My first literary love was Nikos Kazantzakis. Not long ago I broke up with Kazantzakis because of Tasos Leivaditis.
This is a brief account of my translation of the work of Leivaditis, from Greek to English, and at the same time of my own translation from one writer to the other.
My first language was Greek (modern Greek, of course, not the ancient variety, alas). This was the language spoken at home, given that both parents had only the barest of English. After a long but failed attempt to fulfil what seems to be nearly every boy’s dream (sadly even more so today), to become a professional football player (I still refuse that dreadful Americanism, ‘soccer’), preferably with Liverpool, following Craig Johnston’s hallowed footsteps, I turned in senior school to other pursuits. No, not to flirting with girls—thank goodness, that would have been the end of me! Somewhat unexpectedly, and certainly unaccountably in the eyes of family and friends, it was the life of the mind that I began to pursue. As I would open books, for the first time seriously, new worlds began to open before me—and I was taken in. It was a thrilling journey!
The one writer who served as my trusted guide from the very start was the great Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis. I recall having to read an excerpt in a Modern Greek class from Kazantzakis’ controversial novel, The Last Temptation. The excerpt was in the original Greek, and soon enough I was enthralled. After class I scoured bookshops for an English translation, finally found a second-hand copy and devoured it.
Kazantzakis is a highly philosophical and religious writer, in a way that I suspect would alienate many contemporary fiction writers and readers. The word ‘God’ appears on every page of his novels, often numerous times, though what exactly he means by that elusive three-letter word remains hotly disputed. After a distressing loss of faith in traditional Christianity in high school (attributed to the double dose of heliocentric astronomy and evolutionary biology), Kazantzakis was to embark upon a deep religious quest for something that would both fill the gap created by the lost faith and provide the foundations for whatever he was to write in the future.
These foundations were to be laid during Kazantzakis’ postgraduate studies in Paris, where he attended the lectures of Henri Bergson in 1907-08. It is well to remember that Bergson was something of a celebrity at this time. His lectures at the Collège de France, for example, were filled to capacity, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, and his attempt to provide an alternative to the prevailing materialist and mechanist view of life was to influence a whole generation of philosophy students and poets such as T.S. Eliot. Kazantzakis’ sources are of course many and varied, ranging from The Odyssey and the Bible to Marx and Nietzsche. But it was arguably Bergson’s ‘vitalist’ or dynamic conception of evolution—where a battle is waged between the élan vital and materiality, the former surging forever upward toward new expressions of creativity, while the latter pushes downward toward equilibrium and stagnation—that was to leave the most profound traces in the young Cretan’s mind. Peter Bien, Kazantzakis’ tireless translator and interpreter (the one person who is perhaps more responsible than any other for introducing Kazantzakis to the Anglophone world), goes so far as to contend that Kazantzakis’ major writings can be read as a transposition into a poetic or fictional idiom of the Bergsonian worldview. This I now regard as an exaggeration, for it sidelines other significant philosophical and religious currents in Kazantzakis, especially those emanating from the East (Kazantzakis had a lifelong fascination with Eastern thought and culture, above all with Buddhism). But Bien is correct to highlight the centrality of Bergson, particularly in Kazantzakis’ development of a ‘post-Christian’ account of the divine.
In order to better understand Kazantzakis, I felt I had to delve into some of Kazantzakis’ primary sources. And so, rather than sweating over a football during lunchtime at school, I would now be found in the library trying to make sense of Creative Evolution and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. At one point I was even failed in English, and rightly so, for daring to style my assignments after Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo!
Now I was on a quest of my own, and I was quickly making my way through Kazantzakis’ vast corpus. One of the gripping features of his works is the impregnable faith they display in the human spirit. In his epic poem, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (to give it its full title in English) and in the plays and novels written during the final decades of his life, Kazantzakis traces the heroic struggles of a series of protagonists, from Odysseus and Buddha to Zorba, Christ and Francis of Assisi. These larger than life, Nietzschean ‘supermen’ (note: men, not women) set out to realise, each in their own way and often against all odds, the ultimate vocation of humanity, what Kazantzakis (inspired by Bergson) called the ‘transmutation of matter into spirit’, a creative process of ever-increasing freedom from materiality and reconciliation or union with ‘God’. A stirring synopsis of this heroic outlook is given by Kazantzakis in his quasi-autobiographical Report to Greco. The context is a short ‘ascetical’ stay he spent in Vienna in 1922, during which time he shunned the enticements of Viennese life and immersed himself in a study of Buddhism while also contracting an alarming facial disease that miraculously disappeared after a session of psychotherapy. Reflecting on this psychosomatic illness and its cure, he wrote:
Ever since that day I have realized that man’s soul is a terrible and dangerous coil spring. Without knowing it, we all carry a great explosive force wrapped in our flesh and lard. And what is worse, we do not want to know it, for then villainy, cowardice, and falsehood lose their justification; we can no longer hide behind man’s supposed impotence and wretched incompetence; we ourselves must bear the blame if we are villains, cowards, or liars, for although we have an all-powerful force inside, we dare not use it for fear it might destroy us. But we take the easy, comfortable way out, and allow it to vent its strength little by little until it too has degenerated to flesh and lard. How terrible not to know that we possess this force! If we did know, we would be proud of our souls. In all heaven and earth, nothing so closely resembles God as the soul of man.1
Passages such as these in Kazantzakis gradually awakened me to a more courageous and meaningful vision of life, one not generally associated with a generation stereotyped by Richard Linklater’s ‘slackers’.
But then one discovers that the so-called ‘great souls’ are not so great after all. One of the most disturbing characteristics of many of Kazantzakis’ heroes is their frequent use and valorisation of violence, with the ferocious Cretan freedom fighter, Captain Mihalis in Freedom or Death (modelled after the author’s own father), providing perhaps the clearest instance of this. Even God is often portrayed by Kazantzakis as malevolent and ferocious, ‘a merciless and inhuman force’.2 Consistent with this, Kazantzakis extolled some of the most ruthless regimes of the twentieth century, those of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. The cruelty of these figures, their lack of benevolence and compassion, is loathsome enough. But also troubling is the fact that they exhibit little or no vulnerability. This is a feature shared by Kazantzakis’ heroes: they are not susceptible in any fundamental way to doubt and confusion, to harms and illnesses, to foibles and blunders, at least not in a way that threatens to undermine and destroy, or make a mockery of, their entire life’s journey. In Kazantzakis’ novels, as in the Hollywood blockbuster, the hero predictably wins out in the end, even if the nature of that victory may not be what one initially expected.
In a diary entry, after having returned to Athens from studies in Paris, George Seferis wrote: ‘The only way to be sure that genuine heroes can exist, is to try to become one yourself.’3 Most who venture, I would speculate, fail, sometimes miserably. In our decidedly pessimistic, anti-heroic age, even the very attempt is derided. But one need not go that far in order to appreciate the dangerous implications of the heroic ideal, in light of the devastations it has wreaked upon the stage of history. This is what the poems of Leivaditis have helped me to see, compelling me to renounce my earlier devotion to Kazantzakis. But in this I am at least comforted by the following story told by that other celebrated Kazantzakis translator and scholar, Kimon Friar:
When, because of the great harmony-in-difference between us, Kazantzakis once hesitantly told me that he looked toward me to complete some of his tasks after he had gone, I said to him, ‘But, Nikos, you must understand that to fulfil this I may perhaps have to do the opposite of what you intend, and even give you the Judas kiss of betrayal’. His eyes lit up, he tossed his head in proud excitement, and he exclaimed: ‘Bravo! Bravo! To destroy in this manner is only to rebuild’.4
A few years back, on a cold autumn evening in the Cambridge University library I chanced upon the collected works of Leivaditis. In a quiet and faintly lit corner of the library I began leafing through these volumes. This was one of those turning points where nothing would be the same again. I was profoundly moved, the same way as when reading my first excerpt of Kazantzakis in school. As I sat there, reading and rereading Leivaditis’ poems, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already encountered this writer. Before I knew it, it was midnight, the doors of the library were about to shut and in heavy rain and strong winds I made my way back to my lodgings. But the weather barely touched me, for my mind was elsewhere and I was in a trance. The next morning, and indeed each day for the remainder of my month-long stay, I would revisit this now sacred section of the library, poring over pages of Leivaditis, discovering new gems and resolving that I must translate him if he hasn’t already been translated. To my surprise I couldn’t find any English editions of his work, and so I took up the task there and then. On scraps of paper I would draft English versions of bits and pieces of his work, and by the time I left Cambridge I had finished a rough draft of The Blind Man with the Lamp, Leivaditis’ 1983 classic.
Since then I have continued translating Leivaditis, often astounded and always grateful at what these works have to offer. I have also spent time standing back to reflect upon what it is that caught my attention and captivated my entire being. Perhaps the best way to put it is by way of a contrast with Kazantzakis. The ethic of heroism embodied in the lives and deeds of Kazantzakis’ great men no longer appears convincing or even attractive, when compared with the realities revealed in the short, unassuming but potent prose-poems of Leivaditis. Humility has displaced heroism. Stated simply, human beings are complicated: neither angels nor beasts, neither heroes nor villains, but creatures easily broken. The age of ‘heroism’ is over: ‘we don’t need another hero’, Tina Turner sang. The super-man strikes me now as super-stupidity.
The ethos of humility exemplified by Leivaditis offers the artist a much-needed alternative to a culture obsessed by the public heroics and private misdeeds of celebrities and sports stars. The allure of a Leivaditis fragment is grounded in its understated, quiet resonance, working unobtrusively, moving gently, not performing pompously, or tastelessly ‘blowing one’s own trumpet’. We are not confronted with big-bang works, but with lines of discernment and discretion, the kind of discretion that we show a word when we enclose it in quotation marks, as if holding something back, communicating without drawing attention to oneself, refusing to position oneself as a panoptic and controlling ‘I’, not showing-off but showing up the ‘I’ as unreliable, uncertain, tentative and whose every declarative statement is provisional and qualified, allusive rather than direct and domineering. ‘To speak directly of pure things (assuming that there are any), to speak of pity, of saintliness, and of virtue, as if such possibilities were already given in ordinary language, that is, as if they were possibilities of this language, is to speak the most vicious and impious language’.5
The quote is from Maurice Blanchot, a writer who, like Leivaditis, is known for his immense personal reserve. It has been said of Blanchot, for example, that, ‘From the outset, his journalism was predominantly anonymous: he never became a “signature” on the Débats [i.e., the Journal des Débats]. Indeed, as he became established, the number of articles bearing his signature dwindled to nought’.6 There are few photographs of him, no published accounts of his life, and little in his work that would seem to warrant biographical extrapolation.
De nobis ipsis silemus (of ourselves we are silent). This became Blanchot’s ‘rule’ of life, one handed to him by Kant and Bacon. A pledge of secrecy. Kant inherited this from Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) and employed it as an epigraph to his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). For Bacon and Kant, this is intended as an exhortation to objectivity. But it also signifies complete renunciation and loss, the submersion of a life into a work. In this sense, at least, ‘there is nothing outside the text’: all the action, every explosive thought, occurs in the text, in the study, in the library, not outside it—so don’t go looking there, outside: in the biography, you will not find anything.
This is not to say that the life does not inform the work: it can, does and should. Indeed, any division between life and work is arbitrary and artificial. That’s why if the work is no good, the life will not make it any better. Today, however, the opposite is the case: even if the work is poor, the life—if interesting enough—can redeem it, even raise it to the status of a classic. Consider how awful music is often transformed into a chart-topping album only because it is the product of a ‘pop’ star; or, similarly, ‘celebrity’ philosophers whose books become highly acclaimed, at least within certain circles, even though they are tedious and unreadable.
Gustave Flaubert, by contrast, recommends: ‘The author in his works should be like God in the universe: always present, but nowhere visible’.7 The artist withdraws from his creation, and lets it speak for itself. It is difficult to do so, however, given that the present-day pre-requisite for artists has become a circus-master’s talent for promotion, the kind Leopold Mozart taught his son, Wolfgang. For the likes of Leivaditis, the true artist shuns self-aggrandising self-exposure in order to affirm the value of distance and silence, by so doing preserving (what Blanchot called) ‘the right to the unexpected word’ (le droit à la parole inattendue). This is a right had only by those who have died: the death of the author. Effacement, disappearance from view, loss of self. How foreign this appears in view of the ‘cult of power and personality’ manufactured by the economic and entertainment industries of capitalism and neoliberalism. Contesting such industries, and inviting their wrath or ridicule, Blanchot looks for non-power:
To write is, at the limit, what of itself cannot (be done), therefore always in search of a non-power, refusing mastery, order, and first of all the established order, preferring silence to a word of absolute truth, thus contesting and contesting ceaselessly.8
To speak at the level of weakness and of destitution—at the level of affliction—is perhaps to challenge force, but also to attract force by refusing it.9
How then does one arrive at this anonymity whose sole mode of approach is a haunting, an uncertain obsession that always dispossesses?10
That is the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. At least the beginnings of an answer might be fashioned from a form of ‘the good life’ founded upon anonymity, invisibility, fragility, vulnerability, softly spoken, naturally and unforced, without violence, without will or will-to-power. John O’Donohue, in a volume of beautiful benedictions, includes a poem, ‘In Praise of Water:
Let us bless the humility of water, Always willing to take the shape Of whatever otherness holds it.11
Water: colourless, odourless and transparent, also lifegiving—in the same way a work works: unseen but also regenerating, raising from the dead.
This too is the medium of Leivaditis. Those who knew him personally testify that he would always seek to change the subject whenever the conversation turned to his poems. He never accepted any of the literary awards bestowed upon him (in his office he did not hang any degrees or awards on the walls, but only had a portrait of his mother). He would never pass a negative judgement, orally or in print, on any fellow poet—a complete lack of combativeness or competitiveness is evident in his many reviews of poetry books. Above all, he entirely refused interviews: ‘Everything can be found in the work’, would be his regular reply to inquiring journalists.
Leivaditis has often been classified as a poet of the margins, even the ‘guardian angel’ of the marginal, the outcasts of society that repeatedly populate his poems: the blind, the forgotten, beggars, anarchists, prostitutes, drunkards, the mentally ill—‘those poor and mad souls who imagined themselves to be birds, ladders or trees’, as he wonderfully put it.12 Leivaditis helps us see that the marginal is that which cannot be placed under the rule of the conventional and the socially acceptable, and so it resists falsification, dishonesty and dissembling. The real critics of the establishment are therefore those who live precariously on the margins, not those ‘professional sceptics’ (e.g., academic philosophers) who invariably turn out to be the system’s co-conspirators.
Perhaps the greatest value Leivaditis unearths in these marginal characters is their anonymity, a value he wants to ascribe to writing as much as to existence. In a prose poem entitled ‘Anonymity’ and displaying Leivaditis’ characteristic magic realism, anonymity is linked to notions of authenticity and freedom:
No-one waited for him. And he himself knew no-one. Who was he? Where was he going? This was never discovered. The only established fact was that the other day he was found dead on the street and when they went to lift him, as they would have been expected to do, they saw that the dead man—despite the continuing rain—was untouched and his old worn-out clothes were dry. They were naturally taken aback, for they of course could not see the beautiful cover of anonymity…13
There is no attempt made by such outsiders to ‘make a name for oneself’, to secure a place in the cherished annals of history, for they recognise that, ‘What else is anonymity but to live in purity and to depart even purer’.14 This naturally provokes perplexity and fear in those who have compromised with the standards and expectations of society:
At times mother would ask me with tears in her eyes, ‘Why do you like to humble yourself?’ ‘I want to understand, mother’.15
It is only the anonymous themselves, Leivaditis writes, who ‘comprehend the mystery of being a nobody’.16 Anonymity, to be sure, may well arouse in self-defeating fashion curiosity. But the point of anonymity is not to incite in an underhand way the interest of others, but to open up another way of being and writing. Anonymity as a matter of not merely going underground, but as emerging onto new ground.
Together with anonymity, one can detect an insistence in Leivaditis on ‘lightness’—to be become unobtrusive, like light, remaining invisible so as to make it possible for the other to be seen. At work here is something like a Levinasian principle of ‘substitution’, reflected in Leivaditis’ oft-quoted line: ‘And when one does not die for the other, we are dead already’.17 The life of the writer, on this model, is sacrificial, commanded by a call to give, and so always at a loss and always at sea.
But always needing to return to land. To the landscape, to place, for to be is to be in place.18 And to be human is to return to the place where one came from: the earth—hence human is derived from humus, ‘earth’, just as in the Old Testament Adam (‘man’) is created by God from adamah (‘ground’, ‘earth’). The starting-point of philosophy and art, therefore, is not death, as Heidegger thought—that remains too abstract; rather, it is corpses, bodies buried in the earth, lying under the ground, perhaps shaking and subverting the foundations above, yet remaining unknown and insignificant—the humble. Human—humus—humility: the triangulation of the writer. Leivaditis: always angular, standing like Cavafy ‘at a slight angle to the universe’.
By way of further introduction to Leivaditis’ work, I offer the following in translation:
THE SCENT OF THE NIGHT Sometimes the isolation becomes unbearable, you then phone some number just to hear a voice, you ask for someone by name, ‘wrong number’ comes the reply everything is wrong, including the roads we took and the words we spoke and the hands we held... As a child I would hide behind the chest of drawers, the infinite lay there, but it couldn’t contain anything other than me— that’s why I tell you let’s not ask for anything more, and later, having reached adulthood, I would sit behind the window and look at the lights of the city in this way I came to know the inescapability of separation—what will remain, then? what will remain from so many hopes, so many sighs? a name and two dates engraved in stone which will be eroded by the weather slowly slowly. We are all leaving, without anyone learning anything at all about anyone else. Why? What’s to blame? Or is it possible that everything happens for some mysterious reason: an unsolved enigma perhaps, or some punishment? But how beautiful the earth smells at night! O flowering futility of the world…19
This prose-poem occurs in Leivaditis’ posthumously published The Manuscripts of Autumn, published in 1990, two years after his death. By that time he was a well-established poet, and indeed one greatly admired and loved though almost completely unknown outside of Greek-speaking circles (a predicament he seems to be overcoming only lately). Of all the magnificent poetry he wrote during his career, it is the above short piece that I think captures his sensibility and outlook best; it may serve, in short, as his credo.
And an amazing piece it is. The English does not do it sufficient credit, try as hard as any translator might. The Greek original flows effortlessly, with a kind of grace that could only be the result of many years of labour at the craft of poet-making.
The images and symbols, the moods and nuances that permeate much of Leivaditis’ corpus, particularly his later work, can be found compressed here in these few lines. There is, to begin with, the profound sense of loneliness. The Greek word is ἐρημιά, literally a desert, a space of alienation from every form of life, where death and destitution reign. And the desert is the city, not the barren plains and dunes of the Sahara, but the overpopulated urban centres, crowded with commuters and buildings, teeming with life and movement. That is the opening paradox Leivaditis presents us: intense isolation exists at the very place where it shouldn’t. And the experience of loneliness is so overwhelming that relief is sought by any means available, no matter how illogical they might appear: you pick up the phonebook, dial a number at random, simply in the hope of hearing another voice, just so as to obtain proof that, yes, there does exist at least one other person in this world.
The answer the caller receives is yet another telling symbol in Leivaditis’ universe, or better his ‘mythology’—not in the narrow, pejorative sense of a false or inaccurate representation of the world, but in the sense of a non-literal depiction or narrative that addresses us at a primal level of being, disclosing how things mean and relate. In this case, the answer arrives as a one-word reply in the Greek original: λάθος—‘wrong’. More fully, the caller is told: ‘There is no one here by that name. You must’ve dialled the wrong number’. But how could a number dialled purely at random be a wrong number? What would have been the right number to call?
The protagonist is thus prevented from finding solace and remains imprisoned in isolation. And this is only the beginning. Not only was the number that he dialled wrong, for it did not bring about the much sought-after connection and conversation; but everything is wrong. Life itself is wrong, for it has wronged us. The paths we travelled upon did not take us where we wished to go, but led us elsewhere or even nowhere, into dead-ends. And the words we proclaimed proved to be equally useless and meaningless, falling on deaf or uncomprehending ears. This is the sense of disillusionment so keenly felt by Leivaditis and his contemporaries following the brutalities of war and the injustices of persecution.
To appreciate the originality and importance of the work of Leivaditis’ generation, it might help to set it against the contributions of their predecessors, some of whom were already towering figures in the Greek and even international literary landscape. While Kazantzakis was continuing and extending the nineteenth-century cult of romantic genius and heroism; while Angelos Sikelianos sought to scale the heights of the inspired sages and seers of ancient Greece; while Yannis Ritsos and his followers doggedly refused to relinquish the red revolution, even in exile and detention; while Odysseus Elytis beamed with Aegean light and joy; while George Seferis allowed neither optimism nor pessimism to defile his sparse style… while all this was brewing in the background, a new generation was emerging in Greece, the so-called first postwar generation which gave birth to the fine poetry of Aris Alexandrou, Takis Sinopoulos, Miltos Sachtouris, Manolis Anagnostakis, and Mihalis Katsaros, all deeply marked by their wartime experiences of the 1940s. It is to this group that Leivaditis belonged, and although the work produced by these writers is too rich and diverse to be neatly summarised and categorised under a single slogan (even that of ‘the first postwar generation’), there was something significant that these writers shared and sought to express.
Causes, these former ‘comrades’ came to see, are inevitably lost causes, doomed to failure because they cannot accommodate the complexities and contradictions, the vagaries and frailties of life. ‘I loved the ideals of humanity’, Leivaditis wrote in an earlier work, ‘but the birds always flew further’.20 The poet can now see through the easy solutions of both Right and Left, and begins to recognise that there is no way of mastering reality in the way that ideologies, particularly political and religious ones, seek to do:
… but how many questions in this world have answers and honesty always begins there, where all other ways of salvation have ended.21
These ‘ways of salvation’ often serve as pretexts for base desires and weaknesses, as is indicated in another poem from the posthumous Manuscripts of Autumn, aptly entitled ‘Ideologue’:
Naturally he would try to conceal his maimed arm and so he would always be holding a flag.22
Causes not only ‘cover up’ ulterior motives and ambitions, but also tend to bring out the worst in individuals and governments, justifying and legitimating terrible evils and crimes (consider only the state-sanctioned evils of communism). It did not take long, therefore, for the enthusiastic faith and hope in Causes exhibited by Leivaditis’ generation in its youthful days to give way to an attitude of scepticism and distrust. But this was not exactly a recipe for cynicism and political malaise (which would mean, indirectly, lending support to the status quo). It was rather a refusal to commit to ideals that do not adequately reflect the realities of humanity (and so can easily become ‘inhuman’).
One could chart, as many commentators have, this internal transformation in Leivaditis, from a doctrinaire communist in his student days at the beginning of World War II, to the existentialist crisis precipitated by the defeat of the Left in the Greek Civil War. By the time The Blind Man with the Lamp was published in 1983, Leivaditis no longer hesitates to speak of ‘that great error in which we took refuge’23 and of ‘broken dreams and dead music’,24 leaving the precise error and dream unnamed, but no less obvious for that. In the same work Leivaditis recounts that ‘the protest march had just finished and the police officers were erasing an entire revolution that was written on the walls…’.25 The revolution barely got off the ground before being quashed, just like the phone call that quickly comes to naught in ‘The Scent of the Night’, or the letter that the postal system jettisons:
We took a letter without address to the post office, because our childhood friend from summer days suddenly disappeared without saying a word to us. ‘But it has no address’, the post office worker said. From that time you come to learn that the world is of no help whatever.26
Post-war, it was no longer possible to connect, whether by post or by phone. What followed was nothing less than an existential breakdown and, simultaneously, a break-through. There were the inevitable crushing feelings of disappointment and indeed betrayal in the leftist movement Leivaditis had earlier championed and risked his life for on the battlefield and in detention camps. But it was this very despair that made possible a certain lucidity that could not have been achieved otherwise.
What is it, then, that the poet is now able to discern amidst the rubble of the war, with a clarity and honesty not available previously? The poem ‘The Scent of the Night’ once more holds the key.
To begin with, there is the reference to childhood, a recurring theme in Leivaditis’ work, filled as it is with reminiscences of a joyful upbringing in the suburbs of Athens prior to the poverty and despondency brought on by the bankruptcy of his father (a formerly prosperous merchant) and the German occupation. These memories of light and carefree youth are often saturated with sadness, since many of the people appearing in the memories—school friends, parents, relatives and teachers—have since passed away. Even entire buildings and neighbourhoods have gone and are mourned. It is this painful nostalgia that often gives Leivaditis’ recollections a melancholy tinge. But occasionally in these childhood scenes one also senses a sinister undertone, some dark or dangerous spirit lurking close by. In the above poem, we are told that the narrator-as-child would hide behind a commode, and it’s not clear what it was he was seeking to escape from. What the boy encounters behind the chest of drawers is named the ‘infinite’, a term Leivaditis usually links with God, but in this case it may be demonic as much as divine.
The word Leivaditis employs for the ‘infinite’ is ἄπειρο (lit. without limit, πέρας = limit), a notion that arose very early in the history of Western philosophy and science, and continues to bedevil philosophers and theologians today. On the whole, however, ‘the Greeks abhorred the infinite’, as the old adage has it. In classical Greek philosophy, ‘infinity’ is a pejorative term, representing a substratum that is formless, characterless, indeterminate—an unintelligible chaos. From the Presocratics through to Plato and Aristotle, it was held that something is real, true and good to the extent that it is limited by form, while the absence of form and limit is indicative of failure and evil. But attitudes to the infinite began to change, particularly with Plotinus (205–270 AD), the great philosophical mystic and founder of ‘Neoplatonism’. With Plotinus, the infinite begins to be assimilated to the divine, and later Greek thinkers—the fourth-century Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa, chief among them—develop this further by taking infinity as the determining trait of divinity. For Gregory, in fact, the divine infinity is paralleled by the infinity of humanity: since God is infinite, our journey towards God must also be infinite, without end. The human being, on this conception, is a bundle of endless desire (for God).
What drew me to both Kazantzakis and Leivaditis is this yearning for God ever-present in their work. Both writers ‘reek of God’ (to borrow a phrase Laurence Hemming has applied to Heidegger27), and neither is afraid to draw from their Greek Orthodox heritage, as well as to deviate from it when necessary. Unlike the unmoved mover of Aristotle or Aquinas’ changeless deity who is unaffected by the world, Kazantzakis and Leivaditis can only accept a heterodox ‘God’ who suffers, cries and strikes out, a God who depends on us as much as we on Him. This way of thinking about God is evident in abundance in Kazantzakis, and Kazantzakis scholars such as Daniel Dombrowski and Darren Middleton have drawn attention to connections with the process philosophy of A.N. Whitehead, who spoke of God as ‘the poet of the world’, as a sympathetic participator and ‘the fellow-sufferer who understands’. A similar strain of thought also runs through Leivaditis, particularly in his increasingly religious (though ‘mystical’ would be a better descriptor) later writings, where the passion for God burns as brightly as in Kazantzakis’ St Francis. To take only one example among many, in an awe-inspiring set of twelve ‘Conversations’ with God in The Blind Man with the Lamp, Leivaditis writes:
Lord, what would I do without you? I am the vacant room and you are the great guest who has deigned to visit it. Lord, what would you do without me? You are the great silent harp and I am the ephemeral hand which awakens your melodies.28
Returning to ‘The Scent of the Night’, the poem swiftly moves from the narrator’s childhood to his adult life, where he would waste time staring out the window at the lights of the city, coming thereby to learn of ‘the inevitability of separation’. One way to see this is as a passage of return to the pristine condition of childhood, where things are appreciated as they are, not blighted by the obligations of later life, whether they be raising a family or an insurrection. It is a return that follows essentially the same trajectory as that depicted by Paul Ricoeur in what he called the ‘hermeneutic circle’.29 According to Ricoeur’s dialectical schema, we moderns have irretrievably lost the kind of original naïvety enjoyed by our ancient and medieval forebears, where religious faith came easily and remained largely unchallenged. For since the Enlightenment we have built up an impressive tradition of scientific scholarship and critical inquiry (or a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, in Ricoeur’s words) that has dismantled and demythologised the premodern world. But we cannot rest content with this negative or at least critical posture, but must seek to surpass it so as to attain a ‘second naïvety’ (or a ‘second faith’), where awe and wonder are restored but are purified from credulity and superstition. This voyage of exploration, which ends at the very beginning, is memorably encapsulated in T.S. Eliot’s conclusion to ‘Little Gidding’:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.30
A return of this sort is also made by Leivaditis. Rather than remaining fixed in the consoling allures of a magical past, or being overtaken by despairing doubt and disillusionment, the goal is to discover—after passing painfully through these successive stages—a new and deepened sense of wonder and place. That is why Leivaditis’ poem ends in rapture at the pungent scents of the earth that arise at night-time. There is no denying any longer the futility and absurdity of the world, and the lucid awareness of this opens up the path not to suicide but to the freedom to rise above our fate, passionately living in and for the present ‘without appeal’ and ‘without consolation’, in much the same way that existentialists like Camus and Sartre enjoined us to do.
Unlike childhood, however, life is now ineluctably marked by melancholy, a sadness so strong that at times it imperils any possibility of ‘return’. Before arriving at the concluding line of the poem, Leivaditis passes through the dashed dreams and the sighs and groans left in their wake. Countless heroic fighters who lost their lives defending a national ideal (the ‘motherland’) or an international principle (‘justice for all’) now lie dead and buried, just like the causes they championed, and all that is left behind are tombstones with names and dates engraved on them—and even these will eventually be eroded by the weather. In the end, nothing remains, nothing matters: the cosmos gives no support to distinctively human aims or values, and may even be actively hostile to these aims and values. This is the cosmic nihilism widespread in the European continent at the time, with Sartre depicting the nausea and Camus the absurdity created by the great gulf separating human aspirations and an indifferent and inexplicable world. We depart life, Leivaditis writes, without ever learning anything about anyone. Only connect? If only. The world of idealism, with its unitary vision of reality as a rational and harmonious whole (the Absolute), was shot to pieces by the bloody wars of the first-half of the twentieth century. Church and state, reason and faith were left in ruins. The world reverted to its primordial strangeness and density.
This shift is highly pronounced in Leivaditis’ later work, where the earlier communal political struggle is replaced by a solitary journey to figure out who we are, where we come from and where we are going. What Leivaditis discovers is that ‘meaning’ in the existential sphere does not come as quickly and unambiguously as ideologues would have us believe. In ‘The Scents of the Night’ he is provoked to ask why this is so, and whether someone or something is to blame. ‘Or is it possible’, he goes on to ask, ‘that everything happens for some mysterious reason: an unsolved enigma perhaps, or some punishment?’ I am reminded in this context of an analogously indistinct sense of responsibility for the woes of the world, evoked by Australian poet Bruce Dawe:
What have we done? we wonder as the ambulance passes, a sense of guilt beating feebly against the dark one-way glass of our condition.31
The ingenious image of a ‘dark one-way glass’ underscores the fraught mind-world relationship, with the human mind obstructed from piercing this invisible partition or veil in order to perceive things as they really are. This resonates with what might be called (in light of his Eastern Orthodox inheritance) Leivaditis’ ‘apophaticism’, his ‘learned ignorance’ regarding the difficulty, elusiveness and obscurity of life, our own life and our own selves included.
The sense of life’s impenetrability finds expression in other parts of The Manuscripts of Autumn. In ‘The Bird with the Truth’, Leivaditis writes:
One morning a bird sat on the opposite tree and whistled something. O, if only I could understand what it was saying to me! Perhaps I could have found the meaning of the universe.32
Similarly, in ‘Correspondence’ from the same collection, there is no way of deciphering the letters or signals that are sent our way:
At times it rains as I sit in a café, people as they grow older become more foreign and I notice some despondent individuals waiting at the railway station, not for a train but for a dream, while drops of rain come together to make up a great message on the window. Who sends it? What does it say? Will you answer?33
But the ‘other’ is not restricted to the people or the world around us. Our own selves also resist understanding; we are often puzzled not only by our thoughts and behaviour, but by our very nature and identity. ‘How incomprehensible it is to live!’ the poet has his interlocutor say at one place,34 while in ‘Thought at Twilight’ the dark thought is articulated as follows:
Each of us has a great secret and we will depart without finding out what it is —neither we, nor anyone else.35
Against such a horizon of hiddenness, my translation of Leivaditis continues. My experience of this work of translation has taught me that if poetry is what gets lost in translation, perhaps it is also what gets found.
Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, trans. P.A. Bien, Faber & Faber, London, 1973, pp. 356-57. ↩
Nikos Kazantzakis, Saint Francis, trans. P.A. Bien, Loyola Press, Chicago, 2005, p. 168. ↩
George Seferis, Days I: 16 February 1925 – 17 August 1931 [in Greek], Ikaros, Athens, 2003, p.16, diary entry for 6 September 1925, translation mine. ↩
Kimon Friar, ‘Preface’ to Pandelis Prevelakis, Nikos Kazantzakis and His Odyssey: A Study of the Poet and the Poem, trans. Philip Sherrard, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961, p. 8. ↩
Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Laughter of the Gods’, in Blanchot, Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1997, p. 175. ↩
Michael Holland, ‘Introduction’ to The Blanchot Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1995, p. 4. ↩
Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance (1852), 2:155. ↩
Maurice Blanchot, interview with Catherine David in La Nouvelle Observateur, May 1981; quoted in Christopher Fynsk, Last Steps: Maurice Blanchot’s Exilic Writing, Fordham University Press, New York, 2013, p. 70. ↩
Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, p. 62. ↩
Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond, trans. Lycette Nelson, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1992, p. 36, translation modified. ↩
John O’Donohue, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, Bantam Press, London, 2007, p. 93. ↩
Tasos Leivaditis, The Blind Man with the Lamp, trans. N.N. Trakakis, Denise Harvey, Limni, Evia, 2014, p. 29. ↩
Leivaditis, Discovery (originally published in 1977), in Poetry, vol. 2: 1972–1977 [in Greek], Kedros, Athens, 2003, p. 244, translation mine. (All subsequent translations from Leivaditis’ works are mine.) ↩
Leivaditis, Small Book for Great Dreams (originally published in 1987), in Poetry, vol. 3: 1979–1990 [in Greek], Kedros, Athens, 2003, p. 376. ↩
Quoted in Yannis Kouvaras, To the Flowering Futility of the World: Meanderings in the Poetry of Tasos Leivaditis [in Greek], Kastaniotis, Athens, 2008, p. 100, translation mine. ↩
Quoted in Kouvaras, To the Flowering Futility of the World, p.100, translation mine. ↩
Leivaditis, Small Book for Great Dreams, p. 380. ↩
On the ancient insight that ‘to be is to be in place’, see Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1993. ↩
Leivaditis, The Manuscripts of Autumn, in Poetry, vol. 3: 1979–1990 [in Greek], Kedros, Athens, 2003, p. 425. ↩
Leivaditis, Small Book for Great Dreams, p. 352. ↩
Leivaditis, ‘The Key to the Mystery’ in Handbook for Euthanasia (originally published in 1979), in Poetry, vol.3: 1979–1990, p. 96. ↩
Leivaditis, The Manuscripts of Autumn, p. 518. ↩
Leivaditis, The Blind Man with the Lamp, p. 84. ↩
Leivaditis, The Blind Man with the Lamp, p. 87. ↩
Leivaditis, The Blind Man with the Lamp, p. 35. ↩
Leivaditis, Small Book for Great Dreams, p.356. ↩
Laurence Paul Hemming, ‘Heidegger’, in Graham Oppy and N.N. Trakakis (eds), The History of Western Philosophy of Religion, vol. 5, Acumen, London, 2009, p.1 75. ↩
Leivaditis, The Blind Man with the Lamp, p. 47. ↩
See Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan, Harper & Row, New York, 1967, pp. 347-57. ↩
T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 Faber and Faber, London, 1974, p.222. ↩
Bruce Dawe, ‘Accident and Ambulance Siren’, No Fixed Address, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1962, p. 52. ↩
Leivaditis, The Manuscripts of Autumn, p. 418. ↩
Leivaditis, The Manuscripts of Autumn, p. 422. ↩
Leivaditis, The Manuscripts of Autumn, p. 480. ↩
Leivaditis, The Manuscripts of Autumn, p. 545. ↩