George Seferis and Octavio Paz:

Marginal Literary Traditions as Counter-Narratives to Western Modernity

06 March 2024

Alain Daniel Alvarez Vega University of Cologne

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Imagine a literary world unbound by the constraints of geography and market forces, where the vibrant narratives of the Global South shine on their own terms. This is not a distant dream but a pressing call to action -a movement toward a more equitable and diverse literary landscape that celebrates cultural richness beyond the dominant narratives of the Global North. In this sense, regarding the reception of literature from the Global South within the Global South, scholars have recently explored the concept of a distinctive “Aesthetics of the South” (Müller, Locane, and Loy 2018, 170). Nonetheless, a persistent central concern revolves around the substantial influence exerted by the Global North in shaping the determinations related to the recognition of authors and literary works originating from the Global South and, therefore, limiting their interactions.

To tackle this intrinsic subjugation, postcolonial and decolonial theories have been effective in criticizing the hegemonic cultural influence of the global North and deconstructing hierarchical systems in the humanities. However, they have not demonstrated the same level of effectiveness in establishing horizontal connections among various literary traditions, languages, and cultures originating from the Global South. In the words of Shih and Lionnet, this oversight is notable: “We realized, in retrospect, that our battles are always framed vertically, and we forget to look sideways to lateral networks that are not readily apparent” (Shih and Lionnet 2005, 1).

While decolonial perspectives have indeed been effective in highlighting the Eurocentric bias within the humanities, there is a need to adopt a more daring approach and formulate novel strategies aimed at building horizontal connections that counter hegemonic knowledge. These strategies should focus on broadening the canon by exploring diverse traditions, dismantling traditional cartographies, and facilitating connections among literary works that do not necessarily conform to prevailing market trends. As Boletsi and Papanikolaou have recently suggested, if there is an opportunity to build bridges across the Global South, as is the case with this text, one should actively assume a stance of “spatial disobedience” against categories that attempt to reposition the West at the centre (Boletsi and Papanikolaou 2022). This approach would effectively challenge the influence of dominant market forces and facilitate the establishment of relationships based on a collective resistance to the hegemony of the Global North.


Literatures from the Margins: The Case of Greece and Latin America

The primary challenge lies in assessing the scope of the Global South as a theoretical framework capable of encompassing diverse perspectives, including those from the Global North. It is well-recognized that Latin America has forged its cultural identity in opposition to its colonial past. However, categorizing the Ottoman Empire’s governance over Greece as a colonial experience has ignited scholarly debate. This debate arises from differing viewpoints on whether Ottoman rule aligns with the conventional definition of colonialism (Albrecht 2018; 2020). Although this discussion merits further exploration, it is important to acknowledge that decolonial theories frequently offer insights that resonate with, and sometimes mirror, Greek academic thought. A notable example is the similarity between the concept of internal colonialism (colonialismo interno) proposed by Mexican philosopher González Casanova in the 1960s (González Casanova 2006) and the concepts of “crypto-colonialism” (Herzfeld 2002) and “self-coloniality” (Calotychos 2003) identified by scholars with regard to Greece. These perspectives provide a detailed understanding of the consequences of extended foreign control and its effects on the self-perception and aesthetic expressions of societies under colonization and other forms of subjugation.

While the specific circumstances of each Latin American country differ significantly from Greece’s history under Ottoman rule, I contend that the Global South, with its distinct theoretical and aesthetic framework, offers wide-ranging perspectives that can deeply inform our understanding of marginalized realities and epistemologies. From this viewpoint, Greece represents a unique case of marginalization within the Global North, and through this position, it shares certain peripheral qualities with Latin America, which is itself positioned on the edge of the dominant geopolitical discourse.

Keeping this in perspective, Greece’s marginality embodies many features of the Global South within the Global North (Jusdanis 1991; Dainotto 2011; Papari 2022). This perspective might seem surprising given Greece’s pivotal role in shaping the concept of Europe. Nonetheless, it is essential to acknowledge that Greece has predominantly served as a cultural symbol within the narrative of Europeanization, rather than as a core political entity of Europe. As Trouillot suggests, Europe’s significance extends beyond its physical geography, embodying a project rather than merely a location (Trouillot 2002). This perspective should similarly apply to our understanding of Greece and the Global South, implying that it, too, represents a conceptual and cultural project with its own unique characteristics and challenges, rather than just a geographical area.

In this sense, the process by which Greek identity evolves bears resemblances to the historical trajectories observed in Latin America. Colonization and occupation experiences in both regions have engendered a sense of detachment from the western canon, thereby influencing the production and reception of literature. Consequently, marginalized modes of thought, either regional, national or local, which are sometimes unacknowledged, have emerged. These are characterized by a fusion of European influences and indigenous traditions, occasionally leading to tensions. This dynamic highlights the complexities inherent in the construction of identity when disparate historical narratives and cultural legacies intersect.


Octavio Paz and George Seferis: Two Positions Negotiating with Western Modernity

Two eminent literary figures who critically engage with the concept of modernity, reflecting their intellectual concerns towards it, are Octavio Paz and George Seferis. They do not see modernity merely as a historical period or aesthetic movement but their engagement with it is deeply intertwined with an acute consciousness of the dialectical tensions between global influences and local traditions. Through their nuanced positions, Paz and Seferis articulate similar aesthetic and intellectual strategies that allow them to navigate and negotiate a position of resistance against Western hegemony without completely breaking away from it. This strategic positioning facilitates the cultivation of a distinctive cultural capital, which is subsequently recognized on the international stage, notably through the conferral of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963 and 1990 respectively. Hence, their writings present two parallel yet intersecting critiques of modernity, originating from different geographical and cultural positions, that together provide comprehensive and complementary perspectives on the challenges and negotiations inherent in engaging with modernity from the margins.

A critical aspect of this comparative analysis is the attention both authors pay to the dialectic between local traditions and hegemonic narratives. To some extent, both Paz and Seferis perceive Western modernism, particularly as personified by T.S. Eliot, as an attempt to recast Europe at the centre of an aesthetic continuum extending from Homer to Pound. However, they subtly contest this narrative, recognizing within it the dominance of a hegemonic stance, as epitomized by Eliot, that marginalizes their respective local traditions – Greek and Latin American. Proof of this is their extensive writings about literature, and more specifically, poetry, in the modern era. Seferis, for example, engages profoundly with the figure of T.S. Eliot, as seen in Εισαγωγή στον Θ.Σ. Έλιοτ (1936) and in parallel with C.P. Cavafy in Κ. Π. Καβάφης, Θ.Σ. Έλιοτ· παράλληλοι (1946). Octavio Paz also analyzes the figure of T.S. Eliot as a major poet throughout his critical work but engages strongly with the concept of modernism as a literary phenomenon in El arco y la lira (1956), La casa de la presencia (1965), and Los hijos del limo (1974).

In this analysis, I contend that Octavio Paz and George Seferis navigate the aesthetic values of modernity in a manner that inversely mirrors Harold Bloom’s concept of “the anxiety of influence”, leading instead to what could be termed an “anxiety of non-influence”. Specifically, Paz confronts this anxiety due to the peripheral status of Mexico and Latin America, historically marginalized as former colonies of European powers. Similarly, Seferis grapples with an anxiety stemming from the Eurocentric construction of Greece as a mythical entity, which diverges significantly from the reality of Greece post-Ottoman rule. Both poets acknowledge the significance of tradition in shaping modern literature. However, upon reflecting on their cultural heritage, they encounter a fragmented and disordered history that challenges the conception of a cohesive “tradition”. This chaotic literary lineage creates barriers for marginal literatures, limiting their contexts and opportunities to engage with the Eurocentric literary model and the Western canon on an equal footing.

Faced with this challenge, Paz and Seferis participate in the creation of a national literary identity that strives for recognition and dialogue within the global literary community. Their work exemplifies a proactive response to cultural and historical marginalization, aiming to establish a literary presence that transcends local boundaries while remaining deeply rooted in national identity.

In the case of Octavio Paz, there is a deliberate effort to delineate what he deems Latin American modernism. Paz posits that modernism in Latin America not only precedes but also informs Western modernism in the Spanish language, tracing its roots to Rubén Darío, Leopoldo Lugones, and Ramón López Velarde, who infused the literary tradition in the Spanish language with new modernist aesthetics: “It is worth repeating: modern poetry was born in Latin America before Spain” (Paz 2014b, 3:170). For Paz, the idea that Latin American modernism not only contributes to but also enriches Spanish modernism, effectively reversing the hegemonic directionality of cultural influence, is a recurring theme in his critical works. This perspective forms a strategic foundation for Paz’s intellectual discourse, carving out a space within which he can articulate his ideas. In adopting this approach, Paz does not aim to fragment the Spanish literary canon; instead, he seeks to initiate a new form of dialogue between Spain and its former colonies. This approach acknowledges the interconnectivity of Spanish and Latin American literatures, challenging traditional hierarchical relationships without severing ties: “For the first time in our history, the Spaniards heard what the Hispano Americans were saying. They heard and answered: the dialogue of two literatures within the same language began” (Paz 2014a, 2:559). This reversal underscores a fundamental point: despite the considerable impact of Western cultures, Paz highlights the fact that Latin American art and culture charted their own unique course.

Regarding Greece, the issue of national identity had two distinct viewpoints: one from the outside, largely influenced by European philology and the Greek diaspora, which tried to align Greece more closely with the West by focusing on its classical history; and the other from within, pursued by intellectuals in Greece who addressed the country’s recent history following Ottoman rule and sought to build a connection with its ancient past. In his famous 1938 intellectual exchange with Konstantinos Tsatsos, Διάλογος πάνω στην ποίηση (Dialogue on Poetry) Seferis addresses this division by elaborating on the concept of “ελληνικός ελληνισμός” (Greek Hellenism) in opposition to a European Hellenism (Seferis 1999, 1:101). This seemingly redundant doubling between “Hellenism” and “Greek” is Seferis’ response to European romanticism, which fashioned an idea of Greece and thus a “Hellenism” focused solely on classical Greece’s history. Seferis criticized the notion of European Hellenism for its idealized, romanticized view of Greece, which often focused on ancient Greece’s glory while neglecting the country’s modern reality and its continuous historical and cultural evolution. European Hellenism often neglected the complexities and struggles of contemporary Greece, including its recent history under Ottoman rule. Thus, Seferis’ Greek Hellenism represents an effort to forge a national identity that links its ancient past with its present. As Dimiroulis argues: “‘Greek Hellenism’ is a tautology that transforms the historical demand into an aesthetic proposal, thus restoring the fragmented identity of the nation and national culture to an ideal completion of its inner essence” (Dimiroulis 1997, 30). Amid the complexities of defining a national identity, Greek Hellenism provides Seferis with a framework to shape the chaos of the past while laying the groundwork for a distinctly Greek aesthetic future: “Thus, in essence, he constructs the ideological envelope of the coming aesthetic (the true face of localism), chooses his ancestors (defines the tradition that will connect the past with the present and the future) and with these preconditions he claims for his generation (“the best of us”) the sensibility that will prepare the ground for the true Greek works of the future” (Dimiroulis 1997, 28).

From very distant geographies but similar geopolitical realities, both Paz and Seferis critically engage with the central themes of Western modernism, particularly emphasizing the significance of tradition as an aesthetic category. However, their engagement is aimed at strengthening their respective local traditions, thereby ensuring their traditions can confidently present themselves on the global stage. A key aspect of their work is the recognition of a moment in literary and intellectual language that breaks free from the constraints of hierarchical dynamics. In the Greek context, this is evidenced by the gradual decline of katharevousa, the artificially archaizing official language, and the ascendance of demotic Greek as the predominant cultural language, marking a deliberate departure from the European construct of Hellenism. In the context of Latin America, there is a gradual distancing from the notion that the Spanish language belongs exclusively to Spain. This shift fosters significant interaction among Latin American writers, particularly in the second half of the century.

The positions of both writers should not be misconstrued as mere localism or a narrow-minded provincial stance. For Seferis, Greek Hellenism is a confluence, stating: “We are at a crossroads; we have never been isolated; we have always remained open to all currents - East and West - and we have absorbed them wonderfully during the hours we have been functioning as a healthy organism” (Seferis 2003, 2:175). For Paz, this transformative period is instrumental in initiating conversations among various literary traditions that share a common linguistic foundation, effectively decentring the literary tradition in Spanish but not breaking away from it. This shift challenges the traditional direction of information and thought flow, in which Spain is no longer regarded as the aesthetic guide for Latin America. Instead, Latin America emerged as the epicentre of the Spanish language, redefining its role and influence within the wider Spanish-speaking world. Octavio Paz is particularly outspoken on this subject, stating that “[m]odernism (1890) and the avant-garde (1920) were born in Hispano-America and from there were transplanted to Spain” (Paz 2014a, 2:581).

In concluding, the exploration of literatures from the Global South, particularly through the lens of Greek and Latin American contexts as examined by figures like Octavio Paz and George Seferis, underscores the potential for a broader, more inclusive understanding of modernity and its narratives. The works of Seferis and Paz serve as powerful examples of how marginalized literatures can assert their identities and contributions to the global literary canon, challenging and expanding the boundaries of cultural and intellectual exchange. Although Paz and Seferis are not decolonial authors per se, they clearly address the problematic nature of Western modernity and dissect its flaws. By challenging conventional hierarchies, Paz and Seferis not only highlight the limitations of a strictly Western approach to modernity but also pave the way for a more horizontal global literary culture that future authors will benefit from.

Through the analysis of their works, we are reminded of the importance of looking beyond the vertical battles against hegemonic influences to the horizontal connections that can enrich our understanding of literature and culture. Moving forward, our task is to build a world that genuinely reflects the multiplicity of voices and experiences that constitute our global community. By doing so, we contribute to a truly global literary canon, one that values the power of literature to transcend borders, challenge orthodoxies, and celebrate the countless ways of being and knowing that exist across marginalized communities.



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A replica of a doric column placed between stacked books

Alain Daniel Alvarez Vega is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Cologne. He holds a BA in Political Science and a second BA in Classical Philology from the University of Mexico, as well as an MA in European Literary Cultures from the Universities of Strasbourg, Bologna, and Thessaloniki. His current research project explores the interactions among four poets who engaged with literary criticism in the 20th century: Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Marguerite Yourcenar, and George Seferis. His research interests include comparative literature from a decolonial perspective, the intersection between literature and epistemology, and multilingualism in literary research.