Thoughts on Late Style
Both in art and in our general ideas about the passage of human life there is assumed to be a general abiding timeliness. We assume that the essential health of a human life has a great deal to do with its correspondence to its time – the fitting together of the two – and is therefore defined by its appropriateness or timeliness. Comedy, for instance, seeks its material in untimely behaviour, an old man falling in love with a young woman (May in December), as in Molière and Chaucer, a philosopher acting like a child, a well person feigning illness. But it is also comedy as a form that brings about the restoration of timeliness through the komos with which such a work usually concludes – the marriage of young lovers. Yet what of the last or late period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health (which, in a younger person, brings on the possibility of an untimely end)? These issues, which interest me for obvious personal reasons, have led me to look at the way in which the work of some great artists and writers acquires a new idiom towards the end of their lives – what I’ve come to think of as a late style.
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality. In late plays such as The Tempest or The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare returns to the forms of romance and parable; similarly, in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus the aged hero is portrayed as having finally attained a remarkable holiness and sense of resolution. Or there is the well-known case of Verdi, who in his last years produced Otello and Falstaff, works that exude a renewed, almost youthful creativity and power.
Each of us can supply evidence of late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavour. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce serenity at all? This is the case with Ibsen, whose final works, especially When We Dead Awaken, tear apart his career and reopen questions that are supposed to have been resolved before such works are written. Far from resolution, Ibsen’s last plays suggest an angry and disturbed artist who uses drama as an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before. It is this second type of lateness that I find deeply interesting: it is a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against.
Adorno uses the phrase ‘late style’ most memorably in an essay fragment entitled ‘Spätstil Beethovens’, dated 1937 and included in a 1964 collection, Moments musicaux, and again in his posthumously published book on Beethoven (1993). For Adorno, Beethoven’s last works – those that belong to what is known as the third period (the last five piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last six string quartets, 17 bagatelles for the piano) – constitute an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works are a form of exile from his milieu.
So convincing as cultural symbol to Adorno was the figure of the ageing, deaf and isolated composer that it turns up in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – Adorno gave Mann a great deal of help with the novel – in the form of a lecture on Beethoven’s final period given by Adrian Leverkühn’s composition teacher, Wendell Kretschmar:
Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself, risen out of the habitable regions of tradition, even before the startled gaze of human eyes, into spheres of the entirely and utterly and nothing but personal – an ego painfully isolated in the absolute, isolated too from sense by the loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by exception, they could understand anything at all.
There is heroism here, but also intransigence. Nothing about the essence of late Beethoven is reducible to the notion of art as a document: that is, to a reading of the music that stresses ‘reality breaking through’ in the form of history or the composer’s sense of his impending death. If one thinks of them only as an expression of Beethoven’s personality, Adorno says, the ‘late works are relegated to the outer reaches of art, in the vicinity of document. In fact, studies of the very late Beethoven seldom fail to make reference to biography and fate. It is as if, confronted with the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favour of reality.’ Late style is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.
Impending death is a factor, of course, and cannot be denied. But Adorno, who means to defend the rights of the aesthetic, is preoccupied with the formal law of Beethoven’s final compositional mode, a peculiar amalgam of subjectivity and convention, evident in such devices as ‘decorative trill sequences, cadences and fiorituras’. This law, he remarks, is
revealed precisely in the thought of death . . . Death is imposed only on created beings, not on works of art, and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory . . . The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art. Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself. Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with the Being, are its final work.
It is the episodic character of Beethoven’s late work, its apparent carelessness about its own continuity, that Adorno finds so gripping. When we compare such middle-period works as the Eroica with the Opus 110 sonata, say, we are struck by the cogent and integrative logic, the driven quality of the former and the somewhat distracted, often careless and repetitive character of the latter. Adorno speaks of the late work as ‘process, but not as development’, as a ‘catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity’. Which is why, as Kretschmar says in Doctor Faustus, the late works often give the impression of being unfinished.
Adorno’s thesis is that all this is predicated on two considerations: first, that when he was young Beethoven’s work had been vigorous and organically whole, but became more wayward and eccentric; and second, that as an older man facing death, Beethoven realised that his work proclaims that ‘no synthesis is conceivable’: it is in effect ‘the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of the wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it for ever’. Beethoven’s late works, therefore, communicate a tragic sense in spite of their irascibility. How exactly and poignantly Adorno discovers this is evident at the end of his essay. Noting that in Beethoven, as in Goethe, there is an ‘overabundance of material’, he goes on to say of Goethe’s late works – very much with an eye to Beethoven’s – that the ‘conventions’ are ‘splintered off’ from the main thrust of a piece, left to stand or fall away, abandoned. As for Beethoven’s great unisons, they are ranged besides huge polyphonic ensembles. ‘It is subjectivity,’ Adorno adds,
that forcibly brings the extremes together in the moment, fills the dense polyphony with its tensions, breaks it apart with the unisono, and disengages itself, leaving the naked tone behind; that sets the mere phrase as a monument to what has been, marking a subjectivity turned to stone. The caesuras, the sudden discontinuities that more than anything else characterise the very late Beethoven, are those moments of breaking away; the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward.
Adorno is describing the way that Beethoven seems to inhabit the late works as a lamenting personality, and then to leave the work or phrases in it incomplete, suddenly, abruptly jettisoned, as in the opening of the F major Quartet or the A minor – all this in marked contrast to the relentless quality of second-period works such as the Fifth Symphony, where the composer cannot seem to tear himself away from the piece. Adorno concludes that the style of the late works is both objective, by virtue of its ‘fractured landscape’, and subjective, by virtue of ‘the light in which – alone – it glows into life’. Beethoven does not bring about a ‘harmonious synthesis’, but ‘tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophe.’
The problem, clearly, consists in trying to say what it is that holds the late works together, gives them unity, makes them more than just a collection of fragments. Here Adorno is at his most paradoxical: one cannot say what connects the parts other than by invoking ‘the figure they create together’. Neither can one minimise the differences between the parts, and, it would appear, one cannot actually name the unity, or identify it in such a way as to reduce its catastrophic force. The power of Beethoven’s late style is negative, then. Indeed, it is negativity: in place of serenity and maturity, one finds a bristling, difficult and unyielding – perhaps inhuman – challenge. ‘The maturity of the late works,’ Adorno says, ‘does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are . . . not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.’ Beethoven’s late works remain unco-opted by a higher synthesis: they do not fit any scheme, and they cannot be reconciled or resolved, since their irresolution and fragmentariness are constitutive, neither ornamental nor symbolic of something else. The late works are about ‘lost totality’, and it is in this sense that they are catastrophic.
But in what sense are they late? For Adorno, lateness has to do with surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal; he envisages nothing beyond lateness: it is impossible to transcend or surmount it; it can only be deepened. In The Philosophy of Music, he writes that Schoenberg essentially prolonged the irreconcilabilities, negations and immobilities of the late Beethoven.
The reason Beethoven’s late style so fascinated Adorno is that it lies at the core of what is new in modern music of our own time. In Fidelio – the quintessential middle-period work – the idea of humanity is manifest throughout, and with it an idea of a better world. Late-style Beethoven keeps the Hegelian dialectic at a remove, and in so doing transforms music ‘more and more from something significant into something obscure – even to itself’. It stands against the new bourgeois order and, as Adorno understood, forecasts the authentic and novel art of Schoenberg, whose ‘advanced music has no recourse but to insist on its own ossification without concession to that would-be humanitarianism which it sees through’. By then, he felt, music was ‘restricted to definitive negation’. To that extent, Beethoven’s late style, remorselessly alienated and obscure, is the prototypical modern aesthetic form.
Lateness, then, and all that attends it in these astonishingly bold and bleak ruminations on the position of an ageing artist, comes for Adorno to be the crucial aspect of aesthetics, and of his own work as a critical theorist and philosopher. (My reading of Adorno, with his reflections about music very much at the centre, sees him as injecting Marxism with a vaccine so powerful as to dissolve its agitational force almost completely. Not only do the notions of advance and culmination in Marxism crumble under his rigorous negative scorn, but so too does anything that suggests movement at all.) With old age and death before him, and a promising start years behind, Adorno uses the model of late Beethoven to come to terms with an ending. But this lateness is a thing in its own right, not a premonition or obliteration of something else. Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present. Thus, like Beethoven, Adorno becomes a figure of lateness itself, an untimely and scandalous, even catastrophic commentator on the present.
There is an insistence in late style not on mere ageing, but on an increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism. It is precisely anachronism that characterises the work of Adorno’s Italian contemporary Lampedusa, although Lampedusa’s single great work, The Leopard, is accessible to audiences who stay away from Adorno. Lampedusa is nonetheless a late-style practitioner whose interest for the modern reader is, I think, quite special.
The Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi (1896-1957) did not begin work on The Leopard until late in life. He was fearful perhaps of a bad reception on the mainland, and also unwilling to compete with other writers. His English biographer David Gilmour suspects that he was moved to write by his sense that as an ‘ultimate descendant of an ancient noble line whose economic and physical extinction culminated in himself’, he would be the last member of his family to have ‘vital memories’, or be capable of evoking a ‘unique Sicilian world’ before it disappeared. He was interested in (and depressed by) the process of decadence, one sign of which was the loss of family property – a house in Santa Margherita (Donnafugata in the novel) and a palace in Palermo.
Lampedusa’s only novel, The Leopard was turned down by many publishers before Feltrinelli made an almost instant bestseller of it in November 1958, a year after its author’s death. Superficially, the novel is not an experimental work. Its major technical innovation is that the narrative is composed discontinuously, as a series of relatively discrete but highly wrought fragments or episodes, each organised around a date, and in some instances, an event, as in the sixth chapter, ‘A Ball: November 1862’, which is perhaps the most famous and certainly the longest and most complex sequence in Visconti’s 1963 film of the novel. This technique allows Lampedusa a measure of freedom from the exigencies of the plot, which is almost primitive, freeing him to work instead with the memories and future events (for example, the Allied landing in 1944) that radiate from the simple events of the narrative.
The Leopard is the story of the elderly Sicilian Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio, the author’s great-uncle, a giant of a man whose estates are crumbling and who now feels the approach of death. A great astronomer, he spends his time tending a wife, three unsatisfactory daughters and two average sons. His dashing nephew Tancredi is his only pleasure. Tancredi has fallen in love with Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a merchant parvenu. The story unfolds during Garibaldi’s campaign to unify Italy, a period that marks the final decline of the old aristocratic order, of whom the prince is the last and noblest representative. When Don Calogero visits the prince, to receive an offer of marriage for his daughter Angelica, the exchange between the two men is inflated with Fabrizio’s observations, his dress and toilet, and his reflections on the future. Calogero meanwhile is given a chance to embroider his own past, so that before the reader’s eyes the unattractive provincial entrepreneur can be seen inventing a family tradition for himself (he tells the prince that his daughter Angelica is really Baronessina Sedàra del Biscotto) and at the same time buying off the prince’s dashing young nephew. Lampedusa then considers Tancredi’s brilliant future, the further decline of the Salina fortune, and, in a sort of afterthought, allows the prince to be reminded of his poor retainer, Don Ciccio, whom he had locked up in a gunroom to safeguard the secret of the Tancredi proposal until the deal was concluded. Little details abound. After he has described both the misfortunes and the excellence of Tancredi and his family, he says with a princely flourish: ‘The result of all these disasters . . . has been Tancredi. There are certain things known to people like us; and maybe it is impossible to obtain the distinction, the delicacy, the fascination of a boy like him without his ancestors having romped through half a dozen fortunes.’ Such passages give the episodes their metaphoric and literal richness, and it is this that the novel as a whole communicates: a world of great – even luxurious – but now inaccessible privilege connected with, or more accurately giving rise to, that particular melancholy associated with senescence, loss and death.
The sense of all-pervading mortality that envelops the action of The Leopard suggests the very late passages of A la recherche, in particular Marcel’s return to Paris, now strikingly decayed after World War One, although unlike Proust, Lampedusa provides no theory of redemptive art at the end. In his final illness and death the prince lies in a shabby Palermo hotel, exhausted by his trip back from Naples, where he had gone to see a specialist. Concetta and Francesco Paola, his oldest daughter and youngest son, are with him, as is his beloved Tancredi. It is July 1883: the prince is 73. Nothing in what transpires carries the slightest hint of redemption, or of an artistic vocation of the kind that lifts Marcel from the level of the lazy rentier to that of committed writer. Don Fabrizio is filled with a consciousness of being the last Salina: ‘he was alone, a shipwrecked man adrift on a raft, prey of untameable currents.’ All he has left is a train of memories, but they too are undermined by his sense of being the last person to have them. The only qualification of this gloomy picture is the prince’s scientific interest in nature, the stars particularly, which draws him briefly out of his dying agony and submits him to the rhythms of the all-encompassing ocean, whose emissary, in a final touch of genius, seems to be the beautiful but now unnamed Angelica, who has become a type of generalised feminine sensuality. Her unexpected and sudden presence at his bedside seems to unlock his repressed passion for her, and that in turn delivers him to his natural end.
Social disintegration, the failure of revolution, a sterile and unchanging South are evident on every page of the novel. Yet what quite deliberately is not in the novel is a solution to the Southern Question of the kind proposed by Gramsci. Gramsci’s 1926 essay suggests that the South’s miserable condition could be remedied if there was some way to connect the northern proletariat with the southern peasants, to bring these two geographically distant, socially oppressed groups together in a common enterprise. Against the obvious odds, there would be hope, innovation, genuine change; and the South would no longer embody that disintegration which Lampedusa’s novel so powerfully presents.
Yet so insistently does Lampedusa negate the Gramscian diagnosis and prescription that – over and above the references to death, decay and decrepitude on almost every page – it is difficult not to assume that the novel is designed as an enormous obstacle to the alleviation of southern disarray. The paradox is that these late-style negations are conveyed in a thoroughly readable form: Lampedusa is no Adorno or Beethoven, whose late styles undermine our pleasure, actively eluding any attempt at easy understanding. Politically, Lampedusa is almost totally anti-Gramsci: the prince stands for a pessimism of the intelligence and a pessimism of the will. The very first words in the novel are the concluding words of the daily Rosary intoned by Father Pirrone – ‘nunc et in hora mortis nostrae’ – and they set the tone of the entire book. The first event Lampedusa describes is the discovery of a dead soldier in the garden. Now is the hour of death, so far as the prince is concerned, since virtually nothing he does in the course of this work has any effect on the paralysis and decay that envelop him, his family and his class. In short, The Leopard is a southern answer to the Southern Question, without synthesis, transcendence or hope. ‘The Sicilians,’ Don Fabrizio tells Chevalley, the emissary from Turin who asks the prince to accept a seat in the Senate,
never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders, whether so by origin or, if Sicilian, by independence of spirit, upsets their illusion of achieved perfection, risks disturbing their satisfied waiting for nothing; having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.
Do you really think, Chevalley, that you are the first who has hoped to canalise Sicily into the flow of universal history?
The prince speaks of various powers who have tried. ‘And who knows now what happened to them all! Sicily wanted to sleep in spite of their invocations; for why should she listen to them if she herself is rich, if she’s wise, if she’s civilised, if she’s honest, if she’s admired and envied by all, if, in a word, she is perfect?’
Whatever is melioristic, whatever promises development and real change, is dismissed as outside interference. (The prince is withering on the general subject of human perfectibility as advocated by Proudhon and by Marx, whom he refers to as ‘a German Jew whose name I have forgotten’.) The Sicilian sun mercilessly beating down, the arid hills and wide fields, the imposing castles and decaying battlements are immutable facts, and it is those, not the political efforts envisaged by Gramsci, that have stamped Sicilian society.
The generations advance ineluctably, and as the old order represented by the prince dies, the social and political contradictions become greater, more difficult to contain or to render as personal history. The lateness of Lampedusa’s novel consists precisely in its taking place as the transformation of the personal into the collective is about to occur: a moment which its structure and plot evoke superbly, yet resolutely refuse to go along with. The prince cannot have a son succeed him; his only spiritual successor is his brilliant nephew, a young man whose opportunism and tangled exploits the old man accepts but ultimately draws back from. ‘If we want things to stay as they are,’ Tancredi says to his disapproving uncle, ‘they will have to change.’ Tancredi is very much like Napoleon’s nephew in Marx’s 18th Brumaire, a man whose ascendancy depends on the exploitation of a class of people like Tancredi’s father-in-law, Calogero: people who want the association with aristocracy as an entrée to power. The prince’s other, and in some ways more authentic, heir is his rigid daughter Concetta, who cannot – even half a century later – forgive Tancredi’s lack of delicacy and respect for the Church. Though she outlives her father and Tancredi, she has neither the intelligence nor the extraordinary, almost abstract self-esteem that the old Leopard has. Lampedusa treats her harshly. Her fondest possession is her father’s dog, stuffed after its death, and the novel ends with her sudden discovery of the ‘inner emptiness’ that the dogskin symbolises:
As the carcass was dragged off, the glass eye stared at her with the humble reproach of things discarded in the hope of final riddance. A few minutes later what remained of Bendicò was flung into a corner of the yard visited everyday by the dustman. During the flight down from the window its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust.
A sudden, not to say catastrophically literal decline such as this immediately raises the question of who or what Lampedusa is representing here. What and whose history is this, after all? Any acquaintance with the facts of the childless Lampedusa’s quite uninteresting life impels one to assume that the novel is to some extent a Sicilian Death of Ivan Ilich, which in turn masks a powerful autobiographical impulse. The last Salina is in effect the last Lampedusa, whose own cultivated melancholy, totally without self-pity, stands at the centre of the novel, exiled from the continuing history of the 20th century, enacting a state of anachronistic lateness with a compelling authenticity and an unyielding ascetic principle that rules out sentimentality and nostalgia. The one thing that is difficult to find in his work is any embarrassment about its patently unrepentant individualism. It is as if having achieved age, Lampedusa wanted none of its supposed serenity or maturity, none of its amiability and official ingratiation. Yet nowhere is mortality denied or evaded; on the contrary, the book keeps returning to the theme of death, which both ironises and elevates language and the form itself into an almost sublime transcription of worldly finality.
At the same time, the reader often has an impression of something unsayable or finally just beyond reach. When, for instance, the two men are getting to know each other, the crude but perspicacious Calogero sees in the prince ‘a certain energy with a tendency towards abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not in what he could wrest from others’. We are given a number of insights here: the prince’s extraordinary self-sufficiency, his reserve, his fastidiousness and lack of greed, and above all ‘this abstract energy’, undiminished (if ultimately defeated), which makes a deep impression on Calogero. And since the point of the passage is to suggest that ‘energy’ and that elusive inwardness, we cannot by definition obtain much in the way of information or get very close to the prince. The passage derives its heightened effect of lateness from the many descriptions of mortality and decline that surround it, though neither can impinge on the prince’s integrity, even if he is a man whose time is over.
Lampedusa’s poetic counterpart is the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, none of whose poetry was published in book form until after his death in 1933. Cavafy wanted 154 of his poems preserved, all of them quite short by the standards of 20th-century poetry, each an attempt to clarify and dramatise, in the style of Browning’s dramatic monologues, a moment or incident from the past, either a personal past or that of the wider Hellenic world. One of his frequent sources is Plutarch; he also draws on Shakespeare and was fascinated by Julian the Apostate. Alexandria haunts his poetry, from the beginning to the end of his career. Among his earliest works is ‘The City’, a dialogue between two friends, the first of whom (perhaps a former governor) bewails his fate as a prisoner in the unnamed, but clearly intended Egyptian port city:
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted
them, destroyed them totally.
The second speaker replies in accents of cold definiteness that mark exactly the narrow range and stoic impartiality of Cavafy’s style:
You won’t find a new country, won’t find
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in
these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope
for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.
It is not only the place that has captured the speaker, but the repetitive action to which his fate compels him.
Cavafy considered ‘The City’, together with ‘The Satrapy’, as the way into his mature poetry. In ‘The Satrapy’, the speaker addresses a man who is thinking of leaving Alexandria to seek out a new post in the provinces under King Artaxerxes. Against the success he hopes to achieve, the fugitive from Alexander is reminded that
You’re longing for something else, aching for
praise from the Demos and the Sophists,
that hard-won, that priceless acclaim –
the Agora, the Theatre, the Crowns of Laurel.
You can’t get any of these from Artaxerxes,
you’ll never find any of these in the satrapy,
and without them, what kind of life will you live?
Despite its limitations, Alexandria – which E.M. Forster once described as a city ‘founded upon cotton, with the concurrence of onions and eggs, ill built, ill planned, ill drained’ – holds the promise without which Cavafy could not live, even though it would culminate in betrayal and disappointment.
Cavafy’s poetry has a persistently urban setting, which brings together the mythical and – with its ironic, understated tone of melancholic disenchantment – the prosaic. But to locate Cavafy in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Egypt is to be struck by how utterly his work fails to take note of the modern Arab world. Alexandria is either the anonymous site of episodes from the poet’s life (bars, rented rooms, cafés, apartments where he meets his lovers); or it is portrayed as it once was, a city in the Hellenic world under successive and overlapping imperiums: Rome, Greece, pre and post-Alexandrian Byzantium, Ptolomaic Egypt and the Arab Empire. Partly invented, partly real, the characters in the poems are seen at passing – though sometimes crucial – moments in their lives: the poem reveals and consecrates the moment before history closes around it and it is lost to us for ever. The time of the poem, which is never sustained for more than a few instants, is always outside and alongside the real present, which Cavafy treats only as a subjective passage into the past. The language, a learned Greek idiom of which Cavafy was self-consciously the last modern representative, adds to the parsimony, the essentialised and rarefied quality of the poetry. His poems enact a form of minimal survival between the past and the present, and his aesthetic of non-production, expressed in a non-metaphorical, almost prosaic unrhymed verse, enforces the sense of enduring exile which is at the core of his work.
In Cavafy, then, the future does not occur, or if it does it has in a sense already happened and therefore hasn’t occurred. Better the internalised, narrow world of limited expectations than that of grandiose projects constantly betrayed or traduced. One of the most dense poems, ‘Ithaka’, is spoken as if to an Odysseus whose journey home to Penelope is already charted and known in advance, so the full weight of the Odyssey bears on every line. This, however, does not preclude enjoyment:
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind
But every pleasure is meticulously specified in advance inside the speaker’s utterance. The poem’s closing cadences rediscover an Ithaka not as goal or telos for the homeward-bound hero but as an instigation for his voyage (‘Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey./ Without her you wouldn’t have set out./ She has nothing left to give you now’). This leaves Ithaka itself fulfilled and also denuded of promise, incapable of attracting or even deceiving the hero, now that the course of voyage and return has run within the lines of the poem. Bound into that circumscribed trajectory, Ithaka itself acquires new meaning not as an individual place, but as a class of experiences (Ithakas) that enable human understanding:
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
The grammatical form of the phrase ‘you’ll have understood by then’ carries the poem to its ultimate clarification, all the while leaving the speaker, who performs no action himself, standing outside, apart, tangential. It is as if Cavafy’s basic poetic gesture is to deliver meaning to someone else while denying its rewards to himself: a form of exile that replicates his existential isolation in a de-Hellenised Alexandria where, in his best-known poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, waiting for a disaster to befall is an experience suddenly dissipated by the realisation that ‘there are no barbarians any longer,’ whence the self-deprecating regret in the phrase ‘they were, those people, a kind of solution.’ The reader is offered an ambiguous but carefully specified poetic space in which to overhear and only partly to grasp what is actually taking place.
One of Cavafy’s greatest achievements is to render the extremes of lateness, physical crisis and exile in forms and situations and above all in a style of remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm. Often, but not always, Alexandria’s history provides him with such occasions, as in the great poem ‘The God Abandons Antony’, based on an episode in Plutarch. The Roman hero is addressed as he is facing the loss of his career, his plans, and now at last his city: ‘say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.’ The speaker enjoins Antony to set aside the consolations of sensuality, with its cheap regrets and easy self-deceptions. Rather, he is summoned sternly to witness and experience Alexandria as an animated, disciplined spectacle in which he once participated but which, as with all temporal things, now seems to be moving away from him:
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
What heightens the effect of these stunning lines is that Cavafy imposes a strict, perhaps even terminal silence on Antony so that he can hear for the last time the exact notes of the ‘exquisite music’ he is losing: the convergence of absolute stillness and totally organised, pleasurable sound is wonderfully held together in an almost prosaic, accentless diction.
Forster’s description of Cavafy as ‘standing motionless at a slight angle to the universe’ captures the strange, ecstatic effect of his always late style, with its scrupulous, small-scale declarations, which seem coaxed out of a pervasive obscurity. In one of Cavafy’s finest late poems, ‘Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340’, the speaker attends the funeral of his charming former drinking companion Myris, a Christian who in death is being re-created as an object of elaborate church ceremony. He suddenly fears that he had been deceived by his passion for Myris and runs away from the ‘horrible house’.
I rushed out of their horrible house
rushed away before my memory of Myris
could be captured, could be perverted by
This is the prerogative of late style: it has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them. What holds them in tension, as equal forces straining in opposite directions, is the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile.