Thursday, November 18, 2010

THE CITY: CAVAFY

DOOR TO THE FIFTH FLOOR "LOFT"
IN WHICH I LIVED FOR MANY YEARS IN BOSTON
BEFORE MOVING IN 1990 (OR WAS IT '91?) TO MY CURRENT
EUPHORICALLY HAPPY LIFE
IN L.A. 
Sometimes I still dream of Merrimac Street, and the loft where I spent the darkest years of my alcoholic drinking, where I first experienced the deep, deep loneliness that formed me, where I got sober. The windows that gave upon the Lindemann Mental Health Center, a fortress-like nuthouse. The bathroom, with its bare hanging light bulb and communal sink, that served the whole welfare-hotel fifth floor. I slept on a mattress surrounded by bookcases filled with books owned by the gay couple who'd moved to Nashville--Matthew was an old friend--and bequeathed me the loft. Those books kept me company: Lawrence Durrell ("Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu, the blue really begins"...), Somerset Maugham ("Were the pearls real?" "If I had a pretty little wife I shouldn`t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed at Kobe"), W.B. Yeats ("When you are old and gray and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire, take down this book"....).  Frank O'Hara. Diane Arbus. Brassaï's The Secret Paris of the 30's and that photo of the "eccentric" woman in the bar I was afraid I'd someday become. Cavafy, with his theme of "fatalistic existential nostalgia."

PHOTO BY BRASSAÏ
Fatalistic existential nostalgia has always been a theme for me as well. For a long time, I thought I might have made a mistake moving to the West Coast. All these years later, I know I have two places to love.

And as St. Augustine said: "Keep going along the road, never satisified. If you stop, you die."


THE CITY

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, a better one than this.
Every effort of mine is a condemnation of fate;
and my heart is--like a corpse--buried.
How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other--
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

--Constantine P. Cavafy

1863-1933, born and died in Alexandria, Egypt

9 comments:

  1. I need to send this poem to every friend who thinks he can escape himself elsewhere. The last two lines are especially sobering.

    On another note, how I'd love to do the time-capsule thing and visit Cavafy's Alexandria . . .

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  2. Hey, the Erich Lindemann! I know that "fortress-like nuthouse" very well (alas, from the inside). Architecture at its finest. Not!

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  3. Wow....now that's a solid negative outlook....Hi Heather..wishing you well and an acceptable view of things...xxjk

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  4. Bill--I was just pricing fights to Cairo (though of course Egypt wouldn't be the same now)...

    Dylan--someone who has actually been at the Lindemann Center! I would have checked myself in if I'd had the money...

    and Joe!! ! I might have to (re-)run my pheasant-hunting in Minnesota Dale Quinn piece. That should cheer us all up! or maybe some Neuterberg jokes...wishing you well also--I'm now in your own beautiful "city" of Silver Lake...xx...

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  5. The Portugese have a word for that bittersweet longing: "saudade."
    There are times in your life that weren't very happy, but you were young then, and through the haze of alcohol and heartbreak, there was still that overwhelming sense of place, even of living as if you were a character and someone's sad novel.
    I'm glad I've finished reading that particular book, but I too like to take it down from time to time and rifle through it.
    And you know that "eccentric" lady is a drag queen, don't you?

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  6. Yeah, someone pointed out this morning that that might be the case...no wonder I was afraid I'd turn into that "lady!"...I actually don't feel the need or urge to shut the door on the past...I don't live in those days anymore but they did form me, and I think Cavafy, for all the darkness of the poem, gets at something very deep about the human condition and our perpetually unrequited longing for home...and our longing to be fully at home with ourselves...

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  7. Trugding the long long long road to....finding
    oneself.

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  8. Hi Heather,

    This is my first post on your blog -- been lurking around after reading "Redeemed", which I adored. As a child of alcoholics (with the normal palette of issues that designation implies) who is now going through the RCIA process in NYC, there was so much I connected with in your writing. More specifics on that later; today I needed to comment because I loved the Cavafy and felt compelled to share my favorite of his:

    Ithaca

    When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
    pray that the road is long,
    full of adventure, full of knowledge.
    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
    the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
    You will never find such as these on your path,
    if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
    emotion touches your spirit and your body.
    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
    the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
    if you do not carry them within your soul,
    if your soul does not set them up before you.

    Pray that the road is long.
    That the summer mornings are many, when,
    with such pleasure, with such joy
    you will enter ports seen for the first time;
    stop at Phoenician markets,
    and purchase fine merchandise,
    mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
    as many sensual perfumes as you can;
    visit many Egyptian cities,
    to learn and learn from scholars.

    Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
    To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
    But do not hurry the voyage at all.
    It is better to let it last for many years;
    and to anchor at the island when you are old,
    rich with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

    Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
    Without her you would have never set out on the road.
    She has nothing more to give you.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
    Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
    you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

    --Cavafy

    To everyone, an Ithaca!
    Hope you're having a terrific weekend!
    Stephen

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  9. Stephen, thank you! I love that this is a kind of companion piece to The City--which, to me, is not devoid of hope, or willfully pessimistic, but rather says in so many words (along with T.S. Eliot): Wait without hope. Because we hope for the wrong things...I'm also struck by Cavafy's observation that Ithaca has nothing more to give. Just so with people, places, things, alcoholic parents, spouses, friends...they lit the fire, mostly of pain, that set our faces to the journey...after that, it's up to us...anyway, alcoholism and Christ are my two abiding passions--I went through RCIA and came into the Church in 1996...so welcome...thank you...

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