: his verses are peppered with words that carry different meanings but are compelled to sound the same, words yearning for lexical independence but squashed into a shared phonetic space.

All of which brings us back to Cavafy online. According to the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, 10 percent of Twitter’s users are responsible for 80 percent of all tweets. Among this 10 percent it’s fashionable to criticize the quality of “the discourse” online and lament the amount of time that Twitter’s super-users spend posting and engaging with tweets; there’s a strong tendency to self-loathing among the Very Online. This condition usually manifests itself in ritual descriptions of Twitter as a “hell site” and the liturgical repetition of the words, “I hate it here” (“here” meaning online, and on Twitter in particular). And yet, the Very Online never leave: they hate it here but they’re never anywhere else. For reasons that are similar to my own inability to write unless I’ve already failed, they can’t be anywhere else; they can’t be themselves unless they are here where they hate it. The Very Online live in a hell from which exit is neither possible nor ever truly desirable; their lives gain meaning through shared suffering online, through the strictures and frictions that the discourse places on them. Cavafy is among the most nimble explorers of this profoundly contemporary paradox of self-understanding: the possibilities that entrapment creates, the yearning for escape and the impossibility of departure, the self-love that comes from self-hate. Twitter Cavafy may frame the poet in a different light, but to encounter Cavafy online unlocks a more interesting truth: the man who once wroteΚαινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν Θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες” (“You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore”) already hated it here, decades before the rest of us arrived.