Every year the same: Christmas drops like a meteor into our little buckets of banality, displacing whatever has been disconsolate, complacent, poor, bored, boorish or small about our lives. We raise either a cheer or a howl, depending, or, perhaps if we are honest, one of each. Protest is vain – we’ve had ample warning. The Advent season, at least in the United States, long ago burst its liturgical boundaries, so that now we say, “Christmas music is playing in the stores, decorations are on display… Halloween must me coming.” The crassness of it all, its pervasiveness, is one of the ways we attempt to restore a bit of that displaced banality. That is to say, it is one of the ways we try to manage the holy, or the idea of the holy. Because if we simply let Christmas arrive, unmitigated by Rudolph, Santa, or charge cards - and we’re talking here about the essence of Christmas, quite apart from its Christian specifics, as the birth of That which can Save Us – if we simply let it blaze its tail through our atmosphere and land in our little buckets, then, first of all, there would be nothing left of our buckets. Then what? An end to all our tyrannies, little and large, by which we know our selves. Mostly we won’t have it.
Twenty years ago today, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union and handed up a defunct superpower for history’s dissection. Twenty years before that, Joseph Brodsky, living in a monolithic Soviet Union that seemed to be going nowhere any time soon, having suffered Soviet cultural and intellectual tyranny, convicted as a “social parasite”, imprisoned in a mental institution, and about to be forced into exile, wrote: “Herod reigns but the stronger he is,/the more sure, the more certain the wonder./In the constancy of this relation/is the basic mechanics of Christmas.”
Herod reigns, to be sure. Herod reigns in Russia still, in Syria, North Korea. Herod reigns, too – let’s be honest about this – in all our hearts. But Brodsky says “the wonder” will out. That is how it works.
Christmas morning: Soon the house will smell of the day-long meal. Sam, who has not been feeling at all well lately, rallied his energy to make a rustic pork terrine and, because our friend Nathan, a vegetarian, will be joining us, a terrine of roasted vegetables and goat cheese custard. These we will eat with crudité and Prosecco. For dinner, I’ve planned a spiced squash, fennel, and pear soup to be eaten with crusty bread, followed by a salad of asparagus, leeks, new potatoes and artichoke hearts with a tomato and hard-boiled egg vinaigrette. Then, coq au Riesling, garnished with chanterelle mushrooms and glazed baby red onions and served with little corn pancakes. Nathan will eat the corn pancakes with a stir-fry of red, green, yellow bell peppers with red wine vinegar. For dessert, we will have a chocolate polenta pudding cake.
Books, as always, will play a staring role in our gift exchange. I’ve bought Sam, among other titles, a book called Verdi’s Shakespeare, by Garry Wills. Sam is a besotted idolator of both these men, so when I read a review for this book in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I wondered, for one irrational moment, how Gary had gotten to know my partner so well without my finding out about it. Our friend Mary Louise, who loves to know a little bit about a lot of things, will be receiving E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Sam bought the new Stephen King novel, 11/22/63, for our friend Keith. If I’m not mistaken, it will be the first time a Stephen King novel has appeared under a Christmas tree I’ve helped decorate. I can’t wait to see Nathan’s face when he opens The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by the Colombian novelist Alvero Mutis. Along with Sam, he is the most passionate reader I know, and he has a special affection for Latin American novels, especially the ones hardly anyone has heard of. And for me? I’ll let you know.
Sam is a passionate poetry lover. At some point during the day, he will insist we read poems aloud. One of them will be this one, by Joseph Brodsky:
DECEMBER 24, 1971
When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi. At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing. Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored, is the cause of a human assault-wave by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels: each one his own king, his own camel.
Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones, caps and neckties all twisted up sideways. Reek of vodka and resin and cod, orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples. Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.
And the bearers of moderate gifts leap on buses and jam all the doorways, disappear into courtyards that gape, though they know that there’s nothing inside there: not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her, round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.
Emptiness. But the mere thought of that brings forth lights as if out of nowhere. Herod reigns but the stronger he is, the more sure, the more certain the wonder. In the constancy of this relation is the basic mechanics of Christmas.
That’s what they celebrate everywhere, for its coming push tables together. No demand for a star for a while, but a sort of good will touched with grace can be seen in all men from afar, and the shepherds have kindled their fires.
Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain. Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child. He who comes is a mystery: features are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may not be quick to distinguish the stranger.
But when drafts through the doorway disperse the thick mist of the hours of darkness and a shape in a shawl stands revealed, both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy in your self you discover; you stare skyward, and it’s right there:
Listen to how one rebel defends revolution in Egypt:
“History remembers the elite, and we were from the poor — the peasants, the artisans, and the fishermen. Part of the justice of this sacred hall is that it neglects no one. We have endured agonies beyond what any human can bear. When our ferocious anger was raised against the rottenness of oppression and darkness, our revolt was called chaos, and we were called mere thieves. Yet it was nothing but a revolution against despotism, blessed by the gods.”
These are the words of Abnum, leader of a revolution which boiled up at the end of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (circa 2125 B.C.E.). That is, they are the words of a character named Abnum, presented as the historical leader of an uprising, which may or may not have actually happened, against a despotic King during the waning years of Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Rather, to say it as it is, they are the words of Naguib Mahfouz, given to his character, Abnum, in his short novel, Before the Throne.
Perhaps you would have believed me if I had said that these words had risen steaming from the throats of angry Egyptians pressing into Tahrir Square earlier this year? This month? This is how Mahfouz’s translator and biographer Raymond Stock reads them:
“Change “thieves” to “foreign agents,” make the revolt not one of just the poor, but of people from all classes and walks of life, replace “gods” with God, and we are in Cairo’s Tahrir Square of the last few months.”
He wrote Before the Throne in 1983, five years before winning the Nobel Prize, two years after the assassination of president Anwar al-Sadat. In the novel, scores of Egypt’s leaders, from the First Dynasty through Mubarak, are brought before the Court of Osiris to defend their actions. The book is a rarity among Mahfouz’s thirty five published novels, an overt ideological statement. Perhaps, considering all he had witnessed in his already long life, he felt it was time.
Like Odysseus Elytis and Czeslaw Milosz, two of the three other Nobel laureates who, were they living, would have celebrated their 100th birthdays this year, Mahfouz lived through an era of great national upheaval. He was born in Cairo’s comfortable, middle-class Gamaliya district durning the final years of British colonial rule and under the waning influence of the Ottoman Empire. In 1919, at the age of seven, he witnessed nationalist protesters gunned down in the street right in front of his home. He lived through the reign of King Fuad, first ruler of the newly sovereign Egypt, and that of his son, King Farouq, who was deposed in the coup of 1952 which presaged the establishment of the republic and of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s takeover in 1954. He lived through the bombing of Cairo by France and Britain in collusion with Israel during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, only to become a supporter of the 1978 Camp David Accords, the gesture of reconciliation with Israel which sealed the fate of Sadat. Mahfouz’s vocal position on the Accords led to massive boycotts of his novels throughout the Arab world. In the last two decades of his life, he, along with the rest of Egypt, lived under Hosni Mubarak’s brutal and corrupt American supported military dictatorship, and saw the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In 1994, this fundamentalism got him in the neck, literally, when he was stabbed by two men on his way to one of the coffeehouse’s he loved to frequent. The attack was intended to exact revenge for his novel, Children of Gebelawi, written three and a half decades earlier, in which he portrays God, Adam, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as ordinary people, mere mortals operating in a Cairo neighborhood.
Who doesn’t wish he had lived to see his centenary, a year for Egypt like no other in recent memory. Regarding the January 25th revolution which toppled Mubarak, his daughter, Faten Mahfouz, told the American University in Cairo Press, ” I think he would have been happy, like most Egyptians, including all intellectuals. A lot of people had been suffering.”
Since 1996, the Mahfouz Medal for Arabic Literature has been awarded to the best contemporary novel in the Arabic language which is not also available in English translation. As part of the Award, the winning book is translated into English. The award is given on December 11th, Mahfouz’s birthday. Today, in a surprise move, the award was given, not to a person or a book, but to a curious but vital abstraction: “the revolutionary literary creativity of the Egyptian people.”
In announcing the prize, committee member Samia Mehrez said, “Over the past year, Egyptians have articulated their ownership of space, body and language through a myriad of creative, performative and cultural practices whose semiotics, aesthetics and poetics have not only inspired sister uprisings worldwide but have also created sustaining solidarities throughout the world.”
In future posts, I will share with you certain questions about Mahfouz that have arisen for me, and my personal experience of reading his novels. But for now, I leave you with this You Tube portrait of the man whom many credit with creating the Arabic novel. Please watch it. I think you will find it fascinating.
Who, at the age of seventeen, was your favorite exponent of French surrealism? For the young Odysseus Elytis it was Paul Eluard. There is enough striking juxtaposition in this spiritual meeting to furnish André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto with one more example of his tenants: Elytis was the scion of the well-known Alepoudelis family from Lesbos, whose fortune had been made in soap manufacturing, while Eluard was a tubercular young communist, even, benightedly, a Stalinist, risen from the working class, whose experiences during the First World War left him with a proper, and very French, revulsion for bourgeois values. Mooning bourgeois values was, of course, the surrealists’ raison d’etre. What was a privileged seventeen-year-old Greek boy doing with such incendiary stuff? The same thing, no doubt, that privileged seventeen-year-olds, at least those of a sensitive nature, have always done with incendiary stuff – recast it as surrogate parent to his own budding sensibility. I picture him, a tall skinny boy, stopping by an Athenian bookshop on his way home from school to pick up a copy of Capitale de la douleur, bringing it home, shutting himself in his room and quietly emoting over those poems of love, with there irrational color schemes, body parts transposed to other functions, adjectives intended for one order of nouns transferred to nouns of another order. Perhaps it would have been among the books that would travel with him to one of the Aegean islands, Hydra, Spetsai, Tinos, Mykonos, or Mytilene, where his family summered. Sitting in the shade of a rock, or sprawled leggily on a white washed terrace, he would read,
She is standing on my lids And her hair is in my hair She has the colour of my eye She has the body of my hand In my shade she is engulfed As a stone against the sky
Odysseus Elytis 1911-1996
Elytis wrote of his sun-shot awakening as a poet and his discovery of the surrealist movement: “When my interest in poetry was first awakened, round the age of seventeen, I found myself in possession of a fund of experience acquired from my life in the islands; my imagination had developed among the rocks and the caiques – the small island boats – among the rectangular, whitewashed houses, and the windmills. The Aegean had indelibly stamped my consciousness. Thus provided, I could easily have started on a poetic career the sole aspiration of which would have been to reveal the Greece of sun and sea, and would have contented myself with that. But it so happened that, at this crucial moment, I became aware of the theories and the works of the revolutionary French movement of Surrealism. I read with passion all the books and magazines which came from Paris.”
What is surreal about this passage is the complete absence of any reference to what was transpiring in Greece at the time. In 1928, when Odysseus Alepoudelis was seventeen, Greece was still reeling from a calamitous war with Turkey over lands belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Not only had Greece lost the war, but the ensuing Treaty of Lausanne enforced a poplulation exchange which broke the back of Greece’s already beleaguered economy and drove ever deeper the divisions in its society. These divisions extended even to violent differences over the usage of the Greek language. In the following years, massive unrest led to an overthrow of the monarchy, a brief effort to build a republic (led by the revolutionary statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos, a friend of the Alepoudelis family) and the republic’s final dissolution.
The typical seventeen-year-old, if such exists, is bad at irony, especially when applied to his own life. Impossible to tell with what sense of irony young Odysseus stood at the crossing marked by his own privileged circumstances, the idealistic surrealists he so admired and who stood against everything his privilege embodied, and the wrenching struggle for existance in which his country was engaged. He must have had some sense of the dissonance because when, in 1939, he published his first volume of poems, he dropped his family name for a composite name, “Elytis”, reflecting attributes and values he evidently wished to arrogate to himself and his poems: Ellas, or “Greece”; elpidha, “hope”; eleftheria, “freedom”, and Eleni, a mythic personification of beauty and sensuality.
His first book of poems, Orientations, is flooded with images and gestures of hope, freedom, beauty, sensuality, and above all a fierce identification with Greece, a country which, to him, incarnates these attributes. The poems are frequently erotic, often celebrating the kore (the Greek word for maiden, but which layers that denotation with a broader sense of the feminine). And there are indeed vibrantly surrealistic images. Here, for example are the opening lines of “The Concert of Hyacinths”
Stand a little closer to the silence, and gather the hair of this night who dreams her body is naked. She has many horizons, many compasses, and a fate that tirelessly invalidates all her fifty-two cards every time. Afterward she begins again with something else — with your hand, to which she gives pearls so it may find desire, an islet of sleep.
What cannot be found in this poetry is any trace of the national moment. In the poems he wrote before the Second World War and his shattering experience as a second lieutenant in the Albanian campaign against Mussolini’s forces, Greece is less a place than a holy idea. After the war, and his great long poem “Heroic and Elegaic Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign”, his poetry darkened. While retaining all the Aegean vibrancy his admirers have often taken for optimism, his poems opened to admit of melancholy and loss. But the first poems, published against an epoch of massive upheaval, are resolutely, some might say defiantly, lyrical outpourings of those qualities with which he lined his name. In this way, as in so many others, he is entirely unlike his exact contemporary, Czeslaw Milosz, who, from the outset was obsessed with the articulation of his national tragedy. The two poets won the Nobel Prize in successive years, Elytis in 1979, Milosz in 1980, making for a fascinating diptych of contrasting poetic sensibilities on the Swedish Academy’s roster.
It would be wrong, however, to dis Elytis on grounds of non-engagement. Struggle and suffering brook divers responses. Elytis once said of his life’s work, “I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality.” Echoing Elytis, Dortor Karl Ragnar Gierow, of the Swedish Academy, had this to say in his Nobel presentation speech:
“The poet, he [Elytis] says, does not necessarily have to express his time. He can also heroically defy it. His calling is not to jot down items about our daily life with its social and political situations and private griefs. On the contrary, his only way leads ‘from what is to what may be’. In its essence, therefore, Elytis’s poetry is not logically clear as we see it but derives its light from the limpidity of the present moment against a perspective behind it.”
Many have read Elytis’s famous early poem, “The Mad Pomagranet Tree” as a kind of priapic whoop. But placed in its historical context it becomes something far more complex, an almost creedal assertion of life’s worth against all forces working to life’s cost. Here it is, in Edmund Keeley’s and Philip Sherrard’s translation:
THE MAD POMEGRANATE TREE
Inquisitive matinal high spirits
à perdre haleine
In these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter With windy wilfulness and whispering, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That quivers with foliage newly born at dawn Raising high its colors in a shiver of triumph?
On plains where the naked girls awake, When they harvest clover with their light brown arms Roaming round the borders of their dreams — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree, Unsuspecting, that puts the lights in their verdant baskets That floods their names with the singing of birds — tell me Is it the mad pomegranate tree that combats the cloudy skies of the world?
On the day that it adorns itself in jealousy with seven kinds of feathers, Girding the eternal sun with a thousand blinding prisms Tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That seizes on the run a horse’s mane of a hundred lashes, Never sad and never grumbling — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That cries out the new hope now dawning?
Tell me, is that the mad pomegranate tree waving in the distance, Fluttering a handkerchief of leaves of cool flame, A sea near birth with a thousand ships and more, With waves that a thousand times and more set out and go To unscented shores — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That creaks the rigging aloft in the lucid air?
High as can be, with the blue bunch of grapes that flares and celebrates Arrogant, full of danger — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That shatters with light the demon’s tempests in the middle of the world That spreads far as can be the saffron ruffle of day Richly embroidered with scattered songs — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That hastily unfastens the silk apparel of day?
In petticoats of April the first and cicadas of the feast of mid-August Tell me, that which plays, that which rages, that which can entice Shaking out of threats their evil black darkness Spilling in the sun’s embrace intoxicating birds Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?