Literary criticism,Philosophy,Politics

Why Seferis?  

by Akis Gavriilidis

Of all the 20th century poets in the Greek-speaking world, Yorgos/ George Seferis is one of the most commented upon. Probably the most commented upon, if one takes into account also things written about him in his non-poetic capacity (-ies). Almost all the important philologists in Greece, (and probably all in Greek-speaking Cyprus), have written about him, and his poems –and essays- are taught and broadly discussed in education and the public sphere at large. So when someone endeavours to write something, and, what is more, a whole book, about him, one must have found something really original to say, something novel, unheard of, even something that will change our perception of Seferis’s work; otherwise, it will be pointless.

Now, being at the other end of the endeavour, having written this book, I hope that the readers will not find it pointless.

What is its point?

Let me try to approach that question in an indirect way.

About two years ago, while in Athens, at a café, I ran into Haris Athanasiadis, the historian of education. As usually happens in such cases, the discussion was of the type “-Υour last book did really good -What about you, are you currently preparing something?”. When I mentioned I am writing a book on Seferis, he asked me: “Ah, so this will be a sequel to the Incurable Necrophilia of Radical Patriotism?”.

This question had never occurred to me up to then. When it was put to me by somebody else, I spontaneously replied «No» without any hesitation. Having said that, I tried to elaborate a bit and explain –to my interlocutor and to myself- why not.

The difference is the following: in the latter book, I dealt with a number of prominent intellectual figures –artists and historians- of the Greek 20th century who have been canonized as spokespersons of Hellenism, and tried to bring to the fore the exclusionary and nationalist –even racist- aspects of their writings.

Seferis had been praised by mainstream scholars, and the general public, as much as Ritsos or Elytis for being, like them, a champion of the Greek nation. But my objection is different in his case: here, my aim is not to attack him for being a nationalist, but to demonstrate that he is not one; that what is problematic and inaccurate is the procedure of his canonization itself.

Incidentally: a misunderstanding that I find very telling is that, after the publication of Necrophilia, several people, who obviously had not read it but were scandalized by what they had heard from others, had accused me, and still accuse me, especially in social media discussions, for trying to “deconstruct” Ritsos, Elytis and Seferis. However, In my book, or in anything else I have written, there is no evidence of such an effort. In Necrophilia, Seferis appears only once, and this occurrence is both inside and outside the text proper, as it is a motto in the beginning of the book.

As such a motto, in particular, I use one phrase from his Mythistorema collection:

they’re a burden for us

the friends who no longer know how to die.

With this quotation, Seferis appears as part of the same “us” as the author, since they both distinguish themselves from certain other people who go about death in a burdensome way.

The reason why, in Necrophilia, I had carefully avoided any criticism, or any type of reference for that matter, to Seferis, was my firm belief that his was a different case. Seferis was much less naïve compared to most of his fellow generation-of-the-30s poets, at least than these two mentioned in the title, and to most of the leftist intellectuals from the first and the second postwar generations, who referred to him as a source of inspiration and used his texts as a basis for their songs, poems, and essays.

The wrong impression that I had undertaken to “deconstruct” Seferis along with the other personalities mentioned in my book’s title, is probably due to the belief that their fate is common, they belong inextricably together, so if one criticizes some of them, one certainly criticizes the rest of them as well. More precisely, it is due to the fact that, in the Greek 20th century, a certain image about poets had become commonplace, according to which, important poets are figures similar to the prophet or the wizard of the tribe, one who has a privileged access and can see the past, but also the future of the nation. In that case, such an individual can be classified among a set determined by the fixed and established expression «οι ποιητές μας». These «[great] poets of ours» are people who have procured international recognition and interest for “our country” and “our culture”, preferably through literary prizes, whose work abound in references to antiquity, and whose poems have been set to music by Mikis Theodorakis and/ or one of his followers and sung in large open-air gatherings by large crowds of people.

My claim in this book, however, is precisely that Seferis, unlike the other two, was not a prophet for the nation or the people. Although the external elements that distinguish a “great poet of ours” in the above sense are there for him, Seferis never aspired to become a spokesperson for the people and the nation; he even explicitly stated that he does not want to be one[1], towards the end of his life (when the signs that people were willing to treat him as one had already become apparent).

What was a careful avoidance in the 2007 book, became the explicit and direct subject matter in this one.

To express more or less the same thing in affective terms: The Asian Seferis stems from the desire to write positive things about somebody, not to do polemics.

Even so: I have written positive things about people –more specifically, artists- in the past, in books or blog posts. This time it was not the same. With the Greek songwriter Akis Panou, or with the Austrian Jew-American filmmaker Billy Wilder, it was “love at first sight”. My writing about them was a way to express my admiration for them. This was not exactly the case with Seferis. I had read (most of) his poetry, and some of his essays, already when I was 17. I immediately recognized, at the time, that this is something important and deep. But I did not feel that Seferis is “my guy”, somebody with whom to feel familiarity and place him among my personal heroes.

To arrive at this book, I had to cover a distance, both affectively and intellectually, to go to a place other than the one where I was established before; but also, for the same purpose, it helped me to see that Seferis himself covered a distance, transformed himself and the givens which he departed from in the beginning.

This distance I covered, could usefully be described as the work I accomplished for my previous book, entitled We settlers. The nomadism of names and the pseudo-state of Pontus. Although this is not a book with a similar (literary) subject matter, the approach is much more akin to the one followed in The Asian Seferis. Indeed, it is a precondition for it.

There, in studying the post-1922 sufferings of the refugees from the Black Sea, (and also, importantly, their reaction to that suffering, their agency, which eventually led to the production of a specific Pontian subjectivity, based on the narration of a trauma, or several traumas), I focused my –and my readers’- attention not that much on the “lost homelands”, but rather on the found ones. This led me to the conclusion that the emergence of the “Pontic genocide” discourse was a protest against the treatment of Pontic refugees not (only) by the Turkish state, but equally, or even more, by the Greek one.

The same is the case with Seferis, whose most famous verse equally speaks about a trauma that Greece inflicts on him (“everywhere he travels”). This phrase has become part of the Greek popular culture; it has been, and still is, used as a catchphrase in public discourses, as a story title in traditional and social media and all kinds of oral or written presentations, and turned into a cliché. But this use at the same time codifies its content, explaining away and neutralizing its critical power: the text speaks plainly and clearly about Greece, but the quoters hastily add every time that what the poet “really” means is not Greece itself; it is some bad Greeks, usually those exerting public authority, who are not up to their task and Greece does not deserve them. Hence, the problem is transposed from the “idea” of Greece to its actual –and incomplete- implementation.

In my book, I propose to take this phrase seriously, and literally: Seferis means what he says. He was traumatized by the way the Greek state and society treated him, and his fellow Asian refugees, after –and even before- they migrated to Greece. In response to that, he mobilized a whole set of micro-tactics against it, in his life and work. Or his lack of work, refusal/ exodus from work, from military service, from family, and other institutions.

Accordingly, this is a book that reads Seferis in conjunction not that much with other poets or philologists, but rather with political philosophers, on the one hand, and Oriental musicians, songwriters, or dancers, on the other. This book is the only case where the interlocutors of Seferis are not T.S. Eliot, Mallarmé, or Pirandello, but rather Spinoza, Marx, Deleuze & Guattari, Rancière, Derrida, Virno, but also Emmanouìl Zàkhos, Eftykhìa Papayannopoùlou, Vassilis Tsitsanis, Ravi Shankar and the whirling dervishes of Nicosia. The links to these authors is not my invention, (except of course for those among them whose work appeared after Seferis’s work and/ or lifetime), but are based on explicit references he makes to them in his writings.

Reading these writings in the above light, I come up with a Seferis who follows several lines of flight, who expresses the desire for the non-nation, the non-work, the non-family, the non-army.

The two most used lenses through which Seferis’s work has been read up to now are probably the catchwords modernism and Greekness. My take is that these two preoccupations are secondary in his work. Seferis embraced them and dealt with them only in response to external pressure; in other words, he used them as weapons against something he felt was threatening him. This choice was contingent, it was not a part of a “project” or a “strategy” of his own. It was the fruit of encounters, and it was dependent on the specific history of his life, on adventures and predicaments of his family, his generation, his refugeehood.

Σεφέρης εξώφυλλο

[1] In a conversation with the scholar Edmund Keeley, Seferis stated: “I never felt I was the spokesman for anything or anybody. There are no credentials which appoint anybody to be a spokesman for something”.

Originally published in the «Bookself» section of the «Greek Studies Now» Cultural Analysis Network, an initiative of Greek culture scholars from the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam.

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