Of all the 20th-century poets in the Greek-speaking world, Yorgos/George Seferis is one of the most commented upon. Probably the most commented upon, if one also takes into account things written about him in his non-poetic capacity (-ies). Almost all eminent philologists in Greece (and in Greek-speaking Cyprus too), have written about him, and his poems –and essays– are taught and broadly discussed in education and the public sphere at large. So when someone endeavours to write something new about him, not least a whole book, one must have found something really original to say, something novel, unheard of, that will change our perception of Seferis’s work; otherwise, the endeavour will be pointless.
Now, being at the other end of the endeavour by having written this book, I hope that the readers will not find it pointless.
It is up to me now to try and explain what the book’s point is.
Let me try to approach that question in an indirect way.
About two years ago, while in Athens, at a café, I ran into Haris Athanasiadis, a historian of education. As usually happens in such cases, the discussion was of the type “-Υour last book did really well -What about you, are you currently preparing something?”. When I mentioned I was writing a book on Seferis, he asked me: “Ah, so this will be a sequel to the Incurable Necrophilia of Radical Patriotism?”
This question had never occurred to me up to that moment. When it was posed to me by somebody else, I spontaneously replied "No" without any hesitation. Having said that, I tried to elaborate a bit and explain – to my interlocutor and to myself – why not.
This is how I see the difference between this book on Seferis and the previous one: in the latter, I dealt with a number of Greek prominent intellectuals– artists and historians – of the 20th century who have been canonized as spokespersons of Hellenism, and I tried to bring to the fore the exclusionary and nationalist – even racist – aspects of their writings.
Seferis had been praised by mainstream scholars and the general public as much as Ritsos or Elytis for being, like them, a champion of the Greek nation. But my objection is different in his case: here, my aim is not to attack him for being a nationalist, but to demonstrate that he is not one; that what is problematic and inaccurate is the procedure of his canonization itself.
Incidentally: a misunderstanding that I find very telling is that, after the publication of Necrophilia, several people, who obviously had not read it but were scandalized by what they had heard from others, had accused me, and still accuse me, especially in social media discussions, for trying to “deconstruct” Ritsos, Elytis and Seferis. However, in my book, or in anything else I have written, there is no evidence of such an effort. In Necrophilia, Seferis appears only once, and this occurrence is not exactly part of the text in the strict sense, as it is an epigraph in the beginning of the book. In this epigraph, I use one phrase from his Mythistoremacollection:
they’re a burden for us
the friends who no longer know how to die.
In this excerpt, Seferis appears as part of the same “us” as the book’s author, since they both distinguish themselves from certain other people who go about death in a burdensome way.
The reason why I had carefully avoided any criticism, or any type of reference for that matter, to Seferis in Necrophilia, was my firm belief that his was a different case. Seferis was much less naïve compared to most of his fellow generation-of-the-1930s poets, at least the two mentioned in the title, as well as most of the leftist intellectuals from the first and the second postwar generations, who referred to him as a source of inspiration and used his texts as a basis for their songs, poems, and essays.
The wrong impression by critics that I had set out to “deconstruct” Seferis along with the other personalities mentioned in my book’s title, is probably due to the belief that they share a common fate, that is, that they are inextricably tied together, so if one criticizes some of them, one automatically criticizes the rest of them as well. More precisely, this conception is due to the fact that during the 20th century, in Greece , a certain image about poets had become commonplace, according to which important poets are figures similar to the prophet or the wizard of the tribe, one who has a privileged access to, and can see the past, but also the future of the nation. According to this view, such an individual can be classified in a group determined by the fixed and established expression "οι ποιητές μας". These "[great] poets of ours" are people who have procured international recognition and interest for “our country” and “our culture”, preferably through literary prizes. Their work is replete with references to antiquity, and their poems have been set to music by Mikis Theodorakis and/or one of his followers and sung in large open-air gatherings by large crowds of people.
My claim in this book, however, is precisely that Seferis, unlike the other two, was not a prophet for the nation or the people. Although the external elements that distinguish a “great poet of ours” in the above-described sense apply to him, Seferis never aspired to become a spokesperson for the people and the nation; he even explicitly stated that he does not want to be one, towards the end of his life (when the signs that people were willing to treat him as one had already become apparent).
Thus, what I carefully avoided in the 2007 book, became the explicit and direct subject matter in this one.
To express more or less the same thing in affective terms: The Asian Seferis stems from the desire to write positive things about somebody, not to engage in polemics.
Even so: I have written positive things about people –more specifically, artists– in the past, in books or blog posts. This time it was not the same. With the Greek songwriter Akis Panou, or with the Austrian Jew-American filmmaker Billy Wilder, it was “love at first sight”. My writing about them was a way to express my admiration for them. This was not exactly the case with Seferis. When I was 17, I had already read (most of) his poetry, and some of his essays. I immediately recognized, at the time, that this is something important and deep. But I did not feel that Seferis is “my guy”, somebody with whom I felt familiarity and could place among my personal heroes.
To arrive at this book, I had to cover a distance, both affectively and intellectually, to go to a place other than the one where I was settled before; but this move helped me see that Seferis himself also covered a distance, transformed himself and the givens which he departed from in the beginning. The clearest example for this is his 1969 declaration against the military dictatorship. This declaration was not something he had in his mind from the outset; he arrived at it after much thought, consideration and effort. The surprise it produced at the time to friends and foes was genuine: it was a move nobody expected from him at the time, and this is why it was so successful. This move was not a genuine expression of something pre-existing, of his “Venizelist” or republican convictions, but the creation of something new; it was not so much a continuation, as it was a rupture or at least a deviation. This is why some people have difficulties to come to terms with it even today.
The work I accomplished for my previous book, entitled We settlers. The nomadism of names and the pseudo-state of Pontus, could aptly describe the distance I covered. Although that was not a book with a similar (literary) subject matter, the approach is much more akin to the one followed in The Asian Seferis. Indeed, it is a precondition for it. There, in studying the post-1922 predicaments of the refugees from the Black Sea (and also, importantly, their reaction to their suffering, their agency, which eventually led to the production of a specific Pontian subjectivity, based on the narration of a trauma, or several traumas), I focused my – and my readers’– attention not that much on the “lost homelands”, but rather on the found ones. This led me to the conclusion that the emergence of the “Pontic genocide” discourse was a protest against the treatment of Pontic refugees not (only) by the Turkish state, but equally, or even more, by the Greek one.
That is also the case with Seferis, whose most famous verse equally speaks about a trauma that Greece inflicts on him “everywhere he travels”. This phrase has become part of the Greek popular culture; it has been, and still is, used as a catchphrase in public discourses, as a story title in traditional and social media and all kinds of oral or written presentations, and turned into a cliché. This use of the phrase codifies its content, explaining away and neutralizing its critical power: the text speaks plainly and clearly about Greece, but those quoting it hastily add every time that what the poet “really” means is not Greece itself; it is some bad Greeks, usually those exerting public authority, who are not up to their task and Greece does not deserve them. Hence, the problem is transposed from the “idea” of Greece to its actual – and incomplete – implementation.
In my book, I propose to take this phrase seriously, and literally: Seferis means what he says. He was traumatized by the way the Greek state and society treated him, and his fellow Asian refugees, after – and even before – they migrated to Greece. In response to that, he mobilized a whole set of micro-tactics against it, in his life and work. Or his lack of work, refusal/exodus from work, from military service, from family, and other institutions.
Accordingly, this is a book that does not focus much on reading Seferis in conjunction with other poets or philologists, but rather draws connections with political philosophers, on the one hand, and Oriental musicians, songwriters, or dancers, on the other. This book is the only case where the interlocutors of Seferis are not T.S. Eliot, Mallarmé, or Pirandello, but rather Spinoza, Marx, Deleuze & Guattari, Rancière, Derrida, Virno, but also Emmanouil Zakhos, Eftykhia Papayannopoulou, Vassilis Tsitsanis, Ravi Shankar and the whirling dervishes of Nicosia. The links to these authors were not just devised by me (except of course for those among them whose work appeared after Seferis’s work and/or lifetime). They are based on explicit references he makes to them in his writings.
Reading Seferis’s writings in the above light, I come up with a Seferis who follows several lines of flight, who expresses the desire for the non-nation, the non-work, the non-family, the non-army.
The two most used lenses through which Seferis’s work has been read until now are probably the catchwords modernism and Greekness. My take is that these two preoccupations are secondary in his work. Seferis embraced them and dealt with them only in response to external pressure; in other words, he used them as weapons against something he felt was threatening him. This choice was contingent, it was not a part of a “project” or a “strategy” of his own. It was the fruit of encounters, and it was dependent on the specific history of his life, on adventures and predicaments of his family, his generation, his refugeehood.
1 In a conversation with the scholar Edmund Keeley, Seferis stated: “I never felt I was the spokesman for anything or anybody. There are no credentials which appoint anybody to be a spokesman for something”.
Akis Gavriilidis is a translator and independent researcher (PhD in Legal Philosophy, post-doctoral research in political anthropology). He has published several books and articles in Greek, English, and French, especially on Spinoza, Greek nationalism, popular music and culture, censorship, and the management of the traumatic memory of the Greek civil war and the 1922 population exchange, as well as translations of books and articles by others.