Examine the role of self-deception in the historical poems of Cavafy
Constantine Cavafy was born in 1863 and died in 1933. He was never publicly published in his life, choosing instead to distribute his poems to specific people who would appreciate them. As a poet, he was incredibly ahead of his time. His work is surprisingly laconic and sparse, but is in no way simple. Part of his genius is his ability to distil complex thoughts and ideas into such short, low key poems but still retaining a great depth of meaning. He was truly pioneering, doing things with poetry that don't appear in Western literature for another century and a half. Cavafy’s poetry can generally be split into three categories: erotic, philosophical, or historical. His historical poems shed light on lots of small moments, highlighting the fact that 'official' history is a biased interpretation rather than absolute fact. A recurrent theme throughout Cavafy’s historical poems is the idea of self-deception, with different poems displaying different levels and types. These differing portrayals raise questions over which responses should be invoked by the reader; is it pity, scorn, admiration? By examining a selection of his poetry it will be possible to trace the changing responses to the theme, as well as examine the reasoning behind them. Cavafy frequently explores the relationship between history and theatre, so it will be interesting to examine the ways in which self-deception interacts with this theme. Furthermore, an examination of the theme of self-deception allows a deeper understanding of the effect of catharsis that arises from Cavafy's historical poems.
Cavafy’s historical poems tend to focus on figures that are usually hidden by official history. He seems drawn to the anti-heroes that live on the peripheral of history, buried in footnotes and otherwise condemned to obscurity. His is a history of the losers rather than the victors. As a result, his poetry often focuses on moments of uncertainty and downfall. Cavafy is incredibly gifted at exploring the human predicament in all its absolute vulnerability; he is described by Edmund Keeley as having a “persistent attempt to confront the truth, however painful, and to express it convincingly rather than settle for easy evasions”.1 He often manages this by exploiting theatrical techniques in his poetry. Helen Catsaouni identifies multiple theatrical techniques used by Cavafy, including mimetic forms of speech, an evolving dramatic plot and and careful characterization.2 These combine in poems such as Alexandrian Kings to give the sense of history as a stage, the events as acts and the figures as actors. In fact, this poem specifically states that the Alexandrians were aware “this was all just words, all theatre”, directly connecting the coronation with a theatrical performance.3 However, Cavafy re-stages the scene in an unexpected manner. The expected protagonists, the children, are in fact passive figures on the stage; it is the Alexandrians that act as the active protagonists. Ideas of self-deception interplay with this context to interesting effect. The behaviour of the crowd is acknowledged to be based on a wish to deceive themselves. This is highlighted in the last two lines: “they knew of course what all this was worth/what empty words they really were, these kingships” (p.33). However, the crowd accepts this deception in order to avoid the pain that is to come. In this way, the self-deception is a core element to the character that the crowd has embraced. Given that the figures are presented as actors, it is as if the crowd is unified as one actor taking on the required role for the situation, one that happens to be hinge on the trait of self-deception. This self-deception is tied in with ideas of exploitation, both of the crowd and the children. The acknowledgement of the hollowness of the ceremony, paired with the reader's knowledge of Kaisarion's impending doom, highlights the artificiality of the political theatre. This results in a situation that transcends the specific historical moment and can be universally applied to any administration based on exploiting innocents and crowds. What results from this is a more ambiguous attitude towards the self-deception. The results of the self-deception are not noble or desirable, but at the end of the day what is the alternative? It seems the only available option for the crowd is to enjoy the moment while they can. Keeley sums this up best by arguing that in a world devoted to transient things (beauty, passion, theatre) life, no matter how good, is always doomed. Therefore you must “make your final act a celebration of the good life you are losing”, in this case by accepting that self-deception can be necessary.4
An earlier poem that explores ideas of self-deception is The God Abandons Antony. The poem is set during the same time period as Alexandrian Kings but is from Antony's point of view as he realises he is losing Alexandria. The possibility of hope is associated with very strong and negative language; it “degrade[s]” the person to waste time with the hollow, “empty” hopes (p.27). Clearly, the act of self-deception is in this case is portrayed as one that lowers a person and lessens them somehow. The repetition of the description “long prepared, and full of courage” establishes Antony as a man that is strong and should be capable enough to handle facing the situation as it is (p.27). The inherent weakness associated with self-deception contrasts with these descriptions and makes it clear that the speaker believes the easy way out provided by self-deception is unacceptable in Antony's situation. Unlike Alexandrian Kings, self-deception is put in opposition to Antony's required role in this performance. Where the crowd has no choice but to embrace the deception, Antony must make the courageous choice to discard it. However, both end up in the same situation: treasuring the “strange procession” (p.27) and “artistic triumph” (p.33) while it still lasts. In addition, the line “as is right for you who were given this kind of city” links the city of Alexandria into the issue of Antony's role. Expanding the focus on self-deception to include its role in the relationship between the protagonist and their setting results in some interesting results. It seems clear that it is the worth of Alexandria that causes self-deception to be unacceptable in this poem. So much weight is placed on it as a city that it gains a life of its own, being referred to as “her” (p.27). “The Alexandria that is leaving” shows that the city is abandoning Antony, placing it in the active role and Antony in the passive. Cavafy spent the vast majority of his life in Alexandria and its importance to him can already be seen through the active roles given in these two poems. In his study of the relationship between Cavafy and Alexandria, Keeley suggests that, to Antony, Alexandria becomes “godlike”, replacing previous deities and becoming “the greatest gift he was given to know and his greatest loss in his hour of defeat” (p.23). This adds an extra dimension to the speaker's view on how Antony should behave. The importance placed on Alexandria suggests that is it the city, rather than the man, that deserves better. The attributes that make Antony able to face the truth are the ones that make him worthy of observing the beauty of Alexandria. Edmund Keeley asserts that what defines the people worthy of Alexandria is the “ability to see things for what they are, honestly and courageously, even when what one sees is the inevitable loss of all else that the city has come to represent” (p.41). This poem certainly shows that the view on self-deception is directly linked to the subject in question. Antony, who has so embraced this city, must live up to its greatness by not giving in to the easy comfort of false hope. Like the crowd in Alexandrian Kings, he too must acknowledge the futility of the situation and simply appreciate the beauty of the “exquisite music” and spectacle while he still can (p.27).
This recommendation of finding solace in the exquisite beauty of the city prompted Peter Bien to argue that there is actually an approval of self-deception hidden in this poem.5 By prescribing “estheticization as a remedy for life's ills”, the speaker is actually “support[ing] self-deception even though it advises Antony not to be deceived about his failing luck” (p.128). A recurring theme that runs through Cavafy's work is the idea of art as an antidote to suffering. Cavafy frequently promotes the idea of dealing with loss through exploring art and poetry and deriving hope from them. That is certainly the idea that is portrayed in The God Abandons Antony. The repetition of the need to face the situation is balanced by the instructions to listen to the procession that is passing by. It could be argued that Cavafy is stating that the way to deal with situations of loss, without resorting to the degrading act of self-deception, is to engage with art. This sets art and poetry up as things that raise a person up, in contrast to the lowering influence of false hope.
So far, the poems that have been analysed have all revolved around Alexandria. This raises the question, does the attitude towards self-deception change depending on the setting? Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians depicts Kratisiklia leaving Sparta to be a hostage for Ptolemy III. The figure of Kratisiklia seems to lack Antony's struggle with self-deception, apparently embracing the cold reality of the situation and rejecting the possibility of deception outright. For this, the speaker seems to look favourably upon her. Adjectives used to describe her include “dignified”, “strong character”, and “magnificent” (p.122). These echo the characteristics that the speaker in the God Abandons Antony was promoting, suggesting that she is being held as a figure whose attitude we should applaud. Where Antony was being encouraged to aspire to these attributes, she has already achieved them. She comes across as a figure that absolutely embraces the reality of the situation and refuses to deceive herself. On the other hand, a deeper look at the poem questions this assertion. It is the lines “let no one see us/weeping or behaving in a way unworthy of Sparta” that suggests there is more theatricality present than initially seems (p.122). These lines create the idea that Kratisiklia , like a leading actress, has taken on the role of Spartan Queen. In the words of Peter Bien, “she wilfully perpetuates, by her attitude and behaviour, the myth of Spartan imperturbability”. This shows yet another example of a figure adopting behaviour in order to live up to the expectations of their city. Just as Antony must behave in a way worthy of Alexandria, Kratisiklia modifies her behaviour to fit the role expected of her by her city. So whilst she is not deceiving herself by embracing false hope, she is forcing her behaviour to match an ideal. Just as Antony must avoid the temptation to fool himself, Kratisiklia is allowed a passing moment of tenderness with her son in Poseidon's temple, before regaining her poise and character and fulfilling the role the city requires. It can be concluded that this poem shows a development of the ideas of self-deception established in The God Abandons Antony. Catsaouni states that Cavafy is showing that“what matters not is how a person or situation really is, but how a person or situation is presented to the eyes of other people” (p.116). This can clearly be seen by both Antony and Kratisiklia's behaviour. Bien argues that the speaker admires that way that Kratisiklia manages to transcend the more obvious form of self deception, but is still dedicated to the other, more subtle, form (p.132). The ambiguity of the ending gives the sense that these forms of deception are ultimately futile. The repeated idea of her life being “in the hands of the gods” highlights the recurring idea that the events are inevitable and ultimately uncontrollable. These are actors committed to enacting a script that offers no deviation from the pre-determined plot, with the only control being how they deliver their lines. Or in the case of this poem, which image of herself Kratisiklia chooses to portray in public. Whilst this seems bleak, it is actually what adds to the catharsis of the poem. Kratisiklia's choice to quietly maintain her dignity is what “makes it a royal act worthy of the grand history that has now turned against her” (Keeley, p.76). Cavafy's re-interpretation of figures that official history has pushed to the sidelines manages to salvage and redeem them, creating the sense that whilst they were unable to avoid their fate they have at least been partially saved from the death given to them by official history. In this way, self-deception is a key component used to create catharsis in these poems. In can be argued that this replaces the sense of art-as-saviour that was featured in The God Abandons Antony.
The Displeasure of Selefkidis juxtaposes two different kinds of performances hinged around deception, both of which draw on ideas previously discussed. Dimitrios Selefkidis chooses to push aside the knowledge that his position is dependent on the Romans, and presents an outward appearance of opulence and dignity. He fulfils the role required by the Romans, whilst clinging onto the last remaining shreds of dignity he can gather. Finding himself in the same situation, Ptolemy chooses not to deceive himself and attempts to exploit the situation to his advantage. It is an interesting choice to present these ideas in opposition to each other where, in the case of Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians, they are combined in the figure of Kratisiklia. In official history, both figures were successful in their aims, with Selefkidis becoming king of Syria and Ptolemy gaining the support of Rome. This knowledge would seem to suggest that both methods are effective. However, it could be argued that in the poem it seems Ptolemy has more approval from the speaker than Selefkidis. This could be a result of their differing attitudes towards the Romans. Selefkidis knows deep down that he is essentially a slave of the Romans, but he refuses to look at the situation face on and instead chooses to cling to the past. Ptolemy is completely aware of the situation and decides to exploit it for his own gain. Christopher Robinson argues that Cavafy believes it is “more heroic the face a danger in full consciousness of the risks”.6 This would imply that Ptolemy was approaching the situation in the best way, by refusing to indulge in self-deception and actively trying to influence his fate. However, it could also be argued that Selefkidis's behaviour mimics the praised behaviour of Kratisiklia. They both refuse to change their behaviour in a situation where they are at the mercy of others, instead upholding the behaviour expected of their rank. This is supported by another idea of Robinsons, that “defenders of hopeless positions”, in this case Selefkidis, are held up for our admiration because of the “arbitrary stubbornness of the roles they choose to play” (p.6). The fact that these differing types of deception are placed in opposition, and yet neither one can be said to be definitely stated as better, can be attributed to Cavafy's fascination with unofficial history. As stated earlier, he is drawn to the history of the losers, not the victors. Kratisiklia's behaviour is positively received by the speaker, but it does not change the fact that she was ultimately executed. Similarly, even supposing Antony follows the instructions of the speaker and is courageous and appreciates the beauty of the procession, he will still end up defeated and dead. Self-deception is a mask to be exploited in the theatre of history, and whilst there definitely are forms that are approved of and forms that are scorned, it is not possible to escape fate.
To conclude, self-deception ties directly into the ideas of theatricality that run through Cavafy's historical poems. Where the figures are actors on the stage of history, self-deception is a mask they can adopt in order to complete the role expected of them. However, the figure has to be committing to the right performance, otherwise they are no better than the gullible masses drinking the performance in. The types of role required are directly linked to the particular setting of the poem, and this influences how many levels of deception must be employed. Catharsis is produced through differing means, from the redeeming power of art to the way in which figures are salvaged from the depths of official history. Where history is based on appearances and interpretation, self-deception is a key device in Cavafy's staging of historical moments. As Keeley notes, Cavafy's true sympathies lie with those “doomed souls with the courage to see themselves and their tragic circumstances for what they are” (p.80).
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E. Keeley and P.Bien (1972) Modern Greek Writers. Princeton.
E. Keeley (1976) Cavafy's Alexandria. Princeton.
C. Robinson (1988) C.P. Cavafy. Bristol.
P. Bien (1983) “Cavafy's Three-Phase Development into Detachment”, Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 10, pp.117-36
H. Catsaouni (1983) “Cavafy and the Theatrical Representation of History”, Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 10, pp.105-16