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Literature : Famagusta or Paphos

Literature : Famagusta or Paphos
Famagusta reminded me irresistibly of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's back lot at Culver City.

 

 

 

Famagusta or Paphos

 

            Famagusta reminded me irresistibly of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's back lot at Culver City. There, under the high fog of the Pacific, one used to wander between the faades of Romeo and Juliet's Verona into Tarzan's jungle, and out again, through Bret Harte, into Harun al-Rashid and Pride and Prejudice. Here, in Cyprus, the mingling of styles and epochs is no less extravagant, and the sets are not merely realistic - they are real. At Salamis, in the suburbs of Famagusta, one can shoot Quo Vadis against a background of solid masonry and genuine marble. And downtown, overlooking the harbor, stands the Tower of Othello (screen play by William Shakespeare, additional dialogue by Louella Katz); and the Tower of Othello is not the cardboard gazebo to which the theater has accustomed us, but a huge High Renaissance gun emplacement that forms part of a defense system as massive, elaborate and scientific as the Maginot Line. Within the circuit of those prodigious Venetian walls lies the blank space that was once a flourishing city - a blank space with a few patches of modern Turkish squalor, a few Byzantine ruins and, outdoing all the rest in intrinsic improbability, the Mosque. Flanked by the domes and colonnades of a pair of pretty little Ottoman buildings, the Mosque is a magnificent piece of thirteenth-century French Gothic, with a factory chimney, the minaret, tacked onto the north end of its faade. Golden and warm under the Mediterranean blue, this lesser Chartres rises from the midst of palms and carob trees and Oriental coffee shops. The muezzin (reinforced - for this is the twentieth century - by loud-speakers) calls from his holy smoke stack, and in what was once the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the Faithful - or, if you prefer, the Infidels - pray not to an image or an altar, but toward Mecca.

            We climbed back into the car. "Paphos," I said to the chauffeur, as matter-of-factly as in more familiar surroundings one would say, "Selfridge's," or "the Waldorf-Astoria." But the birthplace of Venus, it turned out, was a long way off and the afternoon was already half spent. Besides, the driver assured us (and the books confirmed it) there was really nothing to see at Paphos. Better go home and read about the temple and its self-mutilated priests in Frazer. Better still, read nothing, but emulating Mallarm, write a sonnet on the magical name. Mes bouquins referms sur le nom de Paphos. "My folios closing on the name of Paphos, What fun, with nothing but genius, to elect A ruin blest by a thousand foams beneath The hyacinth of its triumphal days! Let the cold come, with silence like a scythe! I'll wail no dirge if, level with the ground, This white, bright frolic should deny to all Earth's sites the honor of the fancied scene. My hunger, feasting on no mortal fruits, finds in their studied lack an equal savor. Suppose one bright with flesh, human and fragrant! My foot upon some snake where our love stirs the fire, I dream much longer, passionately perhaps, Of the other fruit, the Amazon's burnt breast."

 

            Mes bouquins referms sur le nom de Paphos,

            Il m'amuse d'lire avec le seul gnie

            Une ruine, par mille cumes bnie

            Sous l'hyacinthe, au loin, de ses jours triomphaux.

 

            Coure le froid avec ses silences de faux,

            Je n'y hululerai pas de vide nnie

            Si ce trs blanc bat au ras du sol dnie

            tout site l'honneur du paysage faux.

 

            Ma faim qui d'aucuns fruits ici ne se rgale

            Trouve en leur docte manque une saveur gale:

            Qu'un clate de chair humain et parfumant!

 

            Le pied sur quelque guivre o notre amour tisonne,

            Je pense plus longtemps, peut-tre perdument

            l'autre, au sein brl d une antique amazone.

 

How close this is to Keats's:

 

            Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

            Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

            Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

            Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

 

            Parodying the Grecian Urn in terms of Mallarm's Amazonian metaphor, we have: "Felt breasts are round, but those unfelt are rounder; therefore, absent paps, swell on." And the Keatsian formula can be applied just as well to Paphos. "Seen archeological remains are interesting; but those unseen are more impressively like what the ruins of Aphrodite's birthplace ought to be." All of which, in a judicial summing up, may be said to be, on the one hand, profoundly true and, on the other, completely false. Unvisited ruins, ditties of no tone, the solipsistic love of non-existent bosoms - these are all chemically pure, uncontaminated by those grotesque or horrible irrelevances which Mallarm called "blasphemies" and which are the very stuff and substance of real life in a body. But this kind of chemical purity (the purity, in Mallarman phraseology, of dream and Azure) is not the same as the saving purity of the Pure in Heart; this renunciation of irrelevant actuality is not the poverty in which the Poor in Spirit find the Kingdom of Heaven. Liberation is for those who react correctly to given reality, not to their own, or other people's notions and fancies. Enlightenment is not for the Quietists and Puritans who, in their different ways, deny the world, but for those who have learned to accept and transfigure it. Our own private silences are better, no doubt, than the heard melodies inflicted upon us by the juke box. But are they better than Adieu m'Amour or the slow movement of the second Razumovsky Quartet? Unless we happen to be greater musicians than Dufay or Beethoven, the answer is, emphatically, No. And what about a love so chemically pure that it finds in the studied lack of fruits a savor equal or superior to that of human flesh? Love is a cognitive process, and in this case nuptial knowledge will be only a knowledge of the lover's imagination in its relations to his physiology. And it is the same with the stay-at-home knowledge of distant ruins. In certain cases - and the case of Paphos, perhaps, is one of them - fancy may do a more obviously pleasing job than archeological research or a sightseer's visit. But, in general, imagination falls immeasurably short of the inventions of Nature and History. By no possibility could I, or even a great poet like Mallarm, have fabricated Salamis-Famagusta. To which, of course, Mallarm would have answered that he had no more wish to fabricate Salamis-Famagusta than to reproduce the real, historical Paphos. The picturesque detail, the unique and concrete datum - these held no interest for the poet whose advice to himself and others was: "Exclude the real, because vile; exclude the too precise meaning and rature ta vague littrature," correct your literature until it becomes (from the realist's point of view) completely vague. Mallarm defined literature as the antithesis of journalism. Literature, for him, is never a piece of reporting, never an account of a chose vue - a thing seen in the external world or even a thing seen, with any degree of precision, by the inner eye. Both classes of seen things are too concretely real for poetry and must be avoided. Heredity and a visual environment conspired to make of Mallarm a Manichean Platonist, for whom the world of appearances was nothing or worse than nothing, and the Ideal World everything. Writing in 1867 from Besanon where, a martyr to Secondary Education, he was teaching English to a pack of savage boys who found him boring and ridiculous, he described to his friend Henri Cazalis the consummation of a kind of philosophical conversion. "I have passed through an appalling year. Thought has come to think itself, and I have reached a Pure Conception. . . I am now perfectly dead and the impurest region in which my spirit can venture is Eternity. . . I am now impersonal and no longer the Stphane you have known - but the Spiritual Universe's capacity to see and develop itself through that which once was I." In another historical context Mallarm could have devoted himself to Quietism, to the attainment of a Nirvana apart from and antithetical to the world of appearances. But he lived under the Second Empire and the Third Republic; such a course was out of the question. Besides, he was a poet and, as such, dedicated to the task of "giving a purer meaning to the words of the tribe" - un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu.

            "Words," he wrote, "are already sufficiently themselves not to receive any further impression from outside." This "outside," this world of appearances, was to be reduced to nothing, and a world of autonomous and, in some sort, absolute words substituted for it. In other, Mallarman words, "the pure cup of no liquor but inexhaustible widowhood announces a rose in the darkness" - a mystic rose of purged, immaculate language that is, in some sort, independent of the given realities for which it is supposed to stand, that exists in its own right, according to the laws of its own being. These laws are simultaneously syntactical, musical, etymological and philosophical. To create a poem capable of living autonomously according to these laws is an undertaking to which only the literary equivalent of a great contemplative saint is equal. Such a saint-surrogate was Mallarm - the most devout and dedicated man of letters who ever lived. But "patriotism is not enough." Nor are letters. The poet's cup can be filled with something more substantial than words and inexhaustible widowhood, and still remain undefiled. It would be possible, if one were sufficiently gifted, to write a sonnet about Salamis-Famagusta as it really is, in all the wild incongruous confusion left by three thousand years of history - a sonnet that should be as perfect a work of art, as immaculate and, though referring to the world of appearances, as self-sufficient and absolute as that which Mallarm wrote on the name of Paphos and the fact of absence. All I can do, alas, is to describe and reflect upon this most improbable reality in words a little less impure, perhaps, than those of the tribe, and in passing to pay my homage to that dedicated denier of reality, that self-mortified saint of letters, whose art enchants me as much today as it did forty years ago when, as an undergraduate, I first discovered it. Dream, azure, blasphemy, studied lack, inexhaustible widowhood - fiddlesticks! But how incredibly beautiful are the verbal objects created in order to express this absurd philosophy!

 

            Tel qu'en Lui-mme enfin l'ternit le change. . .

 

            Get unanime blanc conflit

            D'une guirlande avec la mme. . .

 

            Le pur vase d'aucun breuvage

            Que l'inexhaustible veuvage. . .

 

            O si chre de loin et proche et blanche, si

            Dlicieusement toi, Mary, que je songe

            quelque baume rare man par mensonge

            Sur aucun bouquetier de cristal obscurci. . .

 

            Treasures of sound and syntax, such lines are endowed with some of the intense thereness of natural objects seen by the transfiguring eye of the lover or the mystic. Utterly dissimilar from the given marvels of the world, they are yet, in some obscure way, the equivalents of the first leaves in springtime, of a spray of plum blossom seen against the sky, of moss growing thick and velvety on the sunless side of oaks, of a seagull riding the wind. The very lines in which Mallarm exhorts the poet to shut his eyes to given reality partake, in some measure at least, of that reality's divine and apocalyptic nature.

 

            Ainsi le choeur des romances

            la levre vole-t-il

            Exclus-en si tu commences

            Le rel parce que vil

            Le sens trop prcis rature

            Ta vague littrature.

 

            Reading, one smiles with pleasure - smiles with the same smile as is evoked by the sudden sight of a woodpecker on a tree trunk, of a hummingbird poised on the vibration of its wings before a hibiscus flower.

(From Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow)

 

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