|Cavafy and Apollonios ||G.W. Bowersock
|The twelve poems that Cavafy wrote about the emperor Julian span his entire creative career, from the 1890s to the year of his death. They illuminate his religious and sexual anxieties, and they also prove the care with which he read the ancient texts that form the core of his poems. Two recent articles on Cavafy’s Julian, by Renata Lavagnini and myself,* attempted to open up fresh perspectives on this incomparable poet by tracing the evolution of his reflections on a figure from the ancient past whom he found repugnant. But there is another figure from antiquity who also recurs in Cavafy’s work; and if he appears less frequently in the poems than Julian, he is no less powerful a presence. He is someone whom Cavafy admired as the embodiment of his most cherished aesthetic ideals: the sage and miracle-worker, Apollonios of Tyana.
The town of Tyana lay within the Roman province of Cappadocia, which was situated in central Anatolia. It is a paradigm of the partly hellenized and partly barbaric culture of the Greek diaspora which Cavafy, in Alexandria, found so congenial. Apollonios’s long life covered most of the first century of the Christian era, and it cannot have been more than a few decades after his death that he became legendary among pagans for his outspoken defiance of Roman authority and his miraculous ability to cure the sick and revive the dead. At least one substantial work, now lost, was devoted in the second century to the exploits of Apollonios; and it is likely that even then he was being cast in the role for which he was obviously suited, that of a pagan rival of Christ. During the early third century, a Greek courtier in the entourage of the emperor Septimius Severus and his successors composed an elaborate biography of Apollonios of Tyana, replete with the exorcism of demons, the raising of the dead, and an eloquent speech before the tyrant Domitian. This work survives in its entirety. Philostratos, its author, mixed fact and fiction so successfully that the most delicate instruments of scholarship have been unable to separate them.
Four of Cavafy’s poems demonstrate that he had studied Philostratos’s life of Apollonios with considerable interest. Three of these are included in the published poems which have been admirably turned into English by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. In order of publication they are “But the Wise Perceive Things About to Happen” (1915), “If Actually Dead” (1920), and “Apollonios of Tyana in Rhodes” (1925). All three are built upon excerpts from Philostratos, who is quoted in each case in the original classical Greek. The first poem is prefaced by a passage from Book Eight in which it is said that while the gods can tell the future and ordinary mortals can tell the present, the wise perceive what is just about to happen. Apollonios clearly belongs to the category of the wise, and Cavafy is moved to elaborate this extrasensory perception of the privileged few:
Sometimes during moments of intense study
their hearing’s troubled: the hidden sound
of things approaching reaches them,
and they listen reverently, while in the street outside
the people hear nothing whatsoever.
The second poem has as its title Philostratos’s words eige eteleuta from the last pages of his work: “There are several versions of [Apollonios’s] death, if he actually did die [eige eteleuta].” These versions of the sage’s death ¯that he died in Ephesus or in Lindos or in Crete¯ serve as the inspiration of a characteristically Cavafian monologue:
“Maybe the time hasn’t yet come for him to return
and show himself to the world again;
or maybe, transfigured, he moves among us
unrecognized¯. But he will come again
as he was, teaching the ways of truth; and then of course
he’ll bring back the worship of our gods
and our elegant Hellenic rites.”
The monologue is followed by another characteristic device of Cavafy in which the poet puts a distance between himself and the speaker. In this case we are told that the speaker is an impoverished and weak-willed pagan of the sixth century, muttering to himself after a reading of Philostratos’s biography.
The third poem is constructed on Apollonios’s rebuke to a rich youth in Rhodes who prefers to spend his money on a luxurious house rather than a proper education. Cavafy’s verses incorporate the reply of Apollonios in the Greek of Philostratos, which gleams impressively in the midst of the poet’s modern idiom:
“When I enter a temple,”
said the Tyanian finally, “even if it’s a small one,
I’d much rather see
a gold and ivory statue there
than a statue of common clay in a large temple.”
The poem concludes with an exclamation of disgust at the idea of common clay.
Cavafy wrote the fourth Apollonios poem in 1920, the very year in which he published “If Actually Dead,” but for some reason he never put it into final form; and it remains unpublished today. In this work Cavafy turned again to the extrasensory powers of the sage. While residing in Ephesus, on the coast of Asia Minor, Apollonios had a remarkable vision of the assassination of the emperor Domitian, just as it was taking place in Rome. We can have some notion of Cavafy’s subject in this poem by looking at the Philostratean account that was certainly its inspiration: “[Apollonios] was holding a discussion in the woods of the park about noon, the very time when the events in the palace took place. First he dropped his voice, as if afraid; then his exposition lost some of its usual clarity, as happens when a man is distracted by something in the middle of his argument; then he fell silent, as people do when they have lost the thread. He stared hard at the ground, stepped three or four paces forward, and shouted, ‘Strike the tyrant! Strike him!’ It was not as if he was observing some reflection of truth through a mirror, but as if he was seeing the real thing and seeming to take part in the action. The Ephesians were all present at the discussion, and were astounded, until Apollonios, after waiting as people do to see the result of an even struggle, said, ‘Don’t worry, my friends. The tyrant was slaughtered today’” [Translation by C. P. Jones].
Cavafy’s poem of 1920 on Apollonios’s vision at Ephesus must have been part of the poet’s more general preoccupation at that time with magical perceptions of the death of tyrants. It was precisely in 1920 that Cavafy drafted one of the most striking of the incomplete poems on Julian. It is entitled “Athanasius” and was recently published by Renata Lavagnini. There the great fourth-century saint is depicted in a boat on the Nile during the course of his exile in the year of Julian’s death. Two monks are with him, and he is at prayer when he suddenly looks at them and discerns a smile on their faces: they have just learned by intuition that Julian has been killed in Mesopotamia.
It is evident from Cavafy’s preparation of the four Apollonios poems in 1915, 1920, and 1925 that throughout this period he turned to Philostratos particularly for themes that would illustrate the privileged knowledge of the sage or, in more general terms, the initiate. But this exploration of the life of Apollonios was not new to Cavafy’s spiritual world. The poem on wise men who perceive what is about to happen was published, to be sure, in 1915; but we know that it was first drafted in 1896 and published in the first version in 1899. The poem “If Actually Dead,” while published in 1920, was first composed in 1897 and rewritten in 1910. In the original version, the poem consisted only of the monologue in which the speaker anticipates the return of Apollonios. The introduction of a late antique frame for this monologue came later and implies a more detached view on the part of the poet. The early drafts of these works leave no doubt that Cavafy was already well acquainted with the miracles of Apollonios in the 1890s.
It is, in fact, possible to ascertain just when his involvement with Philostratos’s biography began. In November of 1892 at Alexandria, Cavafy published an article on Keats, in which he offered a critical assessment of Lamia. Keats’s poem, which tells the story of a lady vampire who took a beautiful shape and won the love of a certain Menippus, is based on a tale told by Philostratos about Apollonios. The Greek word for the vampire is lamia, and this expression, like the whole story, reached Keats through Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, where Philostratos’s text is almost literally translated. Apollonios, with his mystic power, was able to recognize the vampire in Menippus’s lover and unmask it. “The creature pretended to weep,” says Philostratos, “begging him not to interrogate it or force it to confess its true nature. But Apollonios insisted relentlessly until it confessed it was a vampire.”
In examining Keats’s poem, in which Apollonios naturally plays an important role, Cavafy undertook a thoughtful comparison with the original ¯and more spare¯ narrative in Philostratos. He praised Philostratos for swiftly ending the story with the exorcism of the lamia and criticized Keats for not knowing when to stop. He judged Keats’s addition of Menippus’s death altogether unnecessary. It is clear from the essay on Keats that Cavafy’s interest in Apollonios was bound up, at least in 1892, with a taste for the supernatural. He believed that Philostratos had provided many precious ingredients for poetry. The life of Apollonios was, he said, “a storehouse of poetic material.” In saying this Cavafy was going far beyond an explanation of Keats’s choice of subject. He was charting his own course as a poet.
In the preceding year Cavafy had translated Baudelaire’s sonnet “Correspondances” from Les Fleurs du Mal, adding some interpretative verses of his own. As George Savidis and Renata Lavagnini have stressed, the link with Baudelaire is crucial for understanding the esthetic ideals of Cavafy in the 1890s. These included the acknowledgment of a kind of second sight in a poet, a heightened perception that distinguishes such a person from ordinary mankind. For Baudelaire,
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.
The poet’s gaze is sharper,
For them nature is a familiar garden.
In a dark grove others
Grope along their difficult way.
The poet sees in the midst of apparent confusion the signs which nature makes intelligible to the knowing.
Apollonios is thus like the poet in his capacity to see through the chaos of the world around him. In reading Philostratos’s account of the lamia, Cavafy must have been impressed with the gaze which Apollonios cast on Menippus: “Apollonios looked at Menippus like a sculptor [andriantopoiou dikên], getting an impression and a view of him. Then, sizing him up, he said, ‘Ah, you are the beautiful boy that beautiful women chase. You are cuddling a snake and a snake is cuddling you.’” The penetrating look of the sage is similarly prominent in Keats’s poem, but Philostratos’s analogy with the scrutiny of a sculptor at work is unique. It may perhaps have inspired one of Cavafy’s poems which, although published in 1911, was drafted initially in 1893. Although not concerned with Apollonios at all, it does enlarge upon the rare talent of an imaginary sculptor at Rome to recreate a human image. The poem is entitled “Sculptor of Tyana.”
But it is not only the searching gaze which Cavafy found so important in his reflections on Baudelaire and Philostratos in the early 1890s. It was also the mystery and the magic. Baudelaire’s celebrated espousal of the works of Edgar Allan Poe nourished Cavafy’s predilection for the genre of the fantastic tale. Lavagnini has pointed out that the marginal notes in Cavafy’s copy of Nouvelles Histoires Extraordinaires prove that he had studied carefully Baudelaire’s “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe.” In addition we know that his library included two editions of Poe, which provided between them the poems and a good selection of the tales, as well as the essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” Cavafy’s interest in Apollonios’s encounter with the lamia was accordingly buttressed by his growing appetite for fantastic literature. With the recent publication of his short story Eis to phôs tês êmeras in an impeccable edition by Lavagnini, and its English translation (“In Broad Daylight”) by James Merrill in this journal, we learn that Cavafy actually went so far as to try his hand at this genre.
“In Broad Daylight” is a tale in the manner of Poe. The setting is, however, peculiar to Cavafy. The story unfolds at Ramleh on the outskirts of late nineteenth-century Alexandria, and the characters are young men of leisure who are preoccupied with money. One of these youths recounts how a mysterious male figure appeared to him in his bedroom in the dead of night: a man “of medium height, fortyish,” clad in black and wearing a straw hat. The visitor said that he could show the location of a great treasure, and he instructed the narrator to meet him the next day between noon and four at a certain coffee shop. And when the narrator showed up there, “Horrors [phrikê]! There indeed was a little coffeehouse, and there indeed he sat.” An overpowering vertigo and tension seized the speaker as he beheld “the same black clothes, the same straw hat, the same features, the same glance.” As Lavagnini has noted in her commentary on the story, the gaze of the mysterious visitor who appears in broad daylight after his nocturnal epiphany comes straight from Apollonios by way of Cavafy’s reading of Keats. In the story the narrator says, “And he, unblinking [askardamuktei], was observing me.” Just so had Apollonios stared at the beautiful lamia, “fix’d his eye, without a twinkle or stir,” an expression which Cavafy had earlier paraphrased in Greek as askardamuktei. From internal evidence, Lavagnini has ascertained that Cavafy’s fantastic tale of Alexandrian youth belongs to 1895-6. It is therefore a natural outgrowth of his reading of Baudelaire, Poe, Keats, and ¯as an ancient and authentically Greek source for the themes of those nineteenth-century Western writers¯ Philostratos’s life of Apollonios.
Within a year of the composition of “In Broad Daylight,” Cavafy wrote the first of his poems devoted explicitly to the figure of Apollonios of Tyana. “But the Wise Perceive Things About to Happen,” with its prefatory quotation from Philostratos, can be seen as a natural extension of his work from the paraphrase of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” in 1891 to the horror story of 1895-6. The themes of supernatural perception and the privileged position of the elect come together in this poem of 1896. Although the supernatural element dominates in the short story which immediately preceded it, the element of the privileged elect is not absent even there. At the beginning, the narrator classes himself and his friends as superior to others because of their “perfect spiritual development” which allows them to be “simple without ignorance."
The Apollonios theme continued fruitful for Cavafy. In 1897 he wrote the first version of “If Actually Dead.” As a monologue without the late antique setting of the subsequent version, this poem constitutes the most fervent of Cavafy’s statements of the esthetic ideal which Apollonios represented for him. The poem appears to have brought to an end Cavafy’s work on the sage of Tyana during this phase of his career. But the subject was by no means exhausted, as can be seen from his revision of “If Actually Dead” in 1910 and perhaps even from his revision of “Sculptor of Tyana” in 1903. In 1915 came the revision and publication of “But the Wise Perceive Things About to Happen,” and five years later came the definitive text of “If Actually Dead,” together with the draft of the poem on Apollonios’s vision of the murder of Domitian. In all of this work, the themes remain recognizably those of the 1890s, but the poet’s increased subtlety in the later years gives new force to those themes. By putting the monologue on Apollonios’s death into the mouth of a sixth-century pagan reader of Philostratos, one who was publicly a Christian and privately a pagan, Cavafy hints perhaps at his own experience. Although a Christian, he had become infatuated with Apollonios through Philostratos’s biography in a remote time and in an essentially hostile place.
The last, and in many ways most enigmatic, of the Apollonios poems came in 1925, “Apollonios of Tyana in Rhodes.” The young man whom the sage rebukes prefers luxury to education and training. In Cavafy’s terms it seems that he has forsworn the company of the elect in favor of vulgar ostentation. But what gives the poem its complexity is the fact that Apollonios does not reject ostentation as such: in a small temple he would prefer to see a gold and ivory statue rather than a clay one in a large temple. It is Apollonios’s preference for costly adornment (for the right purpose) that provokes the poem’s final lines:
“Of common clay”: how disgusting¯
yet some (who haven’t been adequately trained)
are taken in by what’s bogus. Of common clay.
The poem concludes, as it began, with attention to proper training or initiation. Cavafy himself had a high regard for opulent objects, as he demonstrated above all in the poem “Of Colored Glass” on a pathetic coronation in late Byzantine times. The empire was so poor that only colored glass could be displayed at the ceremony,
a sad protest against
the unjust misfortune of the couple being crowned,
symbols of what they deserved to have,
of what surely it was right that they should have
at their coronation.
This poem was published in the same year as the poem on Apollonios in Rhodes.
Taken as a whole, the writings of Cavafy on Apollonios of Tyana, in prose and verse, extend from 1892 until 1925, in other words from his most youthful literary productions down to the mature work of his last decade. His discovery of Philostratos’s biography appealed simultaneously to his taste for the supernatural and to that sense of cultural superiority which he shared with his Alexandrian friends. Miracles and élitism were likewise important to Cavafy as a Christian. The special attraction of Apollonios was rooted in the obvious similarity of the sage of Tyana to the figure of Christ. It was during the 1890s that Cavafy was at work on a series of poems about the beginnings of Christianity, just as he was writing the critique of Keats’s Lamia, “In Broad Daylight,” and the first Apollonios poems. In later life Cavafy confronted the problem of Apollonios and Christ more directly when he added to “If Actually Dead” the Christian speaker who had completed a reading of Philostratos with such admiration. Furthermore, in those later years Cavafy’s work shows him increasingly resentful of the frontal assault which the emperor Julian had launched on the Christian church. It was not paganism as such to which he objected, but rather Julian’s exclusive paganism, which ruled out Christianity.
Cavafy saw himself as a Christian, but his Christianity had room for pagans just as he wanted pagans to have room for Christianity. Apollonios and Christ ¯he was drawn to them both. The two unpublished poems of 1920 stand as eloquent testimony to this attraction. Apollonios’s miraculous perception of the killing of Domitian and the equally miraculous revelation of the killing of Julian to the Egyptian companions of Athanasius moved Cavafy in the same way and for the same reasons.
* In Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 7.
|G.W. Bowersock, Cavafy and Apollonios, Grand Street, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Spring 1983). |